book has recently been published about an almost forgotten pioneer of Buddhism
in Australia, Marie Beuzeville Byles (1900-1979). Little-known until this first
biography of her, I learned a lot about
her way back. My early mentor of Buddhism, Natasha Jackson, knew Marie Byles well
in the late 1940s and early 50s and used to tell me about her. She used to
attend the meditation group Byles ran in
the 1950s. Most western Buddhists at that time were either “the Lobsang Rampa
crowd” (as Jackson used to call them), forerunners
of today’s New Agers, or staunch rationalists, Kalama Sutta types. Byles and
Jackson definitely fitted into this second category. Both were strong, rather blunt
and opinionated women, probably the reason why they did not get on well with
each other. Byles was also a dedicated feminist.
She was the first woman
allowed to practise law in New South Wales. As legal advisor to various women’s
organisations in the 1930s she helped change legislation that discriminated
against women’s rights in marriage and divorce. Instead of the fame and fortune
she could have earned through law Byles devoted herself to the nature conservation.
An early member of the elite Sydney Bush Walkers club, she and her friends
spent their weekends exploring unmapped terrain in the bush within reach of
Sydney. As they grew to know and respect the landscape, these bushwalkers
developed a commitment to protect the most beautiful and ecologically sensitive
areas and became leaders of the conservation movement. But it was
mountains vastness that held the greatest fascination for Byles. After reaching the summit of Mt. Cook
in 1928, she twice returned to New Zealand’s South Island to climb virgin peaks
and map unexplored areas, and in 1938 she led an international mountain
climbing expedition to Yunnan in south China.
Carl Jung psychology gave Byles a taste
of eastern thought and this eventually led her to Buddhism, which had no groups or
societies in Australia at the time.
She brought her own rationalist and
feminist perspective to this ancient tradition. For her, the Buddha was not a man to be worshipped, but a person
whose teachings were reasonable, practical and humane. In the 1950s she made several trips to Burma where she
studies with Mohnyin Sayadaw, the
greatest disciple of Ledi Sayadaw, and spent extended periods in meditation retreats. Her meditation practice
and study of the Dhamma resulted in several books; The Footsteps of Gotama the Buddha (1957), Journey into Burmese Silence (1962) and Paths to Inner
Calm (1965). The first two of these books are still well worth reading. She also wrote
several travel books and one on Gandhi
and spirituality, The Lotus and the Spinning Wheel (1963).
called The Summit of Her Ambitions: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles by
Anna McLeod. Purchasing details are available