A 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.
Reading 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).
The new biography of Byles is called The Summit of Her Ambitions: The Spirited Life of Marie Byles by Anna McLeod. Purchasing details are available here http://www.annemcleod.com.au/