Biographical Sketch of Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett
Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett was born in St. Leonard’s-on-Sea, near Hastings, England on January 1, 1924. Baptized Peggy Teresa Nancy in the Church of England, she was the last child and only girl of a deeply unhappy marriage.
Her first encounters with Buddhism came from a copy of The Light of Asia in her father’s library and a statue of the Buddha, relic of the Empire, that for some unknown reason sat on a mantelpiece in the assembly hall of her first school. This statue gave her solace in the midst of the sorrows of home and school. Even earlier as a very small girl, on seeing a person in monastic robes in the street, she told her mother that this was what she wanted to be when she grew up.
In 1939 came World War II and the death of her father, in December of that year, after a long illness. Although evacuated to a safer part of England, she did not escape the trauma of war: her home town was heavily bombed; stray bombs fell near her even after evacuation; Peggy’s best friend was drowned, caught in the barbed wire that had been strung for defense along the coast, and the girl’s father died trying to save her. The sound of the bombs and the sight of the red night sky—London aflame—stayed with Peggy Kennett all her life and were the impetus to her spiritual search: why did people do this to one another?
These years also saw the beginnings of her professional career as a musician and her first encounters with Gregorian plain chant. This became a life-long interest and was put to excellent use in later years in the liturgyused by the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, which she founded. During this time she also strengthened her connections with Buddhism. She received an education in the basic teachings of the Theravada tradition, eventually taking the Refuges and the Precepts from the Venerable Dr. Saddhatissa, a leading monk and scholar of that tradition, who taught for many years in London, and earning a diploma in Buddhist doctrine from the Young Men’s Association of Sri Lanka.
In the years following the war, Peggy Kennett worked as a church organist wherever she could find employment. She also joined the Women’s Royal Naval Reserve and worked for the Conservative Party as a youth representative. In 1954 she became a member of the London Buddhist Society, eventually becoming one of their lecturers and, in 1958, a member of the governing Council.
There being no money forthcoming from her family for higher education, she put herself through university. She first studied at Trinity College of Music, London, where she was awarded a fellowship, and then went on to obtain the degree of Bachelor of Music from Durham University, specializing in organ and composition.
During her time at the London Buddhist Society, Peggy met and studied with the many Buddhist teachers who visited there, including D.T. Suzuki. In 1960 one of the Chief Abbots of the Soto Zen tradition of Japan, the Very Rev. Keido Chisan Koho Zenji, visited London. He was on a tour of Western countries to investigate the possibilities of spreading the Dharma and to look for suitable Westerners to train as his disciples. He met Peggy Kennett, as she helped organize his visit, and invited her to come to Japan to be his disciple. She said, “Yes!” and began to make preparations. She worked at various jobs teaching music at several schools to raise the money, but in the end had to borrow the last few pounds from a friend to afford the boat ticket.
Around this time, the Buddhist community in Malaysia, led by the Ven. Seck Kim Seng, had finally succeeded in obtaining authorization from the government for the first public celebration of the Buddha’s Birth. In commemoration of this, the American monk Ven. Sumangalo wrote the words to the anthem Welcome Joyous Wesak Day, and an international contest was held to find a composer to set it to music. The contest was won by Peggy Kennett, and the Malaysian Buddhist community asked her to stop in their country on her way to Japan to receive the award and to give public lectures on the Dharma.
So, in the fall of 1961, she boarded a ship for Malaysia by way of the Suez Canal, and arriving in Malaysia, discovered that, due to misunderstandings, preparations had been made for her ordination as a monk there. Because there was intense, sometimes hostile coverage of her situation by the non-Buddhist press, she agreed to be ordained in Malaysia rather than in Japan as she had planned, and asked the Venerable Seck Kim Seng to be her ordination master. This was because she thought that a refusal to be ordained in Malaysia might be used by the press to bring Buddhism into disrepute. On January 21, 1962, she was given Shramanera ordination into the Chinese Buddhist Sangha and was given the name Sumitra (True Friend). At her request, she also received the Bodhisattva Precepts from Venerable Seck Sian Toh, assisted by others masters who were allowed out of China specifically for the ceremony. After several months in Malaysia studying with her ordination master, she went to on Japan.
In April, 1962, she was received by Koho Zenji as his personal disciple, and her ordination name was translated into Japanese as Jiyu—Compassionate Friend—and at this time she also received the religious “family name” of Houn—Dharma Cloud—the family name that her disciples have also been given.
There was considerable controversy in Sojiji, which was Koho Zenji’s monastery, and one of the two great training monasteries of the Soto sect, over his plan to train a foreign female disciple in what was normally a temple only for Japanese male monks. She asked him a number of times if she could go to one of the female monasteries, but he refused, knowing that unless she trained at Sojiji and did everything as the men did, it could be said in the future that things had been made easy for her.
Finally, the way was cleared for her to formally enter Sojiji as a novice monk. Shortly after her entrance, the senior disciplinarian confronted her, asking: what did she want? Many foreigners came to Japan seeking various things—did she want to study calligraphy, flower arrangement or perhaps tea ceremony? Rev. Jiyu looked him straight in the eye and said, “I want the perfection of Zen.” “So be it!” he replied, and from then on they understood each other. While he and those like him treated her with fairness and respect, some others did not, and she often had to face discrimination for being both a foreigner and a woman. She took it in stride as a test of her sincerity, and her training soon bore fruit: after less than six months in the temple, she experienced a first kensho, an awakening to a deeper understanding. This event confirmed Koho Zenji’s confidence in her and, in May of 1963, he gave the Dharma Transmission and in later years certified her as a Dharma Heir and holder of his branch of the Soto Zen lineage from Shakyamuni Buddha through Masters Bodhidharma, Hui Neng, Tendo Nyojo, Dogen, Keizan and Manzan.
Thereafter, at Koho Zenji’s wish, Rev. Jiyu began to teach the many Westerners who came to Sojiji by serving as the Foreign Guest Master, ordaining Western monks and eventually having her own small temple known as Unpukuji, in Mie Prefecture. She promised her master that, no matter what, she would care for and protect his foreign disciples. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1965, in order to silence questions over the fitness of “this foreign woman” to inherit the Dharma, Koho Zenji sent Rev. Jiyu to the highly respected Soto Zen master Sawaki Kodo Roshi, who confirmed her understanding.
After Koho Zenji’s death in 1967, and as a result of her promise to him, Rev. Master Jiyu left Japan with two disciples to accept invitations to visit the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain. She arrived in San Francisco in November, 1969, and although she made visits to England and Canada, she decided to settle in the U.S.
The next six years were spent simply doing her own training and trying to be of use to whoever came to her. Out of this emerged Shasta Abbey in Mt. Shasta, California (where she lived the last 26 years of her life), and Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland, England. Eventually, the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, the umbrella organization which includes the two monasteries, several smaller branch temples, and meditation groups in Europe and America came into being. Many students came to her and stayed with her until her death; many also left—some perhaps because they did not understand what she was doing, and others perhaps because they did.
In 1976, worn out, ill and having been told by her doctor that she was near death, Rev. Master Jiyu went into retreat and experienced another kensho, this time a massive spiritual opening accompanied by visions and recollections of past lives. Having been prepared for this by the teachings she had received in Malaysia and Japan, she knew what was taking place—but many of the people around her did not.
Her health recovered somewhat and she continued on, deepening her faith and practice in the basic tenets of Soto Zen and entering the most productive years of her religious life. By 1990 her health began to decline sharply; diabetes, which had been diagnosed soon after her arrival in America, took an increasing toll on her body through the early 90’s, eventually leaving her paralyzed from the waist down and nearly blind. She was unable to teach publicly, but nevertheless continued to work with her more senior disciples, providing a remarkable example of equanimity and all-acceptance in the face of ever-increasing disability. On November 6, 1996, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett died quickly and peacefully in her house at Shasta Abbey. As she had wanted, it was as if she had stepped out through a door: not an ending, nor even a beginning—just a going on, going on, going on beyond.
Adapted from Roar of the Tigress: The Oral Teachings of Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett: Western Woman and Zen Master, Shasta Abbey Press, 2005, pp. 277-283.