Born Peggy Kennett in 1924 in Sussex, England, Rev. Master Jiyu-Kennett grew up in tumultuous times before and during WWII, as Germany bombed the south of England. She studied music, earned several degrees, and eked out a living as an organist and professional musician. She joined the London Buddhist Society, where she met a number of Buddhist teachers from Asia, including Keido Chisan Koho, a Zen Master from Japan, whose disciple she ultimately became.
In 1961 she boarded a ship for Malaysia, and through a series of unlikely circumstances, was ordained a Buddhist monk by Seck Kim Seng, a Chinese Buddhist Master living in Malacca.
She continued on to Japan in 1962, residing at Sojiji Monastery outside Yokohama. She was the only female resident in an otherwise all male monastery. She had a large spiritual awakening, a kensho, and was eventually given full status as a Zen Master, which was unusual at the time for a female, let alone a western one. She lived for a few years at a parish temple in rural Japan, but soon departed for America, in 1969, along with a few western students of Zen who wished to study with her.
Rev. Master Jiyu’s growing number of disciples compelled her to look for property to start a monastery, which she did in 1970, in Mt. Shasta, California. The monastery, Shasta Abbey, expanded quickly and within a decade had over 40 monks in residence. She adopted celibacy as a requirement for all monks training under her, a departure from the Japanese system and a break with more traditional Soto Zen practice in America. She also did away with the gender discrimination that is common in Buddhist countries, and emphasized the spiritual equality of women and men. She herself taught both men and women, and gave her disciples the ability to do the same. Rev. M. Jiyu is the author of several books, and many of her talks have been recorded on audio and in writing.
Rev. Master Jiyu established the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, which licenses monks, but does not financially support it’s temples.
Her health slowly deteriorated during the 1980s from diabetes, which she developed while in Japan. She continued to ordain and teach monastic disciples into the early 90s, until her failing health prevented her from doing so. She worked hard to create a Buddhist musical liturgy in English, using western forms of musical expression—primarily Gregorian chant—which she had mastered while studying music earlier in life. This music, along with two training monasteries – Shasta Abbey and Throssel Hole Abbey, and many small temples in North America, Canada and Europs, and the large number of monks she ordained, is her primary legacy as a Zen teacher in America. She died quietly at home in the monastery in 1996.