The Rinzai Zen Buddhist nun, the Venerable Myokyo-ni, who has died aged 86, was head of London’s Zen Centre. A pioneer of Buddhist practice in the west, she was a formidable presence in the British Buddhist world. Born Irmgard Schloegl, in Leitersdorf, Austria, she took a PhD in physical sciences at Graz University. She came to Britain in 1950 as a lecturer in mineralogy at Imperial College, London, and soon after joined the Buddhist Society. Schloegl enrolled in the society’s Zen class led by the judge, Christmas Humphreys QC, who had founded the society in 1924. His teaching was characterised by enthusiasm and intellectual excitement rather than lengthy periods of meditation.
In 1960, Schloegl went to Japan and trained at Daitokuji monastery, Kyoto, for 12 years, making her part of the first generation of westerners to undertake intensive Zen training in Japan. Founded in 1319, Daitokuji is the head training monastery of a subsect of the Rinzai school of Japanese Zen. Its practice included intensive zazen (sitting meditation), contemplation of koans, and strict adherence to monastic forms. Others who underwent such training have written graphic accounts of its rigours – sitting on the shins all day till they vomited, beatings for minuscule infractions – but Schloegl was reticent about passing on her experiences. Her path in negotiating monastery life may have been eased by studying with Ruth Fuller Sasaki, an American woman who was already accepted as a Zen priest and ran a training temple for foreigners within Daitokuji.
In 1966 Schloegl returned to England for nine months and started a zazen group at the Buddhist Society, which continued until she returned permanently in 1972. Once she was back in London, she lived as a lay woman, and stayed at Humphreys’s St John’s Wood house, leading classes there and at the Buddhist Society.
In 1979 the group was formed into the Zen Centre and when Humphreys died in 1983 he bequeathed his house to the centre. It was eventually inaugurated as Shobo-an, Hermitage of the True Dharma, and it served as the centre’s main administrative location and training temple. All Zen activities at the Buddhist Society then came under Schloegl’s direction and a group of her students assumed a dominant role in the society’s affairs. (Fairlight, a second training temple near Luton opened in 1996 and she lived there from 2002.)
On July 22 1984, Schloegl was ordained at a ceremony conducted by Soko Morinaga Roshi, head monk during her time at Daitokuji, who gave her a monastic name. Myokyo, meaning “mirror of the subtle”, was the name he had previously given her in Japan, while “ni” means “nun”.
Myokyo-ni wrote several books that describe Zen practice in a straightforward way, and she translated from Chinese a key text, The Zen Teaching of Rinzaiby by Lin Ji, the school’s founder.
While Myokyo-ni’s teaching was very different from that of Humphreys she agreed with him on the need to understand the basics of Buddhist teaching before embarking on Zen; and like Humphreys she stressed that Zen was part of Buddhism, as all schools were true to the same principles: “Many schools; one way.”
Before her trip to Japan she had undergone Jungian analysis, and she spoke of Buddhist practice as a means to the transformation of the psyche and the aspiration of the heart towards wholeness and compassion (without losing sight of “the shadow”).
In keeping the traditions she had encountered at Daitokuji, Myokyo-ni was strict with her students, saying: “[The hardships] are there to quell the fires within us.” Some students took to this regime and a band were loyal to her over many years, a number becoming monks and nuns. Others balked at her approach, finding it overbearing.
But all who knew Myokyo-ni encountered her strength of character – sometimes fiercely insightful, sometimes deeply compassionate. Especially in dokusan, the formal interviews between student and master that can be occasions for direct encounter, she could embody an uncannily powerful presence.