WILD GEESE book review

Buddhism in Canada Buddhist community Cults History Teacher Stories Temple Stories

Buddhists have been in Canada for more than 100 years, but Canadian Buddhism remains in many ways a fragmented collection of solitudes. Wild Geese is the first serious attempt to understand the multiple realities of Canadian Buddhism in an organized fashion. As such, it is a landmark book. Editors Harding, Hori and Soucy have collected diverse stories into sensible categories and given continuity to these emergent voices. Wild Geese will also help to explain the development of Buddhism in Canada on its own terms for Buddhists in other countries, who may have thought that practice here was merely an offshoot or mirror-image of the American experience.

I have been practicing Buddhism in Canada for more than 40 years and I have read many Buddhist books, but I have rarely read one like this. Perhaps Janet McLellan’s 1999 sociological exploration of five Toronto Buddhist communities, Many Petals of the Lotus came closest. How the Swans Came to the Lake, Rick Fields’ narrative account of early Buddhism in the United States, would be another.

Wild Geese is full of fascinating facts, history and insights into Canadian Buddhist practice through the years. It delves into a number of relevant issues such as ethnic vs indigenous, traditional vs modern, ordained vs lay leadership, practice vs politics, and so on. But as a beginning in this area, the book left me hungering for more information, more analysis, and more dialogue. That is a good thing; Canadian Buddhism needs to recognize its larger identity.

When I took over from Dr. Suwanda Sugunasiri as the coordinator of the Toronto Buddhist Federation for four years in the mid-1980s, I had the privilege of working on a variety of projects with leaders from most of Toronto’s Buddhist communities. When the TBF extended its wings to become the Buddhist Council of Canada and Suwanda came back as its first President, I was its Toronto coordinator for a year until I resigned in 1987 to devote my energies to my young family.

This vantage-point permitted me to experience many of the themes discussed in the book, and to have lived first-hand some of the events discussed by Henry Shiu in his article about Buddhism in Canada after 1971. This is a good opportunity to address that history, to bring to light some further information his article omits, and to set the record straight on some small details.

Kalu Rinpoche first visited Canada in 1972. He arrived in Montréal and spent several days giving teachings at a farm in the Eastern Townships near Magog. From there he travelled to Toronto, where he stayed for several weeks at 364 Palmerston Boulevard in a house owned by the 3HO Sikh community. At the time I was a resident at the Zen Meditation Centre of Montreal, run by Tyndale Martin. The centre had about 15 residents at that time. We all came to Toronto to receive teachings and initiations and stayed on Palmerston as well. Kalu Rinpoche then spent about a month living at the Zen Meditation Centre of Montreal on Mountain Street, giving teachings and initiations. Afterwards, he travelled to Vancouver to inaugurate a centre on Heather Street and install Lama Tsewang Gyurme there as teacher. We travelled across Canada to spend time in Vancouver for those events. We left Montreal in a blizzard and arrived in Vancouver to blooming magnolia trees after visiting many Canadian Buddhist centres (including a Sakya monk living in Lethbridge, AB).

While we were in Vancouver in the spring of 1973, Mr. Luu opened a Buddhist Temple on Pender Street in Chinatown. He requested the Venerable Tripitaka Master Hsuan Hua to come from Gold Mountain Monastery in San Francisco for the inauguration. Together with Kalu Rinpoche, Hsuan Hua and their retinues conducted daily ceremonies. I remember participating in the Thousand-Handed, Thousand-Eyed Repentence of Great Compassion daily for a week or more. Hsuan Hua brought a number of sariras with him, which he showed to us. These events are addressed in other Sumeru posts.

The Toronto Buddhist Federation, and later the Buddhist Council of Canada, were essentially organizations of lay leaders. We met monthly in the board room of the Toronto Buddhist Church. The most visible activity of these associations was to organize an annual Wesak celebration. In the first and second years of my tenure, it was held in the OISE auditorium. The poster for the first year featured a Gandhara Buddha statue picture. The poster for the second year featured an aerial photo of Borobudur. The next Wesak was held in the auditorium at Castle Frank High School (on Bloor St. E. at the Don River). The fourth year, we went back to OISE and in the fifth year back to Nathan Phillips Square, where the first inter-denominational Toronto Wesak had been held. When I retired, the members of the board hosted a thank-you dinner at which I received two special gifts: a small gold statue of Shakyamuni created by Canadian Buddhist sculptor Steve Aikenhead; and a rosary. Both are on my shrine to this day and much appreciated.

The Dalai Lama’s first visit to Toronto took place in 1977, when he held a small press conference at the Royal York Hotel. There was no security; I simply walked in and was allowed to take many photos. All of the questions were about political issues. He returned in 1980 and led a day-long spiritual event at the Toronto Buddhist Church (for which they removed all the pews to allow more seating). After His Holiness won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, the Canadian Tibetan Community published a large commemorative poster, with several hundred printed. I designed and produced that poster with Hilary Shearman, on behalf of the Tibetan community. One of them hung in the window of “The Tibet Shoppe” on Queen Street West for many years. People have told me that they subsequently saw copies all over the world, and that a number of them were smuggled into Tibet.

During the 1980s, Samu Sunim published a Buddhist magazine called Spring Wind. I typeset several of the issues and related material for his centre, and when I closed my typesetting business in 1990, donated my equipment to the Zen Buddhist Temple (then located on Vaughan Road in a converted synagogue which now houses Karma Sonam Dargye Ling).

In 1993 I helped Tengye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre organize a tour by monks from Ganden Jangtse Monastery, performing sacred music and dance, entitled Tibet Is Near. The Toronto performance was held at Convocation Hall. The Montreal performance was organized by Geshe Khenrab and the Temple bouddhiste tibetaine.

In 2004, I helped organize the multifaith service held in conjunction with HH the Dalai Lama’s Kalachakra Initiation in Toronto.

In 2009, I helped George Klima revamp the Buddhism in Canada website.

Many people have made significant contributions to the evolution of Buddhism in Canada. Here are but a few of them, not mentioned in Wild Geese, whom I had the good fortune to meet and work with:

  • Stanley Fefferman, an English professor at York University who was part of the Vajradhatu community and who served as President of the Buddhist Council of Canada prior to Suwanda Sugunasiri
  • Rosemary Than, from the Burmese community, who was a very active organizer of our Wesaks and regular contributor to our monthly meetings
  • Dr. Vansen Lee, from the Chinese community, also a regular contributor and active organizer
  • Christine Ng, from the Chinese community, now a director of the Buddhist Education Foundation for Canada
  • Khan Lekin, our Vietnamese representative
  • Hilary Shearman, from the Gaden Chöling Dharma Centre, who undertook many projects on behalf of the Tibetan community here, in Dharamsala and later in England
  • Francine Geraci, who pioneered Buddhist palliative counseling in Toronto
  • Glenn Mullin, well-known for the many Buddhist books he has written, born in Copper Mountain, Québec, who spent several years in Toronto during the 1980s after returning from Dharamsala, and who now lives in Mongolia
  • Herbert Guenther, pioneering scholar who translated Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation in 1959. Guenther was living in Saskatoon where I visited him in 1972, shortly after the paperback edition came out with a cover design and foreword by Chögyam Trungpa
  • Doreen Hamilton, a Jodo Shinshu priest, who trained in Toronto and later in Japan, and who now runs the Toronto Shin Buddhist Dojo on Ward’s Island
  • Darshan Chaudhry, from the Ambedkar Mission, one of the stalwarts of the TBF and the BCC, and publisher of several publications about the work of Dr. Ambedkar
  • Tashi Lhanendhapo, who ran The Jewel Ornament in the 1970s, Toronto’s first Tibetan shop, located on Scollard Street and who was a fixture in the community until his untimely death in 1993.
  • Dolma Tulotsang, who tirelessly assisted Tibetan Buddhist teachers, helped organize the Kalachakra Initiation by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 2004, and continues to serve as Canadian representative for Tashilhunpo Monastery in exile
  • Chris Banigan, Canadian thangka painter and Tibetan community organizer, who designs many of the covers for Snow Lion Publications
  • Steve Aikenhead, Canadian Buddhist sculptor
  • Dennis Winters, Canadian Buddhist landscape architect
  • Conrad Richter, Canadian Buddhist herbalist, director of Gaden Relief Foundation
  • Tsering and Pencho Rabgey, directors of the Potala Dancers from Belleville
  • Rigzin Dolkar, long-time director of the Canadian-Tibetan Association of Ontario
  • Eileen Swinton, long-time supporter of the TBF and the BCC, owner of The Snow Lion shoppe on Queen Street (first West, then East) in the 1980s and 90s, where she served as an important source for Buddhist books and ritual objects
  • Shakya Dorje, Emchi, Toronto-based Tibetan medical practitioner and Tibetan translator
  • Christine Paknys, long-time translator for Geshe Khenrab in Montreal

Hopefully, historians of Buddhism in Canada will interview these people and gather more of our pioneer stories. I also hope that Buddhists in other Canadian cities will step forward with similar lists and details.

Another bit of Buddhist history that is in danger of being lost: during the 1970s, Fifth Kingdom Bookstore (alas, long gone) at 77 Harbord Street near Spadina was the only bookstore with a wide selection of Buddhist books, housed upstairs from their main astrological titles.

One cannot dismiss the tremendous success of the Taoist T’ai Chi Society founded in Toronto by Moy Lin-Shin in the 1970s. His small studio on Hagerman Street behind City Hall (in a building that no longer exists), has grown to become an international powerhouse. Although not a Buddhist organization in the strictest sense, it has been perceived as part of the “Asian spirituality” scene by many people for a long time and has seen participation by many members of the Buddhist community seeking an active physical component to their meditation practice. Their parallel evolution deserves investigation.

What happened to the Zen Meditation Centre of Montreal, how it morphed into Greatheart Buddhist Monastery and later imploded, and what became of Tyndale Martin its founder, is a story for another time.

With regard to some of the issues of Buddhist identity, raised in Wild Geese

Canada is a multicultural society in which many individuals live comfortably with hyphenated identity. In some ways, it is our claim to fame. Perhaps the same tolerant approach should be applied to Canadian Buddhism, where “dual citizenship” in a Buddhist spiritual identity and in a Judeo-Christian identity can co-exist peacefully. That could be a fruitful area of exploration for scholars.

In the 1970s, two percent of the Canadian population was Jewish. Approximately forty percent of the Canadian Buddhist “convert” community was Jewish. What were the dynamics of Canadian Judaism in the 1950s which led to that?

Khan Lekin spoke passionately in the 1970s about how Toronto’s Vietnamese community was riven by factionalism, haunted by the dogs of war. How did their community heal those rifts over the ensuing years and become so vibrant?

Tibetans who came to Canada in the first wave of the 1970s had a very different immigrant experience than those who came later. How was it different?

Korean Buddhists in Toronto have often had more success with “converts” than with their own community. Why? What are the stories of those temples who focus on Korean congregants, like Pyung Hwa Sa in Richmond Hill, Ontario?

Since the early efforts of Buddhist associations to bridge the gaps between communities, there have been many inter-denominational initiatives, such as Hong Fa Temple in Toronto hosting the Guhyasamaja Initiation given by Tara Tulku Rinpoche in 1989. Similarly, there have been many instances of interfaith dialogue, assistance (such as Deer Park United Church as venue for HH the Karmapa’s Black Hat inititation in Toronto in 1993), and projects (such as within the scope of Vision TV). These activities deserve greater investigation.

Many “traditional” Buddhist teachers in Canada have travelled extensively between centres across the country and internationally. They rarely stay in one place for long, which means that most centres are run by senior students. Perhaps we need to break down the wall between what constitutes a teacher versus a student. In the same way, we have no long legacy of Canadian Buddhist monastic institutions. We’ve had ordained sangha members with regular jobs, married teachers, female teachers, prominent lay leaders, part-time teachers, and so on. We’ve also had our share of scandals. From a practice point of view, sociological investigations that focus on pigeon-holing people are counter-productive. Research into Canadian Buddhist contributions to Buddhist psychology, spiritual practice, social engagement, civic participation and healthy living is still in need of greater focus.

The bottom line? Wild Geese is a great start. We only hope that it will open the floodgates for many other Canadian Buddhists to speak up, bringing their creativity and energy to the greater Canadian Buddhist community.

John Negru

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