Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Harold Stewart: An Early Australian Buddhist
by Peter Kelly
A review of "Damaged Men: the precarious lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart"
by Michael Ackland.

The Australian poet Harold Stewart (1916-1995), who lived in Japan for the last twenty-nine years of his life, was the most important Buddhist writer that this country has produced. He is known to some readers for his monumental By the Walls of Old Kyoto (1981) which is a sequence of twelve poems telling the story of his spiritual journey towards the Pure Land. It is also a richly evocative account of the great temples and gardens of Kyoto told in eloquent and limpid traditional verse. Other readers will be familiar with his two books of haiku translations: A Net of Fireflies (1960) and A Chime of Windbells (1969) both handsomely produced by the Charles Tuttle Company in illustrated editions.

In the last thirty years of his life, his work was better known outside Australia than in his homeland where the literary establishment ensured that he was virtually ignored. The reasons for Stewart's 'exile' in Japan and subsequent neglect by the Australian literati are eloquently set out in Michael Ackland's Damaged Men: the precarious lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart (Allen and Unwin 2001). Ackland has produced this 'double' biography for a good reason: the two men are forever linked in the public mind for their collaboration in producing the poems of 'Ern Malley', one of the great literary hoaxes of the twentieth century. The story of the hoax has been told many times before, most notably by Michael Heyward in The Ern Malley Affair (1993). Briefly, the hoax arose because Stewart and McAuley were incensed by the uncritical reception given to the effusions of neo-surrealist and modernist poets published by Max Harris in the journal Angry Penguins. In 1944 they decided to write 'a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure' and pass the poems off as the work of an obscure working-class man who had recently died of Graves' Disease. They sent the poems to Harris who fell for the hoax and proclaimed them to be the work of a genius. He brought out a special edition of Angry Penguins devoted to Ern Malley's work and many modernist critics acclaimed their excellence. Eventually the hoaxers revealed their plot, Harris was ridiculed in the popular press and subsequently persecuted for publishing 'obscene poems'. The hoaxers were seen in some quarters as having 'set back the cause of modernism for twenty years' and denounced as literary hyenas. McAuley, who was made of stronger stuff than Stewart, rode the storm and went on to make a strong impact in Australian poetry as well as becoming the editor of Quadrant and leading a somewhat controversial public life.

The effect of all this on Harold Stewart was devastating. A reserved and timorous soul, he hated public attention and although he published two collections of verses in Australia, Phoenix Wings (1948) and Orpheus and Other Poems (1956), he had little to do with literary circles and played no part in Australian public life.

The aftermath of this literary scandal no doubt confirmed Harold Stewart in an alienation which he already felt. A gay man living in a deeply repressive society, he adopted a genial but secretive persona to mask his true feelings. His erudition, which was formidable, enclosed him in a smoke-screen of scholarly detachment. Only those who knew him well knew what a funny, generous, kindly and compassionate man he was. To others he seemed formal and reserved.

Michael Ackland has chronicled Stewart's life well in his book and has produced a lively portrait of a somewhat elusive man. In the current fashion, this is a 'warts and all' biography so that Harold's failings are not glossed over and, although some of his admirers in his later years saw him as a kind of saint, this book is far from being a hagiography. On balance, I think Ackland is fair to his subject and one hopes that, as the author intended, the book will revive interest in Stewart's work. The book is the result of a great deal of research and interviewing and Ackland even travelled to Japan to interview members of Kyoto's expatriate community. Stewart's papers in the Australian National Library provided a rich resource - they reveal a voluminous and interesting letter writer. However the book is limited in that it does not reveal a great deal about the workings of the poet's mind and pays only limited attention to his poetry although Ackland is quite positive in this assessment of the later poetry and endorses A.D. Hope's estimate of By the Old Walls of Kyoto as the 'greatest long poem written in English this century'.

Perhaps it is expecting too much of a biographer who is a literary scholar and not himself a practising Buddhist to fully understand Harold's pilgrim's progress towards the Pure Land of Amida Buddha. To be sure, he chronicles the intellectual development of Stewart through Jungian psychoanalysis and the traditionalism of the Perennial Philosophers (Rene Guenon, Ananda Coomaraswarny and Frithjof Schuon) towards a commitment to Shin Buddhism in 1963 but is unable to convey a sense of the spiritual development which undoubtedly took place. We can only get some idea of how long it took the poet to discipline his ego and submit his will to the 'Other Power' of Amida by reading By the Old Walls of Kyoto and to understand the sense of relief and peace which ensued. 'Old Walls' has its place as a guide to the spiritual life in a venerable tradition both Eastern and Western.

Harold Stewart is one of the most distinguished of a number of Australians who became Buddhists long before it was easy to do so. The story of these pioneers (Marie Byles, David Maurice, F.L. Woodward and the founders of the early Buddhist groups in the 1950s) is told in Paul Croucher's A History of Buddhism 1848-1988 and makes intriguing reading. An account of Harold Stewart, somewhat inaccurate and misleading, is included. How Harold came to be attached to the Jodo-Shin variant of Buddhism and not to Zen or the Tibetan tradition needs to be explained. Shin Buddhism does not have the high profile of either Zen or Tantric Buddhism in the West.

To answer these questions, it is necessary to trace Harold's intellectual journey. His original interests were in Chinese poetry and the Taoist philosophers, and works like The Secret of the Golden Flower. In the late 1940s, he discovered the Traditionalist writers Rend Guenon and Ananda Coomaraswamy who were the exponents, in our time, of the perennial philosophy which argues that there is a common esoteric core underlying the great spiritual traditions. They claim that religions like Christianity and Buddhism are like radii or spokes emanating from a central hub or like different paths around a mountain leading to the summit. They are fiercely critical of the secularism and materialism of modem Western culture (and its extensions in the East). Traditionalists disseminated their ideas in books and in a journal called Etudes Traditionelles. A lot of their work is devoted to symbolism in religion and the arts and they were an enduring influence on Stewart.

By the early 1950s, Stewart was thoroughly immersed in these ideas. At the time he was working at the Norman Robb Bookshop at 190 Little Collins Street in Melbourne. In 1952, he set up a study group which met in the shop on Friday evenings for some eleven years. To an audience of eager intellectual young men, he expounded the doctrines of the Traditionalists and lively discussion ensued. At first, the interests of the group were purely theoretical but, by 1957, the direction had changed. At the urging of the leader of the European group in Switzerland, Frithjof Schuon, members of the group were enjoined to attach themselves to a particular tradition and to begin some kind of practice. The choices and commitments they made were diverse: some to Islamic Sufism, some to Catholic or Orthodox Christianity and some to Buddhism. Although Harold had begun by being attracted to Taoism, by the late 1950s he had moved in the direction of Buddhism, initially towards Zen. (In the 1950s everyone was drawn to Zen!). However Frithjof Schuon and other Traditionalists thought that Pure Land Buddhism, especially in its Jodo-Shin form, was more suitable to most Westerners because it did not require the long years of rigorous monastic training of Zen and was directed primarily to laymen. As a result, Harold, together with two other members of the bookshop group, Rod Timmins and Adrian Snodgrass, decided to go to Japan in 1963 and seek induction into this tradition. Their way had been smoothed by introductions and recommendations from Macro Pallis, a member of the Traditionalist group in London, and the trio were put through a course of intensive training in Tokyo by Bando Shojun, chief priest of the Bando Hoonji Temple. In the event, only Rod Timmins elected to become ordained as a Shin priest. Harold stayed in Kyoto for six months and travelled extensively in Japan before returning to Australia at the end of the year. This event, portrayed as some kind of disaster by Michael Ackland in his account, is shrouded in mystery. Clearly, Harold had reservations or was not ready to be committed at this stage. His true growth in the faith perhaps did not begin until he finally returned to Japan in 1966 and was no doubt a gradual process, By the time 'Old Walls' was written, it was firmly established and continued to grow until his death in 1995.

Pure Land Buddhism has tended to be dismissed by Westerners as 'popular' Buddhism and therefore not worthy of study. Its central practice, which involves repetition of the Nembutsu or invocation of the Divine Name of Amida is akin to the practice of dzikr in Sufism and to the Hesychast 'Prayer of Jesus' in the Orthodox tradition. It is a way of faith and devotion and the practitioner, by opening his heart to the salvific Other Power of Amida, hopes to be reborn in Amida Buddha's Western Paradise where the chance of attaining Nirvana is much easier than in this life. By contrast to Zen it is seen as an 'easy' way but as a Zen roshi recently said to me it is not as easy as it looks! Certainly it took a long time to 'take' for Harold Stewart if we are to believe his account in 'Old Walls'.

Harold's practice of Shin Buddhism transformed both his life and art. However, it was, by necessity, a personal interpretation and something which he was working on until his death. As far as I know, he was never a member of a Shin Buddhist sangha although he obviously worshipped at temples. He was excluded from being part of a community because he was a gaijin or foreigner in an intensely ethnocentric culture and his grasp of the language never extended beyond the functional. If he had a sangha, it consisted of his teachers, Bando Shojun and Hisao Inagaki, and he worked closely with both of them in preparing English translations of The Three Pure Land Sutras and Tannisho, a classic of Shin Buddhism.

In Japan the Jodo-Shinshu sects still have a large following and most immigrant Japanese communities, such as those in North America and Hawaii, adhere to this form of Buddhism. However, despite individual conversions on the part of Westerners, the sect does not appear to have 'taken' with non-Japanese. This raises the question of why the Traditionalist writers in Europe encouraged Harold Stewart and his group to affiliate with it in 1963.

Stewart's dedication to his art and to scholarship was extraordinary. Unlike McAuley, he never undertook a profession other than that of a poet and supported himself with part-time work. His was a very frugal and precarious existence and it was only after he was awarded a Commonwealth Literary Grant that he had any measure of economic security. In Kyoto, he lived in a small room in the Shirakuso Hotel from 1966 to 1982 and thereafter in a small flat with a view of the mountains in Shugakuin. He had many admirers and used to take visitors on memorable but exhausting tours of the historic sights. He was a great talker and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all aspects of traditional Japanese culture: history, literature, religion, the arts, crafts, theatre, cuisine and gardens. I have never met anyone who was such an enthusiast for traditional Chinese and Japanese culture. He had all the gifts of a great teacher and would have made an exemplary professor of oriental studies. However, he had little time for the world of academe and so remained an impoverished gentleman scholar in the nineteenth century tradition. His 'students', if one may so call them were diverse: tourists and visitors from Europe, the U.S.A. and Australia who later become correspondents and, in some cases, patrons generously contributing to publications costs.

I knew Harold Stewart for nearly fifty years and he was a formative influence on my philosophical development. I was one of the 'acolytes' who were in attendance at the famous Friday meetings and thus thoroughly inducted into the Traditionalist teachings. It was rather intoxicating being part of an esoteric group and the ideas were very challenging. In the early sixties the group dissipated and everyone went their separate ways. It was only in the late 1980s that I finally became committed to Buddhism, much to Harold's pleasure. When I last saw him in Japan, in 1987 he had become rather mellow and relaxed and was working on his final magnum opus Autumn Landscape Roll, a vast Buddhist epic which is, as yet, unpublished. His last years were plagued by ill-health and he died in his beloved Kyoto on 8 August 1995 much mourned by a group of devoted friends. Michael Ackland's book gives a good account of the outward facts of his life and one hopes that this will lead to a reassessment of his work as a poet and a scholar. Considering the situation in which he found himself in mid-century Australia, Harold Stewart was certainly a man ahead of his times.

- Peter Kelly

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