Monastic Mom

One woman prepares to become Victoria Zen Centre’s first-ever female monk.

Soshin Ruth McMurchy is about to become the Victoria Zen Centre’s first-ever ordained female monk, and crafting her own robes is the first order of business.

One woman prepares to become Victoria Zen Centre’s first-ever female monk

Soshin Ruth McMurchy has one dilemma on her mind: can she get her robes sewn in time? McMurchy is not much for needlework or sewing, but she’ll have to get good — she’s about to become the Victoria Zen Centre’s first-ever ordained female monk, and crafting her own robes is the first order of business.

“For all the other challenges that are going to come along with [becoming a monk] and what’s expected of you, this sewing thing is what’s really stressing me out the most,” says McMurchy with a laugh.

This August, McMurchy, 57, will go through the ordination ceremony that will deem her an official monk. In these months leading up to that she’ll need her new robes, she may have to shave her head and she’ll also receive a new name — picked out by the centre’s abbot — as per tradition with the ceremony. For those who’ve known her as “Soshin,” a name which translates to “natural heart” that McMurchy received in 2009 during her Jukai (Buddhist) ceremony, everyone from her UVic colleagues to her husband will be prepping to call her something else come her transition. The new name is meant to symbolize the death of the old self and birth of a new phase, though it could mean even more.

“I can’t imagine what it will be like to restart with a name all over again, but it just goes — goodbye — and the new name arrives,” McMurchy says. “There’s an incredible feeling of rightness to be able to cleanse your past like that, and let go of old habits and ways of being. It’s so grounding.”

Laying claim to one of the first female monks in Canada isn’t just a groundbreaking activity in equality for the Victoria Zen Centre — one of the only official Zen centres in the country — it’s also going to be an experience in path-finding. While the centre has had two female elders to date, the guidelines for monks have been based around men, and McMurchy is hoping that some of the “rules,” like those around head shaving and official dress, are adapted to fit a feminine perspective. Still none of that dissuades McMurchy, and her move could be needed encouragement for other women to get involved.

“I know there are other women out there, but we have yet to create and develop a real network for these women to connect and talk about their spiritual experience,” McMurchy says. “It’s not an easy path, and many women are so busy with their families or careers that they put their own needs last and there’s little room for personal growth.”

Venerable Doshu Rogers, 60, began practising Zen in Victoria in 1975, but has been a monk at the centre for two years. He has also been married to McMurchy for 20 years. He believes that having more female representation in the centre will only benefit the membership, and adds that McMurchy has a wealth of her own personal perspective to draw from. In the meantime, Rogers says he’s really enjoying the “micro sangha” the two have developed in their own home.

“I’m totally supportive of Soshin in choosing this, and it’s wonderful to get an opportunity to share this kind of practice with a life partner, perhaps mostly because I can see the results, and I see them in our relationship,” he says.

McMurchy’s move to monkhood isn’t just something she’s decided to take up in retirement — the decision comes with its own set of stringent expectations, like attending all the regular sangha gatherings, participating in centre activities, adhering to a daily meditation practice and working closely with the membership. McMurchy has a degree in biology from UVic, and a master’s from University of Toronto. She currently works part-time for the Greater Victoria Public Library and part-time as the Buddhist chaplain at UVic, while balancing life as a full-time wife and a mother to two grown children.

Yet for all the extra tasks it may add on, McMurchy’s zest for Zen has her passionate about her decision.

“I can remember being about 16-years-old and having to check off one of those little surveys they gave you in school — back then they could ask about religion — and I said I was definitely Buddhist,” McMurchy says. “And of course I wasn’t; I didn’t know how to spell it, or even what it really meant, but that was the first time I decided on that direction.”

McMurchy was raised in a Catholic family, but with very little spiritual training. When she and her husband moved to Sointula on Malcolm Island of the Sunshine Coast, she dabbled in her tiny community women’s circle with everything from Wicca to Native spirituality to Chinese healing.

What many don’t realize is that there are actually several levels of monkhood, from novice to priest to senior priest. McMurchy says she will just be a “baby monk” for starters — Rogers is a novice, too — but both add they may take the next steps as they come.

That stepping process, in fact, is what McMurchy attributes to why she’s where she is today: it wasn’t so much a goal, as a logical progression. And while plenty of the moments have been challenging, more have been life-altering in the best of ways, she says. Now, McMurchy sees her choice to become a monk as the “complete culmination” of her lifelong journey.

“Just to make the choice to do this feels revolutionary. The whole process has been turning me inside out in a good way,” says McMurchy. “The richness you can feel in your heart after that is quite something.”  M

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