Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism

Peter Kelly

HAROLD STEWART (1916-1995)
A vignette of his life and works

Harold Frederick Stewart was born in Drummoyne, Sydney, in December 1916. He came from a comfortable middle-class background and his father, who was a health inspector, had lived in India for many years. He attended Fort Street High School and, after a brief period studying music at the Sydney Conservatorium, went on to the University of Sydney in 1936. He began writing poetry at school and was editor of the school magazine. His early enthusiasms were for the French symbolist poets Mallarmé and Valéry, whom he translated, and for American modernists like Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens. Later, he reacted strongly against modernism and free verse, and used traditional English metres in all his surviving work.

He dropped out of university after a year and henceforth devoted himself to poetry and studying the art and philosophies of Asia. Carl Jung was an early influence and it was by way of Jung's commentaries on oriental texts that he discovered the 'Traditionalist' school of writers. He also immersed himself in Chinese art and poetry, and this determined the subject matter of his first published collection, Phoenix Wings: Poems 1940-46 (1948). A later volume, Orpheus and Other Poems (1956), was strongly influenced by Jungian ideas.

During the Second World War, he worked in Army Intelligence at the St.Kilda Road Barracks in Melbourne. It was at this time, in 1944, that he collaborated with James McAuley in perpetrating the famous 'Ern Malley Hoax' which aimed to expose the excesses of literary modernism. Stewart was associated with McAuley and A.D.Hope, belonging to a neo-classical movement in poetry, but his content was quite different from theirs.

Stewart never completed a university degree or took up a profession. He devoted all his time to writing and independent study, and supported himself by writing literary journalism and lecture notes on art and literature for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Council of Adult Education. As this proved to be a precarious livelihood, he took up a part-time appointment as a bookseller at the Norman Robb Bookshop in Little Collins Street, Melbourne, in 1950 and worked there until he left for Japan in 1966.

The period at Robb's Bookshop proved to be, intellectually, very important. It was here that he set up a study group which met every Friday night to discuss the oriental doctrines; in particular, the interpretation of them given by René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Frithjof Schuon. The group met in the shop for about twelve years from 1951 to 1963. It started with members being interested solely in theory but after about 1957, several became interested in practice and in attaching themselves to a particular tradition. Influenced by Frithjof Schuon who was convinced that Shin Buddhism was the most appropriate form of Buddhism for Westerners to adopt, Stewart, together with Adrian Snodgrass and Rodney Timmins, went to Kyoto and studied at the Higashi-Hongwanji temple under the direction of Shojun Bando. Thus, from about 1963, Stewart became a practicing Shin Buddhist and remained one for the rest of his life.

During his time in Japan in 1963, he toured the country extensively and became enchanted with all things Japanese like Lafçadio Hearn before him. In 1966, he left Australia and settled in Kyoto, making his home in the Shirakuso Inn on the northern outskirts of the city. For the first few years, he lived very frugally, supporting himself by teaching English.

From the outset, he devoted himself to studying the doctrines of Shin Buddhism and to saturating himself in every aspect of traditional Japanese culture. He became an expert on the history of Kyoto and was intimately acquainted with its temples, gardens, palaces and works of art. He became fascinated with Japanese poetry and published two translations of haiku: A Net of Fireflies (1960) and A Chime of Windbells (1969) which proved popular with the reading public. The translation of haiku was instrumental in altering his poetic style which became at once more focused and more simple.

His major project in the 1970s was the writing of a sequence of poems, By the Old Walls of Kyoto, and an accompanying set of essays or prose commentaries which demonstrated his gifts as an exponent of the doctrines of Buddhism, Taoism and Shinto. To finish this work, he was assisted by grants from the Literature Board of the Australia Council and the Australia-Japan Foundation. The book, published by Weatherhill in 1981, was lavishly illustrated and produced, and the poetry demonstrates that Stewart had, at last, found his true voice and subject-matter. In 1982, he was awarded a Senior Emeritus Writers' Fellowship by the Literature Board and, for the first time in his life, enjoyed a small measure of financial security.

Although he lived a fairly reclusive life within the small expatriate community, he was by no means without company. Visitors from overseas were always made welcome and subjected to gruelling walking tours to see the beauties of the city. He kept up a voluminous correspondence: letters to Dorothy Green, the literary critic, and to Carmen Blacker, folklorist and Professor of Japanese at Cambridge University, demonstrate his wide range of enthusiasms.

Health was always a problem. In his last years, he was in and out of hospital, mainly for problems with angina. Despite this, he continued to study and to write prodigious amounts of verse. His magnum opus, a vast verse-epic called Autumn Landscape Roll, is over five thousand lines in length and occupied all his time after the completion of By the Old Walls of Kyoto. The poem, which remains unpublished, explores a different landscape altogether. It is a kind of guided tour of the heavens, hells and purgatories of the Buddhist after-life, and draws its sources of imagery from descriptions in the various Pure Land sutras and from paintings and scrolls.

He also devoted a great deal of time to collaborating with his teachers, Shojun Bando and Hisao Inagaki, in producing English versions of Japanese Buddhist classics such as the Three Pure Land Sutras and the Tannisho.

He died in Kyoto on 8 August 1995 after a short illness and a Shin Buddhist ceremony was conducted for him. He was mourned by many people - in Japan, Australia, the USA and Europe - and was a much loved and revered figure. His literary remains, including unpublished works, notebooks and letters are housed in a special manuscript collection at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

Reflections on the Dharma - Harold Stewart

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