Australian Buddhist pioneer passes away

by Christina Bell and Bill Ford, The Age, June 29, 2007

16-9-1911 - 16-3-2007

Melbourne, Australia -- Elizabeth Bell, a pioneer of Buddhism in Australia, an accomplished poet and a former wife of jazz great, Graeme, when he made his name on the international stage, has died at Epworth Hospital from a stroke. She was 95.

A member of the Buddhist Society of Victoria for more than 40 years, and president for 20 years, she was at the helm in the 1970s and '80s, a time of great growth in the religion.

Elizabeth followed the Theravadian tradition, but she was ecumenical in her acceptance of all forms; she made available the society's premises to a Zen group, and in 1982 was on the committee that organised the first visit to Australia by the Dalai Lama. In 1988, she was a delegate to the women's conference of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, and she was in demand as a speaker on Buddhism at schools and universities.

Elizabeth's father, William Watson, was a ship's master who regularly visited Melbourne. He eventually brought his wife, Christina, from their home in north-eastern Scotland to settle here in 1907. Four years later their daughter, Elizabeth, was born, followed two years later by her brother, Thomas. She received her leaving certificate from Coburg High School in 1928, and then studied commercial subjects.

In the 1930s she worked at the Primrose Pottery Shop, where she associated with artists and writers, and had her portrait painted by Russian-born artist Danila Vassilief.

As a child, Elizabeth's poems and stories were published in the children's page of the Herald newspaper; later, under her maiden name, Elizabeth Galloway, she had poetry published in Angry Penguins, Melbourne University Magazine and Comment.



Read Thesis by Elizabeth Bell
Recollections of the Buddhist Society of Victoria



In 1945, Elizabeth was introduced to jazz musician Graeme Bell and they married in 1946. She accompanied his band to Europe in 1947, and in 1950 their daughter Christina was born in England. When they returned to Australia, the Bell band enjoyed great success.

The marriage, however, did not last and Graeme relocated to Sydney and later remarried, but they remained good friends.

In the 1960s, Elizabeth worked for the Borovansky Ballet Academy, where her daughter was studying. Later she worked at the Red Cross Blood Bank, where she became great friends with then director Dr Rachel Jakobowicz.

Elizabeth searched for meaning for many years and found it when she heard a Burmese monk speak in 1963; she was struck by his certainty and calmness, two attributes that she came to be closely associated with.

Elizabeth became a committee member of the young Buddhist Society of Victoria in 1964, leading to involvement for the rest of her life.

She opened her home for meetings, meditations, occasional visits from Buddhist teachers and cultural events. She always extended a warm welcome to overseas students and new arrivals, including many Sri Lankans, who remember fondly that hers was the only face of welcome and acceptance they experienced.

Elizabeth wrote for and eventually edited Metta, the newsletter of the Buddhist Federation of Australia. She was involved in the establishment of the Buddhist Council of Victoria, and in 1999 she wrote a history of the Buddhist Society of Victoria. That year she was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for services to Buddhism. Characteristically, she was reluctant to take personal credit for the award.

Highly self-educated and with a passion for learning, she instilled in her children and grandchildren the values of thought and inquiry, as well as tolerance and compassion for all sentient beings. A natural consequence of her compassion was her adoption of abandoned animals, support for animal welfare agencies and, of course, vegetarianism. She was never happier than when a cat was sitting purring on her knee.

Never interested in acquiring material possessions, Elizabeth was more interested in helping others. She was a magnet for people who sought her calm counsel when they had problems. Even when she was unwell, she was an empathic listener ready to do whatever she could to help others.

In recent years, Elizabeth had a further burst of creativity and wrote a number of poems. She was thrilled to correspond with Les Murray and to see her poem Ern Malley's Sister published in Quadrant last year.

A gentle feminist, Elizabeth always believed that women should take their rightful place alongside men in all walks of life. A project dear to her heart was the establishment of a monastery for Buddhist nuns in Victoria. Fortunately she lived long enough to see her vision start to take shape.

Elizabeth's insightfulness and calm acceptance towards the end of her life was assisted by her Buddhist beliefs and the mental strength developed through meditation.She is survived by her daughter Christina, her granddaughter Fiona, and her son-in-law, Bill.