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Sister Max: Working for Others
By Jan Willis
On August 16, 1995, on a layover in Delhi, India – as I was returning to the United States after participating in the fourth Sakyadhita International Conference of Buddhist Women in Ley, Ladakh – I met with my long-time friend, Ven. Max Mathews – Sister Max. We shared dinner and a long, warm conversation about where our respective paths had taken us.
Her diminutive size greatly belies the vastness of her compassionate heart and spirit. At age 62, Sister Max – who became ordained more than two decades ago in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and who is one of the last remaining African American women residents of Delhi – continues to do her work of serving others where she finds herself.
Sister Max took robes and became chief caretaker of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, in Nepal in the early 1970s. Prior to joining the Buddhist Order, Max, who hails originally from Virginia in the United States, had been a school teacher working in the international corps. She’d taught middle school in Germany, Greece, Russia and at the Lincoln School in Kathmandu.
Meeting the lamas changed all that; and when Zina Rachevsky moved into an extended retreat, Sister Max moved from Kathmandu up to Kopan Hill to look after the two lamas and their growing flock of followers, comprised both of young lama-las (monks) from the Solu Khumbu area of Nepal and impassioned Westerners.
As the number of resident monks burgeoned at Kopan, Sister Max sought various ways to provide for them. They were in need of everything: food, clothing, shelter, health care, teachers and school supplies. Sister Max’s solution was a business one; a business that would generate reusable funds for the monks’ maintenance. The lamas at Kopan were at first skeptical, hinting that perhaps Sister Max’s business sense was not the best, but they allowed her to try. Sister Max herself knew that her real strength lay in showing others how to produce and reproduce capital, and in this fine art she lost no time in giving a clear demonstration. She went into the production of fine fashions, especially sequined evening wear, for the rich and famous.
In its September 12, 1983 issue, Newsweek published a story on Max’s new venture. Headed “Sister Max’s Divine Designs,” the one-page account began, “Thirteen years ago, an American woman named Max journeyed to Nepal, was ordained a Tibetan Buddhist nun and renounced the material life. Then her karma took a truly curious turn: Sister Max became a high-fashion designer. The ascetic woman of the East now dresses some of the wealthiest and most glamorous women of the West. Her shimmering sequined, jagged-hemmed sheaths, delicate pastel gowns with beaded flowers and electric-hued silk jackets are among this season’s most resplendent evening wear.”
The piece continued with a brief biography of Sister Max, “who will not reveal her given name.” It concluded: “Usually clad in simple cotton Tibetan robes, Sister Max shuns publicity and generally keeps her distance from the fashionable haut monde. ‘I have no program, no schedule. I just go with the flow and it comes like rain,’ she says. ‘The operation really is a miracle.’”
It was a miracle – one blessed by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, but engineered by the inventiveness and vision of Sister Max. I remember being thrilled that year when, on the evening of the Academy Awards, female celebrities entering that hall of glitter and glamour responded to reporters’ queries about the gowns they were sporting: “This is a ‘Sister Max’!”
While Sister Max designs may have had their moment of spectacular success, this was not the case early on. For a time, the American-half of Sister Max enterprises had been run out of a two-room apartment in Berkeley, California where Canadian nun, ex-skier Ann McNeil, took orders for gowns and shipped them out in pizza boxes.
But Sister Max was never after material success. What she wanted was simply to help the young monks of Kopan Monastery; and this she accomplished wonderfully. Her funding made it possible to build a two-story dormitory for the boys, to expand the kitchen facilities at Kopan and to construct a small health clinic and dispensary there. After a few more years in the high-fashion world, Sister Max’s designs faded from view.
Two years ago, Sister Max’s life in Delhi took a decided turn when she went with a friend to visit Tihar, New Delhi’s infamous jail, and met Dr. Kiran Bedi. According to Sister Max, “it was admiration, love, and great inspiration at first sight!” A prize-winning prison reformer, Kiran Bedi – who had just been installed as the new inspector-general of Tihar – was at the time introducing sweeping changes at the jail. Among other reforms, Bedi promoted schooling and she banned smoking. She treated Tihar’s inmates like human beings and sought help from others to promote other humane reforms.
Tihar Jail is Asia’s largest prison. It houses some 10,000 inmates, mostly men, but housed in a special ward are roughly 300 women, sixty children and thirty so-called “foreign nationals.” On the day that Sister Max first met her, Bedi was considering having teachers of meditation come into Tihar to give instruction to its women inmates. “So, you became a meditation instructor there?” I asked Max.
“No! There are enough others who do that! No. I began to think about ways to help develop the women’s self-esteem, to boost their morale, to help their children.”
Just as in the old days, Sister Max volunteered her skills in the art of capital production and re-production. She hired five people (paid for out of her own funds) to come into Tihar and teach a group of women to do weaving. She then helped each of them to set up individual bank accounts. Next she tackled the problem of the children, setting up day-care and classes inside the prison while their mothers worked. The number of women employed thus grew by leaps and bounds. Arrangements were made to have a cadre of “special visitors” come into the prison to visit with the female foreign nationals (generally, foreigners are denied the customary visitation rights of indigenous inmates). Before long, a separate cafeteria was established where much better food was prepared and enjoyed – by inmates in general and even prison staff.
All of these improvements were welcomed and supported by Kiran Bedi herself. When I remarked to Max that the work must be quite depressing, her response was quick and exuberant, “My heart has never felt fuller!”
In May last year, as a result of poetry workshops organized by Sister Max, a small book of poems was published by “Concerned Women, Delhi.” It is entitled The Tihar Collection: Poems by Women from Tihar Jail, Delhi, and is dedicated to “Dr. Kiran Bedi, who by treating [us] as human beings is doing her difficult job in a most humanitarian way.”
Then, the walls suddenly came crashing down. In May, Kiran Bedi was “relieved” of her post as inspector-general of Tihar. While her reforms had earned her accolades around the world, she had earned only the “ire of [her] bosses at home” in the government, as was reported in the May 19 issue of Asiaweek. Ire or jealousy, take your pick.
Sister Max has lost her major support at Tihar. The new man in charge has strongly suggested that she turn over to him the cafeteria and the weaving project so that he might make it a “profitable concern” where she has not. Sister Max is hoping to fight back and to maintain many of the reforms she and Bedi had ushered in. Still, savvy Indian-insider that she is, she recognizes that for the time being she must bide her time and move cautiously.
Sister Max shuns publicity still, and moves about quietly. For the past five years she has lived in a small apartment in Delhi’s Defense Colony, working to help improve the quality of life of so many in need.
Sister Max is a model of engaged Buddhism. She practices the teachings by getting involved, by helping to relieve the suffering of beings. She is a woman with a tremendously compassionate spirit and a heart that’s full. When the next nominations come up for the Nobel Peace prize, guess who’ll get my vote!
Copies of The Tihar Collection can be obtained from: Concerned Women, c/o Ina van der Struik, A9/29 Vasant Vihar, New Delhi 110057, India.
Donations to help support Sister Max’s work at Delhi’s Tihar Jail can be sent, in her name, to Mr. Peter Kedge, PO Box 98728, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong.
Jan Willis is an African American woman, a full Professor of Religion and the Walter A. Crowell University Professor of the Social Sciences at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Professor Willis’s areas of expertise and teaching are Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, Buddhist sacred biography and issues of women in Buddhism.
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