In Memory: Grace McLeod, world traveler, potent advocate for Buddhism

By Keith Ervin, Seattle Times, Aug 27, 2006

Seattle, WA (USA) -- Grace McLeod didn't know exactly what she was in for when a Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader summoned her to Rumtek, India.

<< Grace McLeod was born in Anacortes in 1907.

When she appeared before Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, then head of the Karma Kagyu tradition, "He looked at me and looked at me," Mrs. McLeod later wrote. "I could tell he knew me through and through.

"Then he clapped his hands and called in eight nuns and said to them, 'This is your mother. She will build you a home.' "

Build a home she did. As the karmapa's new American secretary, she raised $21,300 — enough to build a convent, which opened in Rumtek in 1985.

Mrs. McLeod, who converted to Buddhism in the late 1940s, was a leader for three and a half decades in producing English-language study materials for Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Church and other temples in Buddhist Churches of America.

She died at 98 on Aug 12.

Born in Anacortes on Nov. 9, 1907, as Grace Vivian Clem, Mrs. McLeod was the granddaughter of Charles William Beale, who was among the first permanent group of white settlers in the Anacortes area.

She was raised a Catholic, graduating from St. Ann's Academy in Vancouver, B.C., Pius X School of Liturgical Music at College of the Sacred Heart in New York, and Holy Names Academy and Normal School in Seattle.

From age 17 to 20, Mrs. McLeod routinely sat on the edge of her chair in order to leave room for her guardian angel, her daughter, Rosalie Jacobson, wrote.

For 11 years Mrs. McLeod taught at Sacred Heart Villa (now Villa Academy) in Laurelhurst and wrote a curriculum for elementary education in Catholic schools. Daughter Rosalie, who now lives in Southern California, was born in 1938.

Mrs. McLeod converted to Buddhism in 1948 after she and her husband, Hugh McLeod, a longtime Buddhist, studied world religions together through the Theosophical Society. Mr. McLeod died in 1978.

By 1950, as a member of Seattle Betsuin Church, also known as Seattle Buddhist Temple, she had begun writing stories, poems and articles about Buddhism for the church's predominantly Japanese-American children whose first language was English.

Jacobson recalled her mother working late into the night on publications such as "Buddhist Reader" and "Teen Tempest" and "Dharma School Teacher's Handbook." Her publications were circulated for 36 years to every U.S. temple in the Jodo Shinshu branch of Buddhism.

Mrs. McLeod also taught in the dharma school, trained teachers, and developed a course of study for the Karuna Award for Buddhist members of Camp Fire Girls.

She was in her seventies when she met the 16th Karmapa in Portland and he asked her to visit him in India, saying, "I have work for you."

During that visit to Rumtek she agreed to raise funds for the nunnery. She traveled to India four times as she raised money to build schools and to assist projects for lepers and the poor. She also visited Thailand, Japan and Nepal.

"I think she was captivated by Tibetan Buddhism initially and then she came to realize there's as much politics in Tibetan Buddhism as anyplace else. In talking with her later on in life, she realized it's all human nature," said the Rev. Don Castro, a minister at Seattle Betsuin Church.

When a new acquaintance asked if she found it difficult to travel to India at her age, her longtime friend Tom Strickland recalled, "She just looked up at him and said, 'Oh, my, no, I found it very relaxing.' "

Mrs. McLeod discussed religion and the state of the world with a Jehovah's Witness who showed up at her door regularly for 40 years, her friend Sue Aran recalled. "She embraced everything. Toward the end of her life she saw it all as being a piece of the same thing," Aran said.

Besides daughter Rosalie, Mrs. McLeod is survived by stepson Robert McLeod of Southern California; grandchildren Kenneth Jacobson of Seattle, Richard Jacobson of England, Darlene Nützmann of Southern California, and Thomas Jacobson of Southern California; 14 great-grandchildren; and two great-great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held 2 p.m. Sept. 23 at Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Church, 1427 S. Main St., Seattle 98144. Gifts may be made to the church.

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