In memory of Fran McArthur (1933-2022)


With deep sadness I learned about Fran’s passing a few weeks ago. Mrs. McArthur, as she was known to thousands of students, was an inspiring teacher and supporter of arts and musical communities in Owen Sound. I was very fortunate to have Fran as my teacher for some years before her retirement from OSCVI in 1991, and as a lifelong friend and mentor for nearly three decades long after I graduated.

My family moved from Hong Kong to Canada in 1988. My parents made a somewhat unorthodox decision to bring the family to rural Ontario with the belief that I and my sister would grow up as better Canadians, away from the hustle and bustle of a big city. Our connection to Owen Sound was a childhood friend of my mother, whose husband worked for an industrial company there. There were only a handful of Asian families in this town of 20,000. When I started my first day of school as a grade ten-er at the OSCVI, I was the only Chinese student in my class. There were a few other Asian students in the school, all born locally. I felt as if I was the only foreigner, and probably was.

I had the good fortune of having incredibly wonderful teachers during my four years at the Owen Sound Collegiate and Vocational Institute (OSCVI), something that I fondly remember and always tell my friends and later my own students. In many ways, the teachers there are exemplary. Not only are they kind and big-hearted in the most Canadian way, their care for students is both touching and inspiring. Coming from Hong Kong, from a society where education is greatly valued but creates also tremendous stress for the young students, I was accustomed to hard works. What I did not expect was the bond I would develop with the teachers and how they would nurture and transform me.

As a science student, I enjoyed greatly all the science classes, in particular Mr. Cioran’s physics classes. But the most memorable teachers from this highschool whom I grew most fond of are those from the non-science subjects: Mr. Taylor (history), Mr. Gleiser (fine Art), and Mr. Azzanno (music). Mrs. Ford and Mrs. McArthur were my English teachers. When I first arrived in their class, I was quite alarmed to discover that I could hardly understand anything that was said. The students were already reading The Merchant of Venice and Thomas Harding’s Far from the Madding Crowd. Nine years of English education in Hong Kong did not prepare for that and seemed utterly futile. Not only did I have problem in comprehension, I could hardly make a complete sentence to express myself. My pronunciation was horrendous. At the age of 14 I felt that I had passed the window of language acquisition and would forever suffer from the curse of a non-native speaker. For many months my English teachers and tutors patiently guided me and corrected my weekly journal, page after page. I was too embarrassed to submit my homework, realising that they must have been an affront to the eyes. But every time I received my corrected journals and papers, expectedly covered in red, I would marvel not only at the correction in tidy handwriting, but also all the very thoughtful and encouraging comments and remarks. The patience of the teachers was unbelievable, despite my obstinate misjudgement in tense, number, agreement, or just a general lack of common sense.

Mrs. McArthur, or Fran, as she later would insist to be called, went beyond correcting my grammar. She saw beyond my failings, my miscomprehension, and the all blunders a stuttering young Chinese boy made. I was challenged to read T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. I even ended up writing a small novel as a final assignment in her creative writing class — The Meditation of Betelgeuse, an audacious attempt though embarrassing in retrospect. At the commencement ceremony, I was given a handful of awards, mostly in science subjects, but also three awards that I was particularly proud of: English, Fine Arts, and Music(Composition). There was this photo in the Sun Times, the local newspaper, with me, the top graduating student in my class and “Ontario Scholar,” flanked by Sam and Natasha, Head Boy and Head Girl who were in fact both a head taller than me! In retrospect, this was quite an extraordinary achievement for someone with no aspiration in the arts at the beginning. Fran was part of this incredible journey.

Coming from Hong Kong I was two years more advanced than my Canadian peers in most maths and science subjects. I could have applied to university at the age of 16 but the counsellor Mr. MacLeran discouraged me to do so. He thought that instead of skipping grades, I should take the time to improve my English, learn French, learn about Canada, its history and the new world that I was immersed in. Jokingly he thought that I needed to grow bigger to not to be bullied by the big boys, which was in fact quite true. The only regret I have is that I did not do more sport or did more social stuffs like other teenagers did. Instead I joined the orchestra, spent all my time outside school doing art, making music, practising yoga, becoming an activist in environmental protection, vegetarianism, and animal right. At any rate, my timetable at school was filled with all the extra classes that I didn’t really need for my original, typically Asian academic pursuit. I was learning creative writing, art, music, French, and even social studies. I broke the Asian smart cookie stereotype.

Fran would later tell me that she and other teachers and counsellors often talked about my study and how they “conspired” to delay my departure from this wonderful highschool. My love for art, music, and literature was all due to them and their attempt to create a more balanced education for me. Fran never coerced me to do anything, but encouraged and challenged me in the most gentle way to explore. Timid as I was, I never dared to make any bold choices until much later in life, but the seeds were planted then. After highschool, I took the graduation award to enter into chemical engineering program at McGill, only hating it and switched my major to linguistics and Sanskrit, while taking many music history classes in the second year. Montreal was as far as I could get, but it turned out to be a springboard for me to explore the world. It was the sense of wonder and insatiable curiosity which continued to drive me. They were all kindled in my highschool years with Fran.

I wrote many experimental short stories and poetry under Fran’s guidance. When I argued that there were ideas that I could not express in English, or in any language, she suggested to me to explore the world of dreams and symbols, and introduced me to the works of Jung and Kandinsky. I ended up creating my own language of symbols and to this day I am still obsessed with mystical symbols and exotic scripts. A handful of my drawings and paintings carry this unusual theme, and were likely precursors to my later arcane interest in Sanskrit calligraphy and Esperanto.

Fran noted my insecurity not only in my English, but also my own growth as a person. She reminded me often that I could not let my shortcomings be a crutch. To “liberate” me, she proposed voice-opening sessions to me, that is, shouting in the wilderness, something I dared not to try more than a few times on the beautiful Bruce Trail and at the Inglis Fall where I hiked often. With the encouragement of my two other wonderful art teachers, Mr. Gleiser and Mr. Sebesta, I created a substantial body of curious artwork including outdoor sketches inspired by the unique landscape of rural Ontario, the lake and the escarpment of the Grey Bruce county.

I was invited to Fran’s beautiful stone schoolhouse in Annan a few times where I met also her artist husband Jim, from whom I always wanted to have watercolour lessons. They were extremely kind to me and we often shared interesting conversation and music. Fran was a great lover of nature. I once had the chance of camping on their land. It was a cold winter day and I woke up finding all the food I brought with me frozen in the morning!

Fran and I met each other often in the library, where I often find her and Mr. McClusky recommending books to students. Even when I did not have classes with Fran, I would still see her from time to time there. As time passes, I am less able to recall the content of our conversation. Instead it was her voice that stays with me. Whenever I bring over a question or a problem, Fran would first gently reflected and only after a slight pause, replied often smilingly with a “Well, Bill,” followed more often by a question than an answer. There is always a “what do you think?” somewhere. To my young self, this gave me the confidence to believe that what I think matters, and that there is wondrous beauty in everything if you are patient and look hard enough. Perhaps more importantly and most touchingly, is to know that there is someone in this world who always has your best interest in her heart, and that nothing pleases her more than to see you finding joy in the discovery of the beauty and knowledge that we all share in this world of ours. It is this Fran who always stay in my heart and the Fran whom I from time to time invoke in my mind.

Our exchange of letters began after I left for university. It was the early days of emails in the early 1990s. Fran never shied away from new things. I had the impression that she was always very eager to try everything, from the old ascii email from the old BBS system connected with terminals through noisy modems to the email and FaceBook installed on her iPad through which we sometimes communicated. She later developed an interest in alchemy and Buddhism and shared often with me her latest thoughts. She was very excited to find out that I pursued my doctoral studies in Buddhism in China and later Japan. Due to my work overseas, I returned to Canada often only once a year. Whenever I was back in Canada, Fran and I would meet and our meeting was always the highlight of my trip home.

The last time we saw each other in person was September 2019. Jim passed away some months earlier in April after suffering from illness for some time. But her interests in many things kept her in good spirit. Fran was quite amazed that I had pursued a career in academia and that I had taught Buddhism for many years already — after all, I am a middle-aged man already. I shared with her that she was one of the reasons why and how I became a teacher. In the most self-effacing manner, she suggested that the tree was always in the seed. At this point, I wondered how many students she had nurtured and how she dedicated herself as a selfless educator for so many years, even after her retirement.

A common friend of Fran asked me, on the occasion of Fran’s passing, how I see death with my Buddhist experience. The loss of a dear friend is painful, and all the more a selfless soul with so many virtues, an ally and an exemplary teacher such as Fran. For the Buddhists there is no true death. Life itself is a phenomenon, the result of many conditions accumulated through ages. When these conditions change and dissolve, so does life. How precious it is to have this gift of life in this world. How fleeting it is. The wise ones would make this life an opportunity to do good things, to make the world a better place, to inspire others to do so, and to understand the interconnectedness of all the things and living beings in this universe. I suppose we do not hear often words such as beauty and joy from the Buddhists, or even the word “love.” These ideas are however very important in Buddhism; they are just expressed differently. Beauty is true only if it is lasting. Buddhists recognise beauty without clinging and attachment. Joy is driving factor for any kind of growth. A bodhisattva’s spiritual journey begins always with joy and genuine meditative experience is always characterised by joy, or prīti in Sanskrit. Instead of “love” Buddhists speak of compassion because it is an unconditional and selfless kind of love, always for the benefit of others. In these senses, Fran strikes me as someone who exemplifies many Buddhist virtues, with her kindness, generosity, gentle curiosity, and a calmness that is full of wisdom.

On one hand I will continue to mourn the loss of friend and a mentor. On the other hand I am glad that her voice will forever remain in my heart, speaking to me whenever kind and wise words are needed.

1. 陳霖生《論中共與道教之發展》(2008)

一本貌似自費出版的結緣書,放在書架上略嫌不雅。提出的論點,語調誇張,只有已經相信的人才會願意讀下去,因此有點preaching to the choir的感覺。作者提出的觀點很簡單,就是以《道德經》和道教思想為主導的中華文明,為人類智慧的結晶,也是解決世界問題的關鍵。與其相反的為以美國為首的西方文明,資本主義加上充滿暴力和虛偽的基督教,結果只會將地球毀滅。




曾經一個印度耆那教徒很認真的問我,中國人相信神嗎?我的答案是不。因為這位朋友言下之意,即是信者則善,不信則惡。為什麼會有這種想法呢?因為信教的人認為,神是道德標準,神是唯一導人向善的根本。中國人二千多年前已經擺脫了神教思想,其中道教有一定的貢獻,但其實更加重要的是儒家思想,因為孔孟思想的散播,讓中國人理解導人向善,利人利己,不是因為恐懼神的懲罰,或博取神的歡心,或為了升天堂,不下地獄。中國人相信“天理”,”道“,但行為的標準主要來自良心與良知,也即是現代西方人所說的普世價值。現代的西方人也好,甚至印度人也好,儘管接受了科學思想的洗禮,不再完全迷信”神“,但心裡仍然擺脫不了”神“作為人類道德標準的思想負擔。因此,碰上不信”神“的中國人,直覺就是中國人沒有良知和道德標準。這是大錯特錯的,因為中國人的良知與道德標準,幾千年以來已經根深蒂固,不需要完全依賴神。印度佛教的作為思想和宗教信仰,對中國影響十分大,但發展出來的是具有中國人道德價值觀的漢傳佛教,強調禮教圓融,最關心的也是人,心性的問題,重點並不是抽象的永生或極樂世界。 過去百年共產主義在中國有一些激進的舉措,但並沒有完全把這一套價值觀摧毀。近幾十年中國的發展,見證的是中華民族良心與良知的復甦。不過,這種復甦步伐還是比較緩慢,而其他各種負面的發展則非常迅速,其中負面因素一部分來自西方,一部分來自本身中國人的陋習,而有一部分則是新時代前所未有的問題,如環保、數據等等。