Woman Byles, Marie

Buddhist leader, Conservationist and Solicitor

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Marie Byles was born in England in 1907, the eldest child of railway signal engineer, Cyril Byles and his wife, Ida. In 1912 the family migrated to Sydney where Marie completed her secondary education at Presbyterian Ladies colleges at Croydon and Pymble, before graduating from the University of Sydney with a BA in 1922 and an LLB in 1924.

The first female solicitor admitted to practice in New South Wales, Byles was an important advocate for the feminist movement, writing articles and papers in support of such causes as equal pay, married women's citizenship rights and equal guardianship of children. She ran her own legal practice where she preferred to employ married women and briefing women barristers where possible. An enthusiastic bushwalker and mountain climber from childhood, Byles was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1939. She was also honorary secretary of the Australian Federation of Bushwalking Clubs from 1943-7 and first editor of their newsletter, Bushwalker, campaigning through the Federation for various conservation causes.

Byles' first acquaintance with Buddhism came when she travelled in Burma and Tibet in 1938. Her interests were rekindled after the war and in 1951 she hosted the visit of Buddhist nun Sister Dhammadinna who stayed for 11 months and is believed to have conducted the first Vesak ceremony in the country. The Buddhist Society of New South Wales was established as a result of this visit with Byles as a founding member. She made several more visits to Asia, published two books expounded her understanding of Buddhism and established an ashram at her home for a small group of local Buddhists.

Through her writings and her regular radio broadcasts, Byles played an important role in the popularisation of Buddhism in Australia. Her interpretation was shaped by her feminism emphasising the attitude of the Buddha to women and the part they played in the development of the faith (Cadzow, 10). As a consequence she had little time for the 'monk-worship and nun servility' that she saw on her travels (Cadzow, 11). She corresponded with other Buddhist scholars in the west and played an important part in bringing others to the faith.

When Byles died in 1979 Ahimsa, her Sydney home which had been a centre of Buddhist activities, was gifted to the National Trust.

Published Resources


  • Byles, Marie Beuzeville, The lotus and the spinning wheel: a comparison of the teachings of Buddha and of Gandhi, Allen & Unwin, London, England, 1963. Details
  • Byles, Marie Beuzeville, Footprints of Gautama the Buddha: being the story of the Buddha his disciples knew, describing portions of his ministerial life, Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois, United States of America, 1967. Details

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