Woman Bell, Elizabeth

Buddhist leader

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Elizabeth Bell was born in Melbourne in 1911, the eldest daughter of ship's master, William Watson and his wife, Christina. After completing her education at Coburg High School she worked in a flower shop but socialised with many in Melbourne's musical and artistic circles. In 1946 she married jazz musician, Graeme Bell with whom she had one daughter before the marriage ended in divorce.

Introduced to Buddhism in 1963 she soon became a member of the emerging Buddhist Society of Victoria, opening her home for meetings, meditations and visiting teachers, as well as international students and new arrivals. Bell's parents were Scottish and she was brought up within the Presbyterian Church but was attracted to Buddhism because its 'teachings on human suffering helped her come to terms with disquiet over horrors of World War II' (Age, 18 May 2003).

Bell was president of the Society for over twenty years in the 1970s and '80s, a member of the committee that organised the first visit of the Dalai Lama to Australia in 1982 and a delegate to the World Conference for Religions and Peace in 1988. Bell wrote for and later edited Metta, the newsletter of the Buddhist Federation of Australia and also published a history of Buddhist Society of Victoria as well as a number of poems.

Described as 'a gentle feminist' who 'always believed that women should take their rightful place alongside men in all walks of life' she worked to establish a monastery for Buddhist nuns in Melbourne. Described by her obituarist as 'a magnet for people who sought her calm counsel … she was an empathic listener ready to do whatever she could to help' (Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July 2007).

Awarded the Order of Australia medal in 1999, Bell died in 2007.

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