Jenny’s marriage to pianist Bruce Greenfield was startling to some of their friends, most of whom knew Bruce was gay. “I was reasonably amazed,” one of them said. The couple’s feelings for one another had emerged slowly over several years. Both were musicians of skill and artistry, and their shared passion for music and good food had formed the basis of an enduring friendship. They smoked and drank together, enjoyed talking into the night and shared responsibility for their Ohiro Road house. Little by little, their mutual respect and closeness had deepened and they had become lovers.
Bruce had grown up in the church and over time developed an interest in the religions of the East. His curiosity about spirituality did not at first appear to be shared by Jenny, whom he had taken to be an atheist. She had attended church with her mother, and even played the organ for services, but churchgoing had been more of a musical than a devotional activity. In her late teens and early twenties, however, her curiosity about spirituality had grown and she read widely on the subject. Even so, she said, “For a long time in my life [there was] nothing spiritual – not nothing, but it kind of took second place because music was the main thing – and I wasn’t aware that I perhaps needed to pay some attention elsewhere in my life than music. And when I did, that was helped by taking dope.”
This renewed receptivity to the spiritual was complemented by her work in the classroom. In 1972 Jenny introduced a course in Indian music at Victoria. She had been taking drum lessons with Balu Balachandran, a Carnatic music specialist. She said, “I realised that Hindu philosophy and Hindu music are closely related … As I started reading the Hindu philosophy I thought, ‘Oh, I like this.’ It was funny – it was a bit like when I first learned to read music – it seemed to come like second nature.”
The almost innate understanding Jenny had of the ideas she encountered in Vedanta texts had some unexpected outcomes: “When I read it, and even when I read the old versions of it, I seemed to know all about it already. There was this young Indian guy who’d come to teach in the religious studies department and here was me telling him all about Hinduism. And he was saying ‘You are my guru.’ He was getting very excited and I was totally astonished – how did I know all about something I’d never heard of until a few months ago?”
Jenny’s reading widened to include Hermann Hesse, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and William James’ The Variety of Religious Experience. She was interested in Carlos Castaneda and Alan Watts. “When you started to read the books by all these other people who, like me, were smoking dope and dropping acid and what have you, we were all getting interested in the same new sorts of things, which had to do with anything that wasn’t Christian. Christianity had gone off the rails a bit – I think that’s what we generally felt – and if we had gone with it, then we had gone off the rails too.”
It was during this period that Jenny was introduced to the Divine Light Mission. The Mission was established in 1960 by a Sikh guru, Hans Ji Maharaj, and by the 1970s was under the leadership of his youngest son, Prem Rawat, who as leader of the movement was known as Guru Maharaj Ji. His teaching emphasised meditation, service and satsang (telling the truth, or “coming clean” at group sessions).
Jenny’s first contact with the Mission came by way of the Hair trial, during which she met Lindsay and Kim Field, members of the show’s cast and followers of Maharaj Ji. A short time later, missionaries (sometimes called “initiators”) from the Divine Light Mission travelled to Wellington, where a public meeting was held in the Tasman Street Indian Association Hall. The speaker was a retired Indian High Court judge called Rajeshwar. “He was an incredibly intelligent man,” Bruce Greenfield said, “and of course Jenny liked intelligent people. So, they got on like a house on fire. This man had been to Oxford and was a Rhodes Scholar and all sorts of things, but he had spent the last 20 years going around doing this missionary work. Anyway, he was the one that talked about Maharaj Ji’s philosophy at a meeting.”
Bruce was sympathetic to some of the ideas presented. And he was impressed by the missionary too, saying, “This man who originally came out and who talked to Jenny was a man of enormous sincerity; not at all interested in wealth or fame or anything.” Even so, he was sceptical: “I was a religious boy, and I could see through it all.”
Jenny’s encounter with Rajeshwar and her introduction to the meditation techniques advocated by Guru Maharaj Ji was profound and life-altering. Bruce could understand the appeal the ideas and practice had for her – “That’s how the spark happened for her, his intellect and all the fabulous Indian philosophy stuff” – but he found the intensity of her response confusing: “Suddenly, she ceased to be an atheist. Unfortunately, she became a fanatical follower.”
With hindsight, Jenny wondered if her decision to adopt the disciplines advocated by Maharaj Ji was the result of her dissatisfaction with herself as a person. “I needed to somehow be a bit better than I was, a better person. The sight of myself, once I took up meditation, was not a happy one.”
As she spent more time with other devotees and more time in meditation, she also became dedicated to the Mission’s work. Tony Backhouse remembers an Indian instructor staying at 124 Ohiro Road when a Divine Light seminar and meditation course was being delivered in Wellington, and in due course the house became an informal centre for the Mission. Tony recalled coming home from tour “to find someone in my bed and a bevy of bright-eyed young women in the kitchen baking bread. Ultimately Jenny decided the house should be a centre for the Mission, and asked us tenants to consider joining Divine Light or relocating. I think we all decided to leave the house at that point.”
For the time being Bruce remained, although his relationship with Jenny was tested by her embrace of Maharaj Ji’s teaching. At her insistence, theirs had become a celibate marriage. Jenny wrote to Bruce, “I think you have been, and are, a beautiful husband – it’s just that marriage looks different to me now.” She added that the desire for a physical relationship “has simply left me. I can’t explain why because I don’t know why, but it seems to me that at a certain point on the path, this becomes inevitable, just as all other ‘worldly desires’ also gradually fall away.”
Bruce, hurt by Jenny”s withdrawal, had also grown tired of the Divine Light Mission’s members – known as “premies” – who, at Jenny’s invitation, were living in the house. And although he had been curious about Maharaj Ji’s teaching, he was ultimately unconvinced by the principles taught, and baffled by Jenny’s enthusiastic adoption of them.
The event that galvanised Bruce to leave the Ohiro Road house was, oddly enough, a powerful premonition of his own. Standing at his bedroom window one day, he had the strong impression he should move out of the house immediately and take his piano with him. “It was really powerful and so I did. I rang the movers and I moved out the next morning.”
Jenny recalled what followed shortly afterwards: “Those were the days when we were holding (entirely informal) Divine Light Mission meetings at my house, which had a big enough living room to accommodate 30-50 people quite comfortably. Neil-whatever-his-name-was from Warkworth had been coming to some of these meetings when he apparently took it into his head that we were possessed by the devil and the house needed to be burned down. A good many of us were sitting in the living room one evening when suddenly the door opened. It was Neil. ‘The house is on fire!’ he yelled, and took off at top speed.
“Clearly, he didn’t mean us to be burned along with the house. We were remarkably composed, there was no panic at all; we simply moved outside to safety in orderly single file and stood watching the flames roaring up from the basement. Meanwhile some kindly neighbours had already phoned the Brooklyn Fire Brigade, who were with us in less than three minutes, and eventually managed to save the best part of the house. While the firemen hosed the blazing timbers, we sang a selection of our songs – ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, ‘Killing Me Softly’ – to help them along. Later there was a photo in the newspaper of us doing this, with the whole event simultaneously viewed by a surrounding hillside of interested and/or anxious neighbours.”
Bruce was grateful to be able to observe these proceedings from a distance: “I remember, in the Evening Post, the front-page photo had a picture of all the attendees at the prayer meeting sitting on the lawn singing, and the headline said ‘Devotees Sing as House Burns’.”
A mildly abbreviated version taken with kind permission from the newly published biography Jenny McLeod: A Life in Music by Norman Meehan (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $50), available in bookstores nationwide. McLeod (1941-2022) studied music with Douglas Lilburn at Victoria University College, then with Karlheinz Stockhausen in Europe. Her major compositions include music for the film The Silent One, song cycles based on poems by Janet Frame, and the opera Hōhepa, which premiered at the New Zealand International Arts Festival in 2012.