Be an Island - Foreword
In the great adventure of Buddhism’s coming to the West, one of the most fascinating developments has been its meeting with feminism. The relationship that developed between the two, while sometimes thorny, has enriched both endeavors immeasurably. Sister Ayya Khema, one of the first generation of Western women teachers, contributed powerfully to this conjunction; an American citizen born in northern Europe, she will be remembered most vividly for her championing of the cause of Buddhist nuns.
Ayya Khema was a strong, independent woman who survived early hardship. As a German-Jewish child in the Second World War she knew prejudice, imprisonment, and the death of her father. As a married woman she worked a farm in Australia while raising her children. She then founded a Theravada Buddhist forest monastery there and took the robes, shaving her head and donning the brown cloth of a renunciant. Her new name, Khema, had belonged to a nun alive during the Buddha’s lifetime who had been known for her great insight and verbal ability and had been cited by the Buddha as providing a standard for right conduct. Ayya Khema radiated confidence; her being a woman never impeded her study and practice of Dhamma. She penetrated deeply into the practice and communicated the fruits of her insights with great clarity in her public talks and private instruction. That her own Theravada tradition denied her full ordination, that nuns in Southeast Asian countries were neglected and ill-served by their tradition—these injustices turned Ayya Khema into an activist. She did not choose the battle, but, self-respecting as she was, she stood up for her own dignity and that of all women. As a sincere practitioner and a powerful spokesperson, she became one of the Western Buddhist teachers who has truly made a difference in this century.
To be involved in the publishing of this book takes me back to another book preparation twelve years ago on Parappuduwa Nuns Island in Ratgama Lake in Sri Lanka. In the damp, tropical heat, I sat on a verandah surrounded by extravagant jungle vegetation and pored over the proofs of a book of Ayya’s Dhamma talks to be published by a group of Sri Lankan donors. That rustling in the underbrush, I knew, signaled the progress of a giant monitor lizard lumbering past; the wild screeches piercing the air came from brilliantly hued birds perched in the low trees.
Ayya Khema, stout in her brown robe, her head shaved clean, leaned over me to confer on some very strange wording that could only have been produced by a typesetter to whom the English language was an exotic challenge. Ayya would frown as she concentrated on the mangled phrase, and then, often, as we sorted it out, our consternation would dissolve into laughter.
My proofreading occupied only a few hours of each day. Up at 4 a.m., we anagarikas (eight-precept nuns) donned our white robes, lit our kerosene lanterns, and trudged in thick darkness to the top of the island’s solitary hill, to enter the bhāvanā sala or meditation hall. At the front of the room we could barely discern the immobile form of Ayya Khema, deep in meditation. Gradually brightness gathered in the room; birds awoke, announcing their presence with cascades of sound; and Ayya became visible, her head raised, face suffused with joy, a lightness like a benediction.
Thus our day began, and progressed through sutta study with Ayya and a single, ceremonially served meal, sometimes brought to us by the villagers on the lake shore, sometimes prepared for us by our Sri Lankan cook. As the sun fell behind the tall trees bordering the lake, we again sat in meditation, and listened to Ayya expound upon an aspect of the Buddha’s teachings. Then we ended our day with chanting, Ayya’s voice strongly guiding us, first through the unfamiliar Pali syllables, then through the English translations. We chanted, for instance,
Even as a mother protects, with her life,
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world . . .
One of Ayya’s great contributions is her founding of Buddhist centers. As one student put it, “You know how when the baby Buddha walked, at each step a lotus sprang up? Well, everywhere Ayya Khema goes, a meditation center springs up.” She began in 1978 with the forest monastery Wat Buddha Dhamma in New South Wales, Australia. Then in the eighties in Sri Lanka she formed the International Buddhist Women’s Center and founded the nunnery Parappuduwa Nuns Island at the invitation of the Sri Lankan government. She did so in order to provide Western women with a Buddhist monastic experience in a Buddhist country: to offer us silence, safety, concentration, inner spaciousness. With her German students she created Buddha-Haus. And as her death neared, she established Metta Vihara, a monastery to accommodate both men and women, the first Theravada monastery in Germany.
Ayya savored the peace and enclosure of monastic life, yet she was willing, in the middle of our rains retreat, to leave Parappuduwa Nuns Island and fly to the United States to speak on a panel on Women and Buddhism at a prestigious academic Buddhist-Christian convocation. When she returned to the island, at our request she shared the tape of her panel with us. On the tape Ayya spoke briefly and concisely about the situation of women in Buddhist traditions. She told the truth in blunt, no-nonsense terms, and I remember thinking how extremely radical and brave she was in doing so. But it was in the question-and-answer period that she captivated us and provoked a roar of approving laughter. A male questioner wondered, in a tone intended to trivialize and dismiss the whole subject of the panel, why there should be a separate panel comprised only of women, to address the issue of women and Buddhism. Why couldn’t the topic be incorporated into the other discussions? One panelist began a tempered, careful response, and then Ayya’s voice cut in, its tone balanced just on the edge of annoyance. Perhaps the questioner should ask instead, she suggested, why almost every one of the other panels at the conference was composed exclusively of men and excluded all concerns specific to women! That would be a more productive inquiry, she concluded. And the subject was closed. One could only imagine the look on the man’s face as the room erupted in applause and amusement.
Ayya did not dislike individual men—indeed she had loyal male students—but she hated the hardship visited on women by the male supremacy endemic to Buddhism. Quick-witted, strongly grounded in what she knew, and unafraid, Ayya Khema could be formidable.
Her forthrightness could cause friction with students and associates. Women who came to the Nuns Island wanting a warm, motherly mentor found instead a strong exponent of the Dhamma, a demanding teacher, and a consistent spiritual companion. Ayya Khema did not hesitate to speak her mind and assumed that we novices could handle what came our way and stay focused on our practice. Some people found Ayya Khema’s manner authoritarian and brusque, and at times people’s feelings were hurt by her treatment of them. I believe Ayya Khema was not much interested in personality, her own or anyone else’s: she focused always on the goals of liberation and equality, and she emphasized the necessity to cleave to practice. Sometimes this prevented her from attending to the complexity of human relationships and opening to others’ limitations and perspectives. She was flawed, as we all are; at the same time she lived a life of immense value to others.
Ayya Khema taught often in the United States, particularly in California, where one of her daughters lived. I first met her at Dhamma Dena, the meditation center in the Mojave Desert headed by Ruth Denison. Years after my stay on the Nuns Island, I sat with Ayya Khema in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and at Green Gulch Farm in California. During this time she was establishing a center in Germany, and she regularly went to Europe to teach. Often she spoke at the conferences and events sponsored by Sakyadhita, the international association of Buddhist women, which she had helped to found.
This human life is short, Ayya reminded us, and the priority is to get on with the practice. She embodied the Theravadan concept that the teachings matter, not the teacher. This insistence upon the message rather than the messenger informs Ayya Khema’s many books, which have been published in English and German and translated into numerous other languages. They are all, with the exception of a recently published autobiography, collections of her Dhamma talks. Her genius as a teacher lay in her ability to present the essence of the Buddha’s teachings in simple, accessible prose. This she did without notes or sources of any kind, quoting frequently from the suttas, speaking distinctly, in a strong voice, as her large eyes assessed her audience. She was an impressive, inspiring exponent of the timeless wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings. Her printed talks, including the ones in this volume, reflect her conviction and clarity.
In 1988, at the Chinese Hsi Lai Temple near Los Angeles, Ayya Khema received full ordination in the nuns’ lineage that extends back to the therīs, the enlightened women ordained by the Buddha himself. Ordination within this Chinese lineage in most cases is not accepted by the Southeast Asian Theravada sanghas of monks—Ayya’s tradition—but it was the only ordination open to her. One can argue that ordination is an external gesture that is meaningless in terms of actual spiritual attainment, but Ayya Khema understood its importance for the validation of her own and other women’s efforts; women so utterly committed to the path of Buddhist renunciation deserved to be recognized by the worldly establishment of their tradition.
Over the years Ayya Khema spoke up for ordination of Theravada nuns on several continents and in countless gatherings great and small. She pointed out that without full ordination the nuns are, particularly in the eyes of Asian communities, spiritual nonentities, not deserving of material support, proper training in Dhamma, nor the respect accorded the monks. As so visible a spokeswoman, Ayya drew much critical fire, yet she never sacrificed her convictions in order to be accepted by the Southeast Asian Buddhist establishment. She will be best remembered for this campaign she waged. Her name and her efforts are known throughout the Buddhist world, wherever there are women in robes. Indeed the changes in attitude and behavior toward nuns that have come about, still partial and gradual in many areas but happening nevertheless, are the result of the activism and strong inspiration of Ayya Khema and a few other valiant and determined female renunciants. Her example and her message have kindled a light in the hearts of countless women who had been inured to second-class status and official neglect, and showed them a way to express their full humanity. Nothing could be more essentially Buddhist than spiritual equality regardless of gender; Ayya Khema knew that in challenging the establishment she expressed the deeper truth of Buddhist teachings.
In the almost fifteen years I knew Ayya Khema my respect for her grew. Her fidelity to her chosen path never faltered, her mistakes were honest ones, her limitations no worse than mine, and her strengths far exceeding any I could imagine possessing. Remembering her now, as I last saw her, dying of cancer yet fully alive and focused on her task, I realize my respect for her had deepened to love. She was a woman of great heart and vision, and unshakable courage. She was one of Buddha’s lions. May her roar echo in these pages and out across the world to generations of followers-of-the-way to come.
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© Ayya Khema, Be an Island (Wisdom Publications, 1999)
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