Being Nobody, Going Nowhere - Foreword
Ayya Khema was a very unlikely person. A round little woman with a large-featured face topped with a carpet of close-cropped snow white hair, she embodied naturally and oddly all the contradictions of the twentieth century. She was an internationally known Buddhist teacher, and also a Jew who ﬂed Nazi Germany. She was a San Diego housewife and grandmother, and also the founder of Dharma centers on several continents. She was a wandering hippie-vegetarian mom who had traveled all over the world in her Landrover. But she was also one of the few fully ordained Western Buddhist nuns and wrote scores of books on Buddhist meditation. Despite all this, in person, she was not awe inspiring. I think she did not see herself that way, and she did nothing to create an aura around her, although she was never shy about acknowledging her spiritual accomplishments. I always enjoyed her company and felt happy in her presence. Although she was my mother’s age, she reminded me of my grandmother, another small round woman from Europe who had seen the world turn upside down. Maybe it was because of all this contradiction, all this breadth of living, that she seemed immune to the snares of orthodoxy and idealism that religious practitioners so often fall prey to. She had an enormous quality of cutting through: cutting through ﬂattery, cutting through preconceptions, cutting through confusion, doctrine, desire, verbiage, complications. Maybe it takes a grandmother, a holocaust survivor, to appreciate what’s really important and necessary for our lives, without sidetracks. Theravada Buddhism, with its practical emphasis on happiness, liberation from suﬀering, and technical path, was Ayya’s perfect vehicle. She seemed made for it.
The Western Buddhist movement is already several steps down the road from its naive beginnings, in which alienated Westerners strove mightily to replace their own painful conditioning with an idealized Asian perspective. Along the way, many complications have necessarily been introduced. How could they not be? Along with an ever increasing body of new translations of and commentaries on traditional teachings, we have also now a considerable body of interpretative and critical material, so that now there is no Western Buddhism without reference to psychology, ecology, feminism, social action, science, critical philosophy, all our postmodern insight and trouble.
While I am sure that all of this is necessary and helpful, it also makes things murky sometimes. Ayya was never murky. She was deﬁnite, clear, precise, discriminating, and she had very little patience for anything extra. I think she felt she did not have the time for it. Certainly she had no interest. Having seen and suﬀered as much as she had, with such a cheerful and enduring spirit, she just wanted to get on with things. She always cut to the chase, without whining or poetic elaboration. Her teaching was pungent and to the point, as this book attests. Here she takes up the most important basic teachings in a fresh and direct way, without traditional trappings, but with the original spirit intact: What does this actually mean? How can it actually help? In what way can it be put into practice? To protestations of the diﬃculty and hardship of practice Ayya always responds, “It’s simple; it’s clear; you can do it. Yes it takes discipline; yes you have to be serious—there’s no escape from that. But you can do it, and when you do, you will be grateful for it.”
I met Ayya late in her life, when she already had cancer and knew her days were numbered. She spoke about this, as about almost anything that would come up in conversation, freely and without mysteriousness. Death would be ﬁne when it came; there was no problem about that. And meanwhile there was much work to be done. Peacefully and without worry. Why Dharma students were so complicated and confused about so many things she simply could not understand. She was patient with it but I think never stopped marveling at it, uncomprehendingly. The teachings are so clear and straightforward, so easy to put into practice. What is all this fuss about?
Ayya was a person who had, by force of circumstances, always moved on. Because of this she had had from her earliest years, a powerful appreciation of impermanence and nonattachment. She embodied these qualities authentically and spoke of them convincingly. Even after her ordination as a nun and her establishment as a teacher, she continued to be a person on the move, always on to the next event, the next place, the next student, the next teaching, the next moment. That she is gone now is therefore no surprise and no tragedy. She saw leaving simply as the next step in the process. We, who do not yet seem to be gone, are lucky to have her written teachings, which are so useful and so bracing. Through them her voice lives on.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer
San Francisco, California
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© Ayya Khema, Being Nobody, Going Nowhere (Wisdom Publications, 1987)
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