Ayya Khema’s monastic life path required strict renunciation, but it was also laced through with joy. Her most distinctive meditation practice was the jhanas, the eight stages of absorption taught by the Buddha and generally ignored by contemporary Western Theravada teachers. I see her as she was on Nuns Island, a round-bodied, shaven-headed woman wrapped in a brown robe, seated at the front of the room before the mural of nuns and devas, before the skeleton grinning from a hook on the wall. Eyes closed, Ayya Khema lifted her face with a look of such sweet ecstasy that I had no doubt she was experiencing the blissful states she had been trying to teach us to access: delight, joy and peace.
I wonder if at the end—she died on November 2, 1997—she was able to enter such bliss. If so, what a magnificent way to die!
Ayya Khema was complex and uniquely courageous, as a Western woman had to be in order to “go forth into the homeless life” at a time when one’s only teachers were Asian men and European men following an Asian path. Not just to go forth, but fifteen years ago to establish a nunnery, a place in the world for women to practice intensively. This daughter of a German-Jewish banker (who died in the camps) had, by her own admission, “good money karma.” “If I start a project,” she told me, “the money comes.” In Sri Lanka, where she had earned a reputation as an exceptional exponent of the Dharma, the government offered her Parappuduwa Island on which to create a nunnery, and her students in Germany soon donated enough money to build the kutis (cottages), eating hall and bhavana sala (meditation hall).
Ayya Khema was also endowed with a scalpel mind and a love of justice. After donning robes, she spoke out and organized on behalf of Theravada nuns, who have been notoriously denied validation and support by the male hierarchy. She gave addresses at international conferences to draw attention to this (still not rectified) situation and helped create Sakyadhita, an international organization of Buddhist women, to address these issues.
When I first met her in the mid eighties at Ruth Denison’s retreat center, Dhamma Dena, I was struck by Ayya Khema’s ability to speak the Dharma in clear succinct terms. Later, on Nuns Island in Sri Lanka, where I had gone to live as a nun for the rains retreat, each morning Ayya Khema read from and explicated the suttas; each evening in her Dharma talk she quoted the Buddha’s words—it seemed she knew his discourses by heart—and applied them to contemporary situations. She was a true Theravada monastic—austere, low-key, bent upon enlightenment.
Ayya Khema wrote a series of books giving the Dharma in as stripped and utilitarian a way as possible: Be An Island unto Yourself (Parappuduwa Nuns Island, 1986); All of Us: Beset by Birth, Decay and Death (Parappuduwa Nuns Island, 1987); Being Nobody, Going Nowhere (Wisdom Publications, 1987); and When The Iron Eagle Flies (Penguin, 1991). Her 1997 book, Who Is My Self? A Guide to Buddhist Meditation (Wisdom Publications), offers an explication of the Potthapada Sutta, including detailed directions for accessing the jhanas. Always she stays close to the Buddha’s original teachings and bases her commentary on her own extensive meditation experience. Reading her, I think about the Theravada assumption that the words, not the speaker, carry the Dharma. I remember hearing of the monks who gave their Dharma talks while holding a fan up over their faces, so that no one could mistake the messenger for the message. When one of our number at Nuns Island got down to prostrate before Ayya Khema in the traditional Southeast Asian manner, she said simply, “Don’t bother.”
Don’t bother with ceremony. Listen to the Dharma, and put your effort into the search for enlightenment.
Ayya Khema and I talked about the Mahayana view of Theravadins as “lesser” or “undeveloped” Buddhists. She frowned a bit ironically, tilting her bald head to the side. “The Vajrayana people think Theravada is kindergarten and they are in college, so advanced.” The barest wisp of a smile curled her lip. “Well, I’ve got news for them. Lots of people have gotten enlightened in kindergarten.” She must have been a thorn inside of the Theravada establishment in several of the Southeast Asia countries. Yet she completely embraced her robes. In a respectful portrait of Ayya Khema and Nuns Island that I once wrote for a Buddhist magazine, I mentioned that various students had found her manner somewhat harsh and authoritarian. I received a letter from her. Such terms were not appropriately applied to a Theravada nun, she instructed me. In seeing the “half-empty glass” instead of acknowledging her valuable qualities, I injured the reputation of nuns and impeded the struggle for recognition. At the end of the letter she sent me lovingkindness and wished me well, and I understood that she was letting go of any ill feeling in this matter and I should too.
My last encounter with Ayya Khema came in the spring of 1996. At a retreat she was leading at Green Gulch Farm in Marin, California, we talked about the breast cancer that had been part of her life for several years. With her rotund body in the brown robe, her bald head, her serious face and large, commanding eyes, she looked just about the same as she had looked on Nuns Island ten years earlier. Speaking of her cancer, she was just Ayya, matter-of-fact, realistic, blunt.
“When new little tumors raise up on my chest, I go in and have them cut off. I’ll keep going as long as I can.”
Ayya Khema’s death is an important moment in Western Buddhism. She was one of the first generation of women teachers, pioneers who struck out on their own to walk the path to liberation, who dedicated themselves to the Dharma despite the indifference of the men, who taught and counseled despite the opposition of the male establishment. Ignored, vilified or condescended to, these women held to their path.
She belongs to a lineage that began in the Buddha’s lifetime, when there were many enlightened women, both lay women and nuns, whose names and deeds are recorded in the books of the Pali Canon. (Ayya Khema herself was named for the nun Khema, distinguished for her great insight and for being a “brilliant talker” and cited by the Buddha as providing a standard for right conduct.) Mahapajapati, Dhammadinna, Patacara and her five hundred female followers; Uppalavanna, Kisa-Gotami, Vimala—all these Theris (enlightened female elders) achieved liberation and embodied and expounded the Dharma. This is the lineage of all women who have followed and continue to follow the Buddhist path.
“You must make a place for yourself to die,” Ayya Khema instructed me. “Find people who will help you through it. And then, when the time comes, go there.”
Her own place was the center she had established in Germany. I had heard this past fall that the cancer was finally winning the battle and that Ayya had retreated to Buddha Haus. But the voice on the phone that tells me she is dead tells me also that she went happily, with a sense of fulfillment. In her last months, she had published another book, this time an autobiography. In the countryside near Buddha Haus she had established Metta Vihara, a monastery to accommodate both men and women and the first Theravada monastery in Germany. In an astonishing achievement for a Theravada nun, she had managed to gather enough Theravada monks to support her in ordaining two monks and a nun! Having finished her work, she was ready to go.
Just a few days before the phone call announcing her death, I received a letter from Germany. Inside the envelope was a white 4×6 index card with a little flower sticker on it. I remembered how Ayya, on the Island, always cut up and re-used calendar pictures, recycling rather than buying greeting cards. The message from her, transcribed by the novice monk Nyanacitta and dated October 29, 1997, read:
Ayya sends you her best wishes and confidence in the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha!
May you always walk in sunshine, even on a cloudy day!