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The Late Ayya Khema, a Pioneering German Bhikkhuni, to be Honored in Online Event

From dhammadharini.net

Dhammadharini, a female monastic community in Penngrove, California, will host an online program honoring the life and work of Ayya Khema on 27 August, marking the 100th anniversary of her birth. The event, “Honoring Ayya Khema’s Legacy on her 100th Birth Anniversary,” will feature monastics, meditation teachers, and members of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women.

The event will be held over Zoom from 7–10 p.m. PDT (2–5 a.m. UTC). Monastics who will take part in the event include Ajahn Nissarano, from Newbury Monastery in Australia;  Ayya Dhammananda, from Vietnam (previously Ayya Khema International Meditation Centre Sri Lanka); Ayya Nirodha, from Santi Forest in Australia; Kosan Carla Callahan, and more.

According to the organizers, “The late most venerable Ayya Khema, ordained as a bhikkhuni in 1988, was an extraordinary inspiration to many practitioners, and especially women with monastic aspirations. 25 August is the 100th anniversary of her birth and Dhammadharini plans to host a program, with Ven. Tathaloka Mahatheri, to remember and honor her.” (Dhammadharini)

Meditation teachers in Ayya Khema’s lineage who will attend include Leigh Brasington, Susan Pembroke, and Lucinda Green. Also present at the event will be Ven. Bhiksuni Jampa Tsedroen and Ranjani de Silva from the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women.

In 1987, Ayya Khema was one of the co-founders of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women. She was joined by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (now Dhammananda Bhikkhuni), and Carola Roloff (now Bhiksuni Jampa Tsedroen). Ranjani de Silva was also present at the conference in Bodh Gaya, India, that led to the founding of Sakyadhita. She went on to organize the Third International Conference of Sakyadhita in 1993, drawing together women from 27 countries and of various Buddhist traditions.

Ayya Khema (25 August 1923–2 November 1997) was born Ilse Ledermann in Berlin to Jewish parents. She escaped Germany with other fleeing children and lived in Glasgow, Scotland. When her parents were able to escape to China, she joined them and lived in Shanghai. After the war, she went on to live in the United States. After having two children, she went on to become the first Western woman to ordain as a Theravada Buddhist nun. She endeavored to provide opportunities for other women to encounter and practice the Buddha’s teachings.

More than two dozen books have been written using transcriptions of her Dharma talks in English and German. Leigh Brasington writes: “Her autobiography, I Give You My Life, is a wonderful adventure story sprinkled with nuggets of spiritual wisdom.” (Leigh Brasington)

Ayya Khema’s first ordination was in 1979 by Ven. Narada Maha Thera, a Sri Lankan monk. However, this was a novice ordination, the only kind allowed in Sri Lankan Theravada Buddhism at the time—since 1998, the Sri Lankan government has allowed nuns to receive ordination in the country. She would later ordain fully with Ven. Hsing Yun, founder of the successful Taiwanese Buddhist order, Fo Guang Shan, in a ceremony in Los Angeles.

As David Snyder, PhD writes of Khema in The Complete Book of Buddha’s Lists – Explained (Vipassana Foundation 2009, 110): “She mastered the jhanas and taught them well and wrote several bestselling Dhamma books. She was truly a Gem of the Dhamma.”

See more

Honoring Ayya Khemā’s Legacy (Dhammadharini)
Ven. Ayya Khema (Leigh Brasington)
Ayya Khema’s Autobiography: “I Give You My Life” The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist Nun (Buddhanet)
Ranjani de Silva (International Women’s Meditation Center Foundation)

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Dhammadharini Monastery

Buddha Haus, founded by Ayya Khemā in Germany, is also offering a special commemorative event “100 Years of Ayya Khemā” on August 26th in Germany; details here: https://www.buddha-haus.de/ayya-khema/100-jahre-ayya-khema/

Tathālokā Therī
7 months ago

Noting, re: “she [Ayya Khemā] went on to become the first Western woman to ordain as a Theravada Buddhist nun,” this is not quite so.
Ayyā Khemā was among the first three Western Theravāda Buddhist nuns (women renunciates) to receive higher ordination as a Bhikkhunī in 1988. The two other westerners who received Bhikkhunī higher ordination the same day include the German Ayyā Dhammā Mahātherī (still alive at the Kloster Hassel retreat village in Germany), and the American Sr. Dharmapālī (who still lives as a Buddhist nun and teacher, although she was only a bhikkhunī for a very short time).
There were a total of 12 Theravāda nuns who received higher ordination then in 1988; two-thirds of them Asian; one-third westerners. Ayya Khemā was by far the most well known among them, although Guruma Dhammawati from Nepal also was and is still of high renown.
Those interested may more in the commemorative article “Honoring Those Worthy of Honor”: http://present.bhikkhuni.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Honoring-those-Worthy-of-Honor.pdf

Last edited 7 months ago by Tathālokā Therī
Tathālokā Therī
7 months ago

The first* western woman known to become a Theravāda nun was the American woman, Countess Miranda de Souza Cannavaro, a contemporary of Anagarika Dharmapala, who became a Buddhist nuns with the name Sister Sanghamitta. She lectured on Buddhism for three years in Sri Lanka, India and Burma, and in 1900, at the turn of the century, returned to the United States and became active with the Maha Bodhi Society of America. It was a deeply-held aspiration of Anagarika Dharmapala to revive the Theravada Bhikkhuni Order of Sri Lanka and South Asia.

My writing above here is very closely adapted from my own 2021 presentation “History of the Theravāda Bhikkhunī Sangha in America” available on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/aY9dplcwf_k?t=140

*The real first Western Bhikkhunīs were much earleir.
Buddhist records record women in the Yavana (Greek) territories ordained during the period of the Ashokan Missions in the 3rd century BCE; these might be considered “the first Western Bhikkhunis” – if there weren’t others even earlier during the Buddha’s own lifetime.

Last edited 7 months ago by Tathālokā Therī