VENERABLE AJAHN VAYAMA: her years in Sri Lanka and thereafter
by Nanda Pethiyagoda Wanasundera
Venerable Ajahn Vayama when in her teens developed an interest in Buddhism through wide reading. Completing her university education in Sydney in social sciences, she chose a career of social service. But the desire to know more about Buddhism grew stronger so she came to Sri Lanka as a tourist in 1977. She met Ven Nyanaponika who was resident in the Forest Hermitage in Udawattakele, Kandy. He advised her to read more and study the religion. She did that on her return under teachers in Australia. In 1984, she was back in Sir Lanka, but this time to spend an entire three months at Nuns’ Island, Parappaduwa, under the tutelage of Ayya Khema, a German nun who started this island nunnery on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. The young woman returned to Australia to almost immediately come back to Sri Lanka with the firm conviction her life had to be one of renunciation; in robes. She was ordained a ten preceptor in Parappuduwa in 1985 and was Ayya Khema’s assistant and helper. It was then that we met her and were immediately struck by her composure and her manner of meditating. Tall as she is, Ayya Vayama would sit ramrod straight but look completely relaxed and remain thus for one hour, two hours, with no shifting of position.
An anecdote is relevant here. Just before she left Sri Lanka for good, Ayya Vayama invited three of her friends/supporters (me included) to visit Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa, on a three day stay. These are two of the most ancient capital cities of Ceylon when kings ruled our country (377 B C – 1017 A D; 1017 -1235 A D). Anuradhapura is particularly a place of sacred veneration since in it grows the oldest tree in recorded history – the sacred bo tree. A sapling from the bodhi tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment was brought over by Sanghamitta Theri, daughter of Emperor Asoka (304-232 BC) and sister of Thera Mahinda who introduced Buddhism to the Island during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (250-210 B C). On our second day in Anuradhapura, early that morning, we went to Ruwanveliseya – a huge dagoba built by the best known king of the land – King Dutugemunu (161 -137 B C), to sit quietly in reflection, if not meditation. We sat apart. Imagine my surprise when I heard two lots of pilgrims comment on a statue that had not been there the last time they visited. I was amused, I must admit, since the statue they were referring to was Ayya Vayama seated deep in meditation in the stillness of the early morning in that hallowed place.
After two years in Parappuduwa, Ayya Vayama moved with a Sinhalese ten preceptor in robes, to a place in Dickwella which soon became a centre for meditation and Dhamma discussion. After 1 ½ years they moved to Ambalangoda where they lived for five years fully engaged in Dhamma work. Ayya Khema had returned to Germany and those of us who were on the Nuns’ Island Committee persuaded the two of them to return to Parappuduwa, which they did reluctantly, feeling committed to their supporters in Ambalangoda. Nuns’ Island flourished again, but Ayya Vayama who bore the brunt of keeping the trees in check, the boat engine serviced, the water pumps working, found her time for meditation eaten into. She decided to move on and went to the London Monastery – Amaravati – at the invitation of Ven. Ajahn Sumedho. She lived happy and successful in her religious commitment for a year, when she was delegated to accompany a nun returning for a visit to Australia.
Her return to Australia
While back in her home city, Sydney, she received an invitation, more a summons by Ajahn Brahmavamso, on behalf of the Buddhist Society of Western Australia, to pioneer a nuns’ retreat in Perth. This was a major step to take, a huge responsibility to assume, a burdensome task to agree to, but she faced the challenge of setting up Dhammasara Nuns Monastery in 1998 because she desired to set up a place for nuns to train and practice in Australia. Just then a businessman, who wished to remain anonymous, donated to the Society 500 acres of bush about 100 km north east of Perth. It was said he had bought and gifted the land to the Buddhist Society of Western Australia as his wife had just had a baby girl. “What if she wants one day to be Buddhist nun?” had been the prompting thought in his mind.
Ayya Vayama took on a monstrous challenge – supervising the building of a nuns’ retreat within a huge expanse of remote bush land, living alone in it originally and then training and ordaining others desirous of leading a life of renunciation. She lived in a caravan and had a tent for a dana sala. Support there was in plenty but she lived alone on the 500 acres for about two years. “How could you?” I asked. “Weren’t you afraid and lonely?”
“How could I be?” was her reply. “I had the Dhamma with me and in me.”
A temporary kuti was built for her within which confined space she lived and had her office. Next a large building was completed, along with roads and paths. A stream which flowed through the land was dammed for collecting water. Wild life was no bother; kangaroos coming over often for tidbits of food. Poisonous snakes slithered around but the nuns and novices walked back and forth from the main building to their kutis at all times of the early morning and late evening, with apparently no fear.
Ayya Vayama was much into teaching and preaching and conducting meditation courses. But totally inexplicably, this devoted and saintly Buddhist nun showed signs of a debilitating illness taking hold of her. I say inexplicably because such an illness would be the last thing that one would expect to afflict such an excellent person. But as the Buddha taught, karma and vipaka work on human beings; maybe she made some mistake in a previous birth.
Ayya Vayama and Ayya Seri were ordained on 22nd October 2009, the first Bhikkhuni Ordination in Theravada Tradition in Australia. Their preceptor is Ayya Tathaaloka Bhikkhuni from America. They left Dhammasara Nuns Monastery in 2010 and moved to live in the house of a female lay supporter. Patacara Bhikkhuni Hermitage, Pilbara Crescent, Western Australia, was officially founded on 23rd June 2011. The Hermitage is not a physical dwelling. It is an incorporated body set up to support Ayyas Vayama and Seri.
Visits to Sri Lanka
“I am delighted to be back in Sri Lanka” said Ajahn Vayama, no sooner had I greeted her in 2005. “My thoughts were constantly with people affected by the tsunami and more especially with those who supported us in Dickwella, Ambalangoda and Dodanduwa.” These were all coastal areas struck by the tsunami on 26 December 2004. She had been particularly concerned about those she felt could have been in the way of the waves. She made enquiries of people in Sri Lanka who got information through the police. She was greatly relieved to be told that many known to her were unaffected, and those who had suffered had lost only property.
“I was very happy when Dr Upulmali Govinnage, a supporter of our monastery in Perth, offered to have me accompany her on her visit to Sri Lanka. It was such a great offer because I could revisit the places I had lived in and meet those who had supported me, to whom I am ever grateful. As I told my supporters in Dickwella when I met them on Tuesday, they could rejoice in seeing their ‘sil maeni’ again, continuing on the Path and progressing well.”
Ajahn Vayama, accompanied by Ajahn Seri and their Australian supporters, visited the Island again in 2012, but very sadly for us, Ajahn Vayama was in a wheelchair. That did not restrict her at all in inviting her devotees from the three places she lived in, and her Colombo devotees and friends to meet her at hotel they were staying in. Many devotees came, mainly from Dodanduwa. There were tears and smiles and adoration from her visitors and gratitude from Ajahn Vayama to her devotees.
I am one of the very fortunate admirers of this truly pious and wonderful bhikkhuni who extended her hand of friendship to me. She has stayed in my Colombo flat and continues corresponding with me. She has been not only an inspiration to me and an understanding meditation teacher, but a friend too. One thing we noticed was that there was an aura of sanctity and peaceful serenity around her. My husband who was intolerant of anything esoteric in relation to Buddhism, said he felt this calmness that she emanated.
We are glad to hear that in Australia the non-Christian religion with the largest number of devotees is Buddhism, which religion was first introduced to the then remote continent in the 1880s by the Chinese who arrived during the gold rush. We are proud that a person who was ordained as a Theravada Ten Precept Nun in this land of ours – Sri Lanka -contributed much to the spread of Buddhism in Australia.
In these troublous times …
Ajahn Vayama left a message with the many people who met her on her trips to Sri Lanka, apart from what she preached to us and inculcated in us by her example while she lived among us.
“Bhavana goes hand in hand with sila. One of these cannot be accomplished, nor even attempted, without the other.” She inspires; she demonstrates that any one of us could reach a higher state if only we dedicate ourselves diligently to renunciation and keeping sila while attending to disciplining the mind. She came to Sri Lanka, interrupting her work in Australia, to again express gratitude to her supporters in this land who morally and materially supported her as she took her first steps on the path of renunciation and dedication of her life to living in the Dhamma.
Ajahn Vayama sure is happy and unshackled by the worries that often coil around us.
Nanda Pethiyagoda Wanasundera