PUBLISHED SUNDAY ISLAND NEWSPAPER SRI LANKA 05 DECEMBER 2021
Anicca vata sankhara –Ayya Vayama Bhikkhuni
All compounded things are impermanent
Bhikkhuni Seri who was with Bhikkhuni Vayama almost from the time she established Dhammasara Nuns Monastery in Perth in 1998, was her care giver for these past many years. She sent me an email three weeks ago with pictures of a celebration in their Centre. The message was that Bh Vayama was now on palliative care. On 24th came an email with the message “Ayya Vayama Bhikkhuni passed away on November 20 at 4.25 p m.” The sad news, though it surprised and caused an initial pang, did not get me mourning.
Ayya Vayama’s connection with Sri Lanka
Bh 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, resident in the Forest Hermitage in Udawattakele, Kandy. He advised her to read more and study the religion. She did that on her return. 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 Bhikkhuni, who got built an island nunnery on the Ratgama Lake in Dodanduwa. 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 was, Ayya Vayama would sit ramrod straight but look completely relaxed and remain thus for one hour, two hours, with not the slightest shifting of position.
After two years in Parappuduwa, Ayya Vayama moved with a Sinhalese ten preceptor to a place in Dickwella which soon became a centre for meditation and Dhamma discussion. After 1½ 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 maintaining the Island, persuaded the two of them to return to Parappuduwa, which they did, rather reluctantly, feeling committed to their supporters in Ambalangoda. Nuns’ Island flourished again, but Ayya Vayama who bore the brunt of keeping the trees pruned, 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.
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 four day stay. On our second day in Anuradhapura, early that morning, we went to Ruwanveliseya to sit quietly in reflection and 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. I savour most the two hours we spent one early morning in veneration at the Gal Vihara, Polonnaruwa, seated opposite the mighty stone statues. It made all the difference to be in the presence of this saintly ten preceptor in deep brown robes, palpably radiating metta.
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 a place for nuns to train and practice in Australia. Just then a businessman, who wished to remain anonymous, donated to the Society 600 acres of bush about 100 km north east of Perth.
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 a caravan originally and then training and ordaining others desirous of leading a life of renunciation. Support there was in plenty but she lived alone on the 600 acres for about two years.
“How could you?” I asked. “Weren’t you afraid and lonely?”
“Not at all! I was in the Dhamma. How could I be afraid?”
Buildings were complete in 1997, 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 slithering around but the nuns and novices walked back and forth from the main building to their kutis at all times, with apparently no fear.
Ayya Vayama was much into teaching and preaching and conducting meditation courses at this first Australian Theravada Forest Nuns’ Monastery in Gidgegannup, named Dhammasara. But totally inexplicably, this devoted and saintly Buddhist nun showed signs of a debilitating illness taking hold of her – Multiple System Atrophy. I say inexplicably because such an illness would be the last affliction one would expect such an excellent person to develop. But as the Buddha taught, karma and vipaka work on human beings in strange ways. In 2012 Ayya Vayama and former pupil Ayya Seri moved to live in the house of a female lay supporter, which they named Patacara Bhikkhuni Hermitage, in Pilbara Crescent, Western Australia. Its official founding was on June 23, 2011.
These two ten preceptors were ordained bhikkhunis on 22nd October 2009, the first such in the Theravada Tradition in Australia. The ceremony was conducted by Ven Brahmavamso with Ayya Tathaaloka – Bhikkhuni from California.
Visits to Sri Lanka
“I am delighted to be back in Sri Lanka” said Ayya Vayama, no sooner I greeted her in 2005. “My thoughts were constantly with people affected by the tsunami and more especially those who supported us in Dickwella, Ambalangoda and Dodanduwa.” She had been particularly concerned about those she felt could have been in the way of the waves. She made enquiries and was greatly relieved to be told that those who 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 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.”
Ayya Vayama, accompanied by Ayya Seri and their Thai benefactress resident in Perth, visited the Island again in 2012, but very sadly for us, Ayya 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 the Colombo hotel they were staying in.
I am one of the very fortunate admirers of this truly pious and wonderful bhikkhuni to whom she extended her hand of friendship. She has stayed in my Kollupitiya flat and continued corresponding. She told me the biggest favour I did her was bringing her to Colombo by car when she left Dodanduwa for good. She dreaded walking to the bus on that day of goodbyes. She has been not only an inspiration to me but a friend too, who shared jokes and giggles. Such her humaneness! One noticeable distinguishing feature was the aura of sanctity and peaceful serenity that was around her. A sense of quiet happiness emanated from her.
She was a strict adherent to the vinaya rules. I tried giving her clear soup for dinner when she stayed with me. “No, that’s food. I will have plain tea or kothamalli.” Travelling to Australia, she was to stop over in Singapore. I attempted slipping in $50 into her cloth bag for a taxi or gilampasa. Again a strong no; “If my friend does not fetch me from the airport, I will just stay put.”
I watched the funeral of Ven Bhikkhuni Vayama which Bhikkhuni Seri informed me would be live stream broadcast. A wicker like casket was surrounded by flowers; many Sri Lankans and others were present; monks too. Ajahn Brahmavamso spoke, so also Bh Seri and several lay women. Ven Brahmavamso Thera and Bh Seri removed two deep brown parcels (robes, I believe) from either side of the casket. And that was the end of the funeral service of 1 ½ hours.
We are proud that a person who was ordained as a Theravada Ten Precept Sil Matha in this land of ours – Sri Lanka – contributed much to the spread of Buddhism in Australia. Ayya Vayama, aged 69 and a nun for 35 years, sure was happy and unshackled by the worries that often coil around us. A wonderful person is no more, and prematurely. But no sorrow since her journey in samsara will be very short; she will surely attain Nibbana that she strove for, and helped others to strive for too.
Tesam vupa samo sukho – Their (formations) calming and cessation is bliss.