July 2005 2548 Number 73
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah
73newsletter Safety Valve of the Noble Ones
I Give You My Life
An extract from the autobiography of Ayya Khema.
Ayya Khema was born of Jewish parents in Berlin in 1923. She founded Wat Buddha Dhamma near Sydney in 1978. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka in 1979, and started the Nuns Island in 1982. She established the Buddha Haus in Germany in 1989. She died in 1997.
At this point, I would like to come back to describe what it was that moved me to become a nun. I had lived what could be called an eventful life. I hadnt planned it that way, it had just come about on its own. I had seen the world. I had had children and grand-children. I had been poor and I had been rich. I had lived in a trailer with a camp stove and a fold-up bed. I had had a farm. I had experienced the life of suburban America. I had been a secretary in a bank. Thus, I had had and tried more or less everything. But all that I have enumerated in this book was past and gone. Everything I have recorded here is simply memory. There is much more that I cannot even remember. It has simply vanished in the stream of time. What more could the world still have to offer me? The world does not bring one inner peace and happiness, because everything that happens in the world is impermanent. So, where should I still seek anything, other than within myself?
Becoming a nun was for me the next logical step in my development. Today I see that my past led me naturally to this path. My experiences made it possible for me to let go of a great deal of fear: fear for myself and fear for my fellow human beings. I saw that it is possible to deal with any situation in life, whether it is in the Amazon Basin or in thin air of Hunza. You can get through anything if you just go with the flow of events. I learned to discipline myself in matters of bodily comfort. For me that was an enormous advance. In my childhood I was spoiled by the ultimate in comfort. In Shanghai, my parents provided me with a house that was just like the old days. In America as a young woman, I lived in as much comfort as a lovely suburban house could provide. And then the comfortable life came to an end. I learned to sleep on a beach with mosquitoes, to travel in a hollowed-out tree trunk down a river in incandescent heat. I never mourned for the loss of my comfort, because I learned that you can do without it. That was a really important learning process, a letting go of outer conditions. And that brought a great deal of inner freedom. It lifted me up to a level where the spiritual aspect of life had priority.
During the years of development in Sri Lanka and in Germany a great deal of the force that I expended arose from the feeling that I had no time to lose. I had known since 1983 that I had cancer. I had felt a lump under my breast and had gone to see a doctor in Australia. She sent me for a mammogram. Diagnosis: malignant tumour. At that time we had just begun building the convent in Sri Lanka on the island in Lake Ratgama. I really wanted to finish it, and was feeling completely healthy and strong. I told the doctor that I did not want an operation, because I didnt want to be drawn into the cycle of hospital treatment, which, once one is in it, is hard to get out of. The doctor looked at me for a long time; I can still remember it. She told me that her mother had also been ill with breast cancer and had made exactly the same decision. She did not permit herself to be operated on, and had lived on for fifteen years with the disease. She was sick for only the last two months; then she died. That suits me fine, I told her. Id like to do it the same way.
What the illness did for me during the next years was to create the consciousness of urgency samvega in Pali, which the Buddha always praised the urgency of practising the spiritual path, because after all, nobody knows how long they are going to live. When you have cancer, you recognize this fact even more clearly. Every birth is a death sentence. There is no one who survives life. We usually push this death sentence out of our minds, and live as though we had an infinitely long time in front of us.
This feeling of urgency motivated me strongly to bring the project of the Nuns Island to completion, so that a large number of women could practise there under optimal conditions. I also wanted to complete a great number of books in order to make the teachings of the Buddha more available in German. When I was young, I had made up my mind that sometime I would write a great novel. I had had a glorious vision of holding up in my hand a book that I had written. Although I never got round to writing a novel, by now twenty-five books of mine have been published. It is no longer anything special for me to sign my own book. But I am happy that through these books Dhamma is being spread.
The Buddha did not call his doctrine Buddhism, but Dhamma, which means natural law or absolute truth. People who come to hear what I have to say, people who attend my seminars and courses, do not have to be or become Buddhists. The Buddha never used this word. He said, we are practitioners; practitioners in the sphere of knowledge. Whether a person is a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, or Hindu is a matter of indifference to me. I dont divide people into such affiliations, which separate them from each other even more than they are already.
The Buddha had only one interest: to show every human how he or she can become absolutely happy. He never sought disciples and followers. This is my approach also. Whether visitors describe themselves as Catholic or atheist is of no importance. If they are seeking the inner way, I want to help them to find that which lives in all of us pure peace, pure happiness. It is not my idea to proclaim Buddhism as the only salvation. I want to show people in Germany that the spiritual path can be travelled within every religion and to help them make a connection to a deeper inner contemplation.
The most important teaching, of which in Europe I am more or less alone in teaching, is the instruction for the meditative absorptions. These are levels of consciousness that are entirely different from those that people are accustomed to. They were taught by the Buddha; he practised and praised them highly. These levels of consciousness broaden our horizons and make possible for us a glimpse of the cosmic process. Every person who practises with patience reaches such states of complete concentration. It is in this way that a person can find a way into the inner space of his or her mind, where absolute purity and clarity prevail.
In 1993 the lump in my breast, whose growth I could constantly feel, broke open. It was very painful and it bled almost continuously. So finally I had to undergo an operation. After the operation, there were two days during which I had the feeling that my vitality was ebbing away; more precisely, I felt it flowing away through the soles of my feet. I was absolutely reconciled to this. I was ready to die, and gave myself over entirely to the pleasant feeling of letting go. Then a great many cards and flowers from my students arrived that not only spoke of their love, but also told me to just stay alive I didnt need to teach anymore. That made a deep impression on me and encouraged me a lot. In the visits the doctors made, and in the care from the nurses, I perceived what great efforts people were making to keep me alive. At that point I resolved to help them succeed in this, and against all expectations, I recovered very nicely.
After that, I had three further operations, the last one in November of 1995. During this last operation, a strange thing occurred. Although I was fully anaesthetized, I suddenly heard an unknown doctor saying, Oh, for Gods sake, something has to be done immediately! I saw him clearly, although my eyes were tightly closed. I saw him trying without success to get a needle into one of my veins and in the process getting more and more nervous. I tried to infuse him with calmness. The other doctors around me were becoming impatient. This contributed further to the nervousness of the anaesthetist. He finally switched his efforts to my right hand and found a vein which, with a sigh of relief, he found usable. It was clear to me that my blood pressure had gone down tremendously. I heard someone say it was eighty over fifty and that this was life-threatening. I was also clearly aware that my body was lying there entirely numb and that in the meantime my mind had separated from my body and was watching the whole proceedings from a birds-eye view. My mind was absolutely calm. I only felt bad for the doctors. I wanted to help them attain calmness as well.
Everything that I have lived through from that time on is, so to speak, a bonus. To have finished my life, and then still to be here for a period of time, now already four years, and to be able to finish some last things, is without doubt a great gift. I am careful to use the time that remains to me very selectively. I only do things now that seem to me valuable and useful.
One of the great teachers of our time was a monk from Thailand, Ajahn Chah. He used to descibe the three marks of existence suffering, impermanence, and insubstantiality by means of a simile: Look here at this glass, he would say. It is very useful to me. I can drink out of it. But when it falls to the ground, it is destroyed. In fact for me, he said, it is destroyed already. For me, all that is and all that will be, has happened already. This simile is very meaningful for me. My glass is also broken already. In 1993, for me, my life came to an end. Now, although my body is there again, and although I am still able use it, it has as little meaning for me as a broken glass. In anything that I have done since that time, the sense of a personal relationship to it has been missing. I do things presuming that they are helpful. I take pleasure in being able to see things develop for a little while longer. But when this life comes to its end, nothing important will happen. Everything will have happened already.
My encounter with death has definitely contributed to my ability to propagate the Teaching in a way that has nothing to do with my own identity. I am not only unimportant; I experience myself as being not even present, except as a mouthpiece for saying things that might help people. I will live as long as it is determined that I should do so, then everything can go on without me.
In this chapter I have written a great deal about death, because fear of death is a theme so frequently raised with me by people who hear my talks. I am continually confronted with the subject. Until we have fully accepted our own death and related to it lovingly and with devotion, our life is bound up with fear. True peace can only enter our hearts when we see things the way they really are.
From I Give You My Life by Ayya Khema, translated by Sherab Chodzin Kohn. © 1997 by Sherz Verlag. Translation © 1998 by Shambhala Publications, Inc. By arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston, http://www.shambhala.com
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