Articles by Sangharakshita


Ayya Khema: A Personal Tribute

Note: This Tribute was originally published in German translation in:Grenzenloses Sein: Gedenkschrift fur Ayya Khema, Jhana-Verlag, 1998 ISBN 3-931274-12-8


Many of those who knew Ayya Khema in recent years will have known her as their beloved teacher, and most of the tributes appearing in this present volume will probably be from their pens. Others, however, will have known her simply as a very dear friend and fellow Dharma-farer, and one of these may be permitted to add his own flower to the wreath with which her memory is rightly being honoured.

Ayya Khema and I came to know each other in the autumn of 1992, in the course of the European Buddhist Union's biennial congress, which was held that year in Berlin and in which we both participated as speakers. It was not quite our first meeting. We had met once before, some ten or twelve years earlier, when Ayya Khema came to see me in London not long after her ordination as a nun. Nothing came of that meeting, and perhaps nothing would have come of our meetings in Berlin had it not been for the panel discussion in which I took part on the last morning of the congress. During the discussion I happened to say something that it seems impressed her, as I discovered when with the other speakers we were entertained to lunch at Hakuin's. Ayya Khema, who was seated at another table, had to leave early. As she left she came over to me and without preamble said, 'People say I am a bold woman, but I would not have had the courage to say what you said this morning.' Not being aware that I had said anything particularly courageous, I was puzzled by her words. Later the mystery was cleared up by one of her disciples, who told my companion what it was she had been referring to.

Apart from the fact that she was reputed to be a bold woman, Ayya Khema's cryptic remark told me three things about her. In the first place, it told me that she respected courage. Secondly, it told me that she was direct in her dealings with people, and did not hesitate to tell them frankly what she thought of their proceedings. Thirdly, it told me that on certain issues we were of one mind, for my supposed act of courage had consisted in my publicly dissenting, pace a popular fellow panellist, from a view with which she, also, happened to disagree.

It was therefore not surprizing that after the congress we should have remained in touch, and that whenever she came to England, which she did every year, we should have arranged to meet. In London she always stayed at the Zen Centre with Venerable Myokyo-ni (Dr Irmgaard Schloegel), whom I had known for many years, and when we met there her hostess would join us for afternoon tea. Ayya Khema, I noticed, on such occasions did not hesitate to partake of a biscuit or a piece of cake. Though a strict observer of the Vinaya in all essentials she was no formalist, and was critical of Western bhikkhus who believed that they could eat chunks of cheese and bars of chocolate in the afternoon without technically breaking the 'no solid food after mid-day' rule. 'It's very bad for their stomachs,' she would say disapprovingly. For her, spirituality and common sense were not incompatible.

At one of our meetings she apologised for having been a little confused when I had telephoned the previous day. She had been deep in an Agatha Christie detective novel, she explained, and it had taken her a minute or two to realize who was speaking and what the call was about. Ayya Khema was in fact an Agatha Christie fan, a fact that showed there was a human side to her character, and that she was not quite such an austere figure as one might have thought. I was not a fan of the famous Queen of the Detective Novel and had never read any of her books, but I was at least able to tell my Dharma-sister that I had met her once or twice during the War.

As we saw each other only once a year, Ayya Khema and I kept in touch principally by means of letters. I quickly discovered that she was an excellent correspondent, who rarely kept me waiting for more than a week or two before replying to my latest budget of news and views. As she wrote in one of her earlier letters, 'It is my habit to answer all letters almost immediately, as otherwise I would not be able to cope with them.' Believers in astrology might attribute her methodical ways to the fact that she was a Virgoan, her birthday falling the day before my own. Personally, I like to think that her fidelity as a correspondent was due to the fact that she believed, with Dr Johnson, that one should keep one's friendship in constant repair. She was a good correspondent because she was a good friend.

In the course of the letters that passed between us we touched on a variety of topics. Apart from keeping each other informed about our movements and activities (we both travelled a good deal), and about the progress of our respective organizations, we discussed questions relating to the teaching of the Dharma in the West as well as more personal matters. Writing on January 16th, 1993, Ayya Khema expressed her concern that a leading Buddhist teacher seemed to steer away from the truth of Dukkha and make statements which seemed to contradict the Buddha's teaching in a fundamental way. One such statement was that you should 'embrace your rage,' on which Ayya Khema tersely commented, 'Embracing means loving and drawing near. To my mind that is nonsense, but the way to purification is: Recognition, no blame, change.' This was very much my own opinion and parallelled what I had repeatedly said in connection with the popular New Age belief that one should 'accept oneself.' Another well known teacher had maintained that 'Enlightened Beings could still have cravings.' With this proposition, too, we both disagreed, if by an Enlightened Being one meant an Arahant, as the teacher in question apparently did.

In the same letter, dated 28th August, 1993, in which she had written about the second of these aberrations, Ayya Khema observed, 'I don't think it is surprising, if we have strange outcrops of the Dhamma in our times. We are not living in a spiritual age and the majority of Europeans have lost their connection with their own religious background, whereas Americans have probably never had such a connection. To superimpose a totally strange culture and utterly different social mores on people in the name of spirituality (or religion) seems to me a psychological disaster. An example is the assumption...that EVERYONE will meet peaceful and wrathful deities after death. I would assume that a devout Catholic would encounter Jesus or the Virgin Mary, whereas practising Jews might have visions of Moses or such like. Not to speak of Theravadans who might encounter a vision of Buddha, or Ananda or whatever. Peaceful and wrathful deities are not exactly part of a Central European mental culture. The same applies to the inordinate importance given to Japanese eating habits (chopsticks) and cultural implements in some of the Zen courses.' Once again, these were very much my own sentiments.

Ayya Khema belonged to a German Jewish family that had emigrated as a result of Nazi persecution. Writing to her about the VE Day commemoration in Britain I therefore commented that for people of Jewish origin the occasion was no doubt one of special poignancy, adding, 'Like many others I still cannot understand how a civilized people like the Germans, who through their philosophy, music, and literature have made such an important contribution to world culture, could have produced the monster of Nazism.' To this she replied on 11th May, 1995, with sadness for the past but also hope for the future, 'When the Nazis were persecuting the Jews here in Germany, my father said the same thing you wrote in your letter, namely that he could not believe that a civilised people like the Germans, who had produced, Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner, Goethe, Schiller, Lessing, Kleist, Kant, etc. etc. could go along with an uneducated man like Hitler. But eventually he had to believe it and emigrate to China, where he died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, 5 days before the end of the war. I fully agree that only the Dhamma will and can bring true peace and am directing all my efforts and energy to propagate this, which especially here in Germany finds many willing ears.' Thanks to Ayya Khema, there are now many more such willing ears - both in Germany and elsewhere - than there might otherwise have been.

In her teaching Ayya Khema dwelt more on practice and personal experience than on theory and speculation, and it was therefore not surprizing that in her letter of 29th November, 1994, she should have written, 'My whole emphasis has been on the Suttas, although I did study the Vinaya for some years...' In similar vein, on 11th May, 1995, she wrote that she considered the work of producing a new German version of the Majjhima-Nikaya to be more important than translating the Abhidhamma. She also believed in the value of spiritual friendship, and in the same letter agreed with me that it was lacking amongst the Western Theravadin Sangha. Not that Ayya Khema always agreed with me, or I with her. This was far from being the case. But she possessed the rare virtue of being able to disagree without rancour, so that differences of opinion between us on such controversial topics as the nature of tolerance and the relation between Buddhism and Christianity were never allowed to disturb our friendship even slightly. She indeed was a remarkably fairminded, balanced, and rational person.

The last letter I received from Ayya Khema was written in her own hand on 1st October, 1997 - a month and a day before her death. In it she wrote, 'My health is not really improving, rather the contrary. I am trying in all ways to safeguard the teaching, so that my death will not be too disruptive.' It was typical of her that even at such a time she should think not of herself but of the teaching to which she had dedicated the last twenty years of her life, as well as of those who relied on her spiritual leadership. Though she now has gone the way we all must go, she lives on in her books, in the Order she founded only a week before her death, and in the memories of all who came in contact with her. While those who knew her as their beloved teacher will surely miss her supportive and inspiring presence, one who knew her as a very dear friend and fellow Dharma-farer will miss her friendship - and her letters - no less. May she attain Nibbana!