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Anicca vata sankhara –Ayya Vayama Bhikkhuni

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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 Nov. 24 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 18 months 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 bushland, 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 October 22, 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 adcertainlyirers 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 90 minutes.

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, certainly 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.



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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