A highlight of my recent trip to Sri Lanka to attend the Developing EM conference in Colombo included a visit to the Ayya Khema meditation centre to visiting Bhikkuni Kusuma a spiritual teacher of wisdom and kindness.
Bhikkuni Kusuma is an amazing lady. She grandmotherly figure in her late 80’s who has lead an increadibly rich lay life as a scientist, wife and mother of 6. She later took to the robes to become a leading figure in reviving the female Buddhist order in Sri Lanka.
One of the many intriguing stories she talks about life includes her experience as a university science teacher, when she undertook a masters degree in molecular biology many years ago in USA. She is said to have earnestly enquiries from her then supervisors “what I am leaning about is quite amazing, but I am really searching for the answers to the deeper questions in life like ‘why are we born?’, ‘why do we die?'”. To this her supervisors replied “i’m sorry, but science has yet to discover all that”. It was from here that she changed tack in here career and focus her efforts in a field that was dedicated to the complentation of all such entities. Upon returning to Sri Lanka she embarked upon her first PhD in Buddhist philosophy at the Sri Jayawardenapura university in Colombo.
She initially completed a masters thesis investigating aspects of Vipassana (insight meditation), and later completed a PhD on the Dasasil Mattha (Ten Precepts Buddhist nun movement) in Sri Lanka. However, due to the civil instability in Sri Lanka at the time she submitted her first thesis there were problems with first PhD being awarded, so she embarked on a second PhD (tho only person I know who has done such a thing, perhaps a testimony to her patience and determination as middle aged woman who also had a family of her own). Here she went on to study the female Buddhist order in Sri Lanka, and she investigate why the order seemed to have dissipated, eventually fuelling the difficult journey leading to its resurgence.
At the end of this period of study she herself ordained as a female Buddhist clergy-woman, otherwise know as Nun or “Bhikkuni”. When I asked her why she became a monk she emphatically, and affectionately exclaims, “I had to! They told me I must”, referring to the moral obligation of knowing all the trouble that Bhikkuni’s had faced in establishing equal footing of an order for females.
Apparently she had discussed this with her family at the time who she is still in touch with and taken to the robes in her 60’s, over 20 years ago. Since then she has become a humble leader in gently promoting the sharing of whatever wisdom she can disseminate through years of contempative meditation, and the writing of several books about the application of Buddhist philosophy and wisdom in everyday life.
An autobiography that was written at the request of her daughter and chief disciple, outlining her insightful path from scientist and family woman to religious clergy and leader. The book is called “Braving the unknown summit”, and this details the incredible journey further, explaining the great challenges that were faced in re-establishing the female Buddhist order in Sri Lanka. It also covers on a more personal not the impact of several tradgeies she faced whilst working, doing research and having responsibilities as a family woman, which included illness and death of her mother and the premature deaths of one of her daughters in her 20’s and her eldest son in his 40’s, who both died from cancer.
Meeting Bhikkuni Kusuma (2006-10)
I was very fortunate to have met Bhikkuni Kusuma during my 4 years of living in Sri Lanka, as she is actually a relation (my fathers first cousin). This was a very special situation for me because one of my aspirations in returning to Sri Lanka after a life of growing up abroad, was reconnecting with my extended family, and also learning more about meditation and spirituality. Meeting Bhikkuni Kusuma seemed to incredible offer both.
I remember when I fist met her she fondly recounts looking after my father and his older brother, her small younger cousins, proudly taking them by the hand in order to sit some school entrance examination many years ago. I wanted to learn from her about Buddhism, and had some trepidation about following the correct respectful rituals in order to engage with a senior clergy woman. However, upon Meeting Bhikkuni Kusuma I realized that beyond the surface appearance of a woman in saffron robes, whatever distinction this may have had at the time, lay a kind hearted human being who was as easy going as ever.
It was like meeting a kind wise old aunt, or grandmother, who readily shared insight and wisdom, as well as the occasional mischievous smile that made me feel quite at ease, and lucky at the same time.
Those days I learned many points of wisdom through candid discussions with Bhikkuni (some of which I have audio recorded and video recorded) that helped me through challenging times in my life when I returned to Australasia and had to face writing up a PhD thesis whilst undergoing specials training in emergency medicine (which I am still completing). I am forever grateful for the the kindness and enthusiasm that Bhikkuni Kusuma displayed whilst teaching so much about the insights that meditation offered, including principles outlined in the Dhamma (the experiential teaching of the Buddha).
The Ayya Khema Mediation Centre 2017
During my current visit to Sri Lanka, it was a high priority to visit the Ayya Khema Meditation Centre where Bhikkuni Kusuma now resides and teachers meditation and Buddhism to people who both live locally and around the world. I came there with my fiancé who isn’t a Buddhist and didn’t grown up with a background of eastern religions, and my little brother who lives quite a modern New Zealand lifestyle, including working and playing, and enjoying life when we can- much like myself and my older brother.
Both of them had not really stayed in a Sri Lankan meditation centre like this, but I believe our short but impactful overnight stay was also a highlight for them too.
We were also fortunate to meet other people who were interested in learning wisdom from Bhikkuni, including a lovely couple from Hungary who had been living in London for many years, one of whom plans to release some of the recorded discussions on an internet website (a link to which I endeavour to share! Thanks Ferenc).
Coming here after attending an amazing medical conference in Colombo was a fitting follow on to a finely pitched conference that explored the science of Emergency medicine, but also delved into many broader topics that address the philosophical issues of humanity in health care. For me this visit to the meditation picked up where the medical conference discussion left off. We addressed many philosophical topics through discussions with Bhikkuni Kusuma over those two days at Ayya Khema, following the week-long medical conference, about the “awareness of the true nature of life”, and the journey onwards in order to understand both the source of human conflict and suffering and the alleviation of suffering.
Loving Kindness for 2017
Finally, I will share one of the rough edits of a video clip I recorded at the end of our stay at the Ayya Khema meditation centre where Bhikkuni Kusuma wanted to teach me a useful meditative practice of extending a wish for loving Kindness to encompass all living beings. This is my New Years wish for 2017, and would like to share it with anyone who feels the benefit from knowing such practices exist and are improving the lives of many around the world. I certainly have felt the bendit of this Metta (loving kindness) meditation in the past and hope to bring the practice back into my life this year.
Bhikkuni Kusum was adamant that I share her teachings with as many people who are interested as possible, and was very happy to use whatever mediums (eg, video, blog, audio) as I saw fit. I am very grateful for this and thus will share the following You Tube recording. I hope you find it of interest. Feel free to leave comments as you so desire.
I have detailed the Pali words from this version of the Metta Sutta below, along with their translated meanings (which the video also outlines).
Metta Sutta: Radiating kindness without limit:-
uddham – above
adho ca – below
tiriyañca – across
asambhādam – without pain and suffering
averam – no anger/hatred
asapattam – no enmity (no enemies)
sabbe sattā – may all living beings
bhavantu – be
sukhitattām – well and happy
Dear Venerable Bhikkuni Kusuma – Thank you for your patient effort in teaching me a small about of wisdom in your kind and compassionate ways.
I will cherish he words and the sentiment of this verse, and hopefully share the inspiration I have gained from you and the Bhuddist teachings I have learned through you.
A wish for 2017!
May all beings be well
May all being be happy
Best wishes for 2017!!!