Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 18 Winter 2019

Photo: Miriam Phields, Lion's Roar


Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., Th.D., is Assistant Professor, Pastoral Care and Counseling and Director, Interreligious Chaplaincy, at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in St. Paul, MN.  She is the author of Object Relations, Buddhism, and Relationality in Womanist Practical Theology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and Buddhist and Christian Practical Theology for Transgender Patients: For The Least of These (to be published in 2019).  Yetunde has authored academic articles and essays in Lion’s Roar and Buddhadharma magazines.



Buddhist Nun Ayya Khema:

Meeting Life Transitions

by Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., Th.D.



In 2015, while a doctoral student at Columbia Theological Seminary, I wrote “A New Spelling of Our Names: An Exploration of the Psycho-Spiritual Experiences of African-American Buddhist Lesbians,” a dissertation on the psycho-spiritual lives of African-American lesbians in the Insight Meditation tradition.  In this dissertation, I utilized the writings of black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde, Object Relations theorist W. R. D. Fairbairn, and Buddhist nun Ayya Khema.  Recently, while I was looking in my dissertation for a reference, I revisited the fact that I had written a chapter on Ayya Khema.  As an expression of my gratitude for Sakyadhita USA and American Buddhist Women eZine, I offer this chapter to be published for those who may not have studied Khema’s writings on self and no self.


[From the editors: In this issue, we are publishing only the first half of Dr. Yetunde's chapter. For those of us who are not familiar with Ayya Khema, this is a biographical overview of Ayya Khema's life that details the many transitions she experienced in historic times. In a later issue of ABW, we will publish the second half of the chapter which explains Ayya Khema's notions on Self and no-Self. We are grateful to Ayo for allowing us to publish this material. This article is an excerpt from Dr. Yetunde's dissertation chapter entitled "Buddhist Nun Ayya Khema and her Views on Self and No self."]

In this chapter I write about Theravada Buddhist nun Ayya Khema because she was a feminist leader in her monastic order. What she taught is, in large part, what is taught today in the Insight Meditation tradition, and because studying her spiritual journey helps us understand the material some African-American Buddhist lesbians (AABLs) use when spelling and naming occur.


Though Ayya Khema was not an African American woman, she taught a Buddhism consistent with many or most of the teachings in the Insight Meditation tradition, teachings that the African American lesbians in this study have encountered. In order to better understand the teachings on self and no self that the research participants responded to in the narrative interviews, Khema’s life as an oppressed Nazi-era Jewish refugee encountering Buddhism positively, says she knows something about self-preservation and survival. The fact that she had breast cancer gives her something in common with Audre Lorde, as they both tried “alternatives” to conventional medicine. The self and no self teachings, as Khema taught them, illustrate how difficult and contradictory the teachings are and how confusing they might be to others encountering the teachings for the first time, including the African American lesbians in this study. Lastly, in Chapter Six, I put Khema, as a conversation partner, in trialogue with Lorde and Object Relations theorist, W. R. D. Fairbairn, on how African American lesbians who practice Buddhism in the Insight Meditation tradition can pursue and achieve wholeness.


 Khema (August 25, 1923-November 21, 1997) was born Ilse Kussel in Berlin, Germany, the only child of a wealthy “assimilated” Jewish couple.   Khema did not report any strife between her and her parents, and described her relationship with her grandfather as loving and meaningful. “He was a jolly, contended man. When he died [when Khema was ten], my world got its first jolt.”2


Khema was somewhat aware that her life as a Jew was being threatened:


During the Olympics, in 1936, I saw Adolf Hitler for the first time, from very close up. My father had a ticket for all events that took place at the Olympic Stadium. When he didn’t have time to go, I could go in his place. It was a very good seat, not far from the Fuhrer’s box. . . . Adolph Hitler saluted the crowd standing up and then said a few words over the loudspeaker. His manner of speaking, his chopped-off way of enunciating his words, and his incredibly powerful and rousing voice magnified my feeling of fear. I felt the menace that emanated from him deep within me.3


But in the context of her family and other elites, they believed that the German culture of intellectualism and art would prevent Nazism from taking hold. Khema held to that belief until she visited the ministry of finance office with her father and saw him cry when the government imposed a “Jewish poll tax.” “At that very moment my sense of security was shattered once and for all. From then on I knew that the world was not safe and sure. . . I felt so helpless.”4


After this incident, Khema’s family moved out of their apartment and in with Khema’s father’s sister who was married to a Christian man who eventually abandoned the family after a variety of anti-Jewish laws lead to anti-Jewish vigilantism:


On the day after Kristallnacht [1938], when everywhere in the country the synagogues were set on fire and the Jewish businesses were looted, I happened to pass by the burning synagogue in the Fasanenstrasse. . . . There was the mob, throwing the scrolls of the Torah into the flames, the Holy Scriptures. . . . A few pious Jews who were compelled to watch this were weeping. It was a shattering experience for me, an unbelievable shock.5


Due to the Nazi threat against Jews, her family fled Germany in 1938 when Khema was fifteen years old. Khema and her parents first went to Scotland to let Khema stay with an uncle because they believed a fifteen-year-old girl would be safer in Scotland than in China, their ultimate destination.6   After leaving Khema in Scotland, they left for China to rebuild their lives. Khema left her uncle’s home to live with a Russian-Jewish Yiddish-speaking family with a mother, father, and seven children7.   Khema did not speak Yiddish, but was expected to take care of the children.  While in Scotland, Khema faced discrimination because she was a refugee:


What was different about me can be expressed in one single word:  I was unhappy. I didn’t belong in this place I’d been cast up in. Everything was alien and cold, not only the human side of things but also the weather, which was cold and wet. But I always had a great deal of willpower, and thus had formed an ironclad resolve—you’ll hold out for a year, then we’ll see; until that time, no whining.8


Khema eventually rejoined her parents in 1940, when she was seventeen. They remained non-religious, culturally-German Jewish refugees living in relative peace in Shanghai until February 1943 when Shanghai, under Japanese occupation, issued a law confining European refugees to an encampment. Khema got a job in an export company because her family lost their business and possession once again. What kept Khema hopeful in Shanghai were the radio reports that American troops were advancing, but her hopefulness could not delude her to the reality of war when a bomb fell on her encampment:


There was a loud boom and I went out a few steps in front of our building. Next to me was somebody I knew, and all at once it was as though he was swallowed by the earth. An explosion, a gigantic crater, and the man had disappeared. At that point I became hysterical, the one time in my life. I was screaming and couldn’t stop until my father gave me a slap…A lot of bombs fell that day; a lot of people were killed. In the street in front of our house, blood flowed like rainwater…Perhaps it was in connection with this experience that I completely lost my fear of death.9


Khema’s father, who she said was her “mainstay,” died in 1945, five days before the war ended. About her mother she wrote


My mother was as though paralyzed, capable of nothing. I had to take care of everything, the funeral and the continuation of our lives . . . a few months later, my mother married again, a friend from her youth in Berlin who also lived in the ghetto [encampment]. From that point on, I was completely alone, without a father and without a mother—for of course she gave all her attention to her new marriage. I was unable to understand this. I thought she should have given herself more time to get over my father.10


When the war ended, Khema attempted to find the relatives she left in Germany, but without success.11


Khema married when she was twenty-two. The man she married was thirty-nine. She gave birth to her daughter two years later in 1947, left Shanghai for Los Angeles in 1949, then on to San Diego where her mother and step father lived. Khema’s son was born in 1958. As Khema’s life in the United States was settling in at the age of thirty-four, she and her husband had secured a middle-class lifestyle for themselves and their children:


I had everything I could wish for. All the same, something was missing. What it was, I myself did not know. What I had was a vague feeling of incompleteness, an inner malaise, a longing that kept getting stronger. . . . I began to read a lot—philosophical and spiritual books . . . the nonmaterial side of life is what I was occupied with; that is what I wanted to get a meaningful understanding of, to make a connection with.12


Khema’s husband was annoyed and angered by Khema’s insistence that she wanted something that she could not articulate. Eventually Khema asked for a divorce. Her daughter was thirteen and her son was three. She left her daughter with her husband and took her son with her to a farm in Mexico run by Edmund Szekeley, a professor and the author of numerous books on alternative lifestyles. The community formulated rules based on the Essenes, which meant no private property or marriage, and a vegetarian diet.


Khema began reading about the Self-Realization Fellowship of Yogananda, and remarried a year later. In 1961, Khema, her second husband, and her son, traveled throughout Central and South America. They went to Australia and New Zealand, and lived in Pakistan because Khema’s husband was offered a job there. While in Pakistan, they lived as members of the upper-class. Khema, whose family was affluent in Germany and lost everything due to the Nazi oppression, gained affluence again in China and lost everything again, found herself the boss of several house servants:


I often thought back to the difficult times at the camp in Shanghai, where I had been so poor. Now we suddenly had enough money; I was practically affluent again. I had a flock of servants and could really buy myself whatever I wanted. But I had no idea what I should buy. Once again, the feeling arose in me that there must be something else besides having not enough or a great deal of money, besides being poor or rich. There must [be] something else that made life meaningful.13


Despite her confusion about class and consumption, Khema noticed something was wrong in Pakistan. She writes, “The thing that moved me most deeply in Pakistan were my encounters with the women. In relation to the men, they had not even the most minimal rights, at least not at the time we were there . . . the Pakistani women all wore the burka. . . . Only in Karachi did we occasionally see young women without veils.”14  After they left Pakistan, they traveled in Europe, the Himalayan regions on Kashmir, Tibet, and India. They all survived the rugged terrains, different cultures, and different social mores, but Khema was also looking for and longing for spiritual survival:


In South India we went to Tiruvannamalai . . . where one of India’s greatest enlightened sages lived, a rishi named Ramana Maharshi. He died in 1950, so we didn’t meet him personally, but we went to his ashram and learned something about him and his teaching from an Englishman, Arthur Osborne. . . . Maharshi repeatedly stressed that the condition of attaining enlightenment was getting rid of the illusion of ego. One should investigate by asking oneself, “Who am I?” . . . I didn’t know how I could apply this wisdom to myself. I longed for concrete instructions, for a clear plan of action. Then all of a sudden I had the feeling that I was near the object of my longing, at the beginning of my spiritual path.15


Though Khema could not apply Osborne’s teaching, it appealed to her, through a Hindu tradition, that she should release the ego illusion.16   Later, Khema studied in another Hindu tradition created by Sri Aurobindo. She stayed at the Aurobindo ashram for three months and learned meditation from Mother, the heir to Aurobindo. “For me, this was the gateway to the path of spiritual growth.”17 Khema learned how to meditate, and was inspired to see through the ego illusion, through Hinduism. While in India she and her husband met an Australian swami named Narikutti who accompanied them as they traveled in South India and Sri Lanka. He also taught Khema about Hinduism.18


Khema first encountered Buddhism in Sri Lanka which, according to Khema, was a gloriously peaceful place at that time. The peacefulness convinced her that Buddhism was worth learning about. After traveling in Sri Lanka, Khema and her husband traveled to Thailand where she was in awe of the many manifestations of Buddha sculptures. After their visit to Thailand, they traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam, Indonesia and Timor, then back to Australia where they bought a farm. They named the farm Shalom and set up a pan-religious altar in the milkhouse where Khema meditated daily:


I was frequently in fear for our lives, our survival . . . forest fire . . . typhoons . . . poisonous snakes. . . . But I always believed that is it only possible to overcome fear by doing, in spite of the fear, the very thing that triggers it. And if one fails to do this one never gets to know one’s own strengths, which on the spiritual level are unlimited.19


While visiting Shalom, a Buddhist monk named Phra Khantipalo taught them about Buddhism:


Something became clear to me:  I could understand and practice this. Take for example the doctrine of the five virtues. One may not kill any living being; take what is not given; lie or use coarse language; engage in any sexual misconduct; take drugs or drink alcohol.  One should practice the opposites of these:  loving-kindness, generosity, reliability and loyalty, right speech, and mindfulness. This was the first time I had heard something of which I could say:  I understand this completely, I don’t have to think about it at all. I know that it’s right, I know what I have to try to achieve. Here was a spiritual path that really showed how you can change in order to attain inner purity. I organized courses on our farm, which the monk gave for interested people. I also invited other teachers.20


With zeal for Buddhism, Khema left her husband and son in Australia while she visited the Zen Center in San Francisco (where she stayed three months) and studied Zen (Japanese) and Ch’an (Chinese) Buddhism. When she returned to Shalom, her husband expressed dissatisfaction with her absence, but was unsuccessful in convincing her to stay on with him at Shalom.


Khema left again to go to Burma for a meditation retreat taught by meditation teacher U Bha Khinut. But by the time she returned home, her husband had already departed. Khema allowed a farming association to take Shalom, and she moved into a Buddhist monastery in Sydney where the Buddhist monk who had first taught her about Buddhism, Phra Khantipalo, was living. Khema invested the inheritance from her mother and the proceeds from the farm sale in a new monastery led by Phra Khantipalo. She notes, “From this point onward, the teaching of the Buddha determined my entire life.”21


Though Khema was dedicated to practicing Buddhism, her internal spiritual orientation was arguably interfaith:


Whether a person is a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew, or Hindu is a matter of indifference to me. I don’t divide people into such affiliations, which separate them from each other even more than they are already. . . . I have read many of the writings of the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages, particularly Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, Heinrich Seuse, Teresa of Avila, Francisco de Osuna. Especially Teresa’s instructions to her nuns in her book The Interior Castle made a particular impression on me, for there she describes the meditative absorptions that I teach also—only in her own personal way and connected with visions shaped by Christianity.22


Having invested all her wealth into a forest monastery, she went on in 1978 to help start Wat Buddha Dhamma, a Buddhist monastery in Sydney, Australia. Khema became a nun in 1979 when she was fifty-five years old and changed her name from Ilse Kussel to Ayya Khema.   Teaching more and more became her life24.


A few years after becoming a nun, Khema was diagnosed with breast cancer:

Since 1983 I have known that I have cancer. I felt a lump in my breast and went to see a doctor in Australia. She sent me for a mammogram. Diagnosis: a malignant tumor. . . . I was then feeling completely healthy and strong. I told the doctor that I did not want an operation, because I didn’t want to be drawn into the cycle of hospital treatment, which, once one is in it, is hard to get out of. I can still clearly remember that the doctor looked at me for a long time and then 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 she lived fifteen years with the disease. She was only sick for the last two months, and then she died. That suits me fine, I told her. I’d 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 recommended.25


The consciousness of urgency manifested in Khema throwing her entire being into the cultivation of the Buddhist nunnery, advocating for their fair treatment, creating forest monasteries, writing, and teaching. Zoketsu Norman Fisher, in the foreword to Being Nobody, Going Nowhere: Meditations on the Buddhist Path, said Khema “was never shy about acknowledging her spiritual accomplishments.”26


Five years after the cancer diagnosis, in 1989, Khema helped found Buddha-Haus and in 1997, a forest monastery called Metta Vihara, both in Germany. Sandy Boucher writes in the foreword to Khema’s Be an Island: The Buddhist Practice of Inner Peace


She [Khema] will be remembered most vividly for her championing of the cause of Buddhist nuns. That her own Theravada tradition denied her full ordination, that nuns in Southeast Asian countries were neglected and ill-served by their tradition – these injustices turned Ayya Khema into an activist. . . .  As a sincere practitioner and a powerful spokesperson, she became one of the Western Buddhist teachers who has truly made a difference in this century.27


Though Khema was an activist for nuns, she hardly wrote in the books referenced in this paper, about what this activism meant to her, nor about the psycho-spiritual work with expectations, frustration, anger, persistence, perseverance, and the tiredness that often come with being an activist. She did mention that she experienced pleasure at having been recognized for her work:


An interesting year for me was 1987. The first thing was that I was invited by the delegate to the United Nations from Sri Lanka to give a talk at the United Nations in New York. Almost all of the representatives of the smaller countries came, but those of the large countries were absent. . . I was awarded a small medal for peace, which pleased me a great deal. The second event of that year was the International Conference for Buddhist Nuns in Bodh Gaya, in India. The Dalai Lama presided over the conference. This was the first time that anything of this nature had taken place, and I was one of the three women who organized the event.28


To experience pleasure over being recognized for her work is anathema to her writings on self and no self. Khema, in this writer’s opinion, missed a valuable teaching opportunity by not addressing her experience of being a Buddhist nun who is also feminist and an advocate.


Nine years after having been diagnosed with breast cancer, Khema decided to receive treatment:


In 1993 I finally did have to undergo a serious cancer operation. The lump, whose growth I could constantly feel, broke open. This was not only very painful but it also bled almost continuously. . . After the operation, there were two days during which I had the feeling that my vitality was ebbing away, or more precisely, that it was flowing away through the soles of my feet. I was absolutely reconciled to this, ready to die, and I 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 showed love but also told me that I should now just stay alive—I didn’t 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 the nurses gave me, I clearly perceived what a great effort they were making to keep me alive. At that point I resolved to help them succeed in this.29


With the understanding that her students would not demand anything from her, Khema generated the will to live in order to help others feel successful in keeping her alive. She allowed her self to be treated and cared for, but did not write about what treatment and care she received. She did not state whether she had a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, a double mastectomy, radiation, or chemotherapy. She did not write about her quality of life, or her spiritual practice during these years. She did not write about the experience of being in relationships, especially the relationships that led her to want to live. Those who are interested in how Buddhist practice helps people live with cancer during Western cancer treatment, missed something valuable in Khema’s living and dying experience. Khema died on November 21, 1997.


1 Khema, I Give You My Life, 7.  Khema referred to her parents as “assimilated” to describe the fact that they were not religious, were German in every other way, and blended into German society as Germans.

2  Ibid. 9.

3 Ibid., 11.

4  Khema, I Give You My Life, 13.

5  Ibid..

6  China was the only country at that time that did not require Jews to have visas.

7  The details about this decision are unclear.

8  Khema, Who Is My Self, 21.

9  Ibid., 32.

10  Ibid., 35.

11  It was not until the late 1990s that she learned that her father’s sister died in Auschwitz.

12  Khema, Who Is My Self, 43.

13  Ibid., 84.

14  Ibid., 87.

15  Ibid., 110.

16  When Khema wrote her autobiography, she had located herself squarely within the Theravada Buddhist tradition.  With that in mind, it is difficult to know whether her mention of “ego illusion” is what Ramana Maharishi thought it was, was what Sri Aurobindo thought it was, or what Theravada Buddhists say it is.  Nevertheless, one can reason that Khema was very intrigued by the notion that something about the mind, or ego, was not real.

17  Khema, Who Is My Self, 114.

18  It is not clear from Khema’s writings why she did not become a Hindu.

19  Khema, Who Is My Self, 127.

20  Ibid., 128.

21  Ibid., 136.  It is not clear from Khema’s autobiography what happened to her son as she became more invested in living a Buddhist lifestyle, nor how her relationship with her daughter developed, having given her entire inheritance to the monastery.

22  Khema, Who Is My Self, 192.

23  In the Pali language, “ayya” means venerable lady and “khema” means the nun with the greatest wisdom.

24  Khema, Who Is My Self, 179.

25  Ibid., 191.

26  Zoketsu Norman Fisher, “Khema Ayya,” in Being Nobody, Going Nowhere: Meditations on the Buddhist Path (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 1987), vii.

27 Khema, Be an Island, ix.

28  Khema, Who Is My Self, 180.

29  Ibid., 196.


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