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How a wealthy Jewish princess changed the face of Buddhism: Part 1

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Ilse Lederman was born in 1923; she was a wealthy secular Jewish Princess who even attended the 1936 World Olympics in Berlin. Her entire life is anti-stereotypical: she was the oldest child, (actually a teenager at the time) to escape Berlin shortly after Kristallnacht, (the Nazi night of destruction of Jewish shops), by riding the last Kindertransport to England. There she was enslaved by a Scottish foster family to be their servant. Later after the war, she found her parents in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Shanghai where her father perished. Four years after liberation, she emigrated to America married, had two children (a son and a daughter), and tried to settle into the usual suburban life. This was not to be her fate.

The need for wanderlust drove her to travel the world. In the early sixties with her second husband and son, she found herself in the Himalayas; here she learned to meditate and her life was changed forever! True to the original Jewish mother archetype, she had to teach the important values and wisdom that formed her life. In fact, by the seventies she was on her way to becoming a guru herself by teaching meditation throughout Europe, America, and Australia. Prior to this she once again had experienced the wealthy life by her own hard work and enterprise. Even though she owned a pony ranch in Australia, she was always aware that her deep spiritual yearning lay unanswered.

After her son’s bar mitzvah she felt motivated to study Judaism. She read the Zohar and other kabbalistic books, but failed to understand their dense metaphors. She wrote Gershon Scholem, an expert in Jewish Mysticism, for a teacher; he said that none were available for her, even in Israel at that time. She pursued a local Australian rabbi to be her teacher, but he declared that she did not have the prerequisites for mystical study: she didn’t know Hebrew, the Bible, the Talmud and the Jewish liturgy. In addition, she was not an Orthodox male. Following an increasing trend, she turned to Buddhist teachers.

The English Buddhist monk, Fra Khantipalo impressed her with his simple teachings. “Here was a spiritual path,” she declared, ” that really showed how you can change in order to attain inner peace.” She and her husband invited the monk to live with them at their Australian ranch. Committed totally to her new path, she organized courses, invited teachers to her home, studied Zen in California, flew to Burma to study with U Bha Khin, and returned to find that her husband had left her. With her son now in college, she was free to follow her path. With her husband’s understanding, she moved into a monastery in Sidney, sold her farm, bought land in the middle of a national park nearby, and in 1978 established a forest monastery in the Theravada tradition, called Wat Buddha Dhama, near Sydney Australia. Fra Khantipalo became the abbot.

Determined in1979 to become a nun, she beseeched Nhyanaponika Thera, a Sri Lanka Theravada monk: he was, like her, a former German Jew. Instead, he recommended a more venerated sage to ordain her as a Bhikkhuni (a Buddhist nun). At a large auspicious ceremony in Colombo with hundreds of followers in attendance, the Ven. Narada Thera named her Ayya, which means “venerable lady;” the name Khema once belonged to a beautiful queen who, after a direct transmission and enlightenment from the Buddha, renounced her riches.

She now began to teach the Buddhist mind principles of overcoming negativity, developing, and maintaining wholesome thoughts. The drive of a Holocaust survivor for meaning and the nesting instinct of the Jewish Mother had found a home. She was to make many homes in Europe and Asia that could be home to more women seeking such solace. Following this, with the help of a Singhalese patron, she founded Nun’s Island in Sri Lanka for women who want to practice intensively and/or ordain as nuns. She established the International Buddhist Women’s Centre in Colombo, as a training center for Sri Lanka nuns; she founded the Metta Forest Monastery in Germany, and became the spiritual director of Buddha-Haus in Germany as well. She led the revival of the original bhikkhuni order after the oldest form of Buddhism, called Theravada. This 2,500 year-old path is now prevalent in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Burma and Cambodia.

Most impressive of all, in 1987, with the Dalai Lama as the keynote speaker, she coordinated the first international conference of Buddhist nuns in the history of Buddhism. This resulted in the creation of Sakyadhita, a worldwide Buddhist women’s organization. That year she also was invited to address the United Nations in NY and became the first Buddhist to receive this honor. Almost ten years later in February 1996 in Bodhgaya India, the Dalai Lama’s endorsed the first-of-its-kind conference on Life as Western Buddhist Nun. This was a groundbreaking feminist contribution pioneered by an atypical Jewish mother. Since her 1997 death, her followers have devoted yearly retreats to listening to her tapes and videos. Even though the Buddha was originally opposed to allowing women into the celibate order of his followers, he eventually conceded because of his mother’s pleading. Ayya Khema revived this tradition and made it worldwide, thus becoming a leading Jewish Mother in the new Buddhist feminism.


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