Ajahn Brahm: A History of Buddhism in Western Australia
I have lived in Perth as a Buddhist monk for almost 29 years and seen Buddhism grow from a tiny, invisible fringe group into a large, harmonious and progressive community that is well known and widely respected.
The Buddhist Society of Western Australia (BSWA) was the only Buddhist organisation in Perth when I arrived in May 1983. Soon after, the Vietnamese refugees established temples in Money Street, North Perth, and later the Pho Quang Temple in Marangaroo, Sunyata Meditation Centre in Victoria Park and Quan The Am Buddhist Association in Nollamara. Several small Burmese temples were established including a Burmese based International Meditation Centre in Mahogany Creek, as well as the Sri Lankan Buddhist Temple in Kenwick and two Khmer monasteries. Followers of Mahayana established a branch of Fo Quang Shan (Buddhist Light International) in Maylands, Sagaramudra now in Chittering, the Australian Buddhist Bliss Cultural Mission in Willeton and a Hong Kong temple in Cannington. The Vajrayana followers established Hayagriva centre in Kensington, the Tibetan Buddhist Society in Herne Hill, and Dharmapala and Diamond Way in Fremantle. In 2004, the BSWA initiated the formation of the Buddhist Council of Western Australia as the umbrella group for all Buddhist organisations in our State. The BCWA now represents the interests of Buddhists to both government and media. I apologise for missing out any organisation but it is a testament to how much Buddhism has grown in WA that I can’t remember them all!
It is fair to say that the Buddhist Society of Western Australia is not only the first but also the largest and most active Buddhist group in Western Australia. Actually, having travelled widely serving Buddhism throughout Australia, I would say that it is the largest and most engaged Buddhist organisation in Australia. The BSWA runs two large monasteries with 20 monks and 5 nuns respectively, a large 60 room state-of-the-art meditation centre, a one acre purpose built city centre with over 1,000 paid up members, and a popular website that is well used throughout the world. It also has close connections with the large Buddhist Fellowship in Singapore, the Buddhist Fellowship in Indonesia and the Ajahn Brahm Society (!) in Sri Lanka.
On Vesak Day 1973, a small group of Buddhists met in the lounge room of a private house in a suburb of Perth and established the first Buddhist community in Western Australia. For the next 8 years, the Buddhist Society of Western Australia (BSWA) struggled, relying on a few visiting monks who came to Perth only rarely to give inspiration and teaching.
In late 1981, a delegation representing the BSWA travelled to Northeast Thailand in order to invite monks from the Thai Forest Tradition to build a forest monastery in Western Australia. Ajahn Chah made the BSWA wait for over a year before sending two monks to Perth. He wanted to make sure that the BSWA was committed to looking after the monks. In 1983, two monks took up residence in a small, four roomed suburban house in Magnolia Street, North Perth. In Thailand, monks were venerated and well supported. In Australia, they were verbally abused, some days went without any food at all, and even had stones thrown at them. Australian society was still unfamiliar with Buddhist monks and misunderstandings were common. Nevertheless, the teachings delivered in the front room of that house soon began to draw in crowds of up to 80 people on a Friday night. The presence of committed Buddhist monks brought the BSWA alive.
It was the intention from the start to find some land beyond the suburbs to establish a forest monastery just like those in the time of the Buddha. One afternoon in 1983, while returning from yet another unsuccessful search for suitable land, the monks stopped only for a cup of coffee in a friendly Real Estate Agent’s office in Byford. A friend of the agent, who happened to be present, mentioned a block of land “in the back of Serpentine” that had been taken off the market over a year ago because it couldn’t sell. We made enquiries. The owner was willing to sell at a price that we couldn’t afford. We made a ridiculously reduced offer anyway and, to our surprise, it was accepted! We had a monastery.
The land had no buildings. For the first night, I slept under a tree and bathed in the lake. It was freezing! We were in debt for the purchase of the land and so had no choice but to build the monastery ourselves, at the beginning with cheap second or third hand materials. People did not trust us at first, so they were not generous. Why donate when you are unsure of who you are donating to? When they saw how hard we worked, how simple we lived, and how profound yet down to earth were our teachings, then the funds began to come.
It is often said that no blood has ever been shed in the spread of Buddhism through history, but much of the monks’ blood is on the bricks and mortar of the buildings of Bodhinyana! Now, after 28 years, we have 21 monk’s huts (usually full), a 4 roomed Anagarika (postulant) building, a guest house for men and another for women, dining halls, kitchen, workshop and meditation hall. The grounds and buildings continue to be maintained by the monks. There is a waiting list of people wanting to try out monastic life.
An important decision that was a key to our success was retaining a centre in the city. The house in North Perth was overcrowded during the talks, so, in 1987, we purchased a deconsecrated church opposite a 5 acre park in Nollamara, only 5 Km from Perth CBD. We named the centre, Dhammaloka, meaning the “Light of the Truth”. Dhammaloka was intended to cater for most of the services to our lay Buddhist community, keeping Bodhinyana more quiet and “monastic”.
Two adjacent houses were later purchased and a new Teaching Hall and other facilities added. Soon, the Teaching Hall would be filled to its capacity of around 300 every Friday night, as well as attracting large numbers for regular meditation classes, Sutra classes, Dhamma School for children, Youth Group and other fellowship groups. Dhammaloka also provided a convenient location for holding major Buddhist festivals, marriages, funerals, cultural events and fundraising for disasters such as the Boxing Day Tsunami.
The Buddha established the “Fourfold Assembly” of monks, nuns, laywomen and laymen followers. The nuns were missing from our BSWA. So, in 1996 we set up a fund for purchasing land for an independent monastery for women.
Donations were hard to come by. Then one day, an Australian man dressed in jeans came to see me wanting to make a donation to celebrate the birth of his first child, a girl. He told me that it is unlikely that his daughter will want to become a nun when she grows up, but he wanted to make the opportunity available for her anyway, and for other women too. Then he handed me a cheque for $250,000!
In 1998, looking for some land elsewhere, we passed a “For Sale” sign for a huge property of 583 acres. My driver said that we could never afford such a large property but we investigated the land anyway. It was to be sold by auction. We arrived at the property early and, my word, did we perform some intense Buddhist chanting! Our absolute limit was $600,000. A competitor bid $625K and my heart sunk. The guy bidding on our behalf ignored his instructions and bid way beyond our limit to $650K. Our BSWA treasurer went ballistic, but it was the winning bid. Though we were in a precarious financial position for a while, faith won over prudence, and we managed to raise the funds. Beautiful Dhammasara Nuns’ Monastery in Gidgegannup was born.
Just as with the first monks at Bodhinyana, the first nuns at Dhammasara did it tough. There were virtually no facilities and the women had to design and build and maintain everything themselves, while at the same time teaching and developing their own monastic life. Now, there are 8 nun’s huts, an all-purpose nuns’ cottage, two inspiring stupas, and big plans under way for a meditation hall, dining area-kitchen building, and more accommodation.
There was a problem with the Buddhist nuns at Dhammasara, and that was that they were not fully ordained. They were not bhikkhunis, as nuns were in the time of the Buddha. Many years of talking and researching the problem of bhikkhuni ordination had passed with no action taken. So, when the four resident nuns at Dhammasara asked for full ordination as bhikkhunis, we began to consider taking action. Though we anticipated objections from a few Buddhist monks living outside of Australia, the large 2,000+ membership of the BSWA were overwhelmingly supportive. Thus on October 22nd 2009, the BSWA hosted the first Theravada bhikkhuni ordination in history outside of Asia. Though a small number were angry, the majority were inspired. Their faith in Buddhism increased. Leadership requires holding firm to what one knows to be right and withstanding the reproaches of the minority. Even the Buddha had to endure criticism. Strong and sensitive leadership has made the BSWA the success it is today.
A major part of our service is the teaching of meditation. For many years we had hired venues to hold our residential meditation retreats. In 2003, we decided to build our own retreat centre in land opposite Bodhinyana Monastery. Once again, our faith well exceeded our finances. The intention was to build a meditation retreat centre suitable even for the elderly and sick, such as those suffering, or recovering, from cancer. Therefore, everyone had to have their own room and every room had to have an ensuite. Moreover, there would be no charge for those on retreat. We would rely solely on donations. The cost would be $5 million! [[File:Serpetine 8.jpg|thumb|250px|Vello Vaartnou and Ajahn Brahm)] Many times, my monk’s immense equanimity was tested to its limit when I opened the envelope containing the latest bill from the builder for many hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we scraped by. Moreover, the monks often had to come to the rescue, in particular on the night before the grand opening ceremony. The guy installing the bamboo floorboards in the meditation hall had walked off the job, so the monks were up until 4 am on the very morning of the opening ceremony, completing the final third of the hall floor. Inspiration built the Jhana Grove Meditation Retreat Centre. In the almost three years it has been operating, Jhana Grove Meditation Retreat Centre has earned the label as the first “Five Star” retreat centre in Australia.
The Cyber Centre and Books
Committees are usually full of old people. So, instead, in 2003, I encouraged a 27 year old to become President of the BSWA. His youthful enthusiasm and modernity soon caused the Friday night talks to be podcast. Even though it cost the BSWA a lot of money because, as he once told me, “we were at the bleeding edge of the technology”, it was immensely successful. The talks, articles, blogs and other downloads made the teachings given at Dhammaloka accessible throughout the world. Even a couple of years ago, over one million complete Dharma talks were being downloaded every year, which meant that an average of 114 people were listening to a talk from the BSWA every moment somewhere in the world! The number has grown since then.
Today, the talks, meditation lessons and Sutra classes are streamed live, with questions coming back from such distant locations as Nebraska, Bulgaria and Cape Town, and being answered at the end of each session.
The BSWA is the copyright owner of many successful publications, including Opening the Door of Your Heart; Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond; Simply This Moment: and The Art of Disappearing. The first volume has been translated into over twenty languages and was the number one bestseller in Indonesia. Publishing the talks given at Dhammaloka and Bodhinyana for sale in bookshops has made Buddhism even more widely accessible.
Buddhism is now the second religion in Australia. The BSWA is a good example of how hard work and consistency, holding to the original teachings while innovating in the way that they are presented, keeping up with modern ways while preserving ancient traditions, all has contributed to the spectacular growth of Buddhism in Western Australia.