Ayya Khem Retreat photo

Dhamma Pioneers: A new book on Buddhism in Australia

There were Buddhists in Australia before Buddhism really began to be established in our time due to many causes and conditions. Today there are over five hundred groups and organisations across the country representing many traditions and cultures.

This astonishing historical development came about through the pioneering efforts of a few from the 1970s onward. Dhamma Pioneers is a new book that tells the story of one remarkable organisation, Wat Buddha Dhamma, that was founded in 1978 by two renowned teachers, Phra Khantipalo and Ayya Khema in the Dharug wilderness north of Sydney.

‘The Wat’ was the place to go to learn Buddhist teachings when there were very few teachers available. For the founders, the Wat was a cultural experiment that aimed (in their words) to create ‘a place for westerners to learn Dhamma and meditation’ in a way that was different from the traditional forms of Asian Buddhism. The Wat combined monastic life, a retreat centre and a spiritual community, offering different ways to explore a Buddhist life.

BMIMC has a historical connection with Wat Buddha Dhamma. In the early 1980s the Wat hosted retreats taught by Burmese meditation masters and some lay teachers (notably Joseph Goldstein) that led to the formation of the Buddha Sasana Association and the creation of BMIMC as centre dedicated to practice of satipatthana vipassana in the tradition of the Mahasi Sayadaw. For perhaps a decade, the Wat was ‘the only place’ for retreats from various traditions: Mahayana, Zen, Tibetan and Theravada. Khantipalo would later stress the importance of openness to other traditions and he fervently wished the Wat to develop as pan-Buddhist and non-sectarian, aligned to no one tradition, welcoming both monastic and lay teachers. The Wat history suggests that eclecticism can result in a lack of spiritual direction, failing support and decline.

The history chronicles the forces that shaped the Wat. The missionary activity of Thai authorities must certainly be acknowledged but it was the zeitgeist of the 1970s that really opened the Australian mind to Asia and its ancient wisdom traditions; ‘new age consciousness’ shaped the encounter of Buddhism with the counter-culture. There were many young people who had travelled to Asia, discovered vipassana meditation among other teachings and returned seeking somewhere to continue their practice.

Phra Khantipalo’s arrival in Sydney virtually coincided with the legendary Aquarius Festival in May 1973 and he was soon teaching on the NSW North Coast. The ‘cultural experiment’ faced a great challenge to make the Buddha’s teachings culturally accessible in our time. The book celebrates the achievement of that ‘transmission’ and highlights the need to understand the complexity of the process.

The history traces the Wat’s development from the early days of the spiritual community and the teachers’ energetic propagation of the Dhamma across the country. It chronicles the mighty effort to build the Wat culminating in the magnificent sala. It tells of the crisis of spiritual leadership that followed Phra Khantipalo’s disavowal of his monkhood, his disrobing and departure and Ayya Khema’s intervention to restore stability.

The history explains how the Wat’s later organisational problems were rooted in this first profound crisis of authority. There was a polarisation of monastic and secular values, a deepening conflict that could not be resolved. Facing declining support, the property was eventually handed over to monks in the Thai forest monastery tradition.

Dhamma Pioneers raises some fundamental questions about the ‘transmission’ of forms of Buddhism from east to west, its rapid spread and its global reach, so unlike the historical transmission in earlier epochs. How far should Buddhist organisations try to maintain traditional cultural forms and how far should these traditions be ‘modernised’ to accord with western secular values? Is the secularisation of Buddhist organisations an inevitable part of the process of adaptation to a new culture?

The Wat presents an interesting case study in the conflict between tradition and modernity. The founders embodied different views of the Wat — tradition in the form of Theravadan monasticism and ‘modern vipassana’ in the form of intensive meditation retreats. How far should an organisation go to maintain and protect its ‘Dhamma heritage’ while fostering this as a living tradition?  BMIMC has so far been able to sustain its character as an intensive retreat centre while maintaining a strong connection to the Burmese Theravadan Mahasi tradition and a balance of monastic and lay teaching.

The Wat’s influence lingers; there are many former Wat supporters scattered through the Mountains and some have helped to make BMIMC the successful centre that it is. There is some nostalgia for the early days; the Wat in its beautiful natural setting is no longer as they knew it, though it survives as a Thai forest monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition.

It is hoped that many BMIMC supporters will read the history as a vivid chronicle of one pioneer organisation’s part in the great pattern of the ‘western transmission’ of Buddhism that continues to unfold. Dhamma Pioneers can claim to be among the first histories of Buddhist organisations that have pioneered the Way.

Dhamma Pioneers was written by John McIntyre, a long-time BMIMC supporter, with Constance Ellwood, as collaborating researcher.

Author, John McIntyre
Author, John McIntyre

The book is 330 pages with 45 plates and retails for $39 plus $9 postage. Buy the book directly through the author (jamc46@gmail.com) or BMIMC, from Gleebooks Blackheath and the Theosophical Society bookshops in Melbourne and Adelaide.

‘… a comprehensive, well-written and thoroughly researched account of a thirty-year period in which an inaugural Western Buddhist spiritual community, retreat centre and monastery transitioned towards its current status as a monastery in the Thai forest tradition.’ Brigid Lowrie.

‘Excellent scholarship and research, very even-handed,  taking in all the different perspectives, resulting in a permanent repository of the history of Wat Buddha Dhamma, its inhabitants, its buildings … and how Buddhism has been influenced.’ Jon Gamble.

‘This is a fantastic book! I was riveted … wonderful deep and detailed history of the Wat in all its phases … coolly analytical and ‘in the best way’ unspiritual … terrific secular dhamma, as I call it.’ Jane Dunstan.

2 comments on “Dhamma Pioneers: A new book on Buddhism in AustraliaAdd yours →

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  1. This book looks like a great achievement. Congratulations!

    I am wondering if there is any chance of obtaining a copy of the photo with names identifying the people there.

    Happy to pay for this.

    Thank you

    Julia 🙏

  2. Being a regular at the Wat in the 80’s, I would love to pick up a copy of this book at BMIMC when I next come up for gardening in the new year.