a history of the Buddhist Society of WA
From small beginnings, with inauguration on Vesak Day 1973, the Buddhist Society of Western Australia (BSWA) has grown to be one of the most dynamic Buddhist organisations in Australia. From its inception, the BSWA was culturally diverse. With the arrival of the monks and the increasing participation from the community this aspect became stronger. Complemented by the strong leadership provided by the sangha, the BSWA has equally appealed to the Asian and Western communities and therein lie the secret of its success.
The BSWA has led a pioneering trail in Australia since the 1980s, establishing the first dedicated Buddhist forest monastery in the Southern Hemisphere at Serpentine in the hills southeast of Perth. More recently the first Theravadan Buddhist nuns’ monastery in the Southern Hemisphere has been established at Gidgegannup, northeast of Perth.
In 1981, a delegation representing the BSWA travelled to the northeast of Thailand in order to invite monks from the Forest Tradition of the great meditation master Ajahn Chah to come and stay in Western Australia. This would turn out to be a highly fortuitous move. As a result, the then abbot of Wat Nanachat, an Australian monk by the name of Ajahn Jagaro, and another Australian monk, Venerable Puriso came to Perth in 1982.
The two monks took up residence at the house-cum-Buddhist centre in Magnolia Street, North Perth. Conditions there were radically different from the conditions for monks in Thailand where monks were venerated and well supported. Going on an alms round in North Perth would often arouse verbal abuse. Australian society was still not familiar at all with Buddhist monks, and misunderstandings were destined to occur. Unlike traditional Buddhists, Australians new to Buddhism often felt an awkwardness when communicating with the Sangha (Buddhist monks), and part of the role of the monks was to familiarize Westerners with some of the customs relating to the conduct of the monks (e.g. not handling money, not eating after midday, and not coming into contact with the opposite sex).
However, the customs did not form an insurmountable barrier as was demonstrated by the popularity of the teachings given by Ajahn Jagaro. Each Friday evening there were between 70 and 80 people crammed inside the house at Magnolia Street, lining the halls and even outside on the verandah. Daily meditation sessions were also well attended. A regular Newsletter was published from May 1982 to meet demand for Buddhist teachings and inform the community of upcoming events.
The Bodhinaya Forest Monastery in Serpentine came in being in 1983 and was named after Ven. Ajahn Chah Bodhinyana. Through the efforts of Ajahn Jagaro and the newly arrived Ven. Brahmavamso, the monastery has grown from empty forest land to its present state with over 20 monks resident in forest huts each Rains Retreat.
John Bowman, a former paratrooper, was the first to become a samanera (novice) monk to go forth into robes in Western Australia in 1984. A year later he became the first monk to become a fully ordained bhikkhu, taking the name Ariyasilo.
Initially when the BSWA established Bodhinyana Monastery, it was intended to be modelled upon the Theosophical Society’s retreat centre having facilities for both monks and lay people. But as the development of the Monastery progressed, Ajahn Jagaro steered its development in the direction of being a dedicated forest monastery with facilities dedicated towards monastic practice with only limited facilities for lay people.
In early 1987, the BSWA purchased a deconsecrated Anglican Church opposite a five acre park. The move to 18-20 Nanson Way, Nollamara took place on 18 April 1987. The official opening took place amidst much pegeantry in November – the Governor of WA was invited along the opening as well as senior sangha from other states and other Buddhist schools. The opening of the new centre was to have very positive impact upon the membership of the BSWA. The re-named Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre has since undergone considerable revovation and expansion with the addition of many facilities including a Dhamma teaching hall.
It was not long until capacity crowds were turning up for the regular Friday night teachings. The regular Saturday beginners’ meditation classes were booming too. On one occasion the organisers decided to advertise the meditation classes (which like all the teaching services provided by the BSWA are free of charge) in the West Australian newspaper. Well over one hundred people turned up for the first class at the beginning of the month for a class held in a room that could fit 30 people at a squeeze. No further advertising was ordered. Word of mouth continues to provide a steady flow of beginner meditators to this day.
In 1995 the Spiritual Director of the BSWA and founding abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery took a sabbatical from his duties and later disrobed. Ajahn Jagaro’s departure created a leadership vacuum, which went on to be more than adequately filled by his deputy Ajahn Brahmavamso. Ajahn Brahm reinforced high standards of conduct and dedicated meditation practice for the monks resident at Bodhinyana, a quality which flowed on to lay practitioners. He developed a style of teaching that was humourous, sensitive, practical and strongly based on personal realisations. Yet he emphasized the importance of not watering down the original teachings of the Buddha for Western audiences, not being afraid to teach the deeper, more challenging aspects of the Buddha’s Teachings. This did not stop his popularity as a Dhamma teacher from growing both amongst the laity and the monks. Meditation retreats were booked out ever more quickly and more monks overseas began to apply to come to train at Bodhinyana for periods of time.
In 1998, the Buddhist Society purchased nearly 600 acres of forested land in the hills northeast of Perth for the development of dedicated forest monastery for nuns. It was the fulfilment of one of the BSWA’s stated objectives: to provide the same opportunities and facilities for practice to all disciples of the Buddha’s fourfold assembly – monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. The establishment of Dhammasara as a monastery specifically for nuns is not a modern phenomenon. Rather, it re-establishes a tradition initiated by the Lord Buddha himself.
By the year 2000, Ajahn Brahm would be giving talks overseas to crowds in excess of 3000 in places like Singapore and Malaysia, and the monasteries would be full to capacity during the annual Rains Retreat, having turned down some requests due to lack of accommodation. From 2001, Australian born and Sri Lankan trained nun Ajahn Sister Vayama became the Deputy Spiritual Director of the BSWA in addition to the founding abbott of Dhammasara, taking on the teaching duties including giving talks interstate and overseas.
The high standard of practice and discipline of the Sangha leadership has been the most important factor contributing to success. The fact that the Sangha leadership have been Westerners who’ve ordained and practiced in an orthodox Theravada Buddhist tradition has given them an appeal to both traditional Asian Buddhists and new Western Buddhists. But there is also an appeal that transcends such cultural perspectives and traditions. That is the strength and vibrancy of the Forest Tradition of Buddhist monasticism, which leads people deep meditative insights and peace. The practical wisdom of the teachers in this tradition appeals to people seeking spiritual progress regardless of the cultural background.
The efforts and self-sacrifice made by lay members of the BSWA from the early days to the present has also been an essential ingredient for success. No individual or group of individuals has dominated the BSWA to serve their own interests. Hence the BSWA has served the needs of the whole community and has become a haven for Buddhists from many different backgrounds. The lay community has been inspired by the high standards set by the sangha and has sought to keep high standards of its own. Today the community attached to the BSWA remains united in their respect for the sangha and in their practice to develop their own minds.
With interest in Buddhism continually growing and a firm foundation in the practice of Buddhist principles, the BSWA will continue to grow rapidly for many years to come, becoming a source of support for individuals and communities in other parts of Australia and even in other parts of the world.