Contemplative Motherhood Podcast

Amma Ayya Khema: The Practical Contemplative Part 1

April 11, 2022 Erin Thomas & Chelsea Whipple Season 2 Episode 3
Amma Ayya Khema: The Practical Contemplative Part 1
Contemplative Motherhood Podcast
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Contemplative Motherhood Podcast
Amma Ayya Khema: The Practical Contemplative Part 1
Apr 11, 2022 Season 2 Episode 3
Erin Thomas & Chelsea Whipple

Erin and Chelsea explore Ayya Khema, a modern-day Buddhist nun. From a Western world, great tragedy in her life led her on a spiritual journey that took decades to finally formulate. Her practical view of spirituality is a lesson for all of us that hope to grasp a contemplative journey for ourselves. Amma Ayya has so much to explore that her story is broken up in two episodes. The first episode will explore her early life and how those tragedies began her journey of seeking. Erin and Chelsea scratch the surface and learn how to be present as a mother and caretaker. Come journey with us and learn from this amazing spiritual mother!

Show Notes Transcript

Erin and Chelsea explore Ayya Khema, a modern-day Buddhist nun. From a Western world, great tragedy in her life led her on a spiritual journey that took decades to finally formulate. Her practical view of spirituality is a lesson for all of us that hope to grasp a contemplative journey for ourselves. Amma Ayya has so much to explore that her story is broken up in two episodes. The first episode will explore her early life and how those tragedies began her journey of seeking. Erin and Chelsea scratch the surface and learn how to be present as a mother and caretaker. Come journey with us and learn from this amazing spiritual mother!

Chelsea Whipple  0:03  
You're listening to the contemplative motherhood podcast. My name is Chelsea. I'm a teacher, practitioner, spiritual director and pilgrim.

Erin Thomas  0:12  
And I'm Erin, a creative homeschool educator, counselor and spiritual seeker. listen in as we dive deeper into the contemplative lifestyle through hearing about each of our lives,

Chelsea Whipple  0:24  
you'll hear our triumphs, failures, practices and mistakes as we journey together. You might even hear a kid or two in the background.

Erin Thomas  0:33  
So grab some coffee, tea curl up and take off your shoes. You are welcome here. Now let's get started. 

Erin Thomas  0:42  
Hello, Hello friends and welcome back to the contemplative motherhood Podcast. I'm one of your hosts Erin Thomas. And again I'm here with my sweet friend Chelsea. Hi, friend.

Chelsea Whipple  0:54  
Hi, Erin. So I'm. I'm so glad you asked really much better than last episode. In fact, I feel very ordinary which may or may not be leading us straight into to our topic.

Erin Thomas  1:11  
That's right. We are going to talk about being ordinary today. No, we have a really amazing treat for us. And Chelsea again has done some awesome legwork on this and I'm excited to dive in today. And we're really excited and thankful that you guys have joined us on this podcast. where literally everyone in their mother has a podcast these days so thanks for being on this one. Um, if you've been with us for the last couple of episodes, you know that we've been talking about stories of contemplative Ammas a beautiful poetic way of saying I don't know contemplative women, mothers and a metaphorical or literal sense. You might want to reference episode one that's not a plug. But when selecting our itinerary for the season, per se, we had a lot of material to choose from, but our primary goal and setting the stage here for their stories is to allow their voices to be heard and their stories to be told and for us to glean what we can and what ever way we feel led to learn from them. And so, with that intention, my friend what are we going to talk about today.

Chelsea Whipple  2:25  
So we are going to talk about Amma Ayya Khema and she is more of a contemporary in our days having lived and died in the 20th century. And to me she represents the most practical of Amma. So we'll profile her life, while extraordinary, like others was still to her very ordinary. And she reasons that her life was so extraordinarily ordinary and that will be kind of a key takeaway for us today. So if you look back at our prior episodes episode on Amma Miriam, you'll note there's going to be some contrast here. So Amma Ayya is not a prophet like Miriam, she did not boldly lead others, singing, dance, or praise. Her feet were not her prayer. She was just an ordinary person who really grabbed the reins of her spirituality and never looked back. And we're really just going to touch the surface of her autobiography that she published. Before she died, called I give you my life. And what we'll put into context is the world situation she grew up in that shaped her later right writings and her spiritual journey.

Erin Thomas  3:47  
So this is such a brief introduction. To what we could give her. Chels thanks so much. And we say that we like to call her either practically practical contemplative, or maybe she's the ordinary contemplative. So you take what you glean from this episode, but this woman, this beautifully practical woman we're sharing about is this remarkably different from some of our everyday lives in the sense that she had a really heavy history and a really adverse child experience and much like us her early life was very obviously influenced by that story, and that influenced her in the future. And so you've done a great job of saying that we're going to put that into context. Um, but I wanted to highlight that, you know, I think a lot of us really need to hear that she had significant trauma in her lifetime. And this really places a perspective on how she lived her life in the future, how she moved forward and her spiritual journey. And frankly, if you read about her, her trauma lens can be really heavy. So Chels, can you share a bit more about her early beginnings for us? 

Chelsea Whipple  5:11  
Yeah, so Ayya Khema was born in 1923 in Germany to Jewish parents. And her name growing up was Ilsa Kuzil. And her family fled right before the Nazis took over and went and lived in Shanghai. And during World War Two, Japan invaded Shanghai and her family was sent to a ghetto, which is where her father perished in the ghetto. Just five days before the end of the war. So after that time, and in order really to survive, she married and had a daughter. And then while living in Shanghai, their life became in danger once again. And she had to flee China and made it to San Francisco. She then had another child a boy. She ended up getting divorced during this time, and sometime later met her second husband.

Erin Thomas  6:09  
Okay, so I want to stop there for a minute and I know this seems kind of abrupt, but I want to point out that this is really significant. And I resonated with this as I read Chelsea's notes on this if you've listened in any of our prior episodes, and especially last season, you may have heard Chelsea and I note that our search for contemplative life began after major life events. And so in the first season, I would encourage you to go back and listen to those self titled episodes. And the reason again, why I say this is because, like, frankly, we don't want to underscore that a lot of us find ourselves spiritually seeking after trauma or major life events or tragedy, and this is both an important highlight and also extremely factual in the sense that, Amma Ayya experience significant suffering. And as we've touched on in the past, we all have suffering that changes our stories and they can do a lot of things for us, right. They can do and change our spiritual journeys and how we seek and for Amma Ayya this was true, as well, friend, can you tell us a bit more about where she went from there?

Chelsea Whipple  7:29  
Yeah, so after that trauma and tragedy of just her early beginnings in life, she spent years exploring her spiritual path, and that really led her to all over the world. And she talks about in her autobiography, it's a little bit of hindsight, but she was picking up these nuggets throughout her life that shaped her spiritual journey that you know, when she found herself following the Buddhist path, and she became a Buddhist nun. That that's really where, after looking back on her life thought, oh, man, I've really picked up these principles throughout my lifetime. So you know, when she became a Buddhist nun, is really when she started to write in that kind of earns the title of amma, the spiritual mother. And it's she's an Amma, especially to us as mothers and caretakers, and we're going to learn how motherhood shaped her life. So her name Ayya means venerable, and it's just a common name you'll find among nuns. And what's funny about her and why she's so practical and just ordinary is she jokingly took the name Khema because it was only two syllables and it was not hard to pronounce. Okay, so she's what she comes from the Western world. And so reading Sanskrit and trying to, you know, do these new vowel sounds and everything, you know, to her Khema was like, Oh, this is the easiest name. That makes sense, right? Yeah. And it wasn't until later in her life if if you know what Khema means. Khema was actually one of the first women disciples of the Buddha and she was a very important historical figure in the life of Buddhism.

Erin Thomas  9:11  
Gotcha. Yes. Okay, well, that's really funny. And that's kind of a very spiritually significant, but also just very practical. 

Chelsea Whipple  9:20  
Yeah. Yeah

Erin Thomas  9:22  
Which is why I think she's fascinating and more reasons than one, but I know we have a lot to talk about with her. And Chelsea has done a really amazing job of fleshing this out. And so I'll tell you I'm I'm excited to learn more about Amma Ayya, and but I wanted to know that for those of us who are Westerners I think you and you touch on this and Chelsea like, this may be some of our first exposure to the eastern spiritual path unless you are a teachers or infinite students like Chelsea and myself who nerd out with stuff like this. You perhaps or you found yourself in a community where the Eastern spiritual path is discussed and, and I've looked through this with an academic lens. So there a lot of this this may be our first exposure and there may be some challenges with how to sort of process this information. Just because it's profound, primarily, but also because we are looking at it from our western lens and as we dive a bit more into meditation in the future, sorting out these sorts of thought processes are really important. And so I want to say and as a blanket statement for us and and I hope that you will join us in this space that maybe some of us have been hesitant in the past. To a lot space for something that a spiritual path that may be different, right? Because for a lot of Westerners, we've been taught and have learned the narrative that different is scary or different is bad. And so I don't want us to ruminate on that, but in a true mindful passion. I just feel like we should put away all the preconceived thoughts and ideas that we have and share this story as it is told. And even though she is a much more of I guess what we would consider a modern day woman having passed only in the late 90s. There's a timeless, practical nature to her that is extremely present. And so Chels, can you tell us a bit more about is spiritual work and how you connected with her as a contemplative?

Chelsea Whipple  11:43  
Yes. And Erin, I think that's a great point that you just said about, you know, understanding the differences and how you might take this message in and giving yourself space in order to notice that within you, I think that will be so helpful as we talk about kind of the key things that she teaches later on. So Ayya wrote many books, and she has this beautiful ability to break down the eastern spiritual path for us as Westerners because it really is when you get into more Eastern religion or Eastern spiritual paths. It is a very different thought. And for me, it's fascinating. to others. It might not be, but it's really about just kind of almost flipping yourself upside down and thinking in a whole new different way. So her writings really are simple and poignant. And we're going to mainly talk about her most popular book called being nobody going nowhere, and relate to her life stories found in her autobiography. So I had the pleasure of first coming across Amma Ayya when I took a Buddhist Christian dialogue class for my master's degree. And that was probably 12 years ago, and I instantly fell in love with her writings. And just another note, I don't remember any books that I read 12 years ago. But I remember hers. And that says something.

Erin Thomas  13:14  
This is so funny, because when we were going to record this episode, I actually and I had Chelsea's notes on this. And I was like, No, I have to read this. I can't possibly do this episode without reading this. So we want to kind of know that there's obviously something that is really fascinating about her writings, and you do a great job of explaining this. So I devoured this book in 24 hours, primarily knowing that I come from a Christian tradition and this was a Buddhist tradition, faith tradition, but yet, I found so much practical nature from it, that it was amazing. And so, here I am in mind form stance here friends, and so tell us more about our book.

Chelsea Whipple  14:06  
Yes, okay. So what greater way to talk about her book then talking about her first sentence, okay, here's her first sentence. This is a simple book for ordinary people who want to find greater happiness and contentment in their lives. By following a spiritual path. I mean, yeah, 

Erin Thomas  14:27  
there it is. 

Chelsea Whipple  14:28  
Yeah, she sets her intention. Man. She is what she's so good at. You know, she doesn't use more words that are necessary. You know, she has to be a publishers dream. I don't know. Or an editors dream. That's not my specialty,

Erin Thomas  14:43  
she needs to be my editor

Chelsea Whipple  14:44  
and, you know, for us as contemplatives essential intention, setting the intentions. So moving on. I think, you know, it's important to know we already said this, the book is going to talk about the Buddhist path that she follows. But really, she sets it up in a way it's less specific, less about a specific path than it's really about our own path, as spiritual seekers and I glean so much from this book that helps me in my own faith, tradition and practices. You take what she's saying, and you work it into your world. And it helps me to dive deeper into my longings with Adonai. And I know for others of different faith beliefs, it'll do the same. So here's her I don't know if it's our second or her third sentence, but still in the same paragraph. She goes on to say, both heart and mind have to be involved in this journey toward liberation. From the self. The mind understands and concludes, connects and discerns whereas the heart feels. so I say we dive in.

Erin Thomas  16:05  
I think so.

Chelsea Whipple  16:08  
So Erin, I just touched the surface about Amma Ayya just plucked some things. Yeah. What are you looking forward to learning as we keep just unfolding her spiritual path?

Erin Thomas  16:22  
Yeah, I mean, first of all, I think there's so much beauty here and that's really important to know. And I think the wonderful thing about opening up an interfaith conversation, even in this smaller scale, is that by doing so, we are not placing limitations on our own path. And I know for myself, I can speak from my own personal experience. It's very easy to place limitations on our spiritual paths, or even what we consider within our capacity. Right. And we are as people rightfully so influenced by our culture, our practice our faith tradition, and right off the bat I know that for Westerners, this can be scary and I don't want to diminish that. I think that's, you know, we know one of those things that we note, um, but for me when I stepped outside of my own comfort zone, and sought to connect with the divine through learning about other women who have been spiritual seekers, even outside of my own faith tradition, there's most often well, always, for me, a drive home and a heart connection. And so the question I want to ask myself, and I think this is sort of where we're setting our intentions and and what do we want to learn from her is, I want to know more about how I can be present in my life, how I can be present in my own path in motherhood and how does this connect me further to the Divine as a result, what can her story, teach me and I really, really, really, listeners, I want to encourage you to do the same. Growth is stretching, but growth is beautiful, and Amma Ayya is probably the most practical intro that we can get to grow. So would you tell us more about her my friend?

Chelsea Whipple  18:24  
Yeah. And if we were going to do justice to Amma Ayya, we would need weeks on end to explore all the insights and freedoms she could teach us. Highly recommend doing a book study if you really want to do but here of course, we don't have that kind of time. So hopefully what we highlight today will just kind of give you that glimpse of wondering that you can take even further into your own life. So we're going to break it down into a few ways. She teaches us to be present, and use the examples from our own life to help us break free and live a life in our beautiful chaos. So point number one being present. She tells a funny story about how our minds are always fixed on either the past or the future. If you're young, it's the future because you have more of it and when you're older, it's the past because you have more of that. But the most important time we always say is the present. You know, simple right? Life doesn't happen in the past. That's our memory and life doesn't happen in the future. That's us planning. So why do we spend so much of our lives living in these two places? Instead of the moment we are in? I beg the question, is it self preparation or self preservation? Perhaps

Erin Thomas  20:06  
and it's funny because I can't tell if you mean this read, like, theoretically retort, is this a rhetorical question but and super interesting because I had this funny conversation with my husband this week. And basically we were talking about like, am I middle age? Am I not middle age? And so I can say who a person who doesn't like to really admit my age, I have in fact, notice that this happens at some point in our life trajectory. This process can be exhausting, right, because we're either doing one of the two things. So obviously, that's a good lead off for for her being present lesson and they're such a piece in this Amma Ayya discusses a really specific practice and so many of us have heard about this practice. And this isn't limited to one faith tradition. And to be honest, it appears Well, I mean, at least it appears to me that she's had a really great influence on many faith tradition through her intentional practice of being present. And by that I mean meditation. Okay, so we hear this word a lot, right? And we hear the word, either that or mindfulness. In fact, I feel like these have sort of become popular culture terms, hashtags, per se. If you're a content creator. So I Chels. Let's disregard that, um, in some senses, and let's talk about meditation and how Amma Ayya really leads us into this practice.

Chelsea Whipple  21:48  
Yeah. And I think saying meditation and mindfulness even if they're hashtags even if they're popular, like I think that's so great. Because you can have a conversation with people and they kind of know what you're talking about. But also, it's a great practice and for people to use those terms. They don't become as I don't know, maybe scary as they were before or confusing there just I mean, can you imagine if we had meditation, mindfulness is just like, that's just the world we live in everyone does it? Oh, I love it.

Erin Thomas  22:22  
I would benefit greatly.

Chelsea Whipple  22:25  
So you know, and why Amma Ayya is so practical is when she talks about being present. She tells kind of these funny stories. She goes right into meditation and talks about the practice of meditation because to her, it helps us learn to be more present. You know, she talks about how we take care of our bodies, we wash our bodies, we clean them, we give them rest in order to function. We got to feed it. We got to give it water when it's needed to you know, we would be useless without taking care of our bodies. We so neglect taking care of our minds. I mean, our minds need the same kind of care. And the same kind of attention to, you know, we need to metaphorically obviously, wash it, clean it, give it rest. Give it the nutrients it needs in order to function and survive. If we don't make intentional time for our minds. We won't let learn to live in the present moment.

Erin Thomas  23:28  
Yeah, that's huge. You know, I want to stop you there because that that's, that's just something that I want to highlight. Can you say that again, my friend,

Chelsea Whipple  23:39  
if we don't make intentional time for our minds, we won't learn to live in the present moment.

Erin Thomas  23:47  
Yes. And so one of the things that you know, we talked about this again, maybe perhaps being mindful and meditation being more common in our vocabulary will reduce our fears of this concept because it can feel like a mountain to climb a little bit right if we've never really dove into any of what meditation is, but on the idea, she was like the mama of meditation. That's what I feel like but much of the work she shared was specifically focused on meditation, but in her characteristic fashion, a very practical way of meditation initially. And so, Chels, I know you do such a great job of this. Will you break this down a bit for us? Like, is there such thing as minimalist meditation? And I mean, just like how many of us can resound with the fact that like, I need just the minimalist version. So what does this look like?

Chelsea Whipple  24:51  
Yeah, Erin, so thank you. For that question. You know, I think this is a great place for us to almost pause right here and take a break on this episode. And maybe as a way to hold this for, you know, another episode as we wrap ourselves around meditation and how to implement it in our own ways. We then will jump right where we left off in our next episode to give it more depth, and learn other key ways she has for us to explore in our own lives. So stay with us, as we will conclude Amma Ayya's story and glean so much more from her in our next episode. So we will see you then.

Erin Thomas  25:39  
thank youagain for joining us today on the contemplative motherhood podcast. With us your host, Erin Thomas and Chelsea Whipple.

Chelsea Whipple  25:47  
To get regular updates on our podcast here new episode drops interact with us and find our show notes, go to our website, www dot contemplative There you can also sign up for our newsletter.

Erin Thomas  26:01  
As always, we appreciate your support of this podcast and in helping us share our journey with others. We invite you to regularly check our blog. Our after show blog posts will allow you to dive deeper on the content shared on it. So if you enjoyed today's podcast make sure to subscribe rate and leave us a review. This helps us to cross paths with other pilgrim mamas across the globe. Until next time,

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