The Wat Buddha Dhamma history project

Wat Buddha Dhamma figured prominently in attempts to establish Buddhist organisations in NSW in the nineteen-seventies. Following the 40th anniversary in 2018, some who were associated with the Wat have expressed the wish to have an historical account of its development and the influence of its founding teachers, Phra Khantipalo and Ayya Khema (1923-1997).

By May 2019, a narrative was complete in eight chapters covering the first thirty years before the transition to its current status as an Ajahn Chah monastery under Ajahn Khemavaro in 2008.

Aims and framework

The project aims to tell the story of the development of the Wat through contemporary records and the accounts of those who participant its development. The history gives full play to experiences of participants and as such is a social history. It is not an offical history that claims to represent the views of the current Wat.

The narrative explores the Wat's complex organisational history, and the dynamic way the Wat entity evolved in changing conditions. The history also adopts a transmission perspective, seeking to understand what teachings were understood, adopted and practised. It will analyse the Wat as a project of Buddhist modernism that provoked conflict with traditional values. The history may thereby contribute to contemporary debates about the cultural adaptation of Buddhism in the West.

We are seeking photographs, especially for the years after 1992. If you have images, we would like to hear from you. 

The Wat story in eight chapters  Download synopsis

Writing the history Describes three frames of reference for writing the Wat history: experience, organisation and transmission.

A Jewel of a Place  1975 - 1981 describes the social context for the founding of the Wat and the early formation of the Dhamma community.

Dhamma Devotees 1982 - 1984 highlights the development of the threefold model of monastery, meditation centre and lay village, and the ascendancy of the Wat community.

The Centre Cannot Hold 1984 - 1991 analyses the period from the nuns' ordination to Phra Khantipalo's developing heterodoxy; the crisis of authority brought about by his turn to Dzogchen, his disrobing and departure from the Wat.

A Restoration of Sorts 1992 - 1998 examines the response to the crisis and the 'restoration' of Thervadan values. There is a transition from a religious community to a meditation centre and the fading of the monastery ideal. Resistance to demands for democratisation and the crisis of legitimacy.

Faction, Reform and Reaction 1999 - 2005 explores an emerging polarisation of traditionalist and modernist values. The modernist agenda fror reform results in a process of secularisation. At the same timne, there is a developing crisis of viability.

A Fateful Loss of Meaning 2005 - 2008 Struggling with its viability, there is a crisis of secularity brought about by the board's actions of February 2005 that culminates in the transition to an Ajahn Chah associate monastery in 2008.

Interpreting Wat history. Four areas for interpretation: assessing the historical significance of the Wat; understanding the four crises of the Wat's development; interpreting issues in secularisation; constructing an analytical framework for understanding cultural adaptation of Buddhism.

Download the chapter synopsis (PDF).

Contact the researchers:

John McIntyre jamc46@gmail.com or 0405 425 178
Constance Ellwood at konstanza@gmail.com or website
Postal address: 33/11 Fawkner Street BRADDON ACT 2612.

Ayya Khema course, about 1980 in old sala

Phra Khantipalo and others, the old sala, 1979

The old sala with Phra Khantipalo, c. 1985

Phra Khantipalo and Ayya Khema, 1988

The lay community about 1985. Good Khamma Weekend, with Tan Santititho, about 1994

Building the amenities block, c1980

Raising the new sala, about 1987

Children of the Wat about 1980

Kitchen view about 2005    (Rena Czaplinska)