The Wat Buddha Dhamma history project

Wat Buddha Dhamma figured prominently in attempts to establish Theravadan Buddhist organisations in NSW from the nineteen-seventies. With the approach of 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).

In late 2015, John McIntyre and Constance Ellwood began the process of writing a history. By December 2018, the narrative was largely complete  covering the first thirty years up to the transition to an Ajahn Chah monastery under Ajahn Khemavaro in 2008.

Aims and framework

The project aims to tell the story of the establishment and development of the Wat through contemporary records and the accounts of those who witnessed its development. The history has tried to give full play to experiences of participants, ordained and lay. as such, it is a social history and makes no claims to be an authorised version of events.

The narrative explores the Wat's complex organisational history, and the dynamic way the Wat entity evolved in changing conditions. It is hoped that the history will contribute to an understanding of the way Buddhist organisations have shaped the emergence of Australian Buddhism.

The history has also adopted a transmission perspective, seeking to understand how traditions and 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.

The project is still open to contributions from those who had significant contact with the Wat. These can be in the form of a personal interview, a written memoir or email contact. Please contact usDownload the WBD History background briefing. We are also seeking photographs, especially for the years after 1992. If you have images, we would like to hear from you.

Periods in Wat history

BEGINNINGS 1975 - 1981 describes the context for the founding of the Wat and the first few years of the Dhamma community.

COMMUNITY 1982 - 1984 highlights the development of the threefold model of monastery, meditation centre and lay village, and the dominance of the Wat community.

CHANGE 1984 - 1991 analyses the period of turbulence from the nuns' ordination to Phra Khantipalo's developing heterodoxy before his disrobing and departure from the Wat.

REORGANISATION 1992 - 1998 examines the Wat's transition from a religious community to a formal organisation holding and managing a meditation centre.

SECULARISATION 1999 - 2005 follows the movement to 'modernise' the Wat and the resistance of traditionalists, and a developing crisis of viability.

REVERSION explores events after February 2005 that culminate in the re-establishment of Theravadin monastic control in 2008.

REFLECTIONS The final chapter reviews the narrative and examines four crises in Wat history that raise issues about religious  authority and cultural adaptation in the transmission of Buddhism to the West  drawing on insights from Weberian social theory.

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

The lay community about 1985. Is this you?

Ilse Lederman with early residents including the Fields, c.1979 Good Khamma weekend, with Tan Santi, about 1993

Building the amenities block, c1980

Raising the new sala, about 1987

Ayya Khema course, Illusion Farm, Tasmania, 1981

Children of the Wat, about 1981.