Wat Buddha Dhamma: a social history

Wat Buddha Dhamma figured prominently in attempts to establish Buddhist organisations in NSW from the early nineteen-seventies. 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 2014, John McIntyre and Constance Ellwood began researching the thirty year history that ended with the Wat's transition to an Ajahn Chah monastery under Ajahn Khemavaro in 2008. By June 2019  they completed an eight chapter naarative that is now being prepared for publication.

The history tells the story of the establishment and development of the Wat using contemporary records and the accounts of those who witnessed its development. The narrative gives full play to the experiences of participants, and as such, it is a social history and not an official history of the organisation.

A second focus has been the Wat's unusually complex organisational history, and the politics of its evolution from a creative cultural experiment in adapting Buddhism to Australian conditions. The history may thus contribute to an understanding of the cultural processes that have shaped the emergence of Australian Buddhism.

A third focus for the history has been a 'transmission perspective' that explores how traditions and teachings were understood, adopted and practised. The Wat became a contested project of Buddhist modernism that provoked conflict with traditional values. The history may contribute to contemporary debates about the cultural adaptation of Buddhism in the West.

We are still looking for photographs especially of the later, post 1992 period and especially any of Ayya Khemas later retreats. We may still accept contributions from those who had significant contact with the Wat. Please contact usDownload the WBD History background briefing

Periodisation: Chapter outline

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 explores some key issues in interpreting Way history including the significance of the Wat, explaining Wat 'dramas' as a series of crises and the Wat as a case study in secularisation of religious authority. It is argued that cultural adaptation is complex and needs a suitably complex theorisation of the sociocultural processes involved in the transmission of Buddhism to the West. 

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.