Strict Discipline & Simple Living
Nina Yee was born in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1953 to an Indonesian Chinese family. In 1973 she went to Sydney to study fashion design and subsequently married John Yee in 1976 where they have three children. Introduced to Buddhist teachings at a young age, she founded Bodhikusuma Buddhist Center in Haymarket, Sydney, in April 2002. She is currently its President. In April 2012, she founded Bodhisaddha Forest Monastery in Wilton, an hour’s drive from Sydney. She has also authored BEHIND THE ALTAR (Bodhikusuma, 2012, pp 250), a candid account of the successes and failures Nina has encountered in her life, including her gift of Dharma and the development of Bodhikusuma Buddhist Meditation Center. Benny Liow attended the opening ceremony of the Bodhisaddha Forest Monastery in Wilton and interviewed Nina for Eastern Horizon.
Ven. Larry Varadhammo, eldest son of Nina Yee was born in Sydney, Australia in 1981. He attended Sydney Grammar School and later graduated with an Honours Degree in Marketing from University of New South Wales, and a Masters in Applied Finance from Macquerie University. While pursuing a career for a short period of time, his Dhamma practice took him to the point where he felt there was no other
way than to ordain as a Buddhist monk. In 2006, he went to Thailand to take his higher ordination under Than Ajahn Anan, one of Ajahn Chah’s close disciples.
Benny: Can you tell us how the idea of establishing Bodhisaddha Forest Monastery in Wilton, New South Wales first came about?
Nina: 10 years ago we established Bodhikusuma Buddhist & Meditation Centre in the heart of Sydney. We started with only a small group of interested people, but today it has grown to a place where many well-respected monks and teachers come to give Dhamma talks to a large audience of many nationalities. A few years back we believed that it would be of great benefit to have a forest monastery that was not too far from the city where the monks and laypeople could practice peacefully. It wasn’t easy to find a suitable place. It took me almost 4 years to finally find this wonderful place of 70 acres which contains a vast forest, many caves, a waterfall and a river. This makes it very conducive for meditation practice. Also, it was amazing that the completion of the acquisition of the Bodhisaddha land fell exactly on the 10th Anniversary of the establishment of Bodhikusuma.
You are now the President of Bodhikusuma Buddhist Meditation Centre and Bodhisaddha Forest Monastery. What motivates your continuous commitment to supporting the Buddha Dhamma?
I think faith is what makes me continue to support the Buddha Dhamma. I am lucky to have been guided and taught by many well-respected and well-practiced monks from the Thai Forest Tradition and others. I would regularly go overseas to visit these monks and pay respects to them. This not only gives me more strength and faith to continue helping Buddhism, but it has always made me feel very fortunate to have
these blessings. One of the main reasons I started Bodhikusuma and now Bodhisaddha was so that others may have access to these teachings of the Buddha in a place that was convenient and accessible. When I see that many people have benefited, I get even more inspiration to continue helping as many as I can in this way.
As this is a Forest Monastery in the Ajahn Chah tradition, what will be the main and regular activities to be carried out here? Would there be resident monks?
The main activities will be the same as any typical forest monastery which focuses on the morning as a time of practice. Usually, this is when the laypeople will have a chance to come and make offerings to the resident monks, listen to Dhamma teachings, participate in Buddhist chanting, and have a place for meditation. There will also be celebrations of the Buddhist holy days and meditation retreats where senior monks will lead the laypeople in a 3-7 day period of intense practice.
During the recent rains retreat (vassa), we had 2 monks that came from Ajahn Anan’s monastery in Thailand, Ajahn Dtui, a Thai monk of 20 years, and Than Greg, an American monk. In future, when we have more monastic dwellings, we aim to have more permanent monks staying and practicing here.
What about facilities for lay people – male and female – to stay in the monastery for meditation practice or Dhamma study camps?
Since the opening of the monastery in April this year we have held two meditation retreats led by Ajahn Gaveseko and Ajahn Anan, both are well-respected monks of the Ajahn Chah tradition. For the opening we had 9 Novice ordinations and 30 Upasika (lay female wearing white clothes) participate. Although this monastery is still new and there are no proper dormitories as yet, we were able to fit this many people in
temporary dormitories comfortably. There is also the option to stay in a tent, since we have many beautiful sites around the monastery. In the future, we are planning to build a proper dormitory for male and female guests.
How would you encourage someone new to Buddhism to appreciate the Buddha’s teachings in the context of the forest tradition, especially its emphasis on strict discipline and simple living?
The Forest Tradition originates from the Buddha’s teachings 2600 years ago, but has been revived in Thailand since the time of Venerable Ajahn Mun about 120 years ago. It emphasized to the monks strict adherence to the monastic discipline called Vinaya. The senior teachers often encouraged their students
to seek out secluded places that were conducive for meditation practice and to use certain ascetic practices such as eating one meal and staying at the root of a tree to purify the mind. This correct mode of practice led to many of his disciples becoming accomplished in the practice of Dhamma. They later become respected teachers to other students and laypeople. To us laypeople, these teachings are extremely relevant, especially in these busy times. Teachers of the Forest Tradition emphasize a strict keeping of the five moral precepts- abstaining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxicants—an
emphasis of daily meditation to reduce stress and developing peace in the mind, and a practice of letting go to overcome our problems and inner negative qualities.
You are the mother of Venerable Larry Varadhammo who was ordained in the Ajahn Chah tradition in 2006. What values did you inculcate in him when he was young?
I always teach all my children to be humble, kind to others, honest and to practice generosity. This is what my parents taught me since I was young. Venerable Larry reflected on this habit till now as a monk, as he is not only kind to others but caring and helpful. For example, when I offered him a pair of sandals, he would offer it to the other monks whom he thought needed it more than him, even though he only had a pair of worn out sandals.
You displayed an exemplary attitude by supporting your own son to become a monk. Can you tell us your initial reaction as a mother when you knew your own son has decided to renounce?
Of course being my only son, when he told me that he wanted to become a monk, I was at first surprised and thought that he was only joking. He asked me to give him a chance and said that I should be happy to hear that he wanted to ordain rather than giving me bad news like he was going to jail or he was on drugs. He added, “Even the Buddha himself, if he did not leave the palace, he would only become a King to replace his father, but instead he went to the forest and became the Buddha and helped many
millions of people .”
I have written a book “Behind the Altar” about the story of Larry becoming Bhikkhu Varadhammo.
How do you relate to Venerable Larry Varadhammo now as you are still his mother, and yet you have to pay respect to him as a member of the Sangha?
I do not look at him as my son anymore, because he is a Sangha member. Of course when we bow to the monks, we don’t bow to that person but to the Sangha. I feel very blessed to have a son as a monk.
After six years as a monk, do you as a mother see any significant changes in him compared to when he was just a lay person?
There are definitely a lot of changes. He is now more patient, hardly or never gets angry, and is always contented with what he receives, even with food. He used to like all the expensive foods and now when I ask him what he really likes to eat, he always said that the food is not for the taste but just to sustain the body. Also when he came back to Sydney and stayed at Bodhikusuma, he would clean up his dwelling and wash all the laundry before he left. He would say that he was taught to make the place cleaner than
when he came.
Any final advice to encourage more young people to emulate what Venerable Larry has done?
I always encourage many young people to follow his footstep, that is if their conditions make it possible to do so. But it seems that usually the parents are their problem because not many parents understand or can accept their son becoming a monk. When Venerable Larry was visited by many relatives and friends, they would consult him about their problems, like about their job, relationships, money and getting along with their parents. I think a person is much happier and peaceful when he becomes a monk. EH