I Give You My Life
The Autobiography of a Western Buddhist Nun
Translated by Sherab Chodzin Kohn
Shambhala Publications: Boston, 1998
240 pp.; $22.00 (cloth)
By the end of Ayya Khema’s autobiography, one envies this woman who has lived many lives and who has the gift of absolute conviction. Born Ilse Rosenthal to a prosperous German Jewish family in 1923, Khema becomes refugee, housewife, mother, divorcee, world traveler, and even a farmer before finding Buddhism in middle age and diving into it with typical decisiveness.
Most of her relatives are murdered by Nazis, but in 1939 Khema escapes to Scotland, where a Jewish family takes her in as a servant. Soon she’s left them, circumnavigating the war-torn seas on a Japanese freighter to reunite with her parents in China. She survives bombing and her father’s death. After the war, she begins a “totally normal life” in California. Readers may be forgiven for thinking she’s lived through enough dramas already, but this is only the third chapter.
“Life takes its own strange paths,” Khema explains when an old male friend from her childhood in Germany reenters her life. “In Buddhism, we speak in cases like these of karmic links. At our first meeting, [Gerd and I] already saw that we were both on a quest for meaning in life. This encounter gave me deep courage… I decided to take the big step of facing things on my own.” She leaves her first husband for Gerd. With her youngest child, they drive through South America, run aground in the Amazon, build a dam in Pakistan, and eventually breed ponies in Australia.
It is a rich life, and Khema writes it well (one of her many jobs was as a journalist). Her style is personal, lively, opinionated, and informative. Though she delights in surfaces, one senses that outward adventures are only a means for developing her inner life. “I have learned to find certainty within myself wherever I go,” she declares. “And I have learned that people are the same everywhere. All of them want to be happy and none of them are…Life is a long process of letting go.” In Australia, she meets her first meditation teacher, a Buddhist monk named Phra Khantipalo, and takes to Buddhism. “This becomes my ruling idea,” she tells us, and she now embraces Buddhism over devotion to her husband, who eventually leaves her.
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