Ayya Gunasari was born in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1932. She went to medical school there and then immigrated to the United States with her husband in 1961 to pursue a post-graduate degree. She became an anaesthesiologist and raised five children. Ayya Gunasari began meditating in the late 1970s with Mahasi Sayadaw, Taung Pulu Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Silananda, and Sayadaw U Pandita. She was a serious meditator and would invite these teachers to come and teach at her home, where she would run retreats free of charge.
A turning point in her life came in 1989, when she was reading Bhikkhu Bodhi's English translation of the Samannaphala Sutta, the Sutta on the Fruits of Recluseship, which describes the benefits of monastic life. She realized that she wanted to become a bhikkhuni—a woman who is fully ordained. But although the Buddha ordained bhikkhunis and established that bhikkhunis were a necessary part of the four-fold assembly, Ayya Gunasari did not know of the existence of bhikkhunis in modern times. She began to do research and discovered that there were a few bhikkhunis who had been recently ordained in the Theravada tradition. She spoke to her teacher Sayadaw U Silananda about what she had discovered, and he said that the lineage of bhikkhunis had been lost in ancient times and that Burmese monks believed that it could not be reestablished. As Ayya Gunasari continued to do research, she continued to show her findings to Sayadaw U Silananda. He told her that he was aware of Buddhist monks in the earlier part of the 1900s who had helped bhikkhunis and who were criticized—and one was forced to disrobe—because of the disapproval of their fellow monks. He told her that he could not help her or he would suffer the same fate that those monks had. However, he did not say that she shouldn't ordain. Instead, he asked, “What would you do if you didn't have someone to give you these precepts?” Ayya Gunasari, ever determined, told him that she would go in front of a Buddha image and take them herself. Sayadaw U Silananda picked up the phone and called Venerable Walpola Piyananda, the Chief Sangha Nayaka Thero of the Sri Lankan Sangha in North America and asked him to help Ayya Gunasari to ordain.
In 2002, then aged 70 and a grandmother, Ayya Gunasari entered into monastic life as a samaneri (novice), ordained by Venerable Piyananda and Venerable Pannaloka Mahathera at Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara in Los Angeles. It was Sayadaw U Silananda who gave her the name “Gunasari,” which means one who has the essence of virtue.
After her samaneri ordination, Ayya Gunasari went to her homeland of Burma in order to do an intensive retreat under the guidance of her teacher Sayadaw U Pandita. When he saw her in her samaneri robes, he asked her to change into the robes of a ten-precept thilashin, because he said that the monks would be shocked that she had ordained as a samaneri. Ayya Gunasari was heartbroken, but acceded to her teacher's request. After finishing the retreat, she left Burma for Sri Lanka with a renewed sense of the plight of Buddhist women and the issue of inequality. She never returned to Burma again.
In 2003, Ayya Gunasari was ordained as a bhikkhuni in Sri Lanka. Following her full ordination, she returned to the United States to live. She stayed in various dhamma centers and in a supporter's garage. It took years for her teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita, to recognize her as a bhikkhuni, but eventually he did. In 2006, she was named an Outstanding Woman in Buddhism at the United Nations in Bangkok. In 2007, she was a speaker at the First Global Congress of Buddhist Women in Hamburg, Germany. Since 2007, after being invited by Therese Duchesne to be the abbess at Mahapajapati Monastery, Ayya Gunasari has devoted herself to providing a place for women to become bhikkhunis and to practice the path set forth by the Buddha.
Although Ayya Gunasari never intended to be a spiritual director, she became one because she wants things to be easier for other women monastics than they were for her. When she first ordained, her idea was to become a recluse because she had become disenchanted with life, but she discovered that being a bhikkhuni is not only about meditating.
She says, “Although I like freedom and solitude, I also like the restraints of being part of a community.”
Ayya Kosalla Vipassini was born in South Korea in 1970. She graduated with degrees in Yoga & Meditation and Montessori Childhood Education from universities in South Korea. She later earned a degree in Oriental Medicine in California.
From a very young age, Ayya Kosalla began contemplating spiritual questions and came to believe in reincarnation. Without any religious background, she often felt like a stranger in her own family. Whenever she saw people behaving wrongly, she recognized her mind was uncomfortable and was compelled to give feedback to make it right. When she was 13 years old, she followed her friend to a Catholic church without any prior knowledge of Catholicism. The tranquility of the environment made her mind calm and peaceful. After graduating high school, Ayya Kosalla was inspired to help people and volunteered at her local Catholic church.
In 1993, she began practicing yoga, qi gong, and meditation through Taoism and Buddhism, and she discovered the truth that the Self, not God, creates everything. Thereafter, her practice improved rapidly, and she began sharing her learnings with others. She moved to the United States in 1997 to continue teaching. She spent the next ten years teaching and traveling throughout America, China, South Korea, and India while working in Oriental medicine and yoga therapy. During this time, she taught both novices and other teachers seeking to deepen their skills.
But by 2008, she felt her life lacked meaning, like she was standing on a platform waiting for a train that would never arrive. At this point, her suffering helped her understand the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, which inspired her to go to a Korean Zen Buddhism temple in California to continue to serve and meditate. In 2010, she decided to travel to India. While in India, she spent time at a Goenka center, where she finally connected her practice to the true teachings of the Buddha. Back when Ayya Kosalla had begun practicing Buddhism in the early 90’s, she was introduced by a senior teacher to the Vipassana way of practice in daily life. But it wasn’t until her time in India that she came to understand that the type of observation she had been practicing for so long was Vedananupassana (observation of feeling) and Cittanupassana (observation of mind). She realized this practice was already on the path of letting go of all formations.
Ayya Kosalla first went forth into the nunnery life of Taoism in 1994. As nearly two decades of non-stop practice in search of the truth, eventually she self-ordained in Theravada in 2013 and went to Myanmar to become a Sayalay (Burmese nun). In 2014, she took 10 precepts in Pa Auk style before changing to 8 precepts under U Tejaniya Sayadaw at Shaw Woo Min, Myanmar in 2015. She became a Samaneri named Kosalla Vipassini under Bhante Piyananda Maha Thera and Ayya Gunasari in 2016. Finally, she became a Bhikkhuni under Bhikkhuni Peliyagoda Sudarshana Maha Theri and Gunasari Maha Theri in 2018.
Her name Kosalla comes from Kosalla Sayadaw of Shwe Oo Min, Myanmar. The name was chosen to honor and remember the Nibbana and Metta forward way of practice Kosalla Sayadaw taught while he lived and guided people.
Ayya Kosalla had many teachers who inspired and changed her life - Jesus, Asian sages, Ramana Maharsh, Korean monks (Sung-Chul, Sung-San), U Kosalla Sayadaw, U Tejaniya Sayadaw, and Luang Por Pramote. Although she practiced many methods in Myanmar, the teaching of Cittanupassana under U Tejaniya Sayadaw was her final guide to the Nibbana way.
After being appointed as successor under Ayya Gunasari in October 2017, Ayya Kosalla had an opportunity to study Meditation Psychology in South Korea for two years and to practice in Thailand. She returned to Mahapajapati Monastery in October 2020 to begin her duty as Abbess.
Ayya Kosalla would like to share her experience to all people who have a desire to practice and be happy. She would like to pay back her gratitude of the Budhha, Dhamma and Sangha to the people who really want to understand and practice Dhamma. To teach and share her experience with others is her mission for the rest of her life.
Our founder, Therese Duchesne, envisioned a place where female monastics in the Theravada Buddhist tradition could live, study, and practice. She and Ayya Gunasari had been in retreat together in Burma, and reconnected in 2007, when Therese invited Ayya Gunasari to become the abbess and spiritual director of the community that Therese wanted to create and support.
Before Therese donated the 80 acres of beautiful high desert property that would eventually become the monastery's land, she wanted to ensure that it would be suitable. She had a well drilled, and it was when there was water that she knew her dream to see a monastery on the property could become a reality.
Therese's friend David Bricker stepped in administratively to help create Mahapajapati Foundation, the non-profit stewardship organization that would own the property and support the monastic community. Therese then built the first kuti and an outhouse, and eventually, the main monastery building.
With the organization and structures now in place, Therese donated the entire property to Mahapajapati Foundation. Over the years, her generous support has helped provide for additional structures as the monastery has grown.