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 an abbess, she has become 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. It inspires me when we all get along as a Sangha, show concern for each other, and go through challenges together. Also, I enjoy giving to others in the Sangha, including those outside my immediate community. Although we may have personality differences, we belong to each other. We are sisters; we are one. The whole thing is Sangha. It is not complete on our own.”