Women and Buddhism






This week, we began formal meditation practice under the guidance of Vipassana teachers from Burma: U Hla Myint, and two nuns, Sister Molini and Sister Dharma Vijaya. We are easing into the new schedule; we’ve been meditating for a half hour at 6am and another half hour at 5pm (which if followed by a half hour dharma talk). Next week, we will add one more hour of practice and start at 5:30am. 

Waking up for practice hasn’t been too difficult. My roommates and I go to bed between 9:30 and 10pm every night. We make sure to wake up early enough to rise in the shower before heading to the temple in the morning. 

In the hall, we have been instructed to stand up when our teachers enter with our palms together and at our chests. When the teachers arrive we bow to the Buddha three times. Then we practice paying attention to the breath.

(We are studying Theravada Buddhism for the first three weeks of the program. After a long weekend break, we will continue on to Mahayana Buddhism, then we end with Vajrayana or Tibetan Buddhism for the last three weeks of our stay at the Vihar. Each tradition will bring with it its own set of customs and behavior in the temple. And of course, different meditation practice and philosophies as well.)

The program has done an excellent job of challenging me 1) to think critically about Buddhism as an institution 2) consider how the Western adaptation of Buddhism fits into Buddhism in its original context 3) and to examine how my Western perspective of meditation + my Western values of individualism, secularism, and equality (especially gender equality) affect my resistance to immersion into the practice of institutional Buddhism. 

Firstly, this is not a personal development camp. This is not exactly your average study abroad program – meditation twice a day and a monastery stays might sound quite fufu/spiritual/like therapy or rehab/etc. There are certainly elements of living here that inspire well being and self inquiry, like abiding by the Five Precepts and having a silent breakfast after morning meditation. I don’t mean to say that I won’t grow as person after three more months here. But, this is a highly academic program that seeks to show students what Buddhism is from a philosophical, historical, anthropological perspective. And I learning to break my romanticized ideal of Buddhism and sometimes spend my days thinking about my distaste for it – which I didn’t know was going to happen. 

I’m learning (and this is quite silly to say and quite ignorant) just how large the chasm is between the practice of meditation and Buddhism. Buddhism brings along with it so much history and ritual and code that don’t quite settle well with my version of Buddhism, based on my positive experiences with meditation. 

Starting tomorrow, students from our program will be given the opportunity to ordain as monks and nuns for a full week. They will shave their heads and take on an additional five precepts. The full ten precepts are as follows: to abstain from 1) taking life 2) stealing (or, taking what is not offered to you, including food) 3) sexual intercourse (explained as also protecting relationships) 4) lying 5) intoxicants 6) eating solid food after noon 7) dancing, singing (or, listening to music) 8) adorning his/herself with jewelry or perfumes 9) using a high bed or seat (lol) 10) receiving gold and silver (or, carrying or receiving money)

The monks and nuns must wear full robes and respect their robes. We have the head-shaving ceremony tonight. They are expected to act in a “responsible, conservative way.” The laypersons/non-ordained/sangha must respect the ordained. Last night we had orientation and we were told we must always sit behind the monastics (of course the nuns must sit behind the monks). Since the monastics cannot carry money, their non-ordained roommates should ask if the monk or nuns needs anything in town. Laypeople also have to offer the monastics food – we do this symbolically by lifting the table of food before they are served. In classes, the nuns and monks should sit in the “best” place in the classrooms – and they will sit in their respective gender groups. There should always be a space big enough for one person between a monastic and a layperson – then the person sitting closest to the monk or nun must be of the same gender, both in the classroom and in the dining hall.

In addition, the nuns must walk behind the monks and must observe the hierarchy. In “Buddhist Religions: A Historical Introduction” it says that when the Buddha instituted a Bhikkuni Sanga (Order of the Nuns) at the request of his aunt and foster mother, this was under the condition that the nuns accepted vows that institutionally subordinated them. “The vows were as follows: A nun shall honor every monk as her senior, even if she has been ordained for a hundred years, and he one day.”

This rule has never changed. Apparently, although monks have two hundred fifty something precepts, when they are not in training they only follow four of them strictly. Some of the rules are more explicit than others, so they don’t mind breaking the other rules. The monks, in our Burmese Vihar (a non-training monastery) sometimes wear their robes around their hips and have computers and tvs and play music and watch videos on YouTube (not what we think of when we think of monks in the West, right?) So, if they can fudge some rules, why can’t the nuns fudge their rules? Because the rules about subordination is difficult to interpret in a more “lax” way because it is so explicit. And the global Buddhist community has not yet decided that that rule in particular is one that is more lenient. 

If you were wondering, I will not be ordaining. I was resistant to this ordination from the beginning – even before arriving in Bodh Gaya. Initially, my reasons stemmed from the idea that ordaining for a week and making a commitment to a religion that I don’t quite understand sounds disrespectful. These thoughts were quelled by the program director who reassured us that temporary ordination is quite common and quite respected in Burma. (The ordination is specifically in the Burmese tradition, since our teachers are from Burma and we are living in the Burmese Vihar). Now, after hearing about the structure, the hierarchy, and the separation between the laypeople and the monastics, I just can’t get myself to do it. Of course, this brings up a whole host of questions: Am I resisting immersion? Am I letting my Western values get in the way of really experiencing of this hierarchical and gendered society for what it is? Am I imposing my values on a 2500-year-old religious tradition? Am I just really really attached to my hair? Am I attached to food and afraid to give it up after noon? Am I fearful? Am I just hot and sticky a uncomfortable and that’s why I’m feeling so bitter about Buddhism as an institution right now? And all these questions are okay. 

We get the opportunity to ask our teachers questions. In small groups, we met with U Hla Myint and the nuns separately and my group decided to ask, in both sessions, about the gender hierarchy and how they feel about it. We got two very different answers. U Hla Myint responded with the practical reasons why the Buddha wanted to discourage nuns from ordaining. At that time, monastics were forest dwellers who left their homes and spent time alone in the forest. Because Utpalavarna, a psychic nun, was raped in the forest, the Buddha wanted to discourage all nuns from monastic life; he did this by requiring nuns to accept vows that subordinated them. This is how he reasoned the continued practice of inequality for women in Buddhism. 

Conversely, the nuns, Sister Molini and Sister Dharma Vijaya did not acknowledge the inequality, emphasizing that the opportunity for enlightenment is available for all beings. The inequality doesn’t change their chances of becoming enlightened or having a fortunate rebirth. They also noted that we should consider the context that the Buddha lived in. He had developed a pretty radical philosophy for his time – removing the gender hierarchy in addition to this philosophy would have made it difficult to gain followers.

I will write more about the Buddhism in the West and it’s relation to Buddhism in the East next time.