Born of Buddhist parents and raised in a Buddhist environment, I grew up as a typical Myanmar Buddhist girl. Under the care of my grandmother, it was hammered into my brain that we should worship and pay the utmost respect to Buddhist monks in all circumstances. My grandmother instructed me, for example, to never sit on the same level as monks, but place myself at their feet. Yet in all the years of my childhood she never said a word about how to behave in front of Buddhist women who had become nuns.
It’s customary in Myanmar to make donations at monasteries during annual religious events and to donate to monks begging for alms on the street. I used to see my grandmother give rice and curries to monks every morning, before anyone had a chance to eat, and I learned that I should always offer food to the monks first. But when nuns came asking for alms she usually replied: “Sorry, please no offerings.” Only occasionally a nun would receive a spoonful of rice or a one-kyat note—this was at a time when the bus fare for a short trip cost around 50 kyats.
Thus, I learned early on that nuns do not deserve the same respect as monks. Later, I came to understand this is due to persistent conservative views of women in Myanmar society and in religious practice.
When I was a child, an aunt decided to become a nun for life. I remember thinking that it was embarrassing for a woman to become a nun and shave her head. It is common in Myanmar for children to have their heads shaved from time to time as mothers believe this will give them thick, beautiful hair. I always disliked having my head shaved—it happened to me only three times, and I would cry my eyes out every time.
But in recent years as I’ve grown older, and perhaps more mature, a new thought entered my head. I began to ask myself: Why, as a Buddhist woman, should I feel ashamed to shave my head when I become a nun?
So, earlier this year I decided that I wanted to overcome my old anxieties and became a nun for ten days during the Thingyan water festival in April. What I found during this experience is that nuns suffer not only a lack of respect due to negative, patriarchal views that still hold sway, but also a lack of public support.
I went to Shwe Min Wun Nunnery on Yangon’s Dhammazedi Road to be ordained. The living conditions of the ten poor nuns in the tiny nunnery shocked me. The one-story wooden building was small and cramped; there was no modern furniture and it had only one fan, two water tanks, a drinking water pot and bamboo sleeping mats.
Soon after the ordination I went to Tit Wine Monastery, a well-known religious centre in Yangon’s South Okkalapa Township, for a short meditation course. There I realized how different the living conditions are for monks when compared with nuns’.
The monastery was a grand, five-story building installed with modern electrical items, such as air-conditioners, electric fans, and water coolers, as well as a generator in case of power cuts. The nuns at Shwe Min Wun have to scoop up every drink of water they need, the monks at Tit Wine got a refreshing drink of cooled water at the press of a button.
Upon closer inspection there is no end to the differences between the facilities at nunneries and monasteries; the gap in living conditions is huge.
Monasteries can count on numerous generous donors looking to earn merit through donations, but nuns arriving in front of a house to ask for donations for their nunnery usually leave empty-handed. Even in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, there are only a few donors for nunneries, so we can imagine how nuns in rural areas are struggling to get by.
Negative views of women and nuns can sadly be found in some of the centuries-old Buddhist practices in Myanmar. Women and nuns can often not visit the holiest parts of religious monuments like men can. Nuns are not allowed to give sermons at important events, only monks can.
We are taught to step aside when monks are passing by because it would be bad karma to even stand on their shadow, yet little regard is paid to a passing nun. People will give up their seats on buses for monks, but rarely for nuns.
Tazar Thiri, a life-long nun living in Yangon, told me, “I’ve met men and women who would refer to me as a layperson.”
As a Myanmar woman and a temporary nun, it is has been very disappointing to see nuns being treated like they deserve no more respect than ordinary laypeople, and to see them struggle to live with dignity just because of their gender.
I believe our society has wrongly presumed that nuns do not deserve the same respect and support as monks just because they are women. In fact, both monks and nuns are living strictly in accordance with the instructions of Lord Buddha and deserve an equal amount of respect.
—Ei Cherry Aung, Myanmar Now
©2015 Myanmar Now