It’s a Nun’s Life. Thailand and Myanmar, a comparison
“Buddhism’s not really for Women…………. they can’t make merit.” As Lo Win my Burmese Buddhism sceptical motorcycle taxi driver I hired for the day in Mandalay put it, while I snapped the passing nuns. In South East Asia’s most Buddhist country where they practice the religion with a passion more akin to the middle east than neighbouring countries, finding a sceptic is almost like discovering a dodo in Nova Scotia, or an unfixed exam in Rangsit University.
Travelling around Burma seeing fully ordained nuns walking around collecting alms and living in monasteries seemingly equal to the men had reawaken an interest I had about nuns in Thailand, where they’re so clearly second class, yet still chose to do it, why?
So much is written about Buddhist monks I thought I would take the opportunity to do a comparison between Thai and Burmese nuns……
Differences in Temples and Monks
Comparing Thai and Burmese Buddhism is bit like comparing Catholicism and Protestantism, everything in Burma is done on an epic scale, temples colossal and overblown, soaked in tons of pure gold, statues, ornamentation, pilgrims by the thousand, whereas Thai temples are very much smaller scale and sedate affairs, the religion very much a solitary thing. Conduct at temples vary too, at temples in Thailand there is no male/female segregation, in Burma women often have a separate area at the back, in Thailand women can approach Buddha to place gold leaf on him, in Burma only men can, in Burma at major pilgrimage sights women are forbidden from entering, men go to touch the golden rock, women are not allowed with 5 metres of it. For the female worshipper Thai Buddhism seems by far the better prospect.
Monks differ a little too, in both countries most men will become a monk sometime in their life, in Thailand it usually ranges from a very short time to a few years, lifelong monks are much rarer than Burma. Burmese men become monks twice usually, once when a child and once when an adult and for an awful lot of men it is a life long commitment. In Thailand monks can live in temples as well as monasteries, and often only a handful to dozens at one place. Burmese monks live in monasteries in their hundreds or thousands, the temples being uninhabited. This distinction has an important effect upon nuns in Thailand as they live in temples too along with the monks whereas in Burma they have their own separate monastries.
Monks have the highest status in Thailand, technically higher than the king. Whereas nuns seem to be considered lower than the average member of the general public. If an athletic 25 year old monk gets on the bus a heavily pregnant woman will be expected to stand up to offer him her seat. If an aged and invalid nun gets on a bus absolutely no-one will offer her one, not even the young and healthy.
Nuns in Thailand are not allowed to be fully ordained so technically are lay people. They live at temples alongside the monks, however are not allowed out to collect alms and almswise what food that the monks collect goes to them first, there is no obligation whatsoever for the temple to provide for the nuns. Theoretically the nuns could starve but this doesn’t happen in reality in wealthy Thailand. So what actually is a Thai nun’s role? Thai temples give nuns no role or education in Buddhism so there job is basically unpaid skivvy, nuns clean the temples, wash the monks clothes, cook their food and act as servants to the monks. “So a genuine family relationship” as my cynical Burmese motorcycle driver put it when I told him. Many nuns in Thailand are older women, which is in total contrast to Burma where they are usually young. Many Thai nuns are widows who lack the funds to support themselves and had the choice of being a nun or the streets, though this is certainly not true in all cases.
Burmese nuns initially seem better off. They don’t share the monasteries with the monks but have nunneries all of their own. They also can go out and collect alms just like male monks, but unlike monks who can only collect alms in the morning, they can do it all day. However being a nun in Burma isn’t usually for life, most nuns are very young and spend their teen years as nuns then leave. The other twist for being a nun in Burma is it is only for two days a week, the other five days they’re a civilian. You could actually think the nuns get a better deal than the monks, a five day weekend.
Nuns in Myanmar are ordained and enjoy a high status in society, though no-where near as high as monks. They also go on a full study program of Buddhism and meditation the same as monks do. Technically the most senior Nun’s rank is lower than the lowest novice monk rank and part of the precepts of being a nun is they are subservient to monks and forbidden to admonish them.
However as with Thailand nuns can’t make merit so as my ever social reality facing driver points out, “it’s utterly pointless them being nuns at all”. This can be visibly seen at alms giving in the morning when the alms tables are layed out for the monks and laden with cash, elaborately cooked food or toiletry gifts. When later in the day the nuns come around they get a desert spoonful of uncooked rice in their bowl. The Burmese people logicking why give if I don’t get any merit from it.
However as my ever insightful driver points out, Burma has no free state schooling like most countries and only people with money can educate their kids. This is why most nuns are teenage girls, they get a free education and a meal if their parents send them to a nunnery, pretty much the same reason why boys become novice monks.
With the temple segregation in Myanmar it’s probably marginally better to be a female Buddhist in Thailand, but for nuns Burma is infinitely superior, in fact it’s probably better to become a beggar than a nun in Thailand, the social status is higher and working conditions better. But this does bring me back to my driver’s original quote and title of the piece. I do wonder why women are Buddhists at all, surely Scientology or Chinese Water Torture seem better options……. Then again I could ask women the same question of equally sexist religions, christianity, islam, hinduism, Sikhism, judaism and so on, I guess the answer is they’re just stupid.