"The Only Thing that I was Missing was to be Reborn as a Man."
"Difficult aspects in Myanmar and how it helped the practice and understanding of the teachings, the religion and the culture."
One of the most difficult aspects of Burmese culture is the difference in treatment between genders. Many factors contribute to this experience. One of these factors is that I was educated in the most liberal side of Mexico City. So among this sector of people in Mexico, it is considered very low ethical conduct to make any distinction within gender, religion (or non-religion, race, and among some people today, sexual preference as well). So among these people and this community, I have never encountered strong discrimination in gender.
A second factor was that I came to the study Buddhism believing that the practice was the solution for all the problems. With this I believed that all Buddhist people were bestowed with the qualities of being aware, kind, loving, and knowledgeable. In short, I had the idea that Buddhist communities were perfect. But Buddhist communities are like any other community in the world. With compassion, kindness, wisdom, craving, aversion, and delusion. So I came to Burmese Buddhism with a lot of expectation and a lot of craving! When my expectations were not fulfiled, then I experienced aversion. I was experiencing (here in Kalaw) what U Tejaniya calls the pendulum. The same amount of greed will lead to the same amount of aversion if the expectation is not fulfiled.
A third aspect that increased this aversion was the system of hierarchies. Myanmar is organized by a system of hierarchies where the monks are at the top and young lay people at the bottom. So the treatment is very different between the level of attention that monks get and the level of attention that everybody else gets. The religious organizational system is a patriarchal. Burmese Buddhism believes that the lineage of nuns called Bhikkhunis have died out, so by law one is prohibited to ordain women as monks here. Women are allows to take robes as Seminaries or Sayalays. They have eight precepts or ten. The majority of the nuns take eight precepts, the same as any yogis or lay people. So the level of attention and support that Sayalays get from lay people is much less than the monks in Myanmar. The first time I came to Shwe Oo Min Yangon I was surprised to see the difference in treatment among monks and Sayalays. Sayalays spend much of their time taking care of monks: they clean, cook, organize the monastery, and take care of the female yogis. They offer all the time things to monks and from an outsider’s point of view, or at least the way I saw it, Sayalays role’s is more like been at the service of monks.
Also, some Myanmar monks (but certainly not all of them) do not recognize other kind of Bhikkhunis from the Mahayana tradition because they consider it as another religion. So sometimes the Burmese Sayadaw will tell their students to see Bhikkhunis as they were Sayalays. Bhikkhus need to follow a lot of rules if they encounter a Bhikkhuni. For instance they cannot be together without a third person. They cannot ask a Bhikkhuni to do domestic service and they also cannot accept food from one of them. I believe this also applies for seminaries nuns. However, in reality in some monasteries Sayalays are cooking and cleaning the monastery continuously and they also give every morning food to the monks.
For me this radical treatment among men and women, not only in the religious environment but also sometimes in daily life, was radically new. I was told by a lay Burmese man that I have all the conditions for the practice, the only thing that I was missing was to be reborn as a man. In some Buddhist commentaries, this Burmese men continued, it said that one of the conditions for enlightenment is to be a man. So therefore, according to him half of the population of the world cannot get enlightenment! As a good Latin women, I immediately reacted and told him that he was wrong and he need to prove those statements before saying them. After that he told me that then I should see by myself, I was the only one who could have the answer for that questions. Finally, here was something that we can agree on! Some others scholar monks mention that a women can never become a Buddha. They also say these statements without any evidence whatsoever.
I also have the experience that sometimes some monks—again, not all of them-- pay more attention to what monks said than yogis. Sometimes I have felt that lady yogis are completely ignored. It happens many times that local people would like to introduce a group of foreigners to their own Sayadaw and some of this monks will only talk with the monks and lay men, completely ignoring the lady yogis who are present. Then again, some other monks will treat everyone equally and with the same amount of respect and caring. It depends very much on the level of kindness and awareness of the monk.
On some occasions I thought that perhaps there were a degree of Moha (ignorance) in what I was conceiving, but I asked some female yogis and they agreed with me. Some Burmese female yogis even believe that this gender hierarchy is the main problem of Burmese culture, and they consider it to be against basic human rights. However, they only admit these things when they feel very comfortable and secure, and will not say things like this in a public space where men or monks are present. Some of these ladies privately conceive that be born as a woman is a bad kamma and so they needed to obey monks and accept that they could not become one of them in this life. Still others were interested in re-establish the bhikkhuni lineage. Many Burmese women want to become Bhikkhunis. However, in the public space these same women will always look very religious and respectful to monks. They will obey, give rise every morning and pay respect to them. Even some of these women that admit they do not feel confortable; they still have a lot of appreciation towards monks and mainly the teachings of the Buddha. Some others young ladies said they were interested in learning more about gender inequality, however they noted that in Myanmar there is not much information and opportunities to do so, and some wanted to go oversees.
For me all this aspects were incredible shocking. I was very surprised that Buddhism was so violent regarding gender aspects. I find it a massive contradiction because it is against the teachings of compassion and Metta. It also against the teachings of non-self. Why should the form matters if in the core there is no form? The process that happened in the mind are the same.
Also I found it surprising because I was expecting that monks will be the most humble people in the country. But the culture treats them so well and takes care of them so well that even local people said that they can become a bit arrogant. Sayadaw U Tejaniya mentioned that is important to watch the mind continuously, when this knowing mind is not present, many defilements can come. He mentions ones that when people did not bow to him and offer things to him first, he could get angry if he was not mindful. So then, he recognizes and let it go. Unfortunately, not all monks are practitioners, so not all of them are as skilful as U Tejaniya. So defilements like arrogance and pride are some times recognize by lay people in monks. “It should also be noted that monks should not give the teaching desiring worldly benefits such as receiving homage, and it is an offense (pācittiya 24) for a bhikkhu to accuse another bhikkhu of doing this.” (Sujato, 2010, p. 57)
Fortunately, this happens with some monks but not all of them. Some other monks are very humble, helpful and caring and they tried as much as they can to embody the teachings of the Buddha. However, these teachings are not that easy to embody. So it takes long time, a lot of patient and it need a very good motivation to keep practicing. So one of my main problems in Myanmar have been aversion to this situation. Mainly because I did not expected and I have never felt it so close to me."