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Buddhist Women in Burma
The Rocky Path Towards Liberation
Martin H. Petrich

It is three o'clock in the morning and everything is calm and peaceful. Only the noise from the kitchen indicates the beginning of a new day. While monks and lay-people are still asleep, Daw Yewadi, a Buddhist nun, is already busy with preparing breakfast for the guest monks who came here to pay respect to Ven. U Vinaya, better known as Thamanya Sayadaw, a highly revered 85 years old monk living at Thamanya Hill. This hill, located around 35 km east of Pa'an, the charming capital of the Karen state on the banks of Salween-river, became a popular pilgrimage place after the Sayadaw settled there in 1980. After finishing preparing food Daw Yewadi sits in the Buddha hall for meditation and chanting, before she serves breakfast to the monks. For more than eight years she lives at Thamanya Hill. Her responsibility is to take care for the monks who come along with hundreds of pilgrims daily to visit the Thamanya Sayadaw. With Daw Yewadi around 400 monks and 200 other women ascetics live at this spiritual place, attracted by the teachings of the Sayadaw. Around the hill, which is close to areas that saw fighting between the Burmese and Karen armies for more than 40 years, he set up a three miles haven of non-violence. All the villagers in this area committed themselves to refrain from eating meat and killing. Concerned with the education of the people he set up a middle and an elementary school which he continues to support. The majority of the pilgrims are women who look for spiritual enrichment, relaxing from their daily burden and for the Sayadaw's blessing for them and their beloved ones. Although most of them are very poor thousands of Kyats are daily donated to this venerated monk.

It is obvious that in Burma Buddhism plays a significant part in everydays live of a woman. In the temples and at pilgrimage sites (like Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon, the Golden Rock in Kyaikthyu in Mon State or the Mahamuni temple in Mandalay) women are always in the majority. Women offer alms to the monks, prepare the meals in the temples and take care in the monasteries. But while their support is crucial for the very existence of the male Buddhist Sangha, they play a marginalized role in Buddhist society. Like in other Theravada-Buddhist countries they are not allowed to be full ordained as a Bhikkhuni. While it is evident that the Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka existed until the eleventh century (s. Senarat Wijayasundara, Sri Lanka: The Order of Buddhist Nuns and its Revival, in: Seeds of Peace 1/1994, pp. 23-25, and Dr. Hema Goonatilake, Theravada Nuns: Reclaiming the Lost Legacy, in Seeds of Peace 3/1996, pp. 13-14) it is unclear whether the order ever existed in Burma, although nuns are mentioned in some inscriptions from the time of the Bagan Empire (11th - 13th century). There is little written account about women living a religious life in Burma. About King Mindon (1825-78), a devote Buddhist who organized the 5th Buddhist Council in Mandalay to commemorate the 2,400th anniversary of Buddha's Parinibbana, it is reported that he often listened to the preaching of the two famous Thilashins Saya Kin and Saya Mai Nat Pay and even sent one of his daughters to live for some time as a novice.

But unlike Thailand, where only few places exist for Mae Jees to live autonomously (most of them live at the compound of a Wat), in Burma Thilashins ("Keeper of the precepts") are more independent. Almost in any bigger city one can find nunneries (kyaung) and on the streets Thilashins are a familiar view. According to the Ministry for Religious Affairs there are around 20,000 Thilashins in Burma. But their actual number is several times higher since many women join the religious life for a short period (like their male counterpart), most preferably during the Burmese summer (between March and May). And those are hardly to count. In nunneries like the Daw Nyanacari Myanaung Kyaung in Sanchaung Township in Rangoon at this time the number of nuns easily doubles. In the wake of a Buddhist renewal after the Independence of Burma in 1948, especially under the U Nu Government, the status of Thilashins raised significantly. New nunneries were founded and the educational standard improved. One outstanding example is the mentioned Daw Nyanacari Myanaung Kyaung. Founded in 1947 by late Daw Nyanacari, until today a highly revered nun, the nunnery is with its 30 branches countrywide one of the most prestigious schools for nuns in Burma. It's reputation for pariyatti (study) and parapatti (practice) attracts even nuns from other countries like Nepal, ViÍt Nam or Germany. At the moment 200 Thilashins are living permanently there to undergo their studies which include Buddhist literature, Pali, Abhidhamma, scriptures, et.al. Around 50 of them are attending the course for dhammacariyas (Teacher of the Dhamma), which is currently the highest educational title Thilasins can gain. This course takes around three years and allows the graduates to teach in other nunneries. There are only nun scholars at this school which is administered by an Executive Committee of fifteen members under the leadership of Daw Zayawadi. "There are currently no chances for nuns to do further Buddhist studies on the University level", complains Ma Yuzana Nya Ni, an ambiguous nun in her late twenties, who is preparing herself for becoming a dhammacariya. But she is confident that she can continue her studies after graduation. There are concrete plans to build an Institute for Higher Buddhist Education in Sagaing near Mandalay and in Rangoon with the support of U Nyaneithara Sayadaw, where a master- and probably a doctoral degree can be obtained by Thilashins.

Like other nunneries the school receives its main support by generous lay-Buddhists and the families of the Thilashins. The Government donates only 200 sacks of rice each year. Twice a week the nuns go out to the markets and streets for receiving alms. The strict organized day is filled with periods of studies, meditation and manual activities. Without question Sagaing on the bank of the Irrawaddy River in the south of Mandalay is the center of Burmese Buddhism. About 3,000 monks and 2,000 Thilashins are living in some 500 kyaungs which are spread around the hill. The Hkaymaythaka Kyaung, the biggest nunnery in this area, is recognized as the place where the first title of dhammacariya was earned and where the nuns observe a strict routine. While a qualified Buddhist education and meditation practice is the major concern of the nunneries, social activities are rather rare. In Mingun, around 10 km north of Sagaing a Home for the Aged was founded in 1927 by Daw U Zun which is still existing. Poor families can bring their daughters to the Buddhist Girls' Home in Mergui in the very South of Burma or to the Dhammaythaka Kyaung in Rangoon. Around 60 girls from all over Burma live in this nunnery under the care of Daw Dhammaythi. As novice they follow the live of the Thilashins. Early 1997 a school was opened for these girls where two nuns and two lay-persons teach them up to the tenth standard.

The motivations for becoming a nun are without question diverse. "Many young women are looking for a secure live. You see, nuns don't have to worry about food and clothes", explains Ma Yuzana Nya Ni as one of the reason for becoming a nun. This is obvious in one of the poorest countries in the world, which ranges at number 131 out of 175 countries according to the Human Development Index (HDI) of 1997. Nearly 80% of the population live in rural areas and from there most of the Thilashins originate. In the countryside especially children and women face a harsh live. According to UNICEF statistics around one third of the children under three are severely or moderately malnourished. The infant mortality rate is nearly 10% and the maternal mortality rate with 140 per 100,000 live births the third highest in the East Asia/Pacific Region. Despite a relatively high adult literacy rate of 82.7 per cent nearly one third of women are illiterate and girls are the first to drop out of schools for supporting their families. Economical hardship and family responsibilities make it for women more difficult to enter a religious live. About the already mentioned Daw Nyanacari it is said that she escaped from her home three successive times after her parents refused their permission to enter a monastic life. As youngest daughter she was expected to look after her parents when they get old. Only later they accepted her decision and argument that she would benefit them more by being a Thilashin. With her highly regarded knowledge Daw Nyanacari became later a respected Buddhist scholar, known as "teacher for 500 Thilashins and more". Another reason for entering the nunhood is the situation of elder women without children or whose children are not able (or willing) to support them. They can be found in numerous nunneries. Living a religious live is for many the only alternative to survive. Although the educational standard of most of them is very low and only a few receive some Buddhist education in the monasteries their contribution for the community is important. Some of the old Thilashins may hope to follow the example of Sona Theri, a distinguished elder Bhikkhuni whose story is told in the Therigatha. Before ordaining she was married, and had ten children. She entered a monastic live because she was rejected by all of her children. Due to her age and frailty she could do her walking-meditation only by holding on the wall that surrounded her nunnery. But through her persistent efforts she became very quick an arahant.

Without question the live of a Thilashin became in recent years more attractive in Burma. Their number and educational standard increased. But unlike Sri Lanka or Thailand where the efforts for restoring the Bhikkhuni order are growing stronger (s. Raja Dharmapala, Sri Lankan Attempt for Bhikkhuni Higher Ordination, in: Seeds of Peace 3/1997, pp. 9-10) in Burma similar attempts are inconsiderable. Many follow the position of Sayadaw U Pandita, one of Burma's most renowned meditation master: "Formerly there were bhikkhus or monks, bhikkhunis or nuns, sikkhamanas or probation nuns, and samaneris and samaneras, female and male novices. In the course of history, the order of Theravada bhikkhunis died out. Strictly speaking in our own time, the ordained sangha consists of bhikkhus and male novices only, who practice in accordance with the Buddha's rules of conduct… No matter. All yogis, formally ordained or not, share virtues of purity, of morality, of concentration and of wisdom… It is nonetheless still possible to become a bhikkhu or a bhikkhuni according to the suttas, the Buddha's discourses. For this, the only requirement is a sincere practice to purify one's mind according to the Noble Eightfold Path. There is no loss of privileges in this form of bhikkhu-hood: in fact, it may be more appropriate for our times. If everyone simply becomes a bhikkhu, there will be no problems, no inequality." (Sayadaw U Pandita: In this Very Life. The Liberation Teachings of the Buddha. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992, 132ff.).


Updated: 10-4-2001

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