Saturday, February 16, 2013

Burmese Women

     Sati (Attention): This post may be politically incorrect, because it happens to mention that the inhabitants of "poverty-stricken" Burmese villages, especially the women, evidently experience less unhappiness in their lives than we Westerners do, regardless of their "unempowered" state. My purpose is not to be deliberately politically incorrect, however. It just happens sometimes.

     Some people may suspect that I have more fascination for women than is appropriate for a celibate Buddhist monk; if so, they are probably right. Even so…
     Several years ago I read Out of Africa by Karen Blixen, alias Isak Dinesen, and one chapter that made a strong impression on me was "The Somali Women," about, not surprisingly, Somali Women. It seems that women in pre-World War Two Somalia were essentially sold for money by their parents to their husbands, and generally had little or no say with regard to whom they married. It was all arranged by the parents. Although technically property, the Somali women were trained from childhood to be the captivating enchantresses of their men. Somali men are, or at least were in those days, ascetic nomads, and being devout Muslims besides, do not drink, gamble, or indulge in much luxury. Practically their only real luxury in life, their greatest joy, is their women, and they dote on them mightily, spending most of their money on pleasing them, or at least decorating them. A common topic of gossip amongst the girls was how much money was paid by a man to marry So-and-So, and the girls took great pride in the high prices they would fetch when sold by their parents. Once some Somali girls shyly asked Baroness Blixen about marriage customs in the West:
By the time that we had become well acquainted, the girls asked me if it could be true what they had heard, that some nations in Europe gave away their maidens to their husbands for nothing. They had even been told, but they could not possibly realize the idea, that there was one tribe so depraved as to pay the bridegroom to marry the bride [i.e., to pay a dowry]. Fie and shame on such parents, and on girls who gave themselves up to such treatment. Where was their self-respect, where their respect for woman, or for virginity? If they themselves had had the misfortune to be born into that tribe, the girls told me, they would have vowed to go into their grave unmarried.
It struck me that there are many possible ways to look at female roles in society, and that more than one way is possible. More than one way may even work, although no way is perfect.
     This is true in Burma (Myanmar) also. Culturally, Burmese women have only a quasi-equality with Burmese men. There is an ancient tradition, possibly derived from classical Indian culture, that women are inherently inferior to men. To give a few examples of this: At the Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous monument in all of Burma, women are not allowed to go up and walk on the upper platform. (Most foreigners don't even know that there is an upper platform.) Because so many foreign tourists and pilgrims come here, and possibly because of an unpleasant confrontation or two in the past, a convenient rule has been made banning all foreigners, male or female, from ascending the upper platform of the Shwedagon, with the primary purpose really being to keep the women off. At one of my favorite shrines in Mon State, women are not allowed to enter at all, but have a cheesy little substitute temple from which they may view the big one. (I like this place not for its architecture, much less for its sexist policy, but because it is on the seashore and little mudskippers, land crawling fish that can even blink, are all over the place. There are mangrove trees too.) I know an American man who led a kind of spiritual pilgrimage through Burma not long ago, and the American women in the group were outraged when they were informed that they as women were not allowed to put gold leaf on the big boulder of Kyaiktiyo, another famous Burmese pagoda, afterwards practically boycotting the country they were traveling in. Some of the men in the group participated in the boycott also. Burmese monks enjoy much more prestige than nuns, and it is an age-old tradition that a fully enlightened Buddha—not an ordinary enlightened being, but a Buddha who starts the wheel of Dhamma turning in the world—can only be male. There can be no female Buddha, allegedly.

A No Women Allowed sign at the bottom of an observation
tower at a shrine in northwest Burma

     At a more mundane level, one may notice that the jitneys made from Japanese pickup trucks lurching around Burmese cities never have women riding on top of them, although men often ride on top. This may be seen as gallantry, letting the women ride inside, and there probably is a fair amount of genuine gallantry involved; but a more important reason is that it is demeaning to a man's dignity to have a woman's bottom just inches above his head. It also demeans his dignity to hang his clothes on the same clothesline as one from which women's clothing is hung; and handling women's clothes at all is considered an indignity, even by professional dyers. Much worse than this is to walk under a clothesline with women's clothing hanging on it. I did this once and a Burmese monk I was with practically freaked out. When I came back the other way he stood in a place conspicuously guarding the way and energetically gesticulated for me to go around, not under. I later learned that the Burmese equivalent of Samson lost his prodigious strength not by having his hair cut off by a Burmese Delilah, but by walking under a clothesline with feminine sarongs hanging from it.
     On the other hand, in other respects people do not take the supposed inferiority of women very seriously. Deep down they seem to know better. For example, there may be as many female physicians as male ones in Burma, and of course the most internationally famous politician in the country is a woman. Women keep their own name and their own property after they marry, they are allowed to divorce their husbands, and they are often the main money-makers of the family. And they receive respect, in an old-fashioned sort of way. I've been told that in the villages near Wun Bo Forest Monastery where I lived for many years, a man could be flogged publicly for using foul language in the presence of a woman (but I never heard of it actually happening, either the flogging or the foul language).
     I may be at grave risk of being politically incorrect by saying this, but I do feel that Burmese women are better off than are most American women in certain respects, especially spiritually. Burmese women in general are very devout, and have a modesty, virtue, and quiet dignity that naturally inspires respect. Even little old ladies tend to have a clear look to their face that is usually lost in American women before they stop being teenagers. That clear look is symptomatic of self-respect and a clear conscience, of "innocence." 

Since ancient times, most of the people who give alms
to monks have been female

     I was told by a Burmese lady once that most of the celestial nymphs in the lower heaven realms were Burmese women in their previous lives; ironically, they were rewarded for their devotion and virtue by being reborn as voluptuous playthings of the gods indulging in heavenly orgies. It is interesting that more than one religion offers up celestial lasciviousness as a reward for earthly morality and self-restraint.
     In fact, based upon 18 years' experience in Burma and many more years in America, I can say from my own extensive observations that Burmese women experience less unhappiness in their lives than do their sisters in the USA. Overall, they may have lots less fun, yet they are less unhappy.
     This is not to say that Burmese women—especially village women, as they are the ones I've known the best—do not have troubles. They do have plenty of fears (the Burmese in general are an easily scared people), but their fears are simple and easily understood ones: they fear ghosts, snakes, witches, monsters, pandemics hyped on international radio news, and sometimes they fear the government. They do not seem to fear men much. Another situation that arises is hysterical symptoms (not "hysterics," but hysteria in the technical, psychological sense) such as psychosomatic headaches and vertigo, possibly caused by the unnatural strain of self-restraint in virtuous Burmese Buddhist ladies. Reckless wantons can be found anywhere in the world, and Burma is no exception, but even they are pretty mild by Western standards.
     One of the greatest troubles I have seen for village ladies is that there are many old maids, and a Burmese old maid is in all probability celibate for life. Possibly the large number of unmarried women is due to the large numbers of unmarried monks and soldiers in the country. Also, as a general rule, once a woman reaches about thirty she becomes a confirmed spinster, unless she has outstanding qualities or her family has money. The sorrow of living a life without a mate and without children, without the kind of love that most women naturally crave, can be very sad, and a cause for some shame too. Such women often become very religious, and take much consolation in Dhamma. This is how I have come to meet many of them. They will often support a monk or monks as a way of having a surrogate man in their life.
     Still they suffer less than do American women. This is largely because of the simplicity and "wholesomeness" of their lives, and the relative simplicity and virtue of the culture. Burmese people take Dhamma to heart.

The one in green is Ma Htay-I, one of my chief supporters
and best friends for years

     Some Westerners may be skeptical that Burmese villagers experience less unhappiness in their lives than do we Americans. After all, they live in profound poverty—they make on average probably less than the US equivalent of $3 a day, and often three generations of a family will live in a one-room shack with bamboo matting for walls and a roof of thatch serving the dual function of shedding rain and concealing rats. Up until recently their country was governed, as is common knowledge, by a brutal and incompetent military dictatorship. Most of those villages have no electricity or running water, and furthermore have barking dogs, flies, dirt, and goat turds all over the place. How could they possibly be happier than us?!
     Test it for yourself: Go to any Burmese village at random and count smiling faces—not fake, stuck-on smiles, but genuinely happy faces—and then go to any American town at random and do the same. You may be very surprised. It's really obvious to just about anyone who has spent much time in both countries.
     The seeming mystery is resolved by some very elementary Buddhist philosophy, namely the Second Noble Truth. The Second Noble Truth states that all suffering is the result of craving, or desire—and there can be no doubt whatsoever that Americans have much, much more desire than do Burmese villagers. More desire, more dissatisfaction, more suffering. It's very simple, and relatively obvious for those willing to look. Yet we think the Burmese should be more like us anyway. We insist on believing the consumeristic lie that happiness depends upon external circumstance, not on a healthy attitude. Our luxuries and privileges simply make us fussier and harder to please.
     Things are starting to change more quickly in Burma, as capitalists rush in to exploit new markets and cheap resources and cheap labor, and as tourists come in a more leisurely way to spend money and take pictures. A few years ago I started noticing lots of places in Rangoon with the sign "KTV" on the storefront. I wondered what they were, and guessed they must be a kind of place where people drink tea or overpriced Coca-Cola and watch videos on a big-screen TV. I didn't see how such a place could stay in business though. Then an Australian man who spends much time in Burma explained to me that these places are practically brothels; guys do go there and drink the overpriced drinks and watch videos, but pretty girls come and sit at the table with them, and if they like the looks of one or two, they make arrangements to meet at such and such place for an evening, or maybe just half an hour, of prostitution. My Australian friend also told me about the multitude of "massage parlors" sprouting up in the city, which started out mainly catering to Chinese businessmen. Now certain people are trying to start up "sex tourism" in Burma similar to what has existed in Thailand for a long time. After he told me this stuff, for about three days I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. My heart went out to the innocent Burmese girls who were being corrupted by a new culture brought in by foreign commercialism. Many of the ones who wind up like this are simple village girls coming to the city to make some money for the family…and somehow winding up in a squalid little room "entertaining male guests." They make a few dollars per day, and are essentially prisoners. But another reason why I felt so awful after hearing the tale is that I knew that if I were not a celibate monk and had the money, I'd be sorely tempted to go to a place like that myself. Some Burmese girls are extraordinarily pretty. The thought that one of them could be had so easily could be a powerful yet terrible temptation. Out in the villages a guy practically has to marry a girl before he can kiss her.

A new Westernized look for Burmese women

     I noticed long ago, and have noticed again since coming back to America, that very many American women suffer from a great deal of deep confusion, fear, trauma, and distress. I feel that much of it is as I've already touched upon: We live in a less moral and much more complicated world with much, much more desire, and thus much, much more dissatisfaction and unhappiness. We generate "unskillful karma" and are fussy, hard to please, and closed-hearted. With regard to Western looser morals in particular I suppose women have difficulties; there has been a double standard throughout the world for thousands and thousands of years, in which women have been expected to be more moral than men (and enjoyed some respect for it); and it may be that as a consequence women have evolved to have a less "robust" conscience than men. In other words, they have a more sensitive conscience; and the modern right to be just as bad as men has resulted in much of this confusion and distress that I see in the women of the West—although I freely and gladly admit that Western women have qualities, like open-mindedness, that Burmese females tend to lack. Every system has its good points and bad points. 
     But I think there are other reasons why American women can seem more "emotionally challenged" than their five-foot-tall, brown-skinned, saronged and sandaled sisters on the other side of the world, and one that is rarely discussed is: The women of the West are experimenting with a new way of the world, one in which women are equals not only in personal rights but in directing the movements of civilization. This is similar to what I mentioned in a recent blog post about early Christianity and the first awakening of universal compassion in the West: It is a new system feeling its way partly by trial and error, and is bound to have troubles, confusions, and false starts, especially in the early stages. Women in the West are trying to learn a new way to be, and have few past success stories to draw on.
     Some of the confusion arises as a result of feeling out a new form of female/male relationships which do not involve the male dominating the female (often thereby requiring her to get her way by wheedling, using her affections as a reward, or "nagging"), while at the same time avoiding turning the relationship into a monster with two heads, with each head wanting to go in a different direction until it is eventually torn apart. This is a tough one, as not only thousands of years of male-dominated culture, but also literally millions of years of biological evolution appear to be stacked against it. It is definitely well worth a shot though.
     My suggestion for this is that if we are to create a Heaven on Earth, a kinder, gentler, more balanced world with equality for everyone, we should not despise manliness. Not only the Divine Feminine should be emphasized, but the Divine Masculine as well; only then can there be Divine Balance. So in addition to the gentleness, nurturing, compassion, open-heartedness, etc. of the Feminine, the Divine Male aspects should also be accepted and honored, including courage, a thirst for freedom, unflinching determination, and a willingness, even an enthusiasm, for accepting the harshness of the world. That last quality might be also described as love for a difficult challenge. The trick is to acknowledge the divine aspects of both polarities, without getting sucked into the weaknesses of either.
     I wish also to respectfully offer some advice to the women of the West who are endeavoring to create a world more influenced by wise femininity: If you strive out of love for women, for equality, for a better world, and so on, you will be doing something positive, and likely to succeed. If you strive out of resentment against men and the mess we've made of things, and so on, you will be doing something inherently negative, which will lead to more negativity and more strife. Anything we say or do with positive mental states is positive, and conducive to positive results; and anything we say or do with negative mental states is negative, and conducive to negative results.
     I read long ago that hatred of war does not stop wars; it is love of peace that stops wars. This same principle applies to all sorts of things.

A Burmese girl with traditional
thanakha bark makeup



  1. KTV popping up in Burma is a good example of how vulnerable we all are as humans to temptations, Eastern or Western. KTV is only a slice of what pressures we face in the West on this level. Western women have been bombarded with media, social expectations, all the stress and duties of achieving in a fast pace society, etc. Thus, it seems to me this argument is more about culture and simple living than gender. I bet by and large Burmese men are more contented, happy and innocent then American men.

    There is no going back. It seem to me men and women must both evolve. Men would benefit from evolving past their conditioned and biological based behavior to dominate for certainly a domination/subordination relationship doesn't serve any higher experiences of intimacy and wholeness, for men or for women? Compassion (a "feminine" quality), is a key spiritual trait that is cultivated only by cultivating an open heart. Men would gain from this. Likewise, Women would benefit from developing the masculine traits of unflinching determination and courage, thus giving them the strength to be emotional stable, secure within themselves and less fearful.

    It seems to me what you observe in Western women (and humanity in general) is an unstoppable "in-between" stage in the evolutionary process. We western women resist inequality because we can. We are more free and not so overburdened as the women of underdeveloped nations are by oppressive laws, poverty, and childbearing. Who else has the time or social power?

    It IS messy because we don't know what we are doing but neither do men!!! Many men I know feel a need to develop more compassion, care and emotional maturity (said or unsaid) yet are faced with thousands of years of male conditioning like, "it is weak to cry" or "what a pussy you are." Many men are now wanting more deep, bonding, and lasting experiences with women yet are faced with their biological tendencies to say, use and objectify women (like the Burmese women of the KTC as you submitted above would tempt you) and are preyed upon by a 40 Billion dollar porn industry that makes money off of this biological weaknesses. Men have "emotional challenge" and duality too.

    Evolving men have different but equally messy processes in learning how to develop sacred masculinity (which is truly rare) without rejecting the feminine qualities. We are BOTH so challenged and inequality is not going to work to make us more happy. Simple living, acceptance, care, spiritual development and detachment maybe, but not reverting back to being male property.

    Your observations and opinions seem to be way too oversimplified. These are very complex issues with multiple contributing factors! The sacred masculine is important and underdeveloped, inspire it in others without despising femininity (or misunderstanding it). This I think (as I have told you before) you could do really REALLY well and no doubt many men would benefit from your example!

  2. *"hatred of war does not stop wars; it is love of peace that stops wars. "*

    That's a wise observation, and perhaps it has applications on the spiritual journey too. One doesn't have to hate Samsara - it is necessary to make accommodations for samsaric needs (the very essence of the middle path) while desiring freedom and deliverance.

    Too much of the Vinaya hates Samsara, treating the monks as if they were already enlightened and contaminated by contact with Samsara. The lotus does not hate the mud it flowers in.

    Of course any large tribal organisation is like this, especially armies. The Don't ask, don't tell policy of the US Army comes to mind, as one of those "unmaintainable in practice, but necessary in theory" rules. There is a lot of don't ask, don't tell in the monastic life too, from what I've observed.

    If one wants to be totally honest, one has to either be willing to ruffle a lot of feathers, one of the reasons among many that I love your writing, it is honest, or one has to stay in the lay life and attempt to live as a contemplative. Ironically, the Bhagavad Gita would call the latter option dishonest, for not doing full justice to the lay life.

    1. The idea that the phenomenal world is "evil," or just unpleasant and inferior, permeated ancient Indian philosophical thought, much as it did ancient Gnostic thought in the West. Detaching from and/or transcending this aversion, along with detaching from and/or transcending the world itself, seems to be part of the trick.