Wednesday, September 7, 2016, 9:30 pm
Post n°6 – The people at Shwe Oo Min
So… Who comes to this place? Well, as can be expected, mostly Asians, and mostly women. I say “as can be expected” first because this is Asia, and second because there are almost always more women than men in meditation centres, in the West as in Asia. And they practise more diligently too, generally speaking. I’m sure their average diligence is higher than men’s. And yet, and yet, they are not allowed to ordain fully. But this is another topic I will soon address in a monster five-page post. Stay tuned!
Asians… Mostly Burmese, and then Vietnamese, Korean and Chinese, with the odd Singaporean, Malaysian, Hong Kongian (?). And then, out of roughly 300 people, about 20 Westerners. Most of these twenty people are lay, but a few are bhikkhus (monks) and one is a sayalay (nun).
There is constant turnover here, and every day the scenery changes. On the men’s side, there are roughly 40 bhikkhus and 30 laymen. Of the forty bhikkhus, ten are Burmese and live here at the monastery long-term, while thirty are foreign (mostly Vietnamese) and are limited to three months, like all visitors. This is monastery rule: after three months, you can ask for permission to stay on, but most people leave, whether you’re ordained or not. On the women’s side, there are about 50 nuns and 90 laywomen. Again, a few “belong” to the monastery, while the others are visiting Burmese and Vietnamese, for the most part.
Most people seem to take their practise seriously and don’t socialize much, especially among the women. There is not much eye contact, so I am cautious in how I approach people, because I don’t want to interrupt them in case they are doing walking meditation. But I take every opportunity to interact, because I want to know who these people are. Many don’t speak English.
This is a special time of year called vassa. It is a three-month retreat that happens every year during the rainy season. It rains almost every day, and monastics are traditionally supposed to stay in their monastery during this period. Many lay people also choose this time to come practise, and some will take temporary ordination. In Burma and Thailand, it is customary for men to take temporary ordination at least once during their life. It is a rite of passage. Many women also choose to do this, although my feeling is that most nuns ordain for longer periods. Those who ordain temporarily wear the same robes as other monks but follow only ten precepts, as opposed to the 227 of the full Vinaya (Buddhist rules). After vassa, most of them will disrobe and go home. But this is not an obligation, and some will choose to “graduate” to full ordination. Fully ordained monks can also disrobe at any time with no social stigma.
But whether or not you ordain, people come here because they take their spiritual practise seriously. It is impressive to see so many laypeople practise meditation. And there are people of all ages, although the majority are in their late forties and up.
Women in Theravada Buddhism (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia and Lao, but also parts of Vietnam and other countries) are not allowed to take full ordination. They can only take the same ten precepts as the temporary monks, but they cannot “graduate” to full nun status. Again, I will cover this topic very soon. In English, they are called “precept nuns”, or just nuns, and in Burmese they are sayalays. Sayalays can take either eight or ten precepts, depending on whether they need to handle money.
There is another group I haven’t mentioned yet, the samaneras (novice monks). These are boys aged 10 to 18 who are also on ten precepts, the same ones that sayalays and temporary monks take. The idea of taking only ten precepts is to prepare for full ordination. Most of these boys are orphans and were sent here by their caretakers (usually other family members) to receive an education and to become monks. A very small percentage of samaneras choose to become monks of their own free will. They attend classes all day here (taught by some of the ten Burmese monks), and the curriculum lasts a few years. They are always free to disrobe during or after their program, but 90% will continue and will eventually become monks for life. Disrobing means going into a world for which they are not prepared and in which they have little support. Staying in the monastic system means they keep their social network and are supported for life. There are no girls, as the system is male-dominated.
So this is it, a very brief overview of the people. I could go into many details, but this will do for now. Drop me a line if you would like me to address a certain topic or if you have questions about this one.