"It's not religion, it's tradition." In the main wing of the Mahamuni Pagoda, in Mandalay, the monk invites me to join the other women on the large carpet. Next to them, a small entry allows men in longyis - a sheet worn by men as a long skirt- to enter the central room where a huge golden blistered Buddha waits. In front of us, a red signs says "Ladies are not allowed to enter." Not convinced by that argument, I however resign and join my gender-mates. They are nuns, mothers, daughters, traditional or modern, smiling or focusing; they observe with respect, in the room that is forbidden to them, the men applying the golden leaves on the statue. Around us, screens broadcast the ritual from all angles.
Like in the other pagodas of Burma, women are omnipresent. They slowly pour water on Buddha's shoulder; barefoot, they softly speak to another one; they pray for the family, the neighbours and Burma. When the monks go on their daily alms round in the suburb, they come out first, followed by sleepy children, hands full of rice, biscuits and notes. When offering their donation to the first monk in the line, they mumble their devotion with their unfailing look.
If Buddhism varies across Asia, the religion as a whole is one of the most tolerant ones. Since its creation, almost 2500 years ago, it has promised a sort of equality between men and women, an innovative vision for that time and even today. This near-absence of sexism found its origin in one of the three Marks of Existence, pillars of the Buddhist belief: the Anatta.
"We try not to see the difference between men and women." At the Thabarwa Centre, a Buddhist meditation place in Yangon, Khema's voice flirts with lethargy. Beyond the shaven head, the brown robe and the serenity, it is hard to imagine a previous life to this nunastic reality. The Anatta, described as the non-self, the impersonality, is based on the fact that existences are dependent to each others and therefore there is no distinct soul. Accordingly, there is no men nor women. Some state that paying to much importance to the distinction between genders could prevent the followers to reach the Nirvana, the ultimate goal for every Buddhist.
"According to Buddhist belief, those who have done evil in their lives will spend the next incarnation in the shape of a rat, a frog or some other low animal.(...) U Po Kyin was a good Buddhist and intended to provide against this danger.(...) And he would return to the earth in male human shape -for a woman ranks at about the same level as a rat or a frog." "Burmese Days", George Orwell.
Despite the egalitarian foundation of the religion, misogynist beliefs, unrelated with the Buddha's teaching, tied themselves to the practice. Overtime, they seem now to be completely integrated to the faith. The women, as devoted as the men; the women, who were meant to be living beings first and foremost; the women, who, regarding the theory, have the same chances to attain the Enlightenment, find themselves with a lower position in name of tradition. That word, "tradition", a catch-all expression with a sacred value is also a major argument to justify any form of inequality across the world. In these cases, "tradition" terminates discussion and progress. Enough for itself, it is used as a joker when we have consumed reason and justice.
"During the Buddha's time, the nuns -called the bhikkhunis- were equal to monks, the bhikkhus... They even had to follow more precepts... 311, I think. While, the Bhikkhus, they only have to follow 227 precepts." Dressed in light pink- the most used colour for nuns in Burma- and surrounded by hundreds of books about meditation, the nun pauses. She makes a kind smile before carrying on. "Today, nuns only have to follow eight precepts. Sometimes ten. They are not seen as Bhikkhunis anymore [in Myanmar]." She insists on the Anatta and the little importance she gives to the difference. "It's a balance. Men's nature is aggressive. To avoid tensions, it is better for the nuns, whatever their rank is, to bend in front of any monk."
Saturday afternoon, Downtown Yangon. In the busy streets, nuns of all ages walk in line. In front of the group, a young nun announces their coming to the residents to let them prepare the donation. The sun warms the bitumen and a light water vapour, as the wet season's scum, arises. They all sing together and attract bystanders attention. The big alms bowl in their hands is meant to receive rice and snacks from the donors. After our long walk, we go back to the center. Squished in a truck for two hours, they take the time to share spicy mangoes, biscuits and water. Some of them, the oldest ones, close their eyes and meditate. Others laugh cheerfully for no apparent reason. A little girl, shaken by the legendary bumps of the Burmese roads, puts her head out of the truck and throws up in front of the stunned drivers and the friendly mockeries of the nuns. Joy is in the air. We cross the Bago river where boats wait patiently.
Nuns, like the other women in society, are affected by a lower status then their male counterparts. Even when the usual justifications -femininity, the possibility to get pregnant, the physical strength- do not have any relevance in the monastic context, the gap between men and women persists.
In response of the stonewalling of the nuns, I insist. Why such a difference if, regarding the Buddhist foundation, there shouldn't be any. One of them considers the question for a little while.
After a pause, she simply replies: "That must be tradition."