Well as usual I’m a bit behind on this blog and there’s the chunk of my life from February to now that’s missing. I’m going to try to fill you in briefly, and lead you to where I am now. It’s hard to post this one. I feel hesitant about posting ‘ugly’ stuff. But this is real life, and real life is ugly sometimes. So forgive me.
We arrived in Thailand and headed straight to our first monastery stay. Here we got inducted into the weird and wonderful world of Thai monastery life. A couple hours of work, one meal a day and the rest of the time to meditate, read, etc. It was quite different to the places we had been before. I was in a room in the women’s section, surrounded by white-robed, shaven headed Thai women. This was my first encounter with mae chi – Thai Buddhist pseudo nuns who fill a place in between religious renunciant and monastery housekeeper. I had sort of known they existed, but seeing the reality is another thing. While the monks (always male) are often practically worshiped, the closest a woman can get is to be a mae chi, which is most often a (only occasionally glorified) housekeeper.
We took an unexpected trip back to Australia after our stay here to visit Bodhinyana monastery in Perth and a quick visit to family and friends. The visit was glorious and not more to be said.
We returned to Thailand with renewed hope and a plan to go north, so we visited Chiang Mai and stayed a few days in a monastery in Mae Hong Song on the border of Myanmar. While in Bangkok this time, and while in Chiang Mai, I took the opportunity to visit two monasteries that house real nuns in Thailand. Most ‘traditionalists’ would see them as at best, frauds, and at worst, criminals; but I found them wise and inspiring. They have fought the formidable forces of ignorance and patriarchy with intelligence and wisdom. We stayed another month in a different monastery headed by a very kind monk. He even allowed one of the real nuns to stay in his monastery (something 90% of monks in Thailand wouldn’t allow). However, there were tensions among the other visitors over this one nun. Other random people complaining that she shouldn’t be around, they didn’t respect her. What was going on here? I was feeling more and more lost, uncomfortable and sad.
It became apparent that the world of Thai Buddhism wasn’t ready to fully accept and empower women, if you want to say it like that. I’m ashamed to say that all this hatred and prejudice was a huge shock to me. My only explanation is that my life up to this point has been so privileged; I can barely believe it when someone tells me ‘no’ merely on the basis of my gender. I feel angry and powerless (surely that’s the heart of all anger), my voice stifled by the expectation that as a woman I will keep silent and accept my lot.
Well it has really crushed me. To encounter women in these places and hear them say to me “It’s a hard life being a mae chi”, or “We all feel sad, all the women feel like that”; that breaks my heart. Because I feel that spirituality should be a way for people to be free, not to be more trapped.
It seems to me, that institutionalised religion and the family circle are the last great strongholds of sexism. I’m not against them, quite the contrary, but they tend to be the places we often find ourselves needing to squeeze ourselves into a particular niche and stay there.
I’ve been taught that everyone is entitled to their beliefs. And for the most part I agree. But what about when those beliefs oppress people? What about when people have to accept those beliefs without being able to choose to believe them? In the end beliefs are just an artefact of the mind, aren’t they? They are not necessarily truth.
I don’t know. I just don’t know.
I’m taking a break from the monastery world in Malaysia now. I’m renting a lovely room in Penang, doing some online work, cooking, eating, exercising, reading, meditating, thinking. As I type I am looking out at the sun spending it’s last moments hanging around colonial rooftops and the strait of water bisecting the mainland in the distance.
Taking a little peaceful time to build up my confidence again, or trying to. Trying to understand. Or perhaps…trying to learn to accept that I can’t.