Driving back from a relaxing night at our friend Aor’s house in Chiang Rai, our group engaged in the one of the most passionate discussions of the trip. A week earlier, we had visited Wat Arun, a famous Buddhist temple in Bangkok. This spiraling structure depicts thousands of deities holding their arms to the top of the spiral where 7 kilos of gold rests. Each inch drips with detail and care. Behind the temple one can find a school for girls and young children. Run by a former monk and a good friend of Professor Datta named Mr. Hartanto, this school aims to keep girls out of human trafficking and the sex industry through education and vocational training.
Most importantly, Mr. Hartanto engages the practice of mindfulness in his teachings. According to him, we are taught to take care of our bodies through sleep, eating, and exercise. We do not, however, pay as much attention to our minds. As a result, people are angry, impulsive, discontent, anxious, and depressed. By sharpening and strengthening the mind, Mr. Hartanto’s goal is to help his students overcome past trauma and grow as strong individuals. As our group engaged in a discussion on mindfulness and processed Mr. Hartanto’s philosophy, we were met with a more challenging question.
From the first moment we stepped foot on the school grounds, we were met with an assembly of young women who greeted us in both Thai and English. They stood just inside the gates of the school. Mr. Hartanto informed us that the temple would close shortly, so we had to visit the sight right away. He instructed the girls to stand in place and wait for us. Dr. Datta quickly addressed this comment and asked that the girls don’t wait around in the heat just for us. Mr. Hartanto agreed, and our group, plus two of Mr. Hartanto’s students, walked to the temple. As Mr. Hartanto explained the history of Wat Arun, one of the girls passed tissues to the other girl, who handed the tissues to Mr. Hartanto for his sweating brow. The girl who held the tissues also held an umbrella to protect Mr. Hartanto from the sun. Right away, I took notice of the disciplined nature of the two students. I wondered how they were chosen to aid their teacher. Did they volunteer? Were they the oldest students, or maybe the youngest? I was curious as to why anyone could stand in the blazing heat just to pass tissues to their teacher without complaint.
When we returned to the school, the young women greeted us again before leading us to a hallway with chairs arranged in a circle. As Mr. Hartanto began to give a lecture on his life history and relationship with Buddhism, a few girls came into the hallway carrying trays of iced lemon tea. Before they reached us, however, they bent to their knees and offered us the tea from the floor. I was stunned. I looked around to watch my peers meekly grab the glasses, offering shy smiles. I felt that it wasn’t just me who was confused and uncomfortable. Mr. Hartanto continued his speech without addressing the girls, and they quietly exited the room by backtracking on their knees until they exited the circle of chairs and stood up.
Later, as Mr. Hartanto was explaining the work and virtues of his school and teaching methods, he commented on the discipline of his students with pride. According to him, their disciplined nature would help them later in their nursing careers. Mr. Hartanto’s school offers a single career path. Nursing, Mr. Hartanto explains, is a good job where the nurse is respected no matter the social status of the patient. I couldn’t help but wonder, “What about the respect of the girls right now?” It was hard for me to view girls serving drinks on their knees as anything but subservient and sexist in nature. Was this my ethnocentric American dialogue, or an accurate way to interpret the situation from an inside perspective as well? Were the girls content serving in that manner, or did they share my uncomfortable feelings? In other words, was I projecting my own opinions about equality and respect onto the girls? Was I misjudging and misunderstanding the social and cultural context of the situation?
A week later, we found ourselves engaged in a heated debate about that very moment at Mr. Hartanto’s school while driving back to our hotel. One of my classmates perceived the situation as inherently hierarchical and sexist. Others were unsure. Another student and I advocated for the understanding of the situation from the relevant cultural context. We are not Thai Buddhists living in Bangkok, so how could we possibly understand the situation from the perspective of those living in that culture and society? If someone unfamiliar with American society visited the United States, they might misinterpret our cultural practices. My Senegalese host family might find it strange and individualistic to eat from separate plates instead of from one communal dish. I know for certain that they find it strange how American’s congratulate each other on losing weight, and how we are obsessed with shrinking ourselves. After all, it’s difficult to explain different cultural ideals and practices from one society to another. There are different understandings of family time and beauty across cultures that can be easily misunderstood. Maybe that’s what was happening with our perception of discipline at Mr. Hartanto’s school. I decided to do some research to be sure.
I found enough information on women and gender relations in Buddhism to support a thesis, or a term paper at the very least. My main take-away from the literature was that Buddhism has changed and developed over several historical stages. The teachings of the Buddha were written after he departed from Earth, so the message the Buddha left behind was subject to the interpretation of humans with their own values. Author Kajiyama Yuichi describes that in the earliest stages of Buddhism, there was no distinction between men and women. A man or a woman could reach enlightenment, and the Buddha approved of women joining the holy Buddhist Order. Granted, there were separate orders for men and women, and women were forbidden from admonishing members of the male order. The literature suggests, however, that the status of women within Buddhism in ancient India was significantly higher than pre-Buddhist society had allowed.
The idea that a woman could not reach enlightenment and become a Buddha arose in the first century B.C. after the translation of a Chinese text described the Buddha’s form as uniquely male. Although analysis of ancient Buddhist texts and their translations is outside the scope of this blog post, I believe this point reveals how the teachings of the Buddha Gautama were subject to the changing interpretations and values of society over centuries. In response to an oft-cited Buddhist idea that a woman will transform into a man before reaching paradise, Yuichi outlines how Buddhas at the beginning of the Christian Era identified the unique hardships of women and the female body. Specifically, pregnancy and childbirth brought great pain and difficulty. The author suggests, then, that this transformation into a male form allowed women to truly achieve bliss: an afterlife without the pain and suffering of the female form.
I think the main takeaway of Yuichi’s argument is that Buddhism is an ancient, complex, and deep-rooted tradition. Just as the written teachings of the Buddha adapted over centuries, so too did the interpretations of these texts. There is no one way to practice Buddhism. The religion presents itself differently across regions, time periods, and languages. Putting labels Buddhism, or any religion for that matter, is useless in my opinion. Studying the way in which a culture or society understands and practices a religion…now that’s more worthwhile. So, in relation to Hartanto’s students, I believe the study of Thai culture and gender dynamics would yield more insight than the study of Buddhism alone. So, back to the heated van debate—I’m still unsure how to process our time at Mr. Hartanto’s school. I think a complete understanding of the topic requires much more time immersed in Thai society and with Thai people. Overall, however, I stand behind the idea that the best practice when faced with new cultural practices is to take a step back, think, and try to understand the situation from the perspective of the culture you’re in.