Susan Bailey spends a day visiting nunneries around Mandalay to gain an insight into the lives of Myanmar’s female monastics.
Every day at 10.30am, rows of perfectly aligned slippers fill a leafy courtyard in Sagaing. Inside more than 200 nuns sit in similarly symmetrical lines dining on a simple lunch. The nuns’ pink sleeves appear to move in unison as they silently eat the last meal of the day. They then quietly exit into the courtyard, put on their slippers and return to their living quarters before resuming their days’ studies.
These orderly visuals reflect the precision of the daily routine in Myanmar’s nunneries. There are an estimated 60,000 nuns in Myanmar, but few visitors to the ‘Golden Land’ are aware of this aspect of Buddhist life. Probably because the figure pales in comparison to the country’s nearly half million monks. And images of red-robed monks are often used in Myanmar-related media and marketing so seeing pink-robed nuns comes as a bit of a shock to some.
The practice of fully ordaining female monastics, a title named bhikkhuni, has died out in Theravada Buddhism in the last century. While the daily life and routines practiced by Myanmar’s nuns in present day resemble that of the bhikkhuni, they are not actually ordained. Instead they are called thilashin, a combination of thila, meaning ethics, and shin, meaning holder. The thilashin keep 10 precepts, a far cry from the 227 obeyed by monks yet higher than the three followed by the Buddhist residents in Myanmar. Their daily life reflects a blend of religious studies, duties to the nunnery and often community work.
In an effort to learn more about this aspect of Myanmar culture, I spent a day visiting a few nunneries around Mandalay. By the end of the day, I had visited six nunneries and walked away with a better sense of their role in local culture and society. Two nunneries, in particular, stood out. And they happened to fall at the beginning and end of my excursion.
I started the day with a visit to one of the largest nunneries in the region, Sagaing’s Thet Kyar Ditar San Thin Tike. I witnessed the 220 nuns go about their morning routine, as detailed at the start of this article. The nunnery is known for its Buddhist teaching so the nuns who live there, ranging in age from 13 to 60, are dedicated to studying. I met with the head nun who was eager to chat and answer any questions about the nunnery. She and her daughter established Thet Kyar Ditar San Thin Tike 15 years ago, dedicating their lives to spreading the teachings of Buddha to other nuns. Although they have not yet had any foreign nuns come to study, they welcome foreign guests to visit and learn about Buddha’s teachings and the lives of nuns.
I continued to other nunneries in Sagaing as well as a small one in central Mandalay before venturing eastward to Pathengyi township, at the base of the Shan Hills. My destination was Thar Thana Ran Thi nunnery, a center which serves as a religious studies school as well as an orphanage of sorts. It is common for young girls whose families cannot support them to enter into the nunnery and, of the 80 nuns at Thar Thana Ran Thi, 70 percent of them come from poor families in the Shan Hills. These types of nunneries offer a safe haven, providing food, shelter and education that the girls would otherwise be unable to obtain, so their role in the Myanmar community is vital.
Than Thana Ran Thi is an oasis of calm on the outskirts of the town and the sense of community is clear. Elder nuns look after the younger ones with regards to education and discipline while the younger girls have the energy to assist in daily tasks around the compound.
The nunneries rely solely on donations from the community for their every need. The nuns head out several times a week to collect offerings of uncooked food and rice, then return to prepare their daily meals. Wealthier patrons offer donations of pre-cooked meals or, in some cases, larger items such as entire buildings or water treatment systems. Yet it is often not enough and it is not unusual for well-known nunneries to lend support to smaller or more remote nunneries. But the nuns I met were quick to remind me that any assistance is appreciated, whether in the vein of financial support, the donation of goods or services or simply visiting the nunnery.
When I asked a local friend about the nunneries in Mandalay, she commented that “Most Buddhists think firstly to support monasteries, as it is an obvious choice. But the nunneries are also supporting and spreading Buddha’s teaching so I want to help them continue their work in any way I can. I know many of the nuns are there to obtain education and knowledge to return to their normal life as better people and I think it is important to create this opportunity for them.”