Sunday, 12 October 2014

"Social and cultural differences"



The following narrative continues the story of a Mexican meditator who has been in Burma for many years. This is the second entry, and the beginning post can be found here.

"When I arrived at Shwe Oo Min monastery I did not understand anything. I asked a foreigner Sayalay to tell me the rules and regulations of the monastery but she only told me to keep eight precepts. For me it was very obvious that I should not kill anyone there, I should not steal, lie, take intoxicants and so on. What I did not know was how the monastery operated in the daily basis. I did not know that I needed to line in the women side for breakfast and lunch, how to do cleaning, if it was ok to stay in the room or not, how I should get a sit in the meditation hall etc.

I figured out all this step by step and making a lot of mistakes that sometimes made others a bit upset. For that reason, the beginning of the retreat was not very pleasant and calm, because I was constantly worried about if I would do something wrong. Little by little the intensity of this fear subsided, I watched what other yogis were doing and I tried to imitate them. However, I must say that getting familiar with the rules of the monastery was very confusing and chaotic. Usually I have been informed about the rules when I was going to a new meditation center.

The dress code was also very strange to me. In the others retreats I did, I was dressing in a more conservative style. But at Burmese monasteries the standards were even more conservative than what I was used to. So these clothes I was used to wearing were not suitable here. For me this was shocking, because at the monastery they were constantly asking me to dress more conservatively. However, in my own perspective monks were not dressing very conservative. Their shoulder was uncovered and sometimes it was even possible to see the complete torso. This is something that I’ve never experienced before.

The behaviour among women and men were very new to me as well. It is not encouraged for men and women to spend much time together. For Mexicans especially, such an experience is so weird. In Mexican culture these problems are not present, it is not something that we ever encounter. So for me it brought a lot of tension because I was not fully sure how I should behave. Whatever was very natural and innocent for me according to my own background, in Burmese culture was now considered completely different. But I tried adapted my behaviour to the conditions that were suitable for Myanmar culture.

The relationship between monks and women are so formalized that I found it a bit scary to know how to relate to them. Sometimes I felt they were paying too much attention to something that it was not that important. I also found that a good teacher will have an incredible ethical conduct with his/her students.

Burmese culture is very concerned about right ethical conduct, and tries to avoid as much as possible lustful speech and behaviour, which is very proper for any religious person. However, sometimes it felt that some people were trying so hard to be free from greed that they were developing aversion instead, which is not a solution for the problem. I felt that it was better to give importance to developing a wholesome mind and proper volition in any given interaction.

I experienced something similar when we were asked, later on in the monastery to wear longyi. Before everyone could wear any kind of loose clothes. However, the use of pants in a monastery is something unusual in Myanmar, they asked us to wear longyi. I was told by yogis that this rule came to the monastery because the novices were experiencing lust by seeing how the foreign women dressed, so they decided to change the dress code. For me this was also very new, because in Mexico wearing loose pants is considered to be a particularly conservative and safe clothing choice for women. I think women in the mid 20th century in Mexico were scolded if they did not wear dresses, but our times have changed. I guess it is just different timings for different places."