Thursday, 1 June 2017

"Nothing But Nothing Should Be Taken at Face Value.”

In the same way that the notion of "face" can blend into the cultural trait of indirect communication, both of those together blend into the Burmese cultural concept of anar, which is a broader notion still. In fact, the characteristics of exactly what makes and goes into anar may be untranslatable outside of Burmese culture, where it is viewed as something of a national trait. Although anar can take years of living in Burmese society to fully understand, it is a very important quality for foreign yogis to try to at least begin to be cognizant of, since it will color nearly all interactions while in Myanmar in some way.

At its core, anar is a feeling of not wanting to impose on, or cause a strain in others, avoiding embarrassing them in any way, perhaps defined broadly as a constant attention to another’s state of mind. Chit San Win attempted to describe it in Myanmar Family, writing that anar means to feel shame in “expos[ing] other’s wrongdoings, willing to give things whenever asked for by others, acceding to someone’s request, and reluctant to go against someone.” Ma Thanegi explains it this way: “Feeling anar deh means feeling reluctant to take advantage of, to offend or to upset the other person…which means not saying no to an impossible request, or telling you what they think you want to hear because doing otherwise would just be too rude. In the same way they would agree with you even if they don't.” She then further emphasizes the role of indirect communication in anar by adding, “The locals have been used to this issue practically since birth, so they have learned to read the signs about the true state of things through facial expression, tone of voice, body language, etc., of each other. Due to this very strong culture trait, nothing but nothing should be taken at face value.”

Anar is a major component of the cultural glue that governs the parameters of general, social interactions, used between people where there is some degree of social distance (that is, age, rank, etc). But it is not as much of a feature of genuine, personal relationships, when people truly know each other well, such as between and among family members and close friends. 

Ma Thanegi remarks, “With close friends or school mates or cousins, I feel no anar because it sort of implies I am treating them like strangers and keeping them at a distance, which makes them mad. Among close friends—and we Burmese tend to have lots of them—a quick ‘thanks’ is okay.” She also notes that in the West, it’s less common to have such a large circle of what-are-considered close friends. Moreover, Burmese friendships are so strong that, in her words, “we can swear at each other, borrow their clothes, disturb them at midnight, ask favors any time of day or night, drop in at their homes any time or at their work place, drag them off from work to have tea, etc. At government offices we drag off friends working there to go with us to teashops or book browsing or even movies etc.” Although, new friends who one meets may feel anar until they know one well enough to sense what will or will not offend.

Many Burmese extend this concept of anar and modesty to meditation attainments as well. The possible powers some monks purportedly attain are treated respectfully but ambiguously in much of the literature, as well as in the ways people refer to them. Of course, it goes without saying that openly referring to one’s own progress on the path would tend to negate one’s words! U Mya Thaung relates an anecdote recorded in the Shwegyin Nikaya Sasana that the famous, 19th century forest monk, Thilon Sayadaw, was suspected of having developed abhiññā, or supernatural powers. The document neither admits nor denies this fact, noting, “The wise tend to keep things to themselves.” Therefore, it is considered very bad form to praise oneself in either the worldly or spiritual sphere.

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