Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Vinaya in contemporary Burmese Buddhist culture

In the 2,500 years since the Buddha lived, his teachings have been exported and implemented in dozens of countries to various extents, and over time cultural customs and conventional practices have become integrated and influenced in the doctrine that this spiritual teacher established. As these Buddhist societies have developed over time, it may be all but inevitable that they begin to take the individual cultural leanings of their respective societies, which over many decades and centuries also begin to affect the basic vinaya (monastic discipline) that the Buddha himself laid down. In some cases these cultural tendencies can loosen up the stricter guidelines that the Buddha mandated, and yet in other cases these cultural practices do the opposite, making a tighter practice than was clearly allowed for. In the Burmese context, an example of the former is the prohibition of the Buddha that monks may never touch money, which an overwhelming number of Burmese monastics do today despite the clear violation. An example of the former is a largely rural, superstitious belief that it is bad karma to walk in the shadow of a monastic, even though no such guideline was ever uttered by the Buddha himself.

This brings us to this rather alarming photo, shared by one concerned reader of this page, in which the center subject, a Burmese woman, took and shared herself. It depicts her grasping the full body of a Buddhist novice (while he peers through a viewfinder) with a joyous expression whose underlying meaning can be interpreted according to the generosity of the viewer. According to the monastic code, any contact that a bhikkhu makes with a female is a clear violation, however in the case of a novice, while physical contact with females are surely not encouraged, it is technically not a violation unless the novice experiences feelings of lust while the contact is being made. So while one cannot say that a clear technical violation is being made as it would depend on the mental state of the novice, it is certainly concerning to see such full-bodied contact not only made at the country's most sacred Buddhist site, but then publicly shared and broadcast to garner hundreds of reactions and comments online.

Comments and captions remark that the photo no more declares a kind of sisterly or maternal care and regard the image as more cute or endearing than harmless. However the Buddha rightly foresaw the dangers that lust could cause on the spiritual path and this is why he gave the guidelines he did, so it is more than a little shocking to see such open physical contact between the genders flaunted and shared so openly, not only at the famous pagoda itself, but also across social media platforms. In other words, this was not just an unexpected act taking place at such a holy site, but also one that was intentionally and publicly broadcast for others to enjoy-- which is why it has been re-shared here after its recent popularity, although with a wholly different commentary.

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