‘You know where you are.’ The Western woman was passing comment on her few days as a guest at Wat Pah Nanachat, N.E. Thailand – the forest monastery for Westerners that was founded by Ajahn Sumedho under the auspices of Luang Por Chah back in 1974. In one respect ‘knowing where you are’ meant living in a section of the monastery walled off and reserved for women; it also meant that she would by and large not meet with the monks; and in the ‘colour-coded’ mode of dress that is the norm, she would be wearing a white blouse and long black sarong. Brown for monks and samaneras, white with a wrap for nuns, white without wrap for ‘pa kow’– long term eight precept men – and white and black for female guests. And that would be the order of the line-up for meals. Thais are firm on outward form and boundaries. You know where you are.
As we knew each other from England, we were conversing. It was her first time in a Thai monastery, so I’d wanted to know how it was going. Admittedly I felt apprehensive as, apart from the oddness of being in a foreign culture, the placing of people in terms of gender and the stratification of one’s position in the group can be a sensitive topic. In the West, we look towards equalising the relative positions – male and female politicians, soldiers and newsreaders; equal pay; Gender Discrimination policies etc. Moreover the woman I was talking with had been a campaigner for women’s rights in the 1960s. Now, much to my surprise, she was finding the clarity of the discriminative positioning calming and peaceful.
Such positioning lets you know where you are. For Thais and perhaps for Asians in general, that brings the benefit of knowing what the duties and protocols are in the case of family, employers, and the society in general - irrespective of the changeable and risky area of personal feelings. If you’re a taxi-driver you know that you’re up a notch from a rickshaw driver, but you’ll use the appropriate terms and gestures of respect to a doctor or a businesswoman. There isn’t the need to make assessments, check each other out, or decide and negotiate around who goes first – that’s all sorted out. Supporting this is the fact that, like many of the East Asian languages, Thai is rich with terms of respect that are to be used dependent on where you are in the social scale; correct speech is not the ‘PC’ that we’ve adopted in the West, but based on using the social placement gracefully. This can make Thais uncomfortable in addressing monks in English because they can’t use the ‘correct’ terms of respect – my language doesn’t have them. From our point of view, even when one has some skill in speaking Thai, it’s still difficult at times to really get the meaning of what is being said, because the style of address will contain hints, nuances and invitations rather than direct expressions of wants, dislikes or opinions. Confrontational speech is a complete no-no, and one has to listen carefully for signs of reluctance, evasiveness or low enthusiasm.‘Probably could do’ is more likely to mean ‘Don’t push further on this topic’ than ‘Great idea.’ This sense of personal modesty and understatement is especially a keynote in the monastic sub-culture: whereas Western novices find it stimulating to express a difference of opinion with their teachers (after all this will promote inquiry), among Thais disagreement with one who is senior has to be handled cautiously through hints.
Even more confusing for them, the body language of the West is a monotone. We all sit at the same height; we take whatever seat is available in a room or on a bus; we don’t address others with our hands in anjali; we queue up on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. On the other hand, in Thailand, it’s us Westerners who get confused. I remember shortly after taking on robes as a samanera, being introduced to a Thai lay supporter – who pressed his hands together in the anjali ( prayer-position) to greet me. So of course I made anjali back to him – with resultant confusion and embarrassment – and apologies from the monk who was supervising me. Now on a recent trip I noticed the similar scenario on the plane: the steward greeted all the passengers with her hands in anjali – the Thai passengers filed past her along the aisle with no response, and without even making eye-contact. In their eyes, I imagine, she was just showing that she was a properly cultivated person who knew where she was. Therefore things were in order and they could feel comfortable. The Western passengers all responded to the steward’s anjali by making anjali back and looking at her directly – thus establishing in their way, that they were friendly and were appreciative of her service. The steward retained a bright and even expression throughout. In her upbringing it was important not to show uneven or disturbing moods. This evenness is a social grace; it keeps whatever’s happening within from spilling out, and it preserves a safe sense of separateness. It’s quite the opposite from the West where expressing how you feel is considered a sign of being open and willing to meet the other person on an emotional (or even physical) level. A day in California without being hugged, giving or receiving direct feedback, or divulging intimacies is not quite hitting the mark on being real.
I’d say there are advantages and disadvantages to any social model. Brought up in the West, after graduating from university, I was free to travel and explore what I wanted to do with my life – which meant that at the age of twenty-five I could enter a monastery in Thailand and subsequently take up monastic training. In accordance with the standards laid down by the Buddha, I did have to ask my parents for their permission – which as Westerners they readily gave: this was what their adult son wanted to do, there was no expectation for me to support them, and no duty to produce children. Mentioning that in Malaysia to a group of ethnic Chinese, I could almost hear the jaws drop. Welfare state, free education, social security if you can’t find work, marry who you like and go where you want – such freedom! At times Asians do comment on the difficulties of being fixed in the family/social grid, with its emphasis on obedience and duty; it's that grid however which provides their guidelines, welfare state and source of warmth and belonging.
To make a simplification: the traditional Asian norm is to fit in with the norm, the Western one is to choose the norm that fits your disposition and needs. Over here it’s individual freedom, equal rights and opportunities. In the East, the terms are duties, responsibilities and respect – especially for elders. Actually, ‘respect’ is too limited a word to convey the range of qualities that establish this all -important social medium. Showing respect honours the one who gives it as much as the one who receives it; it establishes a relationship based upon responsibilities in the social order, rather than any personal merits or moods. It isn’t ‘fair’ – I pay respect to my ‘seniors’ who should not pay respect to me. However, it is orderly – and the senior has his/her duty to offer support, and be an advisor and guarantor for the ‘junior.’ Furthermore, where you are isn’t to be held as who you are. In fact ‘who you are’ is not so much a mystery as a wrong view. There isn’t a ‘who’ to it; there’s the ‘how’ of one’s dharma – one’s duties, actions, roles and responsibilities. There’s kamma, not self; there’s the occasion to perform according to the proper order, and the belief that true benefits, mundane and spiritual, will come from that.
Respect encompasses a range of actions and attitudes. Firstly there’s conventional respect – to one’s seniors. In monastic circles, respect to one’s teacher means that monks will generally go or stay where their teacher sends them. In Malaysia I stayed at a monastery which was being looked after by one Thai monk who spoke none of the local languages. My Thai is minimal, but I got to ask how he managed and why he was here. ‘Duty’ was the matter-of-fact reply. I don’t find this way of looking at things ro be common among Westerners. Then there’s also respect in terms of acknowledgement of the individual’s goodness or achievements; and there’s also respect as gratitude. All these aspects may come together in the relationship to one’s teacher, wherein massaging and even bathing him is the norm. While Luang Por Chah was being bathed by an American monk, Luang Por asked him: ‘Did you bathe your father?’ ‘No, Luang Por, we don’t bathe our fathers in New York.’ ‘That’s why you have problems.’ An inadequate sense of respect.
The stratification allows for bonding, but keeps the distinctions. Address to a ‘senior’, especially to a senior monk, generally involves adding the term ‘krap’ (‘ka’ for women), a word that implies acquiescence, at the end of each sentence. At times this is repeated, or strengthened with the more deferential ‘krapom,’ which one utters with one’s hands in anjali – and there are even more deferential and flowery ways of address that can’t be replicated in English in a way that doesn’t seem absurdly obsequious. But although ‘krap/ka’ can mean ‘yes, indeed’ or ‘aye-aye, sir/ma’am,’ it also can be ‘meaningless’ and used as a ‘marker’ of respect. This is a usage that’s found in other Asian countries. For example, when I was walking in India I might ask: ‘Does this road go to Patna?’, and almost certainly receive ‘yes’ as a reply. I would assume that this meant that the road does go to Patna. But not so; it might mean you could get to Patna via that road, just like you could go from London to Athens via Stockholm, but in general what the ‘yes’ really meant was something like ‘I’m attentive to your needs and wish to be helpful.’ What comes first is establishing the relationship, which now makes complete sense to me – we used to do this in England years ago with polite ‘meaningless’ conversation and cups of tea. So in Thailand when someone says ‘krap/ka’, both parties understand that this denotes the appropriate attention and even intention – but that doesn’t necessarily imply firm agreement, or mean that circumstances will allow that apparent agreement to be carried out. How could something so uncertain as the unfolding of the future be something we can expect to establish? But the relationship, which will determine how we interact, is clear and established time and time again through bodily and verbal marks of respect. Conformity to the letter of the decision isn’t expected; but a proper affirmation of the spirit of loyalty, regard and correct relationship is. That’s the basic duty.
The distinctness is also gender-based, and men and women don’t intermingle as freely as they do in the West. Like paying respect, this separation is emphasised in monastic life. For a start the wall around women in the monastery moves with them wherever they are in relationship to the monks. The need to support celibacy is part of it. Distance keeps things cool and clear in an area where people are liable to emotionally flow and merge into each other. A distance of at least two metres is the expected minimum; preferably if one’s voice can manage it, even more. Better still, don’t see each other at all. And then there’s the body language. When there is a need to communicate, the woman will be down a step, maybe even kneeling on the ground, and addressing me with hands in anjali. This threw me at first, but now I can switch to the Thai channel: the woman seems to be quite happy playing her part, and often seems more confident in that than I am in mine.
However the notion of not seeing women doesn’t stand a chance in a typical monastery whose lay congregation is largely female. Women’s familial sense – people first, functions second – and love of serving get channelled into devotional forms through a stable relationship with the group of monks (who as individuals remain unknown and who come and go). Men’s relational sense on the other hand is more ‘social’: to know what people can do and form teams and connections to achieve those aims. For men it’s vital to know who the team leader is – then we know who we are going to follow. For women that’s not so: following is optional, but relating is essential. Interestingly enough, both those modes operate amongst the monks: when the arrangement is social, it’s hierarchical and ‘male’, when it’s familial it’s more ‘female.’ By this I mean that there’s a lot of physical contact, and taking time to be at ease and hang out together. In my monastery, the monks will follow a monk for work, but take advice from the nuns when it comes down to a person’s mental or physical health. A woman applying as a candidate to the sisterhood will be thoroughly screened; for the men as long as you keep the rules, turn up to the right things at the right time and can work in the group, you’re in. The monks will give talks to a silent congregation, the nuns will shine in terms of addressing and counselling individuals or teach smaller groups in which there’s the opportunity for dialogue. There are distinctions that form quite naturally; but it’s not that one is more valid or necessary than the other.
I don’t know enough to say how it all works for Thai nuns. They seem to miss out in terms of the attention of the (female) lay congregation; and also in terms of any social relationship with the monks. This doesn’t mean that they don’t have any authority – I’ve been to monasteries where the practical arrangements and finances were run by experienced nuns. And there are certainly many dedicated, skilful and wise nuns in Thailand. But for cultural and historical reasons, it’s the monks who are the Sangha and the bearers of the Dhamma, for the nuns, there’s just the opportunity to practise. This just isn’t a valid set-up for the West.
Here it's natural for nuns to have a more prominent role in Sangha affairs and in contributing to the Dhamma. In my opinion this isn't just to be fair, but because it's part of our conditioning. And transcendence has to include the conditioning – personal and cultural – of the practitioner. Otherwise one isn’t bringing one’s stuff into a Dhamma focus; we’re sidelining our kamma rather than owning it, inquiring into it and purifying it. So while we can draw great benefit from the long tap root (and still magnificent flowering) of Buddhist Thailand, we can’t ignore the norms and history of our local culture. In Britain, ‘knowing where you are’, also known as ‘knowing your place’ died out around the time when the First World War made such concerns irrelevant. In times of universal and senseless annihilation, one’s place in the social hierarchy doesn’t mean much. A generation of men were wiped out, women got the vote, the empire entered disintegration and the politics of the common man and woman became established. Nearly a century following on from all that, we’ve gone global and multi-cultural. Knowing (and staying) in your place is a thing of the past; and it doesn’t bring our current Western conditioning to light. I doubt if my English friend would have remained contented in her place in the Thai monastery for long.
It’s also the case that a valid spiritual culture also has to provide opportunities for the religious to feed their insights into a living form. Otherwise not only does the society not benefit, but the religious feels stifled and their development is hindered. Respect, duty, a strong familial sense and order established through distinct roles are all laid down in the early Buddhist scriptures as worthy values, but it would be a mistake to try to make how they are expressed culture-specific. Those ‘Gone Forth’ have to feed the conditioning of their own culture into the practice, clear the defilements and bring out the results; otherwise something precious is lost. How this is going to take form in the West is an ongoing exploration. We live in interesting times.