The journey of one Buddhist nun. (Book Reviews: Thailand).(Book Review) (book review)
1 February 2003
Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
ISSN: 0022-4634; Volume 34; Issue 1
Copyright 2003 Gale Group Inc. All rights reserved. COPYRIGHT 2003 Singapore University Press Pte Ltd.
The journey of one Buddhist nun
Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 180. Notes, Bibliography, Index.
The journey of one Buddhist nun gives an invaluable account of Thai Buddhism in practice. The account is invaluable -- beyond value, more valuable than any value -- not simply for its content but also because in some important way it is offered without the expectation of a return: Sid Brown's patent intent is to give without measure. The intention is that of one engaged in Buddhism and in life, in Buddhism today and, more specifically, in the life of a contemporary Thai Buddhist nun (maechi) named Wabi. The book is explicitly offered to a deceased brother, and implicitly to Maechi Wabi. We begin, then, with the sacral gravity of the gift -- a book offered to those who can not read it.
Yet the author's gift lies also in a remarkable capacity to measure her account. From an unbounded field of sources, ranging from the immense Pali canon to the immense life of Maechi Wabi, Brown has harvested and winnowed an extraordinary amount of material. With the essential that remains she tells a series of inter-related stories. These are, most importantly, the on-going stories of Meechi Wabi, of the institutionalisation of the Buddhist nunhood in Thailand and also a certain story of Sid Brown. Together, these stories engage numerous issues of interest to students of Buddhism and contemporary Southeast Asia, as well as to those seeking to explore questions of sexual difference and processes of globalisation.
The author's inaugural goal, as evidenced throughout the book by a sustained interlacing of canonical material with field observation and as stated in the Appendix, was to represent a living Buddhist tradition, 'textually defined but also, most assuredly, culturally defined and defining' (143). Interplay between Pali text and Thai practice is indeed well represented, at once in the words and actions of Maechi Wabi and other Thai Buddhists documented by Brown, and in the author's narrative trajectory as she brings her own textual knowledge to bear in interpreting experience. This approach posits a system of mobile exchange in which no single entity can be simply fixed, isolated, reduced and understood as such. Texts inform and explain practice as practice illuminates and motivates the use and production of texts. Similarly, the narrator frequently changes place with the narrated as Brown tells both her story and that of Wabi, including translations of Wabi's interpretations of her own and Sid Brown's stories. This approach, in a book meant not just to describe or analyse but in some sense to teach, is best exploited on the subject of meditation.
Meditation takes on increasing importance as The journey progresses. We follow the gradual amplification of Wabi's engagement in meditation, along with her and others' descriptions of increasingly intense meditation visions and experience. This attention to meditation reaches a climax at the book's centre (Chapter 6) in which the author pursues her own and Wabi's Buddhist interpretations of meditation experience. These interpretations are framed, more or less consciously, within the particular sociological, psychological and intellectual realms which the two protagonists -- Wabi and Brown -- inhabit. Still following Maechi Wabi, and as if coming down from the high point of meditative intensity, the narrative focus begins then to gradually shift to the life story of the Institute of Thai Maechi. In this way, the author takes us into the experience of meditation. We learn of the visions as recounted and analysed by the nuns themselves, and through the narrative staging, we ourselves undergo a sort of meditative experience. Comparisons made by Brown between the experience of reading and that of meditation, though somewhat problematic if only for their brevity, are in a sense performed by the narrative. This reading experience appropriately includes a sense of vacuity -- not necessarily that of meditation's most rarefied element but rather that of leaving such a state to re-enter the mundane world.
This is the world of the Institute responsible for administrating Thai Maechi and in which focus strays from meditation. In this institutional context, one wonders to what extent meditation, while supported as one of many activities (including classes on Buddhist doctrine, general education, sewing and flower arrangement), may in fact lose its focus. The paradox of teaching meditation -- and perhaps of any teaching at all -- is thus coupled with the dilemma of the institution. How can one relate knowledge of experience -- that is, knowledge of a specific experience and knowledge attainable only through singular personal experience? Yet meditation must be taught -- the dangers of unguided exploration, feared in many traditional Buddhist contexts, are made apparent by Maechi Wabi. How can an Authority authorise the most interior individual experience? Yet individual freedom is inseparable from, and strictly speaking inconceivable without, some form of institutional frame.
Although these issues are not explicitly addressed in a sustained manner, this book offers a detailed look at a very telling example: in the present socio-economic and cultural context, Thai women's freedom in such religious practice is highly dependent upon institutional support. It is in fact the first encounter with this inextricable paradox which triggers a formative crisis of faith for Maechi Wabi. It is doubt in the honesty of teaching -- in the very possibility of teaching honestly -- a doubt in the authority of authorities, which brings Wabi to nearly lose and then reconfirm her Buddhist faith.
Her story is like that of many contemporary Thai Buddhist nuns. Seeking refuge in the nunhood was seeking refuge from poverty and domestic abuse or unhappiness. But she is exemplary in another sense: rigorously compassionate, giving, hard-working, studious and calm, she is, in Brown's account, a model Buddhist nun. In cultivating such traits, Wabi has improved her lot in life, or rather reaped the merits sown in this and past lives. The explanation of Wabi's life is not, however, hermetically sealed within Buddhist doctrine. Brown shows Wabi's life to be not strictly of her own fashioning, but also largely affected by the course of contemporary history. Understanding the intricacies of this singular life within the context of both Thai nation-building trends and massive globalisation (and it should be noted that at least in the current state of affairs these two forces have contracted a manage de raison) requires extraordinary analytical agility, open to critiquing East and West, and capable of standing on pe rpetually shifting ground. Those points in The journey in which Sid Brown seems to lose her footing are precisely such points of translation: linguistic, cultural, intellectual, political translation. These are faults only insofar as, uncovered by the reader, they lay bare the chasms created when different worlds or continents meet.
The author's notably recurrent appeal to choice provides an intriguing demonstration of the complexities of the interpretive task at hand. The temple in which Wabi lives is said to be a 'community of choice' (104); Wabi is frequently said to have 'chosen' her path. The establishment of choices for Thai girls and women is lauded as a goal and accomplishment. The nun's alter-ego in this Thai women's history play is of course the prostitute. Both have left a difficult home for homelessness; they are of similar socio-economic origins. In Brown's narrative, however, an important distinction between the two lies in the question of choice: while the prostitute is forced into her vocation, the nun enters voluntarily. This attribution of choice to the nun is an explicit attempt to combat contemporary Thai preconceptions of the nun as a woman who, having lost in love, 'chose' the nunhood only out of desperation, not unlike the prostitute. More implicitly, the interpretation reflects a certain and steady spread of Ameri can political culture which promotes choice in stripping it of philosophical and political complexity. A more precise calculation of the degree of choice exercised by Wabi and other Thai nuns, or even by the Institute for Thai Maechi could be had, for example, by investigating the duplicity of karma as it masterfully conjugates determinism and its opposite, free will.
Like Wabi's multiple 'choices' made to enter the nunhood, the 'choice' to establish the Institute of Thai Maechi was a complex one. The Institute can be seen in many ways as itself born of prostitution. Steadily expanding and increasingly institutionalised sexual exploitation of poor girls and women in Thailand over the course of the twentieth century necessitated a concerted institutional effort to provide a viable alternative path for these vulnerable populations. Though not of course without roots in traditional culture, both institutions have been established as such in close conjunction with the unrelenting machine of globalisation. On the one hand, since the Vietnam War, Thailand has been exploited as an international prostitution playground. On the other, American feminism (and here I pose another question to Sid Brown: would many references to 'Western' not be more precisely construed as 'American' -- whether or not they come directly from American nationals?) directly incited Thai authorities to form alise female roles within Buddhist hierarchies. In both its working structures and its philosophy, the Institute owes much to Thai social and cultural complexes, of course, but also to Western-inspired forms of private organisation, grassroots resistance and good works. Though Brown delineates this Western influence, she leaves it more or less unanalysed. We are left with a number of vast and imprecise ideas, such as that of choice being what Thai nuns need or want or have.
American hegemony also makes itself felt in The journey's referential frame. The foreign case in hand is repeatedly illuminated by reference to contemporary American scholarship on a wide variety of issues, including but by no means limited to Buddhism. This shuttling between Thailand and America would seem to aim at isolating universal truths shared by all cultures, and to give an American public access to a distant subject. In the process, the most essential point -- i .e., the universality of truth, the very notion of truth as a fixed, self-sufficient concept -- remains unquestioned. See, for example, the observation (p. 73) that 'meditation removes the "bulwarks of ignorance" when we might otherwise actively refuse knowledge of truth'. The American referents, summoned in view of demonstrating the universality of the Thai Buddhist example, are, like the concept of choice, left unanalysed. In the name of laudable and indeed necessary ideals, difference is elided.
A certain nostalgia, even conservatism, enveloping the text at times is not without relation to this lack of analytical edge. Many readers would undoubtedly welcome sustained analysis of the structure of a feminist path like that of Wabi, explicitly based on emulation of the father who abandons the family; of the significance of sexual repression and expression within the Thai nunhood and so apparent in Wabi's life; of the significance of Catholicism within contemporary institutionalisation of the Thai nunhood. Those for whom sewing or flower arrangement classes (or the Vessantarajataka tales) have no place in feminism, and those who see danger in the unsounded naivete of American political culture at large, may particularly suffer from this absence. Brown's determination to celebrate the courage of those who obtain or make it possible to obtain high school diplomas at a late age, like those who demonstrate compassion when struck, tends to inhibit acknowledgement of irreducible complexity. 'Choices' made, con sciously or not, to winnow out certain details of Buddhist narrative parallel such analytical lacunae. Though we are told, for example, the story of the Buddha's disgust at the sight of revellers drooling in their sleep the day after, never are we told these revellers were women. Though we are told the story of Mahapajapati's long struggle with her son the Buddha to gain his authorisation for acceptance of women into the Buddhist order, never are we told the severe conditions under which authorisation was finally accorded. Sid Brown has told a compelling story; we should however remember to what extent this story is her own in the making.
As final note on language, this book is a vast translation. I would like to reiterate my admiration for the skill and care with which Wabi's life has been given to us. Here again, those points at which translation seems wanting reveal the impossibility of perfect exchange. Yet it is precisely here, where language resists facile translation, that careful analysis can best demonstrate how specific cultures articulate, in their own terms, universal truths. One of these points arises with the Pali/Thai term dhammata/thamata (p. 58-9). That this single word is spelled differently in its Pali and Thai forms leads, first, to confusion. Commentary in the text and the Appendix do not sufficiently clarify the issues at hand. Never are we told, for example, that Pali words are transliterated letter for letter while Thai is phonetically transcribed. Never is it made clear that Dhammata and thamata are virtually (etymologically at the very least) one and the same word. Relationships between Pali/Sanskrit and Southeast Asi an vernaculars, though relatively straightforward, are frequently difficult for Western students to grasp. This is largely due to an initial inability to envisage how one language could be written in any number of scripts. A more careful presentation of this situation would have facilitated reading this book and, more generally, conceiving Indian languages as cultural vehicles in Thai. The transliteration of the Thai form, dharrmata, gives in fact an interesting link to an extraTheravadin past: Thai 'suchness' retains reference to Sanskrit, most probably brought to Thai through Khmer. The uninformed reader is likely instead to understand there to be two related words which mean two different things: in Pali: 'suchness,' and in Thai: 'normal'. Understanding the semantically extensive use of thamata in Thai, be it in a secular or a religious context, gains from an understanding of the term's religious roots. The fact that these roots are not entirely cut in popular Thai usage allows Wabi to come to an intensely religious insight of the term. 'Normal' is in fact far too normal a translation for thamata.
It is, on the other hand, the informed reader who may wish for clarification of the translation 'heartmind'. While we learn the relatively irrelevant fact that 'food', is gap khao ('with rice') in Thai (p. 8), never are we given the original of 'heartmind', a key concept recurring throughout the book. Is this the Thai chai or a Pali 'equivalent'? These are of course details, but details which, carefully studied, could bring us that much closer to the 'heartmind' or the 'suchness' of Thai Buddhism -- to its specificity, there where it promises to communicate a universal.
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