American freedom and Thai Theravada Buddhism
During the summer of 2011, I served as both an intern and a layperson at a female Thai Theravada Buddhist monastery. Colby College’s Freeman Grant allowed me to pursue this opportunity in Nakorn Pathom, Thailand. For my internship, I transcribed dharma recordings, led tours, taught English to the monks and documented important events. As a layperson, I lived in the monastery, participated in monastic rituals (such as chanting), gardened, helped in the kitchen and collected alms from the villagers.
Transitioning from an urban, Westernized Bangkok to a more rural Thai monastery proved to be the greatest culture shock of my Thailand experience. While the female monks welcomed me into their home, I often felt alienated as the only Westerner there. Unfortunately, we often must lose a privilege in order to truly appreciate its worth. On the morning of July 4, I thought about what I took for granted in the United States: fresh water, hot showers, air-conditioning, dishwashers, laundry machines, wireless Internet and flushable toilets, not to mention some of the more important privileges like health care and educational opportunities. While not all Americans have equal access to these, Americans possess a great amount of freedom, which is perhaps the greatest privilege and right of all.
I stayed at this particular monastery to study the gender inequality within Thai Theravada Buddhism. Even though 96 percent of the population considers itself Buddhist, only men are allowed to be fully ordained as monks. The male community of monks interprets the Buddhist text as forbidding female ordination. Despite textual evidence of female ordination, the monks continue to deny this religious privilege to Thai women. Since the Sri Lankan community of monks fully ordains both men and women, several Thai women have traveled there to be ordained as female monks. By pursuing their religious goals, these women actively promote gender equality within Thai Theravada Buddhism.
While I cannot knowledgeably write about the gender inequalities that may exist outside of the Thai monastic setting, my experience opened my eyes to the American pride and patriotism that I did not know existed in me. I found myself feeling entitled to gender equality and other privileges that I soon realized were much different within another cultural context. It took some grating of my American pride to finally find my place within a larger hierarchy. As a layperson at the monastery, I was at the bottom.
Many students at Colby College dedicate themselves to activism within the community and beyond. We constantly work toward bettering our school and bettering the lives of others. However, when we fight for progress in our community and in our nation, it is important to remember the privileges and rights that we have as Americans. Our culture instills us with a feeling of entitlement to the many forms of freedom listed in the Bill of Rights, but we must remember how privileged we are to have these freedoms. There may always be room for improvement in our society, but there is always room to be thankful for what we have as well.