Laminated dough

There is a Burmese saying that goes, “If you want good tea, let the picker climb the slope slowly.” Allow people and events to unfold in their own time. Don’t rush.

Which is why I am a coffee addict instead. Which is probably why Myanmar has been taking this long to hold (semi-)democratic elections or legislate basic social measures. Not in a rush at all. The country laid dormant for a good chunk of the 20th century and awakened to a new world of smart phones and severe opposition against genocides.

If you are like me, a third world native in and out of separate worlds with multiple visa stories, you will likely already have a degree of patience for ambiguity. Things take longer at checkpoints. Your weekend getaway plans have to be laid out with some advanced oversight. Waiting is part of the game. You are somewhat used to it.

Yet, my patience for ambiguity has never been tested to this degree as during this period. It is a common feeling for others right now. I have been trapped in dire circumstances before, even worried for my personal safety but there was also some novelty and adrenaline involved. Right now, it is just going through a protracted transitioning process day in and out. I would rather a quick snap, like ripping off a band-aid. People, teams, and flights are just taking a little while longer to get back to me. Just have to wait them out. Waiting.

The thing about waiting only for a future outcome is that you cannot find happiness in that corner of your head space. Happiness is neither in the past nor the future. Pursuit of happiness is present. I think I will be happier if I start viewing the act of waiting as an act, rather than just something that happens to me.

In the Burmese saying, you are allowing the tea picker – the external circumstances – to take their time and fall into place. Sometimes, you forget that you are that tea picker. You have to wait on yourself, too. Stillness is the move, but I just do not know how come I view my own time as so limited. It is a type of mania – this worrying about how I am running out of time to do and see things I want.

As I type this, I am waiting on my laminated dough so I can make breakfast croissants on this cool, rainy morning here in East London.

Whenever I am letting the dough stretch and rise, or when I am pickling something in a jar, or watering my seedlings to grow, I am usually able to practise what Buddhists call Upekkha – a form of gentle and loving detachment. I am not ignoring the dough or the plant. I am not trying to fight off something in fear or in restlessness. This is not a fight or flight mode. I am in care of a certain part of the process, while keeping my distance but switching my focus to something else that requires more active attention…like washing the dishes or writing this note while letting the dough thaw or rise.

Why can’t I do more of that in my day to day life?

Insignificant Others

Parami is a Burmese word derived from Sanskrit roughly meaning talent, aptitude or recollection of a past knowledge.

In Buddhist literature, Parami describes ten sets of skills or virtues, or the inherent aptitude for ten personality traits.  Patience, for example, is a virtue, or a type of Parami.  Some people are naturally more patient than others, but you can learn to become more patient even if it does not come naturally to you at first.

For those who are more familiar with the Western philosophy, Parami can be closely understood as the virtue described in Plato’s Meno, where Meno begins discussion by asking Socrates if virtue can be taught at all.  One idea that stands out to me – or something that comes to my mind at 3AM like right now! – is that Socrates responds to Meno by saying that virtue is a form of knowledge or wisdom you can acquire through recollection, made possible by dialog.  My high school made me read this document as the first assignment to highlight that class discussions, rather than lectures, are critical to learning.  To a young mind, I loosely understood the Buddhist idea of Parami as Plato’s description of the recollection of skills, knowledge or wisdom that is already in one’s possession.

Traditional Buddhist literature often goes on to describe a significant other or a soul mate as a “Parami PyaePhat” – one that complements or hones your Parami.  Your significant other complements you, not because you are broken and need to be fixed, but because by interacting with you, he or she challenges you and helps you grow, bringing out the best (the virtues) in you.  The right partner should make you want to become a better person.  If your partner talks during movies and you have come to make peace with it, your partner has essentially helped you grow your virtue of patience!  You are a better person for it!  (Which by the way is the reason I talk during movies, to make you a better person.)

This is a lovely concept.

In traditional Jartaka stories, men with successful and heroic endeavors often have their female cohorts, often blended to the background and described as “Parami PyaePhat.”  In modern times, you still see this concept at work.  Sheryl Sandberg tells women to choose their life partners wisely, quoting a study of women in the Fortune 500 List crediting their partners’ support as a critical element in success.

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From Mark’s Facebook Status

In modern relationships, people sometimes choose careers and push love to the back burner from time to time.  Trade offs – temporary or permanent – have to be made.  Our lives are so mobile these days that I would be hard pressed to name any individual who has never experienced some form of long distant love.  It’s simply part of the package.  In 2016, “I am not fit for long distant relationships” has replaced “I am not fit for a committed relationship.

When a couple manages to stay together and goes on to achieve great things together, they are “Parami PyaePhat” to each other.  Like the ones pictured on the cover of Time Magazine.

In this sense, if a couple has to sacrifice the union to achieve individual goals, isn’t it essentially a negative Parami by way of supporting each other’s goals in absentia?  You are doing your partner a favor by not being together.  Just like Madeleine and Leonard in Jeffery Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot.  That is the love story of our generation.  

So, make it count.

No Women Here

In light of the recent rounds of news revealing Myanmar society’s attitude towards women and womanhood (see: umbrella story here and new legislation here), I am compiling a collection of all the places in Myanmar where I am not welcomed just because I am a woman (sometimes, even when dogs are).

In a country where men feel embarrassed to show respect to a senior female politician, I am sure that there will be more of these signs, and I will keep updating this entry for sure.

Hpaan

Hpaan

Pyin Oo Lwin

Pyin Oo Lwin

Inle Lake

Inle Lake

Do you think Buddha minded this? Sure, certain proximity towards someone vowed for celibacy may turn inappropriate or uncomfortable for the person. But in ordinary encounters, is it still relevant for women and men to sit in hierarchy at ceremonial places? Is spirituality reserved only for men? What is this? I do not understand.

Bhutan = Everything in this country is RED!

Bhutan will be remembered as a country with a lot of red. This color brings up various memories and associations depending on the context. It can mean: Communism, love, passion, anger, violence, blood, Valentine, cheap lounge chairs in a fast food restaurant, and commercialism (most of the successful brand logos bear red). In Bhutan, red is Buddhism, originating from the robe of monks and nuns. The Bhutanese national flag shows off red as a deference to the Buddhist heritage.

The roofs are red, because that signifies the Buddhist heritage.

The roofs are red, because that signifies the Buddhist heritage.

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The rice is red.

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Even the green beans look red!

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The corn looks red.

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Beer is red.

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The butter tea I received looked red!

I am not going to sit around here and pretend like Bhutan is a rarefied quaint little exotic country. It has its shit. Bhutan has its fair share of trouble with census. Domestic violence is widespread. When asked if corruption exists in Bhutan, a Bhutanese man answered very politically:

“Bhutan is a free country and corruption is like stars. They are there during the daytime but no one takes any notice of it. You can only see the stars in the dark during the night-time.”

Nicely put! That said, Paro definitely makes you feel as if you are in some romanticized fictional kingdom in one of the Jataka tales, with the beloved King and Queen. This city has only 55,000 inhabitants. The farm houses look intricately designed with floral details and yet strike you as minimalistic and elegant. The soil is rich, with the stream flowing through the city, allowing people to grow red rice, potatoes and buckwheat. Wild flowers are everywhere!

I feel alive here.

 

Myanmar interfaith marriage ban: Women – not monks – decide who they can have sex with

Conflicts. Wars. Power struggle among men. Sometimes, it happens in the name of honor. Sometimes in the name of protecting women. But really it boils down to nothing more than the classic male competition. Us against them. Thinking goes something along the line of it will reflect poorly on us if my/our women are with them. Marking of territories. How women are feeling doesn’t matter, doesn’t enter into the equation.

Who women have sex with, when and how remain some of the oldest and most clichéd preoccupations of societies across the world, especially so in a long isolated country like Myanmar. It is a public affair. Religious leaders want to have a say in it. Politicians want to chip in their two/three cents. Patriarchal institutions want to confine what women shall and shall not want or do.

A one-month old draft legislation in Myanmar now wants Burmese women to get permission from parents and local authorities before marrying someone of a different faith. She can be put in prison for ten years should she fail to abide by the law. The draft law is now being led by a political party and a monk, saying “this law is my dream” and that he is just trying to “protect women” and his nation. Well, the draft law is surely a nightmare for those that treasure liberty, gender equality and individual rights.

There are no safe clinics for Myanmar women to give birth or get necessary healthcare. Girls are usually the first in a household to be taken out of school when faced with economic pressures. About ten percent of families in the Ayeyarwaddy Delta are having to discontinue education of their children because they do not have enough money for food purchase. Alcoholism is on the rise, and Myanmar is one of the few last standing countries in Southeast Asia (and the world) without proper legal protection against domestic violence. A comprehensive gender equality legislation is far from reality, and the focus group was asked to change the name of the draft law on gender equality to a new name that includes “protection.” Why are politicians and religious leaders so concerned with interfaith marriages given the scope and depth of present challenges?

Though I believe in core principles of Buddhism, recent events in Myanmar makes me ponder a Margaret Atwood quote: “Any religion is a shadow of God. But the shadows of God are not God.” And it escapes most sane people when Buddhist monks are forcing women to seek patriarchal permission with legal implications of ten years in prison to make an important life decision such as marriage.

It is as if the society doesn’t trust the ability of a Burmese woman to make decisions for herself. The male knows better. And the funny thing is that this assumption is not even hidden. The chairperson of the Theravada Dharma Network blatantly stated as follows: “Our Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves.”

Thanks, but no thanks.

Responsibility to yourself means refusing to let others do your thinking, talking, and naming for you…it means that you do not treat your body as a commodity with which to purchase superficial intimacy or economic security; for 0ur bodies to be treated as objects, our minds are in mortal danger. It means insisting that those to whom you give your friendship and love are able to respect your mind. It means being able to say, with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre: “I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all the extraneous delights should be withheld or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.

Responsibility to yourself means that you don’t fall for shallow and easy solutions – predigested books and ideas…marrying early as an escape from real decisions, getting pregnant as an evasion of already existing problems. It means that you refuse to sell your talents and aspirations short…and this, in turn, means resisting the forces in society which say that women should be nice, play safe, have low professional expectations, drown in love and forget about work, live through others, and stay in places assigned to us. It means that we insist on a life of meaningful work, insist that work be as meaningful as love and friendship in our lives. It means, therefore, the courage to be “different;” not to be continuously available to others when we need time for ourselves and our work; to be able to demand of others – parents, friends, roommates, teachers, lovers, husbands, children – that they respect our sense of purpose and our integrity as persons. Women everywhere are finding the courage to do this more and more and we are finding that courage both in our study of women in the past who possessed it and in each other as we look to other women for comradeship, community and challenge. The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way.”

– Adrienne Rich, Claiming on Education, 1977

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)