As a Southeast Asian Studies undergraduate, I had the opportunity to study a regional language, as well as spend a semester in that particular country to conduct fieldwork in an area of my choice. I gravitated towards Vietnamese and Vietnam, largely because it presented a middle ground between Bahasa Indonesia and Thai, the former a little too close to home whilst the latter seemed overtly foreign with its Pali-based script. In some ways, there was also the romance of Vietnam as a previous French colony, and this felt like an affinity that could not be ignored.
During my stay in Vietnam, one of my research projects dealt with Buddhist women and their engagement with Buddhist praxis in Hanoi. When it comes to women in Buddhism, the case of Vietnam stands out in comparison the rest of Southeast Asia as women can be ordained as nuns, a stark contrast to the traditionally Theravada Buddhist nations of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos where women can participate as ascetics, but not be officiated into the religious order. My project set out to uncover the reasons for and the implications of this difference beyond doctrinal dissimilarities between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism – as a country that has upheld gender equality as a basic tenet since its foray into communism, had local interpretations of Buddhism, too, come to embody this state ideal?
The findings of my fieldwork, while not as extensive as I would have liked it, can be encapsulated by a phrase used by Elise Ann DeVido in her analysis of the success story of Taiwan’s nuns. In Taiwan, nuns make up the bulk of renunciants and occupy influential and important positions proportionate to their numbers, a phenomenon that DeVido attributes to how “the nuns’ strength lies precisely in their difference”. Gendered differences similarly inform popular opinions surrounding both monks and nuns in Vietnam. Due to her inherent femininity, the nun’s strength stems from the fact that she is perceived to be more nurturing, charitable and easier to talk to. To put it as simply as possible, she is perceived to place paramount importance on caring for the community rather than developing other facets of her role.
A significant part of prowess within the ecclesiastical order in Vietnam, however, is grasping the philosophical nature of religious texts, largely dependent on the ability to understand Han Nom, a Chinese-based script in which scriptures are written. In contrast to the monks I had met, nuns with similar levels of training had only a rudimentary comprehension of the language and most had learnt scripture through rote memorisation. While they occupied similar positions in their respective temples, when queried on specific philosophical tenets, the nuns often deferred to well-known monks or learned laymen whom they felt had a better understanding of religious scripture.
It is interesting to note that two-thirds of renunciants in Vietnam are nuns, but they are under-represented within the official body guiding the country’s ecclesiastical order, and also occupy top positions at the smaller, lesser-known temples rather than the larger, more significant ones. When it comes to ritual matters, most laypeople also prefer to invite monks to carry out the proceedings as they are believed to have a more sophisticated understanding of liturgy.
This is purely a snapshot and does not encapsulate the full extent of the research that was conducted, but I wanted to highlight how fascinating it is that a feedback loop had somehow established itself to further perpetuate stereotypical understandings of gender. While their gender evidently does not impede on their ability to access nunhood and relevant education, it nevertheless appears to have had consequences on how both society and themselves perceive their own capacities to take on responsibilities beyond nurture and compassion.