Once the Buddha Was a GirlReturn to the Blog

By Justin Nadir on September 4th, 2013

Once the Buddha Was a Girl. Girl Children and Young Women as Buddhist Agents in Burma and Nepal

In 2012 this University-­‐of-­‐Toronto-­‐based project was granted a CAD 182,000 budget by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a period of four years (2012-­‐2016). The research team comprises one primary investigator, Christoph Emmrich, two Research Assistants, Liudmila Olalde, responsible for literary Burmese, Mon and Pāli sources and a second, yet to be appointed collaborator, responsible for vernacular Burmese, both from the University of Toronto’s graduate student pool. They are be joined by two junior academics and Research Assistants, one located in Burma (TBA) and one in Nepal (Nutan Sharma).

The primary objective of this project is to identify the Buddhist roles and practices which enable girls currently growing up in Nepal and in Burma/Myanmar to change the religious institutions that have determined the form of those very roles and practices that girls are made to perform. These are roles that they in turn decide to make their own, thereby redefining what it means to live life as a Buddhist, as a girl and eventually as a woman. Instead of describing this process as “becoming Buddhist”, as previous research on children has largely tended to do, this project attempts to take more seriously the girls’ own perspective in which dealing with Buddhism is more about trying to enjoy or dislike, comply with, resist or subvert, understand or ignore adult efforts at turning them into Theravada Buddhist women. It is the relation between the girls’ appropriation of and distance towards things female, adult and Buddhist that allows them to move into the position in which they compel their seniors to make institutional, pedagogical, representational and even doctrinal changes that see the girls turn into a very different kind of Theravada Buddhists than originally intended. The project will try to show that Buddhist identities are not only age-­‐specific, but that the interaction of girls with both adults and peers through age-­‐specific versions of acquired practical religious skills is decisive for their emergence as autonomous human beings. This shall be done by looking at monastic translocations that span two countries and that share the same reformist Theravada Buddhist agenda, values and practices while engaging with historically rather distinct ritual contexts.


The locations of the project are the Newar-­‐run Theravāda monasteries and meditation centres in the Nepalese cities Lalitpur and Kathmandu (e.g. Dharmakirti Vihara) and comparable Mon-­‐run institutions in Mawlamyine (e.g. Khemarama Vihara) in Mon State. On the Nepalese side the practices under scrutiny in this project consist of a set of early childhood rituals modelled upon marriage and the temporary taking of monastic vows (Nepali/Newar ṛṣinī), imported from Burma/Myanmar in the 1960s and rapidly replacing older Newar rituals for girls. On the Burmese side the series consists of an early-­‐childhood ear-­‐boring ceremony (Burmese na-­‐thwin) containing elements of ritual partnership in its coordination with the male siblings’ temporary ordination (Burmese shin-­‐byu) and succeeded by a temporary taking of monastic vows by the girl (Pāli isinī) and a period of training in Buddhist doctrine any time after ear-­‐boring. The tensions between the qualification for partnership on the basis of performances of asceticism and the equivocations of gender and seniority in the performance of learning, as well as the re-­‐appropriations and transformations of these practices by girls in the transfers between Burma/Myanmar and Nepal will be key issues while analyzing the transformations of agency. As we are dealing with interconnected Buddhist monastic lineages the project’s comparative aspect is primarily historical-­‐ genealogical, trying to trace the emergence of forms of girl’s agency along specific historical trajectories of shared literatures, values and institutions, historical events of exchange and differences in the local reception, mimesis and reflection of the transferred practices.


The theoretical framework for the questions and objectives of the project draws from Ritual Studies, Children Studies and Gender Studies. More recent contributions in Children Studies foreground children’s agency and critique the “reportorial frameworks” which help turn children into “others”, as described by Caroline Bledsoe, by viewing them, as has been elaborated by Helen Schwartzman, as deficient and whose deficiency derives from a passivity they only lose once they have developed into adults. There are in fact analogies between the former perception of ritual and women on the one hand and that of children and girls on the other, both being supposedly “passive, imitative, conservative”. As rituals have undergone a re-­‐evaluation in terms of the agency they impart, their adaptability and self-­‐reflexivity, so too shall this project be a contribution to understanding how girls experience, accept, resist and transmute the influence of both peers and adults, how they yield their own power and how they conceptualize themselves in these roles and constantly reinvent themselves anew. This re-­‐evaluation is particularly important when developing models to describe girls’ religiosity at various age levels. Along the lines of re-­‐reading female religious practice as continuous and re-­‐ affirmative processes, this project will move further in this direction by showing that religious practices for girls and women designed as “initiations”, “marriages” or “ordinations” are not watershed-­‐like events separating childhood from adulthood, but rather multiple occasions that can stretch from early childhood all the way up into and beyond ritual performances of partnership. This project intends to contribute to a more nuanced formulation of degrees of seniority and a de-­‐ dramatization of the ritual narrative as well as a more consciously gender-­‐ and age-­‐ specific theory of ritual.


Key to this project is to access three intersecting perspectives: that of the girls themselves, to a lesser degree that of peer boys, and finally that of women and men. The sources provided by the girls will be based on informal conversations will centre on ongoing and remembered religious events. The team will encourage the retelling and interpretation of Buddhist narratives by the girls, familiar to them from reading in textbooks or children literature or from oral narratives presented by relatives and teachers. The team will also collaborate with both students and teachers in documenting and analyzing the oral and written assignments of the girls produced in the various forms of training that shape their day-­‐to-­‐day lives. Data selection and analysis will focus on the girls’ affective experience of key religious events, the processing and problematizing of religious stories, the role of the religious in the development of autobiographical narratives, the girls’ self-­‐reflexive elaboration on their own role within the family, the scholastic and the ritual process.

Work on sources produced by Burmese and Nepalese women and men between the 19th and 21st centuries will be conducted to understand adult agendas directed at and cultural products instrumental in directing and shaping girls’ developments towards womanhood. In doing this the study will prioritize textbooks, ritual manuals and literary and historiographical texts about and/or for girl children and young women. 20th century textbooks will be analyzed primarily as normative tools regarding their political, didactical and doctrinal dimensions. This includes a literary, iconographical and disciplinary analysis of the narratives, images and prescriptions contained therein with an interest in the girl-­‐specific aspects of a Buddhist “ethics of virtue” as recently proposed by Yasmin Fischer for Sinhala textbooks. Finally, the novels, short stories, poems and chronicles call for a combination of literary criticism and historical source analysis that keeps in mind how girl novices, princesses and female and male literati represented both girls and themselves, by which publics they have been appropriated and how these texts, particularly the modernist ones, oscillate between the normative and the experimental.


Leave a Comment