Buddhism and Women's Empowerment in Myanmar
Submitting InstitutionLancaster University
Unit of AssessmentTheology and Religious Studies
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Human Society: Sociology
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Religion and Religious Studies
Summary of the impact
Research by Dr Hiroko Kawanami into the religious and social standing of
nuns in Myanmar has helped to empower women in that country by guiding the
work of what is now Myanmar's most prestigious Buddhist nunnery school,
[text removed for publication], which Kawanami co-directs. By raising the
standing of nuns in Myanmar, the school has expanded opportunities for the
country's women and girls. Since 2008 the school has grown to provide a
model of indigenous development, a space for civil society discussions,
and a feature in Myanmar's emerging tourist itinerary. The school is
informing the community-level capacity-building work of major
non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as ActionAid, Oxfam, and
UNICEF. Representatives of 20 NGOs convened at the school in 2013; thus,
Kawanami's impact is spreading internationally.
This case study contains politically sensitive material given the
still-volatile situation in Myanmar. For this reason, Lancaster University
prefers that Kawanami's impact not be publicised widely.
Kawanami's world-recognised body of work on the religious standing of
Theravada Buddhist nuns in Myanmar, crystallised in her 2013 monograph,
spans outputs from 1996 onward, all produced at Lancaster University.
Kawanami's research focuses on Myanmar (Burma), a country which until
recently was tightly controlled by the military regime. It is highly
religious: 85% of its population of over 60m are Buddhists, with half a
million vocational monks and 50,000 nuns. At 1% of the total population,
this is the largest concentration of monastics in any Buddhist country,
depending entirely on lay donations (made within the country). Kawanami's
research shows that the monastic community is pivotal for the
socio-religious life of the Buddhist population, operating through a
network of monks, nuns and lay supporters extending to the remotest
Numerous as Myanmar nuns are, Kawanami finds that their progress and
unity have been hampered by their lesser status compared to monks, which
has assigned nuns a half-way position between pious laywoman and religious
mendicant. Kawanami examines different strategies for improving nuns'
religious and social standing and advocates that, instead of simply
pursuing either ordination or secular education, nuns should deepen their
scriptural education to become more credible monastics and thereby enhance
their social and religious capital.
As Kawanami shows, the historic difficulty that nuns have had doing this
is that, unlike monasteries, nunneries have tended to decline and fragment
after two generations of abbesses, struggling to pass on their
institutional and educational heritage to the next generation. Based on
study of the developmental cycles of 200 formerly existing nunnery
schools, conducted over 25 years, Kawanami ascertains that this happens
because nunneries tend to become infiltrated by nuns' families and kin,
compromising nuns' religious position and producing tensions between
institutions' collective, academic and religious ideals and the private
interests and kin ties of resident nuns (see Kawanami 2013 for her
definitive account). Historically the tensions intensify when the transfer
of authority within a nunnery school takes place, often producing
institutional turmoil and collapse. This problem, Kawanami finds, is
connected with the traditional Myanmar system that accommodates separate
households on the common nunnery premises (called ò kwe- sà-thi,
`eating from separate pots') - implying that a nunnery is a confederation
of many independent households that convene only on ceremonial occasions.
Kawanami's proposed solution is that nunneries should instead employ a
`one-pot' system that pools and shares all resources.
References to the research
1. Kawanami (1997) Buddhist nuns in transition. In Indian Insights:
Studies in Brahmanism, Buddhism and Bhakti from the Spalding Seminars on
Indian Religions, ed. S. Hamilton and P. Connolly, pp. 209-224.
London: Luzac Oriental. ISBN-10: 1898942153. ISBN-13: 978- 1898942153. 2*
evidence: an early article on this topic, since accepted and used by other
scholars, e.g. Gutschow, Being a Buddhist Nun (Harvard University
Press, 2004); Ho, Representing Burma, in Proceedings of the Modern
Language Association 126 (3) 2011.
2. Kawanami (2000) Patterns of renunciation: the changing world of
Burmese nuns. In Women's Buddhism, Buddhism's Women: Tradition,
Revision, Renewal, ed. E. B. Findly, pp. 159-171. Boston: Wisdom
Publications. 2* evidence: included in one of the first major volumes on
Buddhist women in the contemporary world; endorsements: `This is the book
that every course on Buddhism and gender needs: it's a well-balanced blend
of historical studies with contemporary pieces on modern women's
contributions to the changing face of Buddhism' (Karen Lang, Professor of
Buddhist Studies, University of Virginia); an `excellent, thematically
arranged collection of essays' (James R. Kuhlman, University of North
3. Kawanami (2007) The bhikkhuni ordination debate: global
aspirations, local concerns, with special emphasis on the views of the
monastic community in Burma. Buddhist Studies Review 24 (2):
226-244. 2* evidence: fully peer-reviewed article in an important journal
of Buddhist studies.
4. Kawanami (2010) The politics of gender identity amongst Buddhist nuns
in Myanmar. In Contested Spaces, ed. Meenakshi Thapan, pp.
212-229. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan. ISBN: 978-81-250-4092-7. 2*
evidence: long-standing, respected Indian publisher; endorsements, e.g.:
`an important source material for the study of tribal people, because the
issue of contestations on spaces, territories, and resources is of serious
concern to them' (Srivastava, The Hindu 26/4/2011).
5. Kawanami (2013) Renunciation and Empowerment of Buddhist Nuns in
Myanmar-Burma. Leiden: Brill, xii + 258 pp. ISBN: 978-90-042-3440-6.
2* evidence: peer-reviewed monograph with respected academic publisher;
the culmination of 25 years fieldwork and analysis by Kawanami, this
monograph brings together insights previously scattered across shorter
pieces and disseminated in various fora.
The above are indicative of Kawanami's extensive body of research, the
quality and reputation of which is borne out by esteem indicators such as
her Numata Visiting Professorship in Buddhist Studies at McGill
University, Canada (2009), and being selected and commissioned to host an
international workshop for NGOs on gender, Buddhism and civil society
Details of the impact
While the impact of Kawanami's research has increased greatly since 2008,
the process leading to this impact goes back to her Vice-Presidency of
Sakyadhita International (International Association of Buddhist Women)
from 1990-1995. This high-profile organisation ran effective campaigns for
nun ordination, successfully re-established in Sri Lanka (1998) and
Thailand (2002). The opportunities for disseminating her research that
Kawanami thus acquired established her as a world-leading authority on
Buddhist nuns in Myanmar. This gave her the opportunity — in Myanmar's
highly religious, scripture-centred context in which academic authority is
highly valued — to collaborate with three senior nuns in founding (1998)
the nunnery school, [text removed for publication], one of Myanmar's
monastic educational centres.
Kawanami's research has guided the school in several ways. (i) Kawanami's
historical research enabled the co-directors to refound the school on an
ancient site of nun education. (ii) The co-directors were convinced by her
research (on the historical problem of the penetration of kinship) to base
the school on a `one-pot' (ta-ò) system. This brings all resident
nuns into the `pot' regardless of their kin relations, curbing worldly and
individualistic tendencies and reducing time on chores, enabling nuns to
concentrate on scriptural study. (iii) Based on Kawanami's historical
research on why nunnery schools have often declined, the directors since
2008 have instituted a legal constitution to select executive members by
merit, not by family or kin connections.
Since 2008 especially, this nunnery school has grown and become a role
model for Buddhist nuns in Myanmar. It has developed an outstanding
reputation for academic excellence, in which the nuns excel due to
Kawanami's `one-pot' system, which has enabled increasing numbers of nuns
(currently around 20 each year) to pass the state scriptural exams. With
many lay donors coming to see the beneficial outcomes, the school is now
self-sustaining, entirely supported by lay donations within Myanmar. As of
2013 there are 200 resident students. The school's graduate students have
opened two branch nunneries since 2008, and the school is affiliated with
an orphanage. Altogether, 500 noviciates have trained at the school
between 2008 and 2013.
The principal beneficiaries of Kawanami's research are (1) these nuns and
trainee nuns, for whom the school offers a safe single-sex environment for
studying the scriptures, pursuing a religious vocation and affiliating
with lay supporters. Further beneficiaries include (2) Myanmar's 50,000
nuns more broadly, whose spiritual standing and so also financial and
social support has been enhanced by the reputation, growth and financial
success of the [text removed for publication] school. More broadly still,
the beneficiaries include (3) girls and women in Myanmar, for whom
monastic life increasingly provides an opportunity for education and a
career as nunnery schools gain in status and financial sustainability.
Thus, Kawanami's engaged research has led to improvements in nuns' and
women's status. According to Dr Elizabeth Harris (Associate
Professor, Religious Studies, Liverpool Hope University), who has visited
the school, `Kawanami's contribution to the advancement of Buddhist nuns
in Myanmar is considerable' (Ref. 1). Evidence of the school bringing this
benefit to girls across Myanmar comes from, e.g. Dr. Sik Fa Ren (teaching
consultant, Centre of Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong) who in
2011 escorted 30 Buddhists (from Dharma Nature Preaching Hall, Ching Fat
Buddhist Lotus Centre and other Buddhist circles) to visit the nunnery. Fa
Ren reports that: `Children have aspirations to study the Buddhist
teaching and even become a monastic when they are young. We saw young nuns
... It turned out that it was (they) who insisted to become a nun and it
was their goal to attend the nunnery school. ... The nuns told us that it
was competitive to get into the nunnery school and it was like a dream
come true when they were enrolled' (Ref. 2). Blogging in 2012, visitor
Dianne A confirms the importance of this opportunity to the girls, for a
well rounded education as well as for Buddhist study: `We met the youngest
nun - a nine-year-old girl ... She had come to the Nunnery to learn to
speak Burmese fluently as she only spoke Shan. She said she was happy to
be there' (Ref. 3).
The school now also contributes significantly to Myanmar's cultural
life and to tourism. This is shown by large attendance figures at
regular ceremonies at the school (e.g., 1000 monks and nuns attended a
ceremony during Fa Ren's 2011 visit) and from tourism. Although the
military regime controlled tourism tightly until recently, the Sagaing
Hills complex of monasteries and nunneries features highly on the
now-developing tourist itinerary. Operators whose tours now feature visits
to [text removed for publication] the school include Travel IndoChina,
World Expeditions, Wandertours and, especially, Cardinal Photos, which has
run regular photographic tours to the school since 2005, bringing new
financial benefits to this developing country. A documentary about the
school aired on Sky Net television in Myanmar in September 2013.
There is a high level of international interest in the school, evidenced
by audience figures for Kawanami's recent media broadcasts on the topic -
e.g., on Radio National (Australia), 4/11/2008, audience c. 250,000 plus
10,000 podcast downloads; BBC World Service 10/4/2010, audience c. 1.5m; Sunday
Morning on Radio Scotland 11/3/2012, audience c. 300,000) (source:
Radio Joint Audience Research). The school was recently the subject of a
substantial feature in Elle magazine (Belgium and France) (Ref.
4), which discusses Kawanami's research. Further evidence of international
recognition is the regular visitor groups (such as Fa Ren's in 2011) from
various countries and their donations (e.g., c. US$30,000 from the Hong
Kong group alone). The school is thus raising Myanmar's cultural
profile and reputation internationally.
Also, the school is contributing significantly to the growth of civil
society in Myanmar, which is currently undergoing a process of
opening and reform that began in 2010 with the release of opposition
leader Aung San Su Kyi from house confinement. In this period the school
has provided a public venue for Myanmar people to meet and participate in
religious activities, and even to discuss politics and social affairs in a
safe environment, because the political authorities regard Buddhist nuns
as non-political in contrast to monks. Thus the school is contributing to
the process of creating a public sphere free of government control.
Finally, due to the school's success in becoming financially
self-sustaining, numerous international NGOs regard it as a model of
indigenous capacity building. For instance, in 2008 the Unitarian
Service Committee, Boston, visited the school. Increasing NGO interest and
recognition of Kawanami's research and role resulted in her being asked to
host an NGO workshop at the school in Feb 2013: Gender, Buddhism,
INGOs and Civil Society. Representatives of twenty aid agencies and
NGOs - including Oxfam, UNICEF, and the Gender Equality Network Myanmar -
participated to learn how to take forward this model of development.
Further NGO interest resulted in a follow-up workshop held with ActionAid
in Yangon in March 2013. These NGOs in international development and the
communities with which they work are thus beneficiaries of Kawanami's
research and the developments that it has enabled. As NGOs learn from the
model of the [text removed for publication] school, the impact of
Kawanami's work is extending beyond Myanmar.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- A statement from Associate Professor, Liverpool Hope University is
available which endorses Kawanami's contribution to the advancement of
nuns in Myanmar.
- Corroboration may be obtained from: Teaching consultant, Centre of
Buddhist Studies, University of Hong Kong.
- Blog by Dianne A. about her visit to the school as a tourist and lay
- Caroline Chapeaux, `La vie en rose: Nonnes en Birmanie', Elle
Belgique Aug 2013, France Sept 2013. A copy of the article is available
which cites and draws on Kawanami's research.
- Sites at which images of the school can be viewed include:
(photographs taken by the Elle journalist)
Further sources who can corroborate the impact:
- Assistant Professor in Buddhist Studies, Department for the Study of
Religion, University of Toronto (recent visitor to the school).
- Learning Manager, Earthwatch Institute (formerly Associate for Rights
in Humanitarian Crises, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, USA)
(NGO practitioner who has visited the school).
- Vice-Director, Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund
University (participant in the recent NGO workshops).