Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity
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Mahāyāna and Theravāda are the two major traditions of Buddhism in contemporary Asia. Although both traditions share many similar teachings, there are long-term disputes between the two, touching on doctrine, ritual, religious practices, and the ultimate goal, among other matters. Mahāyāna Buddhists have often termed Theravāda Buddhism as the “vehicle of the hearers”, reflecting the role of the Buddha’s early followers who sought to become Arhats through hearing and practicing the Buddhist teachings. On the other hand, Theravāda Buddhists typically hold strong views of their religious identity, taking their own traditions to be canonical and orthodox while criticizing various aspects of the Mahāyāna tradition which they claimed lack doctrinal basis. This study explores the gender issues regarding the position of Chinese Mahāyāna nuns in the sociocultural context of Theravada majority Myanmar, where the full Bhikṣuṇī lineage of Theravāda Buddhism had died out. It draws on fieldwork conducted in both Yangon and Mandalay to investigate the religious lives of Chinese Buddhist nuns in present-day Myanmar. This research will shed light on how local Theravada ethos inevitably affects Chinese Mahayana Buddhists’ experiences of religious minority in the Theravadin Burman-majority nation. Against this backdrop, this paper also demonstrates how some Chinese nuns adopt different strategies to interact and seek better mutual understanding with Theravada Buddhists in order to gain societal recognition for the Chinese Mahayana minorities in mainland Southeast Asia.