Thursday, June 13, 2013

Interviewing Buddhist Women: Su Su Sein

Su Su Sein
Photo by Helen Richardson
By Willow Myers

It was 1987 and Su Su Sein planed to attend the first Buddhist Women's Conference in November in Bodhgaya, India. When she arrived at the airport she handed over her passport, a passport she wouldn't see again for twenty-six years. According to Su Su, "They took our passports, not just mine, all of us. At that time things were different and they became very hard to get after that. I was only able to get a passport again this summeraround July [2012]. This was because now the government has new rules. They  opened a new office in upper Burma; it only took three weeksit's easy so now."

As this quiet, slightly stooped, unassuming Asian woman of sixty-six years tells me her story I notice myself reacting and marveling at her patience. I tell her that November of 1986 is the birthdate of my son, the year before the conference. I comment that I was a young woman when I had him and now he is an adult and I am old enough to be a grandmother. Waiting twenty-five years to leave her country is a long time! I wonder if this was frustrating for her. We struggle a bit with our language differences, laughing at ourselves until she understands what I'm asking. Then she replies, "I felt sorry, very sorry I couldn't leave . . . I'm very happy now."

I'm curious about what motivated her to come to the 13th Sakyadhita Buddhist Women's Conference and how she learned about it. (The first conference in 1987 was not yet titled "Sakyadhita.") She tells me a long-term friend of hers, Dr. Friedgard Lottermoser, told her about it. According to Su Su, "Dr. Lottermoser is a German lady who went to school with me in Mandeley Burma. I got a BSc in physics. Dr. Lottermoser went on to get her MA in Pali. Then she went on to take her PhD in Pali and now she is a nun. Dr. Lottermoser stayed in Amarapura about four or five years to study in Mahar Gandaryone Monastery. Nowadays that monastery has 1,359 monks living there." Su Su also tells me that Dr. Lottermoser is a good friend of Karma Lekshe Tsomo, the Tibetan nun who is the mastermind behind the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women. This is the organization that sponsors the Sakyadhita conference. "Dr. Lottermoser told Karma about me," she adds. "Karma invited me every year, for this many years," says Su Su. "She knows me well."

Su Su went to school in a French Catholic convent for kindergarten through "tenth standards," per her description. I wonder whether her family had a lot of money to be able to afford a private school in Burma. She assures me that her family "was not rich." From what I can gather, Su Su might fit into the category of "middle class" from a Western perspective. She grew up with four brothers and six sisters—all of whom are university graduates. None of her sisters, or herself, married, and all of her sisters are accomplished women. One is retired from working as the registrar at a university, another is the head at a primary school, another a lawyer, another a successful businesswoman and the others are equally successful, according to Su Su.  

Su Su's birth name is actually Daw Su Su Sein. Su Su is her nickname. Rumor has it that she is quite affectionately called Su Su in Burma due to her compassionate and competent work as a "yogi." She explains, "A 'yogi' means I keep the eight precepts and I wear the colors of brown and white. It means to refrain from all evil to do what is good to purify the mind." Su Su often spends time at the Sagaing Hills nunneries. There are 145 nunneries in the Sagaing Hills area with a total of 2,229 nuns residing in them, according to an article Su Su wrote entitled "Nuns of Burma." She may stay there for a few weeks or for many months. Her family supports her so she can pursue the path of a yogi.

I also learn that Su Su works as a volunteer helping sick people. "My job is to volunteer always and always."  She tells me she works with patients "who have accidents or who are very sick" and gets them to the hospital when they are beyond her capacity to help them. She also states, "In Burma there aren't any emergency cars; I need to call a taxi to get someone to the hospital." She goes to people's homes or they come to her. I also learn that Su Su knows many doctors. "They come in the winter from all over the world to help." We chat a bit about her nephew who is a doctor and of whom she is quite proud. I learn that Su Su lives with him when she is not at the nunnery.  

As we continue chatting, Su Su gives me a little charm. She tells me that it's something for my keychain, pointing out the jade stone on it. I'm told her sister sells these in her shop and they are good protection. I decide to put it on my backpack, as it will be going with me when I travel alone in India, sometime after the conference. Protection will be good then.

We both notice that it's getting dark out. The room is getting cold. Su Su is not dressed very warmly and I offer her a blanket, but she refuses it. It's almost time for the next conference event so we decide to end. As we wrap it up I am invited to Burma and I promise Su Su I will look her up, as well as visit her sister's shop, should I go there. Of course, she is also invited to the United States to visit me. As we hug goodbye, I offer my heartfelt gratitude for the interview and the charm. I realize I have made yet another new friend at this wonderful conference. My heart is glowing. I know it will be hard to say my final goodbyes—but, alas, all is impermanent. And maybe, just maybe, I'll see her again someday. But, hopefully we won't have to wait twenty-five years. . . .

Willow Myers works full-time as a child and family psychotherapist in a nonprofit agency in Bellingham, Washington. She writes freelance in her spare time. She is currently enjoying writing about women who are involved with the Dharma.

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