Thailand is a country where the low status of nuns is essentially a cultural imperative and where some monks are quick to remind one that the Buddha himself placed even a nun ordained for 100 years at a lower rank than a monk ordained for just one day. So it’s not surprising that for a Western woman to ordain as a Buddhist nun in Thailand is extremely rare, and for a Black woman to take this noble plunge most likely sets a historical precedent. Just this is enough to fill one with awe before even opening this book.
In an effort to recover from her confused identity (she’s biracial) and a debilitating depression, Faith Adiele decides to research the maechis (nuns) of Thailand, and in the process of her fieldwork she chooses to become one. In a quiet forest monastery, she commits to wrestling with her past and her pain for a Lenten season during which “all I have are the contents of my mind.”
Her journey toward self-discovery and acceptance had begun when she was assigned to live for a year in Thailand as a Rotary exchange student several years earlier. Later, when she finds herself in an academic crisis at Harvard, Faith decides to meet faith by succumbing to the rigors of ordination: a shaved head, one meal a day, no money, continual mindfulness practice, bugs galore, limited reading and writing, long stretches of silence and isolation, and a raging heart/mind.
She is motivated to follow these austerities by Buddhism’s encouragement to investigate “no identity” rather than to embrace an ideology:
Meditation and mindfulness are the only accomplishments that aren’t about how I package or present or sell myself. . . . They are real precisely because they can’t be celebrated or resuméd or measured by anyone else. It is me, all me, all real. There’s no way to package or spin it into something more.
So Faith Adiele confronts hunger, loneliness, rats in the bathroom, even a dead young boy in an autopsy room, in her efforts to free herself from the sorrow and shame that imprison her. In the book, she meticulously details the moments of a daily life that begin at 3:30 in the morning and end at 11:00 in the evening (no naps allowed), as well as the doubts, frustrations and occasional feelings of contentment she encounters. In spite of the demands of her daily life, she notes, “I’m not responsible for anything save my own slow crawl out of ignorance.”
Although it’s now more than a decade since her ordination, she writes in the present tense about her experiences and rigorous training, which, of course, is all about staying in the present. The margins of the book are crammed with quotes from the sutras and meditation masters, chanting translations, diary entries, charts and detailed meditation instructions. She also weaves her personal and family history throughout the journal so that it’s easy for the reader to understand the forces and conflicts that guided her toward the radical step of ordination.
A theme pervading her account is the relationship with her mentor, Maechi Roongdüan, who provides consistent inspiration and guidance. Asian women, especially nuns, are on the surface quite compliant, and so it seems incongruous to Adiele that a college graduate and woman of such high intelligence as Maechi Roongdüan would endure the hardships and the humility of the nun’s life. And in fact, it hadn’t been easy at all. Maechi Roongdüan had wrestled with the idea of ordination for six years, well aware of the sacrifices that she would have to make in order to survive. It was the Noble Truth of suffering that ultimately penetrated Maechi’s heart and helped her make the decision to become a nun. A few days prior to her ordination ceremony, she meditated for the first time and began to experience an unprecedented happiness such that “every other happiness seemed coarse by comparison.”
What particularly shocked and impressed Adiele was that Maechi actually admitted her doubt in the Buddha’s very existence, stating that another reason she had ordained was in order to try to disprove Buddhism. Although she’s now convinced that the Buddhist path is the way to relieve life’s suffering, she acknowledges as well that “maechi life is very dry and difficult.”
Adiele’s attachment to Maechi Roongdüan is intriguing and mirrors her own struggles with self-acceptance. She seems pleased to note that Maechi “grins as if she missed me. I grin back, surprised to find that, despite how relaxed the meal and general atmosphere have been in her absence, I have missed her too. An entire conversation takes place in our silent smiles.” As Adiele departs from the monastery, Maechi warns her of the challenges that lie ahead: “The test is being able to carry the peace you think you have found here with you when you leave, being able to deal with the outer world and the inner world interchangeably.” Adiele seems embarrassed and uncomfortable with Maechi’s generosity when she is told that even after she leaves the nun’s life, she will be welcomed back any time. Maybe this is why she feels that she will forever be a maechi, wondering: “Despite my bedraggled robe, my galumphing movements, my private goals that do not include Nibbana. . . . Is it my interest and efforts alone that merit such blanket acceptance?”
Faith Adiele’s writing is lyrical, and the flashbacks to her childhood conflicts and traumas help deepen the book. Yet one is left wondering, What has happened to Faith’s faith? Now a college professor and an accomplished writer, how does she deal with suffering and the grittiness of everyday living? What has stayed with her, and what has she lost in transition? Although this book doesn’t fully address the author’s return to more worldly challenges, it uniquely combines a coming-of-age story with research, history, sociology, Buddhist mythology and, ultimately, the journey of faith.