Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun is a memorable memoir
Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele
Published 2004, 280 pages
"... I've misunderstood Buddhism, thinking that it focused on the development of the individual and discouraged emotional connection to others. But in fact the goal is to love both -- oneself and others -- without being wounded by that love."
What an interesting journey, both a physical and internal one. A mixed race girl raised by a strong, independent single mom, internalizes her mom's teachings, but finds that in the real world she feels fragmented and torn by racism. She explores her feelings of anger and otherness and, like many books about or by bi-racial authors, she talks of not belonging anywhere.
Adiele's mom is Scandinavian, her dad Nigerian. Dad leaves when she's a toddler, returning to Nigeria and her mom, a free-thinker and steadfastly independent, raises her in small town Yakima, WA. As a junior in high school she wins the opportunity to go to Thailand where she thrives, learns the language and discovers she likes both the food and the people.
"I'd been raised to believe in myself, in intellect, in the Western tenets of self and science, and I'd taught myself not to fail. Soon everything I knew and counted on would be stripped away. As it turned out, failure was the first step toward real life."
Achiever that she is, she earns a place in Harvard but quickly discovers that's not for her - her mixed emotions and the way she faces the frequent racism is a string that winds all through the book. She ultimately leaves Harvard and returns to Thailand, still searching for meaning, for contentment, for some internal peace. She is working on a project, a study, about women in Thailand, particularly women who enter a wat (temple). She is offered the opportunity to ordain at a Buddhist wat and even though she isn't particularly religious, she accepts. The story chronicles her year there, what she learned and how she learned it, lessons big and small.
"I agreed, because it's a strange place to stand - the black woman anthropologist. I don't want to be a detached scientist reducing Asian women to objects of study; I want to use my ability to enter cultures, my own multiple perspectives, to understand, translate, bridge. Participate."
I thoroughly enjoyed the beginning but found by the middle my attention wandered a bit....I'd lose track of the point she was trying to make as she circled around different time periods and different people. It's a loosely linear story, but the center became a bit convoluted and I lost my way more than once. The format is unusual too and sometimes a little fractured. Along the extra wide margin were excerpts from her actual journal, 'framing' the fleshed out story book she's written. So on each page I didn't know whether to read the journal entries first or continue on in the story within the book. Sometimes I just skipped the journal entries.
On page 72, she includes a list of phrases from a book the Maechi (head nun) gave her - a few are:
Anger is most dangerous. It destroys you, the person next to you, and the place where you live.
Thoughts are not necessarily connected with reality. That is why the Buddha taught us to be aware of them before we are influenced by them.
Every day you are responsible for how you feel; no one can make you unhappy or nervous.
Neurotics depend on holidays, weekends, and days off; those who cultivate their appreciation celebrate daily.
We run here and there trying to be successful, correct and right, when the goal of life is learning.
Following Adiele's journey and learning more about Buddhism through her experiences was intriguing, foreign, and SO informative. The dedication with which she embraced life at the wat and the difficulty of adapting her Western ways and habits to a new normal is nothing short of impressive. The rules were bent a little for her, but she insisted on living as an ordained nun as completely as possible.
She rose at 3:30 every morning and wasn't allowed to sleep again until 11pm. One meal a day. Gradually expand her meditation to 10+ hrs a day, learning to do everything VERY slowly and mindfully, mindful of each thought, each desire (to scratch or sneeze or cough), every motion. It sounds incredibly difficult.
I think this book is definitely worth your time if you're interested in exploring some of the wrong assumptions about Buddhism or about one woman's journey to find herself. It could be a really interesting book club selection.
top photo: Monil Andharia via unsplash; lower photo: Thailand by Jakob Owens via unsplash