- Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun
I should acknowledge this up front. A personal preference for contemplative silence predisposed me to like this book even before I read it. I'd heard Faith Adiele describe her thesis project when she began the Iowa MFA program in nonfiction, and was immediately drawn to it. I'm inclined to fall right into step with any writer who is searching out the warp and weave of the landscapes of place and spirit. I'm likely to like any piece of writing that takes itself seriously as a shaped text, making use of all the materials of writerly craft, challenging me as a reader, unsettling my assumptions and habits. For all these reasons, I am an ideal reader for Adiele's book, and although it is gorgeously wrought in many ways, I was disappointed.
How do I explain that, though I lived the role more seriously than anything in my life, being a Buddhist nun actually had little to do with being Buddhist or with being a nun? It was about hacking a difficult path through the jungle, clawing my way from one paradigm to another. The change was the journey itself, and anyone can get there, down any trail.(28)
This revelation comes at the end of the first chapter of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun. It is a fundamentally important statement about Adiele's story; it also points to what is in essence a misdirection [End Page 175] of the book. Although the details of Adiele's time as an ordained Buddhist nun in a forest in northern Thailand are compelling, richly woven, and pursued in a way that demonstrates both the feistiness and vulnerability of her core spirit, the journals from this very brief period are, both thematically and literally, not at all the center of this book.
Adiele grew up in rural western Washington, the daughter of a Scandinavian American mother and an absent Nigerian father, both highly articulate, politically minded activists with great courage of commitment in their life choices. She carried with her from an early age multiple knots of identity and principle, which provided the ground for a fierce commitment to social justice and a tenacity of spirit, even in facing down fears and failures. Smart, ambitious, and anxious to escape her rural, all-white community, she spent her high school junior year in Thailand, falling in love with the country and people.
Still smart, ambitious, and anxious to escape, she won a scholarship to Harvard, where a clash of cultures played itself out on and within her, primarily around features of race and class, but also in terms of a naïve set of expectations about what is worth aspiring to when we aspire to being mobile. Adiele and her mother believed Harvard would be her ticket. They seem not to have heard of Boston's legendary racially segregated neighborhoods, nor read anything about how white and male the halls of privilege still are. Tossed and tugged between the black student community and the community of social activists, stirred in the academic high altitude, Adiele self-destructed in her second year and was asked to leave.
From the fog of breakdown, Adiele fled to Thailand, dedicating herself, as she says, "to a Grand Fieldwork Project, believing that I would therein avenge my academic failure and redeem my intellect" (26). It was "a great place to be free, or rather to be so alone, so farang [foreign], that little was required of one" (23). There "in the crazy gray zone," she "could be brown—not interwoven shreds of black or white" (26). And there she confronts and is confronted by repeated interpersonal and physical challenges to rethink the question "What am I?"
The spirit in which she responds to these challenges is a fearless and generous one. This is the heart of the book, and it's a good heart, an important story. But it's not the story that the...