© Eric Azumi/Scott Sester
© Eric Azumi/Scott Sester

On the day of my ordination, I arrive at Wat Phra Singh, the Royal Temple of northern Thailand, slightly hungover, fighting a losing battle with my clothes. I am draped in yards of heavy white cotton that indicate little intention of adapting to Western body movement. How do I stand? I wonder. Where do I put my hands? What if the entire outfit falls to the ground, leaving me naked before the crowd?

I have little idea what being a maechi, a Buddhist nun, entails. I just know that I must do it. I’ve known since the first moment I saw Wat Thamtong, the Temple of Golden Caves, one afternoon a few weeks ago. My professor and sponsor Ajahn Boon and I had stumbled out of the mountain pass and into the long, narrow grounds with their rushing streams and ivory butterflies. As I stood panting, I knew that this was where I would live.

* * *

This is just a research strategy, I try to reassure myself. For the past few months in the University of Wisconsin’s College Year in Thailand program, I’d read the sparse literature available about maechi, planning a groundbreaking fieldwork project on the identities and self-images of Thai maechi. I’d withstood the barrage of prejudice against the wisdom of female ordination.

I had visited famous wats and interviewed residents. When Ajahn Boon suggested that true anthropological study required undercover work, I leapt. Asking myself “Why not?” I had willingly chosen this white, unfriendly disguise.

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