When I moved into the forest in northern Thailand, shaving my head and eyebrows, donning white robes, and ordaining as maechi [a woman who takes on a homeless monastic life in pursuit of realization], I agreed to live by ten precepts. When I leave the wat [temple], I will become a devout laywoman, meaning that I will exchange my maechi vows for the five basic precepts to which Buddhist citizens are supposed to adhere: to refrain from killing; stealing; sexual offense; lying and harmful speech; and consuming intoxicants. Even as I take the five Householder Precepts, new stubble chafing my neck, I will recognize the lie. The vows are simply a gesture, a transitional measure to reduce my anxiety at leaving ordained life. I know that for me there is no Middle Path. I am either ordained or not. A Buddhist in Asia or not. Of the spirit or of the body. Like any tourist come to deal in flesh, I will justify my decision easily, co-opting phrases from the mouths of sex tourists: “Sin does not exist in Buddhism.” I will tell myself that, since the purpose of the precepts is only to enhance the practice of mindfulness, there is no reason for me not to return to who I used to be. No reason not to drink alcohol or have sex. No reason not to shade the truth toward a larger reality. There will be no easy way, however, to justify killing.
In the decade since leaving the wat, I have wondered about my ragged determination not to break this first precept. I certainly don’t adhere to the letter of the law a quarter as closely as I did in the wat: I wear shoes and drive a car, committing virtual genocide against our highway’s flies and gnats; I prepare meat and wear leather (both quite well, I might add); I breathe often and with impunity—but I do not raise my hand with the intention to kill. This does not make me feel virtuous; it is, in fact, entirely aggravating. However, it does help to stave off some feelings of dread at the thought of destroying life. And so, ironically, the precept that proves the hardest to keep during my tenure as maechi, requiring an eagle eye and a light tread on the path, a series of makeshift contraptions to keep bugs away from candles, strategies for urinating and breathing, is the only one I keep. Okay, so there was little opportunity to break the others. What was I going to steal—a fourth sarong? And though all monastic traditions have their share of sexual transgressors, sex wasn’t an issue for the short length of my ordination. And to whom could I lie? About what? Was I going to brag to other maechi around the water cooler that I’d achieved enlightenment and was levitating in my hut? As for intoxicants, we weren’t exactly brewing moonshine in the sala [gazebo]. I did, however, have, as they say, both motive and opportunity to kill. Is this, then, why the first precept is the only one I try to keep to this day? Not because it most directly impacts the welfare of another, but because it directly impacts me, presenting a constant challenge? Reminding me of what is possible, more than a decade out of the temple, out of my mother’s house?
From Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun, © 2004 by Faith Adiele. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton and Company.
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