Achaan Runjuan levels her wise gaze as I ask yet another question. We are seated on benches at the windows of her kuti (cottage) in the wooded confines of Suan Mokkh, a Theravada Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand. From the monastery entrance comes the sound of dogs fighting, one animal screaming as the others maul it, while a drone of deep male voices chanting Pali verses comes from somewhere among the trees. The mae jis—modest, white-robed, shaven-headed women—are giggling together or pacing slowly in walking meditation. Orange-robed monks disappear into the jungle to their huts tucked among the tangled vines.

Achaan Runjuan’s two-story white stucco cottage stands a Iittle a part from the other women’s dwellings, inside a wooden fence with bells on the gate. There are orchids planted around the large tree in her yard.Achaan means “teacher,” and the very fact that she bears this title sets her apart.

A woman in her seventies, Runjuan has smooth brown skin and a shadow of gray hair on her shaved head. When she is serious, her eyes hold steady; her strong mouth and jaw suggest the determination that led her to abandon a distinguished career in the secular world and “go forth into the homeless life,” as entry on the Theravada monastic path is called.

The heat holds me in a heavy damp embrace. Recognizing my discomfort, Runjuan picks up a bundle of palm fronds and begins to fan me. I’m disconcerted—shouldn’t I be fanning her? But she does it so matter-of-factly that I relax, glad for the modest agitation of the monsoon air.

Entrance to a monastery in Thailand. Courtesy of Sandy Boucher.


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