Author tells PSM students well-timed failure can have miraculous results

By CELANIE POLANICK, Daily News Staff Writer December 03, 2004

Pennsylvania, USA -- Author Faith Adiele knows how miraculously life-changing a well-timed failure can be.

Adiele spoke to a women's studies class at Penn State McKeesport yesterday about her book, "Meeting Faith; The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun," which tells the story of almost flunking out of Harvard and instead spending her junior year of college in Thailand as a maechi, a Buddhist nun.
Adiele is also familiar with feeling foreign, even in her own land. Her Nigerian father separated from her half-Finnish, half-Swedish mother before she was born, and her father left when she was a baby to take part in the political struggle of his tribe, the Ibo, in his home country. Adiele grew up with her mother, a socially conscious Unitarian, in a small, Christian town in Washington state, and got used to feeling like a misfit, she said.

When she finally got to college, Harvard was a letdown; Adiele had expected an intellectual utopia, but found greed and prejudice instead.

"The education was to get a trade, for money, and I was really shocked by that," she said in an interview. "They came from these really fancy private schools, but they knew nothing about other cultures."

In 1986, Adiele, a 22-year-old college junior on probation, decided to spend a year in Thailand through a program at the University of Wisconsin. She had already learned Thai during her junior year in high school as an exchange student to Thailand, so the language wasn't a barrier, she said; in fact, Thailand was liberating because, as a foreigner, she could make her own rules.

Her research project, her excuse for traveling, revolved around conducting interviews with Buddhist nuns, but Adiele decided on the spur of the moment to become one herself on a whim, shaving her head and entering a secluded forest temple to practice the hermetic Forest Tradition of Theravada Buddhism. She ate once a day, and endured 19 hours of meditation daily, even meditating next to a corpse to understand the fleeting nature of life, she said.

"You're just focusing on the breath and the sensations as they occur," she said. "It's very simple. The belief is that wisdom will come to you."

At the beginning, meditating for 15 minutes was a challenge, but by the end, Adiele was able to complete 72 hours of uninterrupted meditation.

Rising at 3:30 a.m., nuns kept a strict schedule, attending instruction, sweeping the temple, meditating in caves, and chanting in Pali, an ancient language Adiele describes as the Asian equivalent of Latin. Reading and writing were forbidden to most nuns to discourage obsession with words, she said, but because of her beginner status, Adiele was given a Pali-to-English dictionary, tutored daily and given Buddhist writings in English to read.

The books were her companions, and helped ward off loneliness and hysteria.

"I would have an experience, and I would think, oh my God, I'm losing my mind, this is crazy, and then I would read in the texts, this happened to someone 500 years ago, that everybody goes through this stage," she said.

Permanent temple residents were not allowed to keep belongings from the outside world, but Adiele and other temporary visitors were permitted small belongings: small jars of spices, and, in Adiele's case, a journal, which she used to record her thoughts and her interviews with the other nuns. At the end of her time at the temple, she put on her own clothes, picked up her journal and walked out into the road, she said.

From there, her writing career has blossomed, drawing rave reviews and inspiring "My Journey Home," a PBS documentary based on her writings and travels. Adiele now holds a bachelor of arts in southeast Asian studies from Harvard University, a master of arts in creative writing from Lesley College, and M.F.A.s from the University of Iowa in both fiction and nonfiction, and teaches creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh. She is at work on her next book, tentatively titled "Twins," about the joys and pains of her eclectic heritage.

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