Lessons in Killing for the Black Buddhist Nun

When I was 5, my mother came home one Friday from the California junior high school where she taught and announced that she had a surprise.

The proper mental attitude is vital for both general mindfulness and specific meditation…meditation ends with a chant designed to cultivate the Four Sublime States of Mind: Mudita (sympathetic joy for others’ success), Karuna (compassion for all living beings who are suffering), Upekkha (facing vicissitudes with equanimity and calm), and Metta (universal love and good-will).

Nyanaponika, “The Heart of Buddhist Meditation”

When I was 5, my mother came home one Friday from the California junior high school where she taught and announced that she had a surprise. “A surprise?” I glanced over from my perch on the kitchen counter. She stood in the doorway, cheeks flushed pink from the heat, straw-colored hair clinging to her back. I hit the floor. “Where?”

“It’s in my bag in the living—” she started as I shot past.

My mother was famous for her gifts. When we were living on lentils and rubbery, government-surplus cheese, she wrote storybooks about African girls like me, warrior-scholars who rescued indecisive princes, and painted her own illustrations. She dug through fabric-store bins for felt scraps to paste to the backs of the Ebony magazine models who populated my felt-boards. Once she found work, her quest for the perfect toy began in earnest. She could talk merchants out of anything marked Not for Sale, Display Only and routinely staggered off the bus lugging beaded tepees, African masks, boy dolls with tiny, plastic penises.

When necessary my mother revised the available world. She sewed African outfits out of faux leopard-skin for a village of black dolls. She took Tawny Taupe fingernail polish and black markers to my picture books and paper dolls, darkening the pink faces and pale hair to resemble mine. She replaced guns with plastic animals and tiny nets. I was a teen-ager before I realized that G.I. Joe was actually a soldier and not Dr. Mark Luther, Global Adventurer and Official Government Archeologist.

The afternoon of my mother’s surprise, I rushed to our postage stamp of a living room. My mother’s bag, a deep, straw tote with two loops for handles, perched in the rocking chair between a tower of student folders and a satchel bulging with books. Perhaps the surprise wasn’t a toy at all. Perhaps one of her students had given her a batch of homemade tamales, still steaming in their corn husks, or perhaps she’d stopped at the bakery across the street and picked up one of the maple bars the counter lady always saved for me.

Years later I would learn that my sunny childhood neighborhood had been as carefully constructed as my mother’s repainted toys. Our close-knit apartment complex and playground were actually a low-income housing project and a vacant lot. My long-standing love of mud pies was born of necessity, given the scarce grass. My bakery saint was a point person, paid 50 cents a week to reserve a maple bar and watch for me on my walk home from the babysitter’s. And rather than preparing time-consuming delicacies, my mother’s students were more likely to shadow her home, chanting “Nigger-lover” and pelting her white, 5-foot-2-inch frame with rocks.

But at 5, I knew nothing of this. Upon reaching my mother’s beach tote, I yanked the handles apart and thrust my face inside. My nostrils skimmed the snake coiled asleep at the bottom. Too stunned to scream, I snapped my neck out of the bag and fell to the floor. Mouth pumping open and shut, I must have resembled the goldfish we’d tried raising, a doomed experiment of tiny gold and black shadows (leave it to my mother to find an equal number of black goldfish), who mouthed mysterious, pleading vowels from behind the thick magnification of their bowl before invariably, persistently turning their shimmery apricot and plum bellies to the ceiling.

After a minute I started hollering.

“Good God!” my mother exclaimed, hurrying out of the kitchen. “You’ll scare the poor thing to death!” She dipped a pale, dimpled arm into the bag and it emerged, the snake molded to it like a jade-and-silver bracelet. An avenging goddess, she turned to me, the snake s flat head wavering in midair below hers. “Where did you learn this sort of behavior?” she demanded, the snake s black, forked tongue flickering at me like an accusatory echo.

Mudita (Sympathetic Joy)

While preparing for my vows, I find an ordination script in which the ordaining monk asks the postulant to swear that he is human. Over lunch I ask my teacher about this “being human” requirement.

Sweeping his chopsticks aloft like a conductor’s baton, Ajarn Boon airlifts several fish balls out of his bowl and drops them into mine. He’s like a Thai mother, covering the terrain with a barrage of delicacies.

“That’s simple,” he says. Plop, plop. “In ancient India there once was a naga, a great serpent, who took human form and ordained as a monk. He was a devout practitioner, but one night as he slept, his true form revealed itself Sadly the Buddha forced him to disrobe, explaining that serpents could not ordain. He promised, however, that the naga’s image would henceforth be placed in temples to honor his devotion.”

This is why during the intermediary stage after a postulant has shaven his head but before he’s taken his vows, he’s referred to as Naga. The snake who exists in the realm between human and monk.

My host mother tells a different story. According to her, the snake king, Mucalinda, protected the Buddha from rain for seven days while he was deep in meditation. Hence the recurring image of a meditating Buddha seated atop a coiled snake with a cobra’s hood behind him. The snake as human protector.

My texts claim that images of nagas date back to pre-Buddhist, snake-worshipping cults and were later incorporated into Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Nagas were semi-divine beings, half human, half snake, who could assume either form. They guard temple doors, appearing as hooded cobras with many heads, or human beings with a snake tail and canopy of hoods.

I’m haunted by the snake who wanted to ordain. Why, since he’d proven himself, couldn’t he remain a monk? My Buddhist charts relegate all beings to fixed places in the cosmic hierarchy as determined by their karma. Lowest are hell sprites; next come hungry ghosts, then animals. Humans exist on a higher plane because we can stop the cycle of rebirth. At the top float various enlightened beings and gods.

So a snake is a snake for a reason. As a human he must have acted badly, damaging his karma enough for a lower birth. Only once he accrues enough merit to be reborn as human can he aspire to the next stepordination. Humans build merit through good deeds, gifts to temples, parenting a monk. I wonder how snakes accrue theirs.

I understood my mother’s surprise at my reaction to the snake. I was no stranger to animals, after all. After the suicidal goldfish came a stream of metamorphosing tadpoles: Tails emerged and dropped off; one leg appeared without the apparent need for a partner; an entire evolutionary cycle occurred over the course of a single night, with fully formed frogs crawling out of the primordial ooze of my Woolworth’s Tabletop Tadpolium. Soon miniature turtles came to share the yellow, plastic island and rest under the ragged shade of its snap-on palm tree.

As my mother and I moved higher up the food chain, hamburger and the occasional pork chop appearing on our rickety, Formica dinner table, I graduated to mammals. For years I ran a futuristic city of white mice. Like most home-improvement projects, my plastic HabiTrail was always in mid-construction, soaking up my allowance with endless additions of red exercise wheels and yellow tunnels leading nowhere. On weekends I took the mice to Mom’s bed, and as she read aloud from “On the Banks of Plum Creek,” watched them tunnel beneath the blankets, busily creating furrows around our lazy legs.

When we moved to my grandparents’ farm and stopped eating meat—this time by choice, Mom measuring out swirls of beans and mesas of rice according to “Diet for a Small Planet”—I finally got a real American pet, a puppy. And when, one day a few months later, I came home from a sleep-over to find that Laddie, whose eye had begun to bulge milky blue, had mysteriously disappeared, a gang of cats was there to replace him.

Then there were the animals we tried to save: the series of stray cats abandoned in irrigation ditches, on the side of the highway, or once word got out about the “Cat Lady,” on our doorstep, whom we took to the vet for repairs, taught to trust again, and gave away. The spiders weaving mummified flies into dusty ceiling corners, whose execution my mother stayed by placing her chair beneath them. For hours she rocked, calmly reading, the spider spinning and dropping perilously close to her nest of cowlicks, while my grandmother patrolled the perimeter with a broom and dust rag, eyes glinting.

Finally there were the fish. Each summer my mother relinquished me to my grandparents, Old Pappa and Mummi, for camping trips, deer hunts, fishing parties, with the proviso that everything we killed would be consumed, necessary. My grandfather and I stood at the edge of the Pacific as the sun stained the sky shades of pink, and reeled in catch after catch of muscular fish effortlessly, despite the fact that summer-run steelhead always slammed the bait and tore up the river. Meanwhile all around us, fishermen squirmed, switching from casting to spin rods, checking reel capacity, fingering heavier fly lines with sink tips, their faces stretched in grimaces approximating smiles.

Later when we staggered back to the trailer, each toting a bucket teeming with fat, rose-bellied trout, Old Pappa roared with laughter. “All those grown men without a single bite between them watching this bitty girl pull ‘em in and trying to be excited for her!”

I joined their laughter but shrieked when Mummi reached for my bucket. “No!”

My grandparents eyed each other. “But, pulla,”Mummi tried to explain, “that’s the whole point of fishing. And you love fried trout.”

I draped myself over my bucket and sobbed.

“Okay, honey,” Old Pappa conceded, “that’s fine, but we should throw them back so they can live.”

I sobbed all the more loudly.

And so the bucket remained outside our trailer, the silvery steel-head dulling to gray, moving in increasingly listless circles, until Mummi, one hand pinching her nose, handed me a bucket of corpses.

Karuna (Compassion)

Head nun Roongdüan says the most profound moment of her ordained life was her three-month thudong. Traditionally these “hard-practice” pilgrimages entail trips to the deep forest, mountain peaks or cremation sites for solitary, intensive meditation. I’ve never heard of a woman doing thudong.

She’d been invited to preach and decided to travel with four nuns from one end of Thailand to the other. Each took an umbrella, a mosquito net, an alms bowl and the clothes on her back. Deep in the Malay Peninsula, the villagers work nights stripping rubber trees and sleep days, when alms rounds traditionally happen. Since it’s forbidden for an ordained person to eat after the sun reaches its zenith, this meant the nuns had to go for days without food. Often, sitting alone in an empty field, Roongdüan would come out of meditation to find cobras on either side of her“coiled like little stupas”—or with their heads in her lap, perhaps attracted by her body heat. She felt that they were being watched over by all creatures.

That California afternoon my mother’s surprise undulated across the summer-peach flesh of her arm. Mom clucked softly. “Really, punkin’,” she said, “he’s just a harmless little garter snake. You’re so much bigger. How can you be scared of him?”

She held out her other arm, and the snake draped itself through space, freezing in mid-shape, wrapping her in its muscular embrace. “Don’t you want to meet him?” she asked. “He’s sweet. A student rescued him from a squirrel, and I asked if we could keep him over the weekend.” She waved a glittering, scale-covered arm. “He knows how to play hide-and-seek.”

“Really?” I crept forward. Three light-green stripes ran the length of the snake’s body, marking a beaded pattern. It looked like a bolt of fine fabric pouring through her pearl-tipped fingers. “Is it slimy?”

“Of course not.” She held out a coil. “He feels really neat.”

I grinned, feeling foolish in the face of her enthusiasm, and poked a section far from the head with its darting, fissured tongue. The scales felt not like a fish’s hard, articulated ones but smooth and cool, the way a water-worn stone fits snugly in the palm.

“See?” My mother nodded. “Not slimy.” She knuckled several places where the scales rose up a good half-inch, forming miniature anthills. “We think he must have been bitten by the squirrel, poor thing.”

My fingers trembled over the rise and descent of the bite. The snake seemed to smile, its mouth curved upward. “My student is keeping him until he recovers enough to go back to the wild.”

My mother and I spent the day hiding behind our few pieces of furniture as the snake slithered across the napless carpeting after us, and the evening taking turns reading aloud from the snake books she’d brought from the school library. By the time I presented my Sunday homework report, I knew all about the 13 species of American garter snake, how the females are longer and thicker than the males, how they’re drawn to parks and other human habitats, how the tongue acts as the nose, how they have no ears. I understood the garter’s importance to our ecosystem, eating frogs and mice and keeping away its poisonous cousins.

But on Monday morning, as my mother, sighing, uncoiled the snake from her neck and settled him into the bottom of her bag, a thought flickered through my mind as quickly as the appearance and disappearance of that black, splintered tongue: Neither my delight in the snake’s arrival nor my sadness at its departure equaled hers. True, I was capable of feeling such outrage on the behalf of mistreated creatures that I’d become physically ill, my stomach flaming as I passed scabby dogs on the ends of chains, yet I suspected that it wasn’t the same as feeling true affection.

Perhaps it didn’t matter. Perhaps the important thing was that by age 5, I had internalized my mother’s code of behavior. I had a crippling sense of compassion and a yearning for others’ self-determination. I set as impossibly high standards for myself as for others. So what if I lacked what the Buddhists call metta, true love?

For years to come, I would champion the scabby dog. As a child I collected signatures, formed volunteer organizations, dragged home worm-eaten kittens, and visited nursing homes, steeling myself against the smell. In college I mastered a rhetoric of empowerment and social justice, theorizing grassroots development projects and skipping class to teach English to refugees. After graduating I worked a series of low-paying jobs in human services, legalizing undocumented immigrants, mentoring inner-city girls, smuggling activists out of Burma, plying needy students with Hershey’s Kisses and sympathy. I was despairing of humanity, outraged at middle-class complacency, inspired by the level of my colleagues’ commitment, shamed by my own. I acted and I behaved, always hoping, as the Jewish adage reassures, that by going through the motions, faith would surely follow.

Karuna (Compassion)

All I have to medicate the insect bites that consume the entire lower part of my face is Chinese tiger balm, which burns and burns. My ears are scabbed, my neck beaded with welts. And the best benefit of being baldI have mosquito bites ringing my scalp, pockets of pain breaking through the hard stubble of my curls. I’ve never seen so many stupid, creepy bugs in my life!

I never imagined that the vow not to kill would be so complicated, that I’d have to choreograph my smallest action so as to avoid inadvertently stepping on ants. I mean, we are living in the jungle! Unlike other precepts, not killing calls for constant awareness and an immense sense of personal responsibility.

Ways to Murder:

  • Not studying the path while walking
  • Wearing shoes
  • Breathing with mouth open
  • Breathing through nose without a veil covering face
  • Leaving glass of water uncovered
  • Quick, brushing movements

No matter how often I scrub the toilet, gnats drown in the shallow bowl, tiny black lines ticking off my sins like the days of a prison sentence. It makes sense to avoid killing in civilization where everyone is half-consciously swatting anything that gets in the way, but I’m tired of coaxing 10 ants out of my glass just to take a sip of water, of dribbling warning water around the toilet so that the gnats fly off and I can pee without committing sin, of feeling bugs crawl between my legs as I’m drifting off to sleep, of concentrating on pain, pain, pain while yet another creature is sucking my bloodthe very moment I’m trying to cultivate compassion.

The first precept of Buddhism—to refrain from harming any living creature—was also the first law of my mother’s household, the only offense to garner actual physical punishment. The specific rules of engagement, however, were complicated. As with Buddhism, lack of intention or awareness didn’t matter. When my Aunt Ines handed me a salt shaker and directed me toward the mossy path mottled with early-morning slugs, and I trembled to discover that the blobs dissolved in a shower of salt, first foaming, then shriveling into phosphorescent ooze, I was expected to know that what I was doing was horribly cruel.

And I had known, to be honest—even without the expression on Mom’s face—or at least suspected but had pushed this knowing into a corner, letting my fascination with color, transformation, danger take precedence, absolving myself from awareness and responsibility. My blindness was a temporary refusal to align action and intention, cause and effect. Where did I imagine the slugs had gone, after all?

Guilt-ridden once the killing was complete, the community of benign, spotted creatures reduced to smears of mustard, I got off on a technicality. I’d been obeying an adult’s command: Kill.

The second time I have no such excuse.

The neighbor boy, David, and I are in the barn, the sun filtering through slats in the roof, forming thick, hazy columns of dust motes. We’re swinging on a long, rough rope, lobbing ourselves into the bounce of hay. I feel the warm scratch against my face and arms and legs, inhale the musty odor of horses and old spaces.

We sink into the bales and discover a nest of newborn baby mice, smaller than my thumb, completely pink, covered with the softest white down. We can almost see through their translucent, veined ears. Eyes still closed, they squeal faintly for their mother. I’ve never seen anything so tiny in my entire life. They don’t seem real.

Their papery ears and will-o’-the-wisp tails and waving claws are so miniature, so doll-like, that we’re tempted to pull on them to see if they’re really attached. We do, giving a gentle tug, and a single, crimson droplet of blood wells up where the ear had been. Horrified, we pull off the other ear, the tail, one arm and then another, the legs. Each yields to our trembling fingers so quickly, so easily that we’re unable to stop.

I have no idea how many mice we do this to. Wherever I look, all I can see is that first, impossibly round, impossibly bright speck of blood.

The baby mice are now frightening—mewling little thumb-shaped bodies without definition. Tiny torsos and mouths scream for their missing limbs.

Terrified by what we’ve done, we drown them in the horse trough.

I don’t remember what happened next or what made Mom decide to come all the way out to the barn to check on us, whether she figured out our crime or we confessed, trembling with chills, like the time I jumped from the rafters and came up howling, a rusty nail sticking through my boot, like the time the skittish mare stampeded and David got caught trying to slide under the wire fence, its jagged, black teeth laying open the soft flesh of his back in a 6-inch furrow.

For the first time since reaching “a reasoning age,” I get spanked. The reality of Mom’s hand against my flesh stuns me, but I can’t really feel it, I’m already sobbing so.

Upekkha (Equanimity & Calm)

This evening head nun Roongdüan stresses the importance of developing compassion toward all creatures, especially dangerous ones. I wonder why. Sure, we free ourselves from crippling fear, but since when do the things we fear need our compassion?

Ever since her encounters with cobras on thudong, she doesn’t fear them. When she accidentally steps on a snake on the path, she says “Khdd thôod.” Excuse me.

The conversation makes me nervous. So far every issue she’s brought up in my evening lesson has been perfectly timed for use in meditation.

She compares training the mind through meditation to the desire to catch a fish. We wade into the paddy, up to our calves in mud, and search. At last we grasp what seems to be a fish, but upon withdrawing our hand, realize that it is a snake. What to do? Barehanded, we cannot kill the snake; stuck in the water, we cannot fling it away for fear that it will twist back and strike. So we whirl it around and around our head until it tires, then fling it away and run in the opposite direction.

Despite my mother’s best intentions, I eventually learned to lie and to kill. When I was 6, we moved to my grandparents’ farm in the semi-desert of southeastern Washington state, where Mummi waged a grim, daily battle against insects and dust. I was continually throwing back my covers, ready to spring into bed, to find a spider, hairy and angular, in the middle of my white sheets. Each time I screamed, indignant and aggrieved, while Mom tried to soothe me, saying, “It’s only a house spider. It’s not that big. Aren’t you glad it eats mosquitoes and flies?”

No, I wasn’t glad. My grandmother’s child, I fantasized about knocking aside Mom’s rocking chair and stomping her latest ward. I wouldn’t even scrape the cracked body and green pulp off the bottom of my shoes. “Kill it!” I’d shriek, pointing to the intruder.

It was lying, however, that proved to be my true talent. I couldn’t prevaricate about small, daily matters like receiving too much change, but I felt no compunction to honesty when it came to the big stuff. After all, I’d stared so intently at the TV during the snake documentary and been so mesmerized by the mutant, two-headed one, its dominant head dragging the minor one around like a spaced-out Hindu deity, that I began to feel I’d really seen the snake. I’d been watching; I’d admitted its existence; I’d felt affinity; perhaps I did indeed see it.

My lies were crafted to reveal a greater truth than I believed the facts allowed. All my life I’d been told that my truth was not possible, from playground accusations that my white mother had adopted me, to my teachers’ refusals to accept my writing skills. And so I gave myself authorial authority, my verbal creations the Tawny Taupe nail polish tanning the once-pink paper doll. I lied to hold shame at bay —Sure, I’d been born in a real hospital, not a home for unwed mothers. Sure, I’d seen my unknown father and siblings; I visited Nigeria all the time. Sure, I could speak our native tongue. There was indeed a place I belonged. My reality was closer to the truth. And a better reality was what I was after, if it took colorizing books and paper dolls or lying to get there.

Upekkha (Equanimity & Calm)

After this talk of dangerous creatures, I go inside my hut, turn on the light, and there as I had expectedthough not quite this soonis my test: A huge spider, glossy black, some 4 inches in diameter, hangs on the wall above my mat. I sink to the floor and try to calm down. What are the Buddhist answers to get me out of this moment? Awareness. I consider what a spider is, break it down into its components. Contemplation. I focus on the shiny black ball and eight, jointed legs. I consider how irrational my fear is. I breathe.

The spider remains. Ugly, mythic. Scotty, beam me the hell up! I want to flee, screaming. Not possible. I want to cry with the realization that from now on we might be roommates. Possible, though not recommended.

I close my eyes and manage a few ragged breaths. My cheeks quiver as I fight the urge to pop open my eyes and keep tabs on my visitor.

A loud thumping forces me to look up. The planks of the wall connecting to the bathroom contract in and out, one after the other, as if a heavy steel ball were being rolled across. The wood creaks and flares.

I jump up and grab the flashlight. Reaching the bathroom I throw open the door, flick on the torch, and stop short.

A muscular monitor lizard, its body a full foot long and some 3 inches thick, clings to the wall above my head. Squat, bowed legs center its weight; claws dig deep into the wooden planks. Chain-mail scales shimmer blue in the circle of light from the flashlight. In a single, fluid motion, its flat snake’s head swivels a smooth 180 degrees toward me, the slit eyes rotating, focusing, locking.

I stumble back and switch off the flashlight. The Thai call monitor lizards thú-gàe after the resonant, prehistoric rumble of their call. My breath sounds in the damp bathroomshort, wet, like a dripping faucet. My hands shake like a malaria victim’s. I try to focus. I’m distracted by thoughts of the lizard’s weight as it moved across the wall, all cold-blooded muscle and teeth, cousin to the dinosaur.

The Thai say that thú-gàe lock their jaws during attack and nothing short of burning them off will loosen their grip. I can just see myselfvictim of the first precept not to killwith the damn thing latched to my forehead for the rest of my life!

I take a deep breath and two quavering steps forward, hoping to get the lizard used to me. Immediately its tail shoots up, an 8-inch exclamation. The air thickens between us. Is this a warning, a prelude to attack? How to interpret the actions of a reptile? How to anticipate them? Will it attack out of malice or only if provoked? What constitutes provocation? Is a temple-dwelling reptile concerned with the acquisition of merit?

After a few minutes, I concede defeat. I have no idea what to do, and the monitor is giving no clues. I slide by the mass of blue steel, its tail still aloft, and return to my hut, disheartened.

I often find myself wondering why we have to be braver than other women. Isn’t it enough that we’re different?

When at the age of 22 I moved into the Thai forest, shaved my head and eyebrows, donned white robes, and ordained, I agreed to live by 10 precepts and numerous behavioral codes. When I left the temple, I exchanged my nun vows for the five basic precepts to which Buddhist citizens adhere: to refrain from killing, stealing, sexual offense, lying, and consuming intoxicants. Even as I took the five citizen precepts, I knew I was lying. Taking them was only a transitional measure to lessen my anxiety at disrobing. I knew that for me there was no Middle Path. I was either ordained or not. Of the spirit or of the flesh.

I justified my five lies easily. Since the purpose of the precepts is to enhance the practice of mindfulness, thereby liberating oneself from the cycle of bad karma and rebirth, and not to assign sin, there was no reason not to return to alcohol and sex. And I wasn’t going to give up lying, my natural talent. There was no way, however, to justify killing.

In the 13 years since disrobing, I’ve wondered about my determination not to break the first precept. I certainly don’t adhere to the letter of the law—I wear shoes and leather; I drive a car; I eat meat; I breathe with impunity—but I won’t raise my hand with the intention to destroy life. It’s a matter not of virtue but dread.

And so the precept that proved hardest to follow as a nun is the only one I still keep. Not because it directly impacts the welfare of others but because it presents a continual challenge, reminding me what is possible, 13 years out of the temple, 17 years out of my mother’s house.

Metta (Love & Goodwill)

We hunker down to wait out monsoon season. No one can leave the temple. Head nun Roongdüan explains it’s because so many creatures emerge during the rains that it would be virtually impossible to move without killing. According to my history text, however, wandering mendicants gathered together at rain retreats long before Buddhism’s spread because the rains made it difficult to travel. Our temple population swells with the stream.

The rains bring insects. A praying mantis, spiders the size of fists, bug larvae that dive-bomb my candle and writhe on the mat, still smoking. I erect a makeshift candle cover from an empty saline bottle to protect them from accidental suicide.

The temple is warmer, lusher, greener. I meditate with my door open to night, my hut lit by a single flame. Head nun Roongdüan’s face glows in the flicker of her own candle. “Go back to meditating,” she whispers. “I brought you juice. Do you have enough candles? Any problems?”

She beams confidence in me, so I don’t tell her that I’ve been crying. That I’m so very, very lonely. That I opened my eyes while meditating in the cave and discovered that the soft noises I’ve been hearing as the air swirls through the darkness are in fact rats. As soon as the sun goes down, they emerge in packs from the recesses of the cave. I opened my eyes to see them swarming over the figure of the Buddha, his eyes downcast in a golden, smiling face.

“No problems, right?” she prompts.

Right. I am filled with love.

I finally feel like a nun and not someone pretending to move slowly, dog-paddling in air to kill time. When a breeze blows the gauze at the door back and I catch a glimpse of another nuna silent figure in whiteI am reminded of something mysterious, not quite human or ordinary I feel light, indistinct, something people can’t quite look at or see. The Naga.

About the Author

Faith Adiele

Faith Adiele won the Millennium Award from Creative Nonfiction for this essay. She is the daughter of a Scandinavian-American mother and Nigerian father, was raised in the Pacific Northwest, and has lived in Southeast Asia and West Africa.

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