From Portland Press Herald – Jaed Coffin’s childhood in Brunswick was typical of his peers but with one big difference: His mother was an ethnic Thai woman who’d married his American father during the Vietnam War.
That fact may not seem terribly significant at first. Coffin’s mother, a nurse and single mom during her son’s growing up years in the 1980s and 1990s, didn’t teach Jaed or his older sister the Thai language, or raise them to be Buddhists. Coffin excelled in school, then went to Middlebury College to study philosophy.
But, as he tells in “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants,” Coffin left home with a burning curiosity about his Thai heritage, a curiosity planted in part by childhood visits to his mother’s native Panomsarakram Village in Thailand. There, he’d gone swimming in canals like native Thai children, and watched monks pass in saffron robes. Most significant of all, he attached himself to his medicine man grandfather who gathered forest herbs to heal the sick.
“We never said anything,” he writes, “but that didn’t matter. I was happy to just contemplate my grandfather’s curious features. I admired the wooden shine of his skin, his oiled silver hair, the musty smell of his collar-less white shirts, and the thoughtful rhythm of his breathing.”
Three quarters of the way through Middlebury College, Coffin astonished his mother and friends by leaving college to become an ordained monk in the village where his now-deceased grandfather led such an exemplary life.
“A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants” is Coffin’s beautifully told story of his personal search for his roots and identity on the opposite side of the globe. More than a non-fiction tale of one person’s quest to find himself, Coffin’s story about his life as a monk illuminates a culture that differs radically from life in America.
I couldn’t put this book down. At our kitchen table, I read passages aloud, partly because good writing lends itself to reading aloud. But I read to my wife for another reason as well, one that has nothing to do with circumstances that led to my reviewing this book, but much to do with our family. Our son was born in Thailand in 1987 and, in November 1990, my wife and I spent two weeks in Bangkok and a province north of the city as we completed his adoption.
Time and again in reading “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants,” I was pleased by how Coffin’s observations ring true to my memory of Thailand.
Early in his book, for instance, Coffin describes his re-entry to the country as a 21-year-old adult after a more than 10-year absence.
“We left the city in a silver mini-van piloted by my mother’s cousin,” he writes, the driver careening “with wild confidence down narrow streets dodging tucktuks and songtaews and cyclo-carts and rickshaws beneath flashing billboards.”
Later, as the van in which he rides enters his mother’s childhood village, Coffin’s description of the technical and cultural collision of east and west is both masterful and accurate.
“Everything looked so desperate and beat down,” he writes. “A woman in an apron stared through a column of steam; a little girl in a white blouse kicked after a gang of street dogs There was a new Seven Eleven convenience store — lights and plastic and crystal-clean glass — buried into the crumbling sidewalk like a fallen spaceship.”
Despite his study of Buddhism, Coffin was ill-prepared for his new life as a Buddhist monk. His hair and eyebrows are summarily shorn. An old monk tells him he is to have but one meal a day. He may not sleep on cushions, or play or run.
“No touch woman,” the monk warns him. “Not even look.”
The last admonition is a particularly difficult one. For in the days just before his ordination, he reunites with a young Thai woman named Lek, a childhood friend during visits to the country years before.
What adds to enjoyment of “A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants” is the author’s refreshingly honest impressions of his time as a monk. At the end of his first week, for instance, he confesses to boredom and loneliness.
“If all you did as a monk was to bum around the temple grounds,” he writes, “then I could’ve just as easily stayed in America and lived in a cardboard box in my backyard.”
Life becomes considerably more interesting when he meets an older monk named Narong. “I am to be teacher for to learn to you Buddhism,” Narong says in his broken English. “You am to learn to me English. I am to learn to you.”
Narong meditates for hours at a time. Occasionally, after many hours of meditation, he speaks an incomprehensible gibberish he calls “god language.”
Once, when Coffin is sick with a raging fever, Narong meditates for hours, then brings him little balls of bark from a tree in the forest. “God language” led him to the tree, Narong tells Coffin. The medicine looks like deer excrement to the writer, who swallows it anyway and is soon well.
There are wonderful chapters about a Kerouac-like adventure with Narong to visit the Forest Temple high on the side of a mountain. There, an order of forest monks live a religious life that is ascetic to an extreme.
“Everything is meditation,” a forest monk named Aeg tells Coffin. “Walking: meditation. Speaking: meditation. Eating: this is meditation, too.”
Robes of the forest monks are dyed earthy brown from plant dyes gathered in the forest.
To the author’s credit, he does not pass judgment on Thai Buddhism, or the American way of life. Sadly, he does discover during his odyssey that his height and Thai-American features make him a curiosity in Thailand, just as they did in Maine.
I won’t give away Coffin’s ultimate relationship with the beautiful Lek, and factors that go into in his decision to eventually leave the Buddhist order.
Coffin went on to receive his degree in philosophy from Middlebury. He also holds an MFA from the USM Stonecoast Writing Program. Now 28, he lives in Brunswick. He’s made his living at various times as a boxer, sea-kayak guide and lobsterman.
“A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants” is a lot more than a young man’s search for his identity on the opposite side of the world. It’s a window to a fascinating culture very unlike our own. I recommend it highly.