A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants: A Memoir
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2008
224 pp., $16.00 (paper)
“YOU HAVE TO BE somebody before you can be nobody,” the psychologist Jack Engler famously wrote. For adolescents, the quest for identity is an accepted rite of passage; for many people, “Who am I?” remains a lifelong koan.
For Jaed Coffin, author of A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, the question had particular resonance. A look-krung—Thai for “half-white child”—he’s the son of a Thai mother and an American father who met and married on a military base in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, moved to the United States, then divorced when Coffin was two. How he chose to resolve his identity crisis follows in the tradition of young men throughout southern Asia: He became a monk at Wat Takwean, the temple in Panomsarakram, his mother’s village in Thailand. A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants chronicles that experience.
It’s worth reading this book twice. Once for the story—absorbing and, at times, amusing—and once more for the poetry: crystalline observations of people and place that float alongside the narrative. What could have been a simple coming-of-age tale is, in Coffin’s hands, a wry, at times lyrical commentary on cultural identity and Buddhist practice.
Coffin’s name signals his dual heritage. His mother chose Jaed (he doesn’t translate it, but one guesses she’s referring to “jade”) in the hope that it would give him “a strong mind and a compassionate heart.” His surname is as quintessentially Yankee as Brunswick, Maine, where Coffin and his older sister were raised by their mother. Apart from her, the only Asians he encountered in the lily-white community “worked behind the counters in Chinese restaurants.” Still, notwithstanding the occasional taunt—“Chinese freak” and “fucking refugee”—Coffin seems to have weathered his youth with little sense of dislocation. His parents, we gather, saw to that.
One night, while Coffin and his father were watching reruns of the TV show Kung Fu, his dad replayed a moment when Master Po, the old Chinese teacher in the series, tells his biracial protégé, Caine, “You have two roots,” explaining that a plant with two roots is stronger than a plant with one. Coffin’s father drilled home the message: “You get that, son?”
During a childhood visit to Panomsarakram for his grandfather’s funeral, Coffin was told by a temple monk he should return and ordain. But it was not until he had “an adolescent philosophical crisis” that an interest in Buddhism emerged. Reading Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen, Coffin dismissed Watts as a “phony” but concluded “that everything in the material world [is] fake and meaningless.” In college, he shaved his head, began to identify with his Asian roots, and secretly believed his heritage gave him “privileged insight into ancient sutras.” There was only one way to resolve his spiritual and cultural crisis, he decided: He arranged a travel grant to Thailand and Wat Takwean.
If at times Coffin’s quest seems less urgent than he’s led us to believe, it may be because we’re diverted by his window on Thai Buddhist practice, both lay and monastic. How different it is from the convert Buddhist experience in the West. Curious about Buddhism in America, a monk asks Coffin, “Is it good?” His reply: “It is expensive.” He’s thinking of “all the meditation retreats and workshops run by white men with long beards and attractive women with fit yoga bodies.” Suffice it to say that his adventures as a Luang Pee—holy brother—involve nothing of the sort. We watch Coffin’s fumbling attempts to follow temple procedure and his puzzlement that so many of the monks, instead of meditating, spend their days reading newspapers or napping or watching reruns of NBA games on TV. One young monk tells Coffin he has ordained for two weeks to please his grandmother; his room, stacked with food and cartons of cigarettes, “made it look like he was away at summer camp.”
Among the other monks we meet is Narong: Assigned to teach Coffin the dharma, he babbles fractured English and “god-language” as the two spend a week wandering in the forest. And there is Boi, the temple boy who gives the horrified Coffin a lesson in impermanence: “Same-same,” Boi explains as he tosses a dead puppy on the rubbish heap atop some wilted flowers. Coffin’s most penetrating—and enduring—lesson comes from the Luang Pa, or holy father, of the forest temple. The Buddha isn’t to be found in all those places where Coffin has been looking, the elder monk says, but “in the heart that is always mai nae jai”—the not-sure heart.
Other lessons come from Coffin’s encounters with his colorful relatives, though they, too, bring him no closer to resolving his identity crisis. At one point a family friend chides Coffin for his indecisiveness about his beliefs: “If your uncle [a crack para-sailor], the shortest man in Panomsarakram, has the courage to go higher than everyone else, then why are you not able to make up your mind?”
Some of the most evocative moments in the book are not dharmic but descriptive. Coffin recalls watching a traditional dancer at his grandfather’s funeral “twirling her golden-tipped fingers like spinning flowers.” His first night back in Panomsarakram brings up childhood memories: “The darkness was the same darkness I’d known as a boy, and I always felt bound to it like a thief or a stowaway.” Sitting by the canal, he pictures his mother in the same spot forty years before: “I began to think of the brown oily water of the canal as a kind of blood, and that each night I was bathing in the liquid of my ancestry.” At Coffin’s ordination ceremony, “thirty monks were spread across a stage in an orange fan,” and when his mother bowed deeply at his feet, “never had she seemed so barely my mother, and never had I felt so barely her son.” Coffin arrives at Wat Takwean speaking only marginal Thai, but the Luang Pa of the temple fares little better with English at their first meeting: “I waited while he stared at the ceiling, searching for the word as if it was a bird trapped in the rafters.”
Two and a half months after his ordination, Coffin disrobes and returns home to finish college. There have been no epiphanies, though there are hints he’s made peace with his not-sure heart. Fast forward a few years, and Coffin is back from his post-college travels and settling down to be a writer. In a book of Thai poems he finds the chant of the memoir’s title. It tells of wild elephants trapped by the king’s men, who kick and scream at being forced into captivity. But once they’re placated by the monks’ chanting, they see that living in the palace is an honor, and they bow before the king. “Give up your kicking, fighting, and thrashing about/Soothe your vicious temper,” the verses say. “Once you are dutiful and valiant in battle/You will be well fed and content.”
Coffin, we sense, is done with kicking—and is on his way to contentment.
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