"How did putting rice into a monk's bowl have any effect on how many fish you caught?...How did being a monk validate my Thai-ness?" These were the kinds of questions that plagued young Jaed Coffin during his life-altering summer as a Buddhist monk in Thailand.
Coffin recalls in this colorful memoir that being a bi-racial, bi-cultural Thai American just wasn't easy. His parents, who met during the Viet Nam war, divorced not long after he was born in Brunswick, Maine. Jaed says his American father took special care to remain a presence in his life while he was raised by his Americanized Thai mom. So, although the estrangement of his parents did not factor in to his identity crisis, it was nonetheless destined to be a whopper. Sometimes he longed to be just American, sometimes just Thai, and sometimes just blond. "I just wanted to be able to look into the mirror and know that what I saw on the outside was an exact expression of how I felt on the inside."
Before his senior year in college, Jaed (a Thai name) applied for a grant to go to his mother's native land and be ordained a Buddhist priest in the tradition of the men in her familial line. It was partly an attempt to honor this enigmatic woman and partly an opportunity to find a sense of peace about his split identity. If nothing else, the experience would give him a cultural foundation upon which to construct his Thai self.
Jaed had trained as a boxer, so the discipline of a monk's life was not as traumatic for him as it might have been for a typically-raised American kid. He took vows to renounce sexual thoughts and actions, perhaps a bit more difficult for a male of his age and culture, but while in Thailand he was faithful to that vow and others. He rose early and begged for his food, surprised at how readily it was offered even by the poorest villagers. He tried to learn to meditate, and he became a passable speaker of colloquial Thai.
Jaed befriended a fellow monk named Narong, each trying to convert the other to the different values of their respective societies. Narong professed a desire to live in a cave and meditate. Jaed, who found caves dank and depressing, subtly talked him out of it by inculcating him with the idea, which he himself had grasped only in a facile American sort of way, that "The Buddha is everywhere." Jaed suggested that Narong's life as a monk could be fulfilled if he traveled around practicing his bizarre cures for ailments that ranged from "giant arm" to "sickly baby" and which always seemed to disappear under Narong's prayers and ministrations. Jaed told Narong that he found his beliefs in ghosts and in the ability of monks to walk through walls to be nonsense. By contrast, an older and wiser monk informed Jaed that his notion that "The Buddha is everywhere" was also nonsense because it did not encompass the intricate context of Thai Buddhism, and chastised him for having a "not sure heart."
Jaed took the monk's message seriously and was strangely comforted by it. The assurance that he had a not-sure heart freed him from understanding what was right and wrong and who he needed to be. When he returned to the U.S., he finally found a way to communicate with his mother – in English, with a Buddhist allegory - and share the secrets of his not-sure heart, one of which was his desire to become a writer.
This book is the beginning of his journey down that path.