Low-key memoir of the author’s search for identity.
Born to a Thai mother and American father, Coffin struggled with his mixed ethnicity through much of his childhood and adolescence, even though his father left the family before the author’s second birthday. Biannual trips to his mother’s home village of Panomsarakram, as well as his discovery of Buddhist philosophy in high school, increased his desire to connect more closely with his mother’s cultural heritage. While studying philosophy at Middlebury College, Coffin began to consider his half-Asian ethnicity as a vital part of his self-identity: “I decided to think of myself as an Asian and a Thai…it gave me a vague excuse to feel unique, exotic, and enigmatic.” In the spring of his junior year, the author received an internship grant to travel to his mother’s village and live for a few months as a monk at the local Buddhist temple. Coffin recalls his spiritual quest in simple, unadorned prose, as he questions his motivations and attempts to achieve the devoted serenity of his fellow monks. After his initiation ceremony, the author embarked on the training required of all new initiates: learning the eight precepts of Buddhism, meditation, ritual chants, maintaining the gardens and lotus ponds, etc. The rigorous labor soon dampened his spirits, and he began to question the monks’ lifestyle: “Rather than chasing after some Ozymandian fantasy, they were content to settle into a balanced state of decay.” Seeking enlightenment, Coffin accompanied his mentor Narong—who taught meditation in exchange for English lessons—on a quest into the forest, where they met the “forest monks” and received alms and gave blessings at various small villages. Unfortunately, the author found little more than banal observations—“This all seemed so unproductive: all this believing in things that you couldn’t see, and searching for knowledge that you’d never be able to use”—and he returned to Panomsarakram, left the temple and spent the remainder of his summer teaching English at the local high school, socializing with the villagers and pining after Lek, a local girl with whom he had spent time during his childhood trips.
The author’s journey is admirable, but his thin memoir fails to relate any sense of spiritual or intellectual development.