A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants


By Jaed Coffin

Formats and Prices




$25.99 CAD



  1. Trade Paperback $19.99 $25.99 CAD
  2. ebook $7.99 $9.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around January 8, 2008. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Six years ago at the age of twenty-one, Jaed Muncharoen Coffin, a half-Thai American man, left New England’s privileged Middlebury College to be ordained as a Buddhist monk in his mother’s native village of Panomsarakram–thus fulfilling a familial obligation. While addressing the notions of displacement, ethnic identity, and cultural belonging, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants chronicles his time at the temple that rain season–receiving alms in the streets in saffron robes; bathing in the canals; learning to meditate in a mountaintop hut; and falling in love with Lek, a beautiful Thai woman who comes to represent the life he can have if he stays. Part armchair travel, part coming-of-age story, this debut work transcends the memoir genre and ushers in a brave new voice in American nonfiction.


to Soothe
Wild Elephants

to Soothe
Wild Elephants

A Memoir

Jaed Coffin

For Koondtha and Koonmae

A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants

to Soothe
Wild Elephants

Two Roots

When I was a boy, my mother used to bring my sister and me to Thailand every other year to visit our family in Panomsarakram, the village where she was born. From our home in Brunswick, Maine, it took us two full days to get there. Since my mother didn’t want us to fall behind in school, we always traveled during our Christmas vacations. Along the way, we made stops in Alaska, China, Japan, and Taiwan, where my sister and I liked to wander the mysterious airports to marvel at the crowds of Asian people. When we arrived in Bangkok, I felt as if my world had been turned inside out. The snowy winter of Maine had been replaced by a heavy tropical heat.

Because of the twelve-hour time difference, I was sleepy during the day and awake at night. To my young mind, it just didn’t seem possible that two such opposite places could exist on one planet.

Growing up, my mother didn’t speak Thai to my sister and me at home, and while I was used to hearing the language and knew a handful of phrases, there was no one in Panomsarakram who I could really talk to. When people called us farang: foreigner, or look-krung: half-white child, I could only glare at them. But the village kids always came to our family house—a simple wooden box with a tin roof, raised up on stilts—and invited us to do things that didn’t require much talking. We swam naked in the brown water of the canal, made slingshots and climbed coconut trees, and played soccer barefoot with a straw da-graw ball on the red dirt fields of the temple grounds.

One of the first Thai words I learned was koondtha: grandfather. My koondtha was a medicine man. Since my grandmother had died when my mother was a teenager, Koondtha spent most of his time with the monks at the village temple, Wat Takwean, or in the forest, collecting plants for his ointments and medicines. Every morning I sat on the steps of our family house as Koondtha secured a tray of empty glass bottles onto a rack over the back wheel of his purple bicycle. I watched him ride off through the temple grounds, past the bodhi tree and along the canal, until his silhouette vanished into the bustle of the morning market on Panom Street.

When he returned in the late afternoon, the bottles were always full of roots and leaves, and bags of green oranges hung from both ends of his handlebars. Koondtha would park his bicycle, carry the bottles into the family house, and stack them on a high shelf. With a bag of oranges in each hand, he’d take a seat next to me on the steps.

We had a system: Koondtha would hand me an orange slice and by the time I’d eaten it and held the seeds between my teeth, he’d be ready with another one. I’d spit the seeds into the palm of his hand and take the next slice. We never said anything, but that didn’t matter. I was happy to just eat oranges and contemplate my grandfather’s curious features. I admired the wooden shine of his skin, his oiled silver hair, the musty smell of his collarless white shirts, and the thoughtful rhythm of his breathing.

Toward the end of the day, people would come to the steps to have Koondtha treat their wounds, broken bones, and fevers. Once, a young soldier in a military uniform arrived on a motorcycle, driving haphazardly with his right arm lying limp in his lap. He tried to stand and honor Koondtha with a customary wai, but his shoulder was in such pain that he could bring only one of his hands into prayer. I liked the seriousness of the soldier’s well-fitted uniform and how the color of his sharply parted hair matched his polished black boots.

The soldier took off his shirt to show Koondtha his dislocated shoulder. The skin was deeply bruised purple and yellow, and was swollen to the height of his ear. Koondtha studied the injury as if it were the page of a book. He nodded to himself, selected a bottle of ointment from the shelf, and began rubbing the ointment onto the swelling. The young soldier gritted his teeth and started to sweat. He exhaled in short, quick breaths and tossed his head from side to side. His perfectly parted hair came undone and fell across his forehead.

Koondtha began chanting in low grumbling tones that I could barely hear. The prayers scared me, but I wanted to listen. As the soldier started crying, I watched the heel of his boot twist itself into the dirt. Koondtha lit what looked like a long cigar and held it under the soldier’s armpit so that the smoke drifted into the bruised area. He spoke to the swelling as if telling it a secret. After several minutes, the soldier became calm. The muscles of his face relaxed, and he began to move his arm in ambitious circles. Without speaking, Koondtha capped the bottle of ointment and returned it to the shelf. When the soldier pressed his palms together to wai Koondtha, Koondtha slapped the air and said “bah.” The soldier removed a wad of bills from his shirt pocket, and wai-ed Koondtha a second time with the bills pressed between his fingers. “Bah,” Koondtha said again and turned his back to the money. I watched the young soldier mount his motorcycle and speed off across the dimly lit temple grounds. When I turned to Koondtha, he was sitting on the steps with his head resting against the wall and his eyes closed.

•  •  •  

My mother left Panomsarakram in 1970, after she had married my father during the Vietnam War. He was an American soldier just two years out of college; my mother worked on the military base where he’d been stationed. Their wedding was in northeastern Thailand and was attended by my mother’s whole family, none of my father’s, and several hundred American soldiers. Many of my mother’s relatives disapproved of her decision to move to America with a farang. As a customary wedding gift from her grandmother, my mother was given an expensive gold bracelet. “When your life does not work out in America,” she told my mother, “sell it to buy a plane ticket home.” On the day that my mother left Thailand, all her family and friends traveled with her to the Bangkok airport on a rented bus. Before boarding her flight, my mother promised Koondtha that she would work hard to save her money and come back to visit in three years.

The first years of my parents’ life in America have always impressed me: they bought and fixed up an old farmhouse in a small town north of Burlington, Vermont. My father rode a motorcycle and my mother trained for marathons. They grew their own vegetables and kept chickens. In 1977 my sister was born, and my mother named her Tahnthawan—Thai for “sunflower.” Two years later I was born, and my mother chose a name for me, Jaed, that she believed would give me a strong mind and a compassionate heart. Just before my second birthday, my father left my mother for an American woman. Months later, my mother moved with my sister and me to Brunswick, Maine, where she’d found a job as a nurse working the night shift at the local hospital. At the time, I was still too young to wonder why she hadn’t taken us back to Panomsarakram instead.

Growing up in Brunswick I knew no Thai people, and the only Asians I ever saw worked at Chinese restaurants. As much as my mother’s presence in our town was a bit mysterious—she spoke to me in imperfect English and cooked spicy food using strange ingredients from bottles with Thai and Chinese labels—I generally didn’t distinguish her from any of my friends’ moms. And while our house was full of exotic objects—two giant wooden elephant statues, rice paper temple rubbings, a set of ivory tusks displayed in our living room—I somehow felt that none of these things were out of place.

When we were still new to Brunswick and didn’t know the coast or the nearby beaches, my mother liked to take my sister and me to have picnics on the banks of the Androscoggin River—a foaming, polluted strip of brown water that serviced the dam and the old mills downtown. As a boy, I thought the river was beautiful and swam in it just the same. Even then I understood that for my mother, this resembled the canal that ran past our family house in Panomsarakram. With no temples in town, we sometimes went to a Unitarian church, where the minister asked my mother to teach classes on Buddhism. I never paid attention in those classes, but not because I didn’t want to learn about Buddhism: I just didn’t like Sunday school.

Every night Tahnthawan and I would crawl into my mother’s bed for the few hours before she started her night shift. My mother would sing a Thai song to us, a sad melody that made me dream of Panomsarakram. Since my sister and I didn’t understand the words, we’d just listen until we fell asleep. If we were in a silly mood, we’d mock my mother’s voice with our own made-up lyrics. When my mother sang “kry naw rak rao,” my sister and I would call out, “chong ching chop chow!” My mother would slap us lightly on the tops of our heads. “Do not sing like this,” she would say. “It is not beautiful.” Then, just as we were falling asleep, I’d hear the flat rattle of an alarm clock. In the near dark, my mother would rise out of bed, dress for work, and march off into the night.

I often experienced moments when my half Thai-ness was brought to my attention, but at the time I was still too young to understand what that meant. Once, in second grade, I was called a Chinese freak by a fourth grader named Mark. He was dumb, kind, tall, and chubby, and wore the same sweatshirt every day. Everyone always made fun of him because he lived in the poor neighborhood in town.

“Chinese freak!” Mark said, but in a voice that made him sound like he was imitating a line he’d heard in a movie. He seemed poised for something to happen, just like when we played the game of shouting “Fuck you, God!” to see if there were any consequences.

I didn’t really know how to react. More than anything, I felt a great sense of relief. I was just glad he hadn’t called me a fatso or a dumb-ass, which was what everyone called him.

The first time I remember feeling proud of being half Thai was when I was watching a movie with my father. Although he lived in Vermont, he made a valiant effort to visit almost every weekend. We’d stay in off-season tourist motels or in the officers’ quarters in the town’s navy base. During the day we played baseball and football in empty parking lots, and sometimes we went to the beaches early in the morning to fish for bluefish using eels as bait. At night, we’d order pizza and watch Westerns and Chinese martial arts movies. My father loved old episodes of “Kung Fu” starring David Carradine as the half-Chinese hero, Kwai Chang Caine. We watched certain scenes over and over again to emphasize the wisdom of Caine’s teacher, the blind Master Po. For me, the most central of Master Po’s lessons came in a scene when Caine complains that, because he is only half Chinese, he doesn’t feel worthy of living in the Shaolin temple. Master Po pauses and smiles, his colorless eyes twitching like small moons.

“You have two roots,” Master Po tells Caine.

Caine squints. He doesn’t understand.

Master Po smiles. “The plant with two roots is stronger than the plant with one root.”

My father stopped the tape, rewound it, and played it again.

“You get that, son? Two roots.” My father was holding his index and middle fingers in a v-shape. “You understand? Two roots.”

I nodded, pictured a small plant anchored in the dirt, and fantasized that I was like Caine, lost in America with just a sleeping mat and a bamboo flute.


One October afternoon, my mother received a phone call from her sister in Thailand. I listened to their conversation as if it were a secret language and watched as my mother’s face showed surprise, then confusion. It looked as if she’d suddenly become very tired. When my mother hung up the phone, she told my sister and me to sit at the living room table. “Koondtha died last night,” she told us. Tears formed along her eyelids, but she held them there with a firm smile.

My mother requested that the funeral service not be held until after the start of our Christmas vacation. I was in sixth grade, and she didn’t want me to miss any school. By now, I suppose I’d become a bit more mature and self-aware. I was obsessed with sports and dreamed of being a catcher for the Boston Red Sox. I had smoked cigarettes and had already kissed my girlfriend, Stephanie, at a junior high dance. Before we left for Thailand that December, Stephanie had given me my Christmas presents early: a bead necklace and a tape of the new Vanilla Ice album.

When we arrived in Panomsarakram, I felt as if all the familiar symbols of my boyhood now stood apart from me at a distance. I remember realizing how wildly different the customs and people of the village were from anything I’d experienced in Brunswick. There was a simplicity and antiquity in Panomsarakram that was missing from my life in America. Things here seemed dirtier and slower, and yet more patient and deliberate in a way that I couldn’t pinpoint.

In preparation for the funeral, the temple grounds had been swept until the red dirt glistened. The face of the temple had been covered in long white curtains. The men, dressed in white shirts and black slacks, kept busy setting up festival tents, while the women wore black gowns and white lace blouses as they prepared enough food for several hundred people. A small group of men tended to the fire in the crematorium. Since sunrise, a tower of white smoke had been pumping from the chimney and drifting across the temple grounds like a thick morning fog.

In the afternoon, my mother and sister and I followed a winding parade to the steps of the crematorium, while Koondtha’s casket bobbed on the shoulders of several men moving in the front. Behind us, a funeral band played a sad song on dented silver instruments. The parade stopped at the foot of the crematorium stairs, and I watched Koondtha’s casket glide onto a stage and settle atop a white pyre. The men who’d carried his casket lifted off the cover and set it to the side.

“Do you want to go look?” my mother asked me. My sister had already refused, but I nodded. My mother bit her lip, considered something, and then looked at me with an expression I’d never seen before. “Maybe it will be hard to look at him. The smell will be very strong.”

At the time, I had simple ideas about death: I understood that old people disappeared and never came back. I didn’t know what had happened to Koondtha’s body over the course of two months, especially since it had been left to decay without chemicals, as is the custom in Thailand. All I knew was that I missed Koondtha and wanted to see him again. As my mother and I passed through the white curtains and ascended the stairs onto the stage, I could feel the heat from the crematorium oven getting thicker and more intense.

Koondtha lay in his casket, swaddled in a white sheet that had yellowed along the edges. His shoulders seemed too small, his hands were gone, and his head looked like a rotted gray stump. The smell that rose off him was so putrid that it made me want to sit down and fall asleep. At first, his corpse was the most ugly and horrifying thing I’d ever seen, but some strange courage told me to keep staring into the casket. I turned to my mother—she looked steady and strong. For a moment, the face on the corpse reminded me of Koondtha.

As one of the men opened the metal door of the chamber, billows of white smoke tumbled across the stage. The other men lifted Koondtha’s casket with quick, aggressive movements. I watched the casket float through the smoke and pass through the door. The man who had opened the door closed it by forcing a long bar into a slot. The smoke melted off the stage and the pyre was empty again.

I sat down with my mother beneath the shade of a festival tent and watched the traditional lee-kay dancers performing on a carpet in the middle of the temple grounds. They moved to the wailing strings of the funeral band like beautiful puppets. The one in the middle was the prettiest: she looked about my age, and kept batting her eyelashes in the sunlight and twirling her golden-tipped fingers like spinning flowers. For a moment she was still—and then broke to the note of a saw-oo violin. A tower of smoke rose up behind her and thickened and turned black. The dark clouds marched skyward like a swaying chain of elephants, pedaling higher and higher, blossoming toward the sun until they thinned and vanished. I turned to my mother and saw that though her eyes were heavy with sorrow, she wasn’t crying.

Later, my mother took me to the temple’s uposatha hall, where several rows of monks sat on a high stage chanting prayers. I tried to sit like my mother, aunts, uncles, and everyone else in the congregation, with my feet pointed behind me and my hands to my chest in prayer. I studied the monks’ featureless faces, their empty gazes and muttering lips, and the folds of their orange robes. I imagined them as mystical beings inhabiting two worlds at once. The sound of their chanting filled my head as if it were a single voice.


  • Tricycle
    “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.”

On Sale
Jan 8, 2008
Page Count
224 pages
Da Capo Press

Jaed Coffin

About the Author

Jaed Coffin holds a B.A. in philosophy from Middlebury College and an M.F.A. from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast Writing Program. A boxer, sea-kayaker, and lobster fisherman, he lives in Brunswick, Maine.

Learn more about this author