***This book was reviewed for the San Francisco Book Review
Sons of Isan, by William Reyland, is the true story of one man’s immersion in rich spirituality. At times mirthful, and brutally honest, it is a tale of introspection, and the journey to find deeper meaning in life. Having given away all his possessions, our intrepid narrator makes a pilgrimage to the Buddhist temple of Pramuenrat in Thailand. He went with the romantic notions fostered by Western society, whose interpretation of Buddhism is rather on the soft side. Disabused of these notions, he settles in to learn. He finds occupation in teaching English to the village children and monks, eventually teaching at the MahaChulalongkorn Buddhist college (I was pleased to recall the Siam king for whom the college is named for).
Adjustment comes hard, though. Between mosquitoes, heat, restless sleep, and a scary ‘bathroom’ with standing pools where the skeets breed, adapting take effort and willpower. Packs of semi-feral dogs roam the temple grounds.
Previous to this extreme, he studied with Thai Buddhists in a temple near his home in the US. It was this time of study that prompted a sojourn to study at a temple in Thailand. The first expedition, however, didn’t end so well. There were issues of the flying ax handle variety, sure to put a damper on any sort of introspective study.
This memoir presents a compelling peek into life at a modern Buddhist wat (temple). I’m an anthropologist, and love cultural studies. The difference between traditional Buddhism and Western-influenced Buddhism was fascinating. I found it funny that the monks at Pramuenrat could carry mobiles but not wear watches. I do have to say ‘Nope!’ to the mosquitoes, and heat. I like being malaria free.
I loved the reminiscence of the time spent with monks in the Us. Haha, they were very concerned he wasn’t married, and had custody of his son. Exploring different cultural values is a chance to grow, to learn, and to appreciate different cultures. Both in the US and Thailand, the Thai people seem a very warm and welcoming people. The beginning of some chapters are prefaced with a short vocabulary list of Thai words. I enjoy books that teach snippets of language.
I can only imagine the dedication this endeavour took. Sometimes, I think it would be nice to escape on a spiritual retreat like this, but I know I do not have that willpower. Would that I did. Perhaps I could find more of myself.
Sons of Isan is a fairly quick read, yet full of reflective value. It will prompt you to think more deeply about your own life.
????? Highly recommended