Review: Sons of Isan by William Reyland

FF’s Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The majority of western society have an idle conception of what Buddhism is. Sons of Isan: Taking Refuge in a Thai Temple is a true account by William Reyland, a western convert to Buddhism, who came from America to live among Buddhist monks in a Thai temple for an entire year. The reason being that, although the author had grown fascinated with meditation, found that he wasn’t making any actual progress. Brought up by a god-fearing Catholic family, Reyland believed that he was missing something and he hoped to find whatever that elusive something was in Thai Buddhist temple.

Located in a Thai region called Isan, Wat Pramuenrat is the name of the Buddhist temple that Bill lives in. For Bill, life in this temple would take some getting used to. But, seeing as his first visit to Thailand had ended abruptly due to dietetic problems, he is determined to do what he set out to: to learn more about Buddhism and to heal parts of himself that he didn’t even know needed healing. His mother had died when he was quite young; his father, also gone, was a man he wasn’t close with. To find what he’s been looking for, Bill had to let go of Western living as well as his son. In and around the temple, among monks and other people, he finally finds fulfillment. And discovers unspoken truths.

We can all agree that setting a goal for oneself doesn’t come without it’s challenges. So, seeing the author fall victim to a “dietary disaster” upon making his first appearance in the Thai region of Isan is something that most of us can relate to. The author was obviously being put to the test. By the universe. God. Buddha. And he passed it. Though the author goes home shortly after his first trip, he returns a few months later. “I had to see this through, and if anything, my initial failure served to strengthen my resolve.”

The question of why the author chose Thailand, a place in which images of Buddha and revered monks are plentiful, as that place to find that something that he has been looking for has a simple answer. “Buddhism is Thailand.” He goes on further to write the following: “Homes, businesses, births, marriages, and funerals are all brought fourth with the assumed protection of a monk’s blessing.” At first, the author would have a hard time adjusting to his new living arrangement and he is not a writer to shy away from pointing out the negatives that he detects.

Phra Suwatt, the abbot’s secretary, is the first monk the author chooses to introduce readers to. The author describes him as being tall and thin, wearing robes that give absolutely nothing away about his physical features. There is Luang Por, a man who the author writes is the model of monastic purity and also a fascinating and lovely man. Other men include Abbot Sunthorn, a determined man with a mission of his own; Phra Samboen, a highly compassionate man; and Phra Maha, a man who – unbeknownst to him – is disliked in the temple and who takes advantage of his title, making this book rather interesting when these alarming revelations are made.

Likable about Bill is that he doesn’t decide to spend his days in a Thai temple doing nothing but watch monks meditate all day. The people he encounters are friendly and monks tend to ask him if he’s happy, showing that they do care about him. Thus, when he decides to become an English teacher, we see that he has found a way to be an active part and help to the community. He was Ajarn (Teacher) Bill. English teacher. Village driver. The author introduces readers to many things that made up his life among the monks. I liked the funny moments as well as the pitiable ones. Also, the revelations and behavioral traits that would become clear to the author concerning that “great monk” called Phra Maha.

Readers will love learning some Thai words and terms since Reyland does offer translations. I got to learn a bit of Thai history which I thought was great for the author to include. In a simplistic setting that might make many a man from the west go bonkers because of its lack of modernity, starving packs of dogs, availability of Western type food, and warm climate, the author’s sense of humor doesn’t go unnoticed. It adds levity to the text which goes a long way in making the reader relate to the author as an American adapting to a completely different kind of lifestyle.

An unsavory thing about this book subsumes reading words like “Wat Pharasarasatanaram” and “Mahachulalongkorn Rijvidyalaya.” (Not sure if I wrote those correctly but if I have to check I’ll just risk succumbing to a headache). On a Saturday afternoon in 2003, the author goes to this Thai temple with its headache maker of a name, and the author is called “boy”. The author, who we learn in a later chapter has an eighteen-year-old son, doesn’t clarify whether he is being called boy because of his obvious age or if he has boyish features. This is a detail about himself that I would’ve liked to have been made clear there and then so I wouldn’t have been left to speculate about his age until a chapter very late in the book.

The author is a writer who can really make you fall in love with words and make even the most hesitant of readers eat up everything they read. He had me forgetting all about the world around me and following his experiences in a Buddhist temple with hungry enthusiasm. For someone interested in monastic life, this book is absolutely a worthy choice. A read that would go well with a rainy, sunny, and tranquil day. I would keep one of those small bells handy just for fun.

Kindle Edition:

Publisher: Tabla Press
Date Published: June 24, 2009
Genre: Religion & Spirituality
Pages: 186
View on Amazon

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