Friday, May 9, 2008

Of monks and men: Coffin combines boxing and Buddhism
By Courtney Nelson | For the Juneau Empire

Jaed Coffin is as complex as his dichotomous life. Not only was the 28-year-old a Southeast Alaska middleweight boxing champion in 2004, he's also an ordained Buddhist monk.

A boxing Buddha, if you will.

Coffin, who was The Island Institute of Sitka's April writer-in-residence, also authored a book about his time in a Thai monastery called "A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants" released by De Capo Press.

Coffin left his hometown in Maine at 21 and returned to his mother's native village of Panomsarakram in Thailand to connect with his cultural origins and bring him closer to the spiritual foundations of his family and their village. He became ordained as a Buddhist monk while there to fulfill a familial obligation, as almost every man in his family had done, and to earn good karma for his family.

Coffin left the monastery and returned to the United States.

After a time of wanderlust which found him running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, backpacking through Mexico and traveling around the Lower 48, he eventually ended up in Alaska after kayaking solo from the San Juan Islands to Sitka.

"(It was a) spontaneous decision to buy a sea kayak and solo kayak from the San Juan Islands up to Sitka," he said. "When I got to Sitka I didn't have any plans to stay but a contact of mine suggested I get a job at the Native education program. I applied for the job, got it that day, then had a life in Sitka for a little while."

In addition to teaching, Coffin began boxing in Sitka. He trained with Victor Littlefield, who taught him "boxing is controlled aggression and the imposing of your will over someone else's."

This philosophy contradicted the Theravada Buddhist tradition he learned in Thailand where anything seen as a lack of self control "is considered antithetical to the monastic practice."

However Coffin, who fought as an amateur in the Lower 48, said he never felt out of control inside the ring.

"I don't think I've ever lost control in the ring," he said. "My first several fights at Roughhouse (at Marlintini's Lounge), you don't know what you're doing, so you dive forward and plunge forward and that's what most of those fights are like, you know, brawls.

"But I think the thing you learn as a boxer is just to keep control always, and that's what wins fights. Stay disciplined."

Coffin combined the opposing forces of stillness and action as well as Thai and American cultures which deepened his experiences.

Coffin has a deep commitment to the Buddhist tradition his mother brought him up in, but he left the monastery because he was more inclined to be a boxer than a monk.

"One very strong part of my personality is a desire to do things and try things which doesn't happen when you are a monk ... you have to stay put and sit still."

His experience in Thailand taught him discipline. Because he learned how to be still and meditate, Coffin believes it made him a better boxer.

"The notion of meditation when you fight is very important because boxers that have a lot of passion when they fight will tire themselves out and you have to really learn to be calm in moments of a lot of aggression, which is a unique combination."

Coffin retired from the ring due to a neck injury in 2007 after winning several amateur championships, including the 2006 Northern New England Golden Gloves title. Coffin suffered the injury while sparring in Maine.

He said the injury just made him sure he is supposed to be a writer.

Coffin wrote an article about Roughhouse boxing when he got back to Maine for his hometown paper, but he didn't consider it to be a book idea until his agent pushed him to think about his next project.

Coffin wrote 70 pages of a memoir, but admits his boxing book has taken a different turn since coming to Sitka.

"The fellowship with The Island Institute has changed everything for me because now I'm here and it breaks that bubble of imagination," he said. "When you are away you can think, wow, this is the world I imagined, but now that I'm here everything seems more visceral and more real and I went to the fights on (April 11) and that makes everything more present in my imagination. It complicates things but it will be a better book."

He's also writing an article on Southeast Alaska boxing for the New York Times new sports magazine, Play.

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