Thai monks pray during a cleansing ceremony and memorial service for Saman Gunan, the Thai SEAL diver who died while trying to rescue the boys trapped in the cave. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

Why the rescued Thai soccer boys are considering becoming monks

(The Conversation) — After their dramatic rescue from Nang Non cave, 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach are mourning the loss of a Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Gunan, who died during the rescue efforts. The father of one of the boys said that in order to pay tribute to the Navy SEAL, many boys are considering temporarily becoming monks.

Ordaining as a full monk – known as “bhikkhu” in Pali, the religious language of the Theravada Buddhism – is only available to men over 20. The boys would instead be ordained as novices, or “nen,” who undergo fewer restrictions. Additionally, at least one of the boys is Christian, and would likely not be ordained as a monk.

But in the wake of the rescue efforts, the act of ordaining is not surprising. In Theravada Buddhist practice, ordaining to be a monk and donating the merit thus gained is one of the greatest honors that a person can give to another.

Monasticism in Thai life

Monks in Southeast Asia, with their saffron robes and shaven heads, are iconic. They can be seen on the roadside with alms bowls, accepting handfuls of rice from villagers in early morning processions, or gathered in the evenings chanting Pali scriptures in the Buddhist temples that lie at the heart of most Thai villages. In my own research, I spent hours talking with monks – from abbots of major temples to those who had been ordained for a short period.

I also met monks engaged in “magical” activities such as healing, to those who saw their role as scholars. My first impression, like that of many travelers, was of a group of men seeking enlightenment through isolation from the world.

Meditating Buddhist monks in Thailand. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Indeed, this isolation is at the core of Buddhist teachings. For Buddhists, worldly desires lead to suffering. Therefore, cessation of desires can lead to happiness and eventually enlightenment.

But monks are not a homogeneous group. Buddhists join the monkhood – the sangha - for many different reasons, only some of which are related to achieving transcendence and enlightenment. While some may choose to remain monks for their entire lives, most Buddhists ordain for a limited period. Thai Buddhists with whom I’ve worked have ordained for a few months during childhood, for the length of the rainy season, or even just for a day before undertaking a dangerous journey or following the death of a parent.

Buddhism, as it is practiced in Thailand, addresses many worldly needs. It takes into consideration the lives of people who are not necessarily ready to renounce the world quite yet.

Monastic education

Before the advent of government-run schools in the late 19th century, the Buddhist temple was the key institution for the education of young boys in Thailand. Boys as young as 5 entered the temple to learn to read and write, and to study the basics of Buddhism.

When Theravada came to Southeast Asia from India in the second millennium A.D., replacing local versions of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, this religious focus on promoting education within the village was revolutionary, as it became a central part of village life.

Theravada was focused not on the trappings of kingship and rule, but on serving communities. The temple in the center of the village served as the school, fairgrounds, hostel and welfare office in addition to its role as a religious center.

Today, this role of educating Thai boys has largely been replaced by government-run schools. This transition has allowed for the education of girls.

But some Buddhist schools remain, especially in Thailand’s North, that keep a focus on mostly men’s religious education. They teach the local Northern Thai script (distinct from Central Thai and largely fallen out of use) in addition to the religious languages of Pali and Sanskrit.

Karma and merit

But education is not the only reason to seek to be ordained.

Most Thai men get ordained in order to make merit – known as “tham bun.” Devoting oneself to the study of the Buddha’s teachings, the dharma, is one of the most holy acts that one can do. Buddhists who get ordained are believed to acquire a great deal of bun, or merit.

For Buddhists, this life is but one in a cycle of deaths and rebirths, where the good deeds one does in the past determine where and in what form – human, animal, divine being – one is reborn. Eventually, over many lifetimes, enough knowledge and merit will allow for escape from this cycle and transcendence.

But as anthropologist Lucien Hanks described, in Thai religious system, practitioners can donate and receive merit from others. Normally, the recipient of the merit are parents. It is a way to thank them for their sacrifices.

In the case of the 12 boys and their coach, however, they are offering the merit they will make to Officer Saman, in order to ensure a better rebirth in his next life.

The obligation of a debt

Like many languages, Thai has certain concepts that do not translate well into English. One of these, “krengjai,” refers to the feeling of obligation toward someone who has given a gift too great to repay. It is a heavy feeling.

Thais at a cleansing ceremony and memorial service for Saman Gunan, the Navy SEAL officer, who lost his life during the rescue operation. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

For observers, it is easy to imagine the gratitude that the boys must feel to Officer Saman, but it is just as easy to overlook the sense of responsibility that must weigh on the boys as well. As the classic anthropological theorist Marcel Mauss pointed out, gifts come with obligations, and the sacrifice of a life is no different.

The ConversationIn this way, the boys are likely becoming monks not to reflect upon their own fate or experience in the cave. Rather, they are doing this to repay Saman’s sacrifice with the greatest gift that they can offer.

(Andrew Alan Johnson is an assistant professor of anthropology at Princeton University.)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


  1. I, too, wish to “repay Saman [Gunan]’s sacrifice … while trying to rescue the boys trapped in the cave.” But no, not by “ordaining as a full monk”, not even “temporarily becoming [one]”. Nor by “mak[ing] merit”, then “donating … merit … to [brother Saman Gunan] … in order to ensure a better rebirth in his next life.”

    And why not, exactly? Because, see, according to God & Jesus, “this life [AIN’T] one in a cycle of deaths and rebirths, where the good deeds [Saman Gunan] does in the past determine where and in what form – human, animal, divine being – [that Thai SEAL diver] is reborn.” Are you kidding Me? – both God & Jesus are telling me with a smile, Even in 666 “lifetimes, enough knowledge and merit [AIN’T gonna] allow for escape from this cycle and transcendence.”

    I’m also “ready to renounce the world”, though, that’s for sure. And I do also own up to my “obligation toward [brother Saman Gunan] who has given a gift too great to repay … [even though this] heavy feeling … that must weigh on the boys” can’t possibly be mine.

    Or can it?

    May with that “heavy feeling”, then, that I go now and evangelize my Buddhist sisters and brothers everywhere and wherever. What for? So that they’ll endure the crosses that they carry in their lives of faith in response to the ransoming Fatherly love of God through the crucifixion, burial and resurrection of His own beloved Son, Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and the savior of the rest of the world – including Thailand.

  2. Even in 666 “lifetimes, enough knowledge and merit [AIN’T gonna] allow for escape from this cycle and transcendence.”

    So you believe in rebirth/reincarnation/bhavacakra?

  3. The Dalai Lama in 1992, then Sonam Rinchen in 2006, both claimed that in the bhavacakra the Buddha is pointing to a white circle, the moon, to indicate that liberation from samsara, i.e. cyclic existence, is possible. Now, see, any truth-claim (or false teaching) can do that – without, however, necessating any corroboration by witnesses bearing, well, witness to said liberation. Neither Buddhist man has ever produced such witnesses. Muslims and Mormons do it all the time as well – sans eyewitnesses. Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, however – the sources of liberation – were witnessed to by apostles Matthew, John and Paul. And all 3 lived to tell the story. But no one ever did to vouch for the veracity of the bhavacakra.

  4. Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection, however – the sources of liberation

    So, liberation from rebirth/reincarnation/bhavacakra is possible?

  5. Impossible. For reasons stated.

    Plus the reason that human merits can’t liberate humans. Ever. If going by the definition of liberate.

    Now your turn. Detail how Buddhist liberation isn’t impossible.

  6. Detail how Buddhist liberation isn’t impossible

    “But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible; but with God all things are possible.” — Matthew XIX:26

  7. Well this will certainly make that Pure Flixtion movie a little awkward.

  8. Liberation from samsara is not a truth claim. It is a cognitive strategy, a heuristic.

    It is disconcerting, for those who have studied Western-style social sciences, to talk in terms of cognitive strategy, as opposed to truth claim. Yet this shift needs to be made.

    If it helps, cognitive strategy is related to the Sanskrit phrase “adyaropa-apavada”. Adyaropa-apavada is a teaching style suitable for students whose pre-requisites are weak. The teacher starts by stating facts in a highly simplified manner. Highly simplified because the student’s prerequisites are weak. After a bit, the student gets stronger. Now the teacher states the same facts, but with greater sophistication than before (greater sophistication = not so highly simplified).

  9. “Truth claim … cognitive strategy … greater sophistication” – uh-huh, yeah, right. This guy KP is no better at it than you.

    According to KP Jayasankar, The Speaking Subject, A Preamble to Vedanta, Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay, 1989:

    “Adhyaropa Apavada as a methodological strategy is an attempt at comprehending the formation and history of the subject ; the process is termed adhyasa. Untying this adhyasa is a dialogical textual possibility. [Beyond] the realization that any marginal discourse is the site of this subversion, Advaita goes on to show the characteristics of this discourse. Any discourse that reveals that the ‘I’ is spurious knowledge, is a Sruti, a realisation at the site of Brahmajijnasa that warrants not only an eternal validating principle but also the fecundity of interpretations, and manifold exegetic possibilities. The impasse in hermeneutics is resolved in Advaita by its potentiality to situate itself as an ontology, rooted in an eternal critical practice of ‘neti, neti’ (not this, not this) that subverts the legitimization of traditioned meanings.”

  10. “With God” – right you are. But Jesus was talking about His Dad, not you.

  11. Not just His Dad, but the Dad of All:

    “One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” —Ephesians 4:6

  12. Is this what you’re getting at? That “to Hindus, Jesus’ proclamation ‘The Father and I are one’ confirmed the Hindu idea that everyone, through rigorous spiritual practice, can realize his own universal ‘god-consciousness'”? Even though Hindus don’t believe that their gods are like fathers to those who worship them?

    Source: Beliefnet, May 2002, “What Do Hindus Believe About Jesus?”

  13. Even though Hindus don’t believe that their gods are like fathers to those who worship them?

    Actually, Bhagavan Krishna, in The Bhagavad Gita, chapter IX, verse 17, says, “I am the Father of this world, and its Mother; the giver of the results of actions; the world’s Grandfather; the One to be known, the Purifier, the Sound of AUM that created the world; and the Rik, the Saman, and the Yajur Vedas, the sacred scriptures of Truth.”

  14. The boy who translated for them said thank you Jesus on main stream news. I thank Jesus for this miracle.

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