BANGKOK — A day after they charmed and moved the world at an emotive press briefing, the boys and soccer coach rescued from a flooded cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand, are preparing to become Buddhist monks in a ritual adherents say will cleanse their souls, restore good karma, purify the cave—and deliver to heaven the former Thai Navy SEAL who died trying to get them out.
The retreat to a temple is part of a culture rich in religious belief, piety and superstition.
Eleven of the 12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team, ages 11 to 16, and their boyish-looking coach, 25-year-old Ekkapong Chantawong, are scheduled to be ordained next Tuesday at Wat Phradhat Doiwao, a temple in Chiang Rai province. One boy, Adul Sam-on, 14, is Christian and will not join.
At the press event Wednesday, the team bowed before a sketch of Saman Kunan and pledged to atone for their mistakes and honor the ex-SEAL, who perished on July 6, by becoming monks. Thai Buddhists believe the move will pay dividends on Earth and beyond, and senior clergy endorse it.
“This is a good deed that they will perform, intentionally, for Saman, who sacrificed his life for them,” says Phra Khru Khanti Palatorn, abbot of Wat Tangmin in Chiang Rai and chief Buddhist monk for that district. “They become willing to praise those who have been helping them and to get away from the troubles and the debt they owe people.
“Entering the monkhood is a very good way to accomplish that. This will help them to be free from all the grievances and troubles they have been facing.”
Many Thai males become monks for at least a week at some point in their lives as part of a religious and cultural process—even children aged in the single digits may do so. Full-fledged monks must be at least 20, so the Wild Boars will be novices. It will be Ekkapong’s second ordination as a monk.
“After they leave the temple they must do the best they can and I believe they will be good people after being novices,” Abbot Khru Khanti tells The Daily Beast. A youth should be a novice for at least seven days, and in this case a 10- to 15-day temple stay would be ideal, he adds.
The team went missing on June 23, triggering a massive effort to find and rescue them. The number of police, soldiers, Navy SEALS, divers, medical personnel and volunteers who flocked to Tham Luang Cave soon swelled to more than 1,000 people from across the globe.
The crisis also drew Buddhist monks who arrived to pray for the boys and comfort parents who waited anxiously—and prayerfully—outside the six-mile subterranean labyrinth. Kruba Boonchum Yannasangwalo, a famous monk from northern Thailand who lives across the border in Burma, was among them. The 50-something “forest meditation monk,” who has many followers in the Golden Triangle area where Thailand, Burma and Laos abut, assured desperate families that their children would be delivered to them, alive.
Many Thais credit Kruba Boonchum for the team’s salvation—alongside diving algorithms and other sophisticated methods. Crediting religion as well as science underscores Thailand’s blend of modernity and religious faith, says Vichak Panich, a Bangkok-based Buddhism and meditation expert.
“People praise the monk and say oh wow, he made a correct prediction. A lot of modern Thais and even journalists criticized this, saying Thai people are so superstitious, they believe in a monk rather than the rescue team. Monks will say it’s good. Two sides of the discussion. I think both are OK,” Vichak, director of the Vajrasiddha Institute of Contemplative Learning, tells The Daily Beast.
With their reliance on the dhamma—the truth taught by the Buddha—the Wild Boars could have survived in the cave for up to 30 days, says Phra Athikarn Kittipong, abbot of Chiang Rai’s Rong Khun Temple. On the other hand, he says, if they did not believe in Buddha they might not have made it out alive.