observers around the world breathed a collective sigh of relief on learning that the last group of boys had been safely extracted from deep within a flooded cave system in northern Thailand after being trapped for more than two weeks, reports indicate that Buddhist meditation may have been a key factor that helped the boys survive the grueling days and nights trapped inside a mountain on Thailand’s border with Myanmar.
The agonizing plight of the 12 boys, aged 11–16, all members of a local football team known as the Wild Boars, and their coach, 25, who found themselves trapped by monsoon floodwaters while exploring the Tham Luang Cave complex in Chiang Rai on 23 June, captivated the attention and hearts of the world. The masterfully planned rescue operation, led by an international team of divers and Thai Navy SEALs, which culminated yesterday with the exit from the cave of the last group of boys and their coach, was closely monitored via media outlets and online social platforms, which shared every tortuous step as the protracted mission played out over hours and days.
“The 12th Wild Boar and the coach are now out of the cave,” the Thai Navy SEALs posted on their Facebook account at 6.48pm local time yesterday. Three Navy SEALs and an army doctor, who had remained with the boys since they were found, were the last to emerge from the cave. The most recent reports at the time of publication indicate that the water pumps draining the cave system failed just hours after the last boy was evacuated.
Suffering from malnutrition after the 18-day ordeal because he gave up his own share of their meager food rations to his young charges while they waited for help, assistant football coach Ekaphol Chanthawong, known to the boys as P’Ekk (Brother Ekk), reportedly taught the boys meditation to calm them as the interminable hours in the cave turned into days, how to collect runoff from the cave walls instead of drinking the floodwaters, and how to conserve their energy until they were found by rescuers.
When the widely circulated video of the boys’ discovery in a partially flooded chamber by a pair of British diving experts emerged on Monday last week, Aisha Wiboonrungrueng, mother of 11-year-old Chanin who was among those trapped, expressed conviction that Brother Ekk had been instrumental in keeping the boys alive: “Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting. No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing.” (The Washington Post)
Indeed, Brother Ekk is no stranger to adversity. He was the only member of his family to survive an epidemic in his village when he was 10 years old.Two years later he went to live at a Buddhist temple, where he trained to become a monk and studied meditation. He spent a total of 10 years at the temple, which he still visits occasionally to meditate.
“He could meditate up to an hour,” Brother Ekk’s aunt, Tham Chanthawong, is quoted as saying. “It’s definitely helped him and probably helps the boys to stay calm.” (Vox)
As the rescue effort inched toward victory, a government spokesperson observed that Brother Ekk had been an unwavering source of strength during the boys’ ordeal, advising them to lie down and not move their bodies too much to conserve their energy, “and of course, by meditation, they stay conscious all the time, so their minds will not be wandering around.” (The Guardian)
And amid the technical innovation of the rescue effort and the unquestioned bravery and resourcefulness of the rescuers and the countless engineers, military personnel, and volunteers, the power of Buddhist belief and prayer in and around the makeshift rescue camp was also much in evidence.
Outside the extensive cave network, numerous Buddhist shrines of incense sticks and various offerings were set up, tended by monks and visited by volunteers, rescuers, and relatives of those trapped, who prayed for the monsoon rains to let up and for the safe return of their loved ones within the mountain. As the days passed and concern for the fates of the boys mounted, many of those present turned to the attending monks for spiritual guidance and solace. Senior monastics conducted vigils, gave sermons, and offered blessings and comfort to the relatives of the missing party. Even the divers themselves wore bracelets and amulets, anxious to accept any possibility of an advantage that could help on the perilous road that lay before them.
One novice Buddhist nun traveled some 720 kilometers to the site from the Thai capital Bangkok to pray for the trapped party. “It feels as if we are all in water and we need something to hang onto,” she said as the fates of the boys hung in the balance. (Los Angeles Times)
While a vocal minority of armchair experts on social media have sought to pin the blame for the boy’s traumatic experience on Ekaphol, the parents of the children have credited the young man with keeping their children safe.
In a letter carried out of the cave by divers along with heartfelt notes from each of the 12 boys shortly after they were found, Brother Ekk wrote: “To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents.” (ABC News)
The parents quickly replied in a letter of their own: “Don’t blame yourself. . . . No parents are angry with you at all, so don’t you worry about that.” (The Guardian)
“When he comes out, we have to heal his heart,” the mother of one of the rescued boys was quoted as saying. “My dear Ekk, I would never blame you.” (News.com.au)
Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, with 94.5 per cent of the nation’s population of 67.3 million identifying as Theravada Buddhists, according to official census data for 2015. As of 2004, the country was home to 40,717 Buddhist temples, of which 33,902 were in use, according to the National Office of Buddhism, and some 300,000 monks and 60,000 novices.