In Thailand the underground world of water and subterranean caves is believed to be inhabited by nagas, dragon-like spirit beings who can bring blessing or danger. The same word, naga, is used to refer to a young man preparing for his ordination as a monk (there’s a legend of one naga in the time of the Buddha who pretended to be human in order to become a monk).
The 12 members of the Wild Boars (Moo Pa) soccer team from Mae Sai, northern Thailand, who recently survived a harrowing ordeal in a flooded underground cave while the world watched, made a transition from one naga-realm to another as 11 of them ordained as Buddhist novices last Wednesday. Ordaining temporarily as a bhikkhu (monk, literally, “one who shares in the alms given”; feminine “bhikkhuni”) is a powerful way to make merit, or create good karma to bring blessings. It is commonly undertaken in Thailand as a way to honor one’s parents. It is also sometimes done to express gratitude to someone or after a miraculous salvation from danger or illness. Someone might promise before a Buddha statue or in their own minds that if they survive an illness or ordeal they will take temporary or indefinite ordination afterward.
The desire to express gratitude as well as to acknowledge rescue are both clearly at play in the case of the Wild Boars, who appear to have in mind both their rescue after ten days in the cave as well as the death of Saman Gunan, the former Thai Navy SEAL who died trying to save them.
All 12 of the boys, who range in age from 11 to 16, took temporary ordination for nine days, except Adul Sam-on, a stateless refugee from Myanmar who is Christian. The boys became trapped in the cave on June 23 and were found by two British divers on July 2. They were later rescued during a perilous mission that ended on July 10. Saman Gunan died after losing consciousness while swimming underwater to deliver oxygen tanks needed for the rescue.
The boys’ coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, who had lived in a Buddhist monastery for over a decade, taught the boys how to meditate during their time in the cave. A Thai cartoon depicting him as sitting cross-legged, like a monk, with 12 little boars in his arms, became popular after the rescue. When British rescuers discovered the boys, who had been without food during their ordeal and had survived by licking moisture from the cave walls, they were meditating and reportedly looked skeletal, in an evocation of the statues of fasting Buddhas popular in Thailand. The boys spent a week recovering in hospital before their ordination.
Chanthawong was reportedly orphaned at age 10 when his parents died. It has been common in Thailand for centuries for orphans to end up as novice monks, since monasteries were until recently the only social institutions with the means to care for parentless boys.
The Wild Boars ordained at Wat Pha That Doi Wao, in a ceremony that predictably attracted hundreds of fans—to the dismay of the temple’s head monk, Prayut Jetiyanukan.
“It’s enough!” Jetiyanukan was forced to say over the loudspeaker system to the overly noisy crowd, according to the New York Times. “Fans! Please get back! They haven’t had a proper sleep in days and need their rest.”
The Thai government has asked that the boys not be bothered and threatened intrusive journalists with prosecution under Thailand’s child protection laws. In Mae Sai, local officials worry about the effects of the massive media attention and talk of possible film adaptations of the story.
“Fame is dangerous,” Somsak Kanakham, the Mae Sai district chief, told the Times. “These people aren’t from rich families. It can be tempting when they get approached with money and benefits that they’ve never had before.”
The boys’ temporary ordination will end Wednesday, after which they will reportedly return to school to prepare for exams.