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Angela Tilby on the Thailand cave rescue: Take note of the Buddhist approach

20 July 2018


Classmates of the 12 schoolboys react to news that some have been rescued

Classmates of the 12 schoolboys react to news that some have been rescued

IN THE past week, more details have emerged of the astonishing deliverance of the schoolboys from the flooded caves in Thailand.

I was fascinated by the cultural differences revealed by the way the unfolding drama was reported. There were no tearful relatives sobbing into the camera, no “experts” blaming the coach who had let the boys into the caves, no first wave from a rescued boy though an ambulance window.

Of course, Thailand is an authoritarian society, and both the media and the public are tightly controlled. But it would be wrong not to take into account the influence of Buddhism. The Theravada school, which is dominant in Thailand, embraces an austere philosophy in which the sense of self is regarded as no more than an illusion. As individuals, we are neither the agents of our destiny nor the passive sufferers of others’ will. The self is merely a fleeting amalgam of sensations and thoughts. Human beings should think and act rightly — not for any obvious reward, but to set in chain a stream of righteous thoughts and actions. The purpose of our lives, in other words, is to produce good karma.

What part this teaching had to play in the responses of the individuals involved in the cave is difficult to judge. But it may help explain some features of the drama.

The young football coach, for example, who had spent time as a novice in a Buddhist monastery, sent a message of apology to the parents, to which the parents responded by saying that they trusted him and that there was nothing to forgive. It seems that he used his meditation training to help calm and encourage the boys.

During the rescue, the boys were sedated — mildly, according to first reports; but then it began to emerge that they were virtually unconscious, carried through the winding tunnels in air-pressured body bags. There was apparently no question of consent. The parents were naturally anxious to see their children once they were rescued, but they waited patiently for days, and then accepted that they were allowed only short times of contact. All these examples demonstrate a degree of self-control which is deeply alien to us.

The Buddhist view of self is different from the Christian one. But we have austere teachings of our own about the mortification of the self and the readiness to die to our false sense of autonomy. Our problem is that we retain a fierce belief in the dignity of the self while not being prepared to learn self-transcendence. So we have a shouty press, a culture of blame, and a reluctance ever to trust authority. If the flood had happened under freak conditions in Wookey Hole, for example, what shape would the boys and their families be in?

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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