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Saving the Orphans of Northern Thailand
Buddha’s Lost Children
Mark Verkerk, Director
EMS Films, 2006
As the lights go down, the sound of a stream is heard. The first images show a bare-chested man cross-legged on a tall stone spur in the forest, limbering up his arms and neck in what looks like a cross between meditation and martial arts. His face is calm, but his body wears a wild constellation of tattooing: calligraphy wriggles down his arms, and a winged horse flies across his chest.
The man is a Thai Buddhist monk. In the next moment, he’s egging on two boys who are fighting. “That’s it!” he cries. “Kick into his neck.”
The new documentary Buddha’s Lost Children tells the story of the maverick monk and former pro kickboxer Khru Ba and his mission to save forgotten souls at the edge of Thai society—drug-infested communities in the mountainous region of northern Thailand along the Burmese border, known as the Golden Triangle. “Look at the things they do,” Khru Ba says of the addicted. “Who’ll forgive them? The law of the land doesn’t forgive them, nor does the law of karma. . . . Only a crazy fool of a monk like me is willing to forgive them.”
The hill-tribe groups of that region—including the Akha, Karen, Yao, and Lisu—have for much of their history been at the mercy of larger forces: drug barons, corrupt officials, disease, and poverty. They have always lived at the margins: they dress differently from mainstream Thais, speak in different tongues, and hold animist beliefs. They don’t fit in. At Khru Ba’s Golden Horse Monastery, he takes their orphaned and abandoned children under his wing and gives them lessons in, among other things, dharma and Thai kickboxing.
“Thai boxing means having a free heart and body; it means not being enslaved to desire, or to drugs,” he tells his novices. “Do you understand?” The boys shout yes.
The young novices ride into a village on horseback, saffron robes flapping in their wake, like a gang in a spaghetti Western. The ritual of receiving alms from villagers looks almost like a holdup. Khru Ba shouts out his version of karma: Be good, good things come to you, but “if you’re not good, the spirits will break your neck.”
Mark Verkerk, the Dutch filmmaker who spent three years making the film, says it is about more than an itinerant monk. “It was important that the film communicate something universal,” Verkerk told me by email, “something people could relate to from other cultures—and there’s nothing more universal than raising kids.”
Khru Ba left his own wife and two children after a close friend’s death and a vivid dream that commanded him to open a monastery in the mountains of the far north, where one in five youths who turn up for national service are addicted to methamphetamines. Like a spiritual 007, Khru Ba has special permission from the Supreme Patriarch in Bangkok to use whatever methods he deems necessary to address the problems at the kingdom’s edge. “He’s the only monk to have found a way to operate in this border region,” says Verkerk.
The film, with cinematography that combines sweeping landscapes and intimate views of the region’s culture, has taken honors at various festivals in Europe and North America, and in August it had its American theatrical pre-release in Santa Fe. It will soon be available on DVD.
Having visited the remote borderlands shown in the film when I lived in Thailand in the 1990s, I wondered how any foreign filmmaker could have the guts to locate his first feature film there. This is no exotic travelogue, shot from the back of a tourist elephant ride. For this story, the filmmaker had to immerse himself in the subtleties of a world far from Bangkok and mainstream Thai culture. The conflicting textures of animism, pop culture, and Theravada Buddhism would be flying all around, and who would sort them out?