Saving the Orphans of Northern Thailand
In 1995, I worked briefly with Verkerk on a television documentary about Bangkok’s Grand Palace, for which we spent several days preparing to film a traveler’s history of the kingdom. As we roamed the palace and trolled sites along the Chao Phraya river for locations, I was the nearest thing to a translator he had, yet he wasn’t rattled by missing half of what our hosts told us. Seven years later, Verkerk read a short article about Khru Ba and returned to Thailand. He journeyed to the Golden Horse monastery and was captivated by the monk’s directness and the way he connected with the children.
“One thing that has always put me off Buddhism as it’s practiced in the West,” says Verkerk, “is how cerebral and esoteric it is, for the most part. Khru Ba, on the other hand, was using Buddhism in a way I’d never seen before: a hands-on, active way to tackle concrete problems”—problems ranging from ethnic tensions, drug wars, and political indifference to domestic neglect, illness, and drug addiction. In Khru Ba’s methods, Verkerk said, “I could actually see compassion working in action. And that’s what I was looking to capture in the film.”
Khru Ba’s monastery has a folk art statue of a rearing horse as its mascot, along with other statues of boxing poses, and is managed by a single nun, Khun Ead. Pristine in her whites, her black hair neatly braided, she patiently teaches the boys the basics of hygiene and social interaction, which they never learned at home.
The film’s story centers on two young boys who come into Khru Ba’s orbit: Suk, a boy found orphaned and in a near-catatonic state, unable to interact with other people; and Yee, who comes from a family too poor to care for him, and who may or may not be mute. “Yee’s not quite right,” is how Ead describes him.
The monk and a dozen or so novices travel along the border, occasionally repairing an old temple, making merit. Along the way, the novices learn reading and mathematics and how to care for horses. (At times, the herd numbers up to 120, most rescued from slaughterhouses.) When one horse is severely injured in a fall, the young monks nurse it back to health—a process that Khru Ba says teaches them the link between humans and animals.
Buddha’s Lost Children reels in even the most spiritually disinterested viewer with the visceral experiences of the boys: the loneliness of a midnight campfire with the drone of chanting in the darkness beyond, which brings one small novice to tears; the stark vision of an empty path as Yee leaves his village, where children have no better way to pass the time than to jump over open flames. Yee resists talking, even when Khru Ba commands him to speak. When the monk tells the boy to close his eyes and imagine the sun, he sees nothing.
These children’s fears are huge and engulfing, and with good reason. Yet their growth is just as stupendous. One of the most thrilling scenes comes when we see Yee, who has sat on a horse only once before, mount up for the ten-kilometer ride to Khru Ba’s camp. The sight of four boys on horseback, racing along the ridge, is breathtaking.
There is no avuncular narrator, thankfully, but that means the many narrative subtitles have to pack loads of information. Still, it also means that, except for the occasional flute sound track, we hear only the sounds of their world: their words and the forest noises.
The most shocking scene of the film hits from nowhere. While helping the monks rebuild a remote border temple, a local youth grumbles about the “crazy monk,” igniting Khru Ba’s fury. The former boxer lashes out, yelling and overpowering the young man physically, and his outburst unsettles the novices as well as the viewer. Ultimately the troublemaker apologizes, apparently genuinely contrite. But the incident leaves me with questions—which is as it should be: nobody is beyond questioning, including Khru Ba. Still, as the fates of Yee and Suk unfolded, I found myself moved by how far they’ve come and the strength of Khru Ba’s compassion.
Buddha’s Lost Children shows the helping power of Buddhism in action. Khru Ba states it clearly: “I want to teach people the basic skills of living, teach them that life isn’t just a matter of chance, it’s a matter of choice.” ▼
David A. Taylor’s last article for Tricycle, “Memories of Thailand,” appeared in the Summer 2007 issue.
Image 1: Tough Love Maverick monk Khru Ba gives a novice monk kickboxing lessons in Northern Thailand, from Buddha's Lost Children.
Image 2: Horseplay The novice monks in Buddha's Lost Children learn to care for and ride horses, many rescued from slaughterhouses.