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Amid Peace, Tranquillity, Monks Wage War on Drugs

April 28, 2002|DENIS D. GRAY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

GOLDEN HORSE MONASTERY, Thailand — He was a soldier and champion boxer, but now the burly abbot leads a band of "Little Buddhas," some as young as 7, who practice martial arts and meditation, then ride into the mountains to fight the scourge of drugs.

There are nearly 33,000 Buddhist monasteries in this country, but not many like this remote retreat set in the limestone crags and bamboo thickets of northern Thailand.

Most of the country's sanctuaries are defined by a languid atmosphere and little physical exertion by the clergy. The Golden Horse Monastery resounds with the neighing of about 100 horses, the thwack of body punches and the barking of orders at ranks of disciplined youngsters.

"Before, I was just a soldier of Thailand. Now I am a soldier of the lord of all the world's people. Now, I fight against lies, theft, hate and violence," says Abbot Kru Ba Nua Chai, seated in a simple hall stacked with religious icons.

Buddha's Army

His little army consists of the sons of impoverished hill tribe families, most of them orphans, some former drug addicts. Its mission, Kru Ba says, is to spread the Buddha's teachings and combat widespread drug abuse among tribal people in an area where narcotics are as common as cold pills.

The 40-year-old monk, accompanied by some novices, spends about half of each month trekking through the rugged region along the Myanmar border. They ride horses, which fare better than vehicles, especially during monsoons.

"We don't like to mix with city people," Kru Ba says, his forceful voice accompanied by the tinkling of temple wind chimes. "There are some good people in the cities but they are hard to find. People in the hills have a great sense of honesty."

It's from the hill peoples--the Akha, Lahu, Hmong, Lisu, Shan and others--that he draws his recruits, from villages without schools and grim futures as a burgeoning population faces shrinking farmland, ravaged forests and infertile soil.

"We don't speak all their languages but we can speak the language of the heart," Kru Ba says.

Some ethnic Thais also come, including Manop Indhamot, 31, who says he had been a drug addict from his youth until two years ago, when his parents brought him to the monastery with its mix of rural peace and regimentation.

Wake-up call is at 1 a.m., followed by meditation, religious teaching and prayer-chanting until dawn. Then, standing in military formation, the novices--there currently are 17--count off before calisthenics and immersion in a pool of frigid mountain water for more meditation. There are periodic fasts, lasting as long as three days.

Days are spent cleaning the monastery grounds, cooking and caring for horses, which the novices gallop, yellow robes flapping.

Thai-style boxing is practiced every evening and Kru Ba, tucking his robes between his legs, demonstrates techniques. Using knees, elbows, feet and fists, the monk shows how he could disable his young sparring partner if he applied real force.

Such behavior ordinarily would be considered unmonkly, but instilling discipline and mastering self-defense are needed for the ventures into lawless border areas, Kru Ba says. Thai boxing also is one of the few escapes out of rural poverty for skilled boys.

Kru Ba, who spent five years in the army, fought his last bout in 1991--"Never got knocked out," he notes proudly. A year later he left his wife and two children to meditate alone in the forest and establish the monastery.

Solid Credentials

In recent times, Thai Buddhism has suffered from rogue monks and others who have stretched the Buddha's teachings beyond all bounds.

But Kru Ba's credentials are solid. His monastery is supported in part by the office of the Supreme Patriarch, the country's Buddhist leader.

Also assisting is the Third Army, Thailand's front line of defense against the flow of opium, heroin and methamphetamines from Myanmar and other areas of the tri-border region of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar known as the Golden Triangle.

Manop, the former drug addict, escorts a visitor past the open-sided thatch huts that serve as sleeping quarters and to a hilltop cave where he says Kru Ba retreats for fasts and meditation lasting as long as 15 days.

The hillside is studded with crude cement figures of boxers, giant cockerels and the winged steeds that also appear as tattoos on the chests of many novices. There's an elephant skull and assorted amulets, artifacts of animism and magic that permeates so much of Thailand's Buddhist faith.

"It is so peaceful here," Manop says, looking out over the fields and hills rolling toward Myanmar. "I never want to go back to where I came from."

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