By Aaron Wilson
The successful rescue of the young soccer team that had been trapped in a flooded Thailand cave involved military personnel, diving teams, and a group of Buddhist monks.
The monks sought to provide comfort for the boys’ relatives while holding vigil at the mouth of the cave—singing songs and offering prayers for the team’s deliverance.
Today, the world celebrates the rescue of all 12 boys and the team’s assistant coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, a Buddhist temple hand who had trained to be a monk. Chantawong, who led the boys into the cave, is also credited with helping them stay alive by teaching them to conserve energy through Buddhist meditation practices.
Such accounts of meditation and prayer vigils associated with the cave rescue may have Christians wondering about the religious landscape of Thailand. As Christians thank God for the physical deliverance of the trapped boys and their coach, here’s what Christ followers need to know about the spiritual state of many who live in Thailand.
Religion in Thailand
- Majority Buddhist—According to the CIA’s World Factbook, more than 94 percent of Thailand’s population is Buddhist. Islam makes up 4 percent, while only 1 percent of the population is Christian.
- Conservative—More than 90 percent of Thailand subscribes to the Theravada tradition—the most conservative branch of Buddhism that looks to the earliest written texts of Buddha’s teaching as authoritative.
- National pride linked to Buddhist faith— “A Thai is expected to be Buddhist. To be other is seen as rejecting one’s nationhood,” says Brian Stiller, global ambassador for the World Evangelical Alliance. “[Christian] evangelism has to buck the rapids of such a profound synthesis of nation and person.”
- Freedom of religion—According to the U.S. Department of State, Thailand provides for freedom of religion with “no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief or practice.” However, the Thailand government officially limits the number of foreign missionaries allowed in the country.
So what do Buddhists, who make up a sweeping percentage of the Thai population, believe? Here are some of the foundational principles of the religion.
- Buddha—Siddhartha Gautama, who is known as “the Buddha,” is believed to have achieved enlightenment by recognizing ultimate truth and suspending all earthly desires. His teachings, formed between the 6th and 4th centuries B.C., frame Buddhism.
- The Four Noble Truths—These statements make up the core of Buddha’s teaching. The Noble Truths are summarized by the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention as: 1) Suffering exists, 2) Desire is the cause of suffering, 3) There is freedom from suffering, 4) The Eightfold Path is the way to gain freedom from suffering.
- Earning merit—To ultimately escape suffering, Buddhists must earn merit by doing what’s right as revealed in the Eightfold Path, a moral framework that teaches a “middle way” not defined by the extremes of sensual pleasure or self-mortification.
- Cycle of rebirth—Buddhists believe individuals’ merits (or state of karma) will determine their existence in the next life. Rebirth continues until one achieves nirvana, an eternal state of nothingness.
- No personal God—Buddhists do not believe in a personal God. Rather, they focus on private spiritual development. Prayers are not so much about conversing with a deity but about achieving individual enlightenment.
A Picture of Deliverance
One of the most significant differences between Buddhism and Christianity is what each religion teaches is wrong with the world. For Buddhists, mankind’s ultimate problem is suffering brought on by desire. Christians acknowledge the problem of suffering but see it as a result of sin.
While Buddhists attempt to escape suffering by earning sufficient merit, Christians trust in someone outside of themselves, Jesus, for salvation.
In this way, the gripping rescue story in Thailand in which 13 helpless people relied on others to save them can provide a gospel picture for Christian missionaries in Thailand to reference.
Like humans imprisoned in sin, the Thai boys trapped in the cave were utterly incapable of saving themselves. Led astray and hemmed in by their own actions, they were totally dependent on someone else entering their perilous situation to deliver them—much as Christ needed to enter into humanity to save sinners (Philippians 2:6-8).
As medical personnel evaluate and care for the rescued boys and their coach, Christians can pray for the soccer team’s physical and mental recovery. Christians can also pray for the family of the diver who lost his life in the rescue attempts.
But in addition to lifting up these important needs, Christians can also use this rescue as a reminder to pray for Buddhists in Thailand—that they might be captivated by the good news of an even greater salvation story.
AARON WILSON (@AaronBWilson26) is associate editor of Facts & Trends.