Dateline: TAKUA PA, Thailand
In Thailand, a mostly Buddhist country, people suffering personal problems or tragedies _ from a broken marriage to a death in the family _ often go to their temple seeking consolation through prayer and meditation, or a quiet word with their local monk.
Tapping into this tradition, some monks trained in psychology are combining their Buddhist religion with medical science to help victims of Asia's tsunami.
Never have so many Thais been in need of counseling as in the aftermath of the Dec. 26 disaster, which killed more than 5,000 people in Thailand and left 3,100 missing and presumed dead.
In a refugee camp housing more than 3,500 Thais left homeless in the battered southern beach resort of Takua Pa, monks are seeking out tsunami victims to counsel them. In a country where many people believe that psychologists and mental health workers are only needed to treat the insane, the practice is turning some heads.
"We are both psychologists and monks," said Rapin Buddhasaro, one of 20 psychology students at Maha Chulalongkorn, a university for monks in Bangkok, the Thai capital, who traveled to Takua Pa to help tsunami victims.
"The approach we use is a mixture of Western psychology and Buddhism. We let them vent their sadness and suffering, and give counseling based on Buddhist teachings," he said.
Like the other students, Rapin was going from hut to hut in the overcrowded refugee camp to counsel tsunami survivors and keep close tabs on their recoveries.
At one point, three of the monks, with shaved heads and yellow robes, stopped to talk to Wallapa Hongkhao, 28, who was weaving a basket with plastic rope, a new vocational skill being taught at the refugee camp.
Sitting outside her hut, cross-legged on a bamboo stretcher, monk Chaleao Chetawan began asking about her well-being.
Wallapa recalled the day tsunami struck.
Her two daughters, aged 10 and 6, were staying home in their beach-side village, while she worked as a chef's helper at a hotel in the luxury resort area of Khao Lak. Her husband was aboard a fishing boat nearby.
When Wallapa saw the killer wave coming, she ran for a hilly area and survived. Her husband's boat was overturned, but he firmly held on and was safely swept ashore.
The family home was demolished, killing their youngest daughter and leaving the other one missing.
"I have dreamed many times of my elder daughter coming to see me," Wallapa told the monks as she cried.
The body of the youngest daughter was found and cremated. The couple has often visited nearby Yan Yao temple, where many of the unidentified bodies of tsunami victims are being kept refrigerated stored for autopsies. But they have found no sign of their older daughter.
Her voice trembling, Wallapa told the monks that she had bought a piece of cake last Sunday, the birthday of her missing daughter, to honor her. "What is still troubling me so much is that I have not found her," the mother said.
"Don't stay alone. If you can't sleep, do whatever you can to distract yourself. Your new practice of weaving a basket may help," Chaleao told her.
With unusual frankness, Wallapa said she had undergone surgery just before the tragedy that would make it impossible to ever bear another child.
"You should calm your mind by meditation. ... The incident has passed, and there is nothing you can do about it. You should conduct small Buddhist ceremonies for your late daughters to put their spirits at rest and to make sure they are reincarnated in a better life," the monk told her.
Ending their 45-minute meeting, the three monks gave her small handbooks about meditation and Buddhist teachings about death, and a few amulets for her protection, in keeping with Thai tradition.
As psychologists, they also kept a record of her case that said Wallapa was suffering "severe" psychological trauma and would require more visits.
"Buddhist monks have long served as spiritual leaders in Thai society," said Dr. Thaweesin Wisanuyothin, a spokesman of the Health Ministry's Department of Mental Health. "When people are born, fall sick and die, or have problems in their lives, they think of monks before Western-trained psychologists."
Thaweesin said his ministry plans to help train more Buddhist monks as psychologists who can do outreach, rather than waiting for followers to come to their temples.
If Wallapa and other tsunami victims who met with the monk-psychologists at the refugee camp are any indication, it could take time for that dual role to be accepted.
"I prefer talking to monks. I am not insane," Wallapa said after her meeting with the monks, explaining that the holy men can help ensure that her daughters' spirits rest in peace.
She said she had thrown out the anti-stress medication they had left her.
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