Ordaining Trees in Thailand
Engaged Buddhists Come Together to Save the Forest
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As an Asian economic powerhouse Bangkok has become a
fast-paced sophisticated city. But factories have grown
across central Thailand, and heroin and amphetamine epidemics
have ruined thousands of Thai families. Almost every lower
class family has been affected by prostitution and the
sex-trade. The environmental devastation of logging, cash
crops, and slash-and-burn agriculture has been some of
the worst in Southeast Asia. In response, out in the small
villages of rural Thailand, monks conduct the seemingly
peculiar ritual of ordaining trees by tying orange monks'
robes around them. Using their knowledge of the communities
along with deeply rooted religious traditions, these monks
are slowly working to save the ever-shrinking Thai forests.
Traditionally, the Buddhist religious community has been
detached or oblivious to these great social transformations
and problems. After a century of this separation, sectors
of the Sangha, or Buddhist community, have recently begun
to question the legitimacy of many of the government's
policies and societal norms. These individuals have used
traditional Buddhist teachings and principles as foundations
for their critique. Many of them have then taken these
values and attempted to change the problems they see.
This trend has come to be called by many 'engaged Buddhism.'
One of the ongoing campaigns of this engaged Buddhism
has been in the area of environmental devastation. Not
only has the Thai forest been cut down at one of the fastest
rates in Asia, according to professor Susan Darlington
at Hampshire College, but the statistics are staggering.
In 1938, forest covered 72 percent of land, and by 1985
it covered only 29 percent.1 Over the last few decades,
both forest monks and many lay people have attempted to
address this problem. The monks see the forest as one
of their closest connections to the teachings of the Buddha.
The Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree and for
centuries monastics have used the forests as a way to
truly understanding the Buddhist path.
Seeing that the forests are key to both the tangible
and spiritual well-being of the population, the monks
began to organize and act. One of their most concrete
actions has been to go into areas of the forest where
illegal logging is being done, and ordain trees. Often
they will tie the orange robes of a forest monk around
the trunk of the largest or oldest tree. The ceremonies
are large and well publicized in a hope to discourage
loggers who might not want to make the bad karma of cutting
down the forest around an ordained tree. In provinces
from Korat to Changmai the movement has been very successful.
These monks have sought not only to preserve the land
for religious reasons, but also out of concerns about
local people's spiritual well-being and for the quality
of life of the individuals in their communities. Because
the monks are part of the community, they and the movement
they lead can choose their actions and build projects
informed by local histories. Unlike the government environmental
and agricultural policies, which are concerned with boosting
the economic development of the nation as a whole, the
monks are concerned with prosperity and well-being at
the local level. In utilizing sustainable practices in
the villages, the engaged Buddhists teach that the whole
country will thrive when all of the individual parts are
The monastic environmental movement has also given birth
to the Independent Development Monks' Movement. Since
the 1980s, the Independent Development Movement has worked
to counter the negative effects of increasing consumerism
and the government-sponsored shift from subsistence to
market farming, which has left farmers dependent on outside
To address the decline in the rural population's quality
of life, monks began organizing to promote healthy development.
Movements like the Foundation for Education and Development
of Rural Areas have sprung up across Thailand. These Buddhist
movements work closely with other nongovernmental organizations
to promote alternative forms of development. One monk,
Phrakhru Pitak, writes that by 1999 over 39 community
forests and 100 fish sanctuaries were established in Thailand.
These monks and the environmental groups that have followed
them are clearly applying their Buddhist principles in
everyday social politics.
The religious and intellectual support for engaged Buddhism
in Thailand has come from the highly influential activist
Sulak Sivaraksa and his teacher Ajahn Buddhadasa. A professor
and grassroots activist since the 1960s, Sivaraksa has
challenged the Buddhist establishment to move from rhetoric
and complacency to real engagement and service using Buddhist
principles. In the introduction to his book, A Socially
Engaged Buddhism, Sivaraksa is described as standing "against
everything modern Thailand stands for - industrialization,
technological advancement, arms buildup and the exploitation
of the agricultural population."2 He not only uses
Buddhism to question cultural norms and development, but
also goes further in identifying the duty of a Buddhist
to confront the reality of these problems.
Engaged Buddhism teaches that if one exploits the land,
or other human beings to gain wealth, one is not acting
in accordance with the Buddhist principles of 'right action,'
'right intention,' or 'right livelihood.' While poverty
is not seen as a blessing, Buddhist teachings point out
that suffering is caused by unwise grasping at material
things. If humans exploit nature for material gain, other
humans will suffer. This is both spiritual and practical.
Without 'right understanding,' the environment - and the
humans who populate it - will suffer. Sivaraksa states
that, "the simpler our livelihood is, the less natural
resources will be exploited." He reminds people of
the values of their religion and their traditional and
more integrated way of living.
In this way, the leaders of engaged Buddhism, both monks and lay people, are drawing on Buddhist teachings of non-harming, virtue and community to empower the Thai people. These projects have been successful largely because the Thai people have faith in the monks. As monastics who have renounced worldly possessions, there is a known selflessness in their acts, and their commitment to service is undoubted. Conversely, government and businesses are often seen as having ulterior motives. Instead of following a course of development that produces corruption, the growing income gap, the drug epidemic and growing environmental devastation, engaged Buddhists are both questioning societal structures and developing alternative paths. These leaders' actions are solely motivated by their genuine concern for the Thai people and local Thai communities. They are using the rich spiritual heritage of Buddhist teaching, treasured by the Thai people, to confront the problems of modernization and environmental destruction. They are using the resources of the culture to show that there is a healthier way to grow.
Caroline Kornfield is a UC Berkeley senior completing a degree in Political Science. She is also an aspiring artist, avid traveler, and hopes to pursue a career working for international human rights.
1) Darlington, Susan M. "Buddhism and
Development: The Ecology Monks of Thailand." From Christopher
Queen, Charles Prebish and Damien Keown (eds.) Action Dharma:
New Studies in Engaged Buddhism. London: RoutledgeCurzon,