Eco-Buddhism countering deforestation

Sanne van Oosten

When staring out of the window on the trip from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai in the North of Thailand I couldn’t help but noticing oddly accessorized trees. We came past a forest in which saffron robes were tied to every single tree we passed. I soon found out that I was not looking at a forest of trees, but at a forest of officially ordained monks. Let me explain.

In order to fight deforestation in Thailand, so-called eco-monks decided to ordain trees as monks through an official ceremony. This has been going on for decades, mostly in Pong Kam, in the district of Santisuk, a few hours from Chiang Mai. In this ceremony the monks did not claim to be fully ordaining the tree, as that status is reserved for humans only. The ceremony was used symbolically to remind people that nature should be treated as equal with humans, deserving of respect and vital for human as well as all life. The opportunity of the ordination was used to build spiritual commitment to fighting deforestation. This way they actively teach to importance of conservation of nature.

This is done through the modification of a traditional ritual, thaut phaa paa. During the ceremony two monks wrap saffron robes around the tree’s trunk, marking its consecration. The robes stand as a token that to damage or cut the tree is an act of demerit. The novelty here is that the tree ordained is not already treated as sacred but is made so through the ritual. Who would ever chop down an ordained monk? Even if it is a mock-monk?

In Thailand, the self-proclaimed ecology monks (phra nak anuraksa) are at the core of the Buddhist ecology movement. A major aim of Buddhism is to relieve suffering, dhukka, the root causes of which are greed, thirst, ignorance, and hatred. The monks see the destruction of the forests, pollution of the air and water, and other environmental problems as ultimately caused by people acting through these evils, motivated by economic gain and the material benefits of development, industrialization, and consumerism. As monks, they believe it is their duty to take action against these evils. Their actions bring them into the realm of political and economic debates, especially concerning the rapid development of the Thai economy and control of natural resources.

Monks are not supposed to be concerned with political issues. At the same time, however, the ecology monks see environmental destruction as a crucial factor leading to their main concern: human suffering. They feel a responsibility as monks to teach people environmental awareness and show them the path to relieving their suffering. The root causes of suffering are, in Buddhist philosophy, greed, ignorance, and hatred. As the destruction of the forest is caused by these evils the monks see it as their duty to adapt traditional religious concepts and rituals to gain the acceptance and commitment to their ecological aims. All the power to them!

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