By Shyamal Sinha
- Buddhism is typically a religion famed for its detachment from society, ecology monks believe that their religion is inherently tied to nature.
- With such an immense amount of influence in villages throughout Thailand, Buddhist monks are utilizing their position to add a unique moral dimension to the environmental movement. However, rituals alone are not enough.
As Thailand’s economy develops and grows, maintaining the delicate ecological balance remains a major challenge. As a consequence of extensive deforestation and widespread dam projects, the country is regularly affected by both flooding and droughts, but some Buddhist monks are actively working to protect the environment by integrating Buddhist principals with environmental awareness, consulting with government officials about environmental problems, and implementing sustainability projects, such as installing solar panels at Buddhist temples and helping villagers fashion environmentally friendly cottages out of mud and other naturally available materials.
“There are places in northern Thailand, particularly in Nan Province, where there has been a lot of deforestation, so the watersheds areas fill the water with mud, silt, and pesticide runoff causing more severe flooding in the rainy season and more severe drought in the dry season,” said Gordon Congdon, conservation program manager for WWF-Thailand. (Mongabay)
The environmental and conservation activities of monks in northern Thailand also extend to performing tree ordination ceremonies. Tree ordination, adopted from traditional Buddhist practices, is a popular practice in many Buddhist-majority countries seeking to reduce deforestation and establish wildlife reserves. Trees are given monastic ordination and wrapped in the iconic saffron cloth worn by Theravada monks, making them sacred and thereby protecting the trees from damage, destruction, and deforestation.
“Making merit is extremely important for Thai Buddhists,” said Dr. Susan Darlington, professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Hampshire College in Massachusetts and author of The Ordination of a Tree: The Thai Buddhist Environmental Movement (Suny Press 2013). “They see [tree-ordination ceremonies] as an act of making merit, which can help with rebirth and, in some cases, having a better life now.” (Mongabay)
Dr. Chaya Vaddhanaphuti, a geography professor at Chiang Mai University whose PhD studies focused on climate change, said one of the most harmful environmental issues in modern Thailand is the lack of knowledge and awareness. “When I lived with the farmers during my PhD studies, they never used the term climate change,” she recalled. “However, they knew that the climate had changed from how it was affecting their farms.” (Mongabay)
To teach rural farmers about the need to protect the environment, Phrakhu Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsuri, a prominent eco-monk based in Chiang Mai has established a traditional farming school at his temple in the eastern province of Chonburi called the Maab-Euang Meditation Center for Sufficiency Economy. With 49 full-time students this year, Phra Sangkom is teaching Buddhist concepts of personal reflection and a theory called the “sufficiency economy developed by the late Thai monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej, which promotes subsistence farming, encourages self-sufficiency, and teaches a detachment from materialism and consumerism.
“If the people understand that the jungle gives them oxygen, water, good food, medicine, and clothes, do you think they are going to help protect it?” Phra Sangkom asked. “Of course!”
In the Thai capital Bangkok, another eco-monk, Phrakhu Win Mektripop, who holds a master’s degree in environmental economics from Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, emphasized one of the direct links between Buddhism and environmentalism: “When the Buddha was born, he was born under the tree. He was enlightened under the tree. His first sermon was under the tree. We can see that most of his life was related to the forest.” (Asian Correspondent)
However, the WWF’s Congdon observed that as Thailand continues to develop from a low-income to an upper-income country, sustainability has often fallen by the wayside. Many large corporations and conglomerates, such as Thailand’s Charoen Pokphand Group, are taking advantage of the economic growth and commercial demand by contracting local farmers to engage in mass-production monocropping practices for such staples such as maize and rice. “They plant corn, they harvest it, they sell it to the big company and earn just about enough to pay off their debt,” Congdon explained. “It creates this vicious cycle of dependency on the large companies and the farmers never get ahead, which leads to more and more deforestation.” (Asian Correspondent)
Many universities and NGOs are also endeavoring to teach and spread environmental values founded in the Buddhist teachings to local farmers and residents. Somboon Chungprampree, executive director of the Bangkok-based International Network of Engaged Buddhists, an organization which is working to connect Buddhist and non-Buddhist social and environmental activists from all over Asia and across the world, explained: “We are figuring out how we can bring the Buddhists who are just sitting and meditating out into the world to deal with the suffering. There is not just personal suffering; there is social and environmental suffering out there and people need to figure out how they can help as a Buddhist.” (Mongabay)