Academic journal article Ethnology

The Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand

Academic journal article Ethnology

The Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand

Article excerpt

As part of a growing environmental movement in Thailand, a small number of Buddhist monks engage in ecological conservation projects. These "ecology monks" teach ecologically sound practices among Thai farmers and criticize rapid economic development nationwide (which they see as one of the primary causes of the country's environmental crisis). This article examines how one northern Thai monk used a tree ordination, adapted from a traditional Buddhist ritual, to build villagers' commitment to his ecology projects. (Buddhism, environmentalism, ritual, Thailand)

A Buddhist ecology movement, developing in Thailand and other Buddhist nations, addresses local and national problems of deforestation and ecological destruction. While this is only one aspect of growing environmentalism in Thailand (Hirsch 1996), the Buddhists involved in this movement see their religion as critical for providing practical as well as moral guidelines for ecological conservation. This article focuses on how Buddhists, especially monks, put their concepts of Buddhism and ecology into action, and the consequent reinterpretations of both sets of concepts that result from such behavior As Buddhism is increasingly used to promote social activism such as conservation. Its role in Thai society is also being implicitly challenged and reworked. While the exact changes that will occur are unknown, the Buddhist ecology movement's potential direction may be glimpsed by examining how rituals, particularly ordaining trees, promote the ecology movement, lending it economic, political, social, and moral force

The "ecology monks" are those actively engaged in environmental and conservation activities and who respond to the suffering which environmental degradation causes A major aim of Buddhism is to relieve suffering, the root causes of which are greed, 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.

The scholarly debate that has arisen regarding the relationship between Buddhism and ecology revolves around whether Buddhism promotes an environmentalist ethic and what the basis of such an ethic is within the religion. Much of this debate has occurred on an abstract level, looking to the scriptures, such as the Pali canon, either to uphold or to refute the idea that Buddhism supports environmentalism (e.g., Chatsumarn 1987, 1990; Harris 1991; Sponsel and Natadecha-Sponsel 1995; Thurman 1984). Other work has focused on the forest monks of Thailand and Sri Lanka, meditation masters who emphasize a relationship between the Sangha (monkhood) and the forest but not the monks' involvement in explicit environmental activism (Chatsumarn 1990; Tambiah 1984; Taylor 1993a). A few studies examine the interaction between Buddhist principles and concepts of ecology; looking, for example, at the promotion of wildlife and plant conservation within temple grounds due to the Buddhist notion of preserving life generally (Pei 1985; Sponsel and Natadecha 1988). While understanding the scriptural bases of ecology and how daily practice coincides with conservation is critical, for the most part these studies have not examined the conscious efforts of Buddhists to become actively engaged in dealing with the environmental crisis beyond the inherent connection between Buddhist teachings and nature. This essay describes the response of a handful of Theravada Buddhist monks to the severe environmental crisis in Thailand and its impact on the lives of rural peoples.


Although it has been suggested that Buddhism has been "co-opted to argue the case for a more environmentally friendly approach to development" (Rigg 1995: 12), the severity of the environmental crisis and its link with development in Thailand cannot be denied. …

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