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Thai Ecology Monks


Abstract

Particularly over the course of the 1990s, monks in Thailand have started to take an active role in protecting the environment. Known informally as environmentalist, or ecology monks (phra nak anuraksa), this small but visible percentage of Thai Buddhist monastics feel compelled to address environmental issues as part of their religious duty to help relieve suffering. Seeing a direct connection between the root causes of suffering (greed, ignorance, and hatred) and environmental destruction, ecology monks consider environmental activism to be well within their purview as Buddhist monastics. Drawing on Buddhist principles and practices, ecology monks have adapted traditional rituals and ceremonies to draw attention to environmental problems, raise awareness about the value of nature, and inspire people to take part in conservation efforts. Ceremonies such as tree ordination rituals (buat ton mai), in which trees are blessed and wrapped in saffron robes to signify their sacred status, are part of a larger effort to foster a conservation ethic rooted in Buddhist principles and bolstered by Buddhist practices. Monks such as Phrakhru Pitak Nanthakun, Phrakhru Manas Natheepitak, and Phrakhru Prajak Kuttajitto have organized a wide variety of grassroots conservation initiatives, including tree ordinations and planting ceremonies, the creation of wildlife preserves and sacred community gardens, long-life ceremonies for ecologically threatened sites or natural entities, and initiatives in sustainable community development and natural farming. Ecology monks have taken stands against deforestation, shrimp farming, dam and pipeline construction, and the cultivation of cash-crops. Phrakhru Pitak, one of the most active ecology monks, has formed an umbrella non-governmental organization called Hag Muang Nan Group (Love Nan Group) to coordinate the environmental activities of local village groups, government agencies, and other NGOs in his home province of Nan. As respected leaders of Thai society, monks have a crucial role to play in transforming environmentally destructive attitudes and policies. Similarly, the centrality of the temple in Thai village life makes the conservation efforts of rural monks especially effective; thanks to ecologically-minded abbots, forest monasteries in Thailand harbor some of the last remaining natural forests.

Religion

Buddhism

Geographic Location

Thailand
Duration of Project Late 1980s–Present
History Although evidence of environmental activism on the part of individual monks can be traced back to at least 1975 when Phrakhru Pitak Nanthakun began to promote forest protection in his home village of Kew Muang in the northern Thai province of Nan, the phenomenon of "ecology monks" seems to have emerged most clearly in the late 1980s. In 1988, Phrakhru Pitak formed the Kew Muang Conservation Club in his home village and soon broadened his conservation efforts to other villages as well. In 1989, he coordinated environmental trainings and forest treks for more than 200 novice monks. Phrakhru Manas Natheepitak, the abbot of Wat Bodharma, adapted the traditional monk ordination ritual to sanctify trees in the late 1980s as part of a successful effort to halt logging near his forest temple in northern Thailand. With the success of Phrakhru Manas’s forest protection campaign, the practice of ordaining trees has spread. In 1989, Phrakhru Prajak Kuttajitto began ordaining trees in the Dongyai Forest of northeastern Thailand. In 1991, a large gathering of monks and laypeople ordained trees in the southern province of Surat Thani to prevent the decimation of a rainforest. Later that year, Phrakhru Pitak performed his first tree ordination ceremony in Kew Muang, along with an adaptation of the phaa paa ceremony in which lay people accrued merit by offering tree seedlings to the monks instead of the traditional offerings of money or goods. That same year, Phrakhru Pitak formed the Hag Muang Nan Group. In 1993, he helped organize a ritual blessing of the Nan River, which led to the creation of a fish sanctuary in a certain segment of the river. Since then, other ecology monks have performed similar rituals and created at least nine more fish sanctuaries along the river.
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Bibliography Susan Darlington, “Not Only Preaching—The Work of the Ecology Monk Phrakhru Nantakhun of Thailand” in Forest, Trees and People Newsletter 34 (1997): 17–20.
_____. “Tree Ordination in Thailand” in Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, eds. Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000): 198–205.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, People and Forests” in Seeds of Hope: Local Initiatives in Thailand (Bangkok: Thai Development Support Committee, 1994) 72–83.

Pipob Udomittipong, “Thailand’s Ecology Monks” in
Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism, eds. Stephanie Kaza and Kenneth Kraft (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2000) 191–97.
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