A couple of years ago I lived for a year in a campus in Thailand, joined a couple of times my local friends to the forests and learned about some old customs and folklore about tree spirits. I wrote in “thai way of coping with spirits in broken status” that I had conversations with researchers who saw decay of this belief as an early warning signal of decay of environmental systems, but I also remember I thought that this strong belief in spirits could also offer opportunities for forest activism. Then I found an article about ‘ecology monks’ in Thailand.
Since the 1980s, Thai Buddhist monks wrap orange clerical robes around trees to protect forests.’ “Ordaining” a tree is a provocative ritual that has become the symbol of a small but influential monastic movement aimed at reversing environmental degradation and the unsustainable economic development and consumerism that fuel it.’ (Darlington 2012)
“Thai monks began to ordain trees as they would induct a new monk to the faith. Often choosing the oldest and largest trees, which hold domain over the forest, the monks would recite the appropriate scripture, often from the Pali Canon, garb the tree in traditional monk’s robes, and read from sections of Buddhist scripture that coalesce faith, ecology, and conservation. Though the practice varied, it was understood across the board as an effort to alleviate suffering, a core commandment of Buddhist faith.” (Rick 2018)
I am not surprised to read this belief that you can transcend your suffering and pain to a tree, by doing a custom with clothing. In Belgium, we have also still 50 ‘nail trees’ or ‘fever trees’ left, where you would also transfer your pain to a sacred tree (mostly located next to a chapel or church). Isn’t it interesting how these practices are so universal? Here are pictures of a tree that I visited in the east of Belgium, last June (few weeks before horrible floodings hit that province).
Not only about protection, but also about education
‘These ‘development monks’ (phra nak phathanaa) and ‘ecology monks’ (phra nak anuraksaa) have led local villagers and NGO activists in the symbolic ordaining of large trees and forests (buat paa). They do this in the hope that they will not only protect forests from logging, but also teach local people the value of
conserving forest resources’ (Walter 2007)
Here is an interesting free video about this practice:
Sacred forest activism, not only in Thailand
This forest activism is also happening in other countries, like Cambodia (Rick 2018). When I lived afterwards in Japan, I visited twice Koyasan, the holy mountains with trees that were 800 years old. The monks protect them and you can give donations, or for example buy ‘religious souvenirs’ that will be used to conserve these forests.
Do you know examples in other countries?
- BBC 2015. Buddhist monk ordains trees to help the environment, accessed at https://www.bbc.com/news/av/magazine-31650591
- Darlington, S.M., 2012. The ordination of a tree: The Thai Buddhist environmental movement. Suny Press.
- Gershon, L., 2020. Why Some Buddhist monks ordain trees. Accessed at https://daily.jstor.org/why-some-buddhist-monks-ordain-trees/
- Isager, L. and Ivarsson, S., 2002. Contesting landscapes in Thailand: Tree ordination as counter-territorialization. Critical asian studies, 34(3), pp.395-417.
- Rick, A. 2018. To Protect the environment , buddhist monks are ordaining trees. Accessed at https://sojo.net/articles/protect-environment-buddhist-monks-are-ordaining-trees?
- Tannenbaum, N., 2000. Protest, tree ordination, and the changing context of political ritual. Ethnology, pp.109-127.
- Walter, P., 2007. Activist forest monks, adult learning and the Buddhist environmental movement in Thailand. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 26(3), pp.329-345.
Read also other ‘Thai wood wide web stories’: