Tree Ordinations in Thailand

The information for this blog post comes from three articles. One is titled Tree Ordination as Invented Tradition by Avery Morrow in Asia Network Exchange, Fall 2011, vol. 19/1, pages 53-60. Another is titled The Good Buddha and the Fierce Spirits: Protecting the Northern Thai Forest by Susan Darlington in Contemporary Buddhism, vol. 8/2, 2007, pages 169-185. The third is titled Protest, Tree Ordination, and the Changing Context of Political Ritual/by Nicola Tannenbaum in Ethnology, Spring 2000, vol. 39/2, pages 109-27.

As a challenge to forest degradation through cash-crop agriculture and logging, Buddhist monks in Northern Thailand have been ordaining trees since 1988, with the help of Thai villagers and by combining Buddhist ceremonial tradition with local spiritualism.  Ordaining trees to save forests has spread to Cambodia, Laos and perhaps Burma, according to Morrow.

In 1938, 72 percent of Thailand was forest, but by 1985 forest covered only 29 percent of the country. As local people increasingly lose forest access and resources, forest monks work to help them challenge government officials and corporations, who often take land and promote deforestation for largely personal gain, according to Morrow, Tannenbaum and Darlington.

“The monks argue such use of land is based on negative desire (Pali, tanha), and greed, two main causes of suffering. They use the (tree ordination and other) rituals to teach villagers to avoid desire through consumerism and commercial agriculture, promoting sustainable agriculture and self-sufficiency instead” (Darlington 176).

Buddhist monks in Thailand have long served as educators and organizers to help people in small villages improve their quality of life. The monks became concerned with the upsurge in poverty that resulted from a new focus on logging and creating wasteland out of forests. Intensification of cash-crop agriculture increased uses of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which created a self-defeating cycle that manifested loss of water sources, and degradation of soils, land, and forests. The monks worked to teach about problems connected with greed and to offer alternative solutions such as cooperation as an ethos, community gardens as a strategy, and other methods of self-sufficiency (Tannenbaum 117-118).

Monks might have been one of the only possible outlets for challenging destructive environmental practices. Before and after the early 1990s, protesting anything would likely result in being labeled a communist. People in the villages were being educated to fear being labeled communist and avoid behaviors that would lead to such a label. When the military again took over the government in 1991, troops were used to inhibit protests, and the military claimed it was defending capital from communists. However, during a 1992 Bangkok uprising, demonstrators were presented in the media as middle class and business owners and deemed more appropriate protesters than the young or poor people who had protested in the past. The violence led to re-establishing a parliamentary democratic-focused government (Tannenbaum).

Over time, protesting became more acceptable (Tannenbaum 111-112). Still, from the start of ‘ecology monk’ efforts, tree rituals were ridiculed and criticized by logging corporations and the military as communist to discredit them. In Thailand, though, monks are respected in general and the tree ordinations became popular expressions of Thainess and Thai values (Morrow 58). In 1997, to honor his 50th accession anniversary, the king endorsed tree ordination and asked Thai people to ordain 50 million trees.  Tree ordinations have become politically and ecologically correct for many local, regional, and national polities (Tannenbaum 109).

That is not to say that forest protection and tree ordinations are supported by everyone or that anyone can go about conducting a ritual. In 2005, monks were murdered, something unheard of in Thailand. Many believe the murders were connected with development interests. Political underhandedness is a problem and communities often go through a great deal of negotiation and conflict to create a protected community forest, as described by Tannenbaum, Morrow and Darlington.

What does it mean when a tree is ordained and how is tree ordination an expression of Thainess? While tree ordination ceremonies are varied, generally ordaining trees makes them into monks. An orange or yellow robe is tied around trees, sometimes to designate a whole forest area as being ordained (Tannenbaum 109).

Tree ordination, as a means of protecting community forests, often combines local spiritualism along with Buddhist rituals and recognition of Buddhist and Thai values of right behavior toward the environment. Sometimes, if a community is not Buddhist, a ceremony might be conducted to dedicate a forest to the Lord of the Land spirit, or to God as defined by Christians. Because these efforts are supported at a national and international level by much of the population, various government offices and non-governmental organizations, tree ordinations give local people a way to “define and defend their interests in a larger political and economic arena” (Tannenbaum  123).

Regarding a Thongmakhsan tree ordination, Tannenbaum describes a long process that was locally instigated and organized. The community decided to divide the forest into three areas. One was the watershed, which people should leave alone. One area could be used for gathering wood for fires or for building. The third area was designated as a place where people could collect forest products for their own use (Tannenbaum 119). The ceremony involved people at local, regional, and national levels, who paid respect to spirits of the area, the Buddha and his teachings, and the monks. The monks chanted to extend the life of the forest, and participants heard presentations about why people should ordain trees and the importance of sustainable development and preservation of the environment (Tannenbaum 120).

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