If the foot feels the foot when it feels the ground, as the Buddha said, then does the hand feel the hand when it feels a tree?
Due to commercial and illegal logging, the rate of deforestation in Thailand has been one of the highest in Asia.
Most of the primary forest in Thailand is gone, with secondary forest only covering roughly 20% of the land area. This is compared to over 70% forest cover prior to World War II.
As Perry Garfinkel states in Buddha or Bust: “The environmental impact [of this deforestation] is inestimable—from silting that kills fish and leaves riverbeds dry, to the loss of nesting and feeding for birds and other wildlife.”
Enter the forest monks of Thailand, who have come to be known as environmental or, “Ecology Monks.”
Active since the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, Ecology Monks around Thailand have taken action to protect every tree they can, each one a remaining symbol of the famed Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha first achieved “Bodhi” (in Pali), otherwise known as “enlightenment” and “nirvana.”
What have the ecology monks been doing?
- Ordaining trees as monks. Monks recite Buddhist prayers and tie a saffron colored robe around each tree’s trunk. Because Thailand is 97% Theravada Buddhist, the saffron robes help to deter any potential loggers; the trees become, in effect, monks. Of course, this may not be “fool”-proof (see the fifth chapter of the Buddha’s Dhammapada), but ideally this will dissuade a faithful Buddhist from logging although they may be in need of financial assistance. Some monks have also been active in creating fish sanctuaries in order to protect river ecosystems.
Why the environment?
- This may be a no-brainer to some, but it is important to note that the Buddha’s primary goal was to end all suffering. Thai monks who have taken an interest in protecting the environment see that doing so works to end human suffering.
How many monks have been involved in the movement?
- At this time, it is difficult to say how many monks have been participating in the Ecology Monk movement. There are small groups of monks and community members involved with related conservation efforts; however, many of them are acting independently of one another. No main website or organization currently exists that gives accurate statistical information regarding the movement, including its effectiveness against illegal logging.
What can I do to help?
- You don’t need to go to Thailand to help the Ecology Monks or the general conservation movement at large. The best thing to do would be to protect the environment by practicing mindfulness in your use of products at home on a daily basis. Is there excess packaging? Were primary workers paid a fair price for their work in making the product? How far was the product shipped before it came to you? Where were the initial ingredients sourced? You can also plant a garden in order to help maintain your local ecosystem. Also, if you volunteer with your nearest national park or conservation association, you can make friends and learn more about your local ecosystem.
Where can I learn more?
- There are a number of websites that contain resources about the Ecology Monks. http://www.dharmanet.org/engagedasia.htm
Thinking about the practice of these monks, I look at the trees in the park behind my apartment in northeast South Korea. How ugly the world would be without these trees stretching broadly, firmly rooted in the ground below, reaching toward the heavens.
Yes, this is home. Each tree is worth saving.
References and Resources:
“Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness, and the Man Who Found Them All | Perry Garfinkel
Thailand Forest Figures | Mongabay.com
Rethinking Buddhism and Development: The Emergence of Environmentalist Monks in Thailand | Journal of Buddhist Ethics 7 (2000)
Buddhist Engaged Projects: Thai Ecology Monks | Forum on Religion and Ecology
Thai Ecology Monks | DharmaNet International
Rain Forest Protection | Elephant Nature Park
The Dhammapada | The Buddha
Hand on tree bark | Jef Maion Stock