Thai Buddhist monks emerging as environmental advocates

Socially engaged Buddhist monks in Thailand are playing an essential role in raising awareness about and protecting the environment through a variety of methods including teaching farmers about sustainable approaches to agriculture and ordaining trees to protect them from loggers, according to American and Thai academics.

“At a time when Pope Francis is calling upon religious leaders to step up as environmental advocates, Thai Buddhist monks are answering the call,’’ wrote Kiley Price, a Wake Forest University student. Price received a grant to study the role of Thai Buddhist monks in environmental protection from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting in Washington, D.C. Price interviewed American and Thai academics.

“Through rituals like tree ordinations, some monks in Thailand are integrating Buddhist principles into the environmental movement in order to garner support from their followers and encourage sustainable practices,’’ Price wrote.

Thailand has been working hard to reverse decades of deforestation that is the result of a growing population, the expansion of agriculture, and the quest for profits by businesses. At times, this has led to conflicts between communities and business interests. To protect the forests from those who wish to either develop or destroy it, Buddhist monks, especially in northern Thailand, have occasionally adopted a practice of ordaining trees.

The monks perform religious rituals similar to those conducted when ordaining a layperson into the Sangha, or Buddhist clergy, and wrap the trunk of the tree in the saffron-colored robes of a Buddhist monk to denote the tree’s divine status. Community members participate in the ordination rites. This has proved to be effective in many cases, with loggers refusing to fell the ordained trees.

“Making merit is extremely important for Thai Buddhists,” Susan Darlington, a professor of anthropology and Asian studies at Hampshire College, and the author of the book The Ordination of a Tree, told Price. “They see [tree ordination ceremonies] as an act of making merit, which can help with rebirth and, in some cases, having a better life now.”

Because of their status, monks can be more effective than politicians or bureaucrats in educating and organizing people to protect the forests and the environment. “If I asked farmers who they would trust between government officers and the monks, they would choose the latter,” said Chaya Vaddhanaphuti, a geography professor at Chiang Mai University.

Monks are also engaged in disseminating knowledge to farmers about better ways to farm in harmony with nature, build resilience and provide for their families in sustainable ways.

Chiang Mai-based monk Phrakhu Sangkom Thanapanyo Khunsuri has created an alternative farming school. With 49 full-time students this year, Phra Sangkom mixes Buddhist teachings with the “sufficiency economy theory.” Formulated by the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the sufficiency economy theory encourages farmers to grow a diversity of crops, raise fish and poultry, and avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers.