The tree ordination ceremony

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Tree ordination ceremonies (buat ton mai) are performed by many participants in the Buddhist ecology movement in order to raise the awareness of the rate of environmental destruction in Thailand and to build a spiritual commitment among local people to conserving the forests and watersheds. Some large-scale ordinations have been carried out for publicity and public sympathy to make the government see the environmental impact of some of its economic development plans. (This was the case in the southern province of Surat Thani in March 1991, when over fifty monks and lay people entered a national park to wrap monks’ robes around all the large trees in a rainforest threatened by the construction of a dam [Pongpet 1991].)

Most tree ordinations are aimed at local areas, and villagers, through their participation in these ceremonies, signify their acceptance of this adaptation of a Buddhist ritual to sanctify the forest and thereby protect it. The regulations the monks establish limit their use of the forest, forbidding cutting any trees or killing any wildlife within it. In July 1991, I attended a tree ordination ceremony in Nan Province in northern Thailand sponsored by Phrakhru Pitak Nanthakhun. Although the tree ordination was the culmination of months of preparation and was one aspect of a larger conservation program, the actual ceremony involved only a day and a half of activities. Phrakhru Pitak invited over twenty monks from Nan and other north�ern provinces to assist in performing the ceremony. Recognizing the importance of gaining the support of the Sangha hierarchy and the local government for the project’s success, Phrakhru Pitak consulted with and involved members of the province’s Sangha organization, especially the senior-most monk in the subdistrict of the ten participating villages, the district officer, and other local bureaucrats.3 Many local government officials and mid-level members of the Sangha hierarchy participated in the ceremony. Given the independent nature and potentially controversial aspects of the activities of most socially engaged monks, Phrakhru Pitak’s attention to convincing the Sangha hierarchy and the government of the project’s importance is significant for assuring its success. The night before the ceremony, representatives of Wildlife Fund Thailand (WFT; an affiliate of World Wildlife Fund) showed slides for the villagers. Their co-sponsorship of the project placed Phrakhru Pitak’s work on a national stage and gave it further legitimacy. Not only is WFT one of the largest environmental NGOs in Thailand, it also has royal patronage. The ordination ceremony began in the morning with a modification of a traditional ritual, thaut phaa paa (the giving of the forest robes). Usually, this ritual is performed by Thai lay people to donate robes, money, and other necessities to monks for religious merit. Since the 1980s, this ritual has been increasingly used across the nation to raise funds for local development projects; those contributing offerings to the monks gain merit, and the monks allow the money donated to be used for projects ranging from building or repairing a school to establishing a local credit union or village co-operative store. People’s commitment to such projects is often stronger because of the religious connotations behind the funds.

Phrakhru Pitak added a new twist to this ceremony. Several tree nurseries around the provincial capital and some wealthy patrons offered twelve thousand seedlings along with robes to the monks. Once the forest robes were ritually accepted by Phrakhru Pitak, he and the highest-ranking monk present accepted the seedlings, thus sanctifying them and conferring merit on the donors and the participants. A few of the seedlings were planted around the temple grounds and at the site of the tree ordination as part of the ceremony. Most were given to the villagers to reforest areas that had been denuded. These new trees were chosen carefully; they were species, such as fruit trees, that were profitable without having to be cut down. Having been sanctified and given by the monks further protected them as the villagers would see cutting them as a form of religious demerit (baap).

After planting the trees at the temple, all the participants climbed into trucks, vans, and buses to make the five-kilometer trip into the mountains to the tree chosen to be ordained. Over two hundred people accompanied the more than twenty monks to the site. A four-foot-tall Buddha image sat on a concrete stand at the base of the giant tree. Phrakhru Pitak commented that over twenty years earlier, when he walked from his village through the deep forest to school along this route, this tree was not unusual for its height. Now it clearly stood out as the tallest remaining tree. One could see for miles from it across a landscape dotted with near-vertical maize fields, visible because of the deforested hillsides. In this ceremony, as in all tree ordinations, the monks did not claim to be fully ordaining the tree, as that status is reserved for humans only. The ceremony was used symbolically to remind people that nature should be treated as equal with humans, deserving of respect and vital for human as well as all life. The opportunity of the ordination was used to build spiritual commitment to preserving the forest and to teach in an active and creative way the value of conservation. The main emphasis of Phrakhru Pitak’s sermon during the ritual was on the relationship between the Buddha and nature, and the interdependence between the conditions of the forest and the villagers’ lives. During the ritual, at the same point at which a new monk would be presented with his robes, two monks wrapped orange robes around the tree’s trunk, marking its sanctification. A crowd of photographers from local and Bangkok newspapers and participating NGOs, one anthropologist, and two camera crews documented the quick act. The robes stood as a reminder that to harm or cut the tree—or any of the forest—was an act of demerit. While it was not unusual to find bodhi trees (the tree under which the Buddha achieved Enlightenment) wrapped with sacred cloth, in those cases the tree was already seen as holy; the cloth served more to honor the tree than to sanctify it.

The innovation here was that the tree ordained was not already treated as sacred but was made so through the ritual. As in most ordinations, the ritual included the sanctification of water in a monk’s alms bowl. A small Buddha image was placed in the bowl and candle wax dripped into the water while the monks chanted. Traditionally, this holy water (nam mon) is sprinkled on the participants, conferring a blessing on them. This water is seen as ritually very powerful (Olson 1991). On this occasion, Phrakhru Pitak used the blessed water in an original manner. Each of the headmen from the ten villages drank some of the water in front of the large Buddha image to seal their pledge to protect the forest. This use of a sacred symbol to strengthen such an oath was another innovation that reinforced the notion of environmentalism as a moral action. It made the protection or destruction of the forest kammic action: protecting it would confer good merit (bun), destroying it would confer negative merit, the balance of which would ultimately affect one’s rebirth or even quality of living in this life. Beyond that, it drew on the belief of the villagers in the magical powers of the holy water; while specific sanctions were not mentioned for failing to uphold the headmen’s pledge, the implications were that breaking it would involve going against the power secured by the use of the water. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the ceremony (the one which is open to the greatest variety of alternative interpretations) is the plaque that was nailed to the tree prior to the ordination. (See figure 11.1.) No formal mention of the sign was made during the ritual, nor was much discussion or fanfare made concerning its content or placement. Yet, it always draws the most attention and discussion from Thai who are introduced to it. The sign reads, in Thai, tham laay paa khee tham laay chaat, which can be translated, “To destroy the forest is to destroy life.” The word chaat (life) is problematic, and can carry several meanings, all of which relate to the issue of conservation on various levels.Chaat can mean life, birth (as in rebirth), or nation. The sentence could thus be read, “To destroy the forest is to destroy life, one’s rebirth, or the nation.” The first meaning is the most straightforward from the point of view of environmentalists whose concerns do not necessarily involve either religious or nationalist connotations. Yet it also implies the Buddhist idea that one should respect and care for all life because any being could have been one’s mother in a previous life. The second meaning, to destroy one’s rebirth, invokes the concept of karma. It raises the idea that destroying the forest is an act of demerit and consequently has a negative influence on how one is reborn in one’s next life. The third possibility, that of destroying the nation (meaning both territory and people; Reynolds 1977:274, 1994:442), is the most complex. It evokes nationalist feelings, linking the condition of the forest with that of the state. It draws upon the moral connection between nation (chaat), religion (satsana), and monarchy (mahakeset), the trinity of concepts that supposedly makes up Thailand’s identity (Reynolds 1977, 1994). Even this meaning is double-edged. While it invokes the villagers’ loyalty to the nation and the king in protecting the forest, it also calls upon the nation itself to uphold its moral responsibility to preserve the forest. Given the political undertones of the conservation issue, it is unlikely that this implicit meaning is present by mere coincidence. The use of the word chaat on the sign demonstrates the complexity and significance of the tree ordination. Concepts of religion are being reinterpreted to promote environmentalism at the same time the latter is linked through moral ties with local and national political and economic issues. Throughout the ordination, and the larger project of which it is part, Phrakhru Pitak extended his traditional role as spiritual and moral leader of lay villagers to embrace an activism that necessitates political involvement. The same kind of role enlargement is recreated in every project run by ecology monks, from tree ordinations and the establishment of sacred community forests to tree-planting ceremonies and exorcisms at sites threatened by ecological destruction.  




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