The morality of environmentalism

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Monks are not supposed to be concerned with worldly issues such as politics. At the same time, however, the ecology monks see environmental destruction as a crucial factor in what is their main concern—human suffering. They cannot avoid a certain degree of involvement in the former if they are to deal with the latter. They feel responsibility as monks to teach people environmental awareness and show them the path to relieving their suffering. The root causes of suffering are, in Buddhist philosophy, greed, ignorance, and hatred. As the destruction of the forest is caused by these evils (through people’s selfish aims at economic gain or unconsidered use of natu�ral resources to meet needs arising from poverty and overly rapid development), the monks see it as their duty to adapt traditional religious concepts and rituals to gain the villagers’ acceptance and commitment to their ecological aims. The destruction of the environment was not a significant issue in Thailand until the rapid industrialization of the country became a national priority after World War II (Sponsel and Natadecha 1988:305). Even then, it was not until the 1980s that nature conservation became a widespread concern. The adoption of the issue by the ecology monks beginning in the mid-�1980s has raised the movement to a new level. It can no longer be seen simply as an economic or political debate between environmentalists and developers, but has now been placed on a moral plane. The monks are concerned with the suffering of both humans and wildlife that results from the destruction of the forests and watersheds. The ecology monks are walking a fine line between their historical responsibilities as spiritual leaders and their new practice as social activists. They are consciously using the former to support and even justify the latter, to counter the criticisms aimed at their environmental efforts as inappropriate for monks. While the focus of specific activities such as tree ordinations is predominantly on local areas, the innovative use of rituals, and the implication of signs like the one nailed to the tree in Nan place the issue on a national po�liti�cal level. Through the use of words like chaat, the monks raise issues that question the responsibility of the local and national governments in deforestation and conservation.

Similarly, the practice of religion itself is being changed, even challenged, in the process. Buddhism in Thailand has become less relevant to daily life over the past century because of increasing government involvement in lay life through schools, improved health care, and development projects. The Buddhist ecology movement, following the model of the work of development monks, is not allowing the religion to become relegated to a secondary function in Thai society. It challenges the Sangha, as well as the Thai people, to reconsider its role and not to accept complacency or merely perform rituals that have no direct relevance for relieving people’s suffering in daily life. It forces Buddhists to question and think about the causes of suffering, even when these causes are controversial or political. While the ultimate aim of activist monks is to relieve suffering and maintain the relevance of the religion in a changing society, this has also resulted in questioning and rethinking the function of the religion itself. The use of Buddhist rituals (such as ordinations and the phaa paa ceremony), the invocation of powerful religious symbols (such as holy water and monks’ robes, and the implication of words like chaat in the plaque on the ordained tree in Nan Province) all serve as vehicles that simultaneously preserve religious concepts and sentiments and challenge their traditional use and interpretations in Thailand. The ecology monks are responding to what they perceive as threats to or, to put it more mildly, inevitable changes in their social position. They are making conscious choices and actions, guided by long-standing religious concepts such as merit-making and kammic action, and social relations between the Sangha and the lay villagers. As a consequence, their role, the concepts and practice of the religion, and the relation between the religion (and its practitioners) and the state are all changing. The case of the tree ordination in Nan illustrates the social, political, and economic issues involved, and reveals the level at which the ma�jor changes are taking place. This dynamic process of change is far from complete. The Buddhist ecology movement is still growing and becoming more vocal and controversial, challenging specific cases of environmental destruction caused by policies of the government or economic development plans. The responses of the government, industrialists, and general members of the Sangha, as well as the Sangha hierarchy, all need to be considered to judge the full effect of this movement on the concepts of Buddhism and ecology as they are interpreted and practiced in Thai society. It is apparent that Thai Buddhism is changing dramatically and, despite some efforts to use it as a conservative force to support the status quo and government policies, it has tremendous potential to effect social and environmental change in Thailand. The extent and success of these efforts, and the true direction of the changes involved, remain to be seen.

 

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