How Buddhism can help the environment

 |  August 29, 2019

When talking about various fields of creativity, one doesn’t really think of religion, let alone Buddhism. When thinking of the environment, one doesn’t really think of religion, let alone Buddhism. Yet, Buddhism has, over the past decades, at times been a powerful force in creatively using its reach and authority in helping to save the environment.

Here in northern Thailand, the practice of Forest Ordination, has helped save thousands of trees. This relatively new practice began in 1987 when Phra Khru Manatnatee Phitak, a monk from Mae Jai district, Phayao, had an idea to use Buddhism to protect rivers in his area, during a season of unusual drought. Harnessing the authority of his position, as well as the superstition and beliefs of local villagers who believed that ancient creatures such as Nagas protect rivers, he held the first River Prolonging Ceremony which galvanised villagers to protect the water sources, so that sacred spirits such as the Naga would be appeased. This novel use of the spiritual for the greater good was inspired by and was a creative adaptation from the long established City Prolonging Ceremony which happens in Chiang Mai annually.

Following the success of the river project, the following year, in 1988, Phra Khru Manatnatee Phitak was called to action once again when a large investor had plans to cut down forests in his community. This was when he conceptualised and held the first Forest Ordination Ceremony, wrapping monks’ robes around trees so that no one dared to cut them down, resulting in saving his forest. Thais have great respect for Buddhism and it is heartening to see that it can be adapted and creatively used as a tool to help protect our environment. Today, it is not an uncommon sight to see large and old trees jauntily wrapped with a strip of saffron road; the famous old Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road is one visible example, and there are many more to be found across the north of Thailand.

In Citylife’s controversial 2018 article, Thai Buddhism’s Struggle for Relevance we wrote, “The number of monks in Thailand have less than halved in the past three decades, with only approximately 298,000 monks and 60,000 novices practicing at any given time. Most of these are not career monks, some ordaining for as short a time as one day, leaving Thailand’s 39,883 temples mostly empty…if well-funded…It is estimated that Thailand’s temples receive over 100 billion baht in donations each year, according to the National Institute of Development Administration, receiving an additional 3.4 billion baht a year in state funding for temple renovations.”

Imagine if just some of that money was funneled towards the environment, and given to activist monks such as Phra Khru Manatnatee Phitak to weave his magic with.

It is monks such as him, and creative initiatives such as this which Buddhists should support, and not that of building yet another gilded pagoda.