The Forest Monks

In Thailand, practicing monastic selflessness can sometimes also mean taking on the mantle of land defenders.

IT’S 5:50 AM AND I’M IN Chaiyaphum province, Thailand, following a single-file column of russet-robed monks as they tread barefoot down the red-dirt road that runs between their monastery and the nearby village. The first greetings of the day are all of the canine variety. Farm dogs look up from nipping fleas to bark at the monks as they wind their way through the dawn. The monks are accompanied by their own companions, four scruffy dogs that hang around the monastery and seem to have appointed themselves the monks’ guardians. When one of the farm dogs gets a little too excited, baring its fangs and developing a raw edge to its bark, the monastery mutts swiftly pin it onto its back.

In Theravada Buddhism, the school of Buddhism practiced here, the monks’ discipline requires them to neither cultivate their own food nor buy it, so their sustenance depends on whatever alms the villagers might donate this morning. This is my first time joining an alms walk. Every day, though, three processions of monks set out, each covering different corners of the village. I can’t quite wrap my head around how this kind of collection is supposed to work as a long-term prospect. Villagers living near a monastery face the burden of feeding themselves while also keeping dozens of monks and nuns alive. Although monks eat little, limiting themselves to a scant meal or two a day as part of the effort to overcome the desires of the body, there are many of them.

How could those practicing a religion founded on compassion turn their backs on severe environmental crisis?

When I drove in the day before with the group of conservation biology students I’m here with, the village had not looked especially large or prosperous, just a few cross streets of smallholder farmers’ houses. There were no traffic lights, no commercial buildings other than a couple of dusty pantry markets and an informal repair garage, with spare parts and tires piled against the walls. Would families keep giving, I wondered? Could they?

In all honesty, I hadn’t expected to worry much about the village, which had seemed like just another cluster of houses to pass on the way to Wat Pa Sukato, the forest monastery where the monks dwell. The other students and I are here for five days to study the monks’ conservation efforts, led by the head of the monastery, Phra Paisal Visalo. A spare, soft-spoken man in his mid-60s, Phra Paisal conveys unmistakable authority despite wearing the same style of hand-dyed robe and sporting the same shaved head as the other monks. For several days, he and Vichai Naphua, a good-humored, bearded layman who has long worked with the monastery and is as robustly framed as Phra Paisal is lean, have been orienting us to decades’ worth of activism, both here and at the many forest monasteries across Thailand that have nudged Buddhism toward greater engagement in ecological issues. Among these, Wat Pa Sukato is well-respected for the rigor of its meditation practices and the intellectual and spiritual leadership of Phra Paisal, which is what led the creators of this field course to locate it here.

The talks link the sublime and the practical, the ancient and modern. In Buddha’s journey toward enlightenment 2,600 years ago, forest seclusion and asceticism had prepared him for the moment when he shed the illusions of the human ego and gained blazing insight into the nature of reality. A Bodhi tree sheltered him as he attained enlightenment. Key early disciples followed his example, living a wandering, ascetic life in the forests, a tradition that Thai monks revived in the nineteenth century, first in the wilds and then in monastic communities like Wat Pa Sukato where the devoted live in seclusion, practicing intensive meditation.

In the twentieth and twenty-first century, though, Thailand’s development and deforestation made these devotions increasingly difficult: How could monks retreat into the forests if the forests were gone? How could the monastery maintain its elegant pond full of ancient catfish, above which Phra Paisal’s simple hut perched in spiritual detachment, if the mountain watershed was never replenished? Most importantly: How could those practicing a religion founded on compassion turn their backs on severe environmental crisis?

BUDDHA’S REVELATION CONCERNED the deep cycles of human spiritual existence: how attachment, greed, and ignorance lead to suffering, and how enlightenment — achieved through discipline in one’s conduct, mindfulness, selflessness, compassion, and freedom from desire — offers a path out of suffering.

Millennia later in Thailand, another cycle of suffering was revealing itself. Development, tropical hardwood logging, and the mechanized cultivation of cash crops like rice and corn, all ramping up in the 1960s, led to widespread forest clearing. Forest clearing led to ecological degradation, increasingly severe droughts and floods, mountainside erosion, and impoverished soils. Poor soils and failed crops led to hungry, indebted people who had no choice but to encroach further on the forest.

monks in robes with banners walking

The monastery’s environmental work includes near-annual dhamma walks, week-long treks during which monks conduct outreach to officials and residents to raise awareness of the benefits of forest conservation. Photo by Witheep/Wikimedia.

a smiling monk in a robe

Phra Paisal Visalo, head of Wat Pa Sukato, has been particularly focused on the protection of a community forest connected to a nearby temple site. Photo by Vichai Naphua.

In the late 1980s, monks across Thailand began to act, especially in the wake of water shortages and village-destroying landslides linked to denuded hillsides. By then, Thailand had already lost 82 percent of its historical rainforest cover. Monks took on the mantle of teachers and forest defenders.

As documented by anthropologist Susan Darlington and others, their activism put them at great risk. Taking stances that could be interpreted as political, such as protesting at dams, left monks at odds with their own leadership and longstanding Thai tradition that monasteries concern themselves only with spiritual life. Activist monks found themselves publicly criticized and sidelined from leadership roles within the Buddhist hierarchy. Additionally, in a country where criticism of the monarchy is a crime, and where until the early 1980s there was an active communist insurgency, resistance to paradigms of rapid development had to proceed delicately or risk severe reaction from the state. On top of that, obstructing the development agenda of the powerful and well-connected almost always incurs danger. One monk, Phra Prajak Khuttajitto, was arrested for blocking a military-backed plan to establish eucalyptus plantations, and in 2005, Phra Supoj Suvacano, a monk involved in efforts to protect his meditation center from a proposed tangerine farm, was murdered.

Over time, though, the monks found a language for activism that drew on their moral authority — indeed, even enhanced it. As Darlington writes in her book on the Monk-led Thai ecology movement, The Ordination of a Tree, their focus on environmental awareness helps to “maintain the relevance of the religion in a rapidly changing world of industrialization and modernization.”

A signature example of this activism — and the endeavor that gives Darlington’s book its title — is marking particularly significant trees as sacred. This is done by conducting rituals of consecration, complete with wrapping the base of their trunks in monks’ orange robes. First practiced by monk Phrakhru Manas Natheepitak in 1988, and taken up by Wat Pa Sukato as early as 1990, this creative use of ritual caught on rapidly as a way to lend trees symbolic significance and help preserve community groves.

Obstructing the development agenda of the powerful and well-connected almost always incurs danger.

At first these ordinations were seen as radical protest. But as many saw it, the goal — raised awareness — was consistent with monks’ traditional roles as educators and conductors of religious rituals. Not only that, but monks found ways to involve rather than antagonize their potential opponents. That included a 1996 initiative to ordain 50 million trees in honor of the 50th year of Thailand’s King Rama IX’s rule, which helped establish tree ordinations as part of the national conversation, even the national identity. By 2010, contestants for the crown of Miss Universe Thailand were ordaining trees as part of the beauty pageant.

At Wat Pa Sukato, in addition to tree ordinations, Phra Paisal Visalo continues the public education work of his predecessor, Luang Phor (venerable father) Khamkhian Suwanno. In the 1980s and 1990s, Khamkhian strove to protect the local villagers from the cycle of debt and environmental harm caused by clearcutting forests to grow eucalyptus plantations, a policy the state misguidedly promoted in the pursuit of export commodities. (By 1994 the fruits of his efforts were already visible. An article that year in the Bangkok Post vividly captures the difference between the “lush, cool forest” protected by the monastery and the “hard, cracked” and eroded eucalyptus plantations, calling it a vision of heaven versus hell.)

As part of that effort, the monastery holds dhamma walks. (Dhamma, in Buddhism, broadly means to uphold the teachings of the Buddha). In these walks, which have taken place near-annually since 2000, groups of monks set off across the district for stretches of up to eight days and seven nights, mostly barefoot and bearing no food or provisions for shelter. They subsist only on what villages and towns provide. Laypeople join in, too, lending numbers and support to the monks as they conduct outreach to officials, residents, and especially children, to raise awareness of the benefits of forest conservation, organic cultivation, and sustainable development.

Laypeople, in fact, are crucial to the monks’ conservation efforts. At Wat Pa Sukato, the partnership between Phra Paisal, with his air of intellectual abstraction, and community leader Vichai Naphua, is striking. Where Phra Paisal emphasizes principles and teaches meditation, weighing each word carefully, Naphua laughs readily and focuses on the practical, putting his incredible range of skills to use. He uses photography and social media to support the dhamma walks. He runs an organic rice farm with his family as a way of supporting the monastery and its message of sustainable livelihoods. And he’s an artist. Among his projects are watercolors of local wildlife, such as hornbills, sold to support conservation, and a vast mural using traditional pigments that adorns the interior of a newly constructed temple. He describes an exhaustive process of sourcing the key minerals and plants under the tight supervision of one of the very few living experts, and how merely preparing the walls to hold the pigments took almost a year. This focus on upholding tradition coexists with a playfulness of imagery. Among the figures meant to convey greed and suffering we spot a “little green man” — a soldier in olive drab and a gas mask. “Putin’s war on Ukraine,” he explains.

We ask at one point if he considered becoming a monk, given how purpose-driven his life seems. He says that he was in fact ordained at one point — it’s not uncommon for Thai men to join a monastery for a time — but didn’t stick with it. He starts to offer a long explanation in Thai, but gets impatient before the interpreter can translate. Instead, laughing, he offers a joke in English. Referring, evidently, to his hearty appetite for food and for life with a wife and children, he says that as a monk, “I’d make Buddhism look bad.”

A particular focus for both Phra Paisal and his predecessors has been the establishment and protection of a community forest, connected to a second nearby temple site, Wat Pa Mahawan. Also called “Lost Mountain” for the near-miracle of it having been overlooked by logging crews and thus retaining old-growth trees of immense size, the forest was at one point home to astonishing biodiversity, including hornbills and elephants, binturongs and macaques. Then fires broke out in 2020. Despite valiant efforts by the monks and villagers to maintain a fire break by hand, since they lacked all equipment or even a water source, the fire burned the forest’s last stands of old-growth along with ten years’ worth of laboriously restored former plantations. The hornbills and much of the other wildlife died or fled, and the monkeys, displaced, now hang opportunistically around the temple.

Within nearly every school of Buddhism, and across the many lands where Buddhism is practiced, a reading of the religion as being broadly in accord with ecology has risen to the fore.

One of our tasks as visitors, I learn, is to help with a renewed effort of reforestation. “How do you not despair about it possibly just burning again, especially given climate change?” a student asks Phra Paisal. He acknowledges the pain of losing so much work, and so much of the forest, and speaks of both learning — this time, the emphasis is on planting species that are drought and fire resistant — and the inner work of resisting despair. “We have to make sure we’re doing things out of the right motives, without anger or bitterness, or it well could be that we will be doing harm instead of good. We have to first make sure, with any action, that we are not adding to the problem.”

When we climb to the hillside where we will be planting the native tree seedlings, I can see why the work needs to be done. With the rainforest gone, the bare soil is ominously dry, so hard and barren that even with steel tools we struggle to hack the clods apart. Worse: Despite it being rainy season, the absence of forests means there are no assurances of rain, so we tuck a layer of moisture-retaining polymer underneath the seedling roots before splashing in a few ounces of water from a bucket. My own consolation against despair comes from seeing, just downslope, the evidence of past years’ plantings, already several feet taller.

ALL OF THIS ECOLOGICAL work would seem a far cry from the detachment Buddhist monks might be expected to cultivate. Indeed, this was a key reservation the Thai activist monks had to overcome, doing so in part by revisiting the history of Buddha and his relationship to forests and trees in just the way Phra Paisal had demonstrated. They succeeded to the extent that now, Susan Darlington says, it would stand out as strange for monks to refuse acts like tree ordination or shirk roles as community educators and protectors of the commons.

a monk stands in front of a large tree, an orange cloth is pinned to the tree

A signature form of activism by Thai Buddhist monks is marking particular trees as sacred. Typically the orange cloth used for monks’ robes is wrapped around the trunk as part of an ordination, though in the case of particularly large trees, a swath may be pinned to the trunk. Photo by Diversity photos.

The partnership between Phra Paisal and community leader Vichai Naphua (right), is striking. Where Phra Paisal emphasizes principles and teaches meditation, Naphua puts his incredible range of skills, including farming and art, to raise funds to support the monastery.

The Thai monks are not alone in their turn toward a conservation practice. Within nearly every school of Buddhism, and across the many lands where Buddhism is practiced, a reading of the religion as being broadly in accord with ecology has risen to the fore, with leaders pointing to Buddhist concepts of compassion, do no harm, and loving-kindness, as well as a decentering of human need, in favor of awareness of the broader interdependence of all living things. In 2009, Buddhist teachers from a range of traditions published a call to action, “A Buddhist Response to the Climate Emergency.”

But this interpretation has also been contested. Scholars of early Buddhism such as Ian Harris resist the identification of the Buddhist concept of interdependence with an ecological view of nature, noting that the connectedness of all things was originally regarded as a form of negative entanglement, from which enlightenment freed you. Lionel Obadia of the University of Lyon in France posits an ambivalent relationship between Buddhism and environmentalism, calling the current moment an “ecologization” of Buddhism. He writes that the traditional prescription for handling life’s intrinsic suffering — “Equanimity … fostered by retreat from the world” — has been recast as its near-opposite, a commitment to worldly politics.

Certainly, that commitment is evident in Phra Paisal’s case. He broadcasts on YouTube, sometimes even in English. His focus the morning before we arrived was on climate change, putting him in the company of such Buddhist leaders as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, often referred to as the “father of mindfulness,” both of whom signed a 2015 statement to world leaders on the subject.

In an essay surveying debates about Buddhism and ecology, religious scholar Christopher Ives points out that religious traditions are always reinterpreted for “different cultural contexts and historical moments.” He cites David McMahan, author of The Making of Buddhist Modernism, who warns against dismissing the environmental innovations in contemporary Buddhism, pointing out that for every religion, history consists of “reconstitution of doctrine” as a “constructive response.” That is, cultures and religions evolve and adapt by reworking the possibilities inherent in their origins.

I’m neither a Buddhist nor a scholar of religion, but in even my brief acquaintance with Buddha’s story while at Wat Pa Sukato, I’m struck by how his life features at its center not just retreat, but a high degree of engagement. After achieving enlightenment, Buddha went on to sustain a 45-year-long teaching and leadership role helping others and acting to improve the world. I’m equally struck by how his central insight on the nature of suffering cuts both ways. On the one hand, getting past our attachment to our needs, our ego, our illusion of a self separate from everything else points to detachment as the path of freedom or enlightenment. On the other hand, what arises, when our illusion of separateness relaxes, is keen awareness of our connectedness to all things. Compassion.

Monkhood, as practiced at a monastery like Wat Pa Sukato, embodies these paradoxes of connectedness as well. What at first glance looks like monks’ removal of self from society for purposes of self-cultivation, turns out to be a realization of selflessness, and between monastery and village there is radical interdependence.

a queue of monks receiving food

In Theravada Buddhism, monks’ discipline requires that they neither cultivate food nor buy it. Their sustenance depends on whatever alms local villagers might donate. Photo by Ahowden International/Alamy.

Certainly, this is the lesson I see in the alms procession. The village takes center stage as we walk through it. A woman is waiting in the driveway of a two-story house, bearing a large pot of cooked rice in a kind of sling around her body. The monks wait in a line as she scoops handfuls of rice onto each of their steel bowls. She then kneels in front of them on the ground, her hands pressed together in prayer at her forehead. They chant a blessing, the words of which will later be translated for us:

Just as the rivers flow into the sea
So what is given in generosity
Benefits the departed and all whom you love
Like the moon waxing full, shining brightly above
May all distress be averted
May all disease be destroyed
May no harm lie before you
And may long life bring you joy

The rice is connected to livelihood, which is connected to the viability of undepleted soils, the resilience of still-forested watersheds, the balance of ecosystems both visible and invisible, from the pollinators and pests, to the microbes that live and die in the soil in their uncounted trillions. The monks are a link in this chain, their activism and their spiritual example helping the village and region realize the webs of interconnection and avoid the harms of short-term thinking, adverse policies, and pursuit of individual gain that might fundamentally degrade the livability of their community.

As one villager interviewed in the 1994 Bangkok Post article put it: “We didn’t really pay attention at first” when the monks “preached about the value of the forest.” But “it didn’t take us long to see it for ourselves.” This is in perfect keeping with Buddha’s teaching in a speech known as the Kalama Sutta, which advises against accepting truths merely on the basis of “repeated hearing” or received authority. Instead, Buddha advised, examine your own experience. Then you will know. The monks’ role is not to insist, but to be present in their own practice.

In a way, then, the monks are cultivators after all, humble ones who might easily themselves vanish if not supported. This is perhaps the most essential lesson of this quest for alms, a lesson the Buddha imparts from 2,600 years ago via this blinking, stumbling, too-early morning: Set out to study something abstract, ideal — and you will find yourself watching the passing of rice from hand to human hand, the act predicated on the connectedness of all life.

And so we walk on.

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