Tree Ordination: Preserving Nature through Spiritual Connection
Across Thailand, there are many sights of majestic trees adorned with colorful strips of cloths. Those familiar with Thai culture will easily recognize these trees a being the sacred residence of spirits. Yet, there is another kind of sacred tree: one that is clad in saffron-colored robes of Buddhist monks. These trees are not only respected for the spirit that inhabits them, but also for their symbolic prestige, which must never be violated. This article will examine the unique story of tree ordination, showing how the blend of animism and Buddhism (with a dash of creativity) is helping to protect Thailand’s trees against deforestation.
What is a Tree Ordination?
Tree ordination, or buat ton mai (บวชต้นไม้) is a ceremony whereby a tree is symbolically ordained as a monk in order to protect it from loggers. To truly understand this process, one must first understand the Thai Buddhist concept of ordination. In Thailand, the ordination is a process whereby a lay Buddhist practitioner, specifically male, transitions into monkhood and is accepted into the monastic community (known as the Sangha). Once ordained, Buddhist monks must adhere to strict monastic laws while practicing the Dharma, teachings of the Buddha, to the fullest extent in order to achieve Nirvana or Nibbana. Buddhist monks are also expected to learn, preserve, and propagate Dharma, helping guide others away from suffering and towards meaningful happiness. These acts meant that monks are often held in highest regards within Thai society. Performing good deeds upon a monk, such as offering alms or clothing, is believed to generate great merit for the individual. Harming a monk, on the other hand, will lead to the accumulation of severe bad karma or kamma.
According to monastic laws laid by the Buddha, only human beings are allowed to be ordained. The example of this principle is mirrored in a story which tells of a naga, shape-shifting serpent, who longed to enter monkhood. The naga disguised itself as a human and received an ordination. After its disguise was exposed, the naga had to renounce its monkhood on the grounds that it is not a true human being. (To learn more about this story, check out our article on naga ordination) While a tree is clearly not a human being, the tree ordination is not necessarily in conflict with monastic laws. The ordained tree does not truly become a monk, but is rather symbolically given the prestige of a monk, who should be respected, and not harmed in any way.
(Photo credit: Manger Online)
A tree ordination ceremony is performed in areas where people wishes to protect the flora against deforestation. In a classic tree ordination ceremony, the community first selects the phaya ton mai (พญาต้นไม้), the largest and most significant tree within the area, to receive the ordination. It is believed that the phaya ton mai functions as the leader of all other trees within the area. Some forests may only have one phaya ton mai, while other forests may have multiple. Offerings are made to the sprits of the forest, followed by the erection of a shrine for the spirit inhabiting the phaya ton mai and more offerings being made to Phra Mae Thoranee (Mother Earth). After this, a shaman will call upon the spirit of the phaya ton mai to remain and protect the phaya ton mai as well as the other trees of the forest. The shaman will also ask other spirits of the forest to punish those who harm the trees.
Once the shamanistic ritual is completed, monks will begin chanting to bless the phaya ton mai, forest spirits, and attendees. At the highlight of the ceremony, monks will wrap saffron-colored monastic robes around the tree, then proceed with more chanting. It is at this point the tree is considered “fully ordained”. This act mirrors the process of an actual ordination, where the ordained shed their personal clothing and put on monastic robes for the first time. The ceremony then concludes with monks sprinkling holy water around the ordained tree. Nowadays, however, the ceremony can be much simpler, with monks simply ordaining the trees by blessing and wrapping monastic robes around them.
The ordained phaya ton mai will now be revered as a living monk. Those who harm an ordained tree are considered to have committed a great act of offense, equal to that of harming a living monk. Cutting down an ordained tree is considered to be equivalent to murdering a monk. Thus, potential loggers are deterred through the fear of accumulating grave bad karma. Other trees within the area of an ordained phaya ton mai are also under the phaya ton mai’s protection. Those who harm these lesser trees will be punished by forest spirits, leading to a variety of misfortunes. Through this creation of a sacred, inviolable space, the forest is allowed to thrive and grow without being harmed. Nowadays, any trees can be ordained, not only just phaya ton mai.
Thai people have long performed ceremonies to honor spiritual forces of nature, such as yearly sacrificial ritual for forest gods and prayers held to bless rivers. These ceremonies bring the community together, raising awareness among the people about the importance of environmental preservation. It is a time to seek forgiveness for violating the natural world and recommit oneself to protecting the landscape that one depends on. The tree ordination can be seen as a modern rendition of this ancient tradition.
(Photo credit: SCB Foundation)
The tree ordination ceremony is the creation of Phra Sophon Phatthanadom, abbot of Photharam Temple in Phayao Province. In the 1980’s, many places in Northern Thailand were suffering from illegal deforestation. To combat the situation, Phra Sophon Phatthanadom decided to come up with a way to make the people respect the forest and be deterred away from cutting down trees. With this goal in mind, Phra Sophon Phatthanadom came up with the tree ordination ceremony, combining Buddhist ordination with the people’s belief in nature spirits. He began ordaining trees, especially in upstream areas. The movement later gained traction among the people and the ceremony was adopted by communities and activists across Thailand. Legend has it that when a road was built in front of Photharam Temple, an ordained tree was cut down by construction workers. The workers later encountered many misfortunes and the story was spread by word of mouth, helping to cement the power and sanctity of the tree ordination ceremony.
The tree ordination ceremony was eventually adopted by government and royal agencies in their effort to promote forest conservation. In 1996, in celebration of His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 50th Coronation Ceremony, a mega-scale tree ordination effort was launched, with large numbers of communities joining the effort. This marked the first time the practice gained widespread recognition amongst the populace. Today, tree ordination ceremonies are still carried out as part of local and governmental efforts in forest preservation. A famous site with ordained trees is the Saraphi Road (Old Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road) in Northern Thailand. The road is famous for its beautiful scenery, with large rubber trees lining both sides of the strip. Many of the trees are ordained in order to prevent them from being cut down, thus preserving the road’s iconic landscape.
(Photo credit: Chiang Mai News)
Preserving Nature through Spiritual Connection
The tree ordination ceremony is an interesting example of how spiritual connection with the natural world can be used to effectively promote environmental conservation. Thai animistic beliefs hold that spirits reside not only in living beings, but also in objects and natural elements. Forests, mountains, and rivers are host not only to flora and fauna, but also a variety of spirits. Through this notion, Thai people are taught to demonstrate reverence towards the natural world. By recognizing nature as a living force, complete with its own spiritual energy, Thai people are able to form a symbiotic relationship with the natural landscape that they depend on. In other words: the people look after the natural world, while nature provides for the people.
Tree ordination takes the recognition of nature as a living force to another level by making an important statement: nature is not only alive, but also worthy of the same reverent treatment we accord to praiseworthy individuals (in this case monks). It deters people from exploiting nature, not through force or shallow incentives, but through a deeper recognition that, like individuals, nature has the right to live and be protected against harm. The creative blend of animistic beliefs with Buddhist principle is also characteristic of the Thai value of openness. While Buddhist monastic codes strictly limit the right to ordination only for human beings, the creation of the tree ordination ceremony cleverly allows for the Buddhist concept of compassion to be extended towards non-human beings without breaking religious rules. The ordained trees are symbolically given the status of monkhood without actually becoming a true monk. This way they are allotted the same prestige and protection of the Sangha without having to change the age-old monastic institution.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of tree ordination as a tool for environmental preservation resides in the people’s belief in its sanctity. If the people continue to recognize the living aspect of nature while upholding the symbolic reverence given to ordained trees, forests that has undergone this sacred ceremony will continue to be protected. Thus, it is crucial to continue educating people about the importance of conservation and promoting the sense of reverence towards the natural world.
The story of “Tree Ordination” is an admirable facet Thai culture and heritage. It is an example of how spiritual connection can be used to promote environmental conservation, namely though the respectful attitude towards nature. It also showcases the Thai people’s open-minded ability to utilize different spiritual beliefs harmoniously in order to create a greater good. Join us in exploring more stories of Thailand and the Thai people, as we take you on a journey to discover Thainess.
Author: Tayud Mongkolrat
12 April 2023