Ordaining Trees

There are about 250,000 Buddhist monks in Thailand. Today, I would like to bring to your attention just one of those bhikkhus. His name is Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun and he engages in a practice that is a little out of the ordinary. He ordains trees.

A paper at the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale informs us:

Particularly over the course of the 1990s, monks in Thailand have started to take an active role in protecting the environment. Known informally as environmentalist, or ecology monks (phra nak anuraksa), this small but visible percentage of Thai Buddhist monastics feel compelled to address environmental issues as part of their religious duty to help relieve suffering . . .

Ceremonies such as tree ordination rituals (buat ton mai), in which trees are blessed and wrapped in saffron robes to signify their sacred status, are part of a larger effort to foster a conservation ethic rooted in Buddhist principles and bolstered by Buddhist practices.”

Photo: BBC
Photo: BBC

Although he is not the only “ecology monk”, Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun was recently the subject of a BBC article that is getting some attention. He has been ordaining trees for a quarter of a century. You might think it seems like a silly thing to do or you might be a nitpicker like me who bristles a bit at the idea of ordination of any kind in Buddhism (since the Buddha didn’t actually “ordain” bhikkhus), but when you consider that trees have Buddha-natures (yes, they do), it’s hard not to view the tree ordinations as a beautiful activity.

The PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly did a piece on Forest Monks in 2010 and this exchange gives us a glimpse into what it means to ordain a tree:

Lucky Severson, correspondent: To protect to the forests, one monk did something radical, just as they are doing here now. He started tying orange robes around trees, in effect ordaining the trees.

Professor Susan Darlington (Hampshire College): He was called crazy, and a national newspapers called for him to disrobe from the sangha [community or order], that this was not appropriate behavior for a monk, he’s misusing the religion. But meanwhile other monks began to do tree ordinations as well. “You can’t ordain a tree. What does that mean?” So people started debating, what does it mean to ordain a tree?

Severson: To the monks, it meant making the forests sacred, off limits to exploitation.

I encourage you to follow the links embedded in this post to learn more. Read the short BBC article and watch a video about Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun here, and you can read Darlington’s 1998 essay “The Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand,” here.

And you might also like to read my 2012 post Even Plants and Trees have Buddha-nature.

A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature.”

Chan-jan, the ninth patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school