Just Being There
by Santikaro Bhikkhu
Many Thai monks, not to mention those in neighboring countries, and especially those dedicated to meditation, have a strong love for the forest. Herbal medicine is another factor binding them to Nature. Thai culture was always, until recently, very close to Nature: the rivers, fields, and forests. Thai Buddhism gives a healthy emphasis to Nature and the forests are a focal point for being intimate with Nature in order to become intimate with Dhamma. The Buddha's life story illustrates this powerfully. He never went to university and learned the essentials of life in the forest or wilderness.
So many of us monks live in bits and pieces of forests, some healthy, many degraded (like ours here at Dawn Kiam). When we live in them, the local people begin to change their attitudes to the place. It becomes more respectful. Perhaps they are reminded of their old values.
It used to be that the forests were boundless and nobody thought they could ever end. They were also seen as dark and dangerous, inhabited by fierce animals, thieves, and spirits. The peasants took from them what they needed -- not all that much -- since society allowed them little else. Then came colonialism and systematic resource extraction; yes, the West introduced it here. The peasants were encouraged to take more and more from the forest to sell. The peasants' land was expropriated, so they had to cut deeper into the forest. Finally, oil-powered technology came in and mowed down the forest. So in addition to being pushed into cutting down the forests, the peasants get the rapacious examples of their own elites and the Western world rubbed in their faces by TV. They end up wanting a tiny bit of the action too. They see nothing wrong with cutting down a tree, shooting a langur, catching a python to sell to a zoo, burning a swamp to get turtles, etc. Putting some monks in the way is a non-violent means to slow down the devastation. Some monks are willing to be there.
But "there" is shrinking and the competition for forests is getting intense, whether for resorts (middle-class folks from towns and abroad), military purposes, agro-forestry (eucalyptus, bamboo), or meditation. Having bought off and crippled the Sangha hierarchy, the government is increasingly able to intimidate monks off the land. The government pressured the Council of Elders to pass a rule making it harder for monks to dwell in forests. It may be a losing battle, but there are still monks who are willing to try and lay folks who back them up, even in the government.
In short, the job of monks is just "being there." In our utilitarian age, they are expected to do more. But just being there may be the best part of the answer. It involves a sacrifice of comforts and conveniences that the middle-class will only make on camping trips.
There are attempts to reforest, too. Some are done with wisdom, others are business and government inspired schemes that put in cash crops at the expense of ecosystems. Many monks could use help in trying to practice wise reforestation. The foolish, greedy kind gets loads of support, including international investment.
More active confrontation of the powers that be is not common. Look what happened to the few monks who tried -- aint monks no more! Newspapers were found to dirty their names, trumped up charges were filed in a corrupt injustice system, bullets shot over lay supporters heads (or worse), and few senior monks backed them up.
Still, as the conflicts over resources intensify, more monks will be on the firing line. International backing may save some of them. In each case were the monk is not protected, the villagers will fare even worse. If the monk is able to do his job, he can help insure the safety of the villagers. Some respect for the robes lingers.
Much more could be said; this is just a quick rundown.
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