Tuesday, January 14, 2014

“Thou shall not cut these trees” They are ordained now The story of Tree ordination in Sri Lanka

-->Hemantha Withanage
Writer is the Executive Director of the Centre for Environmental Justice/ Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka. He is the Treasurer and an executive member of the Friends of the Earth International and the Convenor of the NGO Forum on ADB.

Buddhist monks chanting “pirith” “Kesha , Loma, Nacha, Dantha, Tacho……… wrapped the trees with a saffron and red color robes, and ordinated 1000 trees while local communities and the environmentalists were chanting “Saadoo” “Saadoo” “Saadoo”. Venerable Badullagammana Sumanasara Thero, Venerable Kalupahana Piyarathana Thero, venerable Thalangalle Sudhamma Thero and Venerable Dr. Balaharuwe Sirisumana Thero took the lead in this tree ordination.

This first massive tree ordination ceremony in Sri Lanka was held on the 11th January 2014 in Akkara Anuwa and Dimbuldena villages in the Nilgala Forest. Fifty Buddhist monks, over 300 local people and the environmental organizations participated the event. Muslim religious leaders of the area also joined the event. Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ) initiated this Tree ordination ritual in order to highlight the massive forest destruction in Nilgala by powerful people.

History of Tree ordination

Symbolical tree ordination is a ritual initiated by Ecology Monks (Phra Nak Anuraksa) a group of Thai Buddhist Monks which has also practiced by the Cambodian, Vietnam and Burmese monks in the last two and half decades. On the surface, tree ordination is presented to the world environmentalist movement as a highly clever and original idea, using the widely respected symbol of monastic robes to make loggers hesitate to cut down trees. It is a combination of bringing the pre-buddhist values of spirit worshiping and the buddhist values of respecting the nature and the political messaging of saving the forests and trees from destructive development.

It is generally acknowledged that the first tree ordination, wherein a tree not already considered sacred was wrapped in saffron-colored cloth and given monastic vows, was performed in Thailand in 1988 by the monk Phrakhru Manas Natheepitak of Wat Bodharma in Phayao Province, Northern Thailand. Phrakhru Manas arrived at the idea after hearing the story of two highway workers who had been forced to cut down a bodhi tree, and thereafter were beset with misfortune.[1]

Venerable Keeranthidiye Pannasekera Thero and several environmental activists ordinated the giant “Dun” tree located along the Baduraliya-Kukulegama road in 1997 which was suppose to cut down for the road expansion for the Kukule hydropower project.  Venerable Dr. Balaharuwe Sirisumana Thero and the farmer organisations and with the support of CEJ ordinated the giant ‘Red Sandalwood’ tree in the Badulla town in 2008 when the Municipal council decided cut it down for the road expansion.  Two trees still standing and offer shade to every one passes and refuge to other living being.

Every tree is a “bodhi” 

Lord Buddha said, that "A tree is a wonderful living organism which gives shelter, food, warmth and protection to all living things. It even gives shade to those who wield an axe to cut it down" .
Primitive man had the highest regard for the trees because in his view it was another living being. In Buddhist thinking like a being, the tree also has a soul and thus it could, when hurt or damaged, feel pain, or even bleed. Buddhism and Hindu religions believe that 33 Crore ( 330 million) of gods, goddess and deities are in the world and among them some are living in the big trees. People sometimes make small shrines under the trees to worship them. Some also believes that the spirits of our ancestors are also living on the trees. Banyan trees are commonly believes as such sprit trees.

We all know that no one ever try to axe the sacred “Bo” tree or even a branch for any purpose since Gauthama Budda attained Nibbana under a ‘Asathu Bo’ tree. The term bo or bodhi is used by Buddhists to imply two distinct meanings: in a narrow sense, it implies the Bo Tree (Ficus religiosa) tree under which the last of the Buddhas, Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment. In a broad sense, it implies any tree under which a Buddha has attained enlightenment. 

The most historical and most venerated tree is the Sri Maha Bodhi located in Anuradhapura. Any other Bo tree is believed to be treated on the similar way. Twenty eight Buddhas that we believe sat under different trees when they attained enlightenment. Ruk Atthana, Kaela, Pulila, Neralu, Sal, Na, Kumbuk, Murutha, Kiripalu, Bak Mee, Una, Sapu, Rath Karaw, Kinihiri, Kohomba, Nelli, Palol,  Atamba, Mara, Dimbul, Nuga, and Asathu are the trees that gave shade to 28 Buddha’s [2] to attain enlightenment. It is widely believe that none of these trees should be cut down similar to the ‘Bo’ Tree.  

A Buddhist monk is prohibited from cutting down a tree or having a tree cut down not only because it has life but because it could also be the abode of a deity. The Vinaya Pitaka, the Book of the Discipline, which lays down rules for the proper behaviour of monks, states specifically that there is an offence of expiation, pacittiya, for the destruction of vegetable growth, by which is meant five different kinds of propagation: what is propagated from roots, from stems, from joints, from cuttings and from seeds. [3]

Ancient Buddha followers also practiced the principle of ‘no harm to the trees’ unless the felling of a tree or cutting of a branch is necessary.  They followed the strict rituals and urged the deities and animals in the trees to move away before cut the tree and burn the forest for cultivation. 

Similarly, in the old days in Thailand when certain big trees were required for the making of the traditional royal barge or posts for the tall roof of a royal pire, an offering was made and a royal proclamation was read to the spirit before it could be cut down. This was a wise practice to preserve big trees of the forest from wanton felling by the simple folk.

In that sense the massive destruction of the forest is a modern practice and not in line with the buddhist beliefs.

Ordination of a tree

In the modern society where money has become the only determination, people look at forest as a ‘land’ and the tree as ‘timber’. There we loose all our buddhist beliefs on the nature, forest and trees. This very problem is the main reason for all the natural disaster we face today.

If one has to reverse the trend, there is no other solution than returning to our ancient practices and respecting to the religions. Among the religions Buddhism is more close to the forest and the trees. A tree is a symbol of altruism. It doesn’t expect anything, which it provides the other living being and the nature. In the modern culture humans has very little or no respect in return. Therefore, it is important to bring the ancient belief on the forest and trees.

One can ask whether ordination of a tree is the right approach and a right ritual according to the Buddhism. Thai Buddhist Monk Achan Chah once said, “They ask, “Then are you an arahant?” Do I know? I am like a tree in a forest, full of leaves, blossoms and fruit. Birds come to eat and nest, and animals seek rest in its shade. Yet the tree does not know itself. It follows its own nature. It is as it is.” (Ajahn Chah, A Tree in a Forest)[4]

Therefore one can say that every tree is an ‘Arhat’. In that circumstances we don’t want to ask the question whether wrapping a robe around the tree trunk is an acceptable ritual.  Although we were not needed to remind people that every tree is a sacred tree in the ancient society, we have to constantly remind people that tree need to be respected and worthy for worshiping.

Therefore the notion of the ordination of a tree is a timely ritual to bring back. The tree ordination, adapted from a traditional Buddhist ritual, to build villagers' and nations commitment to protect the trees from unending development is the way to live longer and respect to the rights of the other living being.
It also denoted the basic rights such as right to life, right to nature. It also respect the Sri Lankan constitution section 28.f which states that “The exercise and enjoyment of rights and freedoms is inseparable from the performance of duties and obligations, and accordingly it is the duty of every person in Sri Lanka -(d) to preserve and protect public property, and to combat misuse and waste of public property; (e) to respect the rights and freedoms of others; and (f) to protect nature and conserve its riches.
We have given the pledge during the tree ordination that;

“Nilgala Forest which gives shade water, coolness and air with no benefit will offer to the ‘Buddha Sasana’ to be protected as long as the sun and moon prevails. 

We admit the equal rights of the human and other living being to the forest and agree to consume the fruits and other things that can be taken without destroying the trees and the creepers.

We understand that any damage to the Nilgala medicinal plant forest created by King Buddddasa ( 397 A.D) of the Anuradhapura Era is a sin which will affect in this life and also put us in the hell in the end of this life.

Our children and we will become the protectors of this forest as the forest deities and the souls of our ancestors protect this forest.

We pledge to protect all the large and small trees living in this forest that ordained from now on. We know that harming the ordained is a great sin.”

Instead of elites and officials protecting the forest from commoners, now it is the commoners who had to protect the forest from the encroaching elites and powerful land grabbers. Instead of picking trees to be felled, the villagers now picking trees to be saved.

Let the trees remain standing and serve the nature because they are ordained now. “Thou shall not cut these trees.”

[1] Avery Morrow,Tree Ordination as Invented tradition http://asianetworkexchange.org/index.php/ane/article/viewFile/11/6

3  Prof J. B. Dissanayake, What Buddhists believe about the Bodhi Tree "Thou Shalt not cut this Tree!" http://srimahabodhi.org/disanayaka.htm

4 http://www.dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=2622