Forest Sangha Newsletter October 1989

Letting Go is the Greatest Kindness; Ajahn Anando
Walking The Way - Nuns' Tudong; Sister Thanissara
Unlocking Human Potential; Aj's Pabhakaro & Nyanaviro
Question time; Ajahn Sumedho
Extinguishing the Fires of Delusion; Ajahn Puriso



Extinguishing the Fires of Delusion

Wat Kern (The Monastery by the Dam) lies close to the Laotian border in a region of Thailand designated as a "red area", a danger zone where farming and 'monastic settlement is not generally encouraged. Nevertheless, Wat Kern is regarded favourably by forest monks because of its isolation. Ajahn Puriso, who was born in Australia, has been the abbot there for over two years now. In this interview with Ajahn Munindo, recorded earlier this year, he explains the practical difficulties and some of the ethical dilemmas that come up when trying to protect the forest in North-East Thailand.

Ajahn Munindo: Perhaps you could explain how Wat Kern came to be here in the first place.

Ajahn Puriso: In 2512 (1969) the dam was completed, and the waters had started to rise. The animals fleeing the water came into this area - which is about 1,000 acres. There were many more animals here than there would normally be in a forest of this size. So at that time the local people were having a hey day, slaughtering the animals - particularly snakes and wild geese -in great numbers.

Then some villager living nearby who had heard of the forest monasteries of Ajahn Chah invited Ajahn Chah to come here, ostensibly to try and save a Buddha's footprint relic which was in part of the area which was going to be flooded. Ajahn Chah came here to retrieve this Buddha's footprint, which he did. And of course when he came here and saw the forest he thought: "This is a nice place" He saw the untouched pine forest and the high population of wild animals, and he also saw how it was being destroyed. I think he probably suggested that somebody put a monastery here. In any case what eventually happened was, the head of the Forestry Department for the district and the Head of the District invited Ajahn Chah to come and start a monastery here; and the idea was not only to start a monastery but also to protect the forest. This is one of the last remnants of this sort of forest-dry tropical forest.

AM: So how long have you been living here as the abbot? Were you here from the beginning when Ajahn Chah was given the place?

AP: I wasn't here until just five years ago. When Ajahn Chah saw the monastery, he sent one of his disciples - an energetic young monk - who had quite a thriving community here for a while.

Lighting fires is something like a national sport. The forest is something you burn.

AM: Would it be fair to say that if you hadn't been here the forest probably would have disappeared? AP: That would probably not be quite accurate, because if I hadn't been here I'm sure other monks would still have been here and keeping some hold over the place, just by being here. But if there were no monks here, everyone says there would not only be no animals left but no forest left - it would all be turned into fields. So the forest of 1,000 acres has been fenced off. AM: So the forest and the animals would have been destroyed by local inhabitants of the area - its not people coming from outside that are doing the damage. What do they do in the forest? AP: Most of the villagers round here are not the ones destroying the forest. It's usually criminal types, who steal and have no respect for the land or anybody. There has been a lot of antagonism, especially over hunting. They seem to have no real need to keep destroying the forest, but they slash and burn to clear an area, sell it, and start on another area.

After I'd been here a year I saw three main categories of forest destruction going on. There are also many more milder kinds of destruction, which are important, but I decided not to worry about them. I decided to concentrate on three areas.

First, lighting fires - which is something like a national sport. The forest is something you burn. The most damage is done by the burning of great areas of forest at one go - its complete destruction. It's hard to understand, because we live in the city and come to the forest and think it is a lovely place. But the forest to someone who lives in the forest is really an unpleasant place. It is primitive and burning it all down will turn it into nicely organized fields. I have been lost in the forest, and it is an incredibly unpleasant experience - I found it really inhospitable. There are vines which have thorns just waiting on the ground to get your feet ... there are ants .... I've felt like burning it down a few times myself!

The second area is cutting down big trees changing the face of the forest to scrub. They even cut many small trees the thickness of your finger, taking hundreds of them to make grass thatching for their roofs. They'll cut trees the thickness of one's hand or arm - they always pick tall straight ones - and they keep those as a rail to hang their jute on. A lot of this is very wasteful.

The third area is hunting and foraging. They'll burn the forest to make it more accessible and harder for animals to hide; the burning also makes animals run, so they are easier to shoot. They come at night and shoot these little flying squirrels, called "gliders" twenty to thirty in one night - to sell them. So the hunting and a lot of their activities are not for the survival of these peoples; they can get by without.

When they come and look for fruit in the forest, they will cut the whole tree down just to get the fruit -no idea how to preserve it at all. I remember last year a big tree was cut and it fell right across the main road to the monastery. The reason it was cut down was to get a bees' nest at the top of it. Sometimes they'll burn the forest to go in to find bees' nests or get resin out of certain trees - they will get the bees or resin but, not put the fires out!

AM: So how do you actually go about protecting the forest? One person can't police the whole forest.

AP: It's never been just one man; the monks all assume it as part of their responsibility. The main work we have to do is putting out fires, which is quite a heavy responsibility. The equipment is basically a beater - a long bit of bamboo with three lengths of fan belt attached to it - with which you smother the fire. Alternatively, there are water tanks and water pumps.

Every year the monks have to fight fires, and in the height of the hot season, it's about 103 degrees F. You crawl back to your kuti [hut] after a meal and rest for a while - its so hot. Then you have to go out and fight a fire for a couple of hours; then you might rest for a while; then there's another fire, and you come back about dusk, have a bath before evening meditation; then there is another fire. It's very hard to just endure, it's very unpleasant. Last year it was the worst year for monks having to fight fires - we had, to go out every day for quite a long period. At that time there were actually eight monks and all the monks felt they had to chicken-out, it was such a difficult thing to do.

Most damage was done last year - half the area of the forest was burnt down and a lot of other damage was done as well. The fires here often sweep through and damage the leaf coverage of the forest floor. The rain too is so extreme: there is no rain at all until May not one drop until May and the fires start in January. When I saw that, I thought, "This is the turning point." I could see much more clearly than in other years how the area was changing from dense forest to scrub. So I decided we needed help.

The second year I was here we'd had a lot of trees being cut and we only had four to five monks at that time. So I had the water patrol police come and stay: I gave them one of the kutis and they stayed there for three months. They hardly had to do anything at all. It was just their presence here - there was no hunting or tree cutting for the whole three months. So I could see that was one way to get good results. People are not afraid of the monks - if they are caught doing anything, the worst they can get is upbraided. If it's the border patrol police they might get arrested or life made generally unpleasant for them - their guns might get confiscated - so they just stop coming.

Fortunately there were some lay people who made an offering here - a lady whose husband was a Colonel, so I asked her if we could have the Army here to help. The Head of the Army for this Province came down with officials from the District, and they sent some National Guards. They're staying here now. We've had very good results.

AM: I see you're also training Alsatian dogs to go round and check on poachers. Does that bring up anything negative from the village people?

AP: I don't think there's any animosity. Although I'm going to be building a wall - walling people off from the monastery - I don't think it causes that much negativity among the villagers because they will have built the wall themselves and made money, which will bring them prosperity. They have a hard time trying to find any work.

AM: It clearly needs money to build these things and to take these measures. How is the monastery supported if it's not by the local people?

AP: Most of the financial support of course comes from Bangkok. As you know, all monasteries are supported by donations. This monastery is regarded as being very remote and uninviting generally, and so when they see a Western monk staying here for five years ...

AM: Do you use the teaching to educate the people and bring about a sense of responsibility for the dwindling forests of Thailand?

AP: Yes, it's something I've had to contemplate for some time, because there is very little sense of conservation at the moment. The forest is something you burn. I recognize this attitude - you can't say it's actually wrong, but you can try to point out the causes and effects.

At one time the population was not very big and the forest was huge, so they could snatch a bit of forest and leave no serious effect. But now there are a lot of people and not much forest the whole situation has changed completely,so they have to change their attitude.

Buddhism does not have a specific teaching for conservation, because at the time of the Buddha there were no conservation problems. There is no direct teaching about conservation except loving kindness and compassion. I tend to teach about being more heedful - the opposite of thinking: "Here I am, born in this world, and I'll get what I want - nobody shall stand in my way." So it's getting across the idea of asking, "Where do I come from, how can I manage to live on this planet Earth, .... How many forces are there, how many conditions are necessary for me to be here?"

"Where does your body come from? If you have a strong body, it's because mother and father had good genes, gave you good food, so these are the results of causes...." This is something we can talk to villagers about. Then I say this can be applied also to Mother Earth. Everything we are is just a reflection of our attitudes, how we think and behave. The West is clever with science, making things grow faster by use of fertilizers, but is Nature really something separate from us that we can manipulate to our own ends? In actuality we are part of Nature. So if we are treating Nature with lack of respect, we are destroying our own environment, and that will assuredly backfire.

So that's what I talk about in Dhamma talks. Everywhere I go now I make it part of a talk, and because it's a new idea people sit and listen to it, not having considered it before. There is a sutta in the Buddhist scriptures where the Buddha speaks very positively about the planting of trees, and the benefit of digging wells - providing water for others.

AM: Is this also something you aim to do? AP: Yes. I've had a plan to start re-planting - to get some rubber trees. We've planted these in North-East, Thailand, and they grow quite quickly and they don't deplete the soil. They planted eucalyptus trees in the past, and they are finding out now that they deplete the soil quite a lot. Rubber trees are shady, succulent trees but they are too expensive for villagers to buy - so we thought of perhaps planting a test area, then letting the villagers come and get their cuttings from there. We'd have to see how well they grow. Other monasteries are doing that. Some have acquired many acres of land around existing monasteries. Setting up monasteries is an ideal way to protect the forest.

AM: From the latest developments in the relations between Thailand and Laos, it seems that you are going to share electricity with your local power generator here, and they want to cut a huge tract of land right through the middle of the forest to carry the electricity. How are you negotiating with the authorities concerned with this project?

AP: What's happened is that they want to erect some high power lines which will come through the monastery. At first I was disappointed, but we had a professor and a journallist here from the West visiting, and when they learned of this, they said I should do something about it. I recognized this, but felt I was not going to got into a large campaign with newspapers, rallying and demonstrations - things a monk should not be getting involved with. I wanted to do it in my own quiet way.

So I got in touch with a lady I knew, stating the case and saying I would appreciate it if the authorities would reconsider the path and find a different route. I was very mild and diplomatic, having no strong hopes of success - I'd just do the best I could. The lady who read the letter considered it worth doing something, so she wrote an official letter to the head of the judicial department asking them to help out the monastery as best they could....

Conservation, however, is still little thought about, except when there are national disasters. Logging companies should get formal permission to log certain areas, but on occasion they have been logging in an area where they shouldn't have been, leaving buffer zones but otherwise logging right, left and centre. So when the rain started washing down the hillside, the huge logs were also washed down, smashing into people's houses. It was a national disaster in which about 800 people died. It was seen that it was caused by timber companies, so now there has been a ban on logging all over Thailand.

I've been trying to get Wat Kern recognized as an official monastery for over four years now - it takes a long time. Part of the trouble is, that it is such a huge area of the Forestry Department's land. (I've a sneaking feeling it's also to do with the logging companies.) According to the law, the monastery can ask for about seven acres of this piece of Forestry Department's land, then the entire forest falls under monastery protection. It's almost like leaving the land alone for a period of time - say, thirty years. But that kind of arrangement is out of favour now, and the latest idea is to make a Buddhist Park. In this setup the monastery could actually build kutis in the area, and be recognized as a park or sanctuary.

The planters of groves and fruitful trees,
and they who build causeways and dams,
and wells construct, and watering-sheds,
and (to the homeless) shelter give:
of such as these, by day - by night,
Forever merit give."
Kindred Sayings, Vol. I