The story of Tree ordination in Sri Lanka
“Thou shall not cut these trees” – they are ordained now
Buddhist monks chanting “Pirith, Kesha, Loma, Nacha, Dantha, Tacho” wrapped the trees with saffron and red color robes and ordinated 1000 trees, while local community members and environmentalists chanted “Saadoo, Saadoo, Saadoo”. Tree ordination is the practice of recognising the sacred nature of trees by ordinating (or consecrating/ sanctifying) them by blessing them and wrapping them in traditional monks’ robes. 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.
Urge Sri Lankan authorities to strengthen environmental protection for this precious area.
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 a range of environmental organizations participated in the event. Muslim religious leaders from the area also joined the event. The Centre for Environmental Justice (CEJ)/ Friends of the Earth Sri Lanka initiated this tree ordination ritual in order to highlight the massive forest destruction of the Nilgala forest.
A history of tree ordination
Symbolic tree ordination is a ritual initiated by Ecology Monks (Phra Nak Anuraksa), a group of Thai Buddhist Monks. It has also been practiced by Cambodian, Vietnamese and Burmese monks in the last two and a half decades. On the surface, tree ordination is presented to the world environmentalist movement as a clever and original idea, using the widely respected symbol of monastic robes to make loggers hesitate to cut down trees. It combines the pre-Buddhist values of spirit worship, the Buddhist values of respecting 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. 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 be cut down to make way for the road expansion for the Kukule hydropower project. Venerable Dr. Balaharuwe Sirisumana Thero and several farmers’ organisations, with the support of CEJ, ordinated the giant ‘Red Sandalwood’ tree in Badulla town in 2008 when the Municipal council decided to cut it down to expand a nearby road.
Every tree is a “bodhi”
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 trees, because in his view it was another living being. In Buddhist thinking the tree also has a soul like other living beings and thus it could, when hurt or damaged, feel pain, or even bleed. Buddhism and Hinduism believe that there are 330 million gods, goddess and deities in the world and some of them are living in big trees.
People sometimes make small shrines under trees to worship them. Some also believe that the spirits of our ancestors are also living in ancient trees. Banyan trees are commonly believed to be such sprit trees.
Since Guathama Buddha attained Nibbana (or Nirvana) under a bo (or bodhi) tree, these trees are never harmed or chopped down. 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 venerated tree is the Sri Maha Bodhi located in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
It is believed that as many as twenty eight Buddhas were sitting under different types of tree when they attained enlightenment  . Like the bo tree, it is widely believed that none of these trees should be cut down.
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, describes the destruction of vegetable growth (meaning five different kinds of propagation – what is propagated from roots, from stems, from joints, from cuttings and from seeds ) is an offence requiring pacittiya (or expiation/ amends)
Ancient followers of Buddha followers also practiced the principle of ‘no harm to the trees’ unless the felling of a tree or cutting of a branch is absolutely necessary. They followed strict rituals and urged deities and animals in the trees to move away before cutting trees or burning forest to make way 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 had to be made and a royal proclamation read to the spirit before the tree could be cut down. This was a wise practice to preserve big trees 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 Buddhist beliefs.
Ordination of a tree
In modern society where money has become the only measure of value, people look at forest as ‘land’ and trees as ‘timber’. All Buddhist beliefs about nature, forest and trees are being lost. This loss of respect and sanctity for nature is the main reason for all the man-made environmental disasters we face today.
A tree is a symbol of altruism. It doesn’t expect anything, but it provides for other living beings and for nature. In modern culture humans have very little or no respect for trees in return. Therefore, it is important to revive ancient beliefs about forests and trees. One can ask whether ordination of a tree is the right approach and a ‘proper’ Buddhist ritual. Thai Buddhist Monk Achan Chah once said, “They ask, “Then are you an arahant [or Arhat – meaning one who has attained enlightenment]?” 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)” Arguably every tree is an ‘Arhat’.
The notion of the ordination of a tree is a timely ritual to bring back respect and sanctity for nature. Tree ordination builds villages’ and nations’ commitments to protect trees from unending development.
We pledge to protect all the large and small trees living in this forest. We know that harming the ordained is a great sin. Instead of elites and officials protecting the forest from commoners, as in ancient times, now it is the commoners who must protect the forest from the encroaching elites and powerful land grabbers. Instead of picking trees to be felled, the villagers now pick trees to be saved.
Let the trees remain standing and serve 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
2 Walter Wijenayaka, Ata Visi Budhuvaru – The 28 Buddhas http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-‐details&page=article-‐ details&code_title=51122
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
Hemantha Withanage 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 Friends of the Earth International and the Convenor of the NGO Forum on ADB.