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Village Buddhist Monks in Laos Initiate Environmentally-Aware Development

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By Toung Eh Synuanchanh

This article is the 19th in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.

BEUNGSANTHUENG, Laos (IDN) – A quiet revolution is taking shape in rural Laos, where environmentally-conscious village Buddhist monks are teaching people morality and meditation to spearhead a movement mobilising the people to economically develop their communities for living in harmony with nature rather than destroying it in the name of development.

At the Ban Beungsanthueng community, in Nongbok District in Khammouane Province of Laos, about 400 km south of the capital Vientiane, monks educate the villagers in Sila (Buddhist morality) and the way to live a good life (Right Livelihood), while protecting the environment. In this nominally communist country, the monks explain the linkage between humans and nature to villagers, and its importance to their livelihoods and well-being.

“Inviting the villager to practise meditation and observe five or eight precepts is the process of preparing their mind before initiating any activities … awakens them to realising the impact of their activities or practice on the environment and also the impacts on their daily lives and well-being,” explains Phra Phithak Somphong of the local village temple here.

Phra Phithak is one of the monks who had been trained by the Buddhism for Development Project (BDP) of the Lao Buddhist Fellowship Organisation (LBFO) for the purpose of engaging in grassroots development work. The monk started the work soon after completing his training in Vientiane in 2013 and began by inviting villagers to observe Buddhist precepts and practise vipassana (mindful) meditation every full moon (holy) day. He inculcates Buddhist morality in the villagers, including children and youth.

The monk points out that this practice follows the Buddha style of teaching or training (Buddha witheenaikarnsone).

Meanwhile, he has formed a villagers’ Buddhist Volunteer Spirit for Community group with children, youth and adults included in the group. Activities include cleaning the village access road, road reparations, production of compost or non-chemical fertiliser for agriculture, pilot organic gardening, reforestation, conservation and ecological protection.

Over the centuries, Buddhism has been linked with development in Laos. Buddhism was introduced to the country and promoted in the era of King Fangum Maharaja in the 14th century, when the Lao Lanxang Kingdom (Kingdom of the Million Elephants) was united. Since then, Buddhist temples have played a vital role as education centres (temple schools or hong hien wat) and Buddhist monks have continued to play an educational role up to today.

Furthermore, Buddhist monks in Laos significantly supported the process of gaining and declaring the independence of Laos from France and also the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). They helped to impart spirituality and arouse people to join the process of fighting for Lao independence.

After the founding of Lao PDR on December 2, 1975 at the end of the Indo-China war, the role of Buddhist monks in development appeared to diminish. But, Buddhist values remained embedded in Lao people’s lifestyle, tradition and culture, and monks continued to play their educator’s role.

Monks have understood their role to stay at their temples to learn and practise Dhamma (Buddhist teachings) and disciplines, accept the invitation of lay people for religious activities (rituals) in order to relieve spiritual sufferings and accept offerings to meet their basic needs, such as clothing, food, accommodation and medicines.

This community role makes a psychological impact on people’s minds, and encourages people to pursue and cultivate Buddhist practices like loving-kindness, compassion and mindfulness which promote social harmony and peace.

Nevertheless, this alone cannot respond to the rapid changes and social context that affects people’s mind and their well-being. Therefore, the Sangha (Buddhist order of monks) in Laos had to rethink their roles. They realised that it was their duty to become involved in the development process in order to help Lao people obviate their sufferings. From a Buddhist point of view, social issues that affect people’s well-being are considered as sufferings.

Degradation of the environment is one reason for this suffering, and monks and villagers have agreed that they will use the sacred forest, the great ancestor’s spirit dwelling villagers call “Don Hor”, as an area for protection and conservation.

Due to the fact that people in the village believe in Buddhism along with their ancestor spirit, monks and villagers began by negotiating their needs and intentions with the ancestor spirit or “Pu Ta Yaphaw” through the persons who act as mediums known as “Jum Ban” and “Nang Thiem” (the Sharman). These people play a vital spiritual role in the village in communicating with the Pu Ta.

“The monks and villagers came to me and asked me to communicate with the Pu Ta to ask for his permission to take his area – Don Hor – for reforestation activities and as a protected and conservation area,” explains the village Jum Ban. “The Pu Ta gave them permission and allowed them to plant trees whenever they want. On the day of demarcation, the Pu Ta borrowed and possessed my body and he then pointed to where the monks and villagers could put posts to demarcate the area.”

This is how tradition and modern environmentalism merge. Soon after obtaining permission from the Pu Ta, they began demarcation and held an ordination ritual to ordain the area according to Buddhist ritual in order to protect the forest in the area.

“The reason why we have to protect the land and forest (is) because people are greedy. They do not care about collective or community property; they will seize it if they see their benefits. This initiative will help to prevent the protected area, trees and animals in the area from encroachment, cutting and hunting,” argues Phra Phithak. “Nature is linked to people’s well-being. If we achieve this, it will become a source of food that can be collected all year round, and producing oxygen or fresh air for us to breathe,” he adds.

This follows the Buddhist worldview that all creatures on earth are linked: the human being is also a part of nature, earns a living with nature, and survives because of nature. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 December 2017]

Photo: Monks and nuns taking a Buddhist Volunteer Spirit for Communication training course at the BDP’s Training Center, Wat Nakhoun Noi, Nasaythong District, Vientiane Credit: Toung Eh Synuanchanh.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate

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