If a tree falls .... a monk's blessing for Thailand's forest

Steve Magagnini

The Amicus Journal
Vol.16 No.2 (Summer 1994)

COPYRIGHT Natural Resources Defense Council 1994

            Phra Prajak Kuttajitto strides barefoot through the cool forest he 
            calls home until he comes to a giant teak tree. Then the monk with 
            laughing eyes cloaks the majestic teak in saffron monk's robes and 
            whispers a Buddhist blessing. 
            This gentle, pious act in the remote woods 250 miles northeast of 
            Bangkok has accomplished what environmentalists, lawyers, and 
            politicians could not--Prajak says it has stopped, at least 
            temporarily, the destruction of these forests. 
            Thirty years ago, most of Thailand was moist and thick with forests. 
            But private and military interests raped the majestic Thai teak 
            trees for profit, turning them into boards and furniture for export 
            to Japan and Europe. Today only a quarter of this once-lush country 
            is forest. Without trees to hold moisture, Thailand has endured 
            deadly floods and terrible droughts. 
            Despite the pretense of "free" elections, Thailand is a military 
            dictatorship, and dissent is not tolerated. Prajak, a renegade monk 
            who has lived in the woods for fifteen years, raised a ruckus that 
            reverberated throughout Thailand when he began ordaining thousands 
            of acres of trees in 1987 as "children of Buddha," and girded some 
            of the tallest teaks in monks' robes. Other forest monks followed 
            Prajak has been branded a spiritual outlaw by traditional Buddhists 
            who think monks should keep their noses out of politics. But he has 
            little patience for high-living city monks who cozy up to Thailand's 
            military government and sell blessings to those in search of winning 
            lottery tickets. "The forest is the source of everything in the 
            world, the dharma, the natural law," Prajak says. "It is the 
            university of our life and understanding, the place where Buddha 
            first had a revelation. Monks first came into existence in the 
           Ordainment works because many people are afraid to chop down the 
            "holy" trees and arouse the wrath of Buddha. After Prajak ordained 
            his first teak, the villagers took white thread used in Buddhist 
            ceremonies and tied it from tree to tree, creating a sacred space. 
            "There are plenty of people who believe there are spirits living in 
            the trees and if you cut them, something evil will happen," says 
            Prajak in his high, melodious voice. "The military used to pay poor 
            villagers to cut the logs down for them; after the ordination, 
            people refused to do that any more." 
            Prajak, fifty-three, has become a folk hero through his battle to 
            keep Thailand's forests out of the hands of profiteers and preserve 
            them for millions of poor peasants who have lived among the trees 
            for generations. 
            About 10 percent of Thailand's 300,000 monks live in the forest. 
            Prajak and some twenty disciples live on a remote fringe of Dong Yai 
            forest, about sixty-five rugged miles south of Khorat, a city in 
            northeast Thailand that is four hours by car from Bangkok. 
            The once-dense woods were being thinned by clearcutting for 
            farmland, but in 1987 Prajak got the neighboring villagers to donate 
            a large chunk of forest to the monks, who had it declared a 
            religious sanctuary. Here he established the "waters of Buddha" 
            monastery, which consists of a couple of straw-roof huts, a well, an 
            outhouse, and a temple that is nothing more than an open-air wooden 
            platform on stilts. 
           Prajak and his followers, ages thirteen to seventy-five, live 
            among roosters, dogs, sparrows, and orange-and-violet butterflies. 
            Every summer evening at dusk, the forest buzzes like a motorcycle 
            gang on take-off. The high-revving roar is produced by a single 
            insect--the cicada. But the noise doesn't keep young monks from 
            seeking enlightenment at Prajak's wat (temple). 
            Prajak leads them in meditation from six to nine at night, and again 
            from three to six A.M. Then his morning monk patrol combs the forest 
            to make sure no trees are being cut down illegally. 
            Thirty years ago, the Thai government encouraged poor villagers to 
            clearcut trees to plant tapioca, corn, and other crops for profit. 
            In 1988, after mud slides flowed down denuded hills in northern 
            Thailand and claimed more than one hundred lives, all logging was 
            officially banned in Thailand. However, trees are still being cut 
            down by villagers and soldiers, Prajak says. A single teak tree 
            brings $8,000--a fortune to villagers used to only $200 a year, he 
            remarks, pointing to a large swath of national forest preserve 
            twenty miles from Dong Yai Forest that has recently been slashed and 
            "If they continue to cut all the trees, the well will soon go dry 
            and there will be no water left in the watershed," he says. "By 
            indiscriminately cutting, people are destroying their own future." 
            He points to the shiny layer of morning dew that carpets the forest 
            and says, "This is how nature planned it. Over by the so-called 
            'eucalyptus forest' !planted by the government^ the ground is hard 
            and packed. It's just a bunch of eucalyptus trees. It's not a 
            These eucalyptus trees were planted by the government as part of its 
            controversial "reforestation" program. In 1991, the military--in the 
            name of "reforestation"--began moving villagers off their farms. The 
            plan was to uproot nearly 5 million villagers living and farming on 
            the fringes of national forests. Once the villagers were cleared 
            out, the government planned to chop down some of the remaining teak 
            trees and replace them with fast-growing bamboo and eucalyptus, 
            which would be used to make pulp and paper products. 
            "More than 12 million people live in national forests, and not more 
            than 40,000 have been moved," says Kuwalairit Paisal, a high-ranking 
            official in the Royal Forestry Department. Those who moved 
            voluntarily were promised two acres of land elsewhere. 
            But some of the farmers were given half an hour to move, and entire 
            villages were wiped out, including Nong Yai, a hamlet of 400 
            families about an hour from Prajak's forest monastery. 
            "People had been living there for thirty-one years," said Sangian 
            Pringkatok, a sixty-four-year-old rice and corn farmer. "We had our 
            own temple and our own temple school. They showed up in the morning 
            and said get out. They arrested twenty people and started bulldozing 
            the village. Even the temple was knocked down. Everything I had was 
            right there. I feel angry, frustrated, and an overwhelming sense of 
            The Nong Yai villagers have been forced to live in a makeshift 
            wooden shelter. "We've been here for ten months already," says 
            Sompkit Sumongkasert, clutching her five-month-old son, Amnuay. "He 
            was born right here on the floor." The villagers wash in a polluted 
            stream near their shelter, eat canned food, and scrounge for odd 
            "Phra Prajak has helped a lot of people change their opinions about 
            themselves," says Pringatok. "He's really improved the quality of 
            our lives and given us hope." To help villagers escape the yoke of 
            usury, Prajak set up a "buffalo bank" and a "rice bank" with donated 
            money. Farmers borrowed buffalo to till their fields, then gave the 
            buffalos' offspring back to the bank. They borrowed rice, then gave 
            a portion of their rice crop to the temple, which used it to feed 
            the elderly. 
            Prajak taught the villagers meditation and self-reliance. As he 
            built them up spiritually, their alcoholism rate--driven up during 
            the forced relocation--dropped. 
            And Prajak also made headlines. In 1992, he was arrested twice while 
            leading protesting peasants who had been kicked off their land for 
            "reforestation." For two years he made weekly trips to provincial 
            courthouses in Khorat and Buriram--each a four-hour round-trip from 
            his forest wat--to face charges stemming from the arrests. 
            "When people can become so greedy and power-hungry as to arrest a 
            monk in the forest who's not harming anybody, it's a sad state of 
            affairs," he says now. "People are so busy trying to control others 
            because they can't control themselves." 
            On August 4, 1993, in Buriram Provincial Court, Phra Prajak was 
            found guilty of two counts of "encroachment of national parks" and 
            sentenced to eighteen months in prison. But in a remarkable move, 
            Chief Judge Chaiyuth Srichamnong suspended Prajak's sentence on the 
            grounds that the conservationist monk had done a good deed for the 
            country. "He has never done anything wrong before this. He has a 
            clean record," said the judge. "He helped villagers grow plants, 
            grow trees." 
            And last year, Prajak won a tremendous victory when the Thai 
            government suspended the entire reforestation program. 
            "We have a long history with Phra Prajak," says Paisal, the Royal 
            Forestry Department official. "Now he is powerful because local 
            people respect him." 
            Paisal said Thailand is now 27 percent forest, and "the government 
            plans to increase the forest to 40 percent." Much of the new forest 
            will be teak, while about a third of it will be "economic" species 
            such as eucalyptus, which Paisal said will only be planted in the 
            poor soil of northeastern Thailand. 
            Phra means venerable, but Prajak wasn't always thus. He was born in 
            a town sixty-five miles north of Bangkok, where "the land and forest 
            were so rich the only thing we had to buy was salt," he says. At 
            sixteen, he became a houseboy for some American engineers and 
            learned a little English. He married and had five children, and 
            became a waiter and cook at a resort hotel in Pattaya. He drank and 
            rolled dice with Chinese workers, but one Chinese New Year's he lost 
            1000 baht ($40) and only had 500 baht on him. "They stomped on my 
            head and ripped my ear," he says. 
            During his forty-day hospital stay, Prajak resolved to shed his old 
            self and be reborn as a monk. So, at age thirty-eight, he began his 
            wanderings through the forests of Thailand. "My family and friends 
            became very angry at me for throwing away my wife and running away 
            from my responsibilities," he says. "But as I walked I discovered 
            how free I was. I ran across tigers and elephants in the jungle and 
            wasn't afraid. I found a certain peace and calm I didn't have 
            His wife will not speak to him, and his youngest daughter has 
            nothing to do with him. "People said I was crazy and selfish to give 
            up my wife and five children, but now I have millions of children," 
            he says. 
           Every morning, Prajak roams the woods with his dog Blackie. 
            "Charging through the forest like this is good for controlling your 
            moods," he says as he settles on a rock overlooking a vast clearing. 
            Wild pigs, small bears, chickens, rabbits, monkeys, snakes, deer, 
            and the occasional tiger roam Prajak's pristine patch of forest. But 
            if the clearcutting continues, "Dong Yai forest will be all golf 
            courses and plantations," he says. "Ultimately the responsibility 
            lies with the people, the monks themselves who have gone to the 
            cities to comfortable temples and forgotten their roots in the 
            With a caterpillar at home on his shoulder and a giant beehive at 
            work over his head, Prajak asks his guests to consider life in 
            Bangkok, one of the world's most traffic-choked, polluted cities. 
            "Compare that to what it's like here," he says. "Are you calm, is 
            your mind at rest, are you happy here? Then think about being back 
            in Bangkok.... You need to bring people here when they're children 
            and sit them down on this rock and make them part of the forest, 
            have them plant trees and watch them grow. Otherwise you're going to 
            have suffering and death. 
            "I didn't realize how important and vital the forest was until I 
            came here and experienced it for myself. Like most everyone else, I 
            saw the forest in terms of its uses, what you can exploit--wood for 
            homes, or for charcoal. It was a one-sided relationship. 
            "Once I became a monk I came to understand that you can't just take 
            without giving back or it will all dry up and everything will die," 
            he says. 
            In the forest, Prajak gradually gained control over his moods, 
            breathing, and mind. "I looked at my body, my flesh, the meat on my 
            arm and realized it's intrinsically no different than this twig and 
            these leaves--we all die and are reborn. 
            "What these soldiers and police and other people do is not in 
            accordance with what is naturally right and true," he says. "I alone 
            can do nothing--it won't be possible to save the forest through the 
            efforts of just one monk. It's time for people all over the world to 
            realize that what we have is very limited. It's time to focus all 
            our energies on what we have left--it can't wait any longer." 
            Steve Magagnini is a senior writer at The Sacramento Bee.