Phra Boonsong, a Buddhist monk and the son of a gardener, is head of the Phranon Wat (temple) in southern central Thailand. He is spearheading a drive to make Thailand's Buddhist institutions environmental leaders in society and also to demonstrate new ways of increasing the fish population in the inland waterways and restoring tree cover chiefly through massive fruit tree planting.
The New Idea
Perhaps the two most powerful ideas in the world's evolving environmental movement are: (1) that the world cannot be saved by parks, i.e., that ecological stability can only come through a sustainable meshing of human and all other life, and (2) that environmental commitment and religious responsibility are closely related. (Both truths are probably easier for Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of related religions to grasp than is true for followers of the Judeo-Christian religions because the former do not make the sharp distinction between human and the rest of existence that the latter do.)Phra Boonsong is showing how both these fundamental ideas can become part of Thailand's everyday life. He's charting a new role for the monks and the Wats -- ministering to both the basic life needs of the villagers they serve and to the health of the entire sphere of life around them through applied, new forms of leadership. By providing this leadership, Buddhist institutions and faith will be strengthened. The people will be richer, nature strengthened, and harmony between them increased.Phra Boonsong's first major innovation was to turn the portion of Tha Chin River flowing in front of his Wat into a protected sanctuary for fish. Appealing to traditional Buddhist doctrine that prohibits killing anywhere within the boundaries of a Wat, he declared this portion of the river a "redemption area" or "pardon zone" for all water animals.He then began to build up the fish population there, eventually finding a way to do so on a large-scale at no cost to the Wat by giving visitors the opportunity to purchase fish food or small loaves of bread to throw out on the water. As each handful of feed or loaf hits the water, suddenly the surface becomes one solid mass of silver fish, so much so that one could imagine walking across the river given an armful of loaves. The government's fisheries staff estimates that there are 100,000 fish living and breeding in front of Wat Phranon. More than the fish are delighted -- fishermen and villagers well outside the pardon zone prosper and once again have more protein in their diets as a result.This success helped Phra Boonsong persuade the national government to enact laws empowering Wats all over the country to establish similar pardon zones, which its officials will then enforce vis-a-vis anyone who would ignore the Wat's moral suasion. Over 100 Wats have already followed Phra Boonsong's lead.Now this gardener's son is increasingly turning his attention to the land as well as the water. He envisions a landscape that is now flat rice paddies once again developing a healthy tree cover. In the process, again, he seeks to benefit the villagers as well. With modern transport, fruits should be more profitable and not much less secure than rice. His new forest will have many different species and grafted subspecialties to enhance both habitual diversity and a flow of income across the seasons. He's working especially to develop locally adopted species that will produce before or after the usual season in order to garner premium profits.His approach seeks national, safe forms of cultivation that minimizes the use of risky, high cost chemicals. It also helps farmers develop improved, appropriate forms of irrigation.The Wat is the center of this regional effort every bit as much as it is for the program to protect and multiply fish. It is doing much of the early experimenting with species, grafting modifications, and working out economics. It sparks the villagers organizations that are needed, and it provides demonstrations, training, seedbags, and extension. Finally, the Wat also helps build environmental consciousness around these projects. Once people have a stake in a clean, safe environment (e.g., in the fish) and once they understand how pollution threatens that stake, and especially if they see their work as having hard religious environmental as well as economic significance, suddenly a powerful insistent mass environmental constituency is born.
Is man the exploiter of or the trustee for life and the broader universe? There are few more central questions our species must decide as we take increasing power and increasingly conscious power into our own hands.What are the values that will guide us as we grapple with this challenge? In what time dimension will we think about it? Because we have not decided and also because we still understand so little, a lot is going wrong. In Phra Boonsong's part of our world, some of these human/natural breakdowns are already serious.The waterways across much of Thailand are sick. An explosive growth in the use of agricultural chemicals, which flow from one rice paddy to the next and into the rivers, and a host of other toxic pollutants are poisoning the aquatic food chain (including end-of-the-chain humans). Disruption of normal flooding prevents baby fish swimming into the rice fields and feeding there. Yields are declining. Lower yields and more months mean serious protein loss. The fact that these waterways are used for irrigation, bathing and drinking further increases the risks.Nor is the land doing much better. The intense doses of chemicals kill many necessary forms of life, from insect-controlling birds to the soil's microorganisms. The lack of tree cover also discourages the birds and increases the danger of erosion. The loss of natural flooding denies the land of its historic regular enrichment with new silt.
Phra Boonsong's approach begins with working his ideas out practically at Wat Phranon and then spreading the proven results in the Wat's immediate area. Both phases entail a great deal of empirical research, first with whatever techniques are required and then with how to help local people understand and take advantage of the new innovation.Once he's developed his ideas at this level, he turns to the challenge of making them the new pattern in that region of Thailand and nationally. He's learned how to deal with the forces of Thai society, from the palace to local village committees.Although he has more developmental work to do with his fruit tree afforestation idea, it is far enough along that he's now thinking how to begin spreading it beyond his Wat's region. How can he most effectively be a multi-species Johnny Appleseed for Thailand?One element of the answer is clear: he wants Buddhist monks and institutions to play an important role. They have the respect and trust of the villagers. They have the land and intellectual capacity to lead. It's important for Buddhism to take on such modern service roles. He regularly works with other monks and Wats, and he's in touch with many of the faith's leadership.Much of his work over the next several years is to find and implement the most promising ways. He is, typically, thinking without blinders. Thus, noting that conditions in the far northeast are significantly different from his region, he's thinking about spending a good part of his time there in the future.
Phra Boonsong, born in 1941, has been a member of the Sangha, or Buddhist priesthood, for over 20 years. The son of a gardener and farmer, Phra Boonsong benefits from a strong personal base of experience in agriculture.After he finished his apprenticeship as a monk, during which his leadership qualities became apparent, in 1972 Phra Boonsong was invited to come to Phranon Wat. The Wat was in a weakened condition, and the area was suffering environmentally--and the local people responsible for finding new leadership knew they needed someone with his qualities.Gradually he learned the area's problems and developed his philosophy and approach. Gradually the Wat began to prosper and people to notice his innovations. Over the last years of the 1980s he began to make spreading his new approaches an important part of his work. He learned how to move government, to use the press, and to win over other Wats and areas.He's now starting his biggest challenge--moving his practical ways of harmonizing humans and nature across the country and, probably beyond as well. His primary areas now spread well beyond the Suphan Buree area where he's developed his vision and its concrete tools.