Santi Asoke: A Community of Ecological Practice

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  • ABSTRACT

    This paper is an examination and a discussion concerning the sometimes controversial Santi Asoke Buddhist movement. The objectives of this paper are: (1) to analyze the environmental, spiritual and social contributions of the Santi Asoke community, (2) to determine if these practices are congruent with the needs of the natural world as well as the needs of modern Thai society, and (3) to determine to what extent these practices, which are seen outside the mainstream sangha, constitute an applicable modern Buddhist response. We will discover that this community adheres to principles that deeply consider the role and responsibility of the individual Buddhist. In terms of traditional Theravada Buddhism, which is often seen as passive and disconnected from society, the Santi Asoke community operates with an active approach which fully embraces society as integral to spiritual growth. In the conclusion of the paper we will discover that the community’s compassionate methods of waste management, experimental agriculture, education, and models of micro commerce represent some viable and refreshing solutions for the modern spiritual needs of Thai society.


  • KEYWORD

    First precept , Fukuoka (method) , Holistic Intrinsic , Cottage industries.

  • I. Introduction

    At the core of all religion and the greatest source of the vitality of religion, is what lies within its spiritual approach. These approaches can be in the form of ritual, scriptural and social/collective forms of worship. Irregardless of the forms, or specific spiritual approaches, the spiritual practice must be relevant and remain a refuge for the practitioner. It must be able to maintain a firm and sacred place no matter what the circumstances or pressures of modernity and social change. In light of modernity and social change, it must not be so firm that it becomes immovable and difficult to recognize or grasp. Perhaps religion should be something like an anvil which is able to withstand tremendous beatings while shaping and transforming.

    As mentioned, the aspects of spirituality in practice, are varied, rigid and numerous. To explore every facet of Buddhist spirituality would be an ambitious undertaking and would be more suited for a paper that wishes to provide a sweeping or general view of Buddhist spirituality. My aim is therefore focused primarily on the Santi Asoke movement and those spiritual practices which concern society, specifically its treatment of nature or the environment. This is not limited to the physical contact with the soil, but also the crucial spiritual aspects related to conservation and loving kindness. The main thrust of this paper is to determine how this movement is contributing to environmental practices that are congruent with the needs of nature as well as the demands of society. The extent of this investigation should therefore include the economic or ecological forms of commerce the movement has instituted through its various cottage industries. These contribute to the sustainable, gentle, self sufficiency of the community. It is an approach that relates and contributes to a rapidly modernizing and increasingly consumer driven Thai society.

    II. Buddhist Development

    In the tenth lunar month, the harvest moon waits patiently, watching over the green rice paddies running to ear and gently sighing with their burden. In a nearby village wat, the people, in a collective rite are placing parcels of vegetables, cooked and puffed rice upon the ground near and around the temple bot. Water, poured solemnly from various containers splashes onto the soil as the monks chant, transferring merit from the laity to their deceased relatives.

    In this crucial Buddhist traditional ceremony, one of many exclusively connected to agriculture, the presence of rice, which is a prominent, if not constant feature of Buddhist agricultural rites, is often representative of life and death. Bun Khaw Sak, or merit with puffed rice, signifies the impermanence of life and the life cycles of nature. The puffed rice, which cannot be planted again, signifies death. Once collected ‘dead rice’ is offered (collectively) as ancestral merit or bun, or more specifically, to the previous owners of the fields, in exchange for a good harvest of ‘new rice’ (Tambiah 1977, 156). The metaphysical and productive elements of the rice and the earth elements of water and soil represent in fact, elegant and obvious similes of nature. It would be reckless to assume the ‘inside’ connection if there was one at all that may have existed in their minds, or to what extent the ‘vehicle’ of their traditional beliefs was held sacred, that is beyond its use as a mere container of spirits and ritual medium.

    The Bun Khaw Sak ceremony took place some four decades ago, and while Thailand has enjoyed varying degrees of progress, it remains a country with very strong cultural underpinnings, where ritual traditions and practices exist, perhaps perilously so, beside an increasingly consumer driven and media influenced society. When S. J. Tambiah was in Isan doing his research and documenting among other spiritual rituals, the Bun Khaw Sak in the early sixties, much of the forests and natural areas in the nation of Thailand were still intact. Since that time, “approximately half the remaining forests have been decimated” (Markopoulos and Somrudee 2008, 34). In addition, legal and illegal logging, land conversion for infrastructure and ever expanding agricultural purposes continue to put a strain on natural resources. Despite government schemes, lack of enforcement or political will has resulted in serious problems in enforcement and accountability. Beyond the issues of accountability and climate change, water pollution, which can be considered a regional issue, thereby easier to address, remains the most pressing of the environmental issues facing the country. “Water quality issues and water shed management continue to pose tremendous challenges for the Thai government. Apart from surface water, agricultural runoff and pesticides, salt water intrusion pose ongoing threats to not only the water basin but also the waters of the Gulf of Thailand from both land-based and maritime pollutants” (Markopoulos and Somrudee 2008, 48).

    Since the aim is to discover the spiritual and interconnected aspects of the Santi Asoke community, we must also breach the concept of development, or Buddhist development, which I believe goes hand in hand with spiritual development and with which the Santi Asoke movement is clearly concerned. These days we frequently hear references to development or global development. Some countries seek to develop infrastructure, others perhaps political footings, or social/welfare services. For our purposes, the word development or Bhavana is “making what does not exist before to exist” (Yusuf 2008), and involves developing a clearer picture of modern day Buddhism that harmonizes with modern or contemporary issues.

    When we speak of consuming and developing our resources, have we forgotten about the fundamental resource which is the human being? The capabilities of man were included inside the vehicle in which we arrived, so in that vehicle are also the contents of the solution. The ‘vehicle’ also contains the principle causes and subsequent failures of mankind which coexist alongside the tremendous, loving philosophy of the Buddha and the renewable resources of the dharma. We have the wisdom of the multitudes, who are the sangha, and finally, we have the laity, who under the leadership and grace of the former, have (historically) formed and influenced Thai society.

    The question then is, where is this historical relationship heading and to what end? Indeed one of the main problems of the traditional sangha is its position of status in society, in which the teaching role of monks has been replaced by the modernization of the school system. This brings to question the relevancy, and in simple terms, the usefulness of the sangha. It is becoming difficult for the upwardly mobile and educated members of Thai society to maintain their respect for an uneducated and unprogressive monastic tradition. In addition to the decline of status, “another way in which the Thai sangha has been judged irrelevant is through the number of financial and moral scandals which have been reported by the media concerning the monastics” (Mackenzie 2007, 75).

    III. Santi Asoke a New Spirituality

    In the face of the degrading environmental situation in Thailand and the rest of our planet, are Buddhists following their ritual needs for the next life with little regard for the state of this one? Are Buddhist communities engaging or activating spiritual solutions? Can environmental awareness and improvement be found by examining and reorganizing Buddhism or through some modern reorientation of same?

    Santi Asoke offers much in the way of a new and very different path forward, however it is a path seen by members of this community as not a new way, but as the original and pure teaching of the Buddha. According to Swearer, “Santi Asoke is attempting to counter capitalism through a new ideology which opposes consumerism and violence and wishes to radically transform the Thai faith. This makes the opponents of this group fear that this would lead to the extinction of the historical tradition” (Horn and Marja 1996, 23). Thai scholar Apinya Fuengfusakul sees the movement as a “manifestation of post modernist and anti-capitalist social outlook with what it perceives as characteristics of a rural community.” In addition, she sees the failure of the mainstream sangha “who have failed to respond to their concerns, expectations and needs” (Horn and Marja 1996, 24) as the primary cause for the immergence of new Buddhist movements (Taylor 1993). Jim Taylor, another Buddhist scholar, sees the arrival of Buddhist movements in Thailand as resulting from the urban society becoming “increasingly differentiated and beginning to question the totalizing and instrumental politico-religious and moral dimensions of their religion” (Horn and Marja 1996, 25).

    The early rumblings of the Santi Asoke and its various communities began in the mind of former television producer and music composer Rak Rakpong. Rak was raised in a traditional manner by his Chinese father and Thai mother. His mother died when Rak was a teenager, leaving him responsible for the care and upbringing of his six brothers and sisters. Rak graduated from Poh Chang College of Arts and Crafts, and began what was to become a successful career in Bangkok television. Like many of those on a spiritual quest, Rak dabbled in various forms of religion, such as black magic and faith healing, before finally turning to the Buddha and his teachings. “Rak describes the turning point in which he was relieved of all doubt that he was a worthy disciple of the Buddha” (Mackenzie 2007, 115).

    At the age of 36 Rak was ordained by the abbot of Wat Asokaram, a Thammayut monastery in Samut Praknn province. One possible reason for his choice to be ordained at this wat was its well respected forest tradition and the ascetic practices which would have more than likely appealed to Rak’s sense of purpose. Rak was given the monastic name Bodhiraksa or in the Thai language, Bodhirak.

    From the beginning of his monastic career, Bodhirak was anything but reticent in his vigorous criticism of the monastic order and was openly intolerant of what, in his opinion, was a system wrought with poorly disciplined and endemically ineffective spiritual practice. In his zeal, Bodhirak included various examples in his preaching and dharma instructions to the laity, citing the weaknesses of other monks whom he publicly denounced for their “superstitious behavior, smoking, eating meat and being lazy." He justified his position as stemming from the virtue of his insight, which gave him the ability to “discern the spiritual behavior of another and placed on him the responsibility to correct” (Mackenzie 2007, 116).

    Over time Bodhirak’s sermons attracted the attentions of those who supported his views. These supporters, in evidence of his appeal, came from both his Thammayut brothers as well as lay people and members of the Mahanikai monastic order. In a matter of time, and as could be expected, Bodhirak drew fierce opposition when his own Thammayut preceptor demanded he resign on the grounds that his group, which was Thammayut, was accepting some Mahanikai monks among their followers. In addition, “the abbot would not allow him to organize joint meetings of any sort for members from Thammayut and Mahanikai” (Horn and Marja 1996, 36). After three years of struggling against the current of isolationism and the status quo, Bodhirak resigned from the Thammayutnikai Monastery and was re-ordained as a member of a Mahanikai monastery at Nakhon Pathom. Here his followers began to feely practice what they believed “to be the basic teaching of the Buddha, free from the sectarian division and state control” (Mackenzie 2007).

    Evidently to attach a new outer form of recognition or renewal, the newly formed members of this group distinguished themselves as members of Asoke by replacing the typical orange robes with brown. This was also believed to resemble the correct color of robes worn in ancient times. The emphasis on ancient times, such as walking barefoot and the wearing of different colored robes, is a direct reflection of Bodhirak’s view of Buddhism. For him, there should be little if any distinction between Buddhist schools. A Buddhist, and I tend to agree, is first and foremost a Buddhist, that is to say, apart from the shackles of tradition or confining parameters of culture. Furthermore, the existence of sectarian division is purely man-made and far and away from the original teachings of the Buddha. Bodhirak’s sentiment is reflected very clearly in his refusal to register his center with the authorities as required by law.

    Under pressure from the provincial Sangha governor who was seeking his arrest for violating the 1962 Sangha Act,1 Bodhirak was eventually forced to register the center at Dean Asoke and was further pressured by other members of the sangha hierarchy to return to the orange robes and dismantle the accommodations at the center. Irregardless of their attempts to dismantle the community, the authorities were unable to effectively respond to the centers growing popularity, and by 1976 there were a total of three Santi Asoke centers firmly established on the outskirts of Bangkok and in the northeast provinces. One remarkable feature of the movement was the placement and mobility of the movement which with respect to gathering strength in numbers, the communities, “rather than depending on people to come to their centers, or focusing on the homes of members, move out to where the people are” (Mackenzie 2007, 116).

    1The provincial Sangha governor threatened to inform the police that he was contravening the 1962 Sangha ACT which requires the registration of all temples with the Department of religious Affairs.

    IV. Santi Asoke Nature and Nibanna

    What resides at the root of all religions, apart from the refuge they may provide, is the goal of spiritual purification and transformation. In Thai Theravada Buddhism this is a complex issue involving two distinct approaches to this life and the next. In one aspect, there is the traditional Thai view that achieving Nibanna is only possible in our lives that follow and is not possible to attain in this life. This encourages the continuous making of merit and the ongoing support of the sangha. This is the crux of the problem when it comes to the emergence and acceptance of new or reformed Buddhist ideologies. This is a point seen by Horn and Marja (1997) that, “If the traditional sangha is not seen as the focal point of spiritual practice, then it can no longer legitimize the state’s political authority. This view challenges the standard understanding of the sangha as the best field of merit” (Horn and Marja 1997, 118).

    The traditional doctrinal position of Thai Buddhism places the Buddha in a state of Nibanna without substrate. In other words, the Buddha is away from us. What we have are the teachings and examples for which we are responsible for implementing into our lives. “For a high percentage of Thai people, Nibanna is remote, abstract and even unattractive, therefore the quest for a better next life through merit is held as perhaps a less strenuous and more realistic and achievable aim. Thus ‘karmic’ rather than ‘nibbanic’ Buddhism characterizes the average Thai” (Mackenzie 2007, 98-99).

    These traditional views are strongly opposed by the members of Santi Asoke. Bodhirak assures his followers that Nibanna can be reached in this life. Nibanna is therefore seen not as something otherworldly or supernatural but simply as a spiritual state of mind.

    Traditionally, Thai temples exist autonomously from one another and apart from functions of the state. Temple finances and the philosophy of the abbot remain mostly an individual matter. That is to say, as long as the philosophy is not counter to, or against the traditional administration or accepted ideology. The Santi Asoke centers, of which there are nine, operate and handle their own administrations in an organized and coordinated fashion. This is in stark contrast with the traditional model and suggests a strong emphasis on the importance of community and on a more open engagement with the monastic. This cooperation, which has a broader view than the auto-exchange of merit and goods, is one that values the energy of active participation in a constructive sustainable and diverse manner. We could say that it is a relationship that fosters an equal sharing of universal responsibility.

    The Bangkok headquarters of Santi Asoke is connected by a system of transport which operates in conjunction with the various cottage industries and other centers operated by the community. This provides a connection for the engagement of the community, who support the various functions of the different centers, such as primary schools, children’s camps and meditation training. At the main headquarters, which sits on a large area of donated land, are various shops and small businesses that belong to the movement and are staffed by the members of the community, mostly on a volunteer basis. Among these are vegetarian restaurants, herbal medicine pharmacies, and organic produce merchants. The movement also operates its own printing press and audio and video production facilities, which have become very popular among members. Various other publications not directly affiliated with the group, as well as other approved Buddhist publications and training literature, are also available. It is important to point out that the literature and the audio and video products, including the Santi Asoke monthly newsletter which has a current circulation of 9,000 copies, are made available at very low prices and often without any charge. In addition to the newsletter, there are other publications that are focused on a particular demographic, such as the Dok Bus Noi, or Little Lotus magazine which is produced for the benefit of younger teen readers. The most widely distributed printed publication is Dok Yaa (Daffodil), which enjoys a circulation of over 22,000 bi-monthly copies. Other forms of media communication and responsible consumer manufacturing efforts include radio programs and a number of the community member’s personal residences, which serve as “micro factories for the production of herbal shampoo, organic tofu and bottling works for the various herbal remedies” (Mackenzie 2007, 130).

    Perhaps in keeping with its departure from the status quo, the temple itself bears little resemblance to typical Thai temple architecture. The main circular structure comprises seven floors and is surrounded at the base by a large man-made waterfall. The dome itself is said to hold many donated images of the Buddha, which reflects Bodhirak’s wish that the members of the community not have a dependence upon them. “The whole area with its trees and water features is a symbol of part of what Asoke is seeking to do, that is, drawing people back to a simple lifestyle and a harmonious relationship with nature” (Mackenzie 2007).

    The most prominent and environmentally engaged center of the Santi Asoke communities is Pathom Asoke. Considerable effort is made in this community to closely follow the first precept of Buddhism.

    In the Santi Asoke communities the soil is treated with the reverence of a mother for her child. This is reflected in the physical treatment of the soil in their agricultural practices, which seriously minimizes the contact and disruption to the extent that the traditional plough may be seen as ravishingly abusive. In terms of crop management, the Santi Asoke community actively engages in alternative approaches to agriculture as a means to achieve a harmonious balance that does not tax or deplete the soil. This has included adopting the Japanese method developed by Masanobu Fukuoka, which employs a combination of various crops with different periods of harvest. Using this combination of crops with various harvest schedules maintains the nutritional vitality of the soil. Maintaining the quality of the soil is achieved through a perfected system of composting waste materials. “The materials, which consist of food waste and leaves, are combined with a microbe soup which fully matures into a rich compost in twenty days” (Mackenzie 2007, 134).

    In addition to the larger centers, smaller centers such as Sima Asoke in Nakhon Ratchasima, produce a large crop of mushrooms as well as orchard produce. Sima Asoke also produces their own brand of rice noodles that are then used in the community vegetarian restaurants. Another center near Chaing Mai, the Lana Asoke Center, also produces a range of produce and is renowned for its research and agricultural experimentation.

    The approach to agriculture by the Santi Asoke community goes well beyond serving the needs of the community through merely sustainable means and, in a deeper way, represents the holistic and intrinsic value which is collectively held in the minds of the community. Nature in this way can be seen as a crucial aspect of the spirituality and spiritual practice of the Santi Asoke community.

    V. Seeds of Change

    The idea of a reconnecting or a reforming of the Thai sangha is by no means a new one. Many scholars from Asia and abroad have mentioned as much. The facts though are plain to see, both from my experience while living in the temple and from my longstanding relationship with Thai culture. The monks are either unaware of their role or refuse to accept any responsibility. The majority of the sangha are ignorant of the problems Thailand faces in regard to the environment, and I must say, to the majority of the growing middle class which is becoming more distant and disconnected to barren rituals and outdated thinking. As mentioned previously (Horn and Marja 1996), a growing number of educated citizens are in a struggle to find the respect they may have once held for uneducated monks. If trends in education continue, as they most certainly will, this sentiment will logically increase, thereby widening the spiritual gap between the traditional sangha and Thai society.

    The ignorance on the part of the sangha poses complicated issues, chiefly, how to go about replacing ignorance and non-action with the light of wisdom and social engagement. How can a people in the midst of a culturally induced caste system of merit and cultural baggage breach such a wall of uncertainty? It is not very likely the Thai people will make many suggestions or demands upon the monastic community. Not only does cultural conditioning discourage such behavior, but as we have seen, the sangha sits on a high, if not unreachable pedestal when it comes to criticism. We could concentrate our efforts on forums, Buddhist councils and intellectual conferences, but conferences are more often than not reserved for a chosen few, and most of what is said or “thought” in these venues of intellectual activity seldom resonates into action or social implementation. Of the possible ways these things can be accomplished, the most crucial lies in education and an awareness of how our actions as consumers impact our planet. This can be accomplished through implementing dharma talks and lectures that not only relate, but also clearly connect a contemporary Buddhist philosophy with regard to a healthy environment. This can certainly be done within the temples, such as those within the Santi Asoke community. Ideally, a more social or personal outreach will be necessary, such as the sangha actively engaging in the school system by offering lessons, instruction and methods for improving environmental awareness. Another approach might include holding special village and regional environmental awareness forums or Buddhist councils. This in turn could be extended into the realm of inter-religious dialogue. Once armed with the necessary knowledge, public, national, local and regional Buddhist environmental campaigns could be instituted and managed in co-operation with the sangha and the laity. Such programs could include water management, such as improving the state of the many polluted waterways in Thailand. Other programs could focus on the replanting of native trees and engaging in organic agriculture. In addition, the temples themselves can be a great vehicle of change and encouragement by instituting their own initiatives, such as utilizing food waste for composting or installing solar panels. Organic gardens for the benefit of the poor could also be a loving way forward. Finally, In addition to the non-secular approach, these environmental missions and initiatives could be furthered with the corporation and support of governmental legislation.

    On the international stage, there are many opportunities to discuss and engage in finding solutions to fight climate change. Since the Earth Summit, which was adopted by The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, a concerted effort has been directed towards the creation of an "Earth Charter." This initiative is now underway with international support from the government of the Netherlands. “Other Earth Charter members include Mikhail Gorbachev and Steven Rockefeller. International and religiously affiliated organizations include the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders, which includes such religious leaders as Dali Lama, international diplomats and heads of state” (Tucker and Williams 1997, 28-29).

    VI. Conclusion

    If we recall earlier in section 1.1, we read about the Bun Khaw Sak agricultural ceremony documented by S. J. Tambiah (1977). Using this ancient and traditional Thai ceremony as a template, we can place it and the agricultural practices of Santi Asoke in nearly the same ‘vehicle’ in terms of religious meaning, but which will travel in different orbits. This indicates a paradox of sorts, as in both cases the tradition or practice is seen as firmly rooted in history. This prevents one from truthfully or accurately stating that the methods of Santi Asoke are new or modern, despite the fact that they contribute a modern elegance to sustaining nature and life through the loving compassion for all living things. The modern appeal of the movement flows from the ranks of disillusioned consumers who are in affect, unsatisfied by the status quo. The threat to such amounts to kicking at the pillars of Thai society.

    Does a critical approach and disassociation with the traditional sangha and the return to what is seen as the original teaching of the Buddha constitute a new spirituality? What would be the criteria for establishing a contemporary way of practicing? Can we consider, such as the case with Santi Asoke, that by returning to an historical idea of the Buddha we are offering something new?

    Certainly returning to a few old ways of practicing Buddhism would not constitute a new spirituality. Walking barefoot, eating one meal a day or even living in the forest are not new methods. What then does Santi Asoke offer that differs from the traditional sangha? The answer lies of course in the claims and subsequent interpretation of what is traditional or original. We are able to say based on research, that the Santi Asoke community follows a well defined and renewed spiritual practice that recognizes the moral pressures of modern society. This entails not only a grounded approach to practice, but also a distinctly pure and literal approach to the environment with regards to the doctrine of dependant origination.

    If nothing is static and everything is constantly changing, then this includes the sangha. Buddhism in Thailand, or if you prefer, Thai Buddhism, has an opportunity to refresh and redirect the wisdom of the Buddha for the benefit of this moment. As Buddhists, we believe that form, or rupa, is constantly changing and that our attachment to any form ultimately leads to suffering. I believe that in order for any real environmental change to ever take root in Thailand, the sangha must re-examine what form or role they will play in the coming decades. The sangha could conveniently utilize the environmental crisis and other contemporary issues as a means to refresh and renew Buddhism for the benefit of our interconnected planet and the harmony of the nation.

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