Trees in Contemporary Environmental Thought: A Case of Khmer Buddhist Tree Ordinations

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James Scott
Essay Abstract: 
Trees play several roles in contemporary environmental thought. In addition to how they are predominantly seen for their scientific, economic, and environmental values, they also have spiritual and religious value to some. The very notion “value,” however, means different things to different people. In this essay, I explore two different modes of relationship-with, through the lens of how we relate to trees. Then, I consider a case of Buddhist tree ordinations, where trees are ordained as monks in Cambodia. Western scholarship around “engaged Buddhism” and monks' involvement in conservation or political goals (in both Cambodia and Thailand) views engaged Buddhism from a political lens: either as a local social movement or as having international or transnational reaches. However, based on my research, I present an alternate vision behind Maha Ghosananda's tree ordination in Cambodia—not as political, but rather as devoutly Buddhist, by examining the transformative potential of sacred ritual. In ordaining trees as Buddhist monks, his teachings were not about reforestation or conservation. Rather, his teaching invited participants into a new space of relationship, interdependence, where reverence could be practiced. His teaching was neither argument nor injunction; it was an invitation to practice reverence. I further suggest a parallel between the two modes of relationship-with I outline at the beginning and the different interpretations over engaged Buddhism.