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Professorís Research Explores Socially Engaged Buddhism

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Anthropology and Asian studies professor Sue Darlington is writing a book about Thailand’s environmental Buddhism, including “tree ordinations” used to make forests sacred and off-limits to exploitation. The environmental efforts of these monks can place them in great danger, with numerous human rights violations and murders having occurred.

Writer Aaron Richmond-Havel 09F, a first-year Hampshire student, recently interviewed Professor Darlington about her work.


Sue Darlington first spent time in Thailand in 1975 as part of a high school exchange program. “I didn’t care where I ended up, I just wanted an international experience,” Darlington said. What she found astounded her, as she “fell in love with Thailand and the Thai people.”
 
Darlington continued her involvement in Thailand through her graduate work at the University of Michigan. Since then, she has traveled to Thailand whenever the opportunity arose, conducting interviews with multiple monks, and focusing on the process of their social justice movement. This is what sets Professor Darlington’s research apart.

“Most of what is around now is more philosophical,” she said. “There’s not a huge amount on how specific Buddhists are going about bringing social change.”

It is this controversial notion of “socially engaged Buddhism” that originally drew Darlington to the subject, and has inspired her to investigate further. As Buddhism’s foundational goal usually relies on the attainment of enlightenment through isolation from the social world, the socially engaged monks continually have to legitimize their interventions through theological doctrine.

“The ultimate goal is still enlightenment,” Darlington said, but “they feel as monks, that one of the primary tenants of Buddhism is suffering and to relieve suffering.”

While their interventions have made strong critiques on the effects of rapid economic development, the growth of a consumer culture, cash cropping, and the environment, Darlington points out that “their aim is to relieve suffering,” and that it may subsequently “have political consequences as they are challenging political power and the power of big business.”

“I’ve been working on this project for over twenty years, and it keeps changing and evolving,” Darlington said.

She has become interested in the very real risks associated with the movement. Both the Thai government and large corporations continually target the monks. In 2005, one was assassinated because of his protest work on the spread of tangerine plantations.

Through her research, Darlington has become somewhat of a portal to intellectual Thailand. Recently, she was approached by a documentarian wanting to interview the monks on the issue. Still, she found the process of being a woman researcher in the field of Buddhism quite interesting.

“The monks aren’t allowed to touch women, and if they did, they had to go through a cleansing ritual,” she said. However, she was able to make lasting connections throughout her time in Thailand. Her book in progress, entitled The Ordination of a Tree: Buddhism, Development and Environmentalism in Thailand, follows particular monks throughout their careers towards socially engaged enlightenment.

The manuscript is now nearly complete and soon ready for publication, with potential for use in religious studies, environmental, cultural, and social science classrooms.

Professor Darlington’s attention to the process of the movement, and individual consideration of the monks she interviews, attest to her idea of Buddhism as “a living religion.” She will return to Thailand while on sabbatical in fall 2010.

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