Ban-Tard, Amphur Mueng, Udon Thani, 41000
Field Notes: Val, Mundo Exchange and Laekplian Lokgatat
Alternative Eco Projects and Thai ways
The Friday of 14th of January 2011, Nalinrat our Thai host from Laekplian Lokgatat, Gyb who is currently another one of our volunteer Thai hosts and is learning about herbs with Nalinrat, and I, Valérie, who after contacting Mundo Exchange and was accepted as an volunteer intern in Thailand, left Buen Kan to stay at a vegetarian community part of the Santi Asoke movement.
The first day we arrived we were warmly welcomed to the Din-Nong-Dan-Nue Community. The community was holding a seminar on organic farming and plenty of farmers from the local Thai region came to stay there for 2 days. As an intern and volunteer in Thailand I got the chance to interview Choochat Nasawang, the founder of the community. He gave me some explanations about the community, which took 12 years to be founded.
Din-Nong-Dan-Nue Community follows the Santi Asoke movement. There are 24 communities of this type in Thailand. Their way of life is based on Buddhism with the addition of adopting a vegetarian lifestyle. Morality is included in everything; work, lifestyle and even in the way they farm. It can be perceived also by their way of greeting each other. Instead of using the common ‘’Sawadee Ka’’ they say ‘’Jaleum Dham’’, which can be interpreted as develop your mentality and used to remind people to act in function of their inner goodness.
There are 26 people living in this Thai Isaan community permanently and only 1 monk. They practice sustainable organic farming on their 40 acres land. They grow rice, herbs, vegetables and fruits to be self-sufficient. They have a rice miller and a factory to manufacture their own herbs. Most of what they use to cook is grown on the spot. These Thais recycle, do composting and use natural energy like fire to cook and gravity to pump water instead of electricity.
The people who come for seminars are trained to be self-sufficient following Buddha’s teaching. They learn about organic farming, how to heal themselves through herbs and even how to produce soap naturally. When laypeople stay in the community they have to follow the 5 precepts (abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication) and adopt a vegetarian diet as meat is forbidden in the community. There are 5 doctors who specialize in herbs and natural healing. They also live in the Thai community. The people who joined the community permanently often have suffered from physical illness or emotional difficulties. The community does not accept money but gets some revenue through the selling of natural medicines. The ministry of agriculture of Thailand gives a bit of money, but rarely.
After the interview, Choochat Nasawang asked me to give a speech in front of the farmers who came for the seminar. He mentioned to me that Thai people listen to farmers and are more likely to follow one’s advice if he is from the West. I got the chance to talk about my choice of being vegetarian, the importance of recycling and of producing organic goods. The people were lovely, they asked for some advice on how to improve Thailand. They were curious about how life is in Canada and wanted to know my perspective on Thai people.
This moment is the best memory I will keep from Thailand; being in touch with the farmers and discussing both of our worlds and world views is something I will never forget. The next speaker who followed me was a famous farmer. I was surprised to see that she was a woman and works alone on her Thai organic paddy field.
The day ends with people gathering to listen to the monk. The monk talked about his past when he used to be a gambler on Thai chicken fights. He decided to become a monk in Thailand after winning a bet of 40 000 bat. The man who lost killed his chicken with his bare hands in front of him. After seeing this horrible event, he decided to become vegetarian and join the Thai monkhood. He finished his talk with a video on human cruelty. It is the most shocking video I have seen in my life. It showed animals being skinned alive, beaten to death or stabbed. I left before the end as I felt too sensitive to watch more.
At 4 AM the speakers around the community blast a speech about the wonders of waking up early. This is to wake up the lay people on time for the chanting that starts at 4:30. Everyone gathered in front of the monk where we all chanted in Thai instead of Pali, the language usually used by Buddhist monks.
He then showed us a video on how Santi Asoke started and the controversy that surrounded the movement. People were than welcomed to ask questions about Santi Asoke and the talk finished around 7 AM. The members of the community then started cooking. Breakfast, like all the meals served in the community, was delicious. The cook told me they do not use eggs or milk; the community adopts a vegan diet.
Gyb and I walked around to explore the land. There are a lot of hidden gardens. They also keep the wild plants around the plantations to keep the insects away naturally.
I had the chance to talk to Tono, the main cook. He is 20 year’s old and has been living in the community for 8 years. At a young age he had to leave his family. He found support and a new family by joining the community. He daily cooks for the community but also studies food science at a Thai university. He aspires to improve people’s health and find cures for illness through nutrition. He explained to me that he is allowed to listen to music and read what he wants.
The community encourages people to do what they love as long as they do good for themselves and others and follow the 5 precepts. Tono enjoys the community life and likes not having to worry about money like most people of his age. Life in the community is anti-materialistic nevertheless, if he wants to buy something he can always talk about it with the other members and they will support him monetarily. He explained to me that everyone can join the community as long as they are good, take part of the daily work and follow he 5 precepts. Everyone in the community strongly believes in the benefits of herbs and natural healing.
The Thailand farmers left in the afternoon as the 2 days seminar was over. The ones that I had the chance to talk to said they enjoyed the experience and will apply what they learned to their way of farming and living.
As the farmers left, there is no morning chanting this time. It strikes me how little the community actually is but it is interesting to see how they live when there are no seminars. The people wake up early and each one of them does some chores for the community. Some clean, others take care of the gardens or cook. At 7 AM, Nalinrat, Gyb and I joined the cooks to help prepare the breakfast and clean.
We waited for the monk to do his daily morning walk to get offerings. When he came back, we gave him the best of our cooking and waited for him to eat. We left the community after eating. It is sad to leave the people behind, as they have been really welcoming and warm. I promised to them I will come back one day. Choochat Nasawang gave me a diagram in Thai that he translated into English that shows the essential concepts of Buddhism.
Nalinrat, Gyb and I left for the herb temple where they learn about herbs and their power. The teaching is free and after 2 years and a final exam you can become a doctor specialized in herbs.
On our way back to Bueng Kan, we stopped in Nong Khai at a farm. The farm produces gas by using the excrement of cows. The farmers explained to us that it is a governmental project. Farmers can come and learn about the process and if they show a decent plan, they can get the bag that produces the gas for free.
Unfortunately, the program is not yet well known and not advertised enough. I was surprise to see that the Thai government encourages sustainable and environmental friendly ways to produce energy.
My stay as a volunteer and intern in Thailand at Din-Nong-Dan-Nue Community was a once in a lifetime experience. It showed to me an alternative way of living away from consumerism. The community is environmentally friendly and is a proof that working with nature instead of against it can offer a sustainable lifestyle. Moreover, it was fascinating to see how it is possible to survive in our modern world without giving to much importance to money. I also thought that their emphasis on goodness in their teaching had a positive effect on the people. Everyone lives in peace and respects each other. It is perceivable that the community works to bring the best out of its members. Furthermore, community work is emphasized. People put their effort for the common good, which I believe plays a strong part in Din-Nong-Dan-Nue Community’s success.
The people welcome you as one of them and are happy to include you in the daily activities. In spite of some of the bad mouthing against Santi Asoke, the community does not feel like a sect. The people are free; they do not have to obey to a large set of rules and do not worship some kind of guru. Talking to the members made me realize that they are all happy to be part of the community. It is a great place to see Buddhism applied to daily life. Moreover, their promotion of organic farming, reducing waste and composting seemed to me a great steps towards a greener Thailand.
A lot can be learned from this way of living. It was the first time that I heard about traditional Thai healing through herbs. Meeting people who cured themselves by following this practice showed me how much natural healing can be efficient. The Din-Nong-Dan-Nue Community is a great place to discover a off the beaten path Thailand with its unique people and pertinent teachings.