The Venerable Yorn Seng Yeat, vice-chancellor of Preah Sihanouk Raja Buddhist University (SBU) and deputy chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Sangha Council, led four pilgrimages on foot recently to 47 locations in the Oral Mountains covering 239 km in 17 days with 212 other participants in order to promote environmental conservation and awareness.

The Post’s reporter Orm Bunthoeurn discussed these environmentally-conscious pilgrimages with him for this week’s interview.

Why did you make these pilgrimages into the mountains?

The purpose of these pilgrimages into the natural world was to contribute to the conservation of the forest and the preservation of Cambodia’s environment through our role as monks by raising awareness of environmental issues and encouraging change in our society for the sake of the environment.

Where did the pilgrims go?

There were four pilgrimages over the course of the past year with the first taking place in January and the last in late October and early November.

We spent most of our time in Kampong Speu province’s Oral district and Koh Kong province’s Thma Bang district. We travelled to locations like Khnang Phsar Mountain, Khnang Srov, Khnang Sampov, Yeay Mao Waterfall, Da Toch Waterfall, Anlong Svay Waterfall and Khnang Phnom Thom.

In total we went to 47 different locations in 17 days by walking a distance of 239 km with 212 participants with an average of 50 participants give or take per trip.

What do you feel you got out of these pilgrimages or what differentiates one from another?

Each time out I get the satisfaction of seeing the participants – especially the monks – find profound serenity and joy in the beauty of nature and the beauty of the forest which in modern times remains so deeply hidden away from us most of the time.

The participants are pleased to experience it and I am pleased to see them pleased, if you will.

I also enjoy it for myself personally of course. I have had the privilege of travelling to many places in the world but the forests I’ve encountered there are forests of humanity.

Meaning, I’ve walked through the urban jungle of coffee shops, ice cream parlours, souvenir stands and all of the rest of humanity’s mercantile endeavours as much as I’d care to in a lifetime already, but the forest we walked into on these pilgrimages was the real jungle. It is much closer to the pristine state of nature that once existed before man began to make his alterations.

We don’t really encounter many animals but we can often hear them or see the animals’ traces. The tracks of big cats like a leopard or tiger, or wild boars. That forest remains a viable habitat for wildlife without too much human interference.

My feeling when entering that forest is kind of like the sensation of looking at the world reversed in a mirror ... it’s difficult to explain, but whenever man sees untouched nature we know that it is innately beautiful and pure and it needs no further decoration or improvement.

What are the challenges of these pilgrimages?

Well, we had to climb mountains. Not with climbing ropes or pick axes, but steep pathways on rough terrain leading us up to the peak. And we walked an average of 20km per day. It’s difficult to walk that far in the city but try doing it on a mountain. Some of our participants were injured, but nothing too serious.

When it rained our journey was far more difficult. Like on the third trip to the Khnang Veal every monk felt like what they carried was five times heavier I’d say because the ground is all uphill.

The way to Khnang Phnom Thom is also very difficult, but it’s so beautiful I felt like I was walking into a painting.

Venerable Yorn Seng Yeat leads Buddhist monks through the forests of Kampong Speu and Koh Kong provinces in October and November to promote environmental conservation. SUPPLIED

I have walked in Japanese forests, Chinese forests, American forests and French forests – sometimes the wild kind, but more often the forest of humanity as I mentioned. But when I enter Cambodia’s wild forests it strikes me as more beautiful than I can ever adequately describe.

Do you do other activities while on the pilgrimage?

The walk is the focus of the pilgrimage and the walk alone is enough of a challenge to preoccupy most of your body or even your mind. Based on that philosophy, this means that each step we take is like a prayer or meditation dedicated to nature on behalf of humanity.

Before we leave, we perform ceremonies for Buddha and while walking our group stops to consecrate two trees as holy per day as a symbol of our environmental conservation.

During these four pilgrimages we consecrated perhaps 20 trees and we chose the biggest and tallest ones we could find on our path because they are not just symbols but proof of the majesty of nature.

At night, the monks gathered for group discussions about the challenges we had faced that day and we’d remind everyone about our purposes for coming to the forest – conservation of the environment and standing on the principles of the Dharma of the Lord Buddha in the sense of loving and conserving the environment, contributing to society and supporting good government because the government acts as society’s caretaker.

What does Buddhism teach about the virtues of the environment?

Buddhism and the environment are one and the same. It means that in order to practice Buddhism in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha we must live according to the laws of nature and we must love nature and preserve nature.

Because the Dharma of the Lord Buddha is manifested about him and when we are talking about the nature of nature, talking about the laws of nature we are talking about manifestations of him be it earth, water, fire or air. Our very lives and our bodies are made of earth, water and fire combined with the wind. That is what forms a human being and I say that both as a metaphor and literally. Humans are made from the elements just as all things are.

What do you think needs to be done in order preserve Cambodia’s forests and natural areas over the long term?

Forests are the common property of all Cambodians. In order to keep our forests intact we must work together. Nobody can accomplish this alone. There must be cooperation between the state and the people.

It also depends on many other factors, one of which is that we need to promote eco-tourism and allow people to see the beauty of nature without spoiling it. That will inspire people’s love of nature and give them a strong desire to preserve it once they experience it. You always protect and preserve that which you love.

Secondly, we need to educate the people about the environment and the threats to it. We must also raise our children from primary school onwards to love the forest, love nature and love animals.

I think that monks can also be of help in educating the public about these topics. As a monk, I am ready to help spread the word about the environment. Indeed, walking into the forest, the biggest purpose is to bring that sense of the profound beauty of the forest back to our human society and make it part of our broader understanding of life.

How did the authorities react to the idea of a bunch of monks wandering in the forest?

I contacted the communities we’d be travelling through and also went to the environmental offices. The conservation officials facilitated our journey to the forest and they were very happy to help out because we went there and had a dialogue with them first.

I admire them because we saw them living rough deep in the forest with only two or three people. They’d sleep in tents and stay on duty out there even when it was raining heavily. I saw how much they struggled and how great their dedication to their duty really is.

They patrol to stop people from destroying the environment or taking natural resources and they work really hard. They do dangerous work like confronting poachers or disarming their traps.

Finally, is there anything more you want to add?

Buddhists and especially my fellow Cambodians, please take care of our forest because the forest is our life. We cannot live without any land, water, fire and air. Our lives and the lives of every living creature are dependent on these four elements. We must take care of these four elements because the four elements are the environment.

Take care of the environment and you are taking care of your own life. Protect the environment and you guard your own life as well.