Plants, Flowers & Trees

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Many plants, flowers, trees and fruit appear as metaphors in the discourses and literature of Buddhism.  For example, Nagarjuna wrote,

"Human beings should be seen as Mangos -- to be distinguished in this manner:

Unripe but ripe looking,
ripe but unripe looking,
unripe and also unripe looking,
ripe and also ripe looking."

Also, due to the strong tradition of herbal medicine, and the fact that various trees and flowers figure in the life story of the Buddha, growing things are prominently featured in Himalayan iconography, especially in Tibetan painted scrolls [tangkas]. 

Often, they are featured as offerings.  For example, the twelve animals that "rule" the years of the eastern 60-year cycle are depicted in the Tibetan cosmic chart each one bearing a leafy branch in its right, and a ripe fruit in its left hand. 

(At the Jewish autumn festival of Sukkot, worshippers also bear a fruit and leafy branches.)


Besides the lotus which plays a key role, many other flowers are prevalent.  Among them are the nilopala which some equate with the blue water lily, and the utpala, a term used for the curly-petaled flower that in the Chinese tradition is a symbol of longevity  or renewal --  the peony.  However, "utpala" is sometimes taken to mean a lotus, and may also refer to a multi-bloomed flower such as the rhododendron that comes in many colours, or even the anemone.  The ashok, which is the rose, also appears.                         

Flowers and Gardening in India 

Mandira blossoms are flowers characteristically offered to deities, perhaps jasmine.

The Udumbara is a mysterious flower that blooms but once every three thousand years.  It is used in Buddhist writings to stress the rare preciousness of an event or occasion.

The nomenclature is certainly rather confusing.  The flower held by the Taras, and also supporting the book in images of Manjushri, is often referred to as utpala, a frilly blue flower, but the "bud" resembles the pod of a poppy, yet people also call it a lotus.  

In traditional Chinese culture (Buddhist and Taoist,) 4 distinct flowers stand for the seasons.  The lotus signifies summertime.  The China aster, or chrysanthemum indicum, which is a symbol of happiness and prosperity, represents autumn, and the wild plum stands for winter.  The peony is the flower of renewal -- spring. 

Sharira flowers are mysterious items that appear spontaneously as relics of enlightened beings or at auspicious events. They are of various colours, from sky blue to pink and dark purple.


Five aromatic plants ideally, are offered in a lha sang -- the smoke offering to unseen divinities.  They are: juniper, considered most pleasing to the gods, devas or lha; rhododendron for the nyen, tamarisk for nagas or lu, margosa for the tsen, and pine for dut.  

::  See also, Incense.

<Naga tree, tamarisk or salt cedar.  Introduced from Asia where it can grow very large, it is invasive in North America and Europe.  It leeches salt but sheds it back to earth when the leaves drop.

Medicinal Plants

If a plant -- or its roots, fruit, leaves, stems or seeds -- can be used to alter the health then it can be considered medicinal.  And the difference between a poison and a medicine is sometimes only a matter of quantity.  Therefore, possession of a requisite substance is only a small aspect of the healing process, for both knowledge and experience are also essential to safely treat an ailing person or animal.

The Medicine Buddha, Sangye Menla (Skt. Bhaisajyaguru) is usually depicted holding a sprig of the arura or myrobalan plant, believed to be a panacea [cure-all] in the Ayurvedic system.  Known to the European herbalist tradition as Emblic, it is classified as Phyllanthus emblica. It comes from a tree with lanceolate leaves that grows to about 50 feet.  The arura fruit is quite small -- like a large berry -- and is used in preserves either pickled or as a sweet jam.  In Ayurveda, it is a heart stimulant.

The oak-apple or bilva "fruit" is also significant in association with healing deities.  It is actually a gall or growth produced by egg-laying insects such as wasps.

About the Eclipse tells how Vajrapani tried to murder Rahu and created medicinal plants as a consequence.

Tulasi or, Tulsi

This plant, related to sage, is especially sacred to Vaishnava Hindus.


Called The Queen of Fruit, the mango features prominently in the symbolism of India and Tibet.  It is an offering suitable for the gods. 


In India and, since the mid-20th century in Bhutan, people including Buddhist monks, who are forbidden wine or tobacco, enjoy ingesting the juice of the areca (Areca catechu) nut. Bits of nut are wrapped in a betel leaf (of the vine Piper betel) painted with a paste of slaked lime and folded to form a small packet or quid.  The green lumpy quid is chewed and after the desirable substances are swallowed, the remaining juice is spit into a spitoon, or more usually, on the ground.

Pavements in areas where this is practiced become stained with a red that looks shockingly like blood to newcomers.  The teeth of users become blackened after years of use.

Paan (> Sanskrit parna = leaf) is a mild "narcotic" but with effects similar to that of chewing coca leaf.  It can produce addiction similar to that of tobacco use.  It causes perspiration, and is said to protect against the cold.  It is also used to prevent diarrhea.

In some areas, the bark of the wild peach tree or of the chir pine (pinus Roxburghii) is chewed to fulfill a similar purpose.

In India, betel quid is an auspicious item that is offered as a moral, or even legal, commitment to seal an agreement.

Sweet Potato

Toma is the Tibetan name for the caramel-coloured root of the potentilla, a wildflower of the type known in Europe as cinquefoil.  In appearance it is like a wild carrot. It ripens in the fall when the presence of mice can indicate its location beneath the earth.  Like paan, it is a luxury food offered to visitors, to one's hostess, and to celebrate special occasions.  It is served alone or with rice.  (Toma, or doma, actually means berry or nut.)

The potentilla pedoncularis Rosaceae is boiled and then chopped into small pieces. When chewed it produces a red astringent juice, so it is served with sweetened rice. It fulfills a role similar to that of paan (see above.)

Are plants sentient beings?

Lama Thubten Shenphen (May 2002): 

"Plants do not hold a consciousness, an individual consciousness. So when you cut a salad, a flower, a plant, you do not kill a being. This should be clear. Only in some particular cases, that some big trees have a spirit consciousness [Skt. yaksha] in them. In such case, it's not a being that has taken rebirth as a tree, but as a spirit who will be 'linked' into a tree, as it could be into a house, a rock, or whatever else.  The vegetal realm does not exist as a possible realm of rebirth. Thus, to cut a plant is not killing, by any way. 

The second question implies the insects in the salad; well, we have to be careful as much as we can. The vow of not killing, in its major form, does not include insects or animals, but includes human beings. Therefore, clearly, if you kill animals, having any vows or not having any vows, it is a negative karma, but it is not breaking the vow. Otherwise, if you have the Bodhisattva vows, you could not take a car any more. 

We have to be careful as much as we can, and on the road, when there are frogs, or when there are animals, we have to drive more slowly, to be able to avoid them as well as we can. We cannot avoid them all, as we understand when we look at the front of the car. 

If you can, and if you are not afraid of remarks of others, then you can stick a mantra in front of your car! Either you can buy an adhesive one, or you can make one, or ask somebody to make an 'Om mani peme hung' mantra and stick it on the front side of your car, as it is said that it is very valuable for the insects that will collapse on this part of the car."


Ayurvedic:  Indian traditional medical system.

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