The tree has always been associated with wisdom and immortality. Hindu scripture describes a celestial tree having its roots in heaven and its branches in the underworld that unites and connects beings of all kinds. This is a reversal of our usual experience of trees. However, consider the teaching of the Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah. Master Mosheh KHayyim Luzzatto, in the 18th-century classic The Way of God, explains that the higher realms are actually roots that manifest spiritual influence through branches and leaves that permeate the lower realms.
The Norse thought of the three worlds of existence as levels of a great ash tree, Yggdrasil. The figures of their writing system, the runes which Odin retrieved from the underworld, are each named for a kind of tree.
Most readers know that the Enlightenment of the Buddha occurred under a tree. In fact one tradition holds that it was the tree itself that inspired him to spread the dharma instead of remaining as a pratyeka buddha, eternally resting in meditative absorption. In fact, when we read Ashvaghosha's account closely, we find that several kinds of tree are associated with Buddha's attainment.
The tree is one of the most potent of symbols, as we also know from Genesis' Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. And if you read Judeo-Christian scripture closely, you will find more than one kind of tree there too, for it is the prohibited Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that harbors the snake, and it is distinct from the Tree of Life.
The Sanskrit word chaitya, which many take to be a synonym for stupa, actually means sacred grove. For example, at Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu, India, is a grove sacred to Hanuman, the monkey god.
Green Tara, the Buddhist protector, appears in association with an acacia grove. A Buddhist goddess of the grove near Lumbini appears at least as early as the first century. She is mentioned in part 17 of Ashvaghosha's Acts of the Buddha.
A renowned 12-volume work on mythology, religion and magic, the ultimate tree book, Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough (1922), was initiated by his interest in the glade [a space in a grove of trees] of Nemi that was a sanctuary sacred to Diana. There no fugitive could be hunted down, nor any animal killed.
In the Nemean grove, Opheltes, a sacred child was commemorated whose characteristic pointing gesture is evocative of that of the infant Buddha. When the child was irresponsibly but perhaps un-avoidedly laid to rest on a bed of wild celery, he was killed by a serpent.
In the Roman Forum, " . . . the sacred fig-tree of Romulus was worshipped down to the days of the empire, and the withering of its trunk was enough to spread consternation through the city."
The Banyan and the Pipul associated with the life of the Buddha are actually types of fig tree. And didn't Adam and Eve sew their aprons from fig leaves?
About 3 thousand years ago, the Canaanites worshipped their deity in the form of a sacred pole or ashera, named for the goddess Ashera, who was a naga or serpent.
Sacred trees and also poles, the essence of a tree, are thought of as axles about which the sacred universe revolves. The beribboned May pole of Britain is the focus of vestiges of that belief, as is the Buddha's place of enlightenment.
A Buddhist stupa or chorten has a sacred pole at its core. See the sokshing or life-force pole at the centre of the Great Stupa that was dedicated Aug. 2001 in Colorado. You may be able to read the inscriptions [see image of red tablet].
The worship of, or at least the veneration of, the tree is a custom found all over the world. Sometimes, it is an offshoot of respect for life and the fertility of the earth. Sometimes it is related to the view that a special tree marks a sacred centre.
In environments where there are few trees, the individual tree is viewed as a
kind of ladder that links the realms of heaven, earth and also, in many
cultures, a mysterious underworld. Often, the tree is thought to be the
abode of a deity. In India, this type of spirit is known as a yaksha
or yakshasi. In Ashvaghosha's account of the events in the
life of the Buddha, he mentions that a female deity in the woods supported the
Buddha's determination in his quest for Awakening.
Scriptures such as puranas that are legendary accounts, are not
necessarily very old -- a number of them date from the 18th through 19th centuries.
(Although an account may be ancient before it is actually written down.) In
any event, it is known that there was a sthala purana (tree lore)
movement about two hundred years ago that sought to record the mythology of
India's sacred trees and to relate the characteristics of a particular tree to
the river, spring or other energy source (teertha) of its sacred
The presence of a particularly bountiful tree may have given rise to the idea that a deity is present who offers her blessings in
the form of the fruit, as in the case of the tamarind tree where
Puliyidaivalaiyamman is worshipped, or the kadamba tree that is associated with
a deity called Kadambariyamman.
It is not clear whether solitary trees such as those that serve as village shrines are included in this study.
~ From cpreec.org/sactree.htm which is no longer available on line.
Nyagrodha or Banyan
The tree under which the Buddha sought Enlightenment is classified as Ficus religiosa or sacred fig-tree. The heart-shaped leaf is revered and used as a charm. Research has demonstrated that the fruit contain serotonin, so it may have once been used as an entheogen [a neologism coined in 1979<god-within].
One of Shakyamuni Buddha's former lives was as a bird and in the Jataka of The Four Friends, the bird says: "I must be older than any of you. When I was born I ate the fruit of a tree south of this spring. The seed of the nyagrodha passed through my body as waste, so I planted it."
The nyagrodha (Ficus bengalensis) a.k.a. banyan is one of the truly massive trees of north India. When mature, its branches are so stout that the largest birds can perch on them without their breaking yet they are believed to be vulnerable to the tiny tailorbird who can peck its life away. Its bark is the colour and texture of an elephant's hide, and its base forms caves and channels where it is possible to take shelter from the rain. It is a tree that grows up like most others of its kind, but also down as aerial roots which emerge from the branches descend to implant themselves in the soil. Therefore one tree can form a grove all by itself.
Ayurvedic medicine recommends the use of a concoction made with its astringent milky sap to arrest miscarriages. Therefore, the tree is associated with healing, protection, sensitivity, reliability and generosity.
In Lam Tsuen, Hong Kong, people tie wishes inscribed on paper strips to oranges and then fling them into the branches so that the tree is decorated and draped in red and gold.
The Hindu scripture, Chhandogya Upanishad (ca. 800 - 500 BCE) begins with a parable about the nyagrodha that is much misunderstood. It is regularly misapplied to support the existence of God or of a universal soul [Skt: atman] when in fact it does no such thing -- no pun intended.
A father says to his son that for a Brahmin 12 years of book-learning is not enough to attain wisdom. The father sends him, now 24 years old, to fetch a fruit from the nyagrodha tree. He asks him to break it open and tell what he sees there.
Cause and Effect
The Buddha used the banyan in a parable reminiscent of the "widow's mite" (New Testament):
Vata Savitri Vrata
In India, a Hindu vrata [fast] is observed on the full moon night in Jyeshtha, in honour of mythical princess Savitri, who like Isis of Egypt and Greek queen Alcestis, brought her husband back from death. By fasting, wives hope to prolong their husbands' lives. They pray to the vat (banyan) because it was under this tree that the husband of devoted Savitri, Satyavan, came back to life.
"In the centre of the garden, in a green tree-guard like
heavy a cage, a sturdy tree grew, silver branches covered in buds and a few new
heart-shaped leaves. It looked foreign to me beneath the old elms and beeches,
as if it were used to breathing a different kind of air. This, said the discreet
plaque, was a Bodhi tree and the Peace Garden had been planted by Victorian [a
south Australian state] school children in 1992 to commemorate the Dalai Lama's
visit to Melbourne.
[This item appeared at the end of 2001 when forest fires, many set by arsonists, raged around Sydney, Australia. That Parliament (Feb. 2002) also silenced the Dalai Lama, who had been invited to speak on peaceful matters.]
In Hinduism, the banyan is considered female and the peepul or ashwatha, another kind of fig tree, is male. Many ancient Indian villages have a pipul in their center, where people can gather in the shade and also make offerings.
In Puri, state of Orissa, the original image of Jagannath [< juggernaut] was found at the foot of a fig tree, in the form of an Indranila or Blue Jewel. Its blinding brightness, had prompted the deity, Dharma, to request it be hidden in the earth.
As we have seen, the peepul [also, pipul] tree under which Buddha Shakyamuni sought enlightenment, is a fig (ficus religiosa after that event) and like the banyan or nyadgrodha, it is a representative of the World Tree as axis mundi or turning point of the world. It is venerated by Hindus and Buddhists.
The one that is standing today in an enclosure in Bodhgaya, Bihar, India is regarded as the same one by many people. Legend has it though, that King Ashoka (3rd c. CE) cut that one down and burnt it, but that it grew back. He was so overcome that he would not return home, and so his queen arrived to do the same. Again it re-grew.
Described as a 'banyan' in a Times of India article, read how a daughter of the Tree escaped hurricane damage in Dec. 2000, as it has for 23 centuries.
There are different traditions regarding Shakyamuni's great meditation: He sat for seven weeks or he sat for seven days there, then 7 under the goatherd's tree, then 7 in Rajayatana, then returned for a final week to Bodh Gaya.
A cutting from the bodhi or bo tree was planted in Shri Lanka.
Do the leaves of this tree which also symbolize compassion/love appear in many emblems, reversed and painted red ?
If you would like to have a reminder of the bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) in your garden but you live in a northern climate, the linden (Tilia cordata) has been used in northern Japan for this purpose at least since 800 CE. It has similar somewhat larger 'heart'-shaped leaves and seeds suitable for stringing.
Once, the Buddha agreed to a request of King Bimbisara's to perform miracles at the Full Moon at a well-known spot in Shravasti [Pali: Savatti] under a mango tree, with a week's advance notice. The king's crier went out into the countryside on his official elephant to announce the event.
In order to ensure no one would turn up, the opponents of Buddhism arranged to have all the mango trees felled. Not one was left standing and so no one could know where to assemble. But before the appointed hour, so they say, the king's gardener offered a fine specimen of a mango to Buddha. He enjoyed eating the fruit, and then requested that the gardener plant it right there. From that mango pit immediately grew a fine tree 100 cubits [c. 20" x 100] tall and visible for miles. It matured as it grew, and the fruit ripened and were enjoyed by all.
Nagarjuna taught that:
There is a famous Indian trick that has been reported down through the centuries by travelers from many different lands in which a fakir of other magician causes a mango tree to grow from a seed before the very eyes of the audience. No doubt it was inspired by the miracle performed at Shravasti by the Buddha.
The boteh motif that is an element of paisley designs is a representation of a mango.
Named perhaps, because of the legend of a tree that would not die, the ashok [Sanskrit for anti-suffering] tree is a symbol of longevity. It sometimes appears emerging from the vase of amrita (nectar of immortality) that is held in the lap of longevity deities like Amitayus, where it can resemble a cluster of grapes.
The Ashok is a small evergreen (Saraca indica) whose branches droop over each other in layers unless it is trimmed back. It grows in the central and eastern Himalayas as well as on the west coast of India. Its bright orange flowers bloom in abundance in the spring. Since Lord Rama's bride, Sita is said to have sat under this kind of tree while she was being held captive by Ravana, it is also called the Sita Ashok, and is not considered auspicious around Hindu homes -- especially those with daughters --- for that reason.
However, it is also sacred to Kama Deva, the God of Love, and its brilliant flowers provide delicately perfumed temple decorations.
Kalidasa's poetry includes: "Young women's hearts bleed at the sight of ashok tree branches laden with flowers, blood red from stems to petals." So it is no wonder that Mahamaya, Gautama Buddha's mother on her way to her mother's at Ramagama, the capital of Koliya, stopped to rest at the Lumbini garden. There, admiring an ashok tree in full bloom, she felt the pangs of birth and steadied herself by taking hold of a branch.
On Marpa Lotsawa's (1012-1097) return trip to India in search of his guru, Naropa, that master proved elusive, indeed. People would say that he had "left," or else the guru seemed to appear in all sorts of disguises. This activity Marpa later considered to be a test of his comprehension of the nature of reality. In later life, he reported that he knew his guru was near when he approached an ashok tree and had a vision of Nairatmya, consort of the many-armed deity Hevajra. She was as if reflected in a mirror, with ribbons of mantras swirling at her heart.
In the 19th century, Huc and Gabet, two French Catholic (Lazarist) priests went as missionaries from the Mission at Peking (now, Beijing) to Lhasa. In their Journal (Hazlitt's translation (London: 1856) Huc describes the "Tree of Ten Thousand Images" which they saw at the Gelugpa monastery of Kum Bum. Tibetan legend says that when the blood from the birthing of Tsong Khapa fell to the earth, a tree sprang from it which bore a distinct Tibetan letter or phrase on every leaf.
There is another remarkable tree -- a juniper -- that appears to have emerged from a rock at the tomb of Karmapa Rolpei Dorje which is said to smell distinctly of the hair of the meditator who had sat there for many years.
Shakyamuni meditated in a forest of sallow-wood trees (shorea robusta.) It is also known as the salwa, sakhu, shal, kandar and the sakwa. It is famous for being the kind of tree under which the Buddha lay down to die. It is said that the white sal florets that bloom in bunches in the springtime fell and covered him. It is a slow growing hardwood that reaches heights of 100 feet or more, producing an extremely dense timber that is very resistant to rot. It has large oval shiny leaves.
It is the source of an opaline white resin used as incense, as a caulking for boats, and a fuel for lamps. In times of famine, people have been known to grind its fruit for flour, and use its sap to mix with ghee. It is, therefore, a fine and apt symbol for the Dharma.
In the Indian state of Orissa, the Santhals celebrate the three-day Baha festival that focuses on the Sal. Their sarna or holy place is a sacred grove of these trees. They have no other temples nor idols, but maintain a joyous, harmonious relation with the natural world as symbolized by the sala tree.
Sandalwood and its rather masculine-smelling oil were exported from India from earliest times. The Latin term for it is santalum album, which is where we get the English term. Its Sanskrit name is chandana. Today, it is mainly found in the south-western Indian state of Karnataka.
The thick, golden, aromatic oil was extracted by especially
constructed presses and was sold to the Romans at least until the 3rd century
CE. Its long-lasting scent seems to be stronger at night than in the
daytime, and it is thought that to preserve the scent, the object of which it is
made, or in which it has been soaked, should be kept enclosed or covered.
The 6th Dalai Lama, who was born in the spring of 1683, is known as Tsangyang Gyatso ("Ocean of Melodious Songs.") He gave back his getsul (celibate monk) vows to pursue a life of sensory pleasure, and is especially admired for having composed some timeless love songs. Unfortunately, he was a pawn in Central Asian politics and foretold his own death. He is, despite his exceptional lifestyle for a Gelugpa lama, still considered an extraordinary incarnation known for miraculous deeds, including the leaving of footprints and inscriptions in stone, which may still be seen in Tawang (in Mon territory, northeast India) where he grew up.
Before leaving that place to follow his heart, Tsangyang Gyatso planted a trio of sandalwood trees close to each other. He prophesied that the three trees would grow identical to each other by the day he returned again to Tawang. In 1959, local people noticed to their amazement that the three sandalwood trees had become equal to each other in size and shape. Then somehow the trees caught fire, which was a source of anxiety and dismay, for the legend had been kept alive. Then they learned of the Chinese invasion of their land and, following a week's procession of travelers, foreign journalists and security personnel, they once again received the Dalai Lama in Tawang -- this time in the person of Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who was on his way to exile in India.
Ginko or Maidenhair Tree
Tall and gracefully willow-like, it is a tree with a prehistoric ancestry; it is the only surviving species of a group of plants that lived millions of years ago. The leaves of the male are fan shaped, while those of the female are bifurcated (hence, ginko biloba) and resemble a duck's foot. The leaves turn pink in the autumn. The scent of the female of the species is so unpleasant that it is banned from many western cities, but in the eastern part of the world the greenish nut is prized as a food.
Because of its longevity -- one in Japan is estimated at 800 years old -- and its usefulness in treating various maladies, it was planted to the north of many Buddhist temples as a symbol of immortality. In fact one ginko truly embodied longevity and regeneration as it was the first tree to grow back in Hiroshima after the 1945 atomic bombing.
The Salisburia adiantfolia, or ginko is also known as Silver Apricot or Tree of Life and it produces an extract that has the capacity of dilating the tiny blood vessels in the brain hence improving cerebral circulation. For this reason, ginko biloba is used as a memory-enhancer.
Karnikara or Golden Shower
The Cassia, Golden Shower (also known as a Pudding-pine) with its long drooping pods and large racemes or clusters of star-shaped yellow flowers often features in Indian literature including the Buddha-karita.
Almost every part of the Golden Shower tree is useful: The leafy shoots that tip the branches are cut and steamed as a fresh vegetable. The leaves steeped in water provide a laxative tea, or ground into a paste sooth skin irritations, and four grams of the sticky black seeds boiled in salt water is supposed to relieve "heart congestion" when drunk before bedtime. The macerated bark is said to be a good leather cleaner.
This tall, gorgeous hardwood is also used in construction, and it is so durable that it furnishes the spokes of wheels and handles for plows. People often planted a karnikara for each child born to the family as an investment for their future, but also as a kind of sympathetic magic -- a guarantee that the child would grow tall and strong.
Neem or Margosa
The neem (Skt.: mahanimba) tree, or margosa (Azadirachta indica) is famous for its healing qualities. The olive-shaped fruit has well-known antiseptic properties, but is also famous for providing beads for use in Catholic rosaries. Twigs from it are used as toothbrushes. The bark contains an alkaloid and can be used as an insecticide for protecting rose bushes and also for the elimination of head and body lice.
It is said that when the amrita (elixir of immortality) was being carried to heaven by Garuda, a few drops were spilt on the gracefully drooping branches of a neem. Therefore, people consider the neem tree to be a cure-all, and merely touching it or walking around it is considered beneficial.
Twigs from it are used as toothbrushes.
Women have been known occasionally to marry trees, either to avert an astrologically bad match, or to retain certain liberties that maidens do not have, or to avoid the consequences of eventual widowhood.
Bel marriage is a way of avoiding the social sanctions that are imposed in traditional Hindu society whenever a woman's husband dies. In this way, she can also be free to leave her (human) mate, or to divorce him, and then she can also remarry as she chooses. In Nepal, Newars who comprise the predominant cultural group of the Kathmandu Valley, ritually marry pre-pubescent daughters to a fruit of the Bel (Aegle marmelos.) It stands for Lord Vishnu, also called Narayan.
The word Bel may derive from the Semitic word, baal, which means lord and also, husband.
This is a slender, aromatic creeper called areca that has alternate, heart-shaped, smooth, glossy leaves. In South Asia, the leaf is folded into an envelope to wrap paan (a mixture of chopped betel nut with a choice of other condiments) that is used as a stimulant. The astringent packet is macerated in the mouth, most commonly after a meal, in order to sweeten the breath and to aid digestion. Some juice is swallowed but the remains are expectorated so that woody bits and blood red splashes stain the sidewalks of public places.
The areca flower is used in a South Indian cult of the goddess, Siri (CBC Radio, "Tapestry," March 16, 2003) who was born in the centre of the blossom. Women strike themselves with the long stemmed flowers as part of a ritual involving "spirit possession" during which they can freely express their suffering before the men. It has been noted that when the bits of this plant matter fall into the temple tank (ritual pool) where they wash themselves, fish are found floating dead on the surface the next day.
One of the substances found in the white areca flower is an alkaloid that seems to have some positive effect on the symptoms of schizophrenics.
This tree bears the oak-apple that features as a medicinal plant. In India, it is associated with the cult of Shiva, so there are often Shiva-linga beneath them:
Karpur is the Indian word from which we get "camphor." It is the name given to some varieties of cinnamon tree. One group of varieties provides bark and leaves that can be used as a spice or flavouring; another (Cinnamomus camphorus and C. parthenoxylon) yields the strongly scented opaque crystalline substance that keeps insects away from fabric and furniture. For camphor, a fatty substance is extracted from the wood and leaves, which is further distilled, separated and pressed to yield the cake of white crystals.
The plantain, a kind of banana tree, is a symbol of illusion in Sanskrit literature. It may look like a tree but it is merely a clump of leaves. As Sylvain Levy points out (The Indian Historical Quarterly, vol.VI, no.4, 613) 1930.) the Buddha on different occasions (Majjh. I, 233; Sam. IV, 167) uses the metaphor of a man who went with his axe in search of good wood who only cut the trunk of a plantain tree.
The trunk of the plantain is also a symbol of delicate physical
beauty, and in Indian erotic poetry a woman's thighs may be compared to twin
trunks of banana trees.
In India, night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum) is called Raat rani. It appears an unremarkable spindly shrub, but as evening falls, the greenish yellow flowers that weigh down its stems begin to open into stars. As night descends and lamps are lit, the flowers exude their distinctive, heady scent that wafts on the evening breeze for long distances. These tiny white blossoms are sold in garlands for offerings and they also dress the hair of the women of northeast India, trailing down a braid or wound around a bun.
The name is used in Buddhist scripture to refer to a mythical tree that is said to bloom only once every 3,000 years, or an exceedingly rare flower. However there is an actual adumbara or udumbara tree, which is the ficus racemosa, a wild fig tree found in the Himalayan foothills. Some sources give ficus glomerata as the name of the species. In English, it is called the cluster-fig tree.
Ostensibly the blossom of this tree is not easy to detect.
Udumbara is also used for a configuration of the eggs laid by the lacewing insect that is used for divinatory purposes.
Trees as Offerings
In the Tibetan sang ritual, wood is burned for its scent, but the fire and the smoke are also part of the offering. Five traditional aromatic trees are used for this, and each is associated with a class of unseen beings: the juniper (lha), rhododendron (nyen), tamarisk (lu), margosa (tsen) and pine (deu.)
enclosure: This pipul is a descendant of the tree under which the Buddha taught his former companions. To visit the banyan that is the purported "enlightenment" tree, one has to go out into the countryside.