The Bodhi Tree (1)
My maiden encounter with a Bodhi tree (botanical name: Ficus religiosa) was back in 1992 when I visited my first Theravada monastery. A well-meaning, veteran member of that Theravada monastery sagely told me that when we visit a “temple”, we should prostrate first to Buddha, then to the Bodhi tree, and finally to “Bhante” (the resident monk).” I was completely taken aback. Being primarily Western educated, prostrating was simply not in my vocabulary, let alone prostrating to a tree! My instinctive thought (fortunately I did not blurt it out) was “Isn’t tree-worshipping a tad tribal primitive?!” Probably in response to my incredulous look, my self-appointed monastery guide explained, “The Buddha attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree and so it is special to us Buddhists.” Before I could swallow my gulp, she added in a conspiratorial whisper, “Besides, lots of devas (translated as deities) hover around the Bodhi tree, drawn by the very positive and wholesome energy surrounding it. So it is also good luck to go there. You know, some people ask for 4-Ds from Bodhi tree.”
I was impressed! “Wow, chance encounter with divinity,” I thought and promptly made up my mind that the next time I come to the monastery, I would prostrate to the ‘Tree’. I wanted to do the RIGHT thing by Buddha. (Besides if the devas were already paying respect to the Bodhi tree, who was I mere mortal to do less). But, I was still mildly uncomfortable: I was simply not used to prostrating before a tree, not even one with such an illustrious history. My very first steps to the tree were taken with a healthy dose of awkwardness. “What if people were to snigger?” I thought, hesitating. I scanned around quickly to check if anyone was looking. When I was sure that I was alone, I scuttled to the foot of the tree, prostrated and touched my head to the floor three times. Then I got up hastily, self-consciously patted that stray dirt off my clothes and walked briskly away. “Great!” I thought relieved, “No one saw.” The second time round was a lot easier, and before long, I was an old hand at bowing to the Bodhi tree. For a while, that act became my ritual whenever I visited the monastery.
Looking back today, there are times when I would grin from the memory with some light tinges of embarrassment. I now know that I most definitely missed the point about the ritual of bowing to the Bodhi tree. It is not about doing the RIGHT Buddhist thing. Neither is it about basking in the powerful presence of devas nor soaking in good and positive energies.
We pay respect at the foot of the Bodhi tree because we want to honour what it symbolises: the Buddha and His Teaching (Dhamma). The Bodhi tree is a reminder of what Buddha went through during his quest to figure out why the mind experience dukkha (loosely translated as suffering) and how to get out of that: the six long years of excruciating struggle through loneliness, self-inflicted starvation and torturous endurance of the elements. It is also a symbol of His ultimate spiritual triumph, His Enlightenment and realisation of nibbana on a Vesak full moon night over 2500 years ago. The honorific term ‘Bodhi’ was ascribed to that tree that he sat under, to mark its role in sheltering Buddha on that momentous night.
The Bodhi tree is also an excellent choice to visually depict Dhamma. It is a living testimony of impermanence. It grows. It matures. It can fall sick. And at some distant future under certain circumstances, it will also die. The leaves bloom, change colours, fade and fall. Each time you look at the tree, it is evident of change; subtly perhaps, but obvious nonetheless. If we are attached to the tree, we will experience some measure of sadness when it is sick or is changing in ways we don’t want. The process of change is organic and natural. It cannot be stopped by human will. It is not divinely determined.
So when we bow before a Bodhi tree, we should take a moment to reflect on what Buddha had taught: the four Noble Truths, the Noble eightfold path, the three characteristics of realities, namely, impermanence, suffering and soullessness, and conditioned existence. We should also reflect on our practice and spiritual commitment. Not unlike the nature of a tree, our commitment to the practice should be sturdy and unwavering. A tree will grow in strength given the right environmental and nutritional conditions. Similarly, we must cultivate the correct mental nutrients that will enable our mind to grow and strengthen spiritually, namely, faith in the Triple Gems, constant vigilance to keep the mind pure, sharp and alert mindfulness, clear and constant concentration and quiet intuitive wisdom. Just as a well-grown tree will stand tall, straight and upright and be able to withstand the bashing of the elements, we should endeavor to pursue the path with determination, courage and honesty, however difficult the journey may be. And finally, just as a tree will provide shade and relief from the blazing sun, a wise practitioner can be an oasis of peace and calm to a world still caught up in fiery wants. The Bodhi tree is indeed a timeless reminder of Dhamma and practice.
(1) Incidentally, the original Bodhi tree that sheltered Buddha does not exist anymore. It was destroyed by King Puspyamitra during his persecution of Buddhism in the 2nd century BC. Fortunately, earlier during Asoka’s reign (believed to be in 288 BC), a sapling from the original Bodhi tree was brought to Sri Lanka. Today, we still have the ‘direct’ descendants from that Bodhi tree.