What Buddhists believe about the Bodhi Tree

"Thou Shalt not cut this Tree!"

by Prof. J. B. Disanayaka

Infinite are the ways in which Nature creates life and preserves it. The tree which not only provides sustenance and shade to man but also adds colour to his environment is truly one of the most precious gifts of Nature.

Primitive man had the highest regard for the tree because in his view it was another animate being. Like a being, the tree also has a soul and thus it could, when hurt or damaged, feel pain, or even bleed.

A Buddhist monk is prohibited from cutting down a tree or having a tree cut down not only because it has life but because it could also be the abode of a deity. The Vinaya Pitaka, the Book of the Discipline, which lays down rules for the proper behaviour of monks, states specifically that there is an offence of expiation, pacittiya, for the destruction of vegetable growth, by which is meant five different kinds of propagation: what is propagated from roots, from stems, from joints, from cuttings and from seeds.

How the Buddha was made to lay down this rule of training is also recorded in the Vinaya Pitaka.

Once people began to criticize certain monks for cutting down trees and having them cut down in order to make some repairs at a shrine. When the Buddha heard this, he expressed surprise at the behaviour of the monks:

"How can these recluses, sons of the Sakyans, cut down trees and have them cut down? These recluses, sons of the Sakyans, are harming life!" (The Book of the Discipline, Vol. Ill, translated by I. B. Horner, Oxford University Press, 1940, p. 226).

The tree that plays the most important role in the cultural and spiritual life of the Buddhists of Sri Lanka is the Bodhi tree. (Sanskrit: bodhi vriksha, Pali: bodhi rukkha, Sinhala: bo ruka or bo gaha) Botanists identify this tree as Ficus Religiosa. Every Buddhist temple in the island nurtures a bodhi tree as one of the three sacred objects that every temple is proud of, the other two being the stupa, that enshrines the corporeal relics of the Buddha or a sage, and the budu ge that houses the Buddha images. Every bodhi tree in the island is considered to be a close or distant relative of the bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, planted there in the third century before Christ.

The bodhi tree forms an integral part of Buddhist ritual because of its association with the life of the Buddha and thus of its magic. Buddhists believe that this tree possesses magical powers which no other tree in the world possesses.

The term bodhi is used by Buddhists to denote two distinct meanings: in a narrow sense, it denotes the ficus religiosa tree under which the last of the Buddhas, Siddhartha Gautama attained Enlightenment; in a broad sense, it denotes any tree under which a Buddha has attained Enlightenment.

The birth, the growth and the death of a bodhi tree, according to Buddhist mythology and folklore, is steeped in mystery and magic.

A bodhi tree is born, Buddhists believe, on the same day as that which marks the birth of the Buddha himself, who will sit under that tree in his quest for Enlightenment. However, it does not die on the day the Buddha passes away. Instead it remains till the very end of the kalpa, a mythological period of time that is almost beyond measure. At the end of the period, called kalpanta, the world will be destroyed in one of three ways: by the kalpanta varsha, the Rain; by the kalpanta vahni, the Fire; and by the kalpanta vata, the Wind. The last place on the earth that would be thus destroyed would be the site of the bodhi tree.

According to Buddhist mythology, the world will reappear and the very first site that would be recreated would be the site of the bodhi tree. In order to identify this site a lotus plant, padmankura, would arise and it is believed that all flowers that would appear in that kalpa would be from this plant.

The bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, known popularly as the Jaya Siri Maha Bodin Vahansa, Sirima Bodinnanse, or uda maluve bodi sami, derives its magic from two sources: firstly, from the fact that the Buddha attained Enlightenment under its original tree in Buddha Gaya in India; secondly, from the belief that it is the abode of a deity known as Kalu Devata Bandara, the Black Bandara deity.

Folklore records that the father of this deity is a yakkha by the name of Purnaka; his mother, a naga princess by the name of Erandati. It is said that once this deity was asked to meet God Vishnu, who assigned him the task of protecting the bodhi tree at Anuradhapura. God Vishnu, as mentioned here, is a Buddhist god whose main task is the protection of Buddhism, particularly in this island.

There is also a belief that Kalu Devata Bandara is none other than God Vishnu himself. Kalu Devata Bandara as the name indicates, is black or dark in complexion. Vishnu is considered to blue in complexion. In Sinhala culture the colour terms for black and blue, are almost interchangeable. For instance, the dark black tresses of a maiden is described as nilvan kes kalamba, literally 'blue-coloured tresses'. Thus Kalu Devata Bandara may very well be another name for God Vishnu.

The bodhi tree at Anuradhapura is considered to be the southern bough, dakshina shakha. of the original Indian tree. It was brought to Sri Lanka by the famous Indian Buddhist nun, Sanghamitta, the sister of Sage Mahinda who introduced Buddhism to this Island and, daughter of Emperor Asoka who was instrumental in propagating Buddhism in South Asia.

Since it is sacrilegious to cut a branch of a bodhi tree, how Emperor Asoka succeeded in getting a branch of the bodhi tree to be sent to Lanka is yet another story full of miracle and magic. The Pali chronicle Mahavamsa describes the acquisition of the bodhi tree thus:

"The king thought, 'The great Bodhi-tree should not be injured with a knife. How would I take a branch?' ...The king went to the great Bodhi-tree which was decked with various ornaments, adorned with different precious stones, garlanded with various flags, strewn with different flowers and resounding with varying music... He had the Bodhi-tree surrounded by the army and enclosed with a curtain... and with his hands clasped in salutation, gazed upon the great Bodhi-tree... Leaving a stem of about four hands in length from the southern branch, other branches vanished.

The lord of the earth, overjoyed on seeing this miracle cried out, 'I venerate this great Bodhi-tree by offering it my kingdom'. The lord of the earth consecrated the great Bodhi-tree in sovereignty.... Paying homage to the great Bodhi-tree with flowers and so forth, he circumambulated it thrice and venerated it with folded hands at eight points, he had the golden bowl placed on a gold-inlaid seat, decked with various precious stones, easy to mount and of the same height as the branch.

Having got on to it so as to reach the branch, he took red arsenic with a golden brush, drew a line and made this 'affirmation of the truth': "If the great Bodhi-tree should go from here to the island of Lanka and if I am unalterably firm in the Faith of the Buddha, let this auspicious southern branch of the great Bodhi-tree sever, by itself, and be placed in the golden bowl here."

The great Bodhi-tree severed, by itself, at the line and stood above the bowl filled with fragrant earth. Above the first line, the lord of men drew around ten red arsenic lines each three finger-breaths apart. Ten big roots from the first line and ten small roots from each of the others issued forth and dropped down in the form of a net. Seeing this miracle the king was greatly gladdened and, there itself, uttered a cry of joy...

Thus, with the hundred roots there, the great Bodhi-tree set itself in the fragrant earth, pleasing the people... At the moment the great Bodhi-tree set itself in the bowl, the earth quaked and there were various miracles... (Mahavamsa, Chapter Eighteen p. 591-594, translated by A.W.P. Guruge, ANCL, Colombo, 1989).

This branch was planted at Maha Meghavana, the Royal Gardens at Anuradhapura, where it survives till the present day, thus making it the oldest historical tree in the world. How this tree yielded its first saplings adds many more miracles to its story. Thus records the Mahavamsa:

"Amidst that great assembly, which was amazed with the miracle, a fruit that was on the east branch became ripe even as they gazed and fell down unspoiled. The thera picked it and gave it to the king to plant. The ruler planted it in a golden bowl... Even as all were looking at it, eight shoots sprang and grew into eight Bodhi-saplings and, with his mind amazed, honoured them by offering the white parasol and bestowed on them royal consecration." (Mahavamsa, p.600)

It is generally believed that neither fruits nor leaves of this bodhi-tree ever falls on to the ground. Its leaves, Sinhalese Buddhists believe, float in the air until they reach the Tisa vaeva, located a short distance to the south-west of the tree. It thus prevents human beings from stepping on these ran pat, golden leaves.

Buddhists also believe that this tree emanates a spectrum of six colours. Usually it is the Buddha's body that has the power to emanate the six-coloured rays, buddha rashmi, namely, blue, yellow, red, white, orange, and a mingling of all. Since the bodhi tree symbolises the Buddha, the qualities of the Buddha are attributed to the tree as well.

Another magical power of the bodhi tree is its power to cause rain. The belief that certain trees could cause rain is commonplace among primitive peoples. Frazer, in his The Golden Bough records innumerable instances from folk cultures in which many rain-making rites and rituals are associated with trees. It is believed that if one harmed or damaged a tree, the deity or spirit residing in it would get hurt and would thus stop rain as a mark of revenge.

From the point of view of Buddhist folklore, the Buddha had the power to cause rain, and thus, the bodhi tree which symbolises the Buddha, has also the same magical power. Many are the kinds of rites and rituals performed at the bodhi tree at Anuradhapura and elsewhere to cause rain. One of the rituals at Anuradhapura is known as the paen perahaera, a procession of rural folk who take water from the Tisa vaeva to the bodhi tree in clay pots during the height of the drought. Watering the bodhi tree is a common rite even in modern temples in the city. The ritual known as rianu mura mangalle, one of the four seasonal festivals held at the bodhi tree at Anuradhapura also involves the bathing of the tree with sacred water.

The bodhi tree is endowed with another magical power: the power to grant children to barren women. This is also a remnant of a primitive belief found in many folk cultures, where women who seek children are taken near the tree that has such power and are made to water it, embrace it, or tie a thread round it and so on. Sinhalese Buddhists believe that making a vow, bare, a solemn promise to come back and offer certain gifts, is sufficient to get their wishes fulfilled.

Some of the folk poems known as paetum kavi which embody the wishes of men and women of the Vanni districts of the North Central Province focus attention on this aspect of magic:

ape gamen bat baenda gena tisa vaevate yanta yi
tisa vaevae ratu nelume bat da gena kanta yi
etana sitan pevi pevi uda maluvata enta yi
uda maluve bodi sami pirimi putek denta yi

"Let us come to the Tisa Vaeva bringing rice from our village
Let us eat this rice, on red lotus leaves, from the Tisa vaeva
And from there, pure in body and soul, let us go to the Bodhi on the upper terrace,
And may the Lord, the Bodhi, bless us with a boy-child"

If a woman were to be get a child after making such a vow, she would come back, with the baby and a tender coconut plant, in order to fulfill that vow.

The bodhi tree, being a symbol of the Buddha, is endowed with another power: the power to predict the future. When the king or the country faces an impending danger, it is believed that the first signs of warning would appear in the tree, such as the withering of one of its branches, oozing of some secretion from its trunk, a phenomenon which rural folk identify as 'bleeding'. Since the withering of a branch implies its 'death', this could indicate death for the king and hence he would do his best to protect the tree at all costs.

A sacred tree will always have a set of taboos in order to maintain its sanctity. One such taboo relates to the felling of such trees or cutting down its branches. This was the dilemma that Emperor Asoka faced when he decided to send a branch of the bodhi tree to this island. The Bodhivamsa, the chronicle of the Bodhi tree, poses the questions that arose in the Emperor's mind thus:

"Who will lay a sword on the body of this sacred tree full of miraculous powers? How will the sword touch this body? It is not possible to cut off a branch of the tree without a weapon. How will the branch that is not separated go to Lanka? How can a branch that cannot be touched with a sword be sent to Lanka?"

Even today no Buddhist with faith will volunteer to cut down a branch of this tree, let alone fell it. If it became necessary to cut a branch or fell the tree, in order to protect an image or a building that is under it, then a special set of rituals were observed. For instance, monks will chant pirit in order to protect the man who carries out this task. Unless one is not ritually protected thus, "Thou shalt not cut this tree!", for it is the Buddha himself in symbol.

from Soba Environmental Publication Vol. II No. 2 (Colombo: Ministry of Environment and Parliamentary Affairs, 1990) pp. 20-23

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