THE PIPAL / BODHI TREE


Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa, or sacred Pipal-fig)
sends runners and saplings, making them easy to transplant.

[Text excerpted from "Pipal" in The Green World Oracle by Dr. Kathleen Jenks, Schiffer Publishing, autumn 2012]:

The "holy fig" (ficus religiosa), native to Hindustan and Ceylon, is one of eight hundred varieties of fig trees. It is very long lived (a still-living Ceylonese tree dates from 288 BCE). Although pipal fruit is inedible, it produces a milky lac, prized as a remedy for agonizing toothaches, which often plagued the ancients.

The most famous pipal or "Holy Fig," is the majestic, sheltering tree under which the Buddha, seated on a grass-throne, attained enlightenment. It is with strong justification that India's ancient Tree of Wisdom (bodhi), came to represent the Enlightened One. One might even speculate that the tree aided him during his pre-enlightenment hours, for he was one of the trees' own.  According to Buddhism's Jataka Tales, the Buddha himself was a female tree spirit in twenty-nine of his earlier incarnations and the King of tree spirits in a thirtieth. The trees must have been very proud of his accomplishments as a human.


The Pipal Goddess from the Indus Valley
© Sandra Stanton, who spent weeks painting each leaf as a form of meditation.
["Pipal" from The Green World Oracle, Schiffer Publishing, autumn 2012]

[Again, text excerpted from "Pipal" in Jenks' The Green World Oracle]:

The pipal fig tree has been sacred for thousands of years, dating back to the Indus Valley of pre-Aryan times. The great cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro (in present day Pakistan) were flourishing c. 2500-2000 BCE and trading with Mesopotamia via the Persian Gulf, exporting ivory, carnelians, sisu-wood, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, and Himalayan jade. According to Mesopotamian records, such goods came from Meluhha, their name for this Indus Valley civilization. Such trade ended abruptly c.1800 BCE for unknown reasons, although it was likely due to invading Aryans.

Terracotta goddesses from Harappa
..[Excerpted from The Green World Oracle]:  Excavations in Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro reveal a peace-loving people with few weapons. In addition to valuing cleanliness (they had indoor plumbing), large numbers of ingenious terracotta toys suggest a playful people whose children were precious to them.  Homemade clay votive statues were also found, most of them depicting nude Mother Goddesses, their hourglass-figures bedecked with intricate necklaces, bracelets, hip belts. They were made from flattened lumps of clay -- prodded, poked, patted, and coiled into some semblance of the divine. They were fashioned by loving hands, but not very skillful ones. Yet these crude little statues bespeak an ancient, earthy sense of devotion to the Mother Goddesses. Those who crafted the statues seem never to have doubted that the work of their hands, done with loving care, would be perfectly acceptable to their deities.


Mohenjo-Daro Pipal Goddess Seal

From that same site, here is what that seal's negative image looks like
when impressed, or "stamped," i.e.,  reversed:

[Excerpted from The Green World Oracle]:  Exquisite art was also found here. One tiny three inch masterpiece (see above), a seal carved of soft stone, reveals a very energetic sacred dimension. A nude Pipal-goddess, wearing many bangles on her arms and an elaborate crescent-crown, stands in profile between the curving limbs of a pipal tree; her hair hangs in a long braid; her feet are placed in such a way as to suggest that she is about to shift her balance from one to the other. A masked male worshipper, kneeling on the ground, is accompanied by a large horned bull-goat. Across the bottom are seven priestesses, their faces also in profile, their hair also braided, their feet carrying them off to the viewer's right. Unlike Aryan dance, which is thought to have involved vigorous leaping, foot-stomping, and hand-clapping, Indus Valley art suggests a sinuous, intricate, erotic dance – qualities echoed much later in Shiva’s dance. The seven dancers moving across the tiny seal hint at the sexual boldness and grace inherent in such dancing.

To the static stiffness of the kneeling male, the pipal goddess and her seven priestesses bring a complimentary element of movement. This is coupled with an ascent/descent theme associated with cosmic trees worldwide. Indus Valley writings have not been deciphered so we do not know this goddess' identity, yet Buddhist legends many centuries later speak of an aboriginal chemist-goddess, protectress of the sacred pipal tree, who was adored for twelve years by the Buddhist sage, Nagarjuna, before she found him worthy of being entrusted with her primordial secrets of science.  If the goddess of the kneeling male in the ancient seal is not the same as Nagarjuna’s, they are surely kin.

The goddess of this pipal tree is full of confident power (known in Hinduism as shakti, the active polarity, which quickens passive male gods).  She seems to have been caught in a freeze-frame, about to shift her weight, comfortable in responding to changing dynamics. Her message is clear. Balancing the more masculine-attuned spiritual technique of withdrawal and interiority, this anciently youthful goddess offers another spiritual method -- one of active, even playful engagement with the natural world. She demonstrates a celebration of the female-principle as a powerful force equally involved in life and death, opening out, folding in, inhalation, exhalation. These functions had not yet been split: there was a totality, a sense of flow and wholeness, a bold sense of trust in the processes of nature, not an anxious attempt to control or escape from them.

As Barbara Walker writes about figs, whether from the pipal tree or other species, in her Woman's Dictionary of Symbols & Sacred Objects (pp. 484-5): "Figs were...female genital symbols.... This may account for the common use of the fig tree as a symbol of man's enlightenment, which was formerly supposed to come through his connection with the female principle."


Hindu Temple and Pipal Tree, Bhaktapur, Nepal
(Drawn on location, 1988: ink on paper, 11" x 14")
© Philip Sugden: used with the artist's permission
After the fall of the Indus Valley civilizations, Hinduism slowly developed out of various indigenous spiritual traditions mixed with beliefs of Aryan invaders from the west. The sanctity of pipal trees continued, however, whether growing on sites selected for Hindu temples or in the countryside at large. Centuries later the Buddha, born in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, would attain enlightenment while seated under a pipal on the banks of the Falgu River in Bodhgaya, India. Since that time, the tree is frequently found outside Buddhist shrines where it provides medicinal lac as well as dense, welcome shade from the tropical heat.
This is from Bangkok's largest temple complex, Wat Phra Mahathat, built in the 14th century.  Buddhists still visit this very auspicious relic, a Buddha head entwined within the roots of a bodhi tree, a type of fig tree which Buddha was said to be meditating under when he achieved enlightenment [Highlights of Thailand].
"Siddhartha [the Buddha] culminated six years of rigorous striving by letting go and was thereby able to gain supreme enlightenment when he resolved to simply sit under the Bodhi tree.... slacking off would have ruined him. But in between, the heart/mind was freed.... He became tranquil through breathing meditation...." (Wisdom Quarterly).

The Buddha
Odilon Redon
India's northeastern state of Bihar is the birthplace of one of the world's most widely followed religions, Buddhism.  Gautama Buddha, c. 563-483 BCE (but more recent opinion dates his death to between 486 and 483 BCE or, even as late as between 411 and 400 BCE), undertook extreme ascetic practices before he realised these were not necessary. Following upon this realization, his enlightenment took place under a pipal tree on the bank of the river Falgu in Bodhgaya, Bihar. This tree would later be named the Bodhi (wisdom or enlightenment) Tree.

Elephant Journal
[Excerpted from Dr. Kathleen Jenks' "Ritual & Ceremony" Pacifica lectures]:  Many cultures record the power of trees to activate the energies needed to transform the pattern of human delusions into enlightened states. Moses, for example, first meets his deity in the Burning Bush and is given his life's work by that mystical encounter. Christ goes to the Garden of Olives at a critical point on his path. Indo-Europeans from Ireland to India worshipped many different trees, aware of their powerful energy fields. In some schools of Japanese Buddhist thought from the 10th century onwards, trees are even considered fully enlightened beings in their own right. For example, by the 12th century, the Tendai scholar, Chûjin (1065-1138), was writing:
The inner (or mysterious) principle of the Buddha-nature is a purity of original enlightenment [hongakû] and has nothing of impurity in it. This [Buddha-nature] is something of which plants and trees are in possession.
That 12th century passage, cited by scholar William R. LaFleur in 1989,1 is then further amplified by LaFleur:
When [Chûjin] sees the Buddhahood of plants resident in their mere possession of roots, stems, branches, and leaves, he is affirming their ordinary mode of existence in the world as one which is in itself an enlightened existence and a Buddha-nature.... That is, they are in possession of the Buddha-nature merely by virtue of their existence as plants, not inasmuch as they approximate human experience and norms.... [They] have their enlightenment in their own way and on their own terms.
This philosophical move, allowing Buddhists to view the beings of the natural world as already enlightened, "in their own way and on their own terms," brought Japan's imported Buddhism into a deeper resonance with Japan's indigenous Shinto belief in the presence of gods, or kami, who are everywhere in the natural world. Although Shintoism saw these beings as gods, and Buddhism as "enlightened ones," the degree of difference is less significant than the recognition of the reality of the Sacred shimmering throughout the natural world. Humans have to strive to attain such enlightenment; nature already has it. As LaFleur comments:
...nature is in full possession of what man only still partially possesses.
The obvious implication here is that it is very useful for humans to "hang out" with trees and plants. Thus, mindfully abiding with trees is spiritual practice, is a powerful path to the Sacred. Or as LaFleur expresses it:
...the goal of pilgrimage is often found within the natural world through which the pilgrim-poet travels rather than at some distant place deemed..."sacred".... [He/She] discovers the realm of sacrality along the way rather than at its end.

Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India:
Buddhist monks at prayer outside the Bodhi tree's enclosure
Photo: Matthew Winterburn for Sacred Destinations
SUMMARY: we circled back more than 4000 years to explore the pipal tree as a goddess locus, sacred to pre-Aryan Indus Valley civilizations. We looked at the pipal's continuing role in Hinduism and later as the Bodhi tree in Buddhism. Now it is time to move into the 21st century at Bodhgaya, the site of the Buddha's enlightenment. About a dozen videos of Bodhgaya's Bodhi tree were previewed for this webpage but this is the best:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxVHh3HIias&feature=related
It shows chanting monks (and three nuns) near the enclosure surrounding the tree -- it is not clear why there is an enclosure. The tree probably dislikes this, but humans evidently believe that such protection is necessary in today's world. What is best about this video are brief shots of the tree itself, beautifully windblown while thunder crackles in the background as monks continue chanting. The video gives one a good sense of the tree's environs.

This brief video also has some good shots of the tree: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHy6A57kjMk


A leaf on the Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, India
Photo: Jonathan for Sacred Destinations

Finally, Bodhgaya is the area where the Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation has established schools honoring the intelligence, playfulness, and wisdom of its young. Here, accompanied by enthusiastic, dedicated teachers, the children "hang out" with trees in nature and enjoy in-depth learning in their classrooms. In both nature and classrooms, they intract with a wide range of subjects, preparing them for enlightened lifetimes -- their Bodhi Tree schools have been aptly named.

Footnote:
1 William R. LaFleur, "Saigyô and the Buddhist Value of Nature," in Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought: Essays in Environmental Philosophy, eds. J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames; Albany: SUNY, 1989, pp.183-209.


 

9 July 2012: as a longtime member of the Bodhi Tree Educational Foundation's Board of Directors, it has been a pleasure to be asked to create a number of webpages on Regional and Buddhist topics related to the Foundation. Here is our Site Map with links to the pages I have so far created.  I hope you will enjoy them.
Warm wishes,
Kathleen Jenks, Ph.D.
Myth*ing Links