The Bodhi Tree: uniting all worlds
The life of Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha, is central to Buddhist tradition. It has a mythic status. And in that story we find one of the most important Buddhist symbols: the Bodhi Tree. There are many variations of the myth surrounding it.
The legend of the Buddha is well known. The Buddha (“the enlightened one”) lived 2,500 years ago. Born a prince, he abandoned luxury when he became aware of the suffering of life. For six years he lived a life of meditation and austerity, and nearly died of hunger. Still he could not reconcile himself to human misery. The he sat under a fig tree – also known as a pipal tree – at a spot now called Bodh Gaya. He remained there for 49 days. When he stood, he thanks the tree for giving him shade, and it was then that he achieved enlightenment. The tree became known as the Bodhi tree – the “tree of enlightenment”.
The Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya today is a descendent of the tree under which the Buddha meditated, and Bodh Gaya is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites.
The myth of the Bodhi tree tells us that the tree is born on the birthday of the Buddha. It lives until the day the world is destroyed, and the place where it grows is the last place to be destroyed. When the world is reborn, that place to appear.
There is a specific type of Buddhist meditation called Bodhi Tree Meditation. In this practice, the religious contemplate the mysteries of the tree and its place among Buddhist symbols.
In Buddhist iconography, the image of the tree is made up of the tree itself and its reflection. The tree represents life, sorrow and desire. Its reflection represents the perfection of life, life reflected through awareness gained through Buddhist meditation. The tree is represented as having leaves in the shape of heart.
The tree is also seen as a metaphor for the journey to enlightenment. As the seed of the Bodhi tree matures and flourishes, so should the heart.
And so the Bodhi tree is sacred for a number of reasons. It was the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment. It is the ancient World Tree, uniting all worlds and it symbolizes the journey to enlightenment. Finally, it has a lovely aesthetic significance: it is said to rain blossoms.
Today, there are Bodhi trees at many Buddhist temples. Many are believed to be descendants of the sacred tree at Bodh Gaya.