The Bodhi Tree and Shakyamuni Buddha's Enlightenment

We are all familiar with the Life of the Buddha and his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. After practicing asceticism and nearly killing himself from starvation, he left the mountains where he had been practicing with the five ascetics, and entered a forest. Emaciated and nearly starving to death, he happened to be near a tree in the forest that was considered a special tree in that area. A young woman had prepared a special food offering for the gods that she was going to leave at that holy tree. She saw the emaciated Siddartha near the tree, and instead gave the food to him. He regained his strength and then realized that the path to asceticism was not the way. He bathed in a nearby river and then sat in quiet meditation, quiet contemplation, in the shade of that tree.

We never think much about the role of the tree in the Buddha’s enlightenment. To us, the significance of the tree is that it was the location of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and this location to this day continues to be a sacred site for Buddhists all over the world. Many travel to a place in India called Bodhgaya, and a descendent of that original tree still exists there.

I wrote before about a wonderful book given to me titled The Hidden Life of Trees” by Peter Wohlleben. After reading that book and learning about how trees can communicate and work for the betterment of the entire forest, I have been re-thinking the role of the Bodhi Tree in Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment.

What if the tree contributed to the Buddha’s enlightenment, giving Siddartha a nurturing environment, just as trees all nurture life in a forest? What if the entire forest contributed to the Buddha’s enlightenment as well, treating him as a part of the “forest,” a part of the community of trees, plants, animals, birds, and insects? Perhaps it was not just the Buddha’s own contemplation and deep meditation. Maybe it was the nurturing environment of the forest and the tree he sat under and the earth that supported him that all contributed to the Buddha’s enlightenment. To me, this is not a far-fetched way of thinking in regards to the Buddha’s enlightenment.

In my recent readings of Rev. Haya Akegarasu’s commentary on the Larger Sutra, he discusses a section of the sutra that talks about the Bodhi Tree in the Pure Land of Amida. The Larger Sutra was expounded by Shakyamuni Buddha and when we read this sutra, we cannot help but see how Shakyamuni Buddha expresses his own deepest heart of enlightenment in the myth, or story of the truth seeker, Bodhisattva Dharmakara, who becomes the Buddha Amida and creates a Pure Land where all beings might find true enlightenment. This Pure Land also has a Bodhi tree, just like in Shakyamuni Buddha’s own life. The Bodhi Tree in the Pure Land is magnificent. It is taller and wider than we can imagine.

I think the symbolism of the Bodhi Tree in the Pure Land is a reflection of the role the tree played in the Buddha’s own enlightenment. Perhaps in this passage of the Larger Sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha is praising the tree, praising the forest for being a major factor in his own enlightenment. Perhaps it was through the nurturing feeling of the forest that caused him to open his heart and mind to the world of oneness, the world in which all beings are interconnected and in harmony.

After the Buddha attained enlightenment, he then touched the earth, the great earth. In Rev. Akegarasu’s commentary, he mentions how in the Buddha’s teachings, nature and naturalness are often mentioned. The Buddha lived his life, walking the earth, being one with it, and expressing his reverence for it in his messages and teachings.

We live in a concrete jungle in our cities, but we too are intimately connected to nature. We receive light from the sun, rain from the clouds, and air to breathe. Where would we be without the great earth?

Shakyamuni Buddha was grounded in the great earth in his enlightenment and throughout his life. His heart and mind became one not only with the all of humanity, but it became one with all of life, even the great earth. Who knows if he would have attained enlightenment without the forest, without the nurturing Bodhi Tree?

To me, the Bodhi Tree is not only a landmark to remind us of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment, but it might have been instrumental in the Buddha’s enlightenment itself.

Namuamidabutsu,
Rev. Marvin Harada