Siddhārtha Gautama beneath the Bodhi Tree

Siddhārtha Gautama beneath the Bodhi Tree

Sometime in the 5th century BC (probably), Siddhārtha Gautama was born as prince-heir of the Shakya warrior clan, whose capital was Kapilavastu (in what is today Nepal).  After 29 years of unbridled sensual excess and aristocratic high-life, the prince had a spiritual crisis and renounced his throne, his lovely wife, and his infant child. He spent six years undergoing the most extreme ascetic self-mortification in order to find an escape from ignorance,  misery, and mortality.   However, abstinence from worldly pleasure did not provide any solution to his questions either—there was no escape from the universal human scourges of sickness, old age, and death to be found in austerity.   At a loss, Siddhārtha (aka Buddha, Shakyamuni , Tathagata, etc…) sat down beneath a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa) and vowed not to leave until he found truth.  Beneath the tree, he entered a deep meditative state– jhāna—and there he set for 49 days and nights.   At the end of this period, Buddha had an epiphany of absolute truth where he became aware of the nature of suffering and how to eliminate it from life by simply….

“Yes, yes, but what about the tree?” you ask (I assume you are at this blog because you like trees, not because you wish to awaken to universal truth and transcend the infinite cycle of dharma).  The pipal tree is a species of fig tree native to South Asia, East Asia, and Indochina.  Its scientific name means “sacred fig” because of Siddhārtha’s story. Figs are members of the family Moraceae (which includes figs and mulberries).    The pipal tree can become a giant:  some specimens grow to 30 meters (100 feet) tall and the trunk can reach up to to 3 metres (10 feet) in diameter.   Pipal trees are semi-evergreen trees which shed their leaves during dry seasons.  Their leaves are shaped like hearts—as is well represented in Buddhist art.

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The actual individual pipal tree which Buddha was sitting under when he attained enlightenment also has a complex biography.   After obtaining the knowledge of how to reach nirvana, Buddha remained beneath the tree for another week contemplating the nature of the tree and admiring its beauty.   When he subsequently came to prominence as a spiritual leader, a community of devotees gathered around the tree which was called the Bodhi tree (“Bodhi” means enlightenment).   The original tree was located in what is today Bodh Gaya, in Bihar, India (like the tree—the community was renamed in honor of Buddha’s enlightenment).  It became the nexus of a great monastery and saplings and cuttings were reverently taken to other parts of Asia as Buddhism spread.

The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya (photo by Nezzen, 2012)

The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya (photo by Nezzen, 2012)

Ashoka the Great, emperor of the Maurya dynasty who nearly united all India in the third century BC was a devotee of the great tree and he paid it such reverence that his wife became jealous and poisoned the original Bodhi tree with mandu thorns.   A new tree regrew, but it was in turn killed by King Pusyamitra Sunga in the second century BC and later by King Shashanka in 600 AD.  Each time the Bodhi tree was killed, however it was replaced with a direct descendent of the first Bodhi tree.  A particularly famous offspring of the original tree in Bihar was taken by Ashoka’s daughter to Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka where it grew into a famous specimen known as the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi.

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi adorned with prayer flags

Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi adorned with prayer flags

Today Bodhi trees—pipal trees which are the direct biological descendants of the original Bodhi tree—can be found around Asia and around the world.  They are a symbol of Buddhism and enlightenment and the planting of such trees can be traced to the time of Buddha himself.

Buddha oversees the planting of a Bodhi Tree Sapling

Buddha oversees the planting of a Bodhi Tree Sapling