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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

The Endless Knot

In Chinese art the endless knot (Chinese: 盤長; pán cháng) is one of the eight auspicious symbols or “eight treasures” which were borrowed from Indian Buddhism (which in turn probably borrowed the symbols from earlier Hindu mysticism).  Among the eight, the mystic knot is especially popular, since it “ties together” so many different metaphorical concepts.

Since it has no end, the knot is said to represent that which is divine and eternal:  essentially it is an Asian version of the infinity symbol.  To people who believe in reincarnation, the knot represents samsara, the eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth in which all living beings are imprisoned.  Each different faith conceives of such endlessness differently and to different worshippers the knot has different sources and varied meanings.  In Hindu religious paintings the knot was found upon the breast of Vishnu the preserver of the universe, while Buddhists see it as the intestines of the Buddha. To some it is a symbol of individual longevity, while others regard it as emblematic of the eternal nature of perfect love.

 

Or the permanent nature of a tattoo…

To the most subtle philosophers the knot is itself a sort of koan which cannot be untied or solved.  It represents being and non-being knotted together inextricably.  The emptiness around the knot defines the knot itself just as emptiness and nothingness pervade and define the apparent reality of existence (according to Buddhist monks and atomic physicists anyway).

My favorite interpretation of the endless knot however is not so abstruse and cosmic but has a rather more human cast. Some sages assert that the knot represents compassion and wisdom, which are components of each other. Without wisdom, compassion is empty and to no avail, whereas without compassion, there is no true wisdom. Each concept grows out of and encompasses the other.

Although everyone is familiar with the dragon and the phoenix, there are many other fantastical creatures in the Chinese mythological bestiary.  The Quilin or Ch’i-lin (AKA the “Chinese unicorn”) was believed to be indigenous to the realms of heaven.  Seldom seen on earth because of its goodness, purity and nobility, the appearance of a quilin before mortal eyes heralded prodigious good fortune.  Quilins reputedly only visit earth to presage the birth of the greatest sages and rulers or to signal the advent of a prodigious leap forward.

Like many other mythical animals, the quilin is a wild hybridization of other creatures: it traditionally has a wolf’s head with a single horn (although sometimes it is portrayed with antlers), a multicolored deer’s body covered with fish scales, the hooves of a horse, and the tail of an ox.  Its voice sounds like lovely bells.  The quilin is most notable for its gentleness and kindness.  It refuses to harm any living thing and it does not even bend the grass when it walks.  Nevertheless, the quilin could be ferocious in its defense of the righteous or innocent and it is sometimes shown covered in magical flames.  Genghis Khan is said to have witnessed a quilin just as he was about to conquer India.  Although the creature bowed politely to the great conqueror, its message was clear and Genghis Khan cancelled his plans for subjugating the subcontinent.

It’s a bit unclear how auspicious Genghis Khan was for the world (although he certainly had a magnificent run of good fortune after seeing the quilin). Some other supposed quilin sightings make more sense.  A quilin is said to have appeared to the yellow emperor, a legendary wizard-monarch who unified China under one throne in 2697 (that we have an exact date for a fictional person is a fun eccentricity of Chinese history).  The quilin emerged from the water of the yellow river bearing a pictogram of China which the yellow emperor used to fashion Chinese writing.

Buddhists call it the dragon horse and revere it for the belief that it carries Buddha’s book of law on its back.  Confucianists believe a quilin appeared to the sage’s mother just before he was born and spoke a line of holy prophecy to her.  Under the command of the eunuch Zheng He, the treasure fleet of the Yongle Emperor visited the east coast of Africa and was presented with a giraffe.  The animal fit the description of a quilin fairly closely and was brought before the Yongle Emperor as such.  He dismissed the possibility by wryly saying he was no sage–however he treasured the giraffe and kept the creature in his bestiary.

The Giraffe as painted by artists of the Ming Court

I’m afraid there haven’t been many quilin sightings reported recently.  Some religiously-minded Chinese devout believe that this is because the world has become entirely debased (although even for fictional creatures, quilins have always been rare).  Perhaps a quilin is ready to appear again in some unlikely place to some wise soul and the world will lurch forward into a new golden era.  At any rate, here is a good picture of the creature.  Hopefully just looking at the likeness of the quilin will bring you the greatest of good fortune!

The Quilin

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