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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.

buddha[1]

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

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, the great political philosopher and revolutionary, was born in England but he emigrated to Great Britain’s American colonies (thanks partly to encouragement from Ben Franklin).  In America, Paine was an immensely important figure in the American Revolution.  His best-selling book Common Sense was the voice of the revolution to such an extent that John Adams wrote, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.

Paine is revered as one of the nation’s founding fathers, but his revolutionary thinking and nonconformity prevented him from fitting into American society after the revolution. Paine was an Enlightenment deist who rejected organized religion and the Bible (which he regarded as “fabulous inventions”).  Additionally, the new country (with its slaveholders, capitalist merchants, feuding states, and theocratic undertones) did not live up to his ideal of a utopian republic.   Paine became involved in a feud involving the revolution’s funding with Robert Morris Junior a wealthy merchant & political insider who had set up the fledgling American economy (although Morris himself later went spectacularly bankrupt from injudicious land speculation and ended up in debtor’s prison).  Forced out of American politics by feud and scandal, Paine went back to England in 1787.  Then, as his writings became the subject of political and legal controversy, Paine moved again to revolutionary France, thus narrowly escaping being hanged for sedition.

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1890s)

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1790s)

Initially Paine was regarded as a hero by the French Revolution.  He was granted honorary French citizenship and elected to the National Convention (despite an inability to speak French).  However, once again Paine’s liberal and humanitarian ideals caused him trouble: he objected to capital punishment and argued that Louis XVI should be exiled to the United States rather than executed.  Paine also was an instrumental member of the Convention’s Constitutional Committee which drafted a highly principled Constitution.  The Constitution Committee was a moderate (Girondin) group and as the radical Montagnards took over, they regarded Paine as a political enemy.

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

In 1793, during the reign of terror, Thomas Paine was arrested by the Jacobins (who were acting under orders from Robespierre).  Paine languished in jail as his fellow prisoners were mercilessly slaughtered by the terror.  Paine pleaded for help from America’s minister to France, the wily Gouverneur Morris (who is credited with writing the preamble to the U.S. Constitution), but Morris offered no diplomatic support.  In summer of 1794 Paine’s execution was ordered.  A guard marked Paine’s cell with the chalk mark which indicated that the philosopher was to be taken to the guillotine the next day.  Paine had been feeling feverish and, as a mark of respect to him, his door was left open so a breeze could blow through the cell at night.  The guard accidentally wrote the fatal mark on the inside of the door–which was then closed in the morning.  The sickly Paine slept through the morning he should have been beheaded and woke to find the fatal mark inside the cell with him, unread by the executioner’s goons.  The Montagnards lost power a few days later and Robespierre himself went to the guillotine instead of Paine.  James Monroe, the new U.S. minister to France lost no time in securing Paine’s freedom.

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

For decades Paine had mingled as an equal with the most influential politicians and thinkers of France, Britain, and the U.S., however his timing was always somehow tragically off.  He left France in 1802 or 1803 just as the Second Great Awakening was bringing old-fashioned religious intolerance sweeping across the United States. When Paine died in Greenwich Village in 1809 he was almost universally despised as an atheist.  Only 6 people attended his funeral when he was unceremoniously buried under a walnut tree on his farm in New Jersey.   Yet Paine has lived on through his books.  Many of the great figures who overshadowed Paine have faded from the public memory as their political battles were forgotten, but Paine’s books still appeal to revolutionaries, nonconformists, and idealists across the ages.

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