Dear Sangha Members, 

Last week we said farewell the venerable silver maple in Winding Path Temple’s backyard. 

On a windy day early last spring a large limb broke off the tree and nearly missed crashing through the house as it landed. While assessing the damage, we examined the back of the tree for the first time. We discovered that this tree which had appeared so majestic and stable when viewed from the front, was actually nearly hollow and significantly rotten inside. An arborist friend expressed serious concern about the safety of anyone passing under the tree and insisted that we remove it. 

But, this tree had been shading the backyard, creating privacy from surrounding houses and providing a home for countless animals since longer than I’ve been alive. It was part of the history of this neighborhood and part of the local ecosystem. Removing the tree wouldn’t just impact us, it would impact all of our neighbors, all of the plants it had been shading, and all of the creatures it had been sheltering. It would impact the entire city of Springfield as it was considered a “significant tree,” a category reserved for trees of 75 years or older and more than 3 feet in diameter. The tree was one of many acting as a canopy to buffer the city from rising urban temperatures that are a side effect of climate change. 

As the current caretakers of this property, Ryushin and I initially felt a sense of duty to try to preserve the tree in its current state. We knew of numerous trees in Japan whose limbs are reinforced by a bracing system that seems to bolster a tree’s strength and add significant years to its life. We investigated the possibility of propping this tree up for the next several years, but learned that silver maples, planted in large numbers several decades ago due to the species’ fast growth and full crown, don’t have much structural integrity once they reach about 50 years old. The arborists we spoke with couldn’t find a reliable way to brace the tree. And so, we decided to have the tree removed. 

Impermanence (anitya) is one of the three characteristics of existence in Buddhism. All things that come into existence eventually change and pass away into another state of existence. Although this truth is so fundamental to Buddhist teachings, it’s easy to lose sight of it as we move about in our relative lives. When we get lost in the delusion of permanence and are confronted by a sudden or significant change, we may be surprised and overwhelmed by the pain that accompanies that loss. It can be difficult to recognize that the change we are experiencing is part of a larger, ongoing process of change that impacts all sentient beings. Losing sight of that ongoing process of change can also be a barrier to experiencing gratitude and fully embracing each moment. When we think we have all the time in the world, we tend to take the people and situations in our lives for granted, forgetting their impermanent nature.

The silver maple behind the temple house has transitioned to another form, but we decided to leave behind the stump to remind us all of the truth of impermanence. The next time you are at the temple during daylight hours, we invite you to make a detour into the back yard. Take an opportunity to stand at the foot of the stump. Put your hand on the stump and feel its existence. Gaze at the hole in the middle that was already decomposing moment by moment inside the tree. Contemplate the constant change taking place in the stump, even though it may not be visible to the eye. And take a breath of gratitude for the trees that still exist in this neighborhood, in this city, and in the world. Recognize the beauty in this moment.