On December 8 each year we celebrate Bodhi Day (Shaka Jodo-e in Japan) to mark the awakening of Shakyamuni Buddha. The stories associated with the Buddha’s awakening inspire us with his extraordinary energy in practice. He sat through an entire night (or for three or seven or forty-nine days and nights, depending on which version of the story you consult) without moving. He resisted fear, self-doubt and other the temptations of Mara. Through his meditation, he saw his own past lives, observed the workings of karma, and awakened to the true nature of reality. He recognized dependent arising, the Four Noble Truths, and other insights he would subsequently use to lead countless beings toward awakening.
We review the story of Shakyamuni’s awakening every year at this time, focusing on different details with each retelling. What intrigues me most about the story at this moment is that the Buddha got enlightened under a tree. Whereas today we meditate in our relatively comfortable hondo, heated, insect-free, and with an ergonomically engineered selection of cushions and benches, Shakyamuni sat outdoors on the ground under a ficus religiosa, or sacred fig tree. Imagine this tree just as solid as the Buddha. With its 25 foot girth and 80 foot height and branch-spread, the tree must have dwarfed the emaciated Tathāgata. The glossy green leaves fanning out overhead would have provided some shelter from the elements. The tree is an integral part of the awakening story, mirroring Shakyamuni’s rootedness.
The Bodhi Tree remains an important pilgrimage site in Bodh Gaya, India today. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world travel there each year to venerate the tree and to sit where Shakyamuni sat. The tree today isn’t the exact same tree the Buddha sat under 2500 years ago. This current Bodhi tree was grown from a cutting propagated from a previous Bodhi tree which was propagated from the one previous to that, going all the way back (some say five generations) to Shakyamuni’s original tree. Just as Shakyamuni’s teachings have been passed down and reshaped over the centuries, the Bodhi tree has continued on. In the third century BCE King Ashoka’s daughter gifted a branch from the original tree to an early king in Sri Lanka. He planted the branch and it grew into a new Bodhi tree that still stands in the city of Anuradhapura today.
These Bodhi trees are not unique in their propensity to draw people toward them. Across cultures and time humans have felt a deep connection to trees. In trees we see a vibrant life force, a permanence and strength beyond our human scale. Yet, when we contemplate the nature of a tree and its ecosystem, we can also observe interdependence and impermanence in action.
In a beautiful Emergence Magazine feature titled They Carry Us With Them: The Great Tree Migration, Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder and Jeremy Seifert describe the changes happening in forests in Maine. They write,
“We often admire trees for their steady rootedness, their resiliency in the face of change; for the gift of shade and companionship that a single long-lived tree might offer us and then our children and our grandchildren, even our great-grandchildren. But trees—or, more appropriately, forests—are perhaps not so rooted, so reliably placed, as we might think.
“Right now, around the world, trees are on the move.”
They go on to explain how forests have been slowly migrating across the planet for millions of years and how the acceleration of climate change is impacting species like the black ash, paper birch, red spruce, and sugar maple. Northeast boreal forest ecosystems will have a difficult time thriving in the warming climate and will start to leave New England, making room for other species and forests.
A few weeks ago Ryushin and I saw this tree migration in action while visiting friends in the Adirondacks. Our friends pointed out that the balsam fir trees, abundant on their land even 15 years ago, have almost entirely retreated from their property, perhaps moving up to higher elevations or even disappearing altogether. The aromatic balsam fir is one of my favorite trees, and the news of their disappearance made me sad. That initial wave of sadness was followed quickly by aversion and grasping. Thoughts sprang up: “I don’t want the weather to warm up so much. I don’t want the balsams to disappear. I should do more hiking in balsam forests as soon as possible before they move further away.”
My internal fighting against the disappearing trees was a natural response to loss; however, that type of reaction will never bring peace. The trick here is to generate gratitude for the joy that these trees have brought while staying open to the shifting landscapes of the future. Considering the reality of tree migration, here is an important question: How do we let go of attachment to the forests of the past and learn to love the forests of the present? I might also reframe that question in a more general way: How do we let go of the way we think the world “should” be and embrace the reality that is in front of us?
This doesn’t mean that we should just sit passively and ignore the problems of the world. It means we should take a balanced approach, working on transforming our own internal experience so that we can more skillfully engage with the world. Buddhist practice is meant to wake us up from our default understanding of reality so we can consider a situation from a new perspective. We sit to uncover the places we are clinging to views about how life “should be.” We try to loosen our grip on a fixed sense of self. Sitting with our discomfort when our own perceptions are challenged is not easy. But it is only by looking directly at the roots of our desires, only by looking directly at what we cling to, that we can find liberation.
Shakyamuni Buddha awakened to the true nature of reality while sitting under the Bodhi tree 2500 years ago. Today his teachings and the Bodhi tree continue onward in constantly shifting forms, reminding us to take advantage of the gift of this precious life.