Underneath a Bodhi Tree

Buddhist traditions say that the first human being achieved enlightenment underneath a Bodhi Tree. Whilst enlightenment may be ambitious, the experience of sitting under a tree is unquestionably sublime, and deeply transformative. But what is it about trees that initiate us into such an experience?

According to Buddhist traditions, the first human being achieved enlightenment, or became the Buddha, underneath a Bodhi Tree. A young prince, Siddhartha Gautama, having lived his whole life in privilege and luxury, left his family palace to meet his subjects, and was subsequently confronted with the reality of human suffering. Eventually he found his way to a sacred fig, and began to meditate, arriving at enlightenment in one night, some say. For the prince who would later be known as Buddha, it’s said that through that process, he saw the past lives of all beings, discovered the laws of karma, and released himself from all attachments.

Enlightenment sounds ambitious, but it’s reasonable to assume that we will have some form of an experience that can be described as sublime. Gavin Van Horn instructs, in “Breathing Trees”: “Come to the trees: to forget and to remember. To forget the straightjackets of manufactured time and cubicles. To remember something much older than the Gregorian calendar and the forty-plus-hour workweek. Come to the trees: to touch and be touched by something more primary, more whole.”

Between accounts of the Buddha and Gavin’s anecdotes, there is a shared sense that sitting under a tree, and experiencing kinship with it, creates a transcendental experience beyond realms, without words, that invites you to erase, to forget, and to leave behind all that is unduly magnified in a human experience within the confines of our self-constructed worlds. Often, as So Sinopoulos-Lloyd and Pinar Sinopoulos-Lloyd put in “Eco-Mysticism for Apocalyptic Times”, this “mysticism is dangerous especially to status quos of ‘empires.’ It is an overflow of myth, creativity, life force, despair, or joy that can emerge as a reaction to stagnancy in systems.”

As a young prince was once convinced to become disenchanted with his grotesque abundance of riches, and as Gavin writes of how we free ourselves from the enchainments of capitalist time, this being with a tree has a politically destabilising, radical liberatory effect, dissolving what empires thrive upon.

But what is it about trees that initiates us into doing so? What is it about trees that can do more convincing than words ever really can?

We should first consider the unimaginably long histories of these standing giants. As Richard Powers writes in The Overstory, “This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” In the history of the world-as-we-know-it’s formation, there was a time when plants didn’t have roots or leaves, relying on symbioses with fungi to provide them with water and mineral nutrients. Without the necessary resources, the plants grew not more than a few centimetres tall. But, rather miraculously, by the Late Devonian period (over 350 million years ago), soaring forests came to existence, and the oldest known trees of the world’s first forests planted themselves on Earth here. It was also in this geologic period that seed-forming plants appeared, and the rapid appearance of such a great variety was called the “Devonian Explosion”.

So trees came to life around 400 million years ago. Contrast that with the fact that archaic Homo sapiens, the forerunner of anatomically modern humans, only evolved in the Middle Paleolithic, between 400,000 and 250,000 years ago. Indeed, “it’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” In the eyes of these standing giants, we’ve been but a blink. Gavin writes: “I feel my sense of self slipping away as I consider such alternative time scales. I am so temporal, so temporary—a Will-o’-the-wisp in a forest that dreams in decades, centuries, millennia. I will come and go, a ghost across the needles, a phantom in the understory.”

Jori Lewis writes in “The Eternal Tree” of baobab trees in Africa: “Baobab trees are thought to be the homes of spirits par excellence [...] in the best conditions [they] can live for more than two thousand years. Imagine, two millennia in one spot? Human generations are calculated in twenty-five-year intervals, so such baobabs would have witnessed eighty generations of humans crying as infants, crawling, growing, living, exploring, farming, building, warring, loving, and dying. [...] How could people not see such beings as ancestors, as holders of secrets from the great beyond?” Trees are that—still-standing, patient, seemingly everlasting witnesses to our individual and collective histories: in the face of them, how could any of our short lifetimes stand a chance?

Being with a tree puts us face to face with the smallness of our lives and the largeness of everything else, a zooming-out effect that lifts the veil of our complacency and ego, nudging away our sense of self-importance.

Truly, a sense of self completely liquefies as we sit with a tree. As we touch our hands to the tree not only do we catch a glimpse into the deep histories interwoven in it, we also begin to feel how the tree is interwoven with the ecosystem in which it is rooted. “Start with the plants, follow their inquisitive growth, their running roots and rhizhomes, the widespread movements of their pollen and seeds, and an entire ecology of beings and becomings and comings undone will soon become perceptible,” writes Natasha Myers in “How to grow liveable worlds”.

Where once upon a time we might have thought that trees were solely in competition with each other, fighting for survival in a Darwinian paradigm, now it’s common understanding that trees are connected through underground fungal networks, sharing water, nutrients, communicating distress signals, being each other’s lifelines. We can consider too, the processes of photosynthesis and respiration, in which beings seen and unseen support each other in every moment. Andreas Weber writes, “[b]reath is what transforms bodies into one another.” If beings in an ecosystem share breath constantly, how could we possibly delineate one being from another?

The plot thickens when we encounter Pando, a huge aspen grove in Utah, believed to be the largest, most dense single organism in the world, weighing 13 million pounds. Its root system is estimated to have started at the end of the last ice age, but what’s most fascinating is how this singular root system connects a grove, an aspen forest, over 47,000 trunks and millions of leaves. Pando troubles our categorisation of singular organisms: how could an entire forest be one? How can 47,000 be countable? But perhaps Pando makes clear something we’re just too stubborn to acknowledge: there is no ‘one’ in the forest—there are many in the one, and in the one we see many. Once again: sitting under a tree, our ego dissolves.

Upon thinking and being with a tree long enough, how could we hold onto our selves? Just like trees, and especially Pando, we too are entirely relational.

Our selves are inherently, and always in relation. We could not exist without the conversations our bodies are having constantly with beings around us.

Sophie Strand says that “we live in households, but we are also households”. Andreas Weber too, explains: “We’re ecosystems. This microbial ecosystem inside of you is in constant dialogue with the ecosystem(s) outside of you. Your gut biota are continuously replenished by the stuff you eat because it’s full of bacteria. Your skin microbiome deposits itself on everything you touch. If you touch somebody, you exchange microbiomes. You don’t have a border. To think so is another bourgeois Western illusion. In actuality, you’re constantly blurring with the animate world around you.”

We can never really know what the young prince meditated on under a tree before he gained enlightenment, but a good guess would be that he came upon these revelations that would be a universal experience to those of us who disciple under a tree for some amount of time. The power of this experience cannot be understated: the revelations, as we said, could crumble empires. For those of us in search of ways to navigate these complex and cataclysmic times, in which our cultural and societal structures seem to trap us deeper every day, ancient mythologies and enlivened cosmologies are pointing us to an answer that’s been here for over millions of years—the standing giants, our sacred trees. In them, perhaps, we may find our liberation.

On the upcoming course, Tree of Life, you will become a student of the trees that stand tall and deeply rooted in cultures around the world, including the aspen, the banyan, the baobab and many more. Expanding your mythological repertoire, you will begin to see the sacred significance of trees, and unlock the wisdom they, and the guardians who protect them, hold. You will also gain insight into the workings of forests as interconnected ecosystems, growing and fortifying your ecological knowledge. Become a student of the standing giants: join us on the course.


Tammy Gan

Tammy (she/her) leads on content and storytelling at advaya.

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