Trees In The Buddhist Scriptures

Trees in the Buddhist Scriptures

There are several words for trees in Buddhism; rukkha, duma, jagatāruha “earth grown” , pādapa “foot drinker” and viṭapin (A.III,43; Bv.9,28; Ja.I,216; VI,178). The Jātakas say of the tree: “It is called a tree because it has branches. Without branches it’s just a stake” (Ja.IV,483). The Tipiṭaka mentions some 200 types of trees and frequently trees in general. Some of the structural components and other parts of trees referred to include the roots (mūla), trunk (daṇḍa or khandha), the periderm or outer bark (papaṭikā), the phloem or inner bark (taca), sapwood (pheggu), heartwood (sāra), branches (sākhā), twigs (pasākhā), leaves (paṇṇa or patta) and crown (agga, M.I,193-6).

Roots, those parts of trees and other plants that anchor them and absorb and transport water and nutrients, are discussed in detail in the Tipiṭaka. Some of the different root systems mentioned include woody roots which could be either long or short (dīghamūla, rassamūla, (Ja.II,346), tap roots and lateral roots (mūlāni ahogamāniyāni tiriyaṅgamāni), feeder roots (nāḷi), spreading roots (mūlasantānaka), hair roots (mattāni, S.II,87-8; III,155), and in the case of some other plants, tubers (āluka or āluva, Ja.IV,46) and bulbous roots (kanda, D.I,101). The aerial roots of banyan trees were called “trunk-sprung” (khandhaja, Sn.272). It was understood that roots absorb moisture and nutrition from the soil and that the sap (ojā) moves upwards through the trunk into the branches and leaves. The Visuddhimagga says: “When a great tree is growing on the earth, nourished by the essence of humus and, with that as condition, its roots and trunk, branches and shoots, foliage, flowers and fruit grow so it fills the sky and continues the tree’s species until the end of the aeon, one cannot say that the essence of humus is only found in the roots but not in the trunk or in the fruit but not in the roots, and so on. And why? Because it spreads throughout the whole tree from the roots upwards” (Vism.688). The Buddha said: “Just as a tree that has been cut down can grow again if its root is undamaged and complete, in the same way this suffering returns again and again if the tendency to craving is not removed” (Dhp.338). However, it was observed that some plants, palm trees in particular, could not grow again if they were “cut off at the root” (A.I,137).

Trees, wall painting from Dambulla Temple, Sri Lanka, 18th cent.
Trees, wall painting from Dambulla Temple, Sri Lanka, 18th cent.

There were still large forested tracts in northern India during the Buddha’s time. The Mahāvana or Great Forest, extended almost unbroken from the outskirts of Vesālī to the lower Himalayas. Once, the Buddha stayed in a forest near the village of Pārileyya where an elephant looked after him (Ud.42). Other forests visited by the Buddha were the Dark Wood near Sāvatthi (S.I,130), the Forest of Offering at Kusinārā (A.V,78), the Gosiṅga Forest at Vesālī where many sal trees grew (A.V,134) and the Cool Forest to the west of Rājagaha near the city’s charnel ground (A.III,374). Very large and majestic trees were sometimes called vanaspati, “forest lords” (Ja.IV,229; S.IV,302; Vin.III,47).

Some stretches of forest wilderness were extensive enough that running out of supplies while travelling through them or losing one’s way in them could spell disaster. A lone traveller might be reduced to drinking water from a puddle in a cow’s footprint because nothing else was available (A.III,188). In extreme cases parents lost in the forest might be forced to kill and eat their child in order to survive (S.II,98). Villagers living near forests sometimes acted as guides for those wanting to travel through them. (Ja.II,335). There are records of this still being done some 500 years later. When the Chinese monk Faxian was in India in the early 5th century the road from the Middle Land to the Deccan passed through such wild and thickly forested country that travellers had to pay local rulers to provide them with guides for the journey. Such guides would accompany the traveller for a certain distance before passing them on to another guide, and so on, until they emerged from the wilderness.

The Buddha encouraged monks and nuns to seek solitary lodgings in the forest (A.II,250), “at the roots of trees, mountain slopes, a glen, a hill cave, a cemetery or a woodland grove” (M.III,3). He said: “The one who wears rag-robes, who is lean, with protruding veins and who meditates alone in the forest; him I call a true Brahmin” (Dhp.395). Some monks tried living in hollow trees and in the fork of trees (Vin.I,152). A forest-dwelling monk was advised not to settle down at the foot of a tree on a border, one used as a shrine, one from which resin or fruit was collected, one in which flying foxes roost, a hollow tree or one growing in a monastery (Vism.74).

The Buddha, and not only he, believed that the solitude and simple living which forest wildernesses offered, were essential for meditation. Time and again he encouraged his monks and nuns to spend as much time as they could away from human habitation and in the jungle: “Here are the roots of the trees, here are empty houses. Meditate, monks! Do not be slothful so that you reproach yourself later. This is my instructions to you” (A.III,87). He mentioned that some of his disciples would spend the whole year except the three months of the monsoon “at the roots of trees and in the open air” (M.II,8). More commonly they would “go to remote forest lodgings and having plunged into the forest only join the monastic community every half month to recite the rules” (M.II,87). However, Buddhist monks and nuns could never go too far into the wilderness. Ascetics of other sects were allowed to pluck wild fruit and dig up edible roots, while Buddhist monks were not allowed by their rule to do either. As a result, they always had to be near habitation in order to get their food.

The Buddha addressing three tree spirits, India, 350 CE.
The Buddha addressing three tree spirits, India, 350 CE.

Contemplating the future of the Saṅgha and suspecting that the desire for the forest life would be likely to fade, Venerable Phussa said that coming generations of monks would probably find “the jungle wilds uncomfortable and go and live in the villages” (Th.962). During the Buddha’s last years he too predicted that the Saṅgha would probably degenerate. One sure sign of this, he thought, would be that monks would no longer live in the forest (A.IV,21-2). The beginning of this trend is already present in the Vinaya. With the Buddhist Saṅgha becoming more legalistic, a precise definition of “the forest” was necessary. Technically, a monk’s abode could be designated “a jungle lodging” if it was 500 bows (dhanu) from the border of a village (Vin.IV.183). By the time of the Visuddhimagga (5th century CE) a monk qualified to be “a forest dweller” if he lived the distance a stone thrown by man of average height standing at the precincts of a village landed (Vism.71-2).

Forests could be frightening places. The Buddha commented that when he lived in the forest before his enlightenment sometimes at night “an animal would prowl around, a peacock would snap a twig or the wind would rustle the leaves” and he would be filled with terror (M.I,21-2). Sometimes it was not wild animals or remoteness but humans that made forests potentially frightening. Lonely forest roads were the perfect place for robbers to operate from (Ja.I,332). These outlaws were well-known to strike from and then disappear back into “impenetrable grass or trees, a thicket or a great forest” (A.I,153-4; M.III,158). Some of these robbers would capture a party of travellers and release one of them to go and try to get a ransom for the others (Ja.IV,115). One of the most famous and dramatic incidences in the Buddha’s life was his encounter with the murderous robber Angulimāla who operated in the forested area in Kosala (M.II,97-8).

Trees, whether wild or cultivated, provided people with many useful products; the main ones being fuel for fire and material for building. People gathered fire wood in forests (S.I,180) and a Jātakas say: “Forests are made of (potential) fire wood” (Ja.I,289). Once the Buddha met King Pasenadi’s minister of works while he was supervising the cutting of timber in a sal forest (S.I,179). The Bhaddasāla Jātaka makes the interesting comment that all the royal palaces in India were supported by numerous columns, some of which must have been wooden. It seems that the king of Benares wanted to construct a magnificent palace supported by a single column and commanded his officers to find a tree trunk big enough for the purpose. They went to the forest and located enough such trees but the state of the roads, they reported to the king, would not allow for the transportation of such a huge log (Ja.IV,153).

Fences and kraals were made out of the branches of thorn trees (Vin.II,154). The leaves of certain trees were used to make various household articles such as baskets, fans and plates and were used as wrappers for food (Ja.VI,510; S.V,438). Parasols could be made out of leaves (Ja.III,79). Forest-living ascetics built themselves leaf huts (paṇṇakuṭi, D.III,94; S.I,226: Ja.II,72; 273) to live in. Bas-reliefs from Sanchi, Mathura and Gandhara give some idea of what such huts looked like. They were round with pointed tops and covered with leaves which appear to be fixed to a stick or bamboo framework. The leaves of the teak, the Bauhinia vahlii and several other forest plants would be big enough to be used for this purpose. The seed pods (sipātikā) of some trees contained down (tūla) which could be used to stuff pillows and pad furniture and saddles. We read of wooden tubs (Ja.I,250) and of a canoe being made out of a single large log (S.I,106). Uses were even found for India’s numerous thorny trees and bushes, otherwise considered a curse. They would be planted to make formidable hedges and their branches were cut and made into kraals where cattle were penned at night to protect them from predators (Vin.II,154).Villagers clustered thorny branches around the base of their fruit trees to discourage people climbing up and stealing the fruit (Ja.VI,348). The more extreme ascetics sometimes lay on beds of thorns as a form of self-mortification (D.I,167; Ja.III,235).

People cleaned their teeth by chewing the twigs of particular trees. The Buddha spoke of the advantages of using such tooth sticks (dantakaṭṭha). It is good for the eyes, the breath does not have a bad smell, the taste buds are cleaned, bile and phlegm do not mix with the food, and food becomes more palatable (A.III,250). Twigs of the betel vine are the only wood mentioned as being used for this purpose (Ja.I,232), but twigs from the Toothbrush Tree (Streblus asper), neem (Azadirachta indica) and babul (Aracia Arabica) may have been used too, as they are by village folk in Bihar even today.

Another product of trees that a use was found for was the bark (taca, vāka or vakkala, A.I,152; D.I,167; Ja.II,13; M.I,198). Household articles like fans and ropes are occasionally mentioned as being made out of bark (Ja.III,204; Vin.II,130). Ascetics are often described as being dressed in vakkala (A.I,240; Ja.II,272). Although this is usually taken to mean a type of cloth made from bark this may not be the case; more likely it was made out of fibres from the phloem or inner bark of some type of tree or trees. Vakkala clothing made a rustling noise as the wearer moved (Ja.II,274). The commentary to the Nidānakathā mentions some of the benefits of this unusual type of clothing. It is cheap, it can be made by oneself, it is hard to get dirty and easy to wash, it is easy to mend, it is not difficult to get a new one when the old one is worn out, it is suitable for the ascetic life, thieves do not bother to steal it, it does not beautify the wearer, it is light to wear, it is conducive to contentment, it can be obtained by righteous means and if it is lost it causes no regret (Ja.I,9).

Vakkala might have also refered to ordinary cotton or hemp cloth coloured with a dye made from the bark of the tirīṭi tree (D.I,66; M.I,343). There are occasional references to ascetics wearing bast or wood fibres (dāru), which might be an alternative name for vakkala (Ud.6), or wearing phalaka, which may have been wooden slats or even wood shavings (Vin.I,305). These and similar unusual clothing are described as the ‘characteristic of ascetics of other sects’ and were not allowed to be worn by Buddhist monks (Vin.I,305). It is difficult to identify the trees the bark or bark fibers res ers of which was used to make cloth. However, some modern Hindu ascetics wear cloth made from the bark of Careya arborea, the trees and bushes of the Hibiscus genus, particularly H tiliaceus and H collinus, and also from banana trees.

But of course the most important resource derived from the forests was timber. Buildings, agricultural implements, boats, buckets, household articles, musical instruments, carts and wagons all required wood (Ja.I,250; Vin.II,170) as did cooking fires. The Alīnacitta Jātaka suggests that even forests remote from human habitation were being exploited for timber on a large scale and in a systematic manner. According to this story, all the carpenters from a particular carpenter’s village would embark on regular trips up a river to where it ran through a thick forest. They would chop down suitably large trees, shape beams and planks for house building, and put together the framework of one-story and two-story houses, numbering all the pieces from the central post outwards. When they had enough they loaded all the timber onto boats and rowed downstream to their village. There they would build houses to order as and when they were required (Ja.II,18).

The state regarded some forests tracts as important sources of products and revenue. The Rakkhitavanasaṇḍa, the Protected Forest Grove, near Kosambi, was probably so named because it was off limits to villagers who might otherwise harvest its resources (Ud.41). The Buddha encountered an elephant in this forest suggesting that it was a reserve for this animal, so important in warfare. Unauthorized removal of timber from state forests could result in being flogged, imprisoned or banished, even for a monk (Vin.III,44). Where allowed, people gathered fruit, nuts, grasses, leaves, honey and leaf manure in nearby jungles and forest tracts. Forests provided them with the flowers they used in their religious ceremonies and with which they adorned themselves. When the Buddha was living in the forest before his enlightenment he would sometimes encounter cowherds grazing their cattle, grass-cutters, people gathering twigs and wood-cutters (Ja.V,417; M.I,79). He observed that certain forests were thick with reeds and sara grass (D.III,75), both of which were used to make various household objects such as mats, ropes and brooms.

The Buddha encouraged the planting of fruit trees along roads to offer both shade and food for travellers (S.I,33). We read of a man tapping tree trunks with his axe to find hollow ones to use as water pipes (A.IV,171) and another doing so to find hollows where bees might be nesting (Ja.III,200). Sometimes as an act of merit, people would repair roads by filling in pot holes, removing large stones and cutting down the trees that might strike the axles of passing chariots and carts (Ja.I,199). Certain trees were cultivated for their fruit, flowers, foliage and timber. To grow successfully, a sapling had to have its roots cleared of weeds from time to time, be fertilized with humus (paṃsu) and be regularly watered (S.II,89).

People believed that spirits lived in medical herbs and trees (ārāmadevatā, rukkhadevatā, vanadevatā, A.III,369; M.I,306; S.IV,302), particularly very old, gnarled or beautiful ones. These spirits lived in the hollow of trees or in their crowns (Ja.I,405; 423). Before cutting a tree, a woodsman would inform the tree spirit of his intentions and make offerings to it (Ja.I,442; IV,153). Other trees were worshipped and given offerings because the spirits were believed to grant wishes. Milk and water were poured on the roots, garlands were hung in the branches, lamps of scented oil were burned around them and cloth was tied around their trunks (Ja.II,104). There is the occasional mention of animal and even human sacrifices being made to trees. The victim’s blood was poured around the foot of the tree and the entrails were draped over the branches (Ja.I,260; III,160).

It was believed that trees would give their bounty on condition that they were treated with a degree of respect and the Buddha told a story that illustrates this point. Long ago, the mythical King Koravya had an amazing banyan tree in his realm which bore fruit of exceptional sweetness. Everyone in the realm enjoyed the fruit freely and so there was no reason to guard the tree. But one day a man ate his fill of the fruit then broke a branch and went away. This act of ingratitude so angered the tree spirit that it caused the tree to bear no more fruit (A.III,369-70). As with other popular beliefs and superstitions the Buddha did not endorse tree worship. He said: “Gripped by fear people go to sacred mountains, groves, parks and trees. But these are not a safe refuge, not the best refuge. By going there one is not freed from all suffering” (Dhp.188-9). However, the Buddha did respect the beliefs of others and when a certain monk cut down a tree worshipped by local people to make way for a monastery he severly rebuked the monk for doing so (Vin.III,156).

Some of the most beautiful passages in Buddhist literature relate to trees. The Buddha said of a kindly hospitable person that he was ‘like a great banyan tree growing on the side of roads that welcomes weary travellers with its cool shade and soothes their tiredness’ (Ja.VI,526). The general Buddhist attitude of respect for trees is expressed in these words from the Petavatthu: “Of the tree in whose shade one sits or lies, not a branch of it should he break, for if he did he would be a betrayer of a friend, an evil doer… Of the tree in whose shade one sits or lies, not a leaf should he injure, for if he did he would be a betrayer of a friend, an evil doer” (Pv.21,3; 5). The Milindapañha says that the diligent disciple should try to be like a tree: “As a tree makes no distinction in the shade it gives, like this, the meditator should make no distinction between any beings, but develop love equally to thieves, murderers, enemies and to himself” (Mil.410). The Buddhacarita compares spiritual practice to a tree “the fibers of which are patience, the flowers virtue, the boughs awareness and wisdom, which is rooted in resolution and which bears the fruit of Dhamma” (Bc.13,65). The Mahāvastu says: “The meritorious person grows like a banyan tree, while the person of megre merit becomes stunted like a tree planted in the roadway” (Mv.II,423). In his Bodhicaryāvatāra, the poet Sāntideva wrote of his longing for the peace of the forest life in these words: “The trees do not speak harsh words nor do they try to please by artifice. When shall I have the opportunity to dwell with those happy to live with the trees?” (Bcv.VIII,26).

Animals worshipping the Buddha

An Afterword

Trees have a minor but noticeable role in the Buddha’s biography. According to legend he was born under a sal tree (Shorea robusta Roth). The scriptures tell us he had his first spiritual experience under a rose-apple tree (Eugenia jambolana Lam.), he was enlightened under a Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa L.), and he passed into final Nirvana at Kusinara under the spreading branches of two sal trees. There is some confusion about the identities of these trees, even amongst traditional Buddhists. An example of this confusion is the commonly-made claim that “the Buddha was enlightened under a Banyan tree” (Ficus benghalensis L.). Numerous contemporary depictions of the Buddha’s enlightenment show a Banyan behind him, immediately recognizable by its numerous hanging aerial roots. The Bodhi tree has no aerial roots. However, the most widespread of these arboreal confusions surrounds the sal tree. In numerous books, Vesak cards, temple wall paintings, even in several encyclopaedias, what is shown as the sal flower is actually the flower of the Cannon-ball tree (Couroupita guianensis Aubl.), a native of Central and South America and unknown in Asia until its introduction in recent centuries. The flowers of the Cannon-ball tree have six large, fleshy petals ranging in colour from pink to red and a white stamen forming a hood. These flowers appear from the trunk of the tree. Sal flowers by contrast are small, light yellow in colour and blossom from the end of the branches. Both flowers emit a strong perfume; the Cannon-ball flowers a strong, almost cloyingly-sweet perfume and the sal a more subtle jasmine-like smell. How did the Cannon-ball tree come to be mistaken for the sal, which is so different from it?

Buddhism first came to attention in the west outside scholarly circles mainly from Sri Lanka. Being a British colony English was widely spoken and therefore western writers had more access to Sri Lankans and vice versa. The first Buddhist monks and anagarikas to teach the Dhamma in the west were Sri Lankans. Sri Lankans had never seen a sal tree which is native to northern and centeral India and does not grow in their island, and there is no evidence that they were ever curious about its identity or appearance. However, with the so-called Buddhist Revival in the second half of the 19th century they did become interested in this. The Cannon-ball tree had been introduced into Sri Lanka possibly by the Portuguese, one of their other colonies being Brazil where the Cannon-ball tree grows, or perhaps by the British. The Cannon-ball’s extravagantly beautiful and fragrant flowers immediately became a candidate for the sal. This candidature was probably further strengthened by the curious stupa-shaped nodule under the hood in the Cannon-ball’s flower, the stupa of course being associated with the Buddha’s relics, thus his death, and thus the sal tree. From Sri Lanka the Canon-ball/Sal confusion spread to the rest of the Buddhist world, then beyond, and now seems to be almost universal.

Cannon-ball Flowers
Cannon-ball Flowers
The Buddha depicted under a Banyan Tree
The Buddha depicted under a Banyan Tree
Sal Flowers
Sal Flowers