This year, the full moon coincided with Christmas Day for the first time in 38 years. I’m in New Zealand visiting family for the holidays and even though it’s the middle of summer, there are evergreen Christmas trees decorated with icicles and snowflakes everywhere. The symbols of Christmas have always been messed up – the pagan-influenced Christmas tree, the Coke-ad inspired Santa, the Christian Nativity scene – but even more so in the Southern Hemisphere. In Australia, women in Santa hats and bikinis body-surf on Bondi Beach, while groups of men work on their tans, standing around beer-filled coolers topped with battery-operated sparkling artificial Christmas trees.
Christmas trees and the Bodhi tree
I’m still drawn to Christmas trees, even fake ones, but I’m also looking for a way to connect all of these images with something that has deeper meaning to me now. I thought of the Bodhi tree, the ficus religiosa tree that Siddhatha Gautama is said to have sat down under on the night of his Awakening.
As he sat down, he made a vow to not get up from his seat until he’d attained full liberation. According to legend, all through the night his mind was assailed by different existential challenges, but he persisted, and by dawn the next day, he had realised complete freedom of heart and mind.
Even before the Buddha-to-be sat under this particular tree, trees had played an important role in his meditative development. It was common in the India of his time for spiritual seekers to practice in remote places, to go into forests and to meditate at the foot of a suitable tree. And today too, most retreat centres around the world are located in relative seclusion and have some connection to the natural landscape.
The importance of natural environments
I didn’t realise how much I took this connection for granted until a few years ago, when I participated in a meditation workshop held in a four-star hotel and conference centre on the outskirts of a large US city. We lay on yoga mats in the air-conditioned conference ballroom, squinting up at the fake chandeliers and trying to stay focused on the body-scan instructions while in the room next door, a gathering of car-parts salespeople cheered loudly as the Salesperson of the Year was announced.
As soon as the session was over, I tried to get outside for some relief from all the artifice, but the hotel was located in a large parking lot next to a major highway with no safe place to walk. By the end of that week, I felt like a caged polar bear, pacing up and down its man-made enclosure with increasing desperation.
What a relief to eventually get back to the Forest Refuge at IMS, and be able to wander through acres of maple woodland again. Here, I could sit at the base of my favourite tree and feel the support of its trunk at my back, the protection of the spreading canopy above. It wasn’t just physical support though. I felt connected to the earth beneath me, and a sense of the eternal, of time completely stopping.
Love letters to urban trees
I remembered having experienced something similar in Melbourne, many years before I started meditating. There was an enormous white-trunked eucalyptus tree in the park across the street from my apartment. The first time I walked by it, I felt an almost magnetic pull to go and sit at its base. Even though this tree was right on the edge of a main road, as soon as I sat down beneath it, the world “outside” the tree’s branches ceased to exist. I remember a sense of profound stillness and silence, in spite of the rush of cars and rattle of trams just a few hundred metres away.
A few months ago, I read that the City of Melbourne has set up a database of all of its 70 000 urban trees, and that each tree has its own email address. The original intention of this was to help residents report tree vandalism or branches dropping, but instead “people began sending emails professing their love for trees.” For example: “My dearest Ulmus … As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.” Using the Urban Forest Visual database, I was able to track down what was probably “my” eucalypt tree, and discover it was a River Red Gum, Eucalyptus camaldulensis. I haven’t emailed a love letter to it yet, but I’m very tempted!
Find your own Bodhi tree
There’s something inspiring about large trees. Their great age puts our own brief lifespan in perspective, for one thing. It’s harder to take my own petty worries seriously when I’m sitting in the shade of a River Red Gum that can last 700 years or more.
Perhaps you already have your own metaphorical “Bodhi” tree. If so, I’d love to hear about it. And if not, perhaps you might like to find one. Even if you don’t have access to native forests, most cities have parks with mature trees. Perhaps you can find one to visit regularly, meditate under, or – if you’re in Melbourne – email a love letter to.
The Buddha’s instruction to connect with trees
Here, [practitioners], are the roots of trees; here are empty places. Meditate! Don’t be lazy! Don’t be ones who are later remorseful. This is my instruction to you.