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The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, Sri Lanka

Updated: Aug 18, 2019

The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, in Anuradhapura, is the reason that I chose to visit Sri Lanka. It is the oldest tree recorded to be planted by humans, in 288BC, and is an offshoot of the tree under which the Buddha sat to gain enlightenment. Having been planting trees in India, I wanted to understand what it took for a tree to be a sacred tree and to survive this long.

As you might imagine, being such a venerable tree, it is protected behind a temple wall, and also other bodhi trees that have grown up around it, which help to protect it. The visible part of it is one branch, which is propped up by a golden support. And, being one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka, there is a constant stream of white-clad pilgrims, making their offerings of lotus flowers and bowls of rice, as well as the travellers and tourists such as myself.

It struck me that the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi tree, and the bodhi trees at other temples, are listening trees. They are the trees which people come to and make offerings, particularly in times of need. If family members are sick and in need of healing, prayers are written on white flags and tied to nearby gates. Families chanted under the shade of other trees in the temple complex. The trees listen to the prayers, either written or sung. Clearly, the trees enjoy a protected status. But it led me to wonder about whether the trees themselves are listened to - is it more of a one-way than a two-way relationship? Or perhaps the offerings to the trees are what is offered in exchange for the tree's listening.

Maybe what is key in relationship to climate change and nature connection is what we can learn from the Buddhist view of nature. On the flight to Sri Lanka, and on the train to Anuradhapura, I was reading 'The Art of Power' by Thich Nat Hanh. He writes of the interconnectedness and interbeing between humans and non-humans.

"To protect humans, we have to protect nonhuman elements. This is the teaching of the Diamond Sutra, the oldest text on deep ecology. We have to protect animals, plants, and even minerals to protect humanity. This is the essence of the first mindfulness training. If you want to protect the environment, you are invited to read the Diamond Sutra, and you will see that by protecting animals, plants and minerals we protect men, women, and children. It is the practice of love."

Following my visit to Anuradhapura, I spent eight days at a Buddhist silent meditation retreat in Nilambe, in the hills above Kandy. I had thought that this would be an opportunity to learn to listen, and I did deepen a practice of listening - both to myself and to the sounds of nature and the constant accompaniment of the sounds of nature, from the birds to the frogs to the cicadas to the crashing of the monkeys. One of the key questions that came to me, through the teachings and the listening, was "How can I be of service?" Another aspect of this book that I wish to explore, related to this question is "How to live?" I think that the trees can provide guidance on how to live if we choose to listen. And clearly how we choose to live will have an impact on the future history of the world.

Sunset at Nilambe

On the reading list

I have books by Joanna Macy in my boxes in storage to go back through when I get to retrieving those boxes. In the meantime, on my reading list are two books by Stephanie Kaza related to Buddhism, trees and climate change. The first one she wrote 25 years ago is and has just been reissued as 'Conversations with Trees: An Intimate Ecology'. The second is 'Green Buddhism: Practice and Compassionate Action in Uncertain Times'. Have you read either of these books? Are there others that you would recommend related to Buddhism and nature?

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Olivia Sprinkel
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