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Forest and Buddhism

We understand trees as a kind of symbol in Buddhism. For example, the Bodhi tree is a symbol of Buddha's awakening. There are a lot of examples in relation to forests and Buddha. Buddha lived in the forest for most of his life and meaningful momentum the forest to practice asceticism, and finally achieved the awakening. A place where he used to preach sermons was in Migadaya, which was a most beautiful green forest, and his death (parinirvana) also took place in the Kusinagara forest. His disciples also spent a great deal of time in the forest throughout their lives.
Many Buddhist scriptures references to forests. Buddha mentioned that trees and forests should be conserved in a sustainable manner because they are part of human life, and told his disciples "Don't cut down a tree or a weed in its natural environment." In a scientific manner, forests have significant value and benefits for human-beings. It is well known that trees produce sugars, filter oxygen and phytoncide chemicals by using carbon dioxide and water via photosynthesis. In addition, forests are essential for avoiding direct sunlight under got and humid conditions in countries such as India. Buddha realized that forests play an important role in our lives as shown in the Buddhist scriptures.
Buddha's disciples also practiced asceticism living in forests. It seems that Buddha recognized the value of the forest much better than anyone else. It is evident in a variety of the Sutras. Where Gotama Buddha was born, there was an area between two cities where people from both cities lived together and there was an auspicious Salavana called Lumbini forest. At that time, the trees were very beautiful as if the whole tree was a fully-blown flower from root to peak.
He was born under the Sorrowless three in the Lumbini forest, while his mother, Mayadevi, was on her way to her parents' home to give birth as the custom of the time. The Sutras describe the Sorrowless tree as having a beautiful blossom. Later, it was given a nickname the sans souci tree, which means anxiety or sorrow. Its original name is Asoka and the scientific name is Jonesia asoka Roxb. One of seven Buddhas, vipassin, is said to have been delivered from worldly existence while resting under this tree. The tree is evergreen of about 25 meters in height, and it lives in India, Sri Lanka and similar countries.
Generally a saint's nativity has a very important meaning. Buddha was born under a tree. The decisive events in his life occurred under a tree. After he was present at an agricultural rite at the age of seven, before leaving home, it was under a tree that Gautama Buddha became absorbed in deep meditation. His speculation also was accomplished under a tree. This event is called serene contemplation under the Jambu tree, because the tree under which he sat and contemplated was the Jambu tree. The shade of the tree must have been the best place for meditation.
The scientific name of sorrow tree is Shorea robusta, and it has been worshiped in connection with Buddha's death. The tree is a tall, deciduous tree. It is 35-45 meters high, grows up to one meter in diameter, and its leaves fall in the dry season. It ranges widely from the central part of India to Assam and Nepal, and it is also found in the Himalayan mountainous area of 32 degrees north latitude and 1,500 meters above sea level. The tree is usually used as timber because it is very solid. In India, it is the most important wood next to teak. Its resin is used for religious rites and painting.
As the early ascetics are described as "homeless" or "forest dwellers" in the early Sutras, they left home and lived in the forest. Living under a tree in forest, or in fields, they practised dhyana in simatiga. Like other early ascetics, Buddha himself stayed under a tree in the Uruvela forest before attaining great wisdom. It was there that Sujatta offered milk soup. Buddha attained ateat wisdom under the bodhi tree after eating the milk soup and refreshing his exhausted body. From his own experience Buddha realized that the best environment leading to awakening and vimukti (deliverance) was in a natural environment. Why was under the Bodhi tree the best place to achieve spiritual awakening? The tree must give shade with a comfortable temperature, and fresh air and incense from the tree provided and ideal environment for achieving tranquil mind. The bodhi tree, Asralhta Saraca asoka, is called Pippala in Sanskrit or Bo tree (scientific name: Ficus religiosa). In Buddhism the tree is considered a thing of worship because Buddha achieved enlightenment (abhisamodhi) under this tree. From the symbolic meaning of spiritual awakening, it is also known as a Bori tree, from the Bodhi sound of they found throughout in Chinese characters. The Indian bodhi tree is in India and Sri Lanka. It can endure flood and drought because it extends an aerial root underground. This root looks like an air sac. Even today, a bodhi tree can be found in Buddha Gaya. However, it is said that the tree in Buddha Gaya is not the one when Buddha lived, but its offspring. This Bodhi tree has been worshiped as a symbol of spiritual awakening or Buddha. According to Daedangseoyeokgi by Hyecho, people gathered together on Buddhist festivals, offered sacred water and milk to this tree, and played music.
As we know, the early Buddhists didn't make Buddhist statues and describe Buddha as a human image in Buddhist paintings. At that time the Bodhi tree symbolized Buddha and Dharma cakra represented his teachings. There is a defied bodhi tree in the Sutras of Mahayana Buddhism. They say that the Bo tree which rises high in Buddhist paradise makes a subtle sound even in a gentle breeze and one can reach spiritual awakening by just hearing the sound. Buddhists have defied this tree as a king of kings of trees in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia and built a temple next to the tall tree. Along with this habits the temples of each country have a custom to plant the bodhi tree.
In the Buddhist surtas, we find many references to indicate that great men appreciated the beauty of landscapes. A Buddhist can look at images in nature and perceive truth in calmness. He can see the essence of anicca in the rhythm of nature: falling blossoms, rotting leaves, and seasonal changes.
In Zen Buddhism, there is a direct relationship to nature. Zen means that I and nature are one in order to blossom with the flower, be wet with dew, and to bathe in the sun. And so I come to know all mysteries, pleasures, and sorrows of the flower, and then feel the whole life beating in the flower. The flower and I are not existing separately. And in a deeper level, to know the life of the flower is to realize all the mysterious life of the universe intuitively and together we can live sharing joys and sorrows.
The trees were venerated as devata in India. Cutting trees was prohibited. One of the reasons may be that it was hard to propagate trees and plants. In a hot and rainy place like northern India the trees and plants grow well, while they have trouble growing in central India. During the rainy season it rains for four months, but it seldom rains outside this season. Even mature plants will die if there is not raining for just ten to twenty days. That's why there are many deserts in India. Although the rainfall is small throughout most of the year, they have torrential downpour during the rainy season. So, the trees grow and bud well with other plants during the rainy season. After the season, however, the earth becomes so dry that the bud withers and does not grow again next year. If a tree happens to meet a water vein and survives even in the rainy season, it can take root and grow next year.
But, there is a tree that grows, even when other plants dry up. They worshiped the root of the tree as the devata at the same time. In India a special tree isn't worshiped as a sacred tree, but any big tree is considered a sacred tree.
Although the value of trees and forests is highlighted scientifically, in reality this goes against the stream. Tundra forest, which corresponds to human lungs, is neglected, only to be burned and the Amazon jungle is being cut indiscriminately. This is because of the commercialism emphasis of modern civilization which considers only immediate profits. It results from people's lack of understanding that, as a result of cause and effect, man will suffer just as forests and trees disappear. If trees disappear, air will be impure and the damage will finally return to man. The relationship between tree and man is not a preferential one in which only man can live but a coexistent one in which man and trees and forests. His awakening is not just an accident. The tree must have given him cool shade and helped him be tranquil with its incense. From this perspective we can appreciate the special relationship between forests and Buddha's awakening. Probably, many of his disciples attained the awakening under the trees. Buddha taught us to cultivate trees and forests. We are told to protect even one plant or one branch. As in all of Vinaya Pitaka, breaking off a twig of a tree is prohibited by payattika in Sabunyul. It is also shown in Mahayaha Brahmajala Sutta.

The writer is a professor in the Dept. of Forest Resources.

Kang Ho-duck  leesj117@dongguk.edu

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