As a Buddhist teacher, I want to acknowledge how important trees are in Buddhist teachings. The Buddha was born under a tree. He practiced under trees, he got enlightened under the Bodhi tree. He taught under a tree, wandered under the trees, and died between two sal trees in a grove. I lived for a number of years in Ajahn Chah’s forest monastery on the border of Northeast Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. We lived in an ancient rhythm where we would get up in the dark and walk through the forest, sit and chant in the morning, and walk barefoot on dusty paths to the nearby villages for people to offer alms. We lived in that forest. We watched the changing of the seasons and the moons, and we heard the cicadas and the civets. One of the practices there was called tree root practice, where we would sit in meditation at the base of a tree. Like the Buddha himself, we were called forest monks. And we were taught that our breath and our body and our life was connected with the forest all around us. I remember the sign on one tree in a monastery where I visited. It was near the stump of another sandalwood tree, and the sign there said that the sandalwood tree is so generous that it even shelters the axe-man who cuts it down. 

What does it mean to learn from the trees? The generosity of taking in carbon dioxide and giving us back oxygen. How extraordinary it is that trees turn light into sugar. What a fabulous thing to turn light into sugar. It makes me think of my five-year-old grandson who loves sugar, like I do. So we start with a sense of gratitude, amazement, and interbeing so that we can feel the generosity of the trees and the earth. 

Practice: Sit Like A Tree

I’m going to share a very simple practice that helps people become steady, grounded, and connected to the earth through all the ups and downs of daily life. You can do this when you are in the middle of concerns or anxiety, hopes or plans, or anything that takes you away from being here on this earth and in this mystery. 

Let yourself settle and find a way to sit that’s stable and comfortable and steady. Let your posture settle, allow your eyes to close gently or lower your gaze, and take two long breaths. Let your eyes and face be soft. Loosen the jaw, allow the shoulders, arms, and hands to relax and rest easily. Feel the weight of your body, gravity pulling you back to Mother Earth, and the connection between your body and the seat. The earth completely supports your breathing and you can relax knowing you are fully supported just where you are. 

Now let yourself feel or imagine that you are a tree. Imagine that your body is like a great tree and that you are seated halfway between heaven and earth in this tree form. Imagine as you sit steady and strong that you have roots, and that the roots go deep into the earth. These are powerful, deep roots and you can feel a strong connection with the earth. The trunk of your body rises up from these deeply rooted connections that bind you in a nourishing and deep way to the earth. Now you are a great tree, with powerful roots and a strong trunk. Because you are generous, your branches and leaves drink sunlight, and with the chlorophyll in your leaves, you turn it into sugar. The sweetness of the sunlight and the sugar goes through your branches, down into your roots, and even spreads from your roots to other nearby trees when needed. What power you have. What a gift that how you breathe as a tree, with every whispering breeze, you can transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, the life oxygen that you offer to the animals and other beings around you. Feel yourself in this inter-breathing. 

And notice, if you can, how your arms stretch up like great tree limbs and small branches. That all the weather and changes in the atmosphere will come through your body. Rain, sweet nourishing rain, and wild storms that blow you about. Sunlight, rainbows, snow, heat. Feel the steadiness of your trunk and the flexibility of your branches that can sway in the storms and the winds while you remain rooted in the earth. All the weather comes and goes. Here you stand rooted deep into the earth, steady and joyful. You can sit like a tree, strong and quiet, connected deeply to the earth. You are steady amidst all the changes. 

Now imagine that you can step out of being a tree. Now at some distance away, in your regular body, you can gaze at the tree. This is what the Buddha is said to have done after his enlightenment. He moved a little distance from the Bodhi tree that sheltered him and he spent seven days in gratitude, quietly gazing and breathing together with the tree of enlightenment. Feel the support of this connection and gratitude for the mystery. When you’re ready, let your eyes open gently. Continue to feel the strength and rootedness. You are Earth herself. 

As the story goes, when the Buddha was seated under the Bodhi tree, the tree of enlightenment, he was attacked by the armies of Mara: delusion, greed, and anger. He stayed steady like the tree as the armies of Mara came in, meeting them all with a compassionate heart. Finally, Mara brought the most difficult army of all: doubts. Do you know this army? It’s too hard, I can’t do it. Climate change is too big, enlightenment is impossible. What’s asked of me in this life is beyond my capacity. The big doubts and the little doubts all flooded in, and in the great doubt, Mara asked what right do you have as a human being to awaken? At this point, the Buddha took his right hand, and reached down to touch the earth, and he called upon Mother Earth, to bear witness to his right, as a human being, to sit and be connected with this earth, and to see with awakened eyes and an awakened heart. And out of the earth, it is said, came the goddess of the earth. From her hair, came a flood of water that washed the armies of Mara away. The Buddha sat, peaceful and steady, until he saw the morning star. And all was revealed: the fundamental truth that, wherever we are, the heart can be free. 

This is also your seat under your Bodhi tree, under your tree of enlightenment. And this is also your earth, that celebrates you and will protect you. You can reach down and touch the earth any time, just as the Buddha did. And you can say the earth is my witness to the right to awaken in the midst at all.

This article was excerpted and adapted from Jack Kornfield’s forthcoming talk at Tricycle‘s Buddhism and Ecology Summit, taking place April 22, 2024.

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