Copyright Wendy Johnson
Copyright Wendy Johnson

In the Green Gulch glasshouse we are nursing a decidedly ailing Bodhi tree that pines in every cell of its being for Mother India. Our Bodhi tree, Ficus religiosa, or the sacred fig tree, is a descendant of the original enlightenment tree under which Shakyamuni Buddha took his place more than 2,500 years ago. Inclining longingly toward the Indian subcontinent where it thrives as a robust, stout-hearted being, our fog-bound Bodhi tree stoically endures the coastal cold of these late autumn nights, yearning for sun-ripened mango breezes and for a certain saffron-robed sage of old.

All gardeners have their pet plants; the Green Gulch Bodhi tree is mine. I wipe spider web traces from underneath its elegantly tapered heart-shaped leaves and repot it every few years. Sometimes when the tree and I are alone in the glasshouse at day’s end I imagine Emperor Ashoka’s daughter, the princess-nun Sanghamitta, who carried a branch from the original Indian Bodhi tree across the stormy straits of Mannar to Sri Lanka. In the falling light I see her sitting erect in the prow of her ship, the Bodhi tree branch held firmly in her strong hands.

When Sanghamitta arrived in Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.E., she planted the Bodhi tree cutting in the capital city of Anuradhapura, where the tree took root and began to grow. Our own Ficus religiosa comes from this tree. Now that magnificent city is a deserted ruin, although Sanghamitta’s Bodhi tree continues to thrive there, offering vast shelter and sanctuary to pilgrims from around the world.

no_ideaThe Buddha lived his life in the presence and shelter of trees. He was born under a tree, enlightened beneath the Bodhi tree, and died lying down between two graceful Sal trees. Throughout his long teaching life Shakyamuni Buddha took his place at the roots of trees, encouraging his gathered assembly to follow the forest path of engaged practice.

But then there is the blunt reality of our local Bodhi tree. In the harsh New World it suffers openly, for all to see. The best of teachers, it staunchly refuses to pretend that all is well, declining any symbolic role as the North American lineage holder of arboreal perfection. Instead, the more we cajole our Bodhi tree to magnify its sacred fig nature, the more it sulks, manifesting ill-health, cold blisters, and general malaise.

Every winter in early December we commemorate Buddha’s enlightenment with a seven-day Rohatsu sesshin at Green Gulch. On the last day of sesshin at dawn we hold a special enlightenment day ceremony just as the morning star rises in the frosty sky. Although somewhat embarrassed by its perennial ratty nature, I haul our ailing Bodhi tree up to the zendo for the ceremony. One year we even festooned the struggling one with garlands of blinking holiday lights, hoping to cheer the plant up, while we chanted lustily for the full awakening of all beings. Unimpressed, our sacred fig maintained its battered dignity.

Over the years I have come to respect the unsentimental sovereignty of this plant, even while continuing to minister to it. “No idea but in things,” writes poet William Carlos Williams, as our sickly Bodhi tree stands firm in its suffering, sloughing off any notion or idea that only healthy beings teach. Instead, Sanghamitta’s Bodhi descendent endures, preaching blank, bright dharma in every withered leaf.

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