The Buddha and the natural world: trees
Over 2500 years ago, Buddha was born in a forest. As a youth, he meditated under Jambo trees, studied among the Banyans, and found enlightenment beneath a great Bodhi tree. a tree recognized for its special place in human faith even in its scientific name, Ficus religiosa. A denizen of the woods for the next 45 years, he died beneath a pair of Sal trees among his disciples. Buddhism budded and was born in the company and protection of a great life form: the forest. Buddhist teachings give rise to an environmental ethic with a concern for nature of which man is a part.
In reverence for special trees, Buddhist literature lists 2l species of tree under which 25 Buddhas attained enlightenment. Veneration and protection of these species is a natural consequence of this belief.
The early Buddhist community lived in the forest under large trees, in caves. and in mountainous areas. Directly dependent on nature. they cultivated great respect for the beauty and diversity of their natural surroundings.
In the Sutta-Nipata. one of the earliest texts, the Buddha says:
Know ye the grasses and the trees ... Then know ye the worms. and the moths, and the different sorts of ants ... Know ye also the four-footed animals small and great. the serpents, the fish which range in the water. the birds that are borne along on wings and move through the air ... Know ye the marks that constitute species are theirs, and their species are manifold.
There is a story of a monk who cut down the main branch of a tree: The spirit who resided in that tree came forward and complained to the Buddha that a monk had cut off his child's arm. From then on, monks were forbidden to cut down trees.
The Buddha encouraged acting with compassion and respect for the trees, noting that they provide natural protection for the beings who dwell in the forest. On one occasion. the Buddha admonished some travelers who. after resting under a large banyan tree. proceeded to cut it down. Much like a friend. the tree had given them shade. To harm a friend is indeed an act of ingratitude.
The Anguttara Nikaya tells a similar story:
Long ago. Brahmin Dhamika. Rajah Koranya. had a steadfast king banyan tree and the shade of its widespread branches was cool and lovely. Its shelter broadened to twelve leagues. None guarded its fruit. and none hurt another for its fruit.
Now then came a man who ate his fill of fruit. broke a branch. and went his way. Thought the spirit dwelling in that tree: How amazing. how astonishing it is. that a man should be so evil as to break a branch off the tree after eating his fill. Suppose the tree were to bear no more fruit. And the tree bore no more fruits.
Buddhism expresses a gentle non-violent attitude towards the vegetable kingdom as well. Plants are so helpful to us in providing us with all necessities of life that we are expected not to adopt a callous attitude towards them.