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Exemplars of bodhisattva Maitreya (continued)

Johnny Appleseed

Another apt Maitreya exemplar is John Chapman, better known in legend as Johnny Appleseed. Chapman wandered around western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in the first half of the nineteenth century, planting and cultivating apple-tree nurseries and orchards. The Johnny Appleseed legend, firmly rooted in the historical Chapman, tells of a frontier folk character noted for courage and physical endurance as well as many eccentricities. With long, flowing hair and a scraggly beard, he was usually barefoot, with ragged, secondhand garb and a variety of improvised headgear, including a tin mush pan. Chapman stayed with the many frontier families whom he befriended; he rarely had any fixed abode. At home and happy in the wilderness, he slept in hollow logs or makeshift sheds when he was out planting his orchards. Chapman foresaw the future needs of Euro-American agrarian expansion and made his modest livelihood planting a chain of apple trees beyond the frontier, in preparation for the advance of new settlers.

Although he often appeared as a homeless vagabond, like Hotei, Chapman was also an avid missionary of the Swedenborgian New Church and propagated Swedenborg's visionary spiritual beliefs among settlers along with his apple trees. Chapman preached and passed out mystical tracts to many often-mystified settlers, who were nevertheless grateful for his apple trees. Despite the jokes and teasing Chapman's preaching sometimes occasioned, he was instrumental in establishing a significant New Church presence in frontier Ohio.

Like Hotei and Ryokan, Chapman was a great favorite of children, with whom he enjoyed playing and telling stories. He frequently gave material assistance to frontier families in distress, giving away his apple saplings to those who could not afford to pay. Many tales relate Chapman's extreme kindness to wild animals, including nursing an injured wolf and mourning a rattlesnake he killed unintentionally after it bit him. Chapman was highly unusual in his place and time for being a strict vegetarian, common among Maitreyans.

Chapman did not exhibit conventional Euro-American attitudes of acquisitiveness toward land. He was notably careless and unconcerned about registering claims of ownership to the locations where he planted his many apple nurseries (to which he was entitled by American law), apparently feeling, like the natives, that the land was open, free, and not to be possessed. Indeed, Chapman had mutual friendship with and respect for his Indian neighbors, who appreciated his generous character, spiritual disposition, and ability to enjoy the wilds of the woods.

Aside from his Hotei-like qualities of ragged, eccentric appearance, kindhearted generosity, and love of children, Chapman archetypally exemplifies Maitreya simply in his commitment to planting trees. Trees are revered in Buddhism, from Shakyamuni Buddha's awakening under the bodhi tree, to his implementation of tree-planting in India. An old Zen story about the great Chinese master Linji (Rinzai in Japanese) tells of his frequent planting of pines and cedars at the monastery where he trained. When his teacher asked Linji why he planted so many pines where perhaps nobody would ever notice them, Linji replied that it was "to make a guidepost for later generations."

For humans, planting trees is a quintessential act of caring for generations to come, an emblem of Maitreya's concern for the future. In our own age of clear-cutting and widespread global deforestation, Johnny Appleseed's devotion to planting trees for the future is increasingly relevant.