LOTUS

At the heart of symbolism

The Bodhi Tree of the Buddhist World

(Detailed page)

Summary

The World Tree or the fiery energy

Even if it contains some philosophical and religious elements, the Buddhism is neither a religion nor a philosophy. And this is even truer for the Great Vehicle or Great Way (mahayana) accessible to the largest number in contrast to the Defective Vehicle or Defective Way (hinayana) restricted to monks. The Buddhist doctrine is the fruit of the inner quest of a man that showed the Way of cessation of suffering for ALL beings.

Buddhism drew from Hinduism in the beginning. It had to distinguish itself from it and develop its own path in order to overflow Indian borders and be adapted to new regions. Nevertheless, this does not prevent symbols as the World Tree or the Tree of Life from still carrying the stamp of the pre-Buddhist period as testified by the Vedas and especially the Upanishads. Besides, the description of the tree in the Maitrayani Upanishads illuminates this point:

There are verily two forms of Brahman, with or without likeness. Now, the That which is in a likeness is contingent; the That which is imageless is essential, Brahman, light. This Light is the light of the spiritual Sun.” (Maitri Up. VI 3)

  • The ultimate goal of the human being, “Liberation”, is the authentic Brahman, the non qualified Brahma (nirguna), the infinite Totality of possibilities of manifestation and non-manifestation. Brahma is the Principle at once of the Being and Non-Being. Therefore, the denomination of Supreme Brahma (Para-Brahma);
  • The formal Braman is Brahmâ, the personalized and masculine form of the impersonal and neuter Principle. It is the qualified (saguna) and Non-Supreme (Apara-Brahma) Principle of the whole human manifestation.

The light of the authentic Brahman is the one of the spiritual Sun proper to the invisible world and beyond the visible sun. It is not only a matter of the light received at the time of Enlightment, Awakening, but also of the light associated with the act of illuminating, awakening. The awakening concerns not only the one that awakens, but equally those on which the Awakened gleams.

With its planted root above… this tree which is called the Single Fig-tree, this is Brahman… its light is the one of the spiritual Sun, but also of the syllable OM; this is the reason why one should worship It ceaselessly by the means of the syllable OM! For the syllable OM is the One Awakener that lights the human being.” (Maitri Up. VI 4)

The World Tree is the Single Fig-tree, the Bodhi or Awakening Fig-tree. The sap of the tree rises from the roots to the foliage. The roots correspond to the authentic Braman, to the Principle to the source of manifested and non-manifested, the branches and the foliage to the actual manifestation. From the manifested being standpoint nevertheless, the Principle comes under the world beyond and its manifestation within the world here below. This is the reason why, the tree is perceived inverted from the manifestation standpoint.

The Fig-tree is called the “One Awakener” and the Bodhi Fig-tree, the “Great Awakening”. The awakening corresponds to the action of getting up and this is true just as well for the being as the tree. The tree is straightened up in the eyes of the Awakened that henceforth sees the world from the Principle standpoint.

The syllable OM symbolizes the primeval sound, the Word of Brahman from which everything is arising. It represents the development of the Principle potentiality as well as the return to the original Unity. By the sound, the light, the fiery energy awakens, bursts out and propagates itself. The tree, symbol of Verb and Light, is the support for the vision of Brahman and Buddha.

It (the fiery energy) has its place in the dark home that diffuses light… it rises such a branch in the firmament and, stem after stem, spreads all over just as a contemplative vision.” (Maitri Up. VII 11)

Just as Brahman, the Buddha radiates fiery energy:

  • By day, it is the sun which shines,
  • At night, the moon shines forth.
  • A warrior shines in his armour,
  • And a Brahmin shines in meditation.
  • But at all times, by day and by night
  • The Buddha shines in his glory.
  • (Dhammapada or the Verses of the Law, 387)

“The syllable OM… Prana (Vital Breath), Agni (Fire) and Surya (Spiritual Sun) are its fiery forms.” (Maitri Up. VI 5).

  • Prana corresponds to the Vital Breath, to the energy at the basis of the manifested existence, mainly physical;
  • Agni is the god of Fire. Fire symbolizes the elevation of the physical being towards the human being, i.e. centred within himself. Gautama represents the human aspect of Agni;
  • Surya is the Sun god, the spiritual Sun associated with the total being that has not only rejoined his own centre, but equally the Centre of the World as the Buddha.

This triad symbolizes the axis of elevation of the being from the original Breath to the Supreme Light.

The Tree of Life or the elevation way

And now, o you who live in Brahman, the That which is His dark part is Rudra, the Destructive; the That which is His dynamic part is Brahmâ, the Creator; and the That which is His luminous part is Vishnu, the Protective.” (Maitri Up. V 2)

Rudra is the destructive aspect of Shiva the Transformer.

These three gods represent the triple manifestation (“Trimurti”): Brahmâ the Creator, Vishnu the Protective and Shiva the Destructive or more precisely the Transformer. The “Trimurti” symbolizes as many aspects of the whole manifestation. Moving along upwards opens the gate on the non-manifested, the Principle, Brahma.

Now, an inscription about the Tree of Life in the temple of Angkor Wat, initially Hindu, then Buddhist, stipulates that its roots are Brahmâ, its trunk Shiva and its branches Vishnu.

Angkor Wat Temple

Each of these gods represents an aspect of the Principle of the human manifestation as a whole:

  • Brahmâ represents the creative aspect of the Principle, reflection in the manifested world of the Principle of manifestation and non-manifestation;
  • Shiva depicts the transformation aspect of the Principle: the destruction of ignorance, fruit of the illusion linked to the separation of beings and things, and the restoration of the perfect union in the state of the eternal present;
  • Vishnu characterizes the conservative and protective aspect of the Principle. He works without stopping to restore the lost unity during the manifestation; when the necessities of the time impose it, He descends under the form of one of ten incarnations (“avatars”), one of which is Buddha.

These three gods represent productive principles of the manifested world and as many facets of the Supreme god, Brahma. As “Supreme Principle”, Brahma is beyond any distinction between creation, preservation and transformation. It is neuter while Brahmâ, Vishnu and Shiva are masculine and endowed with their own feminine energies (“shakti”) depicted respectively by three goddesses Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Parvati.

The masculine and feminine aspects, represented by the lateral branches of the Tree of Life, are unified at the level of the trunk. This trunk symbolizes the World Axis linking all the being's states together from the most manifested to the non-manifested and draw the Way of elevation just as well towards Brahma as the state of Buddha.

Bibliography

  • René Guénon:
  • “Introduction to the Study of the Hindu Doctrines”. Sophia Perennis Publisher, 2002;
  • In particular, chapter IV of the third part entitled “About Buddhism”.
  • Ananda K. Coomaraswamy:
  • “Elements of Buddhist Iconography”. Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers New Delhi, 1998;
  • Notably, the pages devoted to the Tree of Life.
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