Everywhere I see Buddhist artwork, I see this beautiful leaf around the Buddha, or in the background. Sometimes I see artwork of just the leaf by itself. It has prominent veins and seems near perfect, so I was more than a bit curious about it. Exactly what is this leaf and what does it signify?
As someone born and reared in an American Christian family, and having lived in America most of my adult life, I am somewhat ignorant about Buddhism, but am now trying to catch up and learn as much I can. Today I am living in a Buddhist country surrounded by Thai Buddhist culture and wonderful Thai temples, monks, Buddha statues, and Buddhist artwork.
I find new questions all the time that must explored as I wander around the countryside. One question that came up for me was about the beautiful tree leaves that I see in most Thai spiritual paintings, or sometimes the leaves are framed and mounted by themselves prominently in Thai homes. Outside of many Thai temples there is a tree with these leaves, sometimes with a ribbon around their massive trunks.
The leaf that we see in the Thai spiritual artwork is pronounced as bai bo, broken down as bai = leaf and bo = the short word for Bodhi , or sacred fig tree (scientific name Ficus religiosa). The original Bodhi tree with ties to Buddha grew at Bodh Gaya in the northern Indian state of Bihar. Siddhartha Gautama, the spiritual teacher and founder of Buddhism, sat under this tree. Siddhartha was meditating under this fig tree when he reached enlightenment and awareness. Thus the sacred fig is a well-known symbol for happiness, prosperity, longevity and good luck.
Bodhi, the name for the tree, is both a Sanskrit (Ancient Indian language) and Pali (Ancient Thai language) word that translates into English as Enlightenment, or more accurately Awakened. In Buddhism it is the knowledge possessed by Buddha into the nature of things (dharma). The Sanskrit word “buddha” means “awakened one.”
In ancient writings, the Lord Buddha describes life in the jungle, and the attainment of awakening sitting under the fig tree. After destroying the disturbances of the mind, and the concentration of the mind, he attained three areas of knowledge:
- Insight into his past lives
- Insight into the workings of Karma and Reincarnation
- Insight into the Four Noble Truths
Insight into the Four Noble Truths is called awakening. The teachings on the Four Noble Truths explain the nature of dukkha (Pali; loosely translated as suffering, anxiety, stress, uneasiness), its causes, and how it can be overcome. These Four Noble Truths are central as to the teaching of Buddhism.
All this occurred under the leaves of this sacred fig tree in Northern India.
This Bodhi tree naturally grows across southern tropical Asia, which receives alternating seasonal monsoonal rains and dry seasons. The natural range extends from the foothills of the Himalayas eastward to southwestern China, northern Thailand and Vietnam. The seeds of the Bodhi tree sprout wherever — in soil or in the moist humus that collects in other tree crotches, on house roofs or on a rocky wall or hillside. Although a fig tree, it doesn’t normally grow aerial roots from its horizontal branches, such as with the related fig, the banyan. Rather, the Bodhi tree forms a massive singular trunk that supports wide-spreading branches. A mature specimen may measure 60 to 100 feet tall and equally as wide.
The distinguishing feature is its heart-shaped leaf with long petiole stem. The tip of every deep green leaf blade also looks elongated like a tail. The tree’s thin bark looks pale gray, like an elephant. Bodhi trees bear tiny flowers inside paired receptacles on their branches in summer. The receptacles later develop into green fruits that mature into purple colored fruit.
The original Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya where Buddha attained enlightenment was destroyed by King Puspyamitra during his persecution of Buddhism in the 2nd century BC and the tree planted to replace it, probably an offspring, was destroyed by King Sassanka at the beginning of the 7th century AD. The tree that grows at Bodh Gaya today was planted in 1881 by a British archaeologist after the previous one had died of old age a few years before.
The oldest living Bodhi tree that was started as a sapling from the original Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya grows in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. Many temples throughout the Buddhist world have Bodhi trees growing in them which are or are believed to be offspring of the one from Anaradapura and their worship forms an important part of popular Buddhist piety.
Inextricably joined with a Bodhi tree, the same type of tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, achieved enlightenment a Buddha head greets visitors to the ruins of Wat Mahathat in Ayutthaya. The temple is part of Ayutthaya Historical Park, the ancient capital city of Siam.
So now often in paintings of the Lord Buddha you will see a vine framing the image of Buddha with many of these uniquely shaped leaves from the Bodhi Tree. Also the leaves are dried showing the skeletal markings of the appendage, Sometimes you will even find actual dried Bai Po in embroidered Thai wall art. They are beautiful pieces of nature, but have an important spiritual history and meaning behind them.
For a basic understanding of Buddhism, I recommend dropping by this website: A Basic Buddhism Guide.