Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Bodhi Leaf

   I thought I would share with you the story and significance of the bodhi leaf.  It is a common element in Thai spiritual artwork, and I’ve been rather drawn to its simple charm since I first encountered it.

     In Thai, it is called “bai bo” (bai = leaf; bo = the abbreviated word for bodhi).  The word “bodhi” is both a Sanskrit (Ancient Indian) and Pali (Ancient Thai) word that translates as “enlightenment” or “wisdom.”  Today, the tree’s scientific name is Ficus religiosa.  It is revered because it is said to be the type of tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, the spiritual teacher and founder of Buddhism, was said to have been meditating when he attained enlightenment, after which he was called the “Buddha,” a Sanskrit word meaning “the awakened one.”  Thus, the tree became sacred to Buddhists, and its leaf a symbol of peace and happiness.

    The particular bodhi tree under which the Buddha meditated grew at Bodh Gaya in northern India. Siddhartha Guatama lived some 500 years before Christ, so the original bodhi tree died long ago.  However, clippings of it were taken and planted throughout India and Sri Lanka.  The oldest living bodhi that was started as a sapling from the mother tree grows in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, now a sacred pilgrimage site. It was planted in 288 BC, making it the oldest living human-planted tree in the world with a known planting date. 
Bodhi tree at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka

    Many temples throughout the Buddhist world have bodhi trees accompanying them that are (or are thought to be) descended from the Anuradhapura one, and their worship is a common Buddhist practice.
head of Buddha statue cradled in tree at the ruins in Ayutthaya, Thailand

  The banyan tree, or Ficus bengalensis, is a cousin of the bodhi and is often revered as well.  Although their appearances are quite distinct and I’m not sure how confusion between the two occurs, I do understand the compulsion to honor the banyan.  With its dangling aerial roots and twisted expansive trunk, it exudes a sort of magical charm.  Thais often venerate it by adorning it with multi-colored ribbons and incense sticks.

    At the market where I shop for Buddha amulets, images of the Buddha meditating are ubiquitous, but ones in which he is sheltered by the leaves of the bodhi are rare, and finding them can take persistent digging.  Luckily, I’ve got doggedness in spades and succeeded in unearthing some I really love.  I recently featured these Buddha and bodhi leaf amulets in several new earthy green necklaces. 

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