A Single Tree is Really a Whole Forest: Zen Wisdom for Tu B’shvat

In honor of Tu B’shvat – the Jewish New Year for the Trees – I offer you these lovely tidbits from “Trees and Spirituality: An Exploration” by Dr. Nalini Nadkarni, who teaches Environmental Studies at Evergreen State College.

Happy Tu B’shvat – and may your roots discover hidden spheres of growth in the coming year!

Trees link us to enlightenment. Their ubiquitous shape and form, their persistence through time, and their “rootedness” in the soil, remind us of the connection between earth and the heavens.

Buddha sat mediating under a Bodhi tree. When dawn came, the sun brought enlightenment to him.

As if to reinforce this universality, we see tree forms everywhere – in rivers, caves, blood vessels, lungs – and in the form of Zen Buddhism itself. Historically, temples follow lineages, like family trees. Each temple was brought into a hierarchy, with branch temples under main temples and each level responsible for the one beneath.

Like other living beings, trees “breathe.” Through photosynthesis, they help supply the most basic of needs of humans – giving us clean air to breathe. This connection to breathing links trees to meditation and reflection.

The Hebrew word for breath – neshama – is the same as the word for soul. Our spiritual life force comes by way of air and respiration.

In the services I attended this fall, the most powerful moments were the moments of silence – the time between speaking and hymns. Buddhist silence, samantha – stopping, calming, concentrating – is very important. It is the same as the stillness I see when I look up at a tree on a windless summer day. Trees are rooted in the ground and make no sound. They epitomize samantha.

…In Zen practice, you do not strive to delete all thoughts. Rather, you discover the emptiness that is present within the form of thoughts, experiences and realities.

Most researchers who study the forest focus on the trees and animals – the forms. In contrast, Dr. Roman Dial studies the emptiness within the forest. He uses a laser to get distances to branches and leaves, making images of their “negative space.” These are stunning in their beauty and also in their significance. How does a bird negotiate through space? How does a pollen grain move? Or a termite queen, or a particle or pollutant?

According to Buddhist thinking, the idea of a separate “self” is an illusion. There is no external individual being apart from interaction with the world. Although we each have a separate set of perceptions and sensations, the idea that there is a fixed “self” is a false inference.

Trees remind us of this because a tree is a modular being. Most animals, including humans, develop and grow as a single entity. In contrast, the seed of a tree germinates into a root and a shoot, which in turn differentiates into branches, with buds that become the next generation of leaves, flowers, and fruits, and so on. Along the way, genetic material can undergo mutations and changes.

Thus a mature tree contains thousand of separate branch systems, each a separate “lineage,” a separate genetic entity. Fruit growers know that certain branches produce much better fruit. They can graft the best branch and start another tree that will produce to that type. So a single tree is really a whole forest. There are many in one.

Trees help humans tell time; they spell the seasons. Nothing tells us about the passing of time more clearly than autumn colors or the tender green of emerging buds.

Forests teach us about the dynamism of nature – the need to accept change even if it seems to be destructive. When I go out to my forest plots and see a fallen tree – a tree I have climbed a hundred times, taken data from, named – I have to remind myself that this is the nature of the forest. Seedlings will grow in the light created by the fallen giant.

Hidden Worlds
Trees manifest hidden spheres. Their roots are underground and out of sight yet provide support for the tree and serve as the gathering apparatus for water and nutrients. The belowground world sustains the aboveground parts. Tree roots can symbolize that which we hide from ourselves and others – our troubles, failings, ill-health. To be truthful – full of troth – like a tree, we must recognize that these hidden parts are an important part of us, not something to discount, just as soil-covered roots of a tree are essential to its being.

(From Northwest Dharma News, October/November 2002, pp. 10, 13)

3 thoughts on “A Single Tree is Really a Whole Forest: Zen Wisdom for Tu B’shvat

  1. Thank you for this article which gives me a new concept on a tree. I will never look at a tree without having these thoughts resonate within me.

    Lorenzo the modest

    Stay vell

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