Buddhist Trees

This post is for my dear not-remotely-Buddhist friends Patty and Treeman of Tree Climbers International.

I recently heard a talk by one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, Gil Fronsdal, and it occurred to me that he might be sharing one of the very few things you don’t know about trees.

This portion was near the start of a talk he titled John Lewis and Persevering with Non-harming. Please note that I have abridged it some.

I had the good fortune of meeting a wonderful Buddhist monk named Maha Ghosananda. He was considered the Gandhi of Cambodia.

Pol Pot had slaughtered millions of Cambodians. In 1976, there were 60,000 Buddhist monks. By the time the genocide was finished three years later, there were only 3,000 left.

Maha Ghosananda was one of them. He survived because he was living in Thailand at that time.

Jack Kornfield saw him when he was in Thailand. They were in the same monastery for a while practicing.  [He reported that] Maha Ghosananda went to the refugee camps at the Thai/Cambodian border to support and minister to the Cambodian refugees. He was warned not to go there. Both the Thai government didn’t want him there and Pol Pot also didn’t want him there. He was threatened with his life.

But he would go anyway. Some of these refugees hadn’t seen a Buddhist monk for a long time. To have a Buddhist monk come was quite impactful for them.

The story goes of him standing up on the stage with thousands of people in the refugee camp all around him. He started chanting some of the familiar chants that they knew and hadn’t heard for a long time. Imagine this huge trauma. Maha Ghosananda himself lost his entire family, his friends, his communities. So here he is.

Maha Ghosananda comes up on this stage with thousands of refugees around. He starts chanting and they start crying. One they recited with him was the simple chant:

“Hate is never overcome by hate. By love alone is hate overcome. This is the ancient truth.”

What a phenomenal message to bring into refugee camps where probably many of those refugees had seen horrendous things happen to their people, had lost their country, and so much. He came with that message of hope.

When I met him, he had already gone back to Cambodia. He’d been there for about 10 years, helping with the reconstruction of the country and bringing peace. I met him for breakfast one day and asked him a question.

I had learned that he had spent time dedicating himself to tree planting in Cambodia among the many things that he did. And I asked him, “Why do you, as a Buddhist monk, spend time planting trees? You could be teaching, training new monks, all kinds of things, but why planting trees?

This old man (he was probably in his 80’s) looked at me very kindly and said, “The Buddha was born under a tree, was enlightened under a tree, taught under a tree, and died under trees.” That’s all he said. But I heard him — that he thought trees were really important and a place for the Dharma, a place of practice, a place where people can connect to something really important.

Here he was planting trees — trees that probably would never come to maturity in his lifetime. But he was also planting for the future. He had this longer vision of what was possible and this idea of persevering — not to lose track of this bigger span of time that we live in and how things come and go and change — and how the past is really close by and the future is not far away.

What we do now can have a huge impact for the future.

~ Gil Fronsdal