The Tree Shrine at Lumbini


There was some fascinating news last Tuesday 26 November – that archaelogists have uncovered a shrine from the 6th c. BC at Lumbini, the site of the Buddha’s birth. (Here’s a link to the BBC version). It’s not often that archaeology, let alone the Buddha, gets in the news. The headlines were unfortunately a bit sensationalist, making it sound like the archaeologists had come up with some new evidence for the Buddha having lived in the 6th c. bce, which is somewhat earlier than previously thought. The original article on which the headlines were based, in the journal Antiquity, in fact tells us that the archaelogists have discovered that, underneath the brick stupa at Lumbini built by Ashoka in the 3rd c. bce, is what appears to be the traces of a 6th c. bce wooden enclosure, possibly around an old tree shrine. My friend Jayarava has already written an interesting blog going into some of the details of the scientific article. But I would like to take a different line of interpretation.

I think this new discovery is fascinating for what it tells us about how the early Buddhists understood the significance of the Buddha. I don’t believe that the discovery of a pre-Buddhist tree shrine sheds any new light on the dates of the Buddha. If we think about the Buddha’s life, it seems to me obvious that the story of his birth at Lumbini, while his mother stood holding onto the branch of a tree in the middle of the jungle during her journey back to Kapilavastu, should not be taken literally. This story about the Buddha’s birth comes from a period after the Buddha had died, when the early Buddhists were thinking about who the Buddha was, in the bigger scheme of things. They started telling stories of previous Buddhas, of the long bodhisattva-career of these Buddhas, and of the miraculous events that attended the significant moments in the lives of Buddhas. The birth of a Buddha to his mother while she stood holding a tree, its flowers raining down in worship, followed by the Buddha taking seven steps and declaring he had come, is part of a symbolic or archetypal life-story of the Buddha.

So it seems that the early Buddhists must have decided that Lumbini was where the Buddha-to-be had been born. The association of this symbolic event with an existing tree shrine obviously does not tell us anything about the dates of a historical person. Rather, the association shows us the establishment of a sacred geography. The old Ashokan stupa shows that the site was a place of pilgrimage and worship even in the 3rd c. bce. What the new discovery suggests is that the old place of worship was originally perhaps a pre-Buddhist tree shrine, where a tree, perhaps some ancient and beautiful specimen of a Sal tree was worshipped. It had a fence built around it, and people may have come to pay respects, to honour the deities and spirits that were supposed to live in the tree’s branches. We know that there were such shrines in the Buddha’s day, as the early Buddhist scriptures describe the Buddha visiting them and staying near them, such as the Sārandada shine,[i] and the Aggāḷava shrine near Āḷavi.[ii] Sometimes these tree shrines were associated with anthill shrines.[iii] Perhaps the shrine at Lumbini was somewhere that the Buddha particularly liked, or where perhaps he once gave a talk, perhaps about his birth or upbringing. This is all guesswork, of course, but in some such manner the association may have developed between the tree shrine at Lumbini and the Buddha’s birth. In time this association may have led to the establishment of that tree shrine as a site of pilgrimage commemorating the Buddha’s birth.

But the association of symbolic events in the life of the Buddha with trees is not limited to Lumbini and the Buddha’s birth. The Buddha was supposed to have become awakened under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, and he was supposed to have died between two Sal trees at Kusinagara. We thus sense an enduring symbolic connection between the Buddha and trees. What does this connection signify? I suggest that the connection is between the tree as archetypal symbol of the cosmos, and the Buddha as archetypal symbol of wisdom. Let us take two non-Buddhist examples of symbolic trees. The world-tree Yggdrasil in Norse mythology contains the universe. Its roots stretch into the underworld, its branches into the heavens. It is the tree of life, and Gods, beasts and humans have their being through it, the waters of the Well of Wyrd circulating through it.[iv] The cross upon which Christ was crucified is also called the tree of life. The cosmic sacrifice by which Christ redeems fallen humanity occurs while he is pinned to the wood of the world-tree, his flowing blood having the role of living water. The same motif occurs in Buddhism. The Buddha became enlightened sitting under the Bodhi Tree. This symbolizes his awakening taking his place at the very centre of the universe, the waters of life nearby in the form of the river Nerañjarā.

The Buddha, the enlightened being, is like the tree of life in that he has achieved complete knowledge of the heavens, the earth and the underworld, just as the tree stretches between these realms and joins them. The Buddha sits in quiet meditation, as the tree is rooted firmly in the earth. The Buddha becomes a shelter or refuge for suffering beings, as the tree is a shelter from storms. The Buddha is bestows blessings in the form of teachings, as the tree bestows shade, wood, shelter and beauty. It would perhaps have been natural to decide that a certain tree shrine that the Buddha had once known should become the place of commemoration of the birth of the Blessed One, the human being who understands the laws of the cosmos, who stands firm at the centre of the world.

[i] Mentioned in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, Dīgha-nikāya 16, translation e.g. at

[ii] Mentioned in the Vaṅgīsa-sutta, Sutta-nipāta ii.12.

[iii] The original article by Conningham et al refers to a fascinating paper by John Irwin, ‘The Sacred Anthill and the Cult of the Primordial Mound’, in History of Religions, 21:4 (1982), pp.339–60, in which this association of tree shrine and ant-hill is explored.

[iv] I mention Yggdrasil and the Well of Wyrd in a previous blog post,

Agnosticism About Rebirth


Should western Buddhists believe in rebirth? Some thinkers, epitomised by Stephen Batchelor,[1] have come out as not believing in rebirth. For these thinkers, rebirth is part of the traditional Indian belief system that the Buddha inherited, and not essential to the Dharma. Many other western Buddhists argue that a belief in rebirth is a crucial part of being a Buddhist. They make various points in support of this traditional belief, for instance, that the Buddha taught rebirth, that the whole structure of Buddhist thought depends on rebirth, that Buddhist teachers through history have accepted rebirth, and that there is some evidence that rebirth is the case. The position I’ve come to on this matter is a principled agnosticism.

I personally would not say that I believe in rebirth, but this very idea of ‘not believing in rebirth’ is ambiguous. It can mean, to believe there is no rebirth (which is denial of rebirth), or to not be sure that there is rebirth (uncertainty about rebirth). The former equates with annihilationism, which the Buddha always describes as a wrong view, while the latter does not. The problem with annihilationism is that it tends to engender emotional nihilism, since death will be totally the end of you. So although it is unlikely that western Buddhists who have decided that they do not believe in rebirth could be be persuaded to start believing in it, they might be open to thinking about the advantages of agnosticism.

If we are agnostic about rebirth, we can fully engage with Buddhist scriptures as literature. When we read Greek myths like those in the Odyssey, we do not need to believe that Zeus, Hera and Athena are really living on Olympus in order to appreciate the stories. Instead we open ourselves to Homer’s imaginative world and enjoy Odysseus’s journey home to Ithaca. Likewise, we can read about the Buddha remembering his previous abodes, and enjoy for instance how this idea allowed the early Buddhists to come up with the Jatakas, those edifying stories of the Buddha’s past lives.

I think it is important to consider what it means that rebirth was a commonly-held belief in the Buddha’s day. The Buddha clearly accepted the idea of the rebirth and often made it part of his teaching. However, he gave the cultural teaching of rebirth a new twist.[2] He said that rebirth happens in accordance with the ethical quality of one’s actions, not in accordance with one’s sons doing certain rituals, as the Brahmans believed. This ethicisation of karma is the Buddha’s real contribution. We are responsible for our own destinies. That is the important point, in my view, as it infuses our worldview with an ethical orientation.

Buddhist doctrine does not entirely depend on belief in rebirth. The Buddha talked about enlightenment in terms of the ‘deathless’ or ‘undying’ but also as the ‘unborn’, ‘unageing’, ‘unmade’, ‘unconditioned’. But these terms all signify the state of enlightenment in this life. They do not imply anything about what happens after death. The Buddha repeatedly said that it is impossible to say anything about enlightened beings after the breaking up of their body. I think it is possible to over-emphasise the role of karma and rebirth in the Buddha’s teaching. It is certainly present, but in some suttas, such as that to the Kālāmas,[3] the Buddha explains that whether or not the noble disciple believes in rebirth he or she finds reassurance in the practise of ethics. A noble disciple is someone with right view, and the most common way of describing right view is in terms of the four noble truths, which is an expression of conditionality – that there is suffering, that it has a cause, and an ending, and there is a path that leads to its ending. One can make a lot of progress towards enlightenment with such right view, while remaining agnostic about rebirth.

From the point of view of empirical science, consciousness depends on physical conditions, namely, the brain. When the brain dies, so consciousness ceases. This in fact is also exactly what the Buddha said. In conversation with a monk called Sati he emphasised how he teaches that consciousness (viññāṇa) arises on conditions and ceases when those conditions cease.[4] It does not continue the same after death. So how did the Buddha explain rebirth? The fact is, he did not explain rebirth. He simply stated that karma or craving or formations continue. The later Buddhist tradition attempted to explain this better, with ideas such as the ‘mental continuum’ (citta-santāna) or the ‘storehouse consciousness’ (ālaya-vijñāna), but these are obviously speculative ideas. So the Buddha and science agree that consciousness does not continue after death, and apart from that, nobody really knows what happens.

To be agnostic about rebirth is not necessarily ‘Buddhism-lite’ but is part of an authentic western Buddhism. For me as a western Buddhist the problem is not rebirth according to karma, which, if it were literally true, would be logical, ethical and consistent. The problem is our inability to say anything objectively valid about what happens after death. Scientific knowledge is a useful reminder of the limits of our knowledge. Personally I think the real task for western Buddhists is to hold to a genuine agnosticism, avoiding annihilationism on the one hand, and religious metaphysics on the other. Such agnosticism can appreciate everything about traditional teachings of rebirth but relates to them as stories or metaphors about the mystery of existence. Such agnosticism can also engage fully in trying to understand mind and brain, and we can keep reminding annihilationists that scientific materialism is just a belief and is not necessarily the whole truth. For me agnosticism is a positive emotional attitude, connected with wonder as well as dismay, like the way we feel truth in poetry.

In conclusion, I wanted to explain what I mean when I say I do not believe in rebirth. It is not because I believe that there is no rebirth (denial and annihilationism) but because I am not sure that there is rebirth (uncertainty and agnosticism). However, such agnosticism does not mean that I cannot relate to the teachings of the Buddha in the Pali canon. On the contrary, I will be reading it as literature, which will inform my imaginative engagement with the mystery of existence.

[1] First in Buddhism Without Beliefs, Riverhead, 1997, and more recently in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, Spiegel & Grau, 2010.

[2] Richard Gombrich discusses this in What the Buddha Thought, Equinoxe, 2009.

[3] Discourse to the Kālāmas, Aṅguttara-nikāya 3:65. See my blog on this at

[4] In the ‘Greater Discourse on the Destruction of Craving’, Majjhima-nikāya 38. Online at