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 http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.16.1-6.vaji.html.
[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, https://dhivanthomasjones.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/dependent-arising-as-pagan-philosophy/