Homage to a Tree

By Mark Ulyseas

For The Bali Times

I dedicate this week’s column to my friend Radha, whom I have spent many a precious moment sharing the secrets and eating the fruits from the tree of life.

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

– Joyce Kilmer

I awoke one morning in Ubud to the sound of fervent religious chants from across the river. Walking down to the riverbank, I came across a small group of people and a holy man praying at the foot of a large tree. Soon my landlord Wayan joined me. He explained that the large tree was going to be cut down as it was tilting dangerously and therefore could fall on the small houses around. But before the tree could be felled, the Balinese were seeking permission from God and the spirits of the forest. They were asking the spirits residing in the tree to move to another tree till such time another sapling was planted in its place.

This incident rekindled memories of my summer holidays (between bouts of boarding school) in Vrindavan, the home of Lord Krishna. The imposing banyan tree that stood in the corner of our large garden was sanctuary to a plethora of birds, insects, squirrels and the odd snake. The tree, for my brothers and me, represented a haven to which we fled when our tutor arrived to teach us Sanskrit. It gave us its branches to swing from and a trunk to carve our names and symbols of hearts and arrows with our penknives. The hanging roots that grew downwards towards the earth were like a newborn baby’s arms reaching for its mother’s breast.

Those were the days when we raided our neighbor’s mango tree and stole green mangoes. Quite often we were chased away by him, an old man who hobbled to the tree waving his walking stick menacingly. Part of our stolen booty of mangoes that was hidden in the crevices of the banyan tree was invariably pilfered by the resident squirrels and sampled by the rambunctious parrots.

Whenever my brothers bullied me, I would climb the banyan tree and lie down on one of its boughs to feel the rhythm of life flowing through it – a stream of consciousness that held the Earth in its grasp and reached for the sky in homage to the Creator. In those times of loneliness, the banyan embraced me like a grandmother. The sights and sounds of the menagerie of creatures that had set up home in its ever-expanding boughs and the constant bickering of the two resident squirrel families made me feel one with the banyan tree. For me it was the Tree of Life. In Hindu mythology, it’s called Kalpavriksha, meaning “wish-fulfilling tree” – that represents eternal life. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna uses the banyan tree as a representation to describe the true meaning of life to Arjuna.

“Under the protecting foliage of this king of the forests, the gurus teach their pupils their first lessons on immortality and initiate them into the system of life and death,” says Madame Blavatsky on the banyan tree under which Lord Vishnu, in one of his avatars, is believed to have taught men philosophy and science.

More than 2,000 years ago, when Emperor Ashoka witnessed the bloodbath that was the Kalinga War, he converted to Buddhism and spread his message of peace and love through out the Indian subcontinent and beyond. As a symbol of love he had planted Ashoka trees all over his kingdom. Under this tree, which means sorrow-less, Lord Buddha was born and Lord Mahavir renounced the world.

Trees in most cultures and religions are a symbol of eternal life, good and bad, fertility, etc. To me the rustle of leaves, the succulent fruits, the slender and muscular branches, the foreboding roots are part of a living, breathing spiritual being that unites the three worlds: underworld, our physical world and the abode of the gods. It is complete in all respects. The spirits of the forests protect this beautiful creation. Some call them nymphs, dryads and, in India, Vrikshaka, sensual female beings.

Leaf through books documenting the myriad facets of civilization and you will encounter the many images of trees: the Tree of Good and Bad in the Garden of Eden; the Tooba Tree in the Koran; the Egyptian Date Palm, whose leaf symbolizes eternity; the Hazel tree that is the source of wisdom, according to the ancient Druids; the Yew tree, a symbol of immortality for the Celts; the Myrtle tree, sacred to Aphrodite; the Oak that represents Zeus; and the Banyan tree – Brahman.

Today there are many people who appreciate the life of trees. Books have been written, films produced, but alas this has little effect on the continued rape of the forests. We plunder our heritage and abuse our world, disregarding the silent cries of the trees that sustain us materially and spiritually.

Trees also exist in the metaphysical world beyond our line of vision. Because we live in the length, breadth and height of this world but not in time, we are blinded by our own secret desires and perceptions that often come in conflict with this (metaphysical) world. Trees live in time and therefore are eternal. But if we continue to cut them down to satiate our wasteful needs, what will become of our spirituality? Perhaps Lord Shiva, who resides in the banyan tree, according to the Balinese, may one day come forth to take back what has been plundered from the divine forests. Who knows?

In the meantime, I shall depart to Vrindavan and there under the Kadamba Tree I shall dance with my Radha and the enchanting Gopis to the sweet music of cowbells. We shall sing praises to the Gods in Heaven and partake of the fruits of the earth.

If you want to join us, walk out of your home today and place your arms around a tree. Feel the life within it, on it and around it; place its flowers in your hair and taste its sensual fruits – for without trees we will cease to exist.

I leave you now with a Chinese saying –

“Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.”

Hare Rama, Hare Krishna

Note: Birds of Paradise Part IV will appear in the next edition.

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti Om

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Paradox In Paradise

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