In the course of Buddhist history, and as far as trees are concerned, the Syzygium jambos, commonly known as rose apple tree, has gotten the short end of the stick. Or, should I say the short end of the branch. Few have actually heard of the rose apple tree, any rose apple tree, let alone the rose apple tree that played such a monumental role in the Buddha’s inward journey. Sure, we all have heard of the Ficus riligiosa, aka, the Bodhi Tree, and how the Buddha attained his enlightenment sitting under one.
Since that time, the Bodhi Tree has become an object of veneration. At Bodh Gaya in India there grows the tree that is the direct descendent of the actual tree that witnessed the awakening of Gotama so many centuries ago. The Bodhi Tree is also the image in early Buddhist art that symbolizes the Buddha. As Buddhist art began to emerge, when artisans took their hammers and chisels to carve out the stories of the Buddha’s life, the Buddha was never depicted as having a human form. The Enlightened One was always represented by various images such as a pair of feet, an umbrella, a Dharma wheel, among others, and of course, the Bodhi Tree. So, the Bodhi Tree has its place firmly in the historical and contemporary consciousness throughout the world and I certainly wouldn’t argue that.
But what about the rose apple tree? It seems to have been relegated to the margins of history, a footnote in the story of the Buddha’s journey. As I read the story of the Buddha’s trials and tribulations I find that the rose apple tree plays a much greater role than most understand and is deserving of more consideration.
What is it about the relationship between the Buddha and the rose apple tree that it deserves such arboreal admiration? The Buddha, before he became the Buddha, gave up his privileged life. He was born into the Kshatryia caste which is the warrior/ruling class, and his father was the clan leader of the Shakya people. As the son of the leader, he certainly didn’t lack the best things that life could afford. However, it seems that he was not suited to the life that his father wanted for him. The Buddha, recounting his youth, said of himself that he was “delicate, most delicate, supremely delicate.”1 This is not the characteristic one would seem to posses for someone of his status, someone destined to rule. He seemed to be cut out of a different fabric than his family and friends. He seemed to be much more pensive and contemplative compared to his peers. Nonetheless, after having an epiphany or two about the harsh nature of life, (which is clearly an understatement of his personal crisis), he left the security of his privileged life, his family and friends, his inheritance and all that came with it, left it all to find the higher truths to life. Despite his weeping parents, he joined the ranks of the wandering ascetics. I am sure they were horrified of the prospect of their only son going around here to there in some ragged robe begging for food. But, such is life.
Life as a wandering ascetic was not easy. On one hand, our seeker, Gotama, was relieved of the burdens of his home life, in which he felt trapped. On the other hand, life as a wandering ascetic was difficult. Ultimately, it wasn’t meant to be. When Gotama first left home he eventually found his way to a couple of meditation teachers. He had to learn the practice of meditation somewhere, right? After a few years he managed to master the techniques and then went on his way. He felt it just didn’t do it for him. It didn’t provide the answers he was looking for. Eventually, Gotama connected with with a small group whose practices delved into nothing less than self-mortification. There is something about the idea of subduing the flesh to cleanse the soul that seems to be a fairly universal idea in the human realm. Being an explorer and seeker he began to take up these harsh practices. Why not? When most read about what self-mortification is and read descriptions of the practices, the reaction “Are they crazy?” is not an uncommon response. Perhaps some were. Regardless, Gotama tried various techniques, but as in the past, he found them fruitless. Then he decided to fast. As the story goes, he would eat only a single grain of rice a day. Despite the longing for food, despite the weakening and wasting away of the body, and despite all the things that go through the mind when the body is so deprived, Gotama continued his fast, day in and day out. There is a well-known sculpture in the Lahore Museum in Pakistan which dates back to the third to fourth centuries. It is an image of Gotama fasting. It is usually called the “Fasting Buddha” or the “Emaciated Buddha.” The image is a very stark portrayal of the result of Gotama fasting. He is basically a skeleton with wasting dried up flesh. Virtually every bone and veins in his thinning body can be seen. Gotama had taken his fasting to the extreme, to the point of death even. However, he did not cross that threshold.
At some point in time, as Gotama was wasting away, he began to doubt his ideas about fasting. Perhaps he was taking this too far. Perhaps fasting was not the answer. At some point in time, he remembered an experience of his youth, an event in his life. At the time it did not seem like anything significant or earth shaking but now it seemed important, it seemed – needed. Gotama remembered a time in his past as a youth. He was with his father who was, by some accounts, performing a ceremony in the fields, to insure a bountiful harvest later that year. Other accounts in the Sutras just states that he was working. Either way, Gotama found shelter from the searing sun in the shade of a rose apple tree. After awhile, sitting there, he sank into some type of meditation, some type of mind state, one that brought him happiness and pleasure, a sense of freedom and spaciousness. After ruminating over the memory a bit he thought to himself, “Might that be the way to enlightenment?”2
The memory seemed to resonate with him and so Gotama began to break his fast to regain his strength in order to explore this new inspiration. By observing his life leading up to that point, he understood quite clearly that the willingness to indulge, that made up his past life in his father’s house, did not bring him any real happiness. He also understood that the harsh austerities, of punishing the body, was also not the way. There was instead a middle way to one’s inner freedom and happiness. Despite the uncertainties of the future, Gotama set out in a new direction with a new confidence. It all just made too much sense to him not to. Of course, Gotama continued on his path to total Enlightenment and the accolade Buddha was bestowed upon him – and the rest they say, is history.
Sometimes life is like a jigsaw puzzle. Perhaps it is some perplexing internal knot from some past hurt, Perhaps it is trying to figure out a direction in life. If we had that final piece the puzzle will come together and make sense. It will all make sense. It’s that last piece that stops us from going down the path we are supposed to go. If only we had that last piece. For the Buddha, recalling the past experience at the rose apple tree was that last piece of the puzzle. He had given up everything. He had searched in many directions and walked down dead ends. He even risked his life. But it wasn’t until that last piece unraveled his vexation and revealed what needed to be revealed. It was that last piece that completed the picture, a picture that would define his path.
In my own life, that remembrance, that piece of the puzzle came in the form of trying to understand my father, trying to understand his alcoholism that I grew up with and that brought much suffering to myself and our family. Even after years away from home, confronting the places within me, trying to understand how it had affected me, how I was shaped by the past, how that affected my decisions, how I looked at the world, how I reacted to the world. Even though through my introspection and practice I had found healing and well-being, there was still a piece missing – a piece of the puzzle that still hindered me. “Why?” is sometimes the hardest question. It is often elusive, often unanswerable. And yet it seems to be so important, so pivotal to one’s life. Why after so much effort and sacrifice, did Gotama still not find the liberation he wanted? Why after all the introspection, hard truths, and eventual relief did I still not have that liberation? What was missing?
My father was born on a small family farm in central Wisconsin. As with most small farms they worked hard to maintain their lives; perhaps, if lucky, even a little more. When he was sixteen years old his father died of pneumonia. Being the only boy in the family, he had to quit school to tend the farm. Because my father did not like working on the farm, eking out a life, at the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War Two. Probably the only option to him at the time. I remember that we always had family albums with all sorts of pictures. There was one album however, that was not on display. It was always kept in a closet or in a chest of drawers. These were the pictures my father brought back from the war in the Pacific Theater. When I was a little older I finally got to see what was inside the mysterious album. There was some pretty disturbing photographs. My father had seen the ugliness and destructiveness of war. How could he not be affected by that? To add to all that he had a family of four to support. This is the narrative I began to understand about my father – that he had a life of difficulties and suffering that he lived with, and he coped with it the best that he could. These are the memories that I had pasted together to create this narrative. As this piece of puzzle of my past, this remembrance, began to emerge it ushered in nothing less than sheer forgiveness in me, one based on understanding and an openness, which I had not experienced before – to look a little further than my own self and to look with empathy. This was my rose apple tree remembrance that, like the Buddha, ushered in a new direction, one leading to an understanding and a healing.
They say that our memories are incomplete. They also say sometimes our memories are misleading and in error as to the truths that once were. Was the Buddha’s memory of his experience under the rose apple tree true and complete? I cannot say. Too much time has obscured any real answer. Did my memories of the stories of my father’s life create the true narrative? I think so. The piece seems to fit. Regardless of any possible inconsistencies, inaccuracies and the like they both seemed to serve their purpose. Gotama got beyond his hurdle to find his final liberation and I found reconciliation and peace from finding my piece of the puzzle.
Sometimes on our path in life there are mountains to scale and dark foreboding forests to forage through. Sometimes the path is easy and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it takes a mere piece of a puzzle, a memory of a past, to travel on. The Bodhi Tree had become the symbol of both the Buddha and his great Enlightenment, a symbol of accomplishment and attainment, the consummation of a path. The rose apple tree, however, was there in the darkest time. It was a remembrance when resources seemed depleted and ineffectual. It was that piece of the puzzle that brought forth new life, opening a new direction on a weary path, one that would usher in beautiful landscapes and bright comforting sunlight – and, if you’ve never tasted the fruit of the rose apple tree, you should. It is very delicious.
1 The Life of The Buddha: According to the Pali Canon. Bhikkhu Nanamoli, page 10:1992 (Anguttara-nikaya 3:38, PTS translation).
2 Idbid., p. 21.