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How can a tree be seen as a metaphor for an internal process? What lessons and truths can it offer us?

The Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah says, “we can learn dhamma [law of nature, truth, Buddha’s teachings] from a tree.” The tree can awaken us to aspects of our own existence we had forgotten or neglected.

For one, the tree offers us a lesson in impermanence. Each year, the tree gracefully sheds its leaves, and each spring they come back. In some ways, it is the “same” tree year after year, but in other ways, it’s completely different.

Like the tree shedding leaves, our bodies shed cells. This is happening at an astounding rate: 50 to 70 billion a day! We feel like the same person a year ago, even if most of our cells are not the same. The tree reminds us of the cycles which happen everywhere in nature, including in ourselves.

Looking closely, we see that the tree is composed of a central trunk that extends upward and branches into thinner pathways lined with leaves. All of this is supported by a vast, underground root system that supports and irrigates the part we can see.IMG_9455

We usually don’t think that a similar process is at work in people. When we interact with a person, what we’re seeing or hearing is only the part above the surface.

Whatever someone does with body or speech arises out of a vast network of forces that are not immediately visible (even to ourselves). If someone says or does something that offends us, it’s common to react with anger or indignation. It’s more difficult to pause and try and contemplate this person’s “roots,” which do not stretch into the ground, but back into the past.

Perhaps they were raised in an angry or violent household that conditioned them to behave in this particular way. Perhaps this person has had a rough day, or perhaps they just ate a spicy meal that has made them very fiery. All of these aspects are not immediately visible when we encounter somebody.

Just as the size and distribution of the tree’s roots determine how it grows, our past experience and conditioning sets certain boundaries to who we are.IMG_9409

It can be quite useful to keep this in mind. It is, in fact, the source of compassion. When we see the causes and conditions that have given rise to someone, it often makes us less inclined to judge and condemn that person.

Of course, our past is not only our own individual story. It’s connected to all our ancestors and the environments they lived in, just as the tree has emerged from a humble seed, which was nourished by a vast conspiracy of plant and animal elements.

 

And here we arrive at an important point that will certainly recur: when we rattle one part of the web of existence, the rest shakes! It’s impossible to separate out one phenomenon from all the others. In addition to what a tree can specifically teach us, this is also important to remember.

What about you? How can you see a tree as a metaphor for an internal process? Are you familiar with how a tree is used in your particular religious tradition?