The Buddha is born a prince, in a vast and luxurious palace. It takes him several years to get to the point where he decides that the only way to reach enlightenment is to just sit and meditate until it happens, no matter how long it takes, and no matter what distractions or temptations arise.
My favourite part of the story is right at the end. He has reached enlightenment, and Mara, the god of destruction is angry. He shouts and threatens, and mocks the Buddha, taunting him that he hasn’t really achieved anything! The Buddha just smiles and reaches out one hand to touch the earth, which trembles. He has called the earth to witness his enlightenment, and the earth rumbles in confirmation. Sitting in front of a Tree and touching Malkuth, we could say. That moment when the connection to divinity – our divinity – is revealed and witnessed by our world, for us.
The Bodhi Tree is a fig tree. Like the pomegranate tree, a fig tree is known for producing lush fruit full of seeds. They live a very long time – a literal tree of Life. The fruit of this particular fig tree, ficus religiosa, is used mostly for medicine because it is really too bitter to eat on its own. I like this because the Buddha is often referred to using medical language: he is the doctor who can help relieve our suffering, if we will only take the medicine he offers. There is even a Medicine Buddha, whose iconography involves all kinds of plants and seeds.
But mostly I just love that the Buddha was sitting under a tree when he achieved enlightenment. A Buddha is an ‘awakened one’ or ‘one who is awake’, and it’s this connection to a tree that facilitates his awakening. We know the tree is part of the deal because there are a million other places the Buddha could have sat – in a temple, for example, or by a river, maybe at the top of a mountain. All of these places are holy, but the story needs a particular connection that only the long tradition of the fruit tree that connects heaven and earth can provide.
As the Buddha’s mind rises up the tree so that he gains a new perspective on the world, he sees the true nature of existence, behind all the veils our societies and cultures teach us to create. This is enlightenment, and the tree is the gateway. We can use it, too.
One of the veils that cause us the most trouble is that of permanence. We are taught to rely on a sense of permanence in ourselves and in the world around us – the houses, the streets, and also the job, our system of society. We want to believe these things are solid because it makes us feel much more secure. Change is always a challenge, whether we’re talking about the 2 of Pentacles or The Tower. But when you don’t acknowledge that change is a part of our existence, you suffer even more because it’s always a surprise. When you resist it or ignore it and it happens anyway, it’s then more than just change – it becomes a struggle with our ego (“I don’t want this to happen”), and we know that never turns out well. Enlightenment is an understanding of impermanence and an acceptance that the nature of this life is change, which helps us so much in dealing with the way our lives unfold.
Understanding impermanence means you can also recognise that the true nature of everything here is Sunyata, what is most often translated into English as ‘emptiness’. Emptiness here refers to the meaning we assign things in the world. Can we say with confidence that a table is a flat piece of something that is supported by legs made of something? OK, that’s what it is right now. But if we look at what it was before it was a table, and what it would be if we put something heavy on it and broke it, we can see that that concept of a table is fluid. It’s temporary.
What if we release the idea that there is a solid ‘me’, since there is actually nothing permanent about us either? I know people who think this idea is pretty scary. We spend a lot of time building up our concepts of ourselves – things we like and dislike, our principles and dreams. All those quizzes we take to find out secrets about ourselves! But all we need to do is change our perspective. We still have likes and dislikes, just not all the time, for our entire lives – that’s impermanence. Think about your taste in entertainment. I bet you don’t enjoy all the things you did when you were a teenager. We are fluid, ever-changing, and that gives us room to experience so much!
Being able to release the attachment to our physical selves and physical surroundings as permanent is what the Buddha encouraged because it is so freeing. It means you can change your mind without feeling as though you’ve betrayed yourself somehow, or misled anyone else. If you’re like me, you’ve had people get annoyed with you for changing your mind about something – “But you used to love this!” Right, I did, just not any more. You’ve changed the ‘you’ in their mind.
This is how you connect with the Tree of Life to access your higher self and recognise your own divinity: seeing from the larger perspective of your whole life everything that you have liked and have disliked, and will love or reject in the future. This understanding is what rescues you from always falling victim to change. It lets you rise above the narrow description of ‘you’, to a connection with everyone else, and that is what makes all of us truly divine.