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Verse 9: The tree of enlightenment

Part of a series of talks on the 41 Prayers to Cultivate Bodhicitta from the Avatamsaka Sutra (the Flower Ornament Sutra).

  • Metaphorical meaning of “leaning back”
  • Bodh Gaya and the bodhi tree
  • Possible tantric tree symbolism
  • Dedicating for all sentient beings’ enlightenment

Of the 41 prayers—or gāthas, sayings, things for us to contemplate on the bodhisattva path—the ninth one reads:

“May all beings reach the tree of enlightenment.”
This is the prayer of the bodhisattva when leaning back.

Then I pause: “What does a tree have to do with leaning back?” And I think that’s because in ancient times people—especially in hot countries where Buddhism was—people were outside a lot and they ate and did a lot of things outdoors, and they would lean back against trees.

We lean back a lot, don’t we? It’s an interesting thing to think about. “May all sentient beings reach the tree of enlightenment.” So every time you lean back, instead of just letting go of the Dharma and being in slouch position, or apathy position, or whatever it is, to really think, “May all sentient beings reach the tree of enlightenment.”

The reason it talks about tree of enlightenment is because it says that all buddhas will be enlightened under the bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya. The previous [verse] talked about, when sitting down think “may all sentient beings reach the seat of enlightenment,” and the seat of enlightenment refers to Bodh Gaya, and the tree of enlightenment, the bodhi tree. I don’t know that we necessarily have to take all these things so literally, that it has to be a bodhi tree, and it has to be at Bodh Gaya. But I think it’s more figuratively. I think “dorje den” the seat of enlightenment, refers to the indestructible drop. (This is just my thought.) And the tree of enlightenment, I wonder if that refers to the central channel in the middle of the body. Because you know when we make the buddha statue we put the shing, the long pole through the center of the body. That’s analogous to the central channel in our subtle nervous system. And the word “shing” is the same word as for “tree” in Tibetan. I don’t know in Sanskrit what the title is. But that would certainly go along with the tantric explanation.

In any case, every time we lean back let’s think “may all sentient beings reach the tree of enlightenment.” In other words, may they come to the situation where they are on the last moment of the bodhisattva path, under the tree of enlightenment, set to become a buddha in the very next moment, also under the tree of enlightenment.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.