Under towering banyan trees a woman fetches water from the Narmada River. Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by David Beatty

Under towering banyan trees a woman fetches water from the Narmada River. Madhya Pradesh, India. Photo by David Beatty

The Wisdom of Trees

I have spoken of silence, but not of the gifts of silence, those spontaneous moments of quiet surrender to the living moment in which we become open to a deepening contact with the world around us. And the towering presence of trees are abundant with this gift. And to receive it you must have an open heart, a heart that is fearless yet vulnerable, defenseless yet passionate, for only then can the presence of the tree become the poem that inscribes itself on the page of your being with its fleeting movements, its patterns of light and shade, while listening to the leaves unfolding leaf by dancing leaf, patiently writing their language in you. It is only then that you become aware that all this arises out of a deep silence, and that this silence lies beyond you, beyond the self’s identity, beyond one who has temporarily stilled the noise of perpetual thought.

In the absence of self-conscious self-existence there is a reversal of perspective: instead of grasping the world to enhance your experience of the myriad things by incorporating the world into your self, an approach that is delusory, there is an awakening to myriad things flourishing on their own home ground as self-experiencing events that incorporate ‘you’ into a seamless process of experiencing in which you are but one trace within a dynamic web of interpenetrating events. This is nothing less than the home ground of a self that is not a self, for it resides in the emptiness that is at the beginning of beginnings, the eternal place that is before and after all ‘elsewheres’, that bottomless silence that penetrates to the sound, the ground note, the universal mantra that resonates beneath all the living things of the world.

Apart from the creatures that roam this small island garden, the birds, the monitor lizard, the snakes and the monkey, my companions all these months have been the trees. And though I have identified a number of species, the Jak, the Nuga, the Munamal, the Sea Almond, the screw pine, there are many whose names I do not know. But naming the trees is only one way of ‘knowing’ them, knowing their species, their produce and what use man makes of this, essentially a utilitarian form of knowledge.

Yet aside from this I number no strangers among trees, for they are my friends, and they speak another language, not that of utility which man has made his own. Alone they speak of the strength of solitude that yet supports their diverse community in a mutual exchange arising from a process of growth and decay. Together they create sanctuaries and walking or sitting beneath them in their branching shade, the whispering of their leaves seems to tell us that somehow everything we need to know is already known in some half-understood way. The Buddha himself experienced his awakening to truth beneath a tree. A world without trees is as unimaginable as a world without water, or a sea without fish, though at our current rate of consumption we seem to be doing our best to deplete this fragile earth of all of these vital living things. We have not yet the wisdom of trees, those towering, magnificent, and mysterious beings that drawn thousands of tons of water out of the depths of the earth and air to open their spreading limbs and cast their bountiful green networks of shade abundant with myriad leaves and resplendent with flowers rich with colour and perfume. 

To listen to trees is to learn the truth about ourselves and to trust that ‘knowing’ we spent so many years covering with a barrage of masks and pretences. A tree tells us that there is a hidden kernel from which all that is essential grows. Our ‘original face’, that ‘true self’ we seek, is that which flowers from this universal matrix. Our ‘individuality’ is an emergent structure woven of random fluctuations, like a hologram formed by the play of light, having the characteristics of light but in a new dimension. Out of the play of randomness a ‘purposive’ element is discernible, as volition, conditioned by factors of predisposition, the resulting form arising from the reciprocal interpenetration of consciousness with what surrounds it.  And in every case the forces that have shaped it, and given it its unique potential, are different in their particularity. There is a universal and particular aspect mutually interwoven within every instant, if we could but comprehend it, in the sense of being open to its possibilities. But to find what we call our ‘essence’ is hampered by our attributing to this notion some ‘thing-like’ substance, some entity that is imbued with permanence, when in fact impermanence is a demonstrable fact of the form-making impulse of consciousness. Thus that which we so ardently seek so easily gives us the slip time and again.

A tree may then become our teacher, if we are humble enough to listen, and rescue us from confusion. We go to it seeking rest in its shade, far from the travails of the world, but if we lean our head to its trunk, if we listen to its heart, if we enter into its presence, we may hear it speak to us. And what we may hear might sound like this: ‘Here you have found repose, but have you found truth? Cut me open, as you are accustomed to do, for your knowledge is too often a quest for power, not disinterested at all, and thus you murder to dissect. There at my core what will you find? You will see the ‘memory’ of my life recorded in the growth rings, the years of struggle, the good years, the bad years, the years of drought, the years of flood. There you will find only the residues of the past. I am like you. To live the truth one must pass through and beyond much trial and error, much suffering and hardship, joy and grief, and then by accepting these conditions every day may be full, every day may become young again. All this that your blade slices through, searching for that point of origin, that ‘essence’ of truth, is nothing, is simply dead wood. Life is not that at all. It is growth and understanding. It is not even only these branching limbs, these whispering leaves, it is all that I am not. It is the sky, the wind, the rain, the sun and the earth rich with the decay of my ancestors. And right now the leaves, the living bark, only these bear within them the current of life fed by all the elements.’

There is an alchemy of the spirit that dissolves the bitter core into the full round sweetness of the fruit. The core is the centre, born of the seed. The seed is the embodied light, the potential to become fruit. The seed contains the force that must grow and expand, finding its way through any constraining factor, in a stochastic process of random purposefulness.  It is the seed of discontent that thrusts through the youthful flower of our narcissistic self-display, vulnerable yet bold, colourful, displaying its sexual prowess, inviting with its fragrant scent, its erotic stimulus. Yet do we ever see the exact moment a flower becomes a fruit?

Nevertheless one day that transformation has quietly happened. It does not happen with the same blossoming flourish, the same impatience of the budding flower. It happens quietly. The flower has lost its exotic display of petals. They have withered and fallen away. There is now only the naked fruit, mellow, confident, a different kind of vulnerability, not hidden, just there, ripening, a presence mature with the knowledge of death.

David Beatty