Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Bodhi Banyan Bungle

Nowhere is the ignorance of and confusion about Buddhism better illustrated than in the widespread inability to distinguish between Bodhi trees and Banyan trees. I thought everyone knew that the Buddha was enlightened while sitting under the Bodhi tree, otherwise known as assattha in Pali, asvattha in Sanskrit, bo in Sinhala, po in Thai, bawdi in Burmese, pipple in Hindi, Bodhi Tree or Sacred Fig in English, Ficus religiosa in botanical writings; and that a Bodhi tree is one thing and a Banyan is another.
God! They look different enough! The Bodhi tree has thin bright-green leaves with the characteristic long pointed tip (right picture) while the Banyan’s leaves are ovate/elliptic-shaped, thick and dark green (left picture). The fruit of the former is small and brown while that of the latter is large and purple. Their botanical names are distinct too; Ficus religiosa for the former and Ficus bengalensis for the latter. But most noticeable of all is that the Banyan puts forth numerous aerial roots which support its spreading branches and form accessory trunks, and the Bodhi does not.

Saying that the Buddha was enlightened under a Banyan tree is a bit like saying Jesus was born in a milk pail or that he was nailed to an octagon, that a water melon fell on Newton’s head, that Santa’s slay is pulled by aardvarks or that the jolly swagman jumped into a bath tub. On one hand it’s not really that important, on the other it shows a superficial and casual attitude to clearly discernable differences and easily discoverable facts. In 2008 Time ran an article on corruption at Bodh Gaya entitled ‘Big Trouble Under the Banyan Tree.’ The August 8th 2009 edition of the Economist commenced a column called ‘In the Shade of the Banyan Tree’ in which it stated that the Buddha was enlightened under a Banyan. An excellent ecological website called Eco India (‘brings you down to nature’) says that Bodhi is another name for the Banyan (‘just brings you down’). Another website, Science Museums of China, gives a picture of a Bodhi tree, has its correct botanical name, lists its proper colloquial names and then spoils it all by calling it a Banyan tree. The tourist website for Phimai in Thailand gives a slightly different version of the muddle, stating that the Buddha was enlightened while ‘standing’ under a Banyan tree. Wikipedia, as I have come to expect by now, also buys into the confusion, at least in its article ‘Banyan Tree’. Out of 40 websites I logged on to at random, 36 got it wrong.
Come on people! It’s not that difficult! If you can tell a reindeer from an aardvark you should be able to tell a Bodhi tree (top) from a Banyan tree (bottom).


bobzane said...

So it turns out meditating Buddha Boy is under a Banyan Tree.

Your Friend Bob

David W. Craig said...

I think the Buddha and the Jolly Swagman would get along very well. And being from the Southern US, Santa being pulled by Armadillos sounds almost believable. There is a great children's book that is a Cajun version of 'The Night Before Christmas' where Santa arrives in a pirogue pulled by alligators.

aah-haa said...

Hmm... this wouldn't be a rose by any other name is still a rose. To me the bodhi tree is synonymous with meditation while banyan tree is synonymous with relaxing spa. Those bungling bums who can't tell bodhi tree apart from banyan tree probably have difficulty counting beyond three.

gustav said...

I suspect we have here a case of deliberate confusion. And the cause is what ? It is because bodhi-leaf is visible as one of the four symbols in the ordinary pack of playing cards, as Spades that is. Incidentally the Clubs is then the Three Gems. And as to the Hearts and Diamonds, they are the Heart-lotus and the Diamond-vajra. Furthermore Ace is Maha-Ati, the beginning and end of the path. It is no wonder there is confusion about the Ficus Religiosa!

Ven. Jo Jo said...

I agree, this isn't important on the surface. However, this article sparked my interest because it touches on a much larger and more serious situation with regards to people learning about Buddhism. The fact is, unfortunately, that nowadays the vast majority of people glean their information from the Internet. Unfortunately there is no way to know the qualifications of the person providing the information or that they are even very good at presenting the information accurately & coherently. When visiting a website of someone who claims to be a monastic or some sort of other teacher of the Dhamma, the reality is there's no way of knowing if it's actually a ten year-old kid in his mom's basement or not. This is a situation that can be easily rectified if the Saṅgha at large would come together. A project I've been attempting over the years to no avail. By all of us insisting on throwing ourselves out there among the sea of other everyday wannabe teachers and Buddhist bloggers, we are only contributing to the confusion and problem.
Anyway, I hope this article puts to rest a common misunderstanding. I recall a few years ago being taken to task by a layperson for stating the actual name of the Bodhi Tree. He was adamant that Bodhi Tree was the actual and scientific name. What can you do? At least he didn't insist enlightenment came while sitting under a giant snake, as I once heard someone profess.

edmsby85 said...

i have 2 plants which i consider as bodhi plant. the shape of the leaf is the same. the difference is when they have young leaf. one of them produces red young leaf while the other doesn't. can you help me to identify the real bodhi plant? thank you

Matthew V said...

I've just started reading the Mahavagga and learned that after spending seven days under the bodhi after attaining Enlightenment, the Buddha walked over to the nearby "Goatherds' Banyan" tree and sat a full seven days more there. I live in Thailand and the banyan is sacred here, but I thought it was more because of animistic tradition than that it also played a special role in the life of the Buddha.