Saturday, May 25, 2013

Thoughts At Vesakha

When the Buddha arrived in Kusinara and lay down between two  Sal trees, they burst into flower out of season and sprinkled their creamy-yellow petals over him. When Ananda expressed amazement that the very trees were revering him, the Buddha said: “Ananda, these Sal trees burst into flower out of season in homage to the Tathagata and covered his body…But the monk or the nun, the lay man or the lay woman who lives practicing the Dhamma properly and perfectly fulfils the Dhamma, he or she honors, reveres and respects the Tathagata with the highest homage” (D.II,137-8).
Being Vesakha I thought it appropriate to say something about the Sal tree. A quick perusal through Yahoo and Google Image will show an almost universal misidentification of the Cannon-ball tree (Couroupita guianensis) with the Sal tree (Shorea robusta). Wikipedia does the same. The Cannon-ball tree is native of Brazil and gets its English name from the large cannon-ball-shaped fruit that hang in bunched from its trunk. How did a Brazilian tree get confused with an Indian tree? Well, first of all, this confusion seems to have began with   Sri Lankan Buddhists. The Sinhalese of course have never seen a Sal tree which does not grow in tropical climates. They are however, quite familiar with the Cannon-ball tree because it was introduced into the Island by the Portuguese. Now the Cannon-ball tree not only has an extravagantly beautiful pink and white blossom with an almost overpowering perfume, but also in the heart of the flower is a small creamy-white nodule that looks exactly like a little stupa. The rest followed automatically for the Sinhalese. The Buddha died under a Sal and his remains were enshrined in a stupa + the Cannon-ball tree has a stupa in its flower = the Cannon-ball tree must be the Sal tree.
One can well understand how simple Sinhalese peasants could make this harmless and innocent mistake. But it says something about the influence (at least in some areas) of Sri Lankan expatriate missionary monks that they have disseminated this mistake so widely that now almost all Buddhists (outside India. Indian Buddhists know better) take it as gospel. From one point of view this is, as I said, a harmless, innocent mistake. From another point of view perhaps it is not. It could be seen of as yet another example of Buddhist carelessness, of that  “a myth is as good as a truth”  attitude so common amongst Buddhists and perhaps also of the Western Buddhists tendency to accept everything Asian Buddhists tell them. So please! Let’s have no more confusion on this matter. As the Buddha lay dying at Kusinara it was Sal blossoms that sprinkled down on him, not cannon-balls!
Vesakha blessings to all my readers.


paulmalone said...

Thanks for your post, Bhante. They're always so interesting.

To be showered in Sal blossoms certainly does sound more befitting of Buddha's final day, than to endure a bombardment of those canon-balls. Ananda would have had to bat them away or whip out a parasol.

Alessandro S. said...

«As the Buddha lay dying at Kusinara it was Sal blossoms that sprinkled down on him, not cannon-balls!»
This made my day! :-)
Better later than never, happy Vesak, Bhante!

Adriana Etsuho said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adriana Etsuho said...

I was also confused about the sal tree.
I am researching the presence of trees in the Therigatha and Theragatha and this led me to investigate the relationship of Buddha with trees.
Thank you very much for this entry, has cleared a little of my confusion

aavo said...

Please correct tag and caption for the second picture of a dark pinkish flower, not Sal and clearly mislabeled by you as Sal on your photo tag! It should be labeled as A cannonball tree flower (Eugenia jambolana)as done for the following recent article:

Shedding light on Sal trees
By Ven. Shravasti Dhammika Thera
The Sunday Times Sri Lanka Wednesday, February 04, 2015