Filed in Koans

Green Koans 46: A Tree Joins the Monastery

Clark Strand

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Green Koans 46

CASE #46:    A Tree Joins the Monastery

According to Buddhaghosa, the precept against injuring plants and trees came about in the following manner.

Once when the Buddha had given permission for an assembly to dwell in the forest outside of the monastery, a certain monk decided to build himself lodging and, seeing a suitable tree for this purpose, began to cut it down. The spirit who inhabited the tree appeared to him carrying a child on her hip. “Please do not cut down my home,” she implored. But the monk answered, “This tree is perfect and I shall not be able to find another like it.”

Supposing that the monk had not noticed her child, the spirit placed it on a branch in order to dissuade him, but it was too late. Unable to check the force of the blow, the monk swung his axe and severed the child’s arm. The tree-spirit was angry and thought to kill the monk, but reasoned thus with herself: “If I kill this monk because he has destroyed my home, perchance the other trees of the grove will do likewise and kill the monks who live here. Rather than act with haste, I shall approach the Buddha about this matter.”

When he had heard her story, the Buddha praised the tree-spirit for her restraint and gave her a new abode—a great tree in the monastery courtyard from whence another tree-spirit had recently departed. There the spirit lived happily under the protection of the assembly of monks for many years to come.


Buddhaghosa     An Indian monk of the early 5th century C.E. Buddhaghosa was the author of The Path to Purification. His commentaries on the early Buddhist canon established many of the mainstream ideas of Theravada Buddhism.

The forest outside of the monastery     The first Buddhist monasteries were groves rather than erected dwellings. Even when patrons later gave the assembly actual buildings to live in, these were erected within the precincts of sacred groves.

Tree-spirit       Buddhism is a religion with deep roots in animism, the belief that spirits inhabit not only human bodies, but the bodies of animals and plants, rocks and other geological formations, and even the weather. It is interesting to note that Sujata, the girl who offers food to Shakyamuni on the day he arrives to sit beneath the bodhi tree, was in the act of honoring a yearly commitment to offer food to the deva who dwelled in that tree. Mistaking Shakyamuni for the deva, she offered the bowl of milk curds to him instead.


A tree-spirit with a child on her hip implored a monk not to destroy her home. Apparently, there needed to be a rule about this. Go figure… It’s a wonder she didn’t obliterate the whole monastic order on the spot.

The way the story tells it, she got a better home closer to the Buddha. But maybe the Buddha just wanted to keep a close eye on her. Could he have been the only monk in the whole order who correctly estimated a tree?


The one true measure
Of any culture is how
It treats its trees.
Murder, mayhem, Madoff…
It all begins with the axe.

Read all the Green Koans here.

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Dominic Gomez's picture

In that animism holds that there is no separation between the spiritual and the physical (or material) worlds, it may have informed the Buddhist teaching of non-dualism. And the belief that "souls", or spirits, exist not only in humans, but also within all other forms of life as well as in natural formations and phenomena (e.g. mountains, rocks, rivers, thunder, lightning, etc.) echoes the concept that all things have buddha nature (including dogs).
(Just my 2 bits on the topic...)

mkwart's picture

I think the distinction between sentient and insentient, organic or inorganic, is nothing to write home about. I see that you are looking for the transition between the animist idea of trees actually having living spirits and the idea that trees don't have living spirits, but are inhabited by spirits that are outside of themselves. I suggest reading Dogen's SHobogenzo Chapter 53--Mujo-Seppo --the "Insentient Proclaim the Dharma." There is also a great little book called "Teachings of the Insentient" by John Daido Loori.

I worked with a Native American woman who had gotten a job on a tree thinning crew where I worked for the US Forest Service. She was having trouble doing the work because she could hear the cries of the trees as they were cut down. Although I do not personally hear the cries of the trees when they are hurt, my instinct tells me that thinking of them as having spirits of their own is more compassionate and accurate than believing that a spirit occupies them and they are dead matter--merely shells for an animate spirit to live within.

Bare with me on this, as I work this out--I think the whole evolution of thought away from a holistic view, which the idea of the trees having spirits as opposed to just being inhabited by spirits, is a devolution of sorts that occurred gradually as the young human male energy of the planet sought to make a separation between themselves and the Mother aspect of the cosmos. A necessary development for the young male energy to come to maturity, but in the development of thought that accompanies this process of maturation (as represented by the change from believing that the trees have spirits to the thought that they only are shells for spirits to live within), it is mistakenly regarded as a more advanced thought and the other more "primitive". I believe that the opposite is true--what is considered more "primitive" (the animist beliefs) is actually a more profound expression of truth, Dharma, that will once again come into favor when the young human male energy matures. Whew!! Is it the Flag moving or the wind moving??

Now I will go do something useful, and go outside and plant some flowers from seeds a friend gave me.
--Good Luck

mistervijay's picture

"Buddhism is a religion with deep roots in animism, the belief that spirits inhabit not only human bodies, but the bodies of animals and plants, rocks and other geological formations, and even the weather."

This idea of tree spirits and weather spirits sounds very Shinto or shamanic to me. I'd be interested in learning more about how animism converges with Buddha's teachings. I am not aware of how they do. can you refer me to other resources that will help me continue to explore this convergence? Which schools of Buddhism allow for animism?

ClarkStrand's picture

Hi, Vijay. I guess I'd say that animism is a pretty universal aspect of human spirituality and therefore tends to find expression in every religion, in one form or another. In truth, it is a much older form of spiritual expression than organized religion is. My sister-in-law is a physical anthropologist who has spent most of her professional career in caves of the Dordogne region. I recently discovered that she had a tattoo on her shoulder of a bird glyph found in the smallest, innermost cave at Lascaux, a room that only a small handful of anthopoligists have ever seen. I started to ask her why she'd had a tattoo made in that design, but decided not to, because I thought I knew the answer. A lot of scientists are animists at heart, though you wouldn't catch them dead in a church.

In any case, animistic elements are still a powerful presence in Theravada Buddhism (especially in the Thai version). Likewise, the Vajrayana is filled with them (check out the National Oracle of Tibet). And Japanese Buddhism is animistic from the get-go, for reasons you've already stated, since Buddhism was grafted onto the indigenous rootstock of Shintoism in Japan. The list is surely a lot longer, but these are the ones that come most readily to mind. And speaking of caves, Bill Porter (aka Red Pine) makes an interesting point in his book "Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits." In looking at the history of the hermit tradition in China, he finds that they were originally shamans, then became Taoists, and finally became Buddhist monks and nuns. Same caves, same mountains, occupied continuously for 5,000 years--and in truth, probably for a lot longer. Easy to see how the animism got where it did, and where it came from. What I find more interesting is how quick many religions are to deny this. Why? I think I know the answer, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter...or hear from anyone else who might want to take it for a spin.

mistervijay's picture

"In looking at the history of the hermit tradition in China, he finds that they were originally shamans, then became Taoists, and finally became Buddhist monks and nuns."

This is really interesting. I think there is a progression here to be explored. First they believe that trees have spirits (as shamans) as moving away from that towards the belief that devas inhabit the trees but that the trees do not have spirit (Buddhism). I think it should be clear from the sutta that the tree is not sentient but rather it is inhabited by a deva or spirit. This is likewise the same with the oracle where a person is inhabited by a deva or spirit as a medium. There are subtle distinctions but important ones to make.

ClarkStrand's picture

The illustration for this week's koan is a still shot from "Totoro," Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 classic animated film about the healing power of nature, as personified by an enormous but benevolent tree spirit (shown here). I referred to the film in a review I wrote for Tricycle a year or so back of "Eat, Sleep, Sit: My Year At Japan’s Most Rigorous Zen Temple," by Kaoru Nonomura:

The climax of the book occurs just as the monks at Eihei-ji monastery are being treated to a screening of Miyazaki's film. The ecological message is woven so intimately into Nonomura's account of his training at the head temple of the Soto school that my editor at the time challenged me numerous times about my "reading" of the book before finally relenting and letting me say what I wanted to say. I still maintain that, as a memoir, the book is finally much more about ecology than Zen, the former being celebrated more or less unambiguously throughout, the latter mostly just endured.