I have a tree all lit up in my living room. When my wife and I brought it inside we invited all the great outdoors indoors. As a Buddhist I do not see a contradiction between my practice and my culture in having a tree in my house around the winter solstice. I see an opportunity to build a ritual connection with this great, rich tapestry of my ancestor’s stories. Living the symbolism of ritual is another avenue of contemplative practice.
Living the symbolism, what does that mean? I’ve raised three children, the decorations on my family tree are shining with memories, heart meanings reflected. There is no way to know just what a tree decorated this way can mean without doing it; putting up the tree year after year and trying to make magic in the lives of your children for a special morning. Naturally some things hang around, others disappear over the years until a distillation of the love and concern of your family with all its quarks and quirks comes forth.
Trees play important roles in just about every mythic narrative we know about. In Christianity there’s the crucifixion on a tree. In Norse mythology Yggdrasil is the world tree. The Buddha gained enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree. The Druid traditions have whole languages of trees. Judaism includes the story of Eden’s trees and their mystics study the Kabbalistic tree of life. There is also the Maypole, lodge pole, yule log and all the other variations on trees that populate our customs and stories.
There is a widespread symbolic illiteracy among modern peoples. Unless your studies have included mythology, depth psychology or a mystical tradition chances are you have not been exposed to reading symbolisms. As this is the holiday season perhaps it is worthwhile to take a moment to examine the workings of the Judeo-Christian myths that formed the foundation of the culture that became the industrialized modern world. It does us good to honor the stories and recognize they provided our grandmothers and grandfathers lives with meaning, guided their hard work of trying to live good lives and accompanied their sufferings as a comfort and source of solace.
The basic tree narrative in the Bible is rarely spelled out but remains workable. The Eden state is characterized by having the tree of life at its center ever overflowing with the fruit of eternal life. This is a mandala image. The esoteric studies of the Kabbala with its classification of symbolisms, paths and spheres is said to be explorations of this tree. The other tree of the Bible story has played a much more central role in the formation of values and tales in the western world; the tree of good and evil or as it is sometimes called the tree of knowledge. The story is that all mankind fell into sin by eating the fruit of this tree. With knowledge came sin and with sin death entered the world. It took another tree, the tree of torture where god killed himself for the sake of loving mankind, to redeem the fallen state.
It is not hard to read these symbols as dealing with the limits of the conceptual mind, specifically its conscience built as it is on the knowledge of good and evil. With this self awareness we are cast out of Eden, unable to partake of the fruit of the tree of life any longer. Our destiny is to be alienated from creation because we know we will die one day and this makes life a burden of toil and tears. Only granting eternal life can solve the flaw which is a way of asserting that only removing suffering, not transcending it, can address the fundamental unease we experience.
How exactly a Christmas tree, a tradition born for the cultures with these Bible stories, relates to all this is hard to fathom for most people, even those who participate in the Christian holiday rituals year after year. The esoteric tale is simple though. The torture was not the final word after all, it was a kind of delusion as the Christ rose from the dead and it is said by the Christian mystics the tree of the cross became the tree of life, even the bridal chamber. The Christmas tree all lit up and adorned with good foods and shiny things represents the tree of death, the tree of knowledge, transformed through the tree of torture into the tree of life. Get the message and Eden is as close as your living room.
That is not however why I too have a lit tree in the living room this week. I am grateful for an opportunity to share the tradition of a tree brought inside and decorated with rainbow lights. For me other clusters of symbolisms and other stories gather around it that resonate more truly with my understanding of my human experience and my best comprehension of what it is to live the good life in the Socratic sense.
I think everyone should take advantage of this once a year chance to celebrate ritually, our poor culture is so ritually malnourished. Exchange gifts with strangers, friends and loved ones and with every exchange aspire for a world not dominated by graft and greed, where the marketplace is just one part of living and not the dominate slavery it has become. When you decorate a tree do so with whatever artifacts resonate with you and yours. Culminate the decorating with a tree top, what will it be for you? If you are a Christian an angel seems perfect, if Jewish perhaps a star, if a Buddhist perhaps a mandala, if Muslim maybe a model of a minaret? I wonder what our friend the Archdruid does? The point is, this is a way of participating in a cultural psychic waveform, shall we say, to honor our roots in the collective psyche. All traditions have a tree symbol or story; I suggest not allowing fear or pride to keep anyone from participating.
I have an ulterior motive as well. I cannot help but think that if more people brought a living tree into their houses, their own sensitivity to ecology might be heightened. I believe being near a living tree is a balm to many of the stresses and strains we suffer from living in our overly man-made environments with all those sharp corners and straight lines. Finally, I think that with just a dollop of awareness it is very possible to have a quite moment of reverence some evening before the soft glow of a lit tree in a quite house. It is just possible that for a flash you will see through the mind-word label ‘tree’ and see the actual, wholly unique individual tree sharing with you a temporary moment of existing. Perhaps you will be invited to rest with one pointed mind, samadhi, the gateway to nirvana. In the final analysis all the symbolisms and rituals are just props to aid us in gaining a pure perception of the reality of this tree; a participant in flows of sunlight and rain, nourishing soil and creating the very air we breathe. It is the reality that is most magical but, sadly we do not see it, it is as if we are under a spell that casts a shroud over our eyes.
Decades ago I was taught what remains for me the most powerful symbolic reading of mythological or scriptural trees. There is a symbolic analogy between the tree and the human nervous system with its spinal trunk and dendrite branches. Along this tree there are chakras, wheels where a nexus of energy and material flows unfold over time. These chakras are rainbow colored providing a harmony with the tree in my living room all aglow with lights. Through skillful means a relationship with this tree brings forth one of the fruits of contemplative practice, often called nirvana.
My favorite set of symbols around nirvana cluster around the rainbow. Multiple double blind experiments have demonstrated that there are deep psychological reactions to the colors we experience. The rainbow captures the largest mysteries of physics I have learned from my cultural inheritance; the speed limit of the universe and the particle and wave duality at the core of quantum experiments. It also captures the most mysterious aspects of our psychologies; the breakdown of clear light into rainbow as if it was hiding there all the time just needing a different way of looking at it and how exactly the mind – all that wet-ware of synapses and neurotransmitters – sees light in dreams and inner visualizations. Where is this light exactly in the darkness inside our skulls? Spend time with this question and one might come to hear the music of the spheres.
An interesting feature of the chakra and Kabalistic symbol systems is that there is room for more than one level of “truth.” Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs these maps of potential conscious experience recognize higher states build on lower ones. They try to capture the funny way events seen one way can mean something totally different when seen another way. In Buddhism there are said to be two truths, not one; the relative truth and the absolute truth. The relative truth is all that we experience of reality in what we might call the scientific world view. The absolute truth is all that we experience beyond the duality of conceptual mind, though careful reasoning can lead us to its threshold. Both are true, the relative and the absolute, simultaneously. The tree symbol teaches us this as it maintains its roots in the good earth even as its branches reach the spaciousness of the sky.
Nirvana is a state of consciousness that is experienced as beyond time or as one with all time. The yogi dares to recognize this state of consciousness as valid, naturally arising in the body-mind of human beings. Though it does not seem like it to our daily, get up and get your coffee consciousness, things like the symbolism of the tree are of more primary importance to the experience of being human than we typically can recognize. In the moments of orgasm, death, slipping into the sacred world, touching the Buddha mind, in those moments a profound transformation of values occurs as the contents of conscious experience shift to another, altogether more profound plane. Because this is inherent in consciousness itself every sentient being is destined to share these experiences. Every man, woman and child but also every whale, stink bug and brown bear will also pass through these inner worlds of experience. At least it is no less rational to assert this is the case than the position that consciousness is nothing more than an accidental spandrel. How and why this works out future posts will explore but first our understanding of what reasoning itself is will need to be sharpened.
The yogi dares to recognize this state of consciousness as valid, hence the need for all those metaphoric ideas so easily misunderstood as dogmas. Ideas like reincarnation reflect the aspect of timelessness that is part of this awareness. Ideas like complete and total rest from the desires of the body and mind reflect the aspect of total satisfaction of the heart’s deepest longings that is part of the experience. Ideas like non-duality reflect the aspect of deepest homecoming that is part of this awareness.
Unlike dogma which often must just be accepted despite our honest reasoning and critical intelligence, the contemplative traditions assert only the nature of reality. Granted they are willing to include universal human experiences that are normally not given much thought, not often discussed, and poorly understood yet the whole case for enlightenment being a real thing, a real possibility for human beings rests on the simple, almost scientific assertion of what is really real.
Denying this aspect of the human experience, we discard a large proportion of what provides mankind with its most profound dignity; the dignity that arises from the core of self awareness, from consciousness itself. Part of the middle way is a balance between the inner world and the outer world we encounter in our daily experiences. Evolution primes us for paying attention to the outer world, our curiosity primes us to ask about our inner one. The practice of a contemplative is nothing more or less than the commitment to try and live in such a way that neither the one nor the other are allowed to dominate. Ritual offers a means of using externally perceived objects like a glowing tree as statements of internally perceived objects like the light of the mind.
On this holiday I would like to thank my readers from all over the world. These posts require a degree of commitment to share with me week after week. These words are my gift to you, your time and attention your gift to me. Thank you.
Happy Holiday friends.