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What is a Bodhi Tree? - Meaning, Symbolism & History

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

The Bodhi tree, a central symbol in Buddhism, is the tree under which the Buddha found enlightenment. Descendants of that fig tree still stand in that place, though there are now Bodhi trees around the world.

History of Buddhism

2,500 years ago, Siddartha was born in Nepal to the royal family. He lived in extreme privilege but gave it all up for a spiritual life. For six years he dedicated himself to meditation, at times nearly succumbing to starvation. Yet, he did not find peace. At 29, he set out into the woods to find enlightenment, the state of perfect knowledge combined with infinite compassion, which would ultimately become a central tenet of the religion founded by his followers.

The Bodhi Tree

For more than a month, Siddartha meditated, a practice of training the mind to free itself from the worries of everyday life, beneath a fig tree in Bodh Gaya, India. After 49 days, he stood from his meditative position. He thanked the tree for its shade and found enlightenment. It was then that he became The Buddha, or the enlightened one. The fig tree that sheltered The Buddha took on great significance as the Buddhist religion developed. Just as Siddartha became the Buddha, the tree became the Bodhi Tree or tree of enlightenment.

The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya
The Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya

In Bodh Gaya, the Bodhi tree still stands, a descendant of the one under which the Buddha sat. But around the world, Buddhist temples have planted their own fig trees, some from clippings related to the original. One of the trees, in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka, is the oldest living tree cut from the Buddha's Bohdhi tree. A princess brought the cutting home from the tree with her shortly before the original was destroyed in the early persecution of Buddhists. Each Bodhi tree represents the journey to enlightenment that Buddhists seek and the tree is often replicated in imagery.

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