by Dee Denver
I traveled to Sri Lanka, to visit and collect leaves from Bodhi trees, during August 2-16, 2017. Three main regions were visited: Colombo, Kandy, and Anuradhapura. Many amazing sacred trees were encountered, including Sri Maha Bodhi. This ancient, sacred tree is said to be a direct genetic descendant of the tree under which the Buddha sat during his enlightenment experience. I learned from amazing people in Sri Lanka: Sulochana Wasala and her family, Buddhist monks and nuns, and other friendly people who call the island home. I also learned more about the teachings of the Buddha, and their roles in Sri Lanka’s society. Leaves from 21 Bodhi trees were collected along the way…
My plane arrived in Colombo, the capital city, and two friendly and familiar faces met me outside the airport: Sulochana Wasala, an OSU PhD student originally from Sri Lanka, and her husband, Amila Liyanage, a Chemistry Instructor at OSU. During my short stay in Colombo, I took a tuk tuk ride to the Gangaramaya temple and visited its resident sacred Bodhi tree. An orange-robed monk greeted me, showed me around the temple, and shared information about the temple’s tree. The grand tree was an integrated feature of the temple, adorned with flowers and other offerings. Local and foreign-visiting Buddhists sat around the tree, dressed in all-white, chanting and meditating. Shortly before departure, the host monk blessed a short length of white string and tied it around my wrist. With permission, I gathered three recently fallen leaves from the Gangaramaya tree for later study. This leaf sample was labeled SL1, the first sacred tree to be studied by the Bodhi Tree Project!
I traveled by hired car to Kandy, a magnificent and ancient city in the mountains at the island center. Kandy was swelling with visitors for the annual Perahera, or Procession of the Tooth. Along with Amila and Sulochana, I visited the famed Temple of the Tooth, the historic home of a sacred tooth relic (physical remain of the Buddha). Sulochana’s family arranged for me to watch the Perahera, a most-amazing gift. Thousands packed the streets to watch the procession, an annual ceremony to honor the Buddha. A colorful procession of whip crackers, stilt walkers, flame-stick acrobats, and ceremonially adorned elephants walk down the city street. Toward the end of the procession, one especially large elephant, the Royal Tusker, arrived and displayed the sacred casket (said to hold the tooth relic) on its back.
On the walk back from the Perahera to my lodging, I passed a small neighborhood Buddhist temple. It was late and dark. The temple was empty. Its resident Bodhi tree (SL2) was modest in size; I took a few fallen leaves from the ground. A short city excursion the next day provided leaves from two more trees: one outside the Temple of the Tooth (SL3) and another outside a Pizza Hut (SL4).
The majority of my time in Sri Lanka was spent in Anuradhapura, an ancient capital of Sri Lanka and home to the famed Sri Maha Bodhi tree. A long car ride, away from the rainy Kandy highlands and toward the drier and hotter north-central region of Sri Lanka, landed me at the Nilketha Villa Eco Hotel. The small guest house sat just a few kilometers away from Sri Maha Bodhi and the surrounding temple complex and ancient ruins. Sulochana and Amila re-joined me in Anuradhapura, this time accompanied by both of Sulochana’s parents, Wasala and Kumari. Sulochana’s family shared their day with me, driving a van from sacred tree to sacred tree around Anuradhapura and the northern Sri Lankan countryside. While I continued to collect only fallen leaves, Wasala and Kumari took leaves directly from trees, often preceded by a short Buddhist prayer.
Sulochana’s family first guided me to the Sri Maha Bodhi complex, leaving our shoes at the entrance to navigate the hot stone paths with bare feet. Behind three layers of walls, the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi’s branches rose into the air, supported by golden beams and surrounded by the branches of nearby ‘protector’ trees (also Ficus religiosa). Monks inside the innermost walls received gifts of water, food, and flowers, brought by worshippers as offerings to Sri Maha Bodhi. According to Indian and Sri Lankan histories, Sanghamitta, daughter of the famous Indian King Ashoka, brought a southern branch of the original Bodhi tree to Sri Lanka in ~250 BCE. The gold-potted tree cutting arrived in Sri Lanka by sea at the northern port town of Jaffna, then traveled to Anuradhapura where it was planted in the ground. Despite the centuries, Sri Maha Bodhi is widely considered the oldest tree on the planet with a historical record, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“In Sri Lanka, there grows to this day, a tree, the oldest historical tree in the world which we know certainly to have been planted as a cutting from the Bodhi tree in the year 245 B.C.” – H. G. Wells
In addition to Sri Maha Bodhi, we visited three more nearby sacred trees at Thuparama, Tivakka, and Isurumeniya. The trees at these sites are each derived from the first eight saplings that arose from Sri Maha Bodhi shortly after its planting at Anuradhapura ~2,200 years ago. Along the way, Sulochana’s family helped me collect leaf samples from the three sacred trees, and other F. religiosa around the Sri Maha Bodhi complex (samples SL5-SL11). They even arranged for three leaves from Sri Maha Bodhi, itself, to be shared with me for the project – what a gift!
A second solo excursion in Anuradhapura the following morning provided leaf samples from trees at temples, parking lots, and an orphanage (SL13-SL18). My time in Anuradhapura culminated with a beautiful, stormy night spent out on my porch in silent reflection. Shortly before going inside to read and sleep, I noticed a small F. religiosa growing in a crack in the porch, which offered my final leaf sample from Anuradhapura (SL19).
Reflections in Negombo
The Sri Lanka adventure concluded with two days in Negombo, a coastal town just north of Colombo. Traveling via tuk tuk, I performed my final collection of Bodhi tree leaves at nearby temples (SL20, SL21) and sat on the black-sanded beach. The ‘Buddhism’ that I created in my mind over the last decade was so vastly different than the ‘Buddhism’ practiced by the people of Sri Lanka. Reading of scholarly Buddhist works and time spent with Buddhist-studies academics and monastics were the main shapers of my previous view. Though profoundly valuable and essential, they were also limiting. In Sri Lanka, I discovered a ‘Buddhism’ that was more a way of being, a solvent, for an entire society of people with thousands of years of history. Across the island, I saw multi-generational families sitting together at Bodhi trees, chanting in worship and devotion to the Buddha. People walked in long lines, together clasping long lengths of tapestry striped in the blue, yellow, red, white, and orange of the Buddhist flag. The long bolts of cloth were wrapped around stupas and Bodhi trees. Sulochana and her family introduced me to Theravada monks who discussed the Buddha’s teachings and showed me centuries-old tomes of ancient Buddhist writings. My Sri Lanka experience had an expansive and jolting effect on how I think about Buddhism, one that I continue to digest.
To wrap up the adventure,I took a taxi from Negombo to the airport, enriched and invigorated by my amazing experiences, and the successful collection of leaves from 21 Bodhi trees. I felt so much gratitude for all that was made possible by Sulochana and her family, and all the other great people I met in Sri Lanka. I left inspired to see where Bodhi trees might take me next.