Even Plants and Trees Have Buddha-nature

My apartment is located in the rear of the building. There used to be four beautiful trees right outside my windows. They provided cooling shade and great ambiance. In springtime, birds would come to sit on the branches and chirp their love songs to one another, making lovely music. In the summertime, I loved to look out at the trees in the afternoon,  beguiled with the way the sunlight fell upon the leaves so perfectly . . .

Two of these trees were destroyed by over-trimming and eventually cut down. Incompetent tree-trimming is a real problem here in Los Angeles. None of the people who do this sort of work seem to have any idea of how to prune a tree properly. They engage in topping and tipping, two practices that are extremely harmful to trees.

Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of large upright branches, sometimes in order to reduce the height of a tree. Tipping is basically just hacking off lateral branches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and any responsible arborist will tell you that proper tree trimming does not include topping and tipping.

After the two trees were removed, obviously only two remained. One was a wonderful red berry tree that subsequently had the heart cut out of it by these so called “tree trimmers”:

Today they cut away at it some more, and now, it’s just ugly.

Then there was this small tree, which at one time was not so small.  The tree trimmers nearly destroyed it, and for  years now, it has struggled to survive and regrow:

When I received a notice regarding the impending tree timing, I contacted the property manager and practically begged her to leave this tree alone.  I sent her the above photo to show that the tree was coming back to life, finally thriving.  They cut it down anyway.  It’s gone, and I have a difficult time not calling it murder. A pretty strong word, but trees are living things. What else would you call the senseless act of killing a living thing? There was absolutely no need to destroy that tree.

If simply the fact that they are alive is not reason enough to cherish trees, and plants, and hold them sacred, then consider this: In Mahayana Buddhism, “even non-sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature” (Ch. wu ch’ing yu hsing). Yes, even plants and trees have a Buddha-nature.

William R. La Fleur has noted that,

Chi-t’sang [549–623 CE], a native of Turkestan and a master of Madhyamika dialectic in China, was the first to use the key phrase “Attainment of Buddhahood by Plants and Trees.” He made the first, although highly qualified, step in the direction of seeing Buddhahood in the nonsentient. In his Ta-ch’eng-hsuan-lun he stated that in theory plants and trees, since they are essentially like sentient beings, can achieve Buddhahood, but he allowed this as a possibility only within the realm of theory.”*

Around the same time, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i (538–597 CE) put forth a theory on the Buddhahood of plants (Jp. somoku-jobutsu) based on his concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen). In his Chin-kang Pi (“Diamond Blade”), the ninth patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, Chan-jan, wrote,

“A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature.”

Elsewhere in the same work, he stated,

[Because of i-nien san-ch’ien] we may know that the single mind of a single particle of dust comprises the mind-nature of all sentient beings and Buddhas…. The man who is of all-round perfection, knows from beginning to end that Truth is not dual and that no objects exist apart from mind. Who, then, is “animate,” and who “inanimate”? . . . In the case of grass, trees, and the soil (from which they grow), what difference is there between their four kinds of atoms? . . . How can it still be said unto today that inanimate things are devoid (of the Buddha-nature)?”*

This notion of the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees was extremely popular in Japan. In Tendai (the Japanese offshoot of T’ien-t’ai), scholars advanced the theory further. Chujin (1065-1138), in a work called Kanko Ruiju (“Classified Collection of the Light of the Han”) put forth seven “arguments” in this regard [see below], stating that “trees and plants do not posses Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas”, and so, according to the principle of “original enlightenment” trees and plants posses Buddha Nature. What he is saying is that it is through the faculty of enlightened wisdom that we can recognize the precious entity of life in all existing things and recognize that they all posses Buddha-nature.

Other Japanese Buddhists such as Kukai and Dogen, and the great poet Saigyo, also championed the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees. Dogen was critical of those who couldn’t get it. He once wrote,

Students . . . consider the mind to be thoughts and perceptions and do not believe it when they are told the mind is plants and trees.”

A person who thinks in non-dualistic terms finds no separation between the mind and the world of nature.

There is no excuse for the senseless destruction of trees. Ignorance is not a defense. People in the tree trimming business should be knowledgeable about their business. They should know what is good for trees and what isn’t. I’ve tried to protect our building’s trees . . . to no avail.

And this is why I am feel sad today. With the destruction of the small tree, I feel as though I have lost a dear friend. I lamented its near-destruction.  I rooted for it to come back.

On this last day of National Poetry Month, I offer one of Saigyo’s poems. Read it in reverse, not as a human speaking to a tree, but instead, as if the little tree that struggled so hard to survive but was cut down anyway, was speaking to us . . .

Pine, of you I ask
Some services … of mourning
For aeons … of concealment;
There’s here no human being
Who might think of me when I die.

Chujin’s Seven Arguments for the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees*

1. Shobutsu no kangen. Trees and plants do not possess Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas.

2. Gubosho no ri. Trees and plants are in possession of Buddha-nature (bussho or Buddhata). “Buddha” means “enlightenment.” The inner (or mysterious) principle of the Buddha-nature is a purity of original enlightenment (hongaku) and has nothing of impurity in it. This is something which plants and trees are in possession of.

3. Esho funi. There is an inner harmony of the achievement of the right reward (shobo) – in this case the Buddha’s enlightenment  –  and all the attendant (eho) circumstances – for example the earth, etc., upon which he depends. The enlightenment of him is accompanied by that of all these others. Therefore, plants and trees are already in possession of Buddha-nature.

4. Totai jissho. Of their own nature the myriad things are Buddha, and “Buddha” means enlightenment. In their inner nature the things of the 3,000 worlds are unchangeable, undefiled, unmoved, and pure; this is what is meant by their being called “Buddha.” As for trees and .plants, there is no need for them to have or show the thirty-two marks (of Buddhahood); in their present form-that is, by having roots, stems, branches, and leaves, each in its own way has Buddhahood.

5. Hongu-sammi. Like all sentient beings, trees and plants have three bodies: the Dharma-body, the Sambhoga-body, and the Nirmana-body. Therefore, trees and plants can attain Buddhahood as sentient beings can.

6. Hossho fushigi. The self-nature of trees and plants is not capable of being described and, therefore, the Buddha-nature possessed by trees and plants is also ineffable.

7. Guchuudo (Tendai mediation principle) and ichinen-sanzen. The principle that the 3,000 realms (i.e., all phenomena) are contained in one thought means that the mind (shin) is all things and all things are the mind. Trees-and-plants as well as sentient beings both possess all things. This is why sentient beings can conceive of trees and plants. If this were not so, there could be no cognition. The real and original nature of all things (hossho or dharmata) has two aspects. Its quiescent aspect is the one mind and its illuminating aspect is the 3,000 realms of being. The internal unity of these two aspects makes both for knowledge and for the fact that essentially plants and trees have the Buddha-nature.

*La Fleur, William R., Saigyo and the Buddhist Value of Nature. Part I. In: History of Religions, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Nov., 1973), pp. 93-128. The University of Chicago Press


8 thoughts on “Even Plants and Trees Have Buddha-nature

  1. Thanks for linking to this post. I was not aware of these teachings. I have not run across a Tibetan Buddhism version of the Buddha Nature of the insentient controversy. Maybe the Two Truths debate is the closest TB comes to it.

    In any event, I wonder if the dry S. CA climate worsens the effects of topping and tipping. Here, the power company hacks away at trees just as you describe, but it’s rare for the tree to be permanently harmed. Even at that, it’s still distressing to see,

    1. I think the Buddha-nature of insentient things is an evolution of dharma that was pretty well limited to Chinese and Japanese Buddhism. Although at least one Chinese Tibetan Buddhist, Rinchen Dorjee Rinpoche, does talk about it here (toward the bottom of the page). As far as Tibet goes, it may have something to do with the climate, being a mountainous region with little of the lush flora and fauna found in most parts of China and Japan.

      And you may be right, climate may have something to do with the effects of tree trimming in SoCal, I don’t know. Part of it is how much damage they do and the type of tree. Some trees seem to bounce back after extreme trimming, although they may look a bit funky, while others never regain the fullness they once had.

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