The Tree, the Snake and the Goddess

Symbols of the Buddha’s Relationship with Nature

In: Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology
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  • 1 University of ChesterTheology and Religious Studies, UK, Chester
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Some scholars have argued that early Buddhism offers little theoretical support for an environmental ethics because it regards nature as having no intrinsic value, since it is impermanent and unsatisfactory. I disagree, and argue that the mythic context of the Buddha’s life-story shows the Buddha in an intimate relationship with nature, and gaining Awakening while dependent on it. The Bodhi tree is not just a sacred tree but a symbol of the place of Awakening and a version of the Tree of Life. The mythical snakes or nāgas who support and encourage the Bodhisattva on his way to the Bodhi tree represent chthonic powers of living nature. The Earth Goddess who appears to witness the Bodhisattva’s practice of the perfections represents a culmination of this relationship. Her image derives historically from the Greek goddess Gaia. Nature therefore has an intrinsic value in relation to Awakening.

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