Tree of Heaven

heaven tree

Master Hui said to Master Chuang, “I have a big tree people call Tree of Heaven. Its great trunk is so gnarled and knotted that it cannot be measured with an inked line; its branches are so twisted that squats and compasses can hardly be applied to them. It stands by the road, but no carpenter would even consider giving it a glance. Now your words are just like my tree—so big and useless that no one ever cares to listen to you.

Chuang Tzu laughed. “Haven’t you ever watched a wildcat or a weasel as it keeps low to the ground, bowing in wait for its prey before it leaps east or west, never avoiding high or low, only to end up snared in some hunter’s net? But look at the yak: big as clouds in the sky, big enough to call huge, but useless when it comes to catching mice. “Now you have this huge tree. You think it’s terrible that no one can cut it for use. Why not let it be a tree?—in the Village of No-Thing, where the wilds spread out in every direction toward No-Place. Sit beneath it, simply carefree and master the art of nondoing. Your big tree’s life will not be cut short by axes, nor will anything else harm it. Being useless, how could it ever come to grief?”

This tale is from the Zhuangzi and is found in one of the Inner-Chapters, or those tales that are closer in essence to Chaung Tzu’s original pen, whereas the Outer-Chapters are most likely compiled from former associates and students. It’s one of my favorite as it depicts a classic scenario involving the ways of the discriminatory mind and how it compares and judges according to its own limited vantage point. For many the ol’ Tree of Heaven would be considered useless because it has limited value in terms of practical-applications in the world. The Carpenter would have no use for it in terms of stripping its properties for some commercial-venture. Chaung Tzu brings out the tree’s deeper and inner-esthetic worth—spiritually it’s a thing of pure-beauty. Imagine it resting in that vast open-space of no-thingness, another translation calls it the Never-Never Land—that place of mystical charm where one can rest carefree from all the stresses and worries of samsara. We used to have such a tree in our family backyard. It was an old, gnarled and knotted crab-apple tree, yet each year it only produced marble-sized crab apples; yet, it was like an old and comforting friend as each year its craggily-old arms would reach out closer and closer to the house. Over the decades we celebrated many a family affair under that old tree; we even sent-off an old childhood friend back in 1989 when he moved to California, as my cousin and his son sat carefree on one of its limbs. It was truly a sorrowful thing when it was wrenched from its roots by Tropical-Storm Irene back in 2011; it was exactly like the loss of an old and dearest friend. For us its value was worth far more than one can imagine. Spiritually, it was a thing—no, not a thing, but a living-creature of pure beauty. The following is a parallel-tale from the book, Letting-Go: The Story of Zen Master Tōsui, observe how Chaung Tzu and Tōsui’s spirit meet-in-essence:

After age twenty, the Master traveled on pilgrimage to the Kantò, staying for a time at Kichijòji in Edo. While the Master was in Edo, he stayed at a temple in Shitaya that had used several hundred wooden memorial tablets to fence off its grounds. Worse yet, the Master often noticed that the fertilizer the temple’s servants threw on the vegetable garden would splatter the tablets. This troubled him, and every day he would go out in the streets to beg, using whatever money he received to purchase planks of wood, which he brought to the temple, replacing the tablets with a new fence he made from the planks. The Master then carried the memorial tablets to the Sumida River and set them adrift as he chanted sutras. When the temple’s abbot was inspecting the vegetable garden, he noticed the new fence. Accusingly questioning one of the monks from the kitchen about this, he was told, “That monk who recently came to stay at the temple used his own money, purchased planks and set them up, taking the memorial tablets from the old fence and tossing them into the river.” The abbot was mortified. Word that the tablets from the old fence had, one and all, been thrown into the river and a tall new fence put up in their place was bruited about everywhere. As a result, it is said that at that time, the use of memorial tablets for fences in the Sòtò-school temples in Asakusa in Shitaya ceased.

The accompanying poem really brings the message home:

Plunging the Wooden Stupas into the River

One should recognize what is lofty and exalted, the dignity of a
Revealing the tathagata’s five wisdoms
Even erecting a single wooden stupa brings posthumous benefits
to the deceased
Instantly demolishing the great prison of hell and sparing one
from the sea of transmigration
Those who are blind to the working of cause and effect will bind
together [wooden stupas] to make a fence
Those who can distinguish truth from falsehood will untie the
stupas and hurl them into the stream
When the stream’s waters enter the ocean, the limitless virtue of
this deed
Will surely delight the dragon king and save the creatures of the

…and the Dragon King and his kingdom beneath the sea benefited from the pure Dharma-gold that others, in their ignorance, so sorely misused and abused…

wooden stupas

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2 Responses to Tree of Heaven

  1. n yeti says:

    Moved by the story of the crab-apple. Some plants seem to be more attune to thought-energy than others. I have a guava tree I have cultivated from a sapling, once the thinnest, frailest thing imaginable, having lost all its foliage and suffering terrible root damage. Now it bursts forth with leaves, and bears the sweetest fruit of prodigious size. One year, I would ask for its attention to the fruit and one it ended up producing so much that its still thin limbs sagged and drained all its energy away from the foliage. I was surprised by this, so the next season as I tended to it I would praise the tree and remind it to produce only enough that it could support and it has had a very bountiful harvest ever since. Those who enjoy guavas know this fruit is nothing like that available in stores, how sweet and juicy, and people are surprised at the size from such a small tree, but I know it is because I meditate with this tree and coexist with it benevolently, each providing for the other. It is truly a lovely entity with shining bark and emerald leaves, and a blessing to the garden.

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