The Teaching Tree
By Cynthia Overweg
For centuries, writers and poets from all over the world have celebrated the beauty, mystery and spiritual symbolism of trees. They come in all shapes and sizes; some lose their leaves in autumn and some don’t. They shelter us from the midday sun and nourish our spirit with arms big enough to embrace the whole of creation. I’ve seen the arms of such a tree in Ojai, California. It’s called the “teaching tree,” a mighty oak that is very old.
When I met that tree for the first time many years ago, I did not know it had been named, and I’m glad I didn’t know. I came upon the "teaching tree," on a hike one day. It had a magic about it I could not resist. As I stood in the shade of that grand, stately oak I could feel its life-giving energy, and my mind stopped thinking for a moment. Its towering arms reached far and wide; the span of its girth seemed as deep as an ocean. The crown of the tree seemed bound for heaven. I placed my hands on its enormous trunk and felt its powerful roots beneath my feet. And then I somehow surrendered to its stillness. Its massive branches showed me my smallness and the tree’s greatness. These moments in our lives never leave us.
The writer Herman Hesse (quoted at the top of the page) tells us that “trees are sanctuaries.” A tree, he suggests, is a living, breathing spiritual presence, and if we could “listen” to a tree and “speak” with it, the “truth” of our interconnectedness could be revealed in that exchange. Of course, he is talking about a conversation with a tree that is not coming from the thinking mind. He is pointing to a communion that takes place within us.
Hesse, who was a deep student of Hinduism and Buddhism, implies that we can have a sacred exchange with each other and all living creatures, if only we could become aware of the Oneness of all life. He points to the elusive inner experience of wholeness that we long for; that which unites us with an inexpressible beauty, as it did for his main character in his dearly loved novel, Siddhartha published in 1922.
Siddhartha tells the story of a tumultuous spiritual journey that brings the title character to the feet of the Buddha, but although he admires him, Siddhartha leaves the Buddha to discover within himself what cannot be taught through scripture or grasped from a teacher. Spiritual wisdom has to be realized from within to be fully understood. Hesse won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1946.
In his Ode to Trees, Hesse saw the life of a tree as a spiritual metaphor. He’s certainly not the first writer to write about trees in that way, but he expresses his tribute so beautifully, I want to quote a small bit of it here:
“When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother (the eternal mother) and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.”
The way a tree seems at home with its life above and below ground has often been associated with the inner life of a spiritual seeker. A tree’s deep roots are hidden from sight, while its body reaches toward the light. It’s anchored to the earth and yet seeks the stars. Isn’t that how we live our lives, or at least try to? The spiritual journey that Hesse writes about in Siddhartha and Ode to Trees is the journey from self-absorption with earthly concerns to a wisdom that reconciles sorrow and happiness; life and death.
Like us, a tree undergoes numerous perils during its life. It must face ferocious winds and other forces of nature it has no control over. Yet whether it dies of natural causes, disease, or is cut down by a human being, a tree offers itself completely to life because it is life. This is the mysterious spiritual realization that we are being asked to open to.
The One life that pervades all life forms is within us, and lives through us, but we don’t see it. Yet the unseen can be illuminated by a single tree standing tall and strong, embracing the wind that may topple it.
Wishing you every Blessing,
“Trees are sanctuaries.
Whoever knows how to speak to them,
whoever knows how to listen to them,
can learn the truth ...
they preach the ancient law of life.”
Essays & Reflections