Friday, March 07, 2008

Protecting the oldest tree in the world -OR- Buddhists v. Monkeys

The oldest documented tree, and the most sacred tree in Buddhism is under guard in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka. The tree is thought to be 2300 years old, and grew up from a shoot taken from the Bohdi tree that sheltered the Buddha as he attained enlightenment. The shoot was replanted in the spot where it now grows by a Sri Lankan princess. (Fraser) Twenty-three years ago, in 1985, Islamic LTTE guerrillas attacked the monastery where the tree is located, and killed three monks, 25 worshippers and 117 pilgrims. The goal of the attack was to destroy the tree seen as a symbol of both the Sri Lanka government and of Buddhism itself. Now, the threat to the tree is not from terrorists, but from monkeys that are raiding the tree for fruit and leaves. (AFP)

The raids by the monkeys put the monks at the temple into a quandary. The monks, because of their vows, are forbidden to hurt the monkeys who are destroying the tree, but non-injurious attempts to drive away the monkeys have been completely unsuccessful. However, if the monks continue to be unsuccessful, the tree will die. The monks have tried clanging bells, bursting firecrackers and flashing lights at the monkeys, but are not looking for some kind of technological solution to non-violently drive away the monkeys and protect their sacred tree.

The tree itself has been featured in English literature for more that 120 years. Even HG Wells published an account of the tree in 1922. His description is remarkably close to the condition of the tree in the present day. “It has been carefully tended and watered; its great branches are supported by pillars and the earth has been terraced up about it so that it has been able to put out fresh roots continually.” (Wells, pg 434) Another earlier observer, James Ricalton in 1891, also described the tree in terms that are very familiar today. “The several divisions of this tree are feeble, gnarled, and bent; the leaves lack the fresh verdancy of a vigorous growth, and plainly show the yellowish pallor of decrepitude.” (Ricalton, quoted in Fraser) Nowadays, the tree is surrounded by gold plated fencing, and is guarded around the clock by an army of well wishers, monks and Sri Lankan soldiers. “The tree already arguably has the tightest security in Sri Lanka.” (AFP) People continue to scramble for leaves, just as they have done for thousands of years. The monks want to keep the tradition alive, whether in the face of terrorists or monkeys.

This tree is significant because it highlights the Buddhist commitment to non-violence, but it is similar to the Afghanistan buddhas in that the Muslim terrorists would be happy to destroy the tree, absent the extraordinary security precautions.


AFP. “Monks battle monkeys to save Buddhism's holiest tree” 26 February 2008 at accessed 27 February 2008.

Fraser, Anna. “Buddha and the Bodhi tree” The (no date) at accessed 27 February 2008.

Well, H.G. The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (New York: Review of Reviews Company) 1922.