The tree of life motif in Asian art has been studied to an exhaustive extent over the past 150 years or more. The vast literature that has accumulated on this topic, in all of its variety and subcategories, has not been superseded but has rather retained its value, and it rewards repeated returns to its riches.1
In all world religion and art where it appears, this motif relates to and derives from cosmology or cosmogony, that is, the views of ancient peoples about the nature and origins of the world. Thus the tree of life is culturally conditioned and culturally specific. It is cosmic in that it relates to the cosmos, specifically the world as we know it, as it came into being at the time of creation. The tree of life possesses a kind of "cosmic botanical logic" in that it grows up "naturally" as a central part of the processes by which the world came into being. And since the primary place where we can observe this cosmological process in antiquity is the temple—which incorporates all aspects of the cosmology into its architecture, ritual, and symbolism—the tree of life motif becomes a central feature of what I refer to as "temple ideology" or, less broadly, "temple symbolism" or "temple typology."
The Tree and Temple Ideology
Regarding the primordial creative process and how it is assimilated into temple typology, I earlier concluded the following: " The temple is the architectural embodiment of the cosmic mountain. . . .  The cosmic mountain represents the primordial hillock, the place which first emerged from the waters that covered the earth during the creative process. In Egypt, for example, all temples are seen as representing [in their holy of holies] the primeval hillock. . . .  The temple is often associated with the waters of life which flow forth from a spring within the building itself—or rather the temple is viewed as incorporating within itself or as having been built upon such a spring. The reason such springs exist in temples is that they are perceived as the primeval waters of creation, Nun in Egypt, Abzu in Mesopotamia. The temple is thus founded on and stands in contact with the primeval waters." 2 I later added to this list "The temple is associated with the tree of life" 3 and went on to combine all these features (cosmic mountain, primordial hillock, waters of life, tree of life) into what I refer to as " 'the primordial landscape,' which we can expect to see reproduced architecturally and ritually in ancient Near Eastern [and, I would now add, Asian] temple traditions." 4
Since the tree of life emerges from the primal creative waters, its fruit possesses life-giving qualities. The clearest expression we have of this in the scriptures is found in the book of Ezekiel, in the description of the millennial temple. Here all the aforementioned features come together:
Then he [that is, the man who was guiding Ezekiel in his celestial visions on a high mountain] brought me back to the door of the temple; and behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east. . . . And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing. (Ezekiel 47:1, 12 Revised Standard Version)
The tree of life is therefore an integral feature of the temple ideology, and it is there we can find it in its most developed form.
The tree, like the water, is an integral part of the "primordial landscape," and as such plays a large role in the mythology and ritual of ancient Near Eastern temple symbolism. It is important to note that, in Mesopotamia at least, we are not dealing with "a specific botanical species nor . . . a single mythic or cultic entity." Many different species or parts of trees are mentioned in ancient Near Eastern texts within the context of what we may call the "sacred tree," or "tree of life." Generally speaking, the tree of life grows up out of the primordial waters of the abyss, and thus there is an intimate mythological and cultic connection between the tree and the waters of life. A characteristic expression of this relationship appears in the inscriptions of Gudea of Lagash, in Cylinder A, where the temple that he is building is compared to the kiškanu [a tree of unknown botanical derivation] of the abyss, whose top was raised over the lands. Another famous Sumerian incantation text states:
In Eridu in a pure place the dark kiškanu grows;
Its aspect is like lapis lazuli branching out from the apsu.
In the place where Ea holds sway, in Eridu full of abundance
His abode being in the Underworld,
His chamber a recess of the goddess Engur
In his pure house is a grove, shadow-extending, into whose midst no man has entered;
There are Šamaš and Tammuz.5
It has been noted that the trees referred to in these ancient inscriptions were often artificial trees. Thus a distinction should be made between actual species of trees that grow in nature—such as the date palm, the birch, the fig tree, and the banyan, all of which figure as trees of life—and artificial trees of life, such as those depicted in Neo-Assyrian temple reliefs, where the king and a deity stand on either side of the sacred tree, watering it with the water of life.
There is abundant evidence that ancient Near Eastern temples were conceived as fertile, green, well-watered paradises. . . . The source of this fertility was the sweet water of the abyss, and it is natural that a tree that has the power to bestow life would be seen as growing up out of the waters. There is extensive evidence in the inscriptions of Gudea [of Neo-Sumerian Lagash] and elsewhere that gardens were grown in the temple vicinity. One inscription calls a temple "the House of the Plant of Life." 6
In this paper I will focus on five features of the tree of life in Asian art that seem most important to its role in ancient cosmology and in subsequent temple ritual, symbolism, and architecture. These five features are as follows: (1) The tree of life is cosmic; that is, it relates to ancient ideas of the center of the world, of the primary world or cosmic zones (usually three—the earth, the underworld, and heaven—but as many as nine or twelve), and forms the central world pillar uniting these zones. (2) The tree of life is a source of revelatory wisdom, of revelation from the divine sphere relating to knowledge of the future or to instructions to the people as to how they should live their lives. (3) The tree of life, in its role as the central pillar or axis of the three cosmic zones, provides the primary passageway into both the underworld and into heaven. (4) The tree of life is the locus, the place of initiation into the cosmic mysteries, and is thus the entryway to this knowledge. (5) The tree of life provides life-giving sustenance, health, and immortality through its fruit and leaves. I will first draw primarily on the evidence from central Asian shamanism, as presented by Eliade, to explicate these points. Then I will turn to the Indian religious traditions (primarily Hinduism and Buddhism) and discuss with the help of illustrations a number of Indian temples and other Asian works of art. In so doing I will attempt to place the tree of life in its ancient ritual and mythological setting.
The Tree in Central Asian Shamanism
"The Tree connects the three cosmic regions," 7 Eliade observes. Furthermore, "it is, for example, clear that the birch symbolizes the Cosmic Tree or the Axis of the World, and that it is therefore conceived as occupying the Center of the World." 8 The branches of the tree reach into heaven while the roots sink into the underworld. "The 'microcosmic landscape' 9 gradually became reduced in time to but one of its constituents [the other two being primeval stone and the waters of life], to the most important: the tree or sacred pillar. The tree came to express the cosmos fully in itself." 10 This tree stands for the continual regeneration of cosmic life, of "absolute reality" and of immortal life. The Cosmic Tree is the "very reservoir of life and the master of destinies." 11
In the shamanic traditions of central Asia, the tree of life is the locus of revelation. The shaman ascends the tree to enter into heaven to converse with the gods and returns to share the messages with the community. In a famous account published by Eliade, the complete process by which an Altaic shaman is prepared for his divine calling, ascends to heaven, receives messages, and returns is set out. The key method by which he ascends to the heavens is a birch tree growing inside the shaman's yurt (tent) as the center post, the axis mundi. The tree is stripped of its lower branches, and nine steps are notched into the trunk. The key instrument of the shaman is his drum, the hypnotic beating of which sends him into a trance. The shaman's drum is made from the wood of the birch tree, the shamanic tree of life. The birch tree standing at the center of his yurt is the World Tree, the Cosmic Tree, the site and origin of divine wisdom, the means of ascent into the heavens. The drum must be made from this same wood so that it partakes of the divine power of the tree. "By the fact that the shell of his drum is derived from the actual wood of the Cosmic Tree, the shaman, through his drumming, is magically projected into the vicinity of the Tree; he is projected to the 'Center of the World,' and thus can ascend to the sky." 12
The shaman beats his drum vigorously and rhythmically, convulsing his body and reaching a state of exaltation, at which time he is ready for the ascent. He steps onto the first notch on the birch tree and "makes motions to indicate that he is mounting into the sky." 13 He gradually climbs up the tree via the notches, reaching the third heaven, where he mounts a goose for the continued ascent. As he ascends the tree, he reaches ever-higher celestial regions—the fifth, the sixth, the ninth, the twelfth heaven. In the fifth heaven he communicates with the Supreme Creator, "who reveals several secrets of the future to him." 14 Finally, he reaches the highest heaven and there is instructed by the highest divinity, Bai Ulgan. The shaman learns important information regarding the weather and the harvest and what sacrifices are expected; he also learns whether his own sacrifice has been accepted. Upon his return, he "collapses, exhausted." An official "approaches and takes the drum and stick from his hands. The shaman remains motionless and dumb. After a time he rubs his eyes, appears to wake from a deep sleep, and greets those present as if after a long absence." 15
Another lengthy shamanic text republished by Eliade gives us insight into the role of the tree of life in the initiation of the novice shaman. It deals with a dream of initiation of a Samoyed shaman. The dream, of course, plays an enormous role in initiation processes all over the world. The shaman was deathly ill over a period of three days, to the point that he was almost buried. It was at this time that he experienced the dream, his calling as a shaman, and his initiation. In his dream, he was led by an ermine and a mouse through a series of ordeals and meetings with divine beings, beginning in the underworld. At one point he was led to an island, in the middle of which was a birch tree, the tree of the Lord of the Earth. Nine herbs grew near it, "the ancestors of all the plants on Earth." Voices told him that he would be given a drum from the wood of this tree. The drum from the branch of the tree of life is the symbol of his calling. Later, the ermine and the mouse "led him to a high, rounded mountain. He saw an opening before him and entered a bright cave, covered with mirrors, in the middle of which there was something like a fire."
Finally, he was brought to a desert with a distant mountain. Upon reaching it, he was chopped into pieces by a blacksmith, put into a cauldron, and boiled for three years. The initiate's head was forged on the best of three anvils, reserved for the best shamans. When the body and flesh were reunited, the blacksmith reformed the eyes so that the shaman could "not see with his bodily eyes but with these mystical eyes." His ears were reformed so that he could understand the language of plants. Finally, he "found himself on the summit of a mountain, and finally he woke in the yurt, among the family. Now he can sing and shamanize indefinitely, without ever growing tired." 16
In these accounts we see that the tree of life does not stand alone, so to speak, but that the themes of mountain, cave, various world regions, descent into the underworld and ascent into the celestial regions, and many other associated symbols play major roles, giving us a total picture of the milieu in which these religious ideas flourished.
The tree of life is a source of life, of immortality, of life-giving plants and fruits; in fact, even its leaves are life-giving, as we saw in the passage from Ezekiel.
Both the Tree of Life and the mountain are situated at the navel of the earth, a place which in many legends flows with mead or honey. The liquid sometimes flows from the tree itself; from the [Norse] ash Yggdrasil trickles honeydew, while from the Indian Jambu tree springs a yellow sap. In Brahman tradition the stream which flows around Mount Meru comes from the fruits of the Jambu tree. "These fruits are as big as the body of an elephant, and when they fall, they burst and from the juice arises the stream Jambunādi. Those who drink of it do not age, always retain the full power of their senses, do not sweat or have an unpleasant smell, and remain pure of heart. The Jambunādi flows round Meru and returns to the foot of the Jambu tree again." 17
Sometimes the sap is white and milk-like, but the liquid is found as often in the spring beneath the tree as in the tree itself. Sometimes it takes the form of a lake of milk. The Yakuts say it surrounds the throne of the god of heaven, and Altai tradition places it in the third heaven, where Paradise lies. In some stories from Central Asia the lake of milk is on a heaven-high mountain. A mighty Khan promised his daughter to the man who could get him a feather from the wing of the eagle Garuda. An expedition set out. A youth who had joined the hunting party of heroes asked where the bird dwelt. As the party reached the great mountain, they noticed that the sky above them had begun to turn white. The youth asked what lay behind the sky and was told that the Lake of Milk was there. "But what," he then asked, "is the dark patch in the middle?" "That," they answered, "is the wood in which the bird dwells." In this story the Lake of Milk lies on a heaven-high hill, which the heroes climb. The wood in the middle of the lake can hardly be other than the World Tree and Tree of Life, in the top of which, according to other legends, this great bird is to be found.18
In summarizing the survey of this theme as presented thus far in his book, Butterworth noted: "The beginning of all life and the power to regenerate is found in the Tree of Life or at its root; there lives a goddess who provides the life-giving drink, whether milk from her heavy breasts, or the honey-like sap of the Tree, the juice of its fruit or the water that gushes forth from beneath its roots or flows past it as a river, or again milk that lies at its foot as a lake, or the yet more mysterious nectar and ambrosia (amṛta) and soma." 19
The tree can yield the richness and life-giving force of its fruit, but it can also destroy if it is misused. There is an Indian tale about a group of merchants who were wandering in a barren, waterless region when they suddenly came upon a lush banyan tree. The tree was dripping water from its eastern side, so they cut off the eastern branches and drank from and bathed in the water. They cut off the southern branches, which yielded all kinds of food. Cutting off the western branches caused beautifully clothed women to emerge and to entertain the merchants. The northern branches gave up fabulous jewels and rich silk and brocade garments and carpets. Finally, in their greed the merchants cut down the tree itself, after which the Naga king—that is, the cobra who rules the kingdom of the Nagas underneath the waters—destroyed the merchants.20
The Tree in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions
The central cosmic tradition of the areas in South and Southeast Asia under the influence of Hinduism is the mythic Mount Meru, the mountain and continent chain at the center of the earth. "According to Brahmanic doctrine, the world consists of a circular central continent, Jambūdvīpa, surrounded by seven annular oceans and seven annular continents. Beyond the last of the seven oceans the world is closed by an enormous mountain range. In the center of Jambūdvīpa, and thus in the center of the world, rises Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain around which sun, moon, and stars revolve. On its summit lies the city of the gods surrounded by the abodes of the eight Lokapālas or guardian gods of the world." 21
In Buddhism this conception is somewhat different: Mount Meru stands at the center of the system and is surrounded by seven mountain ranges and seven ringlike seas. Beyond these mountain ranges and seas lies the ocean, in which stand four continents, one each at the four cardinal directions. The southernmost of these is Jambūdvīpa, the world in which we live.22 Temples in South and Southeast Asia are assimilated to Mount Meru.23 In the center of Mount Meru stands the World Tree, the tree of life. Thus Mount Meru, with the tree of life standing at its center, constitutes "the axis of the universe, representing the higher worlds that spread one above the other in innumerable planes beyond the summit of the sacred Meru like the branches of a gigantic tree." 24 "The spire of the dāgoba, pagoda, and chorten [the typical Buddhist temple structures] . . . represents this Tree of Life in its ideal form of the heavenly tree whose branches are the higher worlds spreading one above the other in innumerable planes beyond the summit of Mount Meru, the axis of the universe." 25
Asian temples represent this concept in their architecture, symbolism, and ritual. As I have written elsewhere, "The temple is a visual representation of all the symbolism of the mountain, and thus the architecture reflects this symbolism in a thoroughgoing and repetitive way (for example, the pagoda structures of Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, and Japanese temple architecture, with the multi-level hipped roofs present on every building and gateway in the complex, or the Prasada of the Hindu temple), and is a constant visual reminder that the visitor/initiate is engaged on a journey up a mountain, to heaven." 26
We now turn to Asian artwork and architecture to see how the tree of life functions in that culture. An image of the Mount Meru Temple banner was published some years ago by Alex Wayman 27 (see fig. 56). The banner shows the pyramidal Mount Meru with a base of five square platforms. Around the base are arrayed the continents, all resting in an ocean of milk. Two constellations are shown: Ursa Major on the left, associated with the sun; and the Pleiades on the right, associated with the moon. A three-tiered palace of Chinese design similar to the architectural type mentioned previously rises above Mount Meru, above the clouds, the palace of the primeval Buddhist deity, the Ādibuddha, from whom "the multi-thousandfold emanations of primordial energy and . . . phenomena" derive.28
Wish-granting trees, along with the classic Buddhist symbols, surround Mount Meru and the heavenly palace. Protruding from the top of the heavenly palace is a tiny stupa, the classic form that Buddhist temple architecture assumes. Here the Indo-Tibetan-style stupa is functioning as the spire of the Chinese-style temple under it. The spire here represents the honorific umbrella or sunshade (chattra in Sanskrit). The sunshade is the uppermost extension of the Cosmic Tree, the pinnacle of the world mountain.29 It arises from a lotus blossom, the mysterious water flower of the Indian tradition that symbolizes the very origins of life itself and functions as a species of the tree of life in the Indian tradition.30
The Temple of Borobudur
Perhaps the most famous temple in the world, Borobudur, on the island of Java (AD 700–800), is the most nearly perfect representation of the temple as the world mountain, Mount Meru (see fig. 57, also pl. 8).31 As I wrote in my 1995 article on Borobudur:
Borobudur is a magnificent temple of the Tantric (esoteric) Diamond Realm Mandala (Vajradhatu) type. . . . The temple represents the sacred mountain of the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, Mt. Meru, and the ascent of the mountain/temple in a circumambulating fashion (pradaksina) takes the initiate through an elaborate process of learning the sacred doctrines by means of the reliefs carved into the square galleries of the first four levels. There are four hundred thirty-two Buddhas arranged along the four sides of the lower balustrades, giving the appearance, from a distance, of Siddhas meditating deep within caves on the sides of the sacred mountain. As the initiate would reach the platform on which the elliptical and circular levels were raised, he would have reached the summit of Mt. Meru, having left the world of appearances of the lower, gallery levels. His ultimate goal was the summit of Meru, represented at Borobudur by the central stupa, the summit of Mt. Meru and thus the center of the universe, within which it is thought that a statue of the primordial Ādibuddha was once placed. That level, formlessness and emptiness, must be reached, not all at once or directly by circumambulating three "circular" galleries, but must consist in a gradual, transitional process of circumambulation and instruction. The gradualness and transitional nature of the ritual is reflected in the gradualness of the architecture: square, with insets and projections (the shape of the lower terraces), elliptical (the first two upper terraces), and circular.32
The Temple of Sanchi
We come now to one of the greatest and earliest Buddhist temples: the Temple of Sanchi. Located in central India near Bhopal, this temple was built in several phases beginning in the reign of the third king of the Mauryan Dynasty, Ashoka (273–232 BC), and spanning the middle of the third century BC to the first century AD (see fig. 58).33 Sanchi shows us the Buddhist stupa temple in its classic and well-developed form, with the square foundation, the hemispheric cupola (or dome, called anda in Sanskrit and representing the primordial tumulus, or burial mound), and what in the West is called the omphalos, the symbol of the navel of the world.34
On top of the cupola stands the harmika (square altar), within which was placed a shrine for relics of the Buddha. Rising above the harmika, at the center, is the aforementioned chattra, which stands for the World Tree.35 Here we see the classic confluence of circle and square that plays such a large role in Asian sacred architecture and is widely known as the mandala. The mandala has a distinct geometric aspect: "The mandala is a projection of the heavenly realm onto the earth, achieved by means of sacred geometry. It is thus the primary expression of sacred geometry in temple architecture, as well as the primary vehicle for meditation in esoteric (Tibetan and Japanese) Buddhism." 36
The Temple of Sanchi is entered through one of four monumental toranas (gates). One then circumambulates in a clockwise direction around the ground-level terrace, then mounts a staircase to the upper terrace's circumambulation path (see fig. 59).37
As we focus our view on the eastern torana and the reverse side of the top lintel, we see an arrangement of the seven Manushi (human) Buddhas of the world eras (see fig. 60).38 Each of these Buddhas has his own mudra (sacred hand gesture) and his own species of sacred tree.39 The Buddhas with their trees identified in Sanskrit are, from right to left, Sikhin (Pundarika), Visvabhu (Sala), Krakucchanda (Sirisa), Kanakamuni (Udumbara—Ficus glomerata), Kasyapa (Nyagrodha—Ficus indica), Gautama Shakyamuni (Asvattha—Ficus religiosa), and Vipasyin (Patali).40
According to Buddhist doctrine, there have been countless worlds, each with its Buddha or many Buddhas and all having the same set of symbols and functioning in the same manner in their respective worlds. "All the virtues, attained by maintaining the Highest Doctrine, have been ardently proclaimed by all the Buddhas through millions of aeons, but even today their number is not exhausted." 41
The Bodhi and Other Sacred Trees
The most important Buddhas, for our purposes, are numbers six and seven. Number six is the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Buddha of our world. Number five is his immediate predecessor, Kasyapa (third from the left in fig. 60). The sacred tree of Kasyapa is the Ficus indica, or banyan tree. The sacred tree of the Buddha Shakyamuni (second from the left in fig. 60) is the Ficus religiosa, the Pipal or Bodhi tree. However, the tree at Bodh Gaya, in northeastern India, under which the Buddha attained his enlightenment was the banyan. There is thus somewhat of an art-historical discrepancy in the depiction of the Buddha, since he is always pictured alongside the Ficus religiosa, or Bodhi tree.42 It is important to note that the primary role that the sacred tree plays in the mission of each Buddha is that it shelters him "at the moment of his Sambodhi," or enlightenment. "The importance of this symbol becomes clear from the Buddhist Scriptures, which describe the struggle of the Bodhisattva and Mara, the Evil One, for the place under the Bodhi tree, which was regarded as the holiest spot in the world, the incomparable diamond throne." 43 Thus it is a sign of revelatory wisdom,44 as I suggested earlier. "Especially noteworthy is the designation of the 'Single Fig-tree' as the World-form of the 'One Awakener' . . . ; for just so also is the Buddha's Fig-tree . . . constantly spoken of as the 'Great Awakening' . . . ; being the chosen symbol of the Buddha's unseen essence, it is an enduring basis for the vision of Buddha." 45
The Bodhi and the banyan trees are thus the most sacred of the Asian trees of life, and of these the Bodhi tree takes pride of place. It is worshipped in India today by many people:
Up to the present time in various parts of India the aśvattha is still worshipped as the abode or symbol of a deity or is adored for its own sake. In the latter case the object is to secure the help of the magical power of the tree. Its branches drive away enemies, its leaves produce intelligence in the child, fulfil desires for wealth, male offspring, etc. It is worth noticing that this worship is attended with feelings of awe and fear. The tree is magically dangerous and should not be near a house. Its dedication has to be performed in silence, and its name remains unspoken, a taboo probably connected with the belief that the spirits of the ancestors dwell in the tree or are embodied in it.46
On the front side of the top lintel on the same torana in figure 61, we see on the left the Bodhi tree of the Buddha Shakyamuni and on the right the characteristic tree of the first of the Manushi Buddhas, Vipasyin (the Sala—Shorea robusta). Each tree is surmounted by the chattra, giving it the artistic or architectural ornament of the tree of life. Surrounding each tree are worshippers and garlanded stupas (or omphaloi), each one also topped by the chattra. So the actual botanical tree of life is surrounded by (and, so to speak, magnified, highlighted, or dramatized by) the architectural rendition of the tree of life that forms the top element of the stupa temple.47
The middle lintel depicts the "Great Departure"—that is, the Buddha leaving his palace at the city of Kapilavastu amidst a grand and solemn procession of followers, city dwellers, animals, musicians, and so on. On the left we can see the multistoried houses of the city dwellers. In the middle we see the Bodhi tree surrounded by worshippers and enclosed within a vedica rail, the rail that surrounds a stupa. On the far right we see the footprints of the Buddha, with a chakra (wheel) in the center, indicating that he is a universal sovereign.
On the bottom lintel we see King Ashoka, the third king of the Mauryan Dynasty, visiting the Bodhi tree. This time the tree is protruding from the top of a circular shrine surrounded by worshippers. The king is accompanied by his retinue, including the queen, musicians, a dwarf, and an elephant.48 The point to emphasize here is that we see in these scenes the tree of life in the world, so to speak, along the roadside as the vast throngs of humankind pass by in all their variety. We see characteristic multistoried houses, animals, and various classes of people.
Of special interest are two Tibetan works of art, both with the theme of the sacred tree of the Buddhas. The first of these (see fig. 62) 49 is a late twelfth or early thirteenth-century wooden book or manuscript cover from Nepal. We see six scenes from the life of the Buddha Shakyamuni: from the left, the taming of a wild elephant, then his temptation by the demon Mara, the Buddha's protection by the serpent Mucalinda, then his first preaching, the miracle of Shravasti, and his parinirvana (death). In each of the four central scenes, particularly the two that show the Bodhi tree, we see the exquisite manner in which the leaves are represented. The trees extend above the Buddha's head in the manner of the chattra atop the stupa. In Buddhist doctrine the Buddha is the temple; the temple is his body. The typical Nepalese Buddhist stupa shows the Buddha's eyes looking out from the spire, as though he is seated in meditation, as we see in the illustration, "thus suggesting a human figure in the posture of meditation hidden in the stūpa, the crossed legs in the base, the body up to the shoulders in the hemisphere, the head in the harmikā." 50 "The body becomes a palace, the hallowed basis of all the Buddhas." 51
The second Tibetan work of art brings us to the final point that I want to emphasize. This thangka (Tibetan silk painting with embroidery), coming from central Tibet in the thirteenth century AD (see fig. 63, also pl. 7),52 shows the Buddha Maitreya, the future Buddha, counted as the eighth of the Manushi Buddhas.53 We see him seated on a lotus throne 54 dressed in the simple dhoti pants, without elaborate jewelry. His hands form the Dharmachakra mudra, the sacred hand gesture representing the turning of the wheel of the law, or teaching. Important for our purposes are the two blossoms that extend above both of his shoulders from stems that are intertwined between his hands. The flower to his left is from the Nagapushpa (Michelia champaka), the alba tree, a highly fragrant type of jasmine. This flower represents the tree of the future Buddha. In other words, what we see is not a fully formed tree but the blossom of that tree, a promise or affirmation that the next Buddha too, in his future incarnation, will experience Mahasambodhi (great awakening) under this tree. "For was it not when sitting under its branches that Sakyamuni had a vision of his former births? And was it not on that same spot that the highest wisdom was revealed to him, that he in truth became Buddha, 'the Awakened'?" We can therefore see the consistency and continuity of the tree of life motif in Buddhism, encompassing the Buddha of this world, as well as the future Buddha Maitreya.55
There is an exquisite, analogous painting from the Chinese realm that bears comparison with the Buddhas depicted in the two Tibetan works of art described above. This is an eighth-century (Tang Dynasty) ink-and-color painting on silk of the Buddha Shakyamuni preaching under the Bodhi tree, from Cave 17 at Dunhuang (Mogao), in western China. This image, stylistically Chinese, shows the Buddha seated under a lush canopy of Bodhi tree leaves with his right hand in Vitarka mudra, the mudra (sacred hand gesture) of preaching. Interestingly, the leaves are highly stylized rather than depicted with botanical accuracy as they are on the Tibetan book cover from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century shown in figure 62.56
Yet another example from China, again from the Dunhuang (Mogao) Buddhist cave temples of western China, is highlighted by Puay-Peng Ho. He presents the ubiquitous central pillar in these caves of the fifth and sixth centuries as "a representation of the axis mundi, the cosmic mountain and the link between the mundane and supramundane world, one aspect of stupa symbolism." He then refers us to Snodgrass's book The Symbolism of the Stupa, where we learn that the axis mundi of the Chinese stupa is the World Tree.57
Thus we see that in Asian art and religion the tree of life, the World Tree, represents and stands for the center of the world, the world axis, the temple in its highest manifestation as cosmic center, the place of revelation, the tree of wisdom that stands along the road as an inspiration and guide to passersby, the passageway into heaven, and the place of initiation into the highest mysteries of heaven, indeed, the meeting place of heaven and earth.58
According to Coomaraswamy, "the Tree of Life, synonymous with all existence, all the worlds, all life, springs up, out, or down into space from its root in the navel centre of the Supreme Being. . . . The World-tree then, equally in and apart from its Buddhist application, is the procession of incessant life. Standing erect and midmost in the garden of life, extending from Earth to Heaven, branching throughout Space . . . is the one Wishing–tree . . . that yields the fruits of life, all that every creature calls 'good.' " 59
John M. Lundquist earned a PhD in Near Eastern studies from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and then worked as an assistant professor of anthropology and religious instruction at Brigham Young University from 1983 to 1985. He holds an MLS from Brigham Young University and recently retired as the Susan and Douglas Dillon Chief Librarian of the Asian and Middle Eastern Division of the New York Public Library, a position he held since 1985. He continues to work as an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Pace University (since 2002) and as an instructor for the C. G. Jung Foundation of New York (since 1993). His published work includes The Temple of Jerusalem: Past, Present, and Future (2008); The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth (1993); "Fundamentals of Temple Ideology from Eastern Traditions," in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen (2002); and "New Light on the Temple Ideology," East and West 50 (2000).
1. Chief among the works on this topic are James Fergusson, Tree and Serpent Worship; or, Illustrations of Mythology and Art in India in the First and Fourth Centuries after Christ, from the Sculptures of the Buddhist Topes at Sanchi and Amravati (Delhi: Oriental, 1971); Uno Holmberg, Der Baum des Lebens (Helsinski: Suomalainen tiedeakatemla, 1922); and Edric A. S. Butterworth, The Tree at the Navel of the Earth (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1970). In preparing this paper I have benefited enormously from Frederik D. K. Bosch, The Golden Germ: An Introduction to Indian Symbolism (The Hague: Mouton, 1960); and from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, 3rd ed. (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1979). Also of great value are several works by Mircea Eliade, primarily Patterns in Comparative Religion, trans. Rosemary Sheed (New York: World, 1958); and Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1964).
2. I have published this "temple typology" in a number of different articles, each with a somewhat expanded and revised list: John M. Lundquist, "What Is a Temple? A Preliminary Typology," in The Quest for the Kingdom of God: Studies in Honor of George E. Mendenhall, ed. H. B. Huffmon, F. A. Spina, and A. R. W. Green (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1983), 205–19; "The Legitimizing Role of the Temple in the Origin of the State," in Society of Biblical Literature 1982 Seminar Papers, ed. Kent H. Richards (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1982), 271–97; "The Common Temple Ideology of the Ancient Near East," in The Temple in Antiquity: Ancient Records and Modern Perspectives, ed. Truman G. Madsen (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1984), 53–76; and "New Light on the Temple Ideology," East and West 50/1–4 (December 2000): 9–42. These articles and the "temple typology" are being referenced in a wide range of scholarly disciplines as a means of better understanding the theory of the temple. See, for example, Robert Karl Gnuse, Dreams and Dream Reports in the Writings of Josephus: A Tradition-Historical Analysis (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 48 (referring to my study "What Is a Temple?"); John W. O'Malley et al., eds., The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences and the Arts, 1540–1773 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 520 (referring to my book The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth [London: Thames and Hudson, 1993]); Gregory Stevenson, Power and Place: Temple and Identity in the Book of Revelation (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2001), 48 (referring to my study "Common Temple Ideology"); Alan R. Kerr, The Temple of Jesus' Body: The Temple Theme in the Gospel of John (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 35 (referring to my study "What Is a Temple?"); Jonathan Klawans, Purity, Sacrifice, and the Temple: Symbolism and Supersessionism in the Study of Ancient Judaism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 280 (referring to my studies "Common Temple Ideology" and "What Is a Temple?"); William Horbury, W. D. Davies, and John Sturdy, eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism, vol. 3, The Early Roman Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 300 (referring to my study "What Is a Temple?"); Brannon Wheeler, Mecca and Eden: Ritual, Relics, and Territory in Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 155 (referring to my study "Common Temple Ideology"); Steven W. Holloway, "What Ship Goes There: The Flood Narratives in the Gilgamesh Epic and Genesis Considered in Light of Ancient Near Eastern Temple Typology," Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 103/3 (1991): 328–55 (referring to my study "What Is a Temple?"); Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, "Cosmos, Temple, House: Building and Wisdom in Mesopotamia and Israel," in Wisdom Literature in Mesopotamia and Israel, ed. Richard J. Clifford (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007), 76 (referring to my study "What Is a Temple?"); Rachel Bowditch, "Temple of Tears: Revitalizing and Inventing Ritual in the Burning Man Community in Black Rock Desert, Nevada," Journal of Religion and Theatre 6/2 (Fall 2007): 140–54 (referring to my book The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth), http://www.rtjournal.org/vol_6/no_2/bowditch.html (accessed August 18, 2010); and Winfried Vogel, The Cultic Motif in the Book of Daniel (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010), 21 (referring to my studies The Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth, "What Is a Temple?" and Studies on the Temple in the Ancient Near East [PhD diss., University of Michigan, 1983]).
3. Lundquist, "Legitimizing Role of the Temple," 274.
4. Lundquist, "Legitimizing Role of the Temple," 274.
5. Lundquist, "Common Temple Ideology," 67–68. Ellipsis and brackets in original.
6. Lundquist, "Common Temple Ideology," 68.
7. Eliade, Shamanism, 270. For more recent studies of shamanism, see Neil Price, ed., The Archaeology of Shamanism (London: Routledge, 2001), particularly the study therein by Peter Jordan, "The Materiality of Shamanism as a 'World-View,' " 87–104. On Eliade's positive influence on the study of shamanism, see pp. 5, 65, 124, 125, 129, 202 in the latter source as well as Nora K. Chadwick and Victor Zhirmunsky, Oral Epics of Central Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 234–67. Eliade's work resonates over a wide range of disciplines, including architecture, as seen in C. B. Williams, "Dwelling at the Centre of the World," in Sacred Architecture in the Traditions of India, China, Judaism and Islam, ed. Emily Lyle (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1992), 111–32.
8. Eliade, Shamanism, 120.
9. This is Eliade's term for what I call the "primordial landscape."
10. Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 271.
11. Eliade, Shamanism, 271.
12. Eliade, Shamanism, 169; emphasis removed.
13. Mircea Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings from around the World (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1967), 214.
14. Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings, 215.
15. Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings, 216.
16. Eliade, Essential Sacred Writings, 434–37.
17. Butterworth, Tree at the Navel of the Earth, 7.
18. Butterworth, Tree at the Navel of the Earth, 11.
19. Butterworth, Tree at the Navel of the Earth, 11.
20. Butterworth, Tree at the Navel of the Earth, 79–80.
21. Robert Heine-Geldern, "Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia," Far Eastern Quarterly 2 (1942): 16–17.
22. Heine-Geldern, "Conceptions of State and Kingship," 17; and I. W. Mabbett, "The Symbolism of Mount Meru," History of Religions 23 (1983): 66–67.
23. Bosch, Golden Germ, 176.
24. Lama Anagarika Govinda, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa (Berkeley, CA: Dharma, 1976), 14–15, 31–32.
25. Govinda, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism, 82–83; see Bosch, Golden Germ, 167–76.
26. Lundquist, Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth, 8.
27. Alex Wayman, The Buddhist Tantras: Light on Indo-Tibetan Esotericism (New York: Samuel Weise, 1973), 104–9; see John M. Lundquist, "Borobudur: The Top Plan and the Upper Terraces," East and West 45 (1995): 289–93.
28. Blanche Christine Olschak and Geshe Thupten Wangyal, Mystic Art of Ancient Tibet (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1973), 126. See Wayman, Buddhist Tantras, 53; Govinda, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism, 70; and Lundquist, Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth, 18.
29. Bosch, Golden Germ, 161, 169–71.
30. Bosch, Golden Germ, 81–83.
31. Lundquist, Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth, 40–41.
32. Lundquist, "Borobudur," 288.
33. Sir John Marshall and Alfred Foucher, The Monuments of Sanchi (London: Probsthain, 1940), vol. 2, plate 6.
34. Govinda, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism, 12–13, 78–79; and Butterworth, Tree at the Navel of the Earth, 26–51.
35. Govinda, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism, 79.
36. John M. Lundquist, "Fundamentals of Temple Ideology from Eastern Traditions," in Revelation, Reason, and Faith: Essays in Honor of Truman G. Madsen, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2002), 667–68.
37. Marshall and Foucher, Monuments of Sanchi, vol. 2, plate 39.
38. Marshall and Foucher, Monuments of Sanchi, vol. 2, plate 45.
39. Marshall and Foucher, Monuments of Sanchi, vol. 1; and Olschak and Wangyal, Mystic Art of Ancient Tibet, 186–87.
40. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, 46, 49–50, 52.
41. Olschak and Wangyal, Mystic Art of Ancient Tibet, 186–87.
42. Bosch, Golden Germ, 70.
43. Govinda, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism, 79; and Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, 41.
44. Marshall and Foucher, Monuments of Sanchi, 1:199. For the concept of the Buddha's enlightenment as revelation, see Bosch, Golden Germ, 68.
45. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, 8–11, 40–41.
46. Bosch, Golden Germ, 69.
47. Butterworth, Tree at the Navel of the Earth, 50–51.
48. Madhukar K. Dhavalikar, Sanchi (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), 34–49.
49. Steven M. Kossak and Jane Casey Singer, Sacred Visions: Early Paintings from Central Tibet (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1998), 134–35.
50. Govinda, Psycho-cosmic Symbolism, 84–85. For the equivalence between temple and stupa, see Adrian Snodgrass, The Symbolism of the Stupa (Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1985). See also Lundquist, Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth; and Puay-Peng Ho, "The Symbolism of Central Pillars in Cave-Temples of Northwest China," in Lyle, Sacred Architecture, 59–70.
51. Wayman, Buddhist Tantras, 83. This quotation is taken from the Tibetan Tantric text Guhyasamaja. For the equivalence of the palace and temple within Buddhist texts, see Ferdinand Diederich Lessing, Yung-Ho-Kung: An Iconography of the Lamaist Cathedral in Peking (Stockholm, 1942), 141. See also, in general, Snodgrass, Symbolism of the Stupa.
52. Kossak and Singer, Sacred Visions, 109–11.
53. Marshall and Foucher, Monuments of Sanchi, 1:200.
54. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, 39–59.
55. Bosch, Golden Germ, 68.
56. This image appears in Roderick Whitfield, The Art of Central Asia: The Stein Collection in the British Museum, vol. 1, Paintings from Dunhuang (Tokyo: Kodansha International Ltd., 1982), plate 7 (Stein Painting no. 6); and in Roderick Whitfield and Anne Farrer, Caves of the Thousand Buddhas: Chinese Art from the Silk Route (New York: George Braziller, 1990), plate 1. This image is also accessible at http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/search_the_collection_database/search_object_details.aspx?objectid=6551&partid=1&searchText=stein+painting+6&fromADBC=ad&toADBC=ad&numpages=10&orig=/research/search_the_collection_database.aspx¤tPage=11 (accessed August 19, 2010).
57. Puay-Peng Ho, "The Symbolism of the Central Pillars in Cave-Temples of Northwest China," in Lyle, Sacred Architecture, 65–69. See also Snodgrass, Symbolism of the Stupa, 177–84.
58. Lundquist, Temple: Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth.
59. Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, 8, 11. The Sanskrit term corresponding to what Coomaraswamy means by the term World Tree is asvattha (Ficus religiosa), the Bodhi tree. The asvattha is attested in the Indus Valley tablets and in the Rig Veda, the Upanishads (Maitri Upanishad), and in the Bhagavad Gita. As has been pointed out above, from both early Buddhist textual sources as well as early Buddhist iconography, the asvattha is associated with the tree of the Buddha's enlightenment from the very beginning. As Bosch has written: "It is highly significant that this same Tree of Life and Wisdom has been chosen to play a predominant part in the legend of the Buddha. For, as Coomaraswamy has justly remarked, 'every traditional symbol necessarily carries with it its original values, even when used or intended to be used in a more restricted sense.' The bodhi-tree at Bodh Gaya, in fact, is strictly analogous to the 'One Awakener', the 'enduring basis of the vision of Brahman'. For was it not when sitting under its branches that Sakyamuni had a vision of his former births? And was it not on that same spot that the highest wisdom was revealed to him, that he in truth became Buddha 'the Awakened'?" Bosch, Golden Germ, 68 (Sakyamuni is an alternative spelling of Shakyamuni); see also pp. 69–70 and Coomaraswamy, Elements of Buddhist Iconography, 8–9, 11, 40–41.