Archive for January, 2021

Wednesday, January 27th, 2021

Buddhism: An Educational Model In Cultural Ecology

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge. It seeks to answer the questions “What is knowledge?”, “How is knowledge acquired?”, What kind of knowledge is there?, and How do people come to know things?

1  Place-based mindfulness

“Every person passing through this life will unknowingly leave something and take something away. Most of this “something” cannot be seen or heard or numbered or scientifically detected or counted. It’s what we leave in the minds of other people and what they leave in ours. Memory. The census doesn’t count it. Nothing counts without it.” Robert Fulghum

In 2015 two papers were published in the Journal of Buddhist Studies on the cultural ecology of Buddhism.  One dealt with cultural ecology on a cosmic scale as reflected in the classical stone carvings of the Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Central Java.  The other was a case study of adaptations of the Jade Buddhist temple in Shanghai to socialist society, delivering local community services and promoting care for planet Earth. Both papers were manifestations of the extremes of Buddhist teachings regarding the place of humanity in the universe and community.   

In Buddhism, right mindfulness controls your mental state so you see things clearly.  Right concentration removes barriers to understanding how you can affect the world around you. Right concentration also frees you from the delusion of being a separate self by substituting the experience of Oneness.  When we experience Oneness, we feel a connection with everything in existence on every level. In other words, we feel ‘at one’ with all things, living and nonliving..  In Buddhism oneness is a cultural synthesis of ecology with humankind extrapolated on a cosmic scale.  Meditation is seen as an adaptation of self education to feel ‘at one’ to improve the experience of living a happy life based on the three precepts of Buddhist education; cease to do harm, do only good, do good for others. 

Oneness is an experience that transcends the mind.  Other names for Oneness include Non-Dual Awareness, Unity, Buddha-Nature, and Enlightenment.  It is the central takeaway of Buddhist education because to understand it requires the learner to adopt right mindedness and right concentration as educational outcomes of Buddhism’s eight-fold path to avoid dissatisfaction with life. 

In education generally, mind mapping provides a meditative framework to achieve right mindedness and right thinking within place-based education. Therefore, how do we speak of place? Are lineage and place geographical, cultural, emotional, and spiritual?  Adopting Oneness brings recognition of the intrinsic value of all life forms, while also promoting self-realization through the self-discovery of interconnectedness with a larger whole.  Importantly, oneness supports a belief in biocentric equality, a concept giving all forms of life intrinsic value and equal importance in the fullness of time. Therefore, a learner, when faced with a state of emotional vulnerability and total receptiveness, is taught how to enter into a deep, meditative, mindful, relationship with the universe.  This relationship can be visualized as a mind map to reframe reality more accurately rather than allowing anxieties to spiral out of control. In this context, producing a mind map is really a process of enlightenment whereby the mapper gains wisdom by becoming educated about a particular body of knowledge driven by personal need and reason.

The idea of Buddhist place-based education may be fairly new, but the philosophical underpinnings of place-based education are not, they come from thinkers like John Dewey, Paulo Freire, and many other curricular innovators.  For example, John Dewey advocated for many of the same educational philosophies that are the foundation of meditative place-based education.  Dewey believed that education and the experience of living were not separate, “…education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living”. Dewey’s idea that education is necessarily integrated with the experience of daily living is a foundational element of place-based education everywhere and was discussed at length in Dewey’s book Experience and Education in 1938.  In practical terms mind mapping generates mindfulness and attention to detail and helps make connections between ideas.  In a learning environment this will reveal connections between existing knowledge and new knowledge. Also, mind mapping breaks complex ideas down into smaller points of view, making things easier to understand. 

In his web page entitled ‘A Practice of 61-Points to Sharpen Concentration’ Michael Grady says: 

We are trained from birth to attend almost exclusively to the external world. Steeped in the concept of linear time and the law of cause and effect, we develop the habit of turning our minds outward and allowing our attention to be directed by our senses. So it is only natural that when we sit for meditation, our minds wander, drawn away by sense stimuli or by memories of past sensory experiences”  

This spontaneous process of disorderly mindfulness is the launchpad for place-based meditation.  The aim is to turn our thoughts inwards to connect with the bigger scheme of things that surrounds us.  Described as ‘Point to Point Place-Based Mindfulness’ the mind mapping process offers enough “movement” to capture the attention of a roving mind and guide it to become inward and orderly so following the map.  The objective is to produce a wholesome state of Buddhist interconnectedness in space-time.  To achieve the objective it is necessary to narrow down the inner mental panorama.  This is done by including only the points of intensified concentration required to raise the mind to a higher, more purified level of awareness of the past in the meditator’s present.  Because meditation is the process of maintaining an unwavering, inward focus on one point of view at a time, preparing for meditation entails perfecting our ability to concentrate. If the mind can be made one-pointed, it may later be directed effectively to connect with other points of view.   ‘Point to Point Space-Time Mindfulness’ invites you to step from the present moment, unplug from your everyday concerns, and focus deeply on the map before you, whilst following a meditative route towards a manageable wholesome state of mind. This is the aim of mind mapping, which may be regarded as a practical outcome of Buddist thoughts about how to achieve enlightenment as an educational goal (Figs 1 and 2).

Fig 1  Five point mind map for guiding point to point place-based mindfulness on thinking like a Buddhist

Buddha articulated his first mind map in a deer park at Sarnath, now on the outskirts of Varanesi, to his five companions, with whom he had practiced austere asceticism before his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya.  Iconographically, this event is often depicted as two deer, one on either side of a wheel. The wheel represents Buddist teachings (dharma), its pedagogy, and the cosmos, its universal dimension. The deer park symbolises the time and place when the historical Buddha delivered his First Sermon, which set in motion the Wheel of the Law’. This is one of the Eight Great Events of the Buddha’s life. Its exposition of the “Middle Way”, ”The Four Noble Truths” and the “Noble Eightfold Path” contains the fundamental educational principles of Buddhism.  They are encapsulated in the cultural ecology of ‘the deer park’

Fig 2 Multipoint mind map for guiding point to point place-based mindfulness on thinking about impermanence in the cultural ecology of three communities.

2  Oneness as a system of thought

 Anatta is a central doctrine of Buddhism.  According to anatta, at the core of all beings there is no eternal, essential and absolute something called a self.   Buddhism, from its earliest days, has denied the existence of the “self” in its main texts, which define nirvana as that blissful state when a person realizes that he or she has “no self and is as one with all elements of the Universe.  What we call “me,” or “myself,”  is likened to a ‘flower’ in the cosmic garden and each ‘flower’ is beautiful. But we have to look into ourselves and recognize the fact that we are made only of non-we elements drawn from a common pool and shared with others. If we remove all these non-we elements, we cannot continue because there is no ‘we’ left.  Buddha, as a concept, is made of non-Buddha elements. Nothing can exist by itself alone. On a spiritual plane, everything has to ‘inter-be’ with everything else in the cosmos, and in particular humankind is subordinate to other beings. The Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, describes this non-me oneness as follows: 

We humans think we are smart, but an orchid, for example, knows how to produce noble, symmetrical flowers, and a snail knows how to make a beautiful, well-proportioned shell. Compared with their knowledge, ours is not worth much at all. We should bow deeply before the orchid and the snail and join our palms reverently before the monarch butterfly and the magnolia tree. The feeling of respect for all species will help us recognize the noblest nature in ourselves is the pool of biochemical resources that we share” with other beings: men, women, children, old people, animals of every species, trees, plants, and food minerals”. 

Buddhists say that well being and happiness come when we realise that our noblest nature as an individual being is interconnectedness.  At any one time we can declare that we are humankind existing as the outcome of the flows of materials and energy through a global ecosystem.  We are a temporary biochemical microcosm composed of ancestral  elements drawn from an environmental macrocosm (Fig 3).  

Fig 3 A Buddhist autopoietic system of oneness

These elements defined as ‘we’ and ‘non-we’, support a flow of molecules and energy to produce the elements of oneness (components), which in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these elements.  It is not difficult to see how Buddhism is entangled in biological evolution and has become the faith system that is close to scientific thinking about the evolution of life. In the long run the biochemical elements of energy and materials circulate through the human ecosystem as non-we components in other microcosms, such as trees.

Our structural unity with plants and animals is evident at the cellular level.  No matter what the life form, we have a fundamental unity with respect to possessing  biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, organized into bounded structures such as the cell nucleus, various intracellular organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton.Our biochemical unity with other life forms, including plants, is also evident at the chemical level where energy is released from food in the citric acid cycle (Fig 4).  

Fig 4 The citric acid cycle

Food enters the cycle having been processed to acetyl-CoA ( a one carbon compound) by combining with oxaloacetic acid (a 2-carbon compound) to make citric acid (a 3-carbon compound). Citric acid is then converted in 3 steps to succinyl-CoA (a 2-carbon compound) releasing carbon dioxide (C02).  Succinyl-CoA is next converted to oxaloacetic acid in 4 steps, which is then available to run the cycle again.  For every turn of the cycle acetyl-CoA is converted to CO2 and the energy that held the atoms of succinylCoA together is made available to support the body’s cellular structure and power its growth and movement.

This dynamic, all embracing oneness system, prompts the Jataka Tales, which are stories about the lives the Buddha lived before he became enlightened. In those stories we hear how the Buddha was a tree, a bird, a tortoise, a rock, a cloud before he was a human. We too, before our chemical components manifested in human form, were part of these same elements flowing through  trees, one-celled animals, large predators, clouds, forests rocks and galaxies.  In this respect, a Buddhism oneness can be expressed dynamically in the cellular structure of our bodies.  Standing alongside a tree, or walking through a forest, we are biochemically as one with treekind.  

Regarding sharing common pool resources a symbiotic relationship exists between trees and humans.  Humankind breathes in oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide, while treekind breathes in carbon dioxide and exhales oxygen.  When we stand before a tree this exchange reinforces the dynamic biochemical interaction when it is remembered that every six days, due to the phenomena of steady state biochemistry, up to 6% of the carbon in our body will be replaced without any net loss or gain in biomass.  The principle of the steady state is illustrated in the science of a candle flame (Fig 5).  As the candle burns, its flame maintains a constant size and shape.  Solid wax becomes liquid and then evaporates to become a gas. The gaseous wax combines with oxygen to produce water, carbon dioxide, heat and light.  The burning candle also produces carbon, in the form of soot.  It is glowing soot that causes the candle to give out light. 

Fig 5 Science of candle flame

What of the self? The Buddha taught that there is no soul or self, and he used the metaphor of the cart. If you take away the wheels and axles, the floorboards and sides, the shafts, and all the other parts of the cart, what remains? Nothing but the conception of a cart, which will be the same when a new cart is built. So the uninterrupted process of psychophysical phenomena moves from life to life. The chemistry of each life is available instantaneously in death to a new life, and the new life is the effect of the causes in the old life. A candle flame at this instant is different from the flame that burned an instant ago, yet the flame is continuous.  The maintenance of the cellular structure of our bodies and a candle flame are examples of autopoietic systems.

An autopoietic system may be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory). However, if the system is extended from the factory to include components in the factory’s “environment”, such as supply chains, plant / equipment, workers, dealerships, customers, contracts, competitors, cars, spare parts, and so on, then as a total viable system it could be considered to be autopoietic.  

3 Zen mindscapes

Buddhism operates in three reality modes: physical reality, social reality and inner reality. The wider and deeper inner macrocosm of humankind is a mindscape encompassing the range of a person’s thoughts and imagination.  A mindscape is a system of essentially individual values, judgements, feelings and meanings that are related to the environment. Mindscapes are assembled from non-we elements.  Each element differs from others according to its environment and its ancestry.  So, a mindscape is a panorama capable of being compiled and contemplated by another person as a mental landscape or inner Zen vision.  Zen is a school of  Buddhism that originated in China during the Tang dynasty, and later developed into various schools. It is not a philosophy or a religion. In its essence Zen is the art of seeing into the organisation of one’s own being. Zen is meditation, past to present, and Zen practice is to realise that thoughts are a natural faculty of mind and should not be stopped, ignored, or rejected.  The emphasis on the present moment is perhaps Zen’s most distinctive feature. In our western relationship with time we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it and then project our findings into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied.  Zen compresses the present moment to a tiny sliver on the cosmic clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment when we are doing something practical or contemplating an object such as a tree or a picture. In this connection, a study published in the journal Mindfulness suggests that washing dishes can be a form of meditation, promoting a positive state of attention on the emotions and thoughts in the present moment. “Mindful dishwashers” experienced benefits over a control group, reporting a decrease in nervousness of 27 percent, and a boost in mental inspiration of 25 percent.

Therefore, Zen has much to offer practically regarding interconnectedness. Furthermore, it teaches that not only can we address the well-being of people and nature in tandem, but that we must, for they are inextricably linked.  The term zen is shortened from mushin no shin, a Zen expression meaning the mind without mind and is also referred to as the state of “no-mindness”. That is, zen is a mind not fixed or occupied by thought or emotion and thus open to everything. It is translated by D.T. Suzuki as “being free from mind-attachment”, which is achieved by letting go because the world is in a state of impermanence and things change  (Fig 6). The Dalai Lama summarises the need for Zen, saying, “Most of our troubles are due to our passionate desire for and attachment to things that we misapprehend as enduring entities.

Fig 6 Letting go because things change

There are plenty of examples of spirituality where people experience and express their spirituality for different reasons and in different ways.  Meditation is the practice of taking a moment to withhold judgement, explore the curiosities of your own mind with a loving, gentle approach.  Mindfulness refers to ‘being present’ and bringing things to mind.  This is the opposite of absent-mindedness. It can be thought of as having a ‘presence of mind’. This supports its function of recollection, such as recalling a teaching or remembering what one is supposed to be doing. In Buddhist practice this could mean remembering that one is trying to focus on the breath, doing which helps one remember that one is meditating, which helps one to remember that one is a Buddhist practitioner, which in turn helps one to recall that one is trying to overcome greed, hatred and spiritual ignorance in order to gain enlightenment. 

To summarise, spirituality is a broad concept with room for many perspectives. It has to do with having a sense of peace and purpose and feeling connected to something bigger than ourselves. It typically involves a search for meaning in life by meditation.  At its most simple, meditation augments our awareness of now.  The next moment will be different because we do not know what is coming round the next corner.  

Making a connection between our response to impressionist paintings, says  Sarah Rudell Beach, illustrates how a seemingly permanent and stable object appears completely different, depending on the lighting, atmospheric conditions, and time of day.

“The Impressionists used small strokes of unmixed paint to create vibrant colors and a sense of movement in their works. From far away, a Monet landscape looks like what we might see in reality — shimmering leaves, blurred outlines of shadows or clouds — but when we get close it indeed looks like “a big old messThe Buddha taught much the same thing about the self. From far away, before we’ve examined it, it looks like a coherent, solid, permanent entity. But once we look carefully, we see that the being we take to be “self” is simply a collection of elements — body, feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and consciousness (knowing). All of which are, of course, constantly changing and shifting”.

This collection of environmental elements is the background against which Buddhism is working but also augments the self into a wider world of places and people.  And the Buddha, with his several excursions into the heart of human experience, basically came to the conclusion that selfhood is an entirely imagined concept.  Taking Rudell Beach’s analogy of self as an impressionist painting, trees and people are the brush strokes and their interactions through time comprise the big picture. The claim of stability articulated in these traditions is really just an idea that we project onto our world; it is not to be found in actual experience. So one of the principal insights of the whole Buddhist tradition is that the entire world of our experience, whether the macrocosmic material world (e.g.treekind) or the microcosmic world of our personal, inner experience (e.g.humankind) is fundamentally not per­manent, not unchanging. Everything is in flux. As an example, landscaped parkland can be a meditative resource to transform how we view ourselves and our world by incorporating ourselves into it through meditation on the people who made, managed and depicted it in words and pictures and thereby we can all have ownership of it. In other words, seeing the parkland in the Lincolnshire village of Grainsby, and the ruined mansion of the Suffolk village of Flixton can provoke life-long meditations on impermanence (Fig 2).

4  Happiness in parkland

Deva is the Buddhist and Hindu term for deity; however, devata is a smaller, more focused deva associated with landscape features such as, river crossings, caves, mountains, and so on.  Buddha was born in the 6th century B.C., or possibly as early as 624 B.C and in his time trees were already being venerated as devata and cutting trees was prohibited. Pali and Sanskrit Buddhist texts define Buddist country as being centred on urban Madhyadeśa.  Also known as The Middle Country it is part of the Ganges river basin with towns and cities, parks and gardens, lakes and rivers that have been mentioned time and again. It seems, therefore, that the Middle Country was exclusively the world in which the early Buddhists confined themselves. It was in an eastern district of the Madhyadeśa that the Gotama prince became the Buddha, and the drama of his whole life was staged on the plains of the Middle Country. He travelled independently, or with his disciples, from city to city, and village to village, moving as it were within a circumscribed area. The demand for his teachings near home was so great and insistent that he had no occasion during his lifetime to stir outside the limits of the Middle Country. On a modern map Middle Country is situated east of the AH1 Grand Trunk  Road (Fig 7).  In Buddha’s time the countryside theeabouts is described as being park-like; a rolling open grassland, scattered with shrubs and isolated trees, grazed by cattle and deer. Meetings held outdoors under trees were commonplace in towns and villages.  

Fig 7 Buddist Middle Country

In Buddhism, trees have long been recognized as exceptional living things worthy of recognition and protection. The terms ‘savannha parkland’ and ‘park savannah’ or ‘parklike savanna’ are sometimes used by biogeographers to describe the biome which can be found between tropical rainforest and desert in Africa and India. Not enough rain falls on a savanna to support forests. Savannas are also known as tropical grasslands. In the dry season only an average of about 4 inches of rain falls. Specifically, Monica M. Cole, in a savanna classification first proposed in 1963, defined savanna parklands as tall grassland (grasses 40–80 cm high) with scattered deciduous trees (less than 8 m high)”.  Human settlement in grassland brought farmed herbivores. 

 Some ecologists see savannahs as open grasslands, while others see a mosaic of environments from woodlands to grasslands.  The savannah hypothesis states that human bipedalism evolved as a direct result of human ancestors transitioning from a closed arboreal lifestyle to one on the open savannas. As humans increasingly dominate the Earth system, four anthropogenic drivers caused rapid vegetation change across savannas, threatening biodiversity and ecosystem services. These are: change and transformation of land cover, human-induced changes to fire, browsing and grazing regimes, climate change and now rising atmospheric carbon dioxide.  

A grove is a small group of trees with little or no undergrowth beneath the canopies.  The grove is therefore accessible to people. When managed through grazing beneath the trees with sheep, deer or cattle, groves blend into wood pasture and rural parkland. In India, some large groves started as medieval hunting forests or wooded community commons, and others are part of landscapes designed to beautify large estates (Fig 8).

Fig 8  Cultural ecology of parkland

A sacred grove is any small group of trees that is of special religious importance to a particular community or culture.  There are Buddhist grove-monks who have a long association with, and dependence upon, the extended community. While the laity provide the material support for their renunciant life, such as almsfood and cloth for robes, the monastic community serves as a resource for spiritual inspiration and guidance. The conduct of grove or forest monks is governed by over 200 protocols, which include total celibacy, eating only between dawn and noon and abstaining from handling money.  They also commonly engage in a practice known as ‘tudong’ in which they wander on foot through the countryside either on pilgrimage or in search of groves for solitary retreat amongst trees. During such wanderings, monks sleep wherever is available and eat only what is offered by laypeople along the way.  This community dimension of Buddhism is strikingly illustrated by Thai Buddhist monks who wrap orange clerical robes around trees to protect forests. “Ordaining” a tree in this way is a provocative ritual that has become the symbol of a small but influential monastic movement aimed at reversing environmental degradation and the unsustainable economic development and consumerism that fuel it.  

Groves appear in all aspects of Buddhist art, including scenes of the Buddhist paradises in which they are depicted laden with jewels, representing the spiritual wealth of those progressing towards enlightenment. There is also a tree, the Rose-Apple Tree, on the summit of Mount Meru at the very center of the Buddhist cosmos. This symbolic tree serves as a cosmic pillar connecting Heaven and Earth. Considering the central role of trees in the Buddhist cosmos, it is not surprising that treekind is central in the life and legends of the Buddha and his enlightenment and that they connect his material existence to his spiritual one. Buddhist mythology says that when the Buddha was born, he assumed his human, material form; when he attained enlightenment, he achieved a higher spiritual level; when he died, he shed his physical form and fully entered the spiritual realm. A tree was present at each of these moments, serving as an arboreal bridge to enlightenment and mindful living.  

So, grazed parklands and their arboreal bridges are therefore key concepts in Buddhism. Buddha gave his first sermon on the outskirts of the city of Varanasi at a deer park called Sarnath.  Commemorating this event a doe and buck flanking a wheel is the universal symbol of Buddhism.  The wheel symbolizes the Buddha’s most essential teachings, known as the Dharma.  The parkland tradition was continued to this day when The Deer Park Monastery was established by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh to share the practice of mindful living.  This 400-acre sanctuary is situated in the Chaparral Mountains of southern California, within a grove of oak trees in a natural landscape (Fig 9).

Fig 9 Parkland of the ‘Deer Park Monastery’.

5 Aligning treekind with humankind

Dead people belong to the live people who claim them most obsessively.


The truth which the Buddhists see when they look at the world that surrounds themvis the truth of cause and effect. Every action, no matter how insignificant, produces an effect; every effect in its turn becomes a cause and produces still further effects. It is meaningless to inquire for a First Cause. A First Cause is inconceivable; rather, cause and effect are cyclical, and this universe when it dies and falls apart will give rise to another universe, just as this one was formed from the dispersed matter of a previous universe. The origin of the universe, like that of every individual person or thing in it, is dependent on the chain of previous causes, which goes on and on in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. This is the Buddhist principle of dependent origination. The dynamic oneness with trees spanning human generations is also expressed mentally.  For example, Forestry England has strong scientific evidence that visiting a woodland can improve mood and attention span, and even enhance psychological stress recovery.   The European body, Forest Europe, agrees there is evidence that forests boost mental health wellbeing.  But the evidence on the effect of forests on psychological health is not yet good enough to say when, where, and for whom given effects will occur or how long they will last. Positive effects may not be experienced equally by different groups of people and not all types and sizes of forests might be equally effective.”   

Lauren Krauze tells of her meditation teacher who once advised her to look to the example trees set as steady, observant beings. “They are excellent meditators. They sit in one spot for decades, watching all that goes by.” In his book The Island Within, anthropologist Richard Nelson described trees in a similar manner. “The dark boughs reach out above me and encircle me like arms. I feel the assurance of being recognized, as if something powerful and protective is aware of my presence . . .  I am never alone in this forest of elders, this forest of eyes.

Bowing to a tree in Buddhism is to acknowledge its presence in the mind by pledging allegiance to it, especially in a reverential manner. 

The extreme diversity of response is represented by the television presenter of countryside  affairs Kate Humble, who has described how she often finds comfort in sylvan settings.  

She said: “We all have moments of anxiety or stress or confusion or sadness. Sometimes it can be really hard to articulate that to another person. You can talk to a tree: they feel old and wise and at times you need an old and wise thing that isn’t going to judge you.

Humble said she had a particular 600-year-old tree she turned to, named Old Man Oak. “He is so stately. There have been many occasions when I have gone and sought the solace of Old Man Oak. We live this very ephemeral life. There is something about the solidity of a tree that can give you a sense of security.” Humble also said she thought it was fine to sometimes feel a little nervous in woodland. “It’s a lovely feeling to almost be lost, but not quite, and to feel you are being led down mysterious paths.

Regarding a mass cultural response to life with trees, the spring leaf burst and flower bloom represent a celebration of life, without ignoring its complexities. It brings the losses and gains of an individual’s life to a focus. In Japan, the spring celebration of the flowering of cherry blossom has been passed across generations as a symbol of something deeper than a biological clock, that not only celebrates and unites people to each other, but also reminds them of their transience. These days of environmental crises calls out our selfish affluence and challenges us to reflect on our destruction of the environmental services that sustain us.   At the same time, nature’s calendar is a reminder of all the things lost as a result of our selfish gains. Trees challenge us to see our prosperity and its inherent disproportion across the globe.

The awakening of trees from their winter dormancy restarts their energy metabolism, which during a tree’s lifespan has been absorbing carbon diligently.  When it passes its peak and declines in health it begins to leach its stored carbon back into the atmosphere.  While it seems counterintuitive, proper modern sustainable management of the forest begins with the felling of the trees closest to their peak life, when they have basically stored all of the carbon they will store in their lifetime.  Sunlight gets to the forest floor, thereby encouraging fresh growth.  Tree carbon is transformed into various wood products and the only way the stored carbon in hardwood products will ever be released is through fire.

6 Spiritual and sacred

Frese and Gray summarise the importance of treekind to humankind when they write: 

“Trees are a form of nature that represent life and the sacred continuity of the spiritual, cosmic, and physical worlds. A tree is often used to symbolize a deity or other sacred beings, or it may stand for what is sacred in general… Trees represent certain deities or ancestors, serve as mediators or as a link to the religious realm, and are associated with cultural beliefs in heaven or the afterlife”.

Spirituality is clearly not always religious in any formal sense; spirituality has been sought and experienced in a number of non- and a-religious contexts such as nature, and meditation on the inner self.  In particular, there is a rising popularity of the “spiritual but not religious” category of experiencing the environment, Those who call themselves ‘spiritual and not religious’ like to assert the difference because spirituality is all-encompassing and neutral, whereas organised religion is associated with a set of beliefs that are interpreted as being exclusive to a certain category of people who are seen as a community of believers.  Afterall, over time, in the name of religion, bloody wars have been fought, lives have been lost and misunderstanding has been perpetrated. On the other hand, spirituality with no religion is free of these belligerent actions, only seeking love and transcendence, forging what gives and nurtures life across the board, focusing on the individual’s spiritual journey rather than on the compliance of a community with the laws of a religious order or sect.

Regarding the category of ‘spiritual but not religious, Maria Popova takes the view that since the dawn of time, trees,  the oldest living things in our world, have been our silent companions.  We have transmuted them into the myths and metaphors through which we make sense of the world, from their deity-like role in ancient Indian legends to their long history as the perfect visual metaphor for visualizing human knowledge, to their symbolic representation of the cycle of life. Perhaps because they are so strong and so silent, bearing steadfast witness to our earthly lives and while reaching up toward the heavens, we’ve long projected our spiritual longings onto trees and turned to them to open our minds for answers to our existential questions. In this context, the idea of spiritual landscapes provides a worthwhile avenue towards new understandings of how faith and belief can open up a way of thinking about ourselves as individuals. Instead of asking about what we really are, the idea of sacred landscapes focuses on phenomena. These are experiences that we get from the senses, what we see, taste, smell, touch, hear, and feel, which can illuminate the notion of being at one with the world. Spiritual landscapes are not just about religion, but open out spaces that can be inhabited, or dwelt, in different spiritual registers. 

By ‘landscapes’ we refer to embodied practices of being in the world, including ways of seeing but extending beyond sight to both a sense of being that includes all senses and an openness to being affected. By ‘spiritual’, we refer to that part of the virtual in which faith forms a significant part of the move beyond rationality and of the possibility of other-worldly dispositions. Even for the most sceptical, the spiritual can suggest a performative presencing of some sense of spirit.  Through association with particular historical events, an individual tree or species of tree acquires the symbolic significance of the events as part of its meaning. 

A society’s spiritual beliefs about the kinds of trees that generate a sense of spirit generally depend on the nature and density of trees. If trees are plentiful, the forest as a whole will also be an important part of a community’s spiritual beliefs and ritual. Trees and landscapes thereby become sacred, where sacred describes something that is considered worthy of spiritual respect or devotion; or inspires awe or reverence among believers. The property is often ascribed to objects,  A “sacred artifact” is venerated and blessed, so a place may be described as “a sacred landscape”.

Many ancient cults focus on individual sites, deities or cult places. Why did people choose a particular geographical location? What makes a geographical feature ‘sacred’ and how was this sacred space demarcated from the profane? The sacred landscape is not simply what we see, but a way of registering what we see with our eyes but interpreting what we see  with our mind. Landscape is therefore a cultural construct which gives meaning to places and reflects human memory that carries the meaning from generation to generation. Religious signs, rituals, etiological myths, theonyms and epithets, as well as human physical constructions together create a web of ciphers and symbols that define a sacred landscape to make a text or narrative of a place invested with cultural meaning.  Sacred groves are parts of the forest that are left untouched by locals and even given complete protection by them. In many cultures, large areas of forest were set aside as a spiritual resource.  Forceful examples of sacred groves in India are the Khasi and Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya and the Aravalli Hills of Rajasthan.  All these are now under threat from mining and loss of the spiritual connection.

In his compilation of essays ‘Landscape and Power’, W.J.T. Mitchell argues that landscape representation has always been “an instrument of cultural power.”  He identifies various historical approaches, such as Dutch landscape painting, English landscape drawing, architecture, and nineteenth-century American photography of the West. He highlights these as ideological instruments based on a complex network of cultural, political, economic, and class codes.  The depiction of trees plays an important role in drawing meditators before a landscape painting.

Regarding tree-ed landscapes, few designers have left behind a body of work as monumental or as enduring as that of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83). Under his direction, hundreds of square miles of countryside across England and Wales were transformed to conform to a naturalistic aesthetic that still shapes the way the British evaluate landscape design today. Out went the formal, well-ordered gardens that had gone before. Hills were raised, valleys drugs, rivers channelled, woods planted, and, in some cases, entire communities displaced. But for all this effort, the desired result was to create parkland that looked as artless as nature itself, as though it had always been there. This quickly became the dominant style for large country estates in England and abroad. The writer and connoisseur Horace Walpole wrote, ‘We have given the true model of gardening to the world: let other countries mimic or corrupt our taste, but let it reign here on its verdant throne.’  

Brown’s agrarian model was the cultured landscape of pastoralism and the economic services derived from it (Fig 10), in which animals grazed bushes and lower limbs of trees and cropped the grass.  This economic system of livestock production created open areas of standing trees and grass, the progenitors of parks. The cultural ecology of the deer park was expressed in the pastoral ideal of a Golden Age of youth and of antique man. It formed the basis of dramas of Arcadia, and generations of poets and writers referred to the pastoral landscape in philosophy, theology and allegory. It was a place in which to discuss, to think spiritually, to make music, to dance and to make love. These are the activities that come to mind when contemplating a rural parkland. Cultural ecosystem services are commonly defined as the ‘nonmaterial benefits that people obtain from ecosystems through spiritual enrichment, and cognitive understanding.  In particular, landscape painting was animated to provide trees for contemplation (Fig 11).

Fig 10 Cultural ecology of the deer park


Fig 11   Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia (1682), Claude Lorrain, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The following description of our oneness with trees is taken from the writings if Tich Nhat Hanh’, Buddhist monk, activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, in which he describes the ideas behind the meditation known as ‘touching the Earth’.

“When we look at a tree we may think that the tree is outside of us. But if we look more deeply we shall see that the tree is also within us. The trees are your lungs because without the trees you could not breathe. The trees create the oxygen, which is now part of my body, and I create the carbon dioxide, which is now part of the tree. We have lungs in our body, but the trees breathe for us too and can also be called our lungs. Our own lungs are working with the trees to help us breathe.change into energy, and energy can change back into matter, but it won’t be destroyed. We have always been a part of everything else, and every-thing else has always been a part of us. We have all been trees, roses and animals. We still are trees at this moment. Look deeply at yourself and you see the tree, the cloud, the rose and the squirrel in you. You cannot take them out of yourself. You cannot take the cloud out of you because you are made of seventy percent water. The continuation of the cloud is rain. The continuation of rain is the river. The continuation of the river is the water you drink in order to survive. If you take the continuation of the cloud out of you, you cannot continue” (Fig 12)

Fig 12 Cultural ecology of the Sacred Grove

Buddhism is an offshoot of Hinduism and while Hinduism adopted the Buddha in its mythology, Buddhism adopted the Hindu god Krishna in its own mythology. The story of Krishna occurs in the Jataka tales in Buddhism, for example.  Buddhism also adopted the parkland landscapes of Hindu culture, to enact the life of the Buddha; landscapes which were the outcome of India’s prehistoric pastoral cultural ecology. 

“Krishna brought forward the cows and played on His flute through the forest of Vrindavan, which was full of flowers, vegetables and pasturing grass. The Vrindavan forest was as sanctified as the clear mind of a devotee and was full of bees, flowers and fruits. There were chirping birds and clear water lakes with waters that could relieve one of all fatigues. Sweet flavoured breezes blew always, refreshing the mind and body.”  Srimad Bhagavatam.

Vrindavan lies at the focus of Vraj, the region where Lord Krishna lived. The whole region has been sacred to its inhabitants for thousands of years. It falls just inside the ‘golden triangle’, stretching from Delhi south to Agra and west to Jaipur in Rajasthan, and was the setting for many of the events recorded in the Mahabharata, the epic history of ancient India. Mathura, Krishna’s birthplace seven miles south-west of Vrindavan, is one of India’s oldest cities.  About 20,000 people live in Vrindavan, but two million pilgrims visit each year. They want to see His river, the Yamuna, and bathe in her; they want to see his hill, Govardhana Hill which he lifted as a child, and walk round it in prayer; they want to see the place where he danced through the night with the gopis, the cowherd girls of Vrindavan, in the forest groves amongst the blossoming Kadamba trees (Fig 13).

Fig 13 Lord Krishna and the cowgirl Radha meet each other secretly on Govardhan Hill

7 Internet References


CPR Education Centre

The fig ecosystem

Buddhist Gardens

Forest and trees associated with Lord Buddha.

Cardiff Parks

Urban Green Spaces

Pilgrim in the Deer Park

Sarnath Deer Park

Live Like A Buddhist

Sacred groves of Meghalaya

Sacred groves of Rajasthan