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In an age where there are great divisions that plague mankind, there are some things that are universally appreciated — even loved. Among these are trees. What is their spiritual significance?
No doubt about it, trees are simply amazing! On the one hand, they are beautiful to look at, offer a home and shelter to countless animals, play a critical role in most ecosystems and the world’s atmosphere, and provide food, medicine, and materials to almost all living things on earth — not the least of which are humans!
Along with these physical benefits, trees provide inspiration for painters, poets, writers, sculptors, woodworkers, musicians, and every other kind of artist seeking to capture the beauty and majesty of trees in their art. One beautiful poem by Joyce Kilmer, titled “Trees,” reads:
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Throughout religious history, trees and their attributes have been used in scripture as a metaphor or symbol to teach many spiritual truths. In the writings of the Baha’i Faith, as well as many other world religions, there are many examples of how trees convey spiritual significance through metaphors, parables and symbols.
Trees as a Symbol of Guidance — Both Good and Evil
In the first book of the Old Testament we read about how God created two trees of special importance. Genesis 2:9 reads: “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground-trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
It was that second tree that, when Adam and Eve ate its forbidden fruit, became the cause of a great upheaval. According to the story, all of humanity must now endure hardship instead of a life of ease in the Garden of Eden because of Adam and Eve’s choice to eat fruit from the wrong tree.
Although Baha’is do not believe that these verses should be taken literally, the lesson is clear and forever true: God is the Creator and has laid down laws and directives that benefit our health, happiness, and spiritual development in this world, and when we ignore them, there are negative consequences.
Jesus also relied on the image of a fruitful tree in a lesson to his disciples about people who claim to be a prophet of God. In Matthew 7:15-20, he said: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
The criteria and the admonishment that Jesus described over 2,000 years ago are still relevant today, as seekers examine the truth of those who claim to speak on behalf of God. Throughout history, how many so called “holy ones” have proven themselves to be false, leading people astray to gain fame or fortune only for themselves! Because of this, the Baha’i Faith clearly advises us to investigate the truth independently — so that we may recognize “good fruit” for ourselves.
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Trees as a Symbol of the Unity of Humanity
A primary and unshakable principle of the Baha’i Faith is the elimination of all racial, national, religious, gender, or cultural prejudices. Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, used trees as a metaphor in one of his best-known quotes: “O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.”
“By this it is meant that the world of humanity is like a tree, the nations or peoples are the different limbs or branches of that tree and the individual human creatures are as the fruits and blossoms thereof. In this way His Holiness Baha'u'llah expressed the oneness of humankind whereas in all religious teachings of the past, the human world has been represented as divided into two parts, one known as the people of the Book of God or the pure tree and the other the people of infidelity and error or the evil tree. The former were considered as belonging to the faithful and the others to the hosts of the irreligious and infidel; one part of humanity the recipients of divine mercy and the other the object of the wrath of their Creator. His Holiness Baha'u'llah removed this by proclaiming the oneness of the world of humanity…”
Through these writings, the Baha’i Faith presents us with a different vision of the human race: as fruits growing from the same source of life — God. Although we may come with some variations in shape, shade, and flavor, we are all essentially the same.
Trees as a Symbol of Religion
In a talk he gave in Boston in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha explained:
“From the seed of reality, religion has grown into a tree which has put forth leaves and branches, blossoms and fruit. After a time this tree has fallen into a condition of decay. The leaves and blossoms have withered and perished; the tree has become stricken and fruitless. It is not reasonable that man should hold to the old tree, claiming that its life forces are undiminished, its fruit unequalled, its existence eternal. The seed of reality must be sown again in human hearts in order that a new tree may grow therefrom and new divine fruits refresh the world. By this means the nations and peoples now divergent in religion will be brought into unity, imitations will be forsaken and a universal brotherhood in the reality itself will be established. Warfare and strife will cease among mankind; all will be reconciled as servants …"
And Abdu’l-Baha also wrote:
“The religion of God is one, and it is the educator of humankind, but still, it needs must be made new. When thou dost plant a tree, its height increaseth day by day. It putteth forth blossoms and leaves and luscious fruits. But after a long time, it doth grow old, yielding no fruitage any more. Then doth the Husbandman of Truth take up the seed from that same tree, and plant it in a pure soil; and lo, there standeth the first tree, even as it was before.”
Along with the principle of the oneness of humanity, the oneness of religion is also a main principle of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’u’llah taught that throughout human history, at different times and places, God sends a Messenger, a Manifestation of Himself, to educate people about God and His attributes, to advance civilization, and to enlighten people as to the purpose of their lives and prepare them for their spiritual journey to the next world. These Messengers are the founders of the world’s great religions and the essentials of their teachings are the same and never changing; only laws pertaining to diet, forms of prayer, certain principles and practices change according to the needs of the people at the time. The “same seed” implies the essential oneness of the new tree with the previous one.
When a religion can no longer unite the peoples of the world, or bring peace or spiritual enlightenment to its followers, it has lost its original meaning and vitality. It can become a source of conflict, empty traditions, and “idle fancies and vain imaginings.”
This is often the cause of people turning away from religion in ever growing numbers. But Abdu’l-Baha states in the verse above that it is not effective to try to revive past religions in an effort to make them more relevant; rather, it is necessary to renew them. Baha’is believe that the revelation of Baha’u’llah represents such a renewal with all the principles, laws, institutions, prayers and other writings which are essential to bring about a world community based on peace, justice and equality.
Trees as a Symbol of Sacrifice
During a talk in New York City in 1912, Abdu’l-Baha connected trees to sacrifice, saying: “If you plant a seed in the ground, a tree will become manifest from that seed. The seed sacrifices itself to the tree that will come from it. The seed is outwardly lost, destroyed; but the same seed which is sacrificed will be absorbed and embodied in the tree, its blossoms, fruit and branches. If the identity of that seed had not been sacrificed to the tree which became manifest from it, no branches, blossoms or fruits would have been forthcoming. Christ outwardly disappeared. His personal identity became hidden from the eyes, even as the identity of the seed disappeared; but the bounties, divine qualities and perfections of Christ became manifest in the Christian community which Christ founded through sacrificing Himself. When you look at the tree, you will realize that the perfections, blessings, properties and beauty of the seed have become manifest in the branches, twigs, blossoms and fruit; consequently, the seed has sacrificed itself to the tree.”
Any positive change on a societal level happens through great sacrifices by those on the forefront of that change. The same is true in the renewal of religion. The sacrifices needed to bring about meaningful changes to our beliefs, to establish new institutions that will govern us justly, and to challenge harmful norms and traditions call on us to make great sacrifices. These sacrifices could be our time, resources, abilities, and, in some cases in history, even lives. These sacrifices will give birth to a future that we can now only imagine, just as it is hard to imagine the huge oak tree that comes from a tiny acorn!
Trees as a Symbol of the Relationship Between the Body and the Soul
Baha’u’llah wrote: “Consider, moreover, how the fruit, ere it is formed, lieth potentially within the tree. Were the tree to be cut into pieces, no sign nor any part of the fruit, however small, could be detected. When it appeareth, however, it manifesteth itself, as thou hast observed, in its wondrous beauty and glorious perfection. Certain fruits, indeed, attain their fullest development only after being severed from the tree.”
To study the realities of the human soul is a fascinating subject and it is not possible for us to understand exactly every aspect of this mystery of God’s creation. The Baha’i Writings explain that the soul is “a sign of God, a heavenly gem,” and that the soul is associated with the body but is not anything like a physical organ. Just as you cannot find the fruit in the tree until it matures, likewise, it is not possible to locate the soul in any part of a human body. And, as the verse implies, the soul may be most expressive only after it leaves the body.
Trees as a Symbol of the Need to Acquire Virtues
Baha’u’llah used trees as a metaphor for the human soul several times. He wrote:
“Now is the time for you to put forth your leaves, and yield your fruit. The fruits of the tree of man have ever been and are goodly deeds and a praiseworthy character.”
“Strain every nerve to acquire both inner and outer perfections, for the fruit of the human tree hath ever been and will ever be perfections both within and without. It is not desirable that a man be left without knowledge or skills, for he is then but a barren tree. Then, so much as capacity and capability allow, ye needs must deck the tree of being with fruits such as knowledge, wisdom, spiritual perception and eloquent speech.”
“The Word of God may be likened unto a sapling, whose roots have been implanted in the hearts of men. It is incumbent upon you to foster its growth through the living waters of wisdom, of sanctified and holy words, so that its root may become firmly fixed and its branches may spread out as high as the heavens and beyond.”
The Baha’i writings make it clear that our efforts to acquire good qualities are more than just trying to be a “nice person.” Qualities such as honesty, trustworthiness, or generosity are necessary for the development of our spiritual life in this world and the next. They are the very “fruit” of our life and without them we are like a “barren tree.” Acquisition of these qualities is one of the very purposes of our creation, and benefits the development of our community.
Trees as a Symbol of God’s Manifestation
The appearance of a Manifestation of God is a tremendous event in the life of humanity. They are the spiritual educators of mankind, bringing teachings and attributes of God, informing us how to live our lives, and revealing verses to draw us closer to God. In a prayer revealed in 1865, Baha’u’llah wrote: “Verily this is that Most Great Beauty, foretold in the Books of the Messengers, through Whom truth shall be distinguished from error and the wisdom of every command shall be tested. Verily He is the Tree of Life that bringeth forth the fruits of God, the Exalted, the Powerful, the Great.”
The appearance of a Manifestation releases a new spirit that mysteriously advances civilization to the next stage of its development. In the quote above, Baha’u’llah referred to himself as the Tree of Life, (remember that first tree of life in the Garden of Eden?), saying that we can benefit spiritually from the “fruits” he brought to humanity.
These few examples, and many more too numerous to mention, show how the spiritual significance of trees -- wondrous creations of God, essential in the world of nature, and a source of inspiration to countless artists -- help us better understand religion and the spiritual truths within all of us. As Kilmer wrote, “only God can make a tree.”