Legend has it that the Buddha sat under a fig tree on the day that he attained enlightenment. Perhaps this is too broad a saying; I don’t think enlightenment can be fully attained in one earthly lifetime. I believe full enlightenment will take a human soul thousands or millions of years and journeys through multiple spiritual dimensions. At any rate, meditating under the fig tree was an important part of the Buddha’s spiritual journey. This particular tree, ficus religiosa, now bears the name “Bodhi tree,” Bodhi meaning enlightenment in Sanskrit.
500 years later, another of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders had an encounter with a fig tree. Yeshua cursed a fig tree on his journey to Jerusalem during the end days of his earthly ministry. Matthew 21 and Mark 11 both tell this story. In both accounts, Yeshua saw a fig tree that was not bearing fruit, and he cursed it. During the same journey, he went to the temple and overturned the money tables.
At least that is the way the story goes in church. I think it was more like this: Yeshua became very angry at the sale of sacrifices going on in the most holy of places. Yeshua could not stand to see the oppression of the poor and the merchants turning the sacred into a sale. Coins flew to the ground like a hail storm, and doves flew overhead, confused at their sudden freedom from smashed cages. Goats ran out of the temple and down the street, somehow intuitively aware that their lives had been spared. People screamed, and the money changers cowered and cursed under their breath. Someone ran to get a priest to come help.
At the same time, something magical happened. According to the gospel of Matthew, the blind and the lame came to the temple and Yeshua healed them. I am sure the religious leaders were very angry at the destruction of their property and the disturbance inside their kingdom. But, somehow, they did not lay hand on the great healer while the sick flocked around.
What does all of this have to do with the fig tree? I believe that Yeshua was making a prophetic sign when he cursed the tree. He was saying that Israel had turned from her spiritual roots and become a fruitless tree. She no longer had the fruits of compassion and spiritual wisdom, the two greatest qualities that the Buddha also taught as the path to enlightenment.
See the connection? There is much debate as to whether Yeshua knew Buddhism or studied in India or any of these other intellectual questions. No doubt Buddhist thought, as well as many other religious and philosophical thoughts, permeated the Judean atmosphere of the time. The writings of Paul as well as world history readily demonstrate this. But whatever physical connection existed, there was certainly a spiritual connection between the ideas of the two great teachers.
So, the Buddha sat under a fig tree, and learned deep spiritual truths on his journey to enlightenment. Later, Yeshua cursed the fig tree on his journey to justice, as a sign to the people to turn back to the spiritual truths, namely the truth of compassion toward the poor and oppressed. On this same journey, Yeshua made the ultimate sacrifice of his life for the sins of the people. Maybe that is partly why he was so upset to see sacrifices both cheapened and made inaccessible by the money system. Money, and the oppression it brings, cannot exist alongside the holy, and caused the fruit of Israel’s tree to die.
Interestingly, Yeshua later told another parable about a fig tree (Matthew 24:32-42). He told his disciples to watch the sign of the fig tree, that when the leaves come out we know that summer is near. In the same way, we should watch out for the coming of the Son of Man, the establishment of true justice, and the end of earth as we know it now. Yeshua preached over and over that the greatest use of a person’s life is to inwardly prepare for the kingdom of heaven. Similarly, the Buddha taught that we must journey inward to the state of nirvana, overcoming ego, desire, want, and pain on the way. Similar teachings, deep spiritual truths. Both framed by a lowly fig tree.
Welcome to the journey of the fig tree, my friends.
Photo used freely, courtesy of adrahon on stock.xchng