Acknowledging Spiritual Realities – Ecological Knowledge, Cultural Connections, and Spiritual Agency in Dai Theravada Buddhism

David Matthew Hecht, Luther College

Full paper:

The Button Orchid
The Button Orchid

Introduction Each day at Manting temple begins with meditation while the sun rises and ends with meditation as the sun sets. Days are filled with quiet practice and modest work–sweeping fallen leaves with palm frond brooms, washing bamboo sitting mats in the temple courtyard, or hanging up curtains in the nunnery. Life within the temple walls feels simpler, slower–more intentional somehow. For resident Buddhist monks and nuns this is the nature of monastery life. However, on select days throughout the year, the pace of community life is adjusted to accommodate a time of festival and celebration–a time when farmers and shopkeepers take a break from their daily obligations to celebrate with food, music, dancing, and worship. The local temple halts routine daily practice to prepare and host the incoming community of Buddhist practitioners worshiping, praying, and celebrating community and connections to the ancestors and the Buddha. On the day of the biggest Dai Buddhist festival of the year, life is celebrated in full and connections to the ancestors and the Buddha are renewed.

On the 21st of October, dozens of monks in flowing orange robes and hundreds of farmers and villagers come to the temple to light incense and candles and to say prayers for hours around the large white pagoda near the edge of the temple complex. During the day, some practitioners bring balls of white string–attaching an end to the large golden Buddha statue inside the main temple and the other end to a single type of tree found throughout the temple grounds. Others will leave prayers attached to wooden branches as well as collections of flowers, food, or structures of bamboo and leaves at the base of this great tree in worship. This tree the Dai call guomaixili, otherwise known as the Puti Tree. It is a sacred tree in Theravada Buddhism and a key component in many Dai Buddhist rituals. Although the medicinal qualities found in the blossoms and oil of the tree may be one reason for its reverence, the main reason for its high status is the Puti tree’s historical and symbolic connection to Sakyamuni Buddha. Under this tree, the Buddha attained enlightenment and release from samsara–the cycle of death and rebirth in the world. Because of this ancient connection, the tree is understood to be the single most profound representation of the Buddha in Dai Theravada Buddhism. And for those who live or pray at the temple, the Puti tree acts as a direct link to the Buddha in prayer and is often the medium for cultivating Buddha nature needed to reach nibbana.

Read the full paper: