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The Bodhi tree is an important object in Buddhist iconography, although it was sacred to the peoples of Southeast Asia before the rise of Buddhism. The tree has the botanical name of Ficus religiosa. According to Buddhist tradition, the Bodhi tree played an important role in the life of Buddha, who meditated under the Bodhi tree and received enlightenment. After being enlightened, Buddha traveled throughout Asia to teach others, founding the practice of Buddhism. Bodhi trees are grown all over the world for good luck and as a horticultural accent.
In appearance, a Bodhi tree is of moderate size. The tree has a short, thick trunk which usually reaches a height of approximately six feet (two meters). The trunk yields to a wide canopy of spreading branches which offers shade and shelter to the area below the tree. A Bodhi tree also has distinctive heart shaped leaves, which appear in regional religious art. In the dry season, a Bodhi tree will lose its leaves.
According to Buddhist lore, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha was a man who started his life as an Indian prince. One day he ventured outside and saw four things: a hermit, an old man, a diseased person, and a dead body. These four things came to be known as the Four Sights, and led Buddha to believe that life was a circle of suffering. He decided to become an ascetic, abandoning the comforts of life at home, and left to explore the world and learn.
During his travels, Buddha fasted heavily and engaged in other practices which included physical deprivation. He also learned meditation, and used it focus his body and thoughts. He nearly died because of his extreme spiritual practices, and decided to take time to think about his life. The place he chose for this was the Bodhi tree, and he sat in meditation there until he found truth. Buddha's choice is recognized as the Middle Way, a meeting place between extreme asceticism and thoughtless daily life.
In approximately 300 BC, a Buddhist nun took a cutting of the tree to Sri Lanka. This cutting grew into a tree which still exists in Anaradapura, Sri Lanka. This tree is believed to be the longest living tree in existence. Cuttings have been transported to other locations around the world, and several Buddhist temples have trees which are descended from the original Bodhi tree. Although the original Bodhi tree was cut down, a cutting was planted at the site and it is possible to visit the tree to make offerings or meditate.
Before the advent of Buddhism, the Bodhi tree was considered sacred, and numerous myths and traditions built up around it. It was associated with knowledge, fertility, enlightenment, and protection. The Bodhi tree played a role in many religious rites of passage, and is still planted in some areas to bring good fortune and happiness.