Skip to content

The Ancient Tree

July 7, 2012

Last year while I was volunteering in a Buddhist monastery, a teacher there advised me to read ‘Old Path, White Clouds, Walking in the footsteps of Buddha’ written by ‘Thich Nhat Hanh’. At that time I did not even know who ‘Thich Nhat Hanh’ was and the place he would be taking in my life.

I remember that month I had spent reading the fabulous book. Every day for hours I would lay on a cot under the shade of a tree, reading the book and dwelling on it. Every day, reading the book was like going for a long walk with Buddha himself by your side – On some days he would talk about his search and the understanding he had attained, while on the other we would just walk silently. It’s been just a year and today as I write this, I can see that he and his writings have taken a very special place in my life, the place of one of my teachers to be.

The Ancient Tree is a story Thich Nhat Hanh wrote remembering one of his students, Nhat Chi Mai.

Deep in the forest highlands stood a great, ancient tree. No one knew how many thousands of years it had lived. Its trunk was as large as the arm-spans of eighteen people. Its great roots pushed up through the ground and spread to a radius of fifty meters. Its bark was as hard as rock; if you pressed a fingernail against it, it would hurt your finger. Its branches held tens of thousands of birds’ nests, sheltering hundreds of thousands of birds, large and small. The earth beneath the shadow of the tree was unusually cool.

In the morning when the sun rose, the first rays of light were like a conductor’s baton, beginning a grand symphony, the voices of the birds as majestic as any great philharmonic orchestra. All the creatures of the forest arose, on two feet or four, slowly and in awe. In the great tree there was an opening as large as a grapefruit from Bien Hoa. It was twelve meters up from the ground. In that opening lay a small brown egg. No one could say if a bird had brought that egg there or if it had been formed by the sacred air of the forest and the life energy of the great tree. Thirty years passed and the egg remained intact. During some nights, birds would be startled from their sleep by a brilliant light shining from the opening in the tree, illuminating an entire corner of the forest. Finally one night, under a very bright full moon and a brilliantly starlit sky, the egg cracked open and a tiny strange bird was born.

The little bird gave a small chirp in the cold night, and it continued to cry throughout the night until the sun appeared-a cry neither tragic nor bold, a cry of strangeness and surprise. It cried until the first rays of light opened the morning symphony and thousands of birds’ voices broke forth. From that moment on, the little bird cried no more.

The bird grew quickly. The nuts and grains that mother birds brought to the opening in the tree were always plenty. Soon the opening became too small, and the bird had to find another home, much larger. It had taught itself to fly, and it gathered sticks and straw to build a new nest. Although the egg had been brown, the bird was as white as snow. Its wingspan was vast, faraway places where white waterfalls tumbled day and night like the majestic breath of earth and sky. Sometimes it did not return for several days. When it returned, it lay in its nest all day and night, thoughtfully and quietly. Its two bright eyes never lost their look of surprise.

In the ancient Dai Lao Forest, a hermit’s hut stood on the slope of a hill. There, a monk had lived for almost fifty years. The bird often flew across Dai Lao Forest, and from time to time it saw the monk walking slowly down the path to the spring, holding a water jug in his hand. One day, the bird saw two monks walking together on the path leading from the spring to the hut, and that night, concealed in the branches of a tree, it watched as the light of the fire flickered inside the hut and the two monks conversed the whole night long.

The bird flew high over the ancient forest, sometimes for days without landing. Below stood the great tree, and the creatures of mountain and forest concealed by grass, bushes, and trees. Since the day the bird overheard the exchange between the two monks, its bewilderment grew. Where have I come from and where will I go? How many thousands of years will the great tree stand?

The bird had heard the two monks speak about time. What is time? Why has time brought us here, and why will it take us away? The nut that a bird eats has its own delicious nature. How can I find out the nature of time? The bird wanted to pick up a small piece of time and lie quietly with it in its nest for several days to examine its nature. Even if it took months or years to examine, the bird was willing.

High over the ancient forest, the bird felt like a round balloon drifting in nothingness. It felt its nature was as empty as a balloon’s, and that emptiness was the ground of its existence and the cause of its suffering as well. If I could find time, thought the bird, I could certainly find myself.

After many days and nights of flying and contemplating, the bird came quietly to rest in its nest. It had brought with it a tiny piece of earth from the Dai Lao Forest. Deep in thought, it picked up the piece of earth to examine it. The monk from the Dai Lao Forest had said to his friend, “Time is stilled in eternity, where love and your beloved are one. Each blade of grass, each piece of earth, each leaf, is one with that love.”

But the bird was unable to find time. The clod of earth from Dai Lao Forest revealed nothing. Perhaps the monk had lied. Time lies in love, but where is love? The bird remembered the waterfalls endlessly tumbling in the Northwest Forest. It remembered the days it listened to the sounds of waterfalls from morn to eve. It even imagined itself tumbling like a waterfall, while it played with the light sparkling on the water and caressed the pebbles and rocks down below. The bird felt that it was a waterfall itself, with endless water falling from it.

One noon, while flying across the Dai Lao Forest, the bird saw that the hut was no longer there. The whole forest had burned, and only a pile of ashes remained where the hut had been. In a panic, the bird flew around searching. The monk was no longer in the forest. Where had he gone? Corpses of animals. Corpses of birds. Had the fire consumed the monk? The bird was bewildered. Time, what are you? Why do you bring us here, and why will you take us away? The monk had said, “Time is stilled in eternity.” If that is so, perhaps love has returned the monk to itself.

The bird flew swiftly back to the ancient forest, where anguished cries of many birds and explosions of bark revealed that the ancient forest was burning. Faster, faster still, the bird flew. The fire spread throughout the sky, and it spread near the great tree. Hundreds of thousands of birds shrieked in fright. As the fire approached the great tree, the bird flapped its wings feverishly, hoping to put it out, but the fire burned even more fiercely. The bird sped to the spring, dipped its wings in the water, and rushed back to shake the water over the forest. The drops just turned to steam. It was not enough, not enough. The bird’s whole body soaked in water was not enough to extinguish the fire.

Hundreds of thousands of birds cried. Young birds without feathers to fly screamed. Then the fire began to burn the great tree. Why was there no rain? Why didn’t the downpour that fell endlessly in the Northwest Forest flow like a waterfall here? The bird let forth a piercing cry, a cry both tragic and passionate, and suddenly the cry was transformed into the sound of a rushing waterfall. In that moment, the bird felt the fullness of its existence. Loneliness and emptiness vanished, and the image of the monk, the image of the sun behind the mountain peak, and the image of the rushing water falling endlessly through a thousand lifetimes took their place. The cry of the bird had become the rush of the waterfall, and without fear, the bird plunged into the forest fire like a majestic waterfall.

The next morning was calm. The rays of the sun shone, but there was no symphony, no sounds of thousands of birds. Parts of the forest had burned completely. The great tree stood, but more than half its branches were charred. Corpses of large and small birds were everywhere. The forest was silent.

The birds who were still alive called one another, their voices betraying their bewilderment. By what grace had the clear sky suddenly poured forth rain, extinguishing the fire? They remembered seeing the great white bird shaking water from its two wings. They looked everywhere throughout the forest, but they could not find the white bird. Perhaps it had flown away to live in a different forest. Perhaps it had been killed by the fire. The great tree, its body charred and scarred with wounds, did not say a word. The birds turned their heads to the sky, and then began to build new nests in the remaining branches of the great tree. Did the ancient tree miss the child, the child of sacred mountain air and the life energy of its own four thousand years? Dear bird, where have you gone? Listen to the monk: time has returned the bird to the love that is the source of all things.

This story was written as a memorial to Nhat Chi Mai, Thich Nhat Hanh’s student who immolated herself for peace on May 16, 1967, in protest of the Vietnam war.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2012 00:46

    Reblogged this on Thoughts & Reflections.


  2. July 8, 2012 01:42

    Nice story. Wish I could write like that 🙂


  3. July 12, 2012 18:51

    Simply B E A U T I F U L!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: