Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The sacred fig tree, continued: Jonah and the gourd

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

The previous post on The Bodhi Tree examined the very strong evidence that the imagery of the sacred fig tree under which the Buddha is described as attaining enlightenment has powerful points of resonance with the "vertical Djed" symbology found throughout the mythology of the world, and associated with the invisible, divine, spirit-component in human beings and indeed in all the universe.

This "vertical component" symbology can be shown to be directly related to the "vertical component" of the great cross of the year which runs from the winter solstice (at the "bottom of the year") straight up to the summer solstice (at the very "summit" of the year), in contrast to the "horizontal component" that connects the two points of equinox and which represent the "crossing points" between the worlds of spirit and matter. In contrast to the vertical spirit-component of this great cross, the horizontal component almost always pictures the physical, animal, material nature into which we are "cast down" when we incarnate in this mortal life, during which time we are "crossed" in the human condition of being simultaneously spirit and matter, divine and animal, vertical and horizontal.

Hence, the vertical-component symbology of the bodhi tree under which the Buddha achieves enlightenment can be shown to be related to the reconnection with the divine and the transcendence of the dual and conflicted condition in which we find ourselves: a spiritual transcendence which can only be achieved by actually entering into the lower or material realm (in much the same way that plants  and trees which grow up towards the heavens must first begin as seeds planted in the "lower realm" of the earthy soil, as Alvin Boyd Kuhn frequently explains in his writings on the subject).

Readers who are familiar by now with the thesis that a common system of celestial allegory can be shown to run through virtually all of the world's ancient myth and sacred tradition may have already begun to question whether this sacred fig tree under which the Buddha achieves the height of divine consciousness has any echoes in other sacred traditions around the world -- and indeed we would probably be very surprised if a symbol of such central importance did not have echoes in other world mythology.

Students of classical literature, and especially those who love the Odyssey of Homer, might immediately think of the fig tree which saves Odysseus from certain destruction between the whirlpool of Charybdis and the ravenous snaking heads of the monster Scylla, in the Odyssey's Book 12 (particularly lines 464 - 478). This fig tree is almost certainly connected to the fig tree of the Buddha -- because I believe that in addition to being associated with the vertical "Djed column" which runs through the great circle of the year from the lowest point at winter solstice up to the highest point at summer solstice, the "fig tree" of sacred tradition can be shown to be associated with a very prominent feature of the starry heavens, the same feature that runs between Scylla and Charybdis, to which Odysseus is described as clinging to "like a bat" in order to escape being sucked down into the vortex.

Students of the Hebrew Scriptures may have read the previous post about the Buddha sitting beneath the sacred fig of the bodhi tree and been reminded of the numerous passages in which the promise that "every man should dwell safely . . . under his vine and under his fig tree" is given as a formula that describes the golden age under King Solomon in 1 Kings 4:25 and which is referenced in many other passages in the books of the prophets, including the scrolls of Isaiah and Micah and Zechariah.

Students of the New Testament scriptures may have considered the discussion of the Buddha underneath the bo tree and been suddenly reminded of the passage found only in the gospel according to John, in which Jesus calls Nathanael and tells Nathanael that he saw him "when thou wast under the fig tree," before Philip had told Nathanael to come and see Jesus (John 1:46 - 51).

In other words, fig trees feature prominently in myths and sacred stories around the world! There are many more like these, including from sacred stories in the Americas, some of which are examined in Hamlet's Mill (1969). Many readers will also have thought immediately of Adam and Eve, whose story certainly involves a central tree, and who are specifically described as making coverings for themselves out of fig leaves in Genesis 3:7.

What celestial feature might be playing the role of the fig tree in all of these celestial allegories?

Perhaps the most revealing passage which helps to decode this vitally important symbol, and one which was the first one that I myself thought of when reflecting on the image of the bodhi tree, is the story in the book of Jonah, which describes Jonah as taking shelter beneath a friendly kikajon or vine, translated as a "gourd" in the 1611 English translation.

There, in the fourth chapter of Jonah, after Jonah has been persuaded (by a stint in the belly of the fish) to preach to the Ninevites (whom he begrudged God's grace and did not want to see spared), we read:
5 So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.
6 And the LORD God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceedingly glad of the gourd.
7 But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
8 And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
9 And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
10 Then said the LORD, Thou has had pity on the gourd, for the which thou has not laboured, neither maddest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
11 And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
And on that note the book of Jonah ends.

There are certainly deep subjects being treated here in these passages, but it also seems that Jonah sitting under his gourd has some points of resonance with the Buddha sitting under the sacred bo tree, even though the vine that shelters Jonah is not specifically described as a fig (although other passages in the Old and New Testaments specifically indicate a fig and characters who sit underneath one, as we have already seen).

As with so many other sacred myths around the world, and so many other passages based on celestial allegory in the passages of the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, enough "clues" have been included in the passage above for us to determine with some confidence just which celestial figures this ancient sacred story brings down to earth and clothes in "terrestrial form," so to speak.

Perhaps the feature of this story that does the most to unlock its celestial correlatives is the figure of "the worm" in verse seven, which is depicted as gnawing at or "smiting" the sheltering vine and causing its demise. If you are familiar with the night sky, you might immediately recognize this "worm" at the base of a glorious vertical tree or vine in the heavens as the sinuous constellation Scorpio, one of the most beautiful constellations in the heavens and one that is situated right at the very "base" of the thickest and brightest part of the shining band of the Milky Way galaxy, as it rises out of the southern horizon during the summer months (for observers in the northern hemisphere).

Below is my interpretation of the celestial figures depicted in the events of Jonah chapter 4, beginning with the "worm" of Scorpio, and working around to the rest of the events depicted in the chapter:

This is a modified Stellarium screen-shot of the night sky as it looks to an observer at a latitude of about 35 north, looking towards the southern horizon (almost due south), such that east will be to the left and west to the right. There, stretching upwards like a mighty tree, is the shining "trunk" of the Milky Way galaxy, and directly at its base or its "root" we can see the dreaded worm, in the zodiac constellation of Scorpio.

Just above Scorpio is a constellation we have not previously discussed on this blog (you can see a handy index of many of the stars and constellations that have been discussed in previous posts here), and we won't really discuss it at length in this post either, except to remark that its outline may well be the explanation for the line in Jonah 4:5 cited above in which we see that "Jonah made him a booth," in which to get a little shade as he sat looking towards Ninevah. The outline of Ophiucus is indeed somewhat suggestive of a "booth" or a narrow peaked tent, and although the interpretation of Jonah 4 does not stand or fall on the identification of Jonah's "booth" with the outline of Ophiucus, this correspondence appears to be a strong possibility. 

Just outside the "booth" (if that's indeed what it is), we see Jonah himself, sitting with his back to the vine. It is almost certain that the constellation of Bootes the Herdsman is playing the role of the seated  (and sulking) prophet Jonah in this chapter, and you can see that the constellation Bootes itself does indeed have a seated posture. In fact, the same seated posture can also be envisioned as being a posture of kneeling, or of sitting "cross-legged" or even in a "lotus position," if we envision a horizontal line connecting the two lowest points on the constellation as shown above.

We have already seen strong evidence that the constellation Bootes plays the role of the kneeling sage Bodhidharma or Da Mo, who knelt against a wall for nine years without moving (in some versions of the story, without even blinking), as discussed in a previous post entitled "Bodhidharma, Shen Guang, and the Shaolin Temple." 

I believe it is very likely that the seated prophet Jonah, the kneeling sage Da Mo, and the meditating figure of the Buddha underneath the bodhi tree, are all manifestations of one and the same celestial figure in the sky, the constellation Bootes beside the glorious vertical column of the Milky Way.

This identification, at least in the case of Jonah, is strengthened by the events described in verse 8, in which the worm has destroyed the gourd, and the sun comes up and beats upon the unprotected head of Jonah, who then faints. While the constellation Virgo located below Bootes figures in numerous Star Myths around the world as the wife or lover of the figure played by Bootes, such as in the story of Adam and Eve in which Bootes is almost certainly Adam and Virgo is almost certainly Eve, in this particular passage it seems quite likely that the figure of Virgo stretched out below Bootes represents Jonah having fainted from the sun beating down upon his unprotected head (and indeed Bootes does have a prominent and rather bulbous head, based upon the outline of the stars themselves in the constellation). The many places in Jonah chapter 4 in which Jonah says he might as well die or he is angry "unto death" would seem to add support to this identification in this particular part of the Jonah story.

Further confirmation that the fig tree of the world's sacred myths is indeed identified with this portion of the Milky Way can be obtained by considering again the story of Odysseus escaping from Scylla and Charybdis: in this story, Scylla is undoubtedly Scorpio, which appears to have multiple long heads emerging from its body on snaky necks, while the "top" of the Milky Way stretches towards the point of the north celestial pole, around which the entire "starry ocean" of the northern celestial sky appears to turn, just like a whirlpool.  

Between these two mortal threats, Odysseus is rescued by the friendly fig tree, to which he clings "like a bat" -- and you can easily confirm for yourself that just above the Scorpion in the shining path of the Milky Way there are two great bird-constellations, Aquila the Eagle and Cygnus the Swan, either of which might be playing the role of the hapless hero Odysseus, clinging for dear life to the fig tree in order to avoid being sucked down into the vortex of Charybdis (a vortex which is actually located in the "up" direction, for observers on earth, but not for players upon the great stage of the heavens, where "up" and "down" can take on different meanings in order to make the poetry work).

Still further confirmation is provided by the fact that the head of the constellation Bootes actually appears to resemble a "gourd," and is so described or depicted in many another Star Myth around the world. See for example the illustration of Da Mo shown on this page, (scroll down to the image in which Da Mo has a crooked staff over his shoulder, from which a gourd can be seen to dangle), or the image of Daikoku and Otafuku from Japanese myth shown and discussed in this previous post (scroll down for the discussion of the image, in which Daikoku represents Bootes and holds an enormous gourd, while Otafuku represents Virgo and holds a wand in one hand).

Thus, we have fairly strong evidence from literally around the globe to support the identification of Bootes with Jonah when Jonah is sitting "under the gourd," and fairly strong evidence from many of the world's myths to support the identification of the ubiquitous fig tree with the "vertical trunk" of the Milky Way as it rises up from the horizon.

Of course, the figure of the Buddha sitting under the bo tree achieving the state of highest divine consciousness, and the figure of Jonah petulantly nursing his anger that the LORD God has shown mercy to Ninevah could not present a greater contrast.

But note: the scroll of Jonah ends abruptly with the verses quoted above. We are not told anything more about Jonah. We only see that he is being admonished for his failure to have pity upon the people of Ninevah, whom he apparently hates because they are of a different family of humanity than he is -- and the divine voice tells Jonah in no uncertain terms that Jonah is wrong to think of them in this way.

We do not know at all whether or not Jonah ever achieved enlightenment, like the Buddha who likewise sat beneath the same celestial tree.

And here once again we must return to the incredibly helpful quotation from Alvin Boyd Kuhn, who reminds us that these stories are not about an external figure but that they are in fact about each and every man and woman on earth, and the experience of each and every human soul.  

In other words, we are both Jonah and the Buddha.

The depiction in one story describes one aspect of our journey, while the depiction in the other depicts another part of our ultimate experience. We should not spend too much time wondering about whether Jonah ever changes, and spend perhaps more time considering our own state of mind and consciousness. 

As well as our concern for our fellow human beings, whether they live in Ninevah or elsewhere. 

Blessing and not cursing.

Ultimately, these stories point us towards the concept of "raising the Djed" (or "the fig tree") and all that concept appears to have entailed, in the ancient system of sacred wisdom imparted to the human race.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).