The 5-Branched Fig Tree

A group in Manchester has been studying some esoteric Cambodian texts. One of these, the Five Branched Fig Tree, relates how we are conceived and then develop five branches: head. arms and legs. It says that our bodies are a 5-branched embodiment of the abhidhamma, the "flesh of the dhamma"; as the Buddha said "in this fathom-long body is the arising and ceasing of the world." This is something to think about! We have in us constantly the 7 books of the abhidhamma, which is an amazing opportunity. Universal truth is accessible through our mind and body, so if we look closely and investigate our mind-body, we are looking at the workings of abhidhamma. Hearing this can help us to develop more reverence for our personal experiences and that of other beings.

5-branched fig treeWithin the flower of the fig tree is a crystal sphere, this is the possibility of realizing nibbana, a place of limitless clarity and light inside us. Gaining possession of the crystal sphere is the purpose of conception. It is not something to grasp at, but rather we can release the shining light of the crystal sphere. We will not find lasting peace through pleasant sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touch or ideas in the world but from the crystal sphere within us.

One way to help us to reach that which is clear and bright within us is to understand what we are: a collection of aggregates (form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness) and elements (earth, water, fire, wind and space). Looking at ourselves in this way helps to break down attachment to self. Situations we find ourselves in can be taken less seriously. One begins to see that there is no underlying self that needs protection, just the ever shifting and changing combinations of aggregates. This does not detract from existence but instead brings freedom from an otherwise endless round of suffering: "he who does not know the qualities of the four elements will be born and die, die and be born for a countless number of lives." Observation of the elements and aggregates enables us to see the world in a simpler way, before mental activity complicates things. In Samatha practice, we can also experience mind and body more simply. This experience begins to feel more 'real' and 'true' than mental constructions.

We can directly experience the different qualities of the five elements and use this as a way to understand the aggregates, which can seem less concrete. Correspondences between the elements and aggregates can be seen in the following pairs:

  • Earth - Form
  • Water - Feeling
  • Fire - Perception
  • Wind - Mental activity
  • Space - Consciousness

Form has a solidity like earth. Feelings can flood over and drench us like water. Perception darts out, fast like fire. Mental activity allows the process to develop and expand, like the wind can. This all happens in the spaciousness of consciousness. The aggregates and elements work on each other constantly. For example mental activity feeds and blows up perception in the same way that wind can fan fire. Form and feeling are more passive, we have less direct control over them. Perception and mental activity tend to react and act upon form, feeling and each other. Thus in each moment we are creating new physical and mental bodies in an extremely complex and rapid manner.

If we learn about what we are and what makes us in each moment we become able to see how the self is constructed. To do this the mind needs to be very calm and one-pointed. It is a bit like watching a magician closely to see how a trick is carried out. When we see the co-dependency of the five elements we see the 'trick': it is like a net breaking, the fish is freed! Meditation practice helps us to develop a mind ripe for insight. We are told in the text "close your eyes in order to discover this sparkling light". When the idea of self is taken less sertously we are more able to release the shining light within.

In meditation practice we follow the passage of the breath into and out of the body. When concentration and mindfulness develop the physical body often feels different. It may feel lighter and more energized. The practice is a way of creating a more subtle mental-physical body. This happens naturally when mental activity subsides. A visual nimitta may appear or it may be more obvious as a pleasant feeling. There can be the sensation that our energy is not so dissipated. We are contacting the light within us and not going out in the world so much.

Up to the settling stage we have controlled the length of the breath. Now we can maintain the breath length with a lighter control and can turn our attention more fully to the nimitta. We need to let go of mental activity. The extent of lettting go required may feel frightening. As we let go into the simplicity of direct experience there may be fear that we will not be able to re-find the complexities. Some may be worth losing!

The nimitta is like a point of clarity or a still point. It holds us in place "like a stake" and also leads us on. The nimitta seems to be related to body, feeling, mind and sight. Each of these influences the others and is very sensitive to changes in the others, so the nimitta can feel quite slippery and unstable.

There needs to be strong confidence/faith. The two ways of Samatha (warmth, heart) and Vipassana (insight) must support each other. It is as though the mind falls in love with itself. The mind naturally knows how to do this and joyfully becomes self-absorbed. It is as though the mind can drop into something, like a stone falling into deep water. Use ofthe longest breath when one is at this stage in the practice can give more time between turning points of the breath for the mind to discover how to 'drop'. Nai Boonman has talked about the longest breath being associated with first jhana.

There is a sense in the practice of a journey and exploration. Practice purifies mind and body and the mind seems to go to a different place. ThIs has been likened to crossing in a canoe to the other side of a river. In settling we are on the 'other side'. We gently explore this rarefied place. Just like we might disembark from a canoe onto an unknown bank we experience the 'other side'. It is not a well travelled place at first. We need to investigate the terrain and be sensitive to the signals we receive there. The tricky thing Is that unlike a physical journey, we both explore and maintain where we are. If the mind returns to a coarse level of thought or the balance between mindfulness and concentration is lost, we return to the first bank!

With each practice we reinforce the way to get across to the 'other side'. What happens in the settling is something to be revered and protected, but without attachment. It can be as though we prostrate at a stupa on the other bank. We do not seek to possess the stupa but we walk around it with reverence and a link is established between ourselves and it. Like nimittas, stupas have an effect on us. The work then is to nurture and investigate this effect with right effort and allow it to come forth in daily life.

Abstract meditation