Monday, March 11, 2024

The Upside Down Tree


We came down from the trees three million years ago. They bear us fruit, shade our days, and fuel our fires. It’s no surprise they show up so often in our sacred literature.

            In Norse mythology the world tree Yggdrasil forms the axis mundi, the hub around which the wheel of reality turns. Countless gods across traditions were either born from trees or died on them. The Norse god Odin hung himself on Yggdrasil for nine days, just as Jesus was hung from a cross, the symbolic tree of the executioner. Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, and the Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar held nothing more sacred than the Tree of Souls, the source of both the unity and multiplicity of divinity.

            Although the examples are many, one of the most beautiful is the upside-down tree of the Katha Upanishad, Hinduism’s most compelling wisdom tale.

            In the Katha Upanishad a young spiritual aspirant named Nachiketa goes on a mystical journey to visit Yama the Lord of Death—who better to answer his question, “What happens after we die?” Yama takes the boy under his wing and leads him (and us) through a landscape of metaphors, images, parables, and insights that have enraptured truth-seekers for two millennia.

Throughout Vedanta teaching, and in the Katha Upanishad in particular, we find a dizzying blend of dualism and non-dualism, and from the tension of this paradox springs the dynamic energy that propels the investigation forward. We are at once individual things, and aspects of one thing. The mind will of course resist this conundrum, but the heart feels its way through non-conceptual imagery and wordless awareness. This is where analogies like the upside-down tree wield the most power. In chapter 3, verse 1-2 Lord Yama says:

The Tree of Eternity has its roots above and its branches on earth below. Its pure root is Brahman the immortal, from whom all the worlds draw their life, and whom none can transcend. For this Self is supreme! The cosmos comes forth from Brahman and moves in him. With his power it reverberates like thunder crashing in the sky. Those who realize him pass beyond the sway of death.

            Brahman the formless, eternal, changeless sacred ground of being—ultimate reality beyond all thoughts and forms. Yet in this passage Brahman is also given a gender, and spoken of as though he were transcendent, or outside and above this world of forms. And we also see the term “Self” (Atman in Sanskrit)—the word for the presence of Brahman within all sentient beings. In the end, Brahman and Atman are two words for the same thing, at once transcendent and immanent. All matter, energy, and consciousness—in a word, all of this—is an expression of Brahman-Atman, appearing through the distorting refraction of maya as separate things, all the while maintaining its underlying unity and identity. The upside-down tree conveys this paradoxical unity and diversity at the core of Vedanta metaphysics, namely, that all is one, no matter what our perceptions say. And when we realize this, “we pass beyond the sway of death.”

            The task of every spiritual aspirant is to realize—to make real—this oneness. Intellectual, conceptual understanding falls short. Life, it turns out, is not a theological debate. It is a lived mystery, where words and concepts serve as vehicles whose value is to transport us to the realization beyond all of them.  

[This piece first appeared in my column A to Zen in the January/February 2024 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]