A sapling descended from the sacred Bodhi tree in Sri Lanka is in the care of Australia’s customs and quarantine authorities, after which it will be planted at a planned temple site, Bodhi Dhamma Vihara Bendigo, at The Great Stupa of Universal Compassion in Bendigo, in the state of Victoria. The sapling must be cleared by the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment’s Melbourne-based post-entry quarantine (PEQ), where biosecurity officers will test the sapling every week for pests and diseases.
The sapling was sent from the Bodhi tree at Maha Viharaya Anuradhapura, the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi in Sri Lanka (fromerly Ceylon). The Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi was itself planted from a sapling descended from the original Bodhi tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. This sapling arrived in 288 BCE, brought from India by the princess-turned-bhikkhuni Sangamitta, daughter of the Buddhist emperor Ashoka. It was planted during the reign of King Devanampiyatissa (r. 247–207 BCE). Therefore, the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi holds the venerable title of the oldest tree with a recorded history, as well as the tree with the most direct and ancient ancestry to the Buddha’s Bodhi tree.
“It’s [the Jaya Sri Maha Bodhi] still there today—it’s actually guarded and looked after by a botanist and the whole thing is protected like a living treasure,” said Ian Green, director of the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion. “To have a descendent from the tree that the Buddha sat under more than 2,000 years ago is incredibly emotional.” (ABC News)
Australian customs are among the strictest in the world due to the country’s unique and fragile ecosystem. Biosecurity officials usually do not clear trees imported from overseas due to the risks from invasive plant species and insects that could damage native flora. Since this sacred sapling arrived in Australia in May, chief plant protection officer Dr. Gabrielle Vivien-Smith told ABC News that the quarantine authorities aimed to released the sapling in May 2022. (ABC News)
The biosecurity head of Australia’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, Andrew Tongue, is mindful of the balance that needs to be struck between treating the sapling objectively and respecting it as a living obect of reverence for devout Buddhists. “As imported plants can carry a range of biosecurity risks, this sapling had to comply with our strict import conditions and will spend 12 months at our post-entry quarantine facility,” Tongue told the North Queensland Register. “These conditions help ensure the sapling is free of potentially dangerous plant diseases, including the deadly Xylella fastidiosa, which is Australia’s number-one plant pest threat.” (North Queensland Register)
“[The sapling] was meant to be chaperoned by Buddhists but, unfortunately, COVID-19 limited that and it had a bit of a rough ride over. It looked a bit like a stick when it arrived,” said Dr. Vivien-Smith. (ABC News)
This was despite a spectacular send-off at Maha Viharaya Anuradhapura, where the sapling was blessed before being transported to Australia. It arrived as a humble-looking, bare-rooted sapling without any soil, wrapped in paper and packaged in a polystyrene box. The sapling had reportedly sustained bumps and abrasions along the journey. Tongue noted that the importer had done all the right things, but PEQ officers had found insects in the foliage, so once the foliage was removed, it “looked a bit like a stick after treatment.” (North Queensland Register)
The final consideration for the sapling’s life in Australia is that Bodhi trees thrive in hot and humid conditions. This means that it had to be nursed back to health and was placed in a special hothouse, where temperatures can range from 25–35 degrees centigrade.
“Because Melbourne’s days during winter are so cold and short, the staff also provided the plant with extra light,” Tongue noted. “Clearly the small sapling must have felt at home with warmth and extra light because new leaves grew within the first week of quarantine. It is now very healthy and stands almost one metre tall.” (North Queensland Register)
While the sapling may have recovered for now, Green is thinking about the future. “The thing about this particular fig tree is that it’s not ideally suited to Victorian winters,” he told the ABC News. “So, we have to be very careful with frost. Once it gets established and gets a little bit higher, then it will above the frost line and it will be protected. We’ve been acclimatising it under direct supervision.” (ABC News)
If all goes according to plan by May 2022, Australia will be home to a descendent of the original Bodhi tree: a significant agricultural accomplishment and spiritual milestone.
Sacred sapling from Buddhist bodhi tree in Australian quarantine ahead of Bendigo planting (ABC News)
Bodhi Dhamma Vihara Bendigo
Sickly little sapling gets the royal treatment on arrival (North Queensland Register)
Sri Maha Bodhi
7 things to know about Sri Lanka’s Sri Maha Bodhi tree, visited by India’s PM Modi (The Straits Times)
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