Trees and religion: Taoism

See part VI of this series here.

Taoism, which is popular in China (and other parts of Asia), is another religion that has a discernible stance on trees. Within the religious texts, numerous rules relate to how man must associate with nature, and they include: do not hurt trees, do not burn the forests, and do not fell trees without reason. The stance behind such rationales is that trees (as well as plants in general) are considered living beings, and therefore must be respected (Zhihua, 2012).

With regards to the important trees, or tree species, within Taoism, one can certainly identify the peach (Prunus sp. – multiple species) as occupying a high rank. This is because it is said that the eight immortals (not gods) within Taoist doctrines frequented banquets hosted by the Queen Mother of the West (‘Xiwangmu‘) in the Kunlun mountains. The abode of the Queen was home to the Peach Tree of Immortality (the Tree of Life) that blossomed every 3,000 years, and that is where the eight immortals sustained their immortality, having eaten the fruit of the Tree during a particular banquet (Cooper, 2010; Faust & Timon, 1995; Little & Eichman, 2000; Wong, 2011). The (carved) stones and skin of peach fruit are also used to make talismans, as are they used to aid in the process of conducting an incantation, whilst the wood of the peach also has religious importance, where it is used to construct ritual instruments that ward off demons (Zhihua, 2012). Symbolically, the peach also holds importance, where it is the tree that represents youth, marriage, wealth, and longevity (Cooper, 2010).

xiwangmu6
The Queen Mother of the West, depicted next to deer and almost certainly a peach tree in blossom. Source: Hero’s Journey.

Beyond merely the peach tree, many other trees are considered important within the religion. Because Taoists subscribe to the concept of yin-yang, by where everything must be balanced equally between yin (including the feminine) and yang (including the masculine), the use of trees is important when it comes to landscaping; such balance equalises the artificial and the natural (Fowler, 2005). Therefore, in the gardens made by Taoists, trees feature markedly in order to provide the yin. However, there exist some trees possess distinctly high yin-yang qualities, such as the pine (Pinus spp.) and the willow (Salix spp.), and therefore their presence within Taoist gardens was generally crucial (Cooper, 2010).

Almonds, cherries, peaches, and plums (Prunus spp.) also featured heavily within the gardens, because of their yin-yang balance, attractive, blossom and symbolic importance (which was explained earlier, with regards to the peach). For example, the almond symbolises watchfulness and adversity, whilst the cherry provides purity (yin) and nobility (yang), and the plum strength and longevity (Cooper, 1977). These yang traits of watchfulness, adversity, strength, and longevity, are offset with the beauty of the spring blossom of the almond and plum, which is an evidently yin characteristic.

References

Cooper, J. (1977) The symbolism of the Taoist garden. Studies in Comparative Religion. 11 (4). p224-234.

Cooper, J. (2010) An Illustrated Introduction to Taoism: The Wisdom of the Sages. China: World Wisdom, Inc.

Faust, M. & Timon, B. (1995) Origin and Dissemination of Peach. In Janick, J. (ed.) Horticultural Reviews, Volume 17. USA: John Wiley & Sons.

Fowler, J. (2005) An Introduction to the Philosophy and Religion of Taoism: Pathways to Immortality. UK: Sussex Academic Press.

Little, S. & Eichman, S. (2000) Taoism and the Arts of China. Belgium: The Art Institute of Chicago.

Wong, E. (2011) Taoism: An Essential Guide. USA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Zhihua, Y. (2012) Taoist Philosophy on Environmental Protection. In Mou, Z. (ed.) Taoism. The Netherlands: BRILL.

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Trees and religion: Taoism

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