Ballarat Interfaith Network recently engaged in a nine-day celebration of the Tree of Life. The program concluded on Saturday, 23 November at the Glasshouse in the Ballarat Botanical Gardens. Chris Parnell of the Shepparton Interfaith Network gave an address on dignity, Australian Trees and the community binding nature of interfaith events.
Dignity as a human value is action that includes self-worth, self-regard and self-respect. What we think, feel and do with regard to ourselves, are the foundation of our integrity in encountering and interacting with others. In this manner, dignity is built on self discipline, self respect, self confidence, self sacrifice and self satisfaction. Dignity becomes a path toward the goal of life.
If I think, feel and act with dignity, then I will think, feel and interact with others with dignity also. Where my life is sacred unto myself, then I will have regard for rights, and I will also have regard to the sacredness of others and their rights. Dignity is not only something I have for myself, dignity is something that I also confer on the other. In doing so, I am recognising and honouring the true humanness of each and every other person. Living dignity builds the dignity of the other.
The Trees of Faith Stories
Trees figure in myriad ways in the stories of the different religions. In the Buddhist path, the Buddha achieved self-enlightenment sitting under the Bodhi tree. In the mystical tradition of Islam, the great Sufi poet Rumi said,
Every tree, every growing thing as it grows, says this truth: You harvest what you sow. With life a short as a half taken breath, don’t plant anything but love.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna said,
“There is a banyan tree which has its roots upward and its branches down, and the Vedic hymns are its leaves. One who knows this tree is the knower of the Vedas.”
In the Sikh faith, we have the story of Guru Nanak as a young man being kept in the shade of a tree as the sun moved across the sky. The shade of the tree did not move from the sleeping young Nanak.
In the Baha’i faith, there is the orange tree beside the Mausoleum of The Bab, from which devotees take the seeds and plant them nearby houses of worship, worldwide. The Latter Day Saints have the narrative of the revelation of the Tree of Life, with an iron rod beside it; this is the rod of faithfulness to the Word of God. In the Jewish faith, the sacred narrative of Moses begins with the burning bush, and Moses being told to take off his shoes, for he is standing on sacred ground.
In the scriptures of the Christian faith, Jesus teaches that you will know a tree by its fruits:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? So, every sound tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears evil fruit. A sound tree cannot bear evil fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-19)
The Trees of Australia
Trees feature notably in Australian Life. We have the ever-present gum tree, the eucalyptus tree and the wattle tree. Many of our Cenotaphs and war memorials have trees growing from seeds of the tree at Lone Pine at Gallipoli.
The Gum Tree exudes copious sap from any break in the bark. If you look at a gum tree, and examine the branches carefully, you will always find one branch is bare, dead, bereft of leaves and gum nuts. It appears the tree is pruning itself, casting off its unwanted part. This is a metaphor for human life. We cannot do in the evening of our lives what we did in the morning of our lives. We shed attachments and desires naturally as we age, just as the gum tree sheds its needless appendage. Human life is like that, we are continually letting go of attachments, glamour and affectation from our past for they weigh us down needlessly as we grow peacefully into the evening of our lives.
Gum tree with dead branches
That one dead branch suggests to us that life and death, hope and loss, always co-exist in the world. The gum tree, our Eucalyptus, is a unique living symbol of hope and survival.
Throughout our land, we find our own genus of the Eucalyptus tree, eucalyptus regernans. A Eucalyptus tree which regenerates itself. This is a unique tree, the only tree which regenerates itself in bushfire. The heat of bushfires causes the seed pods to burst open and they are fanned forward to land where they will and take root and grow.
Eucalyptus trees in bushfire
The Eucalyptus and its gum weeping variants suggest the cycle of creation, preservation and destruction. This cycle of Generation, Organisation, Destruction (GOD) spells the process of divine creation, maintenance and receiving – renewal of all life energy.
Wattles, also called acacias, are wonderful native plants. In fact, Australia’s official floral emblem is a wattle. More than 850 species of wattle grow in Australia. The Australian Coat of Arms features the Kangaroo and Emu perched on sprigs of Wattle. Henry Lawson was once accused of sedition, when he wrote a poem about a strike camp at Barcaldine in Queensland. It was then that the memorable imagery suggestive of the Australian value of “fair go” entered the Australian soul, that of blood on the wattle:
So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us.
And we must sing a rebel song,
And join a rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
O’those they would throttle.
They needn’t say the fault was ours
If blood should stain the wattle.
Seeds from the Lone Pine cones have been planted at the Shrine of Remembrance and the Australian War Memorial. These have been successfully propagated and presented as living war memorials to schools and ex-service and other organisations throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Trees as symbols suggest the marriage of heaven and earth. Like the Banyan of India, we may emulate a tree in meditation and reach up to heaven to breathe in the divine love. Our feet become the roots as we reach down and breathe the sustenance of Mother Earth.
Trees are also symbolic of the growth of faith. When we plant a sapling, we put a fence around it to protect it, we put manure or fertiliser on it, and we water it and protect it as it grows into a great tree, giving shade and shelter to many. It takes discipline and time to give that shade and shelter.
No one throws stones at bare trees; only the fruit-laden trees attract the stones.
The Interfaith Tree
The Interfaith Tree of Australia accommodates all. We have striven as a nation to protect freedom of religion and worship in Australia. The work of the Australian Human Rights Commission and its collaboration with the Australian Multicultural Foundation and educational institutions produced the keystone reference document, Freedom of Religion and Belief in 21st Century Australia.
The foundation of our Interfaith Tree is dignity and respecting the rights of the other. As interfaith networks, we welcome the other and enter into dialogue with the goal of understanding, cooperation and harmony. Interfaith Networks are not about syncretism where religions are merged; no, no: this is not the goal. Interfaith Networks respect and honour the boundaries of all religions.
It is from within these boundaries of faith and discipline, prayer and practice, that we encounter the other and experience points of contact in experience of the divine, with whatever name we honour and worship the Divine.
Our Interfaith Tree has many branches accommodating people of faith, and people of no faith. Often, people of no faith have profound values which they espouse and practice in the public domain. These values, truth, right conduct, love, peace and non-violence, are also human values. It is these values which we share in common as Australians that highlight interfaith activities as important to community well-being, respect and understanding. It is culture and values that bind our Australian society together.
Tree of Life – Ballarat Interfaith Tree of Life Festival, 2013
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