The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it provides protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axeman who destroys it.
— Gautama Buddha
I’d never come across this one until someone called Upul, from Australia, asked me about it. It certainly strikes me as being fake, on the grounds that the language of “a peculiar organism” isn’t something he would have said. But it may be based on something canonical, or be an amalgamation of commentary and a genuine quotation.
It’s all over the place, once you look for it.
The earliest reference I’ve found to this in print is from 1941, in “Forest soils: origin, properties, relation to vegetation, and silvicultural management” (page 195) by Sergius Alexander Wilde, and published by the Soils Dept., College of Agriculture, University of Wisconsin. Unfortunately no source is given.
There is an odd little teaching about the “unlimited kindness and benevolence” of trees, found in the Dhammika Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya. This tells the rather long story of a monk called Dhammika who is asked to leave all seven of the monasteries in his native land, on the grounds that he keeps abusing his fellow monks to the extent that he drives them away. Not knowing where to go next, he seeks out the Buddha.
The Buddha tells him a fable about a massive fruit tree with five trunks, called “Well Planted” (suppatiṭṭho). Its canopy spread over twelve leagues, Suppatittho supplies delicious fruit to the king, his armies, to the people of the towns and the countryside, and to wild animals.
There’s a spirit (deva) living inside the tree, and one day the tree-spirit gets angry when a man selfishly takes all the fruit he wants and then breaks of the branch that has fed him. The tree-spirit, in a huff, stops producing fruit. And then the king of the gods, Sakka, sent a storm to uproot Suppatittho.
Naturally the tree-spirit is distraught. Sakka asks him, “Did you stand by your tree’s duty [dhamma/dharma] when the storm came.”
The spirit doesn’t know what this is, so Sakka tells him: “When those who need the tree’s roots, bark, leaves, flowers, or fruit take what they need, yet the deity is not displeased or upset because of this. This is how a tree stands by its duty.”
So the tree-spirit is being taught by Sakka that its duty is to give and to practice forbearance in the face of assaults, without showing anger to its tormentors.
There’s then a similar teaching to Dhammika, who is told that he needs to stand by his duty as an ascetic, which is, “When someone abuses, annoys, or argues with an ascetic, the ascetic doesn’t abuse, annoy, or argue back at them.”
This story could well be paraphrased as “The forest is a peculiar organism of unlimited kindness and benevolence that makes no demands for its sustenance and extends generously the products of its life activity; it provides protection to all beings, offering shade even to the axeman who destroys it.”
But whether there’s a connection, I just don’t know.
There is another lovely image that the Buddha uses in a verse concluding one of his discourses. (The Buddha often taught by means of poetry.)
With its branches, leaves, and fruit,
a great tree with its strong trunk,
firmly-rooted and fruit-bearing,
supports many birds.
It’s a lovely place,
frequented by the sky-soarers.
Those that need shade go in the shade,
those that need fruit enjoy the fruit.
So too, a faithful individual
is perfect in ethics,
humble and kind,
sweet, friendly, and tender.
Those free of greed, freed of hate,
free of delusion, undefiled,
fields of merit for the world,
associate with such a person.
They teach them the Dhamma,
that dispels all suffering.
Understanding this teaching,
they’re extinguished without defilements.
You can find this verse in the Numbered Discourses. Again it’s not a match for the “peculiar organism” quote in question, but it is a nice example of the Buddha using nature imagery.
By way of a post-script, there’s a rather witty quote by the Buddha where he says, “If these great sal trees could understand what was well said and poorly said, I’d declare them to be stream-enterers.” Out of context, this quote might not seem at all like a joke. In fact you’d be excused for thinking that this was the Buddha talking about the spiritual aptitude of trees.
The context is that Sarakāni, one of the Buddha’s clansmen, had passed away, and the Buddha declared that he was a stream-enterer—meaning that he’d attained a level of spiritual insight that would inevitably lead to full awakening in future lives.
Now the problem was that Sarakāni seemed to have been fond of a tipple, which was very much frowned upon. And so people complained about the Buddha having made this declaration, saying, “It’s incredible, it’s amazing! Who can’t become a stream-enterer these days?”
So the Buddha points out that, despite his flaws, Sarakāni had strongly developed spiritual qualities. And it’s on the basis of those qualities that he’d become a stream-entrant. And so he nods to some nearby trees and says that if they had a deep enough understanding of his teaching then he’d say that even they were stream-entrants. Of course they don’t and can’t have any understanding of the Buddha’s teaching, so he’s not making any claims about the spiritual potential of trees. In fact the joke hinges upon them not having any.