Buddhism’s Living History

The Denver Lab at OSU, run by genetics professor Dr. Dee Denver, does some of what you might expect from a university genetics lab. They do research on symbiosis in sea anemones and the genomic evolution of invasive nematode species, and their lab space looks like the average university lab, with long black workstations, rows of test tubes, tools, and whiteboards covered with notes, times, and numbers. 

But then you notice all the trees. 

Dr. Denver gestures to a countertop below the lab window, covered in small plastic planters. Each contains a bright green shoot of Ficus religiosa, a tree considered sacred by Buddhism. Also known as the Bodhi tree, it is regarded as the tree which sheltered Siddartha Gautama during the weeks-long meditation that led to his becoming the Buddha.

“Frankly, they grow like weeds,” said Dr. Denver. The lab has a few in every room.

Dr. Denver was friends with the late Dr. Jim Blumenthal, a Buddhist Studies professor at OSU and Maitripa College in Portland. He said they had lunch together regularly, and would discuss the places in which modern Western science and millennia-old traditions of Buddhism met. At Blumenthal’s suggestion, Dr. Denver took a sabbatical year in 2013 to study Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Maitripa. 

For Dr. Denver, this experience was transformative. While there, he had the opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama at a conference on the relationship between science and Buddhism. He returned to OSU with some new questions about his old environment. How could Buddhist principles and practices change or improve the workings of a Western research laboratory? And, while there was a lot of theoretical crossover between science and Buddhism, what kind of practical, experimental work could be done? 

The Denver Lab has been trying to answer the first question in their daily routines ever since. They have regularly scheduled meetings where they discuss Buddhist ideas. Dr. Denver also noted that it is helpful that he has students from Sri Lanka and Vietnam, who grew up in cultures where Buddhist practices are much more common. He believes they help translate seemingly strange concepts to their fellow students who grew up in the empirical, rationalist world of the West. Dr. Denver related to this by describing his own difficulties when studying at Maitripa.

“I had a hard time with meditation,” Dr. Denver said, “because as a Western, coffee-drinking scientist, I’m in go, go, go mode all the time.”

He realized that there was potential for the Buddhist techniques of openness and mindfulness to improve both the health and the work of research scientists. 

“I have this crazy theory that I can’t prove,” said Dr. Denver, “that happier scientists do better science.”

As a geneticist, Dr. Denver sees a space ripe for experimental research. He already has plans for it – a few dozen of them, in planters all around his office and lab. After traveling around the world over the last two years gathering samples, Dr. Denver recently launched The Bodhi Tree Project, an effort to collect and analyze genetic data from Bodhi trees all over the world. 

For some Buddhists, there is a lineage of Bodhi’s still existing today which claim direct descent from the original tree under which the Buddha sat. The Sri Maha Bodhi in Sri Lanka claims to be grown from a cutting of that mythical tree. Its planting is recorded in monastery records in 288 B.C.E, making the tree 2,306 years old, and the oldest known human-planted tree in the world. This timeline lines up fairly closely with records of early Indian kings sending pieces of the first Bodhi across the world to be planted as new trees. Over the millennia, it has become common practice to share the seeds of the Sri Maha Bodhi with Buddhists who make a pilgrimage to it, so they can grow the trees back home. 

This tradition of Buddhists literally seeding their faith around the world is evident today. Dr. Denver shows me the lab’s largest Bodhi, skinny but over six feet tall. He said it came to them from Texas, but before Texas, it came from Panama. An Indian family who emigrated to work digging the Panama Canal brought it with them a century ago as a piece of their home and their faith. He also traveled to Kauai, Hawaii this summer to see Bodhi’s which claim to be from the sacred heritage of the Sri Maha Bodhi. They were brought there by Japanese and East Asian immigrants who worked on sugar plantations in the early nineteenth-century. Dr. Denver said that, until they had land of their own to grow them, they kept their Bodhi’s as bonsai trees.

“It is a unique situation that there is an actual living embodiment of this faith in the Sri Maha Bodhi,” said Dr. Denver.

Dr. Denver was allowed to take samples of the Sri Maha Bodhi in Sri Lanka for study, as well as the Bodhi’s on Kauai which claim to descend from it. They compare these against commercial, nursery-grown Bodhi’s, looking for both commonalities and differences. The Khyentse Foundation, a Buddhism-focused nonprofit based in San Francisco, California, awarded the Denver Lab their Ashoka Grant in 2017 to continue this work.

Dr. Denver just launched an official website for The Bodhi Tree Project (www.bodhitreeproject.com), where he hopes to encourage Bodhi owners from around the globe to submit the locations of their trees and create a living map of Buddhists and Bodhis across the globe. There is also the potential, much in the same way new genetic technology resulting from the Human Genome Project has allowed individual people to track their ancestry, The Bodhi Tree Project seeks to use the Bodhi trees to map the growth and spread of Buddhism over the past two millennia.

By Ian MacRonald

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