A Bodhi Tree Birthday

Foster Botanical Garden celebrates a tree with an unusual pedigree.

Illustration: Jungyeon Roh

If you weren’t looking for the most spiritually significant tree at Foster Botanical Garden,  you might miss it. Ironically, it stands directly across from the garden’s main entrance: a Bodhi tree—tall and striking, with a twisting, silvery trunk that reaches into huge spans of leaves; each leaf with a distinctive heart shape and a long, trailing tail.

This month, on the birthday of the garden’s benefactor, Mary Foster, the Hawaii International Association of Buddhists will host a celebration around the Bodhi tree. This particular tree, whose scientific name is  Ficus religiosa (sacred fig), is a direct descendant of the tree under which Prince Siddhartha Gautama, in the sixth century B.C., achieved enlightenment to become the world’s first Buddha.

In 1893, Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Anagarika Dharmapala attended a conference on world religions in Chicago. His return trip would take him, by steamer, through the port of Honolulu. Ayya Vimala, a Honolulu-area Buddhist nun, says, “Mary Mikahala Foster had something of a quick temper. When she met the monk, she asked for advice on how to decrease her anger. He gave her a meditation.”

The two unlikely friends began to correspond, the monk continuing his instruction.

In return, Foster sent the monk donations, funding schools, clinics and monasteries. Her name still graces a handful of temples and hospitals in India and Sri Lanka, and a donation helped build the first Buddhist temple in Honolulu in 1889—the Honpa Hongwanji Mission.

In 1913, Dharmapala returned to Oahu, bringing with him a cutting from the Sri Lankan Bodhi tree, which Foster planted on her estate. After her death, the estate became the Foster Botanical Garden.

On the evening of Sept. 23, there will be refreshments and entertainment, including taiko-drum performances by Pacific Buddhist Academy and the Royal Hawaiian Band quartet. The first 100 visitors to the celebration will receive their own Bodhi tree cuttings.

Photo: iStock

Bodhi Island

Foster Botanical Garden may have the original Bodhi tree, but there are a few others in Honolulu that visitors can enjoy any time.

UH Manoa

A lovely example stands near the Queen Liliuokalani Center for Student Services. It was originally a cutting from the tree in Foster Botanical Garden. Another tree stands at the corner of East-West Road and Maile Way. Queen Liliuokalani Center for Student Services, 2600 Campus Road.

Soto Mission of Hawaii

Soto Mission’s Bodhi tree is camouflaged into the urban landscape, and is easy to miss, so look for the distinctive leaves peppering the ground. 1708 Nuuanu Ave.

Honolulu Mjohoji Mission

The Bodhi tree here is small, but thriving. Nearby, you can also see an exquisite wooden sculpture of the Buddha, intricately carved from a single piece of Japanese wood. 2003 Nuuanu Ave.