Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Tree of Life

"Verily, He is the tree of Life that bringeth forth the fruits of God, the Exalted, the Powerful, the Great."

A few years ago, I had the bounty of staying at the house of a dear Baha'i soul and we were talking about the raising of children.  He told me a story of his daughter who, one day when she was quite young, was overheard reciting the Tablet of Ahmad, in Arabic, from memory.  As she did not speak Arabic, he was quite surprised.  "When did you learn that", he asked.

"Every morning when you would drive me to school, you were reciting it in the car."

He had been trying to learn it, so he would practice at that time.  She overheard him every morning for months, and learned it, too.

I have taken that story to heart, and now recite the Table of Ahmad most every night for my son.  This has been a habit since ever since his second birthday.  One evening, when he was only three-and-a-half, we were at a Baha'i gathering and I was asked to say a prayer.  I asked Shoghi which prayer I should say, and he said, "King."

"King?"  I had no idea what he meant.

"Yes, King.  He is the King.  All-knowing.  Wise.  Lo.  Nightingale of paradise singeth twigs tree of eternity..."  He recited nearly the entire first quarter of the Tablet from memory.

I was not the only one who was absolutely shocked.

This evening, when we were saying our prayers together, he asked me about the Tree of Life.

"What is the Tree of Life?"

I should have expected that, as he has asked me about almost every other word or phrase from the Tablet.  Seriously.  He has.  And you try explaining what "the court of the presence of the Generous One" means, to a four year old.

Tonight, it was the Tree of Life.

And you know, I'd never really thought about it before.

The earliest reference I am aware of regarding the Tree of Life is from Genesis.  He begins by mentioning that this Tree is in the "midst of the garden", and then again in 3:22.  "Behold Man has become like the Unique One among us, knowing good and bad; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat and live forever!"  And thus we were cast out of Eden.

Now, I recognize that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil has long been mis-understood to be the Tree of Knowledge, and that when you understand the full name the story makes more sense.

Combine this with the idea of Adam's Wish, in which Adam, as a Manifestation of God (to use the Baha'i term), fully understood the path upon which He was leading mankind and the story is profound.  Adam, so the story goes, was fully aware of what He was doing and "ate of the fruit" so that humanity could take that first step leading us to the advent of the Bab, and thus to Baha'u'llah.  He was fully aware of the great destiny awaiting us and willingly placed us upon that path.

On another note, eating of the fruit made us aware of the effect of our actions, allowing us to distinguish between good and evil.  This had the net effect of allowing our actions to have greater merit.  The child who does not know how to lie is not showing any significant virtue by telling the truth.  He has no choice.  But once he knows how to lie, and chooses to tell the truth, then he is demonstrating a great virtue.

By the way, Adam's Wish, I think, comes from Tahirih, who wrote a marvelous poem about it.  Even if she got it from somewhere else, it still exonerates women from the false guilt imposed by our mis-understanding of Eden.

So here, Adam, by granting humanity that option resulting from awareness, allowed us to show the various virtues by being aware of the choice.  You follow?  Choosing not to sin, when you know how, becomes virtuous, whereas if you don't know how, it is no big deal not to sin.

But what about this other tree?  The Tree of Life?

In Proverbs, it is referred to variously as wisdom (or the ability to derive new knowledge from the clear comprehension of information), the fruit of a righteous person, an attained desire and a soothing tongue.

It also shows up in Revelation.  In Chapter 2, we read, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God."  Again in 22:2.  "...on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."  But then, most significantly, it occurs in 22:14, "Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city."  The Bab, as you know, was the Herald of Baha'u'llah, and His name means "The Gate".

From Genesis to Revelation, it surrounds the Bible.  It embraces it.

And here, in the Tablet of Ahmad, Baha'u'llah likens it to Himself.  "He is the Tree of Life..."

I could add in the numerous references in the Quran, or in the Writings and talks of 'Abdu'l-Baha, but this would then become too long.  Suffice it to say that it is, in short, the Divine Messenger.

So what are we to make of all this?

As usual, I really don't have any idea, but can only make a guess.  This is, of course, just my own opinion, and not anything official from the Baha'i Faith itself.

It occurs to me that there are two special Trees in Eden: the first being the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, represented by Adam, but giving its fruit each Springtime with the advent of another Messenger of God.  Every Messenger has corrected our understanding of what is good and what is evil.  Moses, for example, helped us understand that the Sabbath is good and holy and should be kept.  Jesus clarified our understanding that it is to be kept, but only within the bounds of reason.  We are not to allow someone to die just because they got hurt on the Sabbath.  Of course this doesn't mean that we should do away with it, just that we should understand its place in the order of creation.

The second tree is the Tree of Life, represented here by Baha'u'llah.  He is hinted at being the Wise One, Righteous, our Ultimate Desire, Who speaks with a "soothing tongue".

It is interesting that both Baha'u'llah and Adam are the Messengers who begin a Divine Cycle.  As 'Abdu'l-Baha puts it, "We are in the cycle which began with Adam, and its universal Manifestation is Bahá'u'lláh."  It is like those referred to in this other amazing quote, from 'Abdu'l-Baha:  Briefly, there were many universal cycles preceding this one in which we are living. They were consummated, completed and their traces obliterated. The divine and creative purpose in them was the evolution of spiritual man, just as it is in this cycle. The circle of existence is the same circle; it returns. The tree of life has ever borne the same heavenly fruit.

Going back to Revelation, we are given more information in that mystical Book.  This Tree has twelve kinds of fruit, one coming forth in each month throughout the year.  Doesn't that speak of the neverending quality of Baha'u'llah's Revelation?  The day which shall not be followed by night?

The leaves of this Tree will heal the nations.  And doesn't Baha'u'llah refer to the women in His family as the Leaves?  The more we study their lives, the more we can appreciate the truth of that statement.

So, getting back to Genesis, why weren't we allowed to eat this fruit at that time?  Why were we kicked out of Eden?

I think the answer is in the Kitab-i-Iqan.  "Yea, such things as throw consternation into the hearts of all men come to pass only that each soul may be tested by the touchstone of God, that the true may be known and distinguished from the false."

If we were still in Eden, we could not be tested individually.  This idea of testing for purity comes up over and over again in all religious Texts, so why not take it right back to the beginning?  Why not presume that God is consistent?

In Genesis, Adam is created outside of Eden and shown the thorns and thistles before entering Paradise.  He knew the alternative.  He was fully aware.

We, too, it seems, are created outside of Paradise and are aware of the "thorns and thistles".  In some cases, all too aware.  We know the alternative.  It is before us every day.

But now we can see the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  We have before us the fruit of the Tree of Life.

Let's take part and eat of it.

Now, how do you explain all this to a child who is not yet five?


  1. interesting post. Don't know where you got the idea that Adam was created outside Eden and brought inside. It's kind of nebulous on this point. Of course, he says, after he eats, "I heard you in the garden." which is different from "I heard you" (the garden being the only thing he knows). I know of no reference to him being outside the garden, though, and knowing of its thorns, as you say.

    But, although I've read the Koran's version of this, I don't remember it well enough to say it deals with this idea either.

    Just picking up on a triviality.

    Otherwise, I agree with the sentiment of repeating things and waiting for kids to pick up on them.

    I invented a prayer for my kids. I don't know if I told you about this before, but here it is again if so.

    I wanted something that encompassed all the kinds of prayer: adoration, supplication, thanksgiving, intercession, ... asking for something for yourself - don't know the official name for this -, and forgiveness.

    Thus, here is my prayer, which our family says togther each night before bed:

    Dear God, thank you for Everything. Help me to be a good person, and help other people, too. Sorry about the bad stuff. Amen.

    Pretty short. I ended up leaving out the 'OOooo, you are so big!" that I was tempted by Monty Python to insert.

    -- Kevin

  2. Thank you Kevin. Thatis a simle and beautiful prayer, perfect for a child.

    Adam, in reference to your question about his being outside Eden, was first mentioned in Genesis 2:7. Eden is planted in 2:8, the next verse. In 2:15, we read "God took the man and placed him in the Garden of Eden..."

    It seems evident that he must been outside the garden before being placed in it. A small detail, to be sure, but I find a lot of significance in details.

    In a commentary by Chizkuni (13th century Rabbi), he writes, "God formed Adam outside the gaden so he would see the world of thorns and thistles; only then did God lead him into the garden, so that he would see the alternatives before he was given his first commandment". That resonated with me, so I used it here.

  3. I really enjoyed this read :)

    Your son sounds wonderful, having learnt so much of the Tablet of Ahmad! With it being such a truly powerful prayer as well :)

    There's a book I was reading a while back called "Learn Well This Tablet", exploring the Tablet of Ahmad, and since then I've had a keen interest in deepening my understandings around it!

    Thank you :)