Udumbara (Buddhism)

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For the Thai king, see Uthumphon.
Ficus racemosa fruit

In Buddhism, uḍumbara (Pali, Sanskrit) refers to the tree, flower and fruit of the Ficus racemosa (syn. Ficus glomerata).[1][2][3] In Buddhist literature, this tree or its fruit may carry the connotation of rarity, parasitism or Vedic mysticism.

The udumbara is also used to refer to the flower of the blue lotus (Nymphaea caerulea Sav.).


The udumbara tree's unseen flowers, parasitic nature and Vedic magical ascriptions have informed the tree's inclusion in a number of Buddhist texts.

Unseen flowers[edit]

The flowers of the udumbara are enclosed within its fruit, as in all figs (see "Fig pollination and fig fruit"). Because the flower is hidden inside the fruit, a legend developed to explain the absence (and supposed rarity) of the visual flower: in Buddhist mythology, the flower was said to bloom only once every 3,000 years, and thus came to symbolize events of rare occurrence.[1] Allusions to this symbolism can be found in texts such as Theravada Buddhism's Uraga Sutta (Sn 1.1, v. 5)[4] and Mahayana Buddhism's "Lotus Sutra," both described further below.

Strangling figs[edit]

The udumbara tree is one of several trees known as "strangling figs" due to their often developing as seeds dropped on the branches of a host tree (by animals eating the fig tree's fruit) and, as the branch-borne fig tree grows, it envelops its host tree with its own roots and branches, at times crushing and replacing the host tree. Based on this life cycle, the Mahārukkha Sutta (SN 46.39) likens "sensual pleasures" (kāma) to such fig trees, causing their human hosts to become "bent, twisted, and split" (obhaggavibhaggo vipatito seti).[5]

Vedic amulet[edit]

In Vedic literature, fig trees often represent talismans with the udumbara fig tree having been deemed the "lord of amulets."[6] Thus, in the Pali Canon, when Māra disguises himself as a brahmin in the Sambahula Sutta (SN 4.21), he carries a "staff of udumbara wood" (udumbaradaṇḍa).[7]

Pali literature[edit]

In the Pali literature, the udumbara tree and its flowers are used concretely (as the tree beneath which a former Buddha gained enlightenment), metaphorically (as representative of a caste) and symbolically (evoking the insubstantiality of things and self).[8]

Former bodhi tree[edit]

In both the Digha Nikaya[9] and Buddhavamsa,[10] the udumbara tree is identified as the tree under which the past Koṇāgamana Buddha attained enlightenment.[11]

Egalitarian emancipation[edit]

In the Majjhima Nikaya's Kaṇṇakatthala Sutta (MN 90), the Buddha uses the udumbara tree in a metaphor to describe how the member of any of the four castes is able to achieve the same quality of spiritual "emancipation" or "release" (vimutti) as a member of another caste:

[Buddha]: "I tell you, great king, that there would be no difference among them [the four castes] with regard to the release of one and the release of another. Suppose that a man, taking dry sala wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. And suppose that another man, taking dry saka (teak?) wood ... another man, taking dry mango wood ... another man, taking dry fig [udumbara] wood, were to generate a fire and make heat appear. Now what do you think, great king: among those fires generated from different kinds of wood, would there be any difference between the glow ..., the color ..., the radiance of one and the radiance of another?"

[King Pasenadi:] "No, lord."

[Buddha]: "In the same way, great king, in the power that is kindled by persistence and generated by exertion, I say that there is no difference with regard to the release of one and the release of another."[12]

Archetype of nonsubstantiality[edit]

In the Pali Canon's Sutta Nipata, the udumbara fig tree is used as a metaphor for existence's ultimate insubstantiality (in English and in Pali):

He who does not find core or substance in any of the realms of being,

like flowers which are vainly sought in fig trees that bear none,
— such a monk gives up the here and the beyond,
just as a serpent sheds its worn-out skin.[13]

Yo nājjhagamā bhavesu sāraṃ
vicīnaṃ pupphamīva udumbaresu,
So bhikkhu jahāti orapāraṃ
urago jiṇṇamiva tacaṃ purāṇaṃ.

In the post-canonical Visuddhimagga (XXI, 56), the udumbara tree is again used to symbolize the "emptiness of all formations" (sabbe sakhārā suññāti, Vsm XXI,53):

Just as a reed has no core, is coreless, without core; just as a castor-oil plant, an udumbara (fig) tree, a setavaccha tree, a palibhaddaka tree, a lump of froth, a bubble on water, a mirage, a plantain trunk, a conjuring trick, has no core, is coreless, without core, so too materiality ... feeling ... perception ... formations ... consciousness ... eye ... ageing-and-death has no core, is coreless, without core, as far as concerns any core of permanence, or core of lastingness, or core of pleasure, or core of self, or as far as concerns what is permanent, or what is lasting, or what is eternal, or what is not subject to change.[15]

Lotus Sutra[edit]

The udumbara flower of the Ficus racemosa tree appears in chapters 2 and 27 of the 3rd century Lotus Sutra, an important Mahayana Buddhist text. The symbolic nature of the udumbara is used in the Lotus Sutra to compare the unique occurrence of its bloom with the uncommon appearance of the Buddha and its doctrine in the world:[1]

As the Buddhas of the three periods of time
In such a manner spoke the Dharma,
So do I likewise now expound
The undiscriminated Dharma.
All Buddhas come into the world
But rarely, and are hard to meet;
And when they appear in the world,
It’s hard for them to speak the Dharma.
Throughout countless ages, too,
It’s difficult to hear this Dharma.
And those who can hear this Dharma--
Such people too, are rare,
Like the udumbara flower,
In which all take delight,
Which the gods and humans prize,
For it blooms but once in a long, long time.
So one who hears this Dharma, gives joyful praise,
With even just a single word,
Has thereby made offerings,
To all the Buddhas of the three periods of time.
Such people are extremely rare.
Rarer than the udumbara flower.
All of you should have no doubts,
For I am the Dharma King;
I declare to the assembly:
I use only the path of One Vehicle,
To teach and transform Bodhisattvas.
There are no Sound Hearer Disciples.
Shariputra, all of you,
the Sound Hearers and Bodhisattvas,
Should know that this wondrous Dharma

Is the secret essence of all Buddhas.[16]

Thich Nhat Hanh places the flower in the context of enlightenment:

To see a fully awakened person, a Buddha, is so rare that it is like seeing an udumbara flower. In the Tu Hieu Monastery in Hue, there is a scroll which says: "The udumbara flower, although fallen from the stem, is still fragrant." Just as the fragrance of the udumbara flower cannot be destroyed, our capacity for enlightenment is always present. The Buddha taught that everyone is a Buddha, everyone is an udumbara flower.[17]


The Japanese word udonge (優曇華) was used by Dōgen Zenji to refer to the flower of the udumbara tree in chapter 68 of the Shōbōgenzō ("Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma"). Dōgen places the context of the udonge flower in the Flower Sermon given by Gautama Buddha on Vulture Peak. The udonge flower may be symbolic of mind to mind transmission between the teacher and the student, in this case, Śākyamuni Buddha and Mahākāśyapa.[18]

Udonge is also used to refer to the eggs of the lacewing insect. The eggs are laid in a pattern similar to a flower, and its shape is used for divination in Asian fortune telling.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c McCullough, Helen Craig; Murasaki Shikibu (1994). Genji and Heike: Selections from The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Heike. Stanford University Press. p. 94. ISBN 0-8047-2258-7. 
  2. ^ Rhys Davids, T.W. & William Stede (eds.) (1921-5), The Pali Text Society’s Pali–English Dictionary (Chipstead: Pali Text Society), p. 135, entry for "Udumbara," retrieved 19 Nov 2008 from "U. Chicago" at http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/philologic/getobject.pl?c.0:1:3544.pali.
  3. ^ Monier-Williams, Monier (1899, 1964). A Sanskrit-English Dictionary (London: Oxford University Press), pp. 175, 186. Retrieved 19 Nov 2008 from "Cologne University" at http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/scans/MWScan/MWScanpdf/mw0175-ujjha.pdf and http://www.sanskrit-lexicon.uni-koeln.de/scans/MWScan/MWScanpdf/mw0186-udaya.pdf.
  4. ^ Sn 1.1, verse 5, can also be found in the texts of other early Buddhist schools such as the Patna Dharmapada (PDhp v. 398), Gandhari Dharmapada (GDhp v. 81) and the Udanavarga (Udv 18.21) (e.g., see "Ancient Buddhist Texts" at http://www.ancient-buddhist-texts.net/Buddhist-Texts/C4-Uraga-Verses/06-Gandhari.htm).
  5. ^ SN 46.39, "Trees [Discourse]," trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000), pp. 1593, 1906 n. 81.
  6. ^ Regarding the veneration of fig trees, see Shyam Singh Shashi (1999), Encyclopaedia Indica (Anmol Publications), Ch. 9 "The Tree Cult," esp. pp. 241, 244-46, retrieved 21 Nov 2008 from "Google Books" at http://books.google.com/books?id=jMmYDrm_7NAC&printsec=frontcover#PPP1,M1. A reference to an udumbara amulet's being "Lord of amulets" (AV xix,31), see Ralph T. H. Griffith (trans.) (1895-6), Hymns of the Atharva Veda, pp. 236-7, retrieved 21 Nov 2008 from "Sacred Texts" at http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/av/av19031.htm.
  7. ^ SN 4.21, "A Number [Discourse]," trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Sayutta Nikāya (Boston: Wisdom Publications), pp. 210-11. In Bodhi's own note to this sutta (p. 419 n. 302), he remarks: "In the Vedic sacrifices, udumbara wood was used for all kinds of ritual purposes; the sacrificial post, ladle, and amulets were made of this wood (Macdonell and Keith, Vedic Index, s.v. udumbara)."
  8. ^ Based on searches of the SLTP tipitaka at "Bodhgaya News" (http://www.bodhgayanews.net/pali.htm) and "MettaNet-Lanka" (http://www.metta.lk/tipitaka), Pali canonical and post-canonical texts that include references to the udumbara tree that are not represented further in this article include: SN 35.231 (Bodhi, 2000, The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom Publications, pp. 1228-29); AN 8.54 (Narada, 1985), 8.55 (Upalavanna, n.d.-a), 8.76 (Upalavanna, n.d.-b); Ja Nos. 208 (Rouse, 1895-a), 298 (Rouse, 1895-b), 342, 429, 492; Nd2 15-4 (SLTP); Ap i.236 (SLTP), i.295 (SLTP), i.301 (SLTP), ii.419(?) (SLTP); and, Vsm VIII,117 (Nanamoli, 1975/1999, The Path of Purification, BPS Pariyatti, p. 251).
  9. ^ DN 14, para. 1.8 in Maurice O'C. Walshe (1987/1995), The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom Publications) ISBN 0-86171-103-3, p. 200.
  10. ^ Bv 23.23 in I.B. Horner (1975/2000), The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon (Part III): Chronicle of Buddhas and Basket of Conduct (Oxford: Pali Text Society) ISBN 0-86013-072-X, p. 88.
  11. ^ By contrast, the present Era's Buddha attained enlightenment under the so-called sacred fig tree.
  12. ^ Thanissaro Bhikkhu (2003), "Kannakatthala Sutta: At Kannakatthala" (MN 90). Retrieved 20 Nov 2008 from "Access to Insight" at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.090.than.html. This passage typifies the Buddha's dismissal of the contemporary caste system as an indicator of spiritual status.
  13. ^ Sn 1.1, verse 5, in Nyanaponika Thera (trans.) (1989), "Uraga Sutta: The Serpent" from The Worn-out Skin: Reflections on the Uraga Sutta (WH 241), Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, retrieved 19 Nov 2008 from "Access to Insight" (1995) at http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.01.nypo.html.
  14. ^ Sn 1.1, verse 5, SLTP ed., retrieved 19 Nov 2008 from "Bodhgaya News" at http://www.bodhgayanews.net/tipitaka.php?title=&record=8021.
  15. ^ Vsm XXI,53,56 trans. by Bhikkhu Nanamoli. (1975/1999), The Path of Purification: Visuddhimagga (Seattle: BPS Pariyatti), pp. 676-78. Note some of the elided material of the original Nanamoli text was filled in with prior Nanamoli text from the same section, in tandem with a check of the SLTP Pali text.
  16. ^ "Chapter Two: Expedient Devices". Lotus Sutra. Buddhist Text Translation Society. Retrieved 2008-02-28. 
  17. ^ Hanh, Thich Nhat (1990). Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living. Parallax Press. p. 28. ISBN 0-938077-21-X. 
  18. ^ Healsmith, Mark (2005-06-29). "Flowers of the Dharma". Speaking Personally. nembutsu.info: Journal of Shin Buddhism. Retrieved 2008-07-14. 
  19. ^ Hadamitzky, Wolfgang; Mark Spahn (1996). The Kanji Dictionary. Tuttle Publishing. p. 783. ISBN 0-8048-2058-9.