The initial concept for the Sarnath Sacred Murals project was based on the idea of sacred trees and inspired by a single, flowering plumeria tree. This particular plumeria tree had been transplanted from the front of the grounds to the inner courtyard adjacent to the main hall shortly before 600 monks came to bless the institute. Suffering shock from the transplant, the tree lost its leaves and flowers one after another until the night before the ceremony only one flower remained. Then this flower, too, dropped an hour or two after the monks' blessing.
It was as if the tree had drawn upon an inner source of strength, offering up its last beautiful plumeria blossom to honor the monks' ceremony. This act of expressing beauty and honoring the sacred became an inspiration for the mural, and the decision was made to depict sacred trees within a varied landscape of other flora and fauna.
One of the first sacred trees to be included in the mural was the mango. Much like Buddhism, the mango tree was native to India and later spread to other parts of the world. The mango fruit is often regarded as a metaphor for spiritual development because the fruit can be unripe, ripe, or even rotten, symbolizing all stages of awakening. The mural's mango tree, painted right next to the altar wall, is adorned with ripe mangoes, suggesting that the Buddha was fully ripe in his spiritual development.
The bamboo is an important tree in the Buddhist tradition because one of Buddha's first sermons was in a bamboo grove. This is a tree of durability, strength, flexibility, and resilience. It has long been linked in various traditions and cultures with long life and good fortune, and is associated with the longevity of the Buddhist masters.
Another sacred tree, the banana, is referred to in the sutras and in poetry as a reminder of the hollowness of the material world. There is no solid core in a banana tree, only a hollow center, and its essence is one of fragility and impermanence. Even the leaves of the mural's banana tree suggest the impermanence of this world in the characteristic tears that one typically sees in a banana tree leaf.
All these sacred trees--and others that are painted in the mural--filled the landscape during Buddha's time. The same species of trees are still around today, establishing an authentic and natural connection between our lives now and the time of Buddha.