A magical sal tree

The year when I was four, I spent a long period (could have been a few weeks, or a month) at my maternal grandmother’s place when both my parents were busy taking care of my little brother while he went through his heart operation.

In my grandmother’s house, there was a room with a Buddhist alter where my grandfather and other family members’ spirits were celebrated and remembered. Before every meal, my grandmother would bring the food to the alter, burn an incense and offer a prayer. I would follow her and do everything she did right next to her.

I remember one of the prayers was very long, and I used to admire my grandmother for her patience in enduring such a long and what felt to me like a boring procedure every day. My eyes were mostly open, closely observing my grandmother’s focused face during the long prayer. I didn’t understand nor appreciate any of these rituals as a busy four year old, but I understood that this alter was a very special place for my grandmother.

When I was on my own, I often made a visit to the alter and observed what was there on the alter, curious to know if there was anything other than my grandfather’s picture that made this place so special to my grandmother. I saw some fresh fruits, a green tea, a few small vases of flowers, and many auspicious decorations in gold colour related to Buddha and his life. As I watched, one particular piece of decoration caught my eyes. It was a small model of sal tree made out of some kind of metal foil. It had several buds, and some of them were flowering. I thought it was a beautiful decoration, and I liked the way the flowers looked real.

The next day, when I sat in front of the alter with my grandmother, my eyes looked for the sal tree. I wanted to observe the way some of the flowers were blossoming but some were not. The sal tree was found in exactly the same spot as I had found it the previous day, but something was different. There now seemed to be more blossoms on the tree.

“Is it possible?”

The next day, I again observed the sal tree on the alter. Yes, there were more flowers blossoming on the tree. I got excited. This sal tree not only looked real but was actually alive? I watched the metal sal tree blossom day by day until finally there were no more buds on the tree.

It was around the Obon season August. Shortly after the sal tree fully blossomed, my grandmother and other family members brought it to the cemetery with other offerings, and there was no more sal tree on the alter.

To this day, that sal tree remains a mystery to me. It could have been that somebody was opening the buds one by one each night. But part of me wants to believe that it was a magical tree and though it was made out of metal foil, it had a secret life.