Once, so we’re told, instead of giving a talk, the Buddha simply held up a flower for his listeners to contemplate. Although I’m not a buddhist, it’s my experience that buddhism has ways of seeing things that are of value, even for those who belong to a different religion or none at all. Among other things, It asks us to contemplate change, since everyone and everything is continuously changing.
Take the flower in the picture. As a seed, it was perhaps picked up by the wind, or the claws of a bird, and carried to where it is now. That seed began to grow steadily upwards into a stem, which sways with the wind, and then into a flower, the colour of which changes with the light, as does its vibrance with the amount of moisture it’s able to absorb. In time the colour will fade, the petals fall, and the stem shrivel and die, leaving only, perhaps, a transient memory.
Buddhism invites us to reflect on the fact that we don’t have an unchanging, permanent self – an essence that defines us, and places us in any one category as opposed to others. For me, this is caught nicely in the little poem, “In a Bath Tea Shop”, by John Betjeman, which I wrote about in an earlier blog …
To say that he “is” a thumping crook, and that she “is” a very ordinary little woman, does not sum them both up, and neatly define them. There is much more to both of them than just that. Like you and me, they are each constantly changing from one day, hour or moment to the next. Why does this matter?.
The fact that we are continuously changing means we’re not always at our best. Sometimes we think, say, write or do things that leave us with feelings of regret or guilt. This doesn’t mean that we “are” bad or nasty people. It doesn’t define us. A better aspect of our selves can seek to put things right, and to learn from our lapses. We can then be forgiving of ourselves and, by extension, of our fellow human beings, instead of sticking a label on them, as if that summed them up.
Buddhism invites us to consider how we should regard this flower. Do we immediately begin make assumptions, pass judgements, and categorise it? Do we think it “is” ridiculous, that it “is” out of place, and that any self-respecting flower would rather be somewhere else? Might we even say that it “is” now a weed? Do we think to pull it out, and put it in a vase, or button-hole, or bin? The invitation is to switch off all of that, and simply to be aware of it, to see at it as it is ‘in itself’, uncluttered by our thoughts about it, and where it is, and how it got there, and what we might do with it.
We may then, to quote Wordsworth, be “Surprised by Joy”. Our quietened minds may suddenly light up with an indescribable awareness of the miracle that’s in front of our eyes. It has taken everything that has ever happened since the beginning, and throughout the ongoing evolution, of the entire universe, to unceasingly and collectively work together to bring about the sheer wonder of this moment and this flower. And what is true of each flower, is also true of each person. How tragic it is, then, that people daily deride, dismiss, damage and destroy each other, and how desperately sad, that some even discount and do away with themselves. Surely we all of us need to become more truly, and deeply, aware of this ‘Lesson from a Flower’.