Tag Archives: flower

Reflections of the Season

Today I have been reflecting on the anniversary of my priest ordination. Years ago, on a frosty day in Obama, Japan, I vowed to live at least the remainder of this lifetime in the service of the Buddhadharma. So each year at this time, I reflect on my vows, my life, and the literal and metaphorical arrival of spring. For me, it’s helpful to mark the time and to review the conditions that have arisen. It’s helpful to look back every March 22nd, returning again and again to those moments of intention made manifest.

And yet, I remind myself, I should not be fooled into thinking that time goes around in a circle like this. The Gregorian calendar is merely a convention, one way of seeing time that was devised less than 500 years ago to ensure the arrival of Easter during the spring. It is clearly a human invention, albeit a very useful one.


Hosshinji in Obama, Japan

In contrast, Dogen taught that time is not cyclical like the calendar. He taught that our sense of the passage of time is really based on our experience of change from moment to moment. While we tend to think , “Spring is here and therefore the trees begin to grow leaves and the snow begins to melt.” Dogen taught, “Because the trees grow leaves and the snow begins to melt, this is spring.” That’s why we can call it spring. That is, spring is nothing other than the appearance of a collection of conditions that we associate with that word. In the same way, Zen priest is nothing other than appearance of the collection of conditions associated with that word. It is an identity that can only be found as it is passing.

This way of seeing time means that looking back in time is just another activity in this moment. Is my ordination day actually here again? Well, no and yes. It is not here because it happened eight years ago, and this is a new moment, regardless of the date that appears on my cell phone. However, it is here in the sense that all of the ramifications of that day are present, including my memories of the ceremony, the fact that my head is shaved and that I am writing this blog. By embracing both of these aspects, here and not here, I can honor the past and future expression of myself without getting hung up on it. I can reflect on the past, yet not be defined by it. I can consider the future, but not be trapped by it.

This is what it means be fully present in the moment. In Genjokoan, Dogen’s chapter on life completely manifesting at the intersection of the absolute and the relative, he says things “abide in past and future…and are independent of past and future.”

And this way of seeing time means that, even though those elements of the past and the future are present, I cannot just consider it done. It means that I am a priest, but I must actually bring that vow and that activity into the present in order to be manifesting “priest.” I am only a practitioner because I practice.

Once, I was picking chamomile flowers in the garden at the monastery, and I asked a friend and fellow monk about which flowers to pick. I said, “Should I pick the ones whose petals haven’t opened? Should I pick the ones who petals have started to fall off?” My friend, Shodo, shook his head and growled, “Are you asking me when a flower becomes a flower?”

Chamomile bush, photo from Anniesfarm.com

Chamomile bush, photo from Anniesfarm.com

Therefore, in Zen, our moment to moment life is expressing the fullness of time. Putting words to this, Dogen wrote:

Rising, as the mountain

peaks and valleys deepen –

The twilight sound of the cicada

Singing of a day

Already gone by.

In the poem, Dogen subtly refers to the passage of time as the peaks and valleys deepening. As the sun is setting, the shadows of the valleys grow. He then points to the activity of the cicada, which is expressing the fact that the end of the day has arrived by singing.

Even more subtly, we might hear in this poem Dogen describing the awakening of discerning insight, reaching its full expression, which cannot help but include the wisdom of the past.

The great creative function of Buddhanature expresses itself in billions and billions of ways – as people, as things, as energy – and we are here for it. Yesterday, tomorrow and all of the states in between are here, in the present. It couldn’t possibly be any other way.

With a bow to my teacher, Zen Master Sekkei Harada, my American teacher Shosan Victoria Austin, the many teachers I’ve had during this life of practice and, ultimately, to Shakyamuni Buddha.

The Virtue of the Flower

In everyday life it’s fairly common go around judging the objects with which we come in contact. It’s a habit that is an extension of  the vedana, or the charge, that each thing has for us. So, before even naming it, you have an experience of positive, negative or neutral when you see a flower. Then you might go on to develop an idea about it and, sometimes, to verbalize that thought. For example, you walk by a flower and you say, “That flower is beautiful.” In this case, “beautiful” is a judgment about the flower, although it is a positive one.

dahlias IMG_0895 IMG_0902Perhaps that’s why Shunryu Suzuki Roshi taught that when you say, “The flower is beautiful,” you separate yourself from it. That is, you reinforce your sense of separation of subject and object by making a judgment. I would add that even if you only say, “The flower is,” then you have separated yourself from it. And even if you only say “flower” you have separated yourself from it. In fact, the Diamond Sutra can be seen as a teaching about the way in which people develop an idea of something, rather than have a direct experience, and then come up with a linguistic label for the idea that reinforces that perception. This stands in contrast to the direct experience of things as lacking solidity and existing only in the sense of a temporary flux.

Successful Flowers

virtuous flowers

However, you have to use language in everyday life. So how is it possible to practice with the flower, and with your judgment of it, without separating from it?

To respond to this question I suggest you turn to one of the key teachings of the Zen school, the understanding of the physical world in the context of the Dharma. In Zen all objects that we encounter are understood to be equally teaching the Dharma. That is to say, the various and sundry things that we encounter in the physical world we live in are all expressing some form of wisdom. Thus, in Zen, we can practice with things as much as we can practice with people.

One form of practice that you might consider is the practice of observing the virtue of the flower. Virtue is a word that, according to Merriam-Webster, means “the beneficial quality or power of a thing.” Or it can mean “a commendable quality or trait,” presumably of a person, place or thing. Thus, you might say that the flower has the virtue of enabling the pollenization, and therefore the continued life of the plant. You might also say that the flower adds color to the landscape. These are some of its virtues.

However, at a more fundamental level, Zen teaches that the flower has the virtue of speaking the Dharma. It has the virtue of being completely, fully what it is and thereby speaking the Dharma of pollen and transformation, of color and attraction, and of growing and withering. It has those virtues simply by arising as flower, and not due to any comparison, or any words we might associate with it. Also, by manifesting those virtues, the flower is espousing the seals of the Dharma: impermanence, lack of inherent self or core, unsatisfactoriness, and the liberation that is peace amidst these facts of life.

By really settling with this teaching it is possible to experience the virtue of the flower, and by finding the virtue of flower we may very well find our own virtue and the virtue of everyone around us.

The Practice of a Flower

In many Buddhist traditions there are established practices that focus energy on well-being for ourselves and others. One of these practices is known as “metta” or loving-kindness. In a typical metta practice, you might begin by expressing the wish for your own happiness, peace and well-being, and then move on to sharing the same sentiments for someone you like; someone to whom you feel neutral; and someone you dislike; culminating in offering metta to all beings. While there are many ways to practice metta, one way is simply to speak the words. It might sound something like this, “May all beings be well. May all beings be happy. May all beings be free from physical and mental suffering. May all beings awaken to their True Nature.”

However, some years ago, in a class on the fundamentals of Buddhism at San Francisco Zen Center, the instructor Ingen Breen said something that was quite meaningful to me. He suggested that one traditional way of offering the last intention was to wish for one’s own or for others’ “spiritual success.” When asked by another student more specifically about what spiritual success might look like, he replied, “like a flower.” Oh, I thought, be successful the way a flower is successful. Lovely!

Successful Flowers

To me this is a wonderful expression of right effort. As far as I can tell, the flower does not have a plan to improve itself, or to become something other than what it is, or to compare itself to the flower next door and try to be more humble. The flower is simply, completely, fully flower in each moment. It bursts forth, fulfilling its flower nature without any hesitation or ulterior motive. It is the complete expression of flower in each instant and it cannot be anything else but, by simply being what it is, it is also a complete expression of Buddha Nature. It displays, in a way that can be heartbreaking, the truths of impermanence, no fixed self, and emptiness.

Perhaps this is why practitioners in the Zen tradition enjoy recounting the story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s transmission to Mahakashyapa. In this traditional tale, the Buddha is said to be sitting before a large gathering of monks on Vulture Peak. He is expected to give a Dharma talk but, instead, picks up a flower and twirls it. Only Mahakashyapa is said to have smiled, indicating his understanding. What was it that Mahakshyapa came to know? At that moment the Buddha could have tried to explain what he meant by holding up the flower, or he could have tried to elicit some explanation from Mahakashyapa. But instead he said only, “I have the eye of the true Dharma, and I now transmit it to Mahakashyapa.”

To find our own true expression, complete in this moment, free of preconceived ideas, and notions of progress or impediment, that is the Buddha Way. Yet this is not an exhortation “to let it all hang out” or “to go with the flow” or “to let everything go.” If anything, right effort requires that we stop seeing our lives as a flow, and instead meet each instant directly and skillfully, letting each thing take its dharma position. In fact, “letting” is already extra, because each thing is already in its dharma position. So it’s up to me, as a practitioner, to experience my own dharma position in relationship to each thing. Then I may find myself fully expressing that which the flower already knows.


You who arrived complete in the study of not knowing, You who are the flowers bursting forth, revealing your true nature, You who are the voice of the entire suffering world, In the silences between the bells, In the graceful … Continue reading

Practicing Patience with Not Understanding

Here is the link to a talk that I recently gave at San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center:


My previous talks at City Center are posted here:


Next up, talks with the Redwood City Zen group on July 22nd, and with the Gay Men’s Buddhist Sangha on August 5th.