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Every Bloom a Blessing

Close-up of multiple flowers at Carlsbad flower fields. Creative Commons.

Once, a very long time ago, the Buddha preached a sermon to his followers by saying nothing at all. Instead of speaking, he held up a single flower. Only one listener, a monk named Mahakasyapa, heard what that flower had to say and smiled with joy. (Joseph Campbell. The Masks of God, Vol. II: Oriental Mythology, 608) Everyone else seems to have missed the point of what has since come to be called the Flower Sermon, no doubt returning to their chores and meditation with some chagrin. Because, come on—a flower? What could Mahakasyapa possibly have seen in a single blossom? Or heard? Or...whatever?

The question is still worth asking today. One possibility is that he perceived something related to the intricate Buddhist teaching of the Flower Garland, which Campbell summarizes succinctly: “one is all and all are one” (679). In other words, we are inseparable from each other; and I do mean “we” in the broadest possible sense. The Flower Garland goes far beyond the platitude “we are all connected.” This teaching asserts that we all arise from and remain one with a single, indivisible continuity. All existence—meaning all energy, all matter, all beings, all consciousness—is defined by inseparability, which is another way of saying we are defined by our unity, and there is no such thing as a separate self. In other words, “I” don’t exist without “you,” and neither of “us” exists without the All that gives rise to our experience of illusory and temporary separateness. Beneath what we normally think of as our “selves” exists the vibrant, continuous All, an energy field that imagines us up the same way it imagines up a flower out of stems, leaves, seeds, soil, and all the lives that fed that churning loam throughout the ages, leading up to that singe bloom.

On the other hand, maybe Mahakasyapa saw an archetypal Blossom, meaning the larger-than-life “force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” as the poet Dylan Thomas calls it. Maybe the Buddha’s flower became transparent to the divine Flowering that moves through us all, that power beyond our own that can make us smile no matter what in spite of ourselves. That Smile, like Mahakasyapa’s, brings us directly to the lotus throne of the goddess who Campbell calls “the most prominent single figure in the ornamentation of all the early Buddhist monuments,” Lakshmi, whose imagery of beauty and wealth overflows with lotus flowers. (Oriental Mythology, 415) Lakshmi is, in effect, the great Bloom: she is the soul of the lotus, the love of blooming, the ability to blossom. She brightens, lightens, en-lightens. She is the consciousness of flowering, and she is the flowering of consciousness. Lakshmi is the flowers that fountain around her. She is the profligate abundance of the universe, dispensing glories of many kinds. Hearkening back to the teaching of the Flower Garland, Lakshmi reminds us of our own lotus-essence, because if we really are all one, then our consciousness is inseparable from hers. Perhaps when the Buddha held her aloft for all to see, she smiled directly into and through Mahakasyapa.

Beyond mythic images and religious teachings, isn’t every bloom a blessing in and of itself? A flower is a gift, a grace, a healing. A blossom is an epiphanic reminder of beauty’s inevitability. Simultaneously tiny and profound, each flower holds a revelation. Before that flower, its blossom was impossible to imagine. But when those petals unfurled, the world changed. Where there had been nothing, now exists a rose, or an orchid, or a lotus, or new hope. Maybe Mahakasyapa marveled: how could this miracle exist? And yet it so manifestly is, how could it not exist? Then the flower’s presence could have opened his heart by collapsing the binaries of being and non-being, reminding him of his own miraculous presence and the presence of all things. 

Flowers tend to appear in the moments when our hearts are most full: first dates, apologies, weddings, hospital rooms, springtime. Flowers might not speak, but they most certainly proclaim. They herald spring’s return to a frozen landscape, peace to the battlefield, beauty to bleakness, healing to illness and injury. Flowers trumpet the news of the soul’s open heart, the world’s open heart, and the open heart of the cosmos itself. A single flower changed Mahakasyapa’s consciousness, and then, the consciousness of the entire tradition of Buddhism, and therefore the world. Like Lakshmi, his flower consciousness blossomed out of the mud and into the flamboyant generosity of nectar and fragrance that draws pollinators from miles around, and then, like Lakshmi’s, his smile became the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth. 

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