Flowers and stories of flowers crop up (is that a pun?) everywhere when one studies philosophy. Flowers represent the fleeting, impermanent, transcendent beauty of this life. They have no purpose but to be beautiful. (Yes, I know about pollen, but do they have to be that beautiful to get the job done?) Flowers, like cats, are proof that not everything in this world is useful. Beauty is purpose enough.
In this world
We walk on the roof of hell
Gazing at flowers
Kobayashi Issa seems to say that even though we are walking on the roof of hell, even though we are a thin 2-inch plank away from death and evil, gazing at flowers makes it all worthwhile; ‘gazing at flowers’ is what it’s all about.
The following text expands upon this admirably. I came across it in Horst Hammitzsch’s ‘Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony’. It is a passage from Matsuo Basho’s travelling diary U-tatsuo-kiki. Matsuo Basho was the most famous poet of the Edo period of Japan. Here is his description of ‘the Way’:
In my body there lives a certain ‘something’. Let us tentatively give it a name and call it ‘a little monk in his wind-torn robe’. But do we really mean the tearing of a thin robe in the wind? For a long time this fellow loved to compose short poems. In fact, he finally made it his life’s task. Sometimes, however, he regrets it and would like to give it up: sometimes he is overcome with enthusiasm and experiences the ambition to do better than others at it. Now this, now that, the emotions are at war in his heart, and as a result he is left restless. For a while he was keen to get a job for himself in the outside world, but this ‘something’ restrained him from doing so. At another time he nurtured the wish to take up the study of the Zen teachings and to enlighten his ignorance, but here, too, the ‘something’ caused him to give up the idea. And so he has remained unskilled and incompetent, apart from the fact that he has remained constantly bound to a Way. It is the self-same Way sought by Saigyo in his poems, by Sogi in his linked-verse, by Sesshu in his ink-paintings and by Rikyu in his Tea Ceremony – the one, single Way that is operative in all their works. And whoever loves this Way follows the laws of nature and becomes the friend of the seasons. Whatever he sees turns out to be flowers. Whatever he feels turns out to be the moon. When there are no flowers in what he does, he is like a barbarian. When there are no flowers in what he feels, he is like a wild beast. Forsake the barbaric, cast aside the brutish, follow nature’s laws, return to her again.