It is late March now. We are approaching the peak season for cherry blossom viewing and the celebration of the arrival of Spring. Regrettably, the typically joyous mood of the season has been curtailed by the Coronavirus crisis.
Since 2017, I have been delivering a short Zen talk around Easter time every year. I use the annual cherry blossom as my main theme. Cherry blossom is a good symbol for the transience of life. Today, as we are all under the grip of the shadow of Coronavirus, it is a good occasion to delve into the spiritual meaning of the cherry blossom festival. It can help us develop a deeper appreciation of what Buddha taught about the truth of impermanence. A Japanese food service company provides this brief introduction to the Japanese tradition of “Hanami”:
Hanami is a long-standing Japanese tradition of welcoming spring. Also known as the “cherry blossom festival,” this annual celebration is about appreciating the temporal beauty of nature. People gather under blooming cherry blossoms for food, drink, songs, companionship and the beauty of sakura (cherry blossoms).
The cherry blossom is rich in spiritual meaning. It is not just a sign of renewal (after a long Winter), it is also an important symbol for impermanence. Yes, the blooming cherry flowers is famous for their beauty. But we must also remember that cherry blossoms typically don’t last for more than two weeks. After a night of rain, the cherry flowers will be scattered everywhere, in the wind, on the ground, in the mountain streams, in the rivers. Japanese photographers like to take pictures of such “pink snow.” There is beauty both in the blossoming and in the fall. In Japanese aesthetics, there is a special term — wabi-sabi. Literally speaking, “Wabi” means forlorn, depressed and lonely. “Sabi” means silent and stillness. American artist, Leonard Koren, who wrote the seminal book titled Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers interpreted this notion as “perfection in imperfection.” I personally think that wabi-sabi aesthetics is a more mature appreciation of beauty. Rather than just celebrating all that is new, polished, impeccable and flawless, we should also celebrate things that are aged, weathered, flawed and imperfect. There is more authenticity in this alternative aesthetic standard. The cherry blossom festival definitely has a sense of wabi-sabi. It embodies the wholeness of life. Both the joyous aspect and the sad aspect are celebrated because life contains both.
There is no special term for wabi-sabi in Chinese culture. However, the notion of flawed beauty can be found in the Tao Te Ching and the book of Chuang Tzu. Lao Tzu said that “great perfection seems imperfect.” Chuang Tzu told tales of how something which looks flawed or useless can turn out to be a great advantage. There is also the notion of juxtaposition of joy and sorrow. Master Hong Yi, a modern Chinese monk, wrote down four words right before his death, in a spirit similar to the death poems written by Japanese Zen masters. The four words can be translated as “Joy and sorrow jointly felt.” This is a well-known anecdote. But very few Chinese understand what Master Hong Yi meant. To me, it seems that he developed a deep appreciation of the wholeness of life as he drew his last breath. This earthly life is meant to be transient. It is precisely because it is so brief that it is so precious to us.
Religion, in the Western sense, never really existed in old China or Japan. Both Chinese culture and Japanese culture are very secular. But what East Asia had is what I call a “secular spirituality,” which is closer to nature than to God, closer to paganism than to any form of monotheism which offers protection or redemption. Lin Yutang explains this well in his book, The Importance of Living:
On the positive side, a Chinese pagan, the only kind of which I can speak with any feeling of intimacy, is one who starts out with this earthly life as all we can or need to bother about, wishes to live intently and happily as long as his life lasts, often has a sense of the poignant sadness of this life and faces it cheerily, has a keep appreciation of the beautiful and the good in human life wherever he finds them, …
I feel that these are exactly the sentiments expressed during the cherry blossom festival — a mix of joy and sadness. It stems from a pagan or non-theist mentality. It is living this earthly life as it is, without the supposition of a supernatural presence or divine intervention, without the hope for an exemption from the law of impermanence, and without entertaining the notion of an everlasting life. Yes, there is a poignant sadness. But there is also exquisite beauty, of the wabi-sabi kind. There is perfection in this imperfection.
Today, many people around the globe are living in fear of their own mortality due to the Coronavirus. But fear will only increase our stress level and anxiety will only impair our immune system. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told us to learn from the birds — they don’t worry. We gain nothing from worrying. Life contains both joy and sorrow. It is by embracing our eventual death that we can live life to its fullness.
In this special time in history, let us cultivate peace. To have inner peace is not a Herculean task. It does not require sainthood or superhuman ability. It is primarily about accepting what is and not making unreasonable demands. Eckhart Tolle said, “Anything you accept fully will take you into peace. This is the miracle of surrender.”
We have to surrender to the laws of nature. Letting things be is a big part of Taoist wisdom. Let our surrender be a joyful and authentic one.