To Be Guided by Moon and Flower

To Be Guided by Moon and Flower February 10, 2016

Moon, Photograph and Modification by Henry Karlson
Moon, Photograph and Modification by Henry Karlson

This morning, as a part of the ongoing research for a book I am writing, I read a short work on the Japanese aesthetic approach known as Wabi-Sabi before taking up and reading from a collection of poems by the poet Ryōkan Taigu.[1]

One of the first poems of the collections struck me almost immediately. Its sensibility was related to a major theme of my work. The world, and all that is in it, is beautiful. The reason why we don’t see it as such is because we are too attached to ourselves, or individual parts of the world, to see it in such clarity:[2]

THE RAIN has stopped, the clouds have drifted away,
and the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure.
Abandon this fleeting world, abandon yourself.
Then the moon and flowers will guide you along the Way.
— Ryōkan Taigu.[3]

It should not be difficult to understand at least some of the spiritual principles presented in this poem. Clearly, the poet, being a Buddhist, put them in a way which other Buddhists, or those familiar with Buddhism, could understand. The rain and clouds reflect the defilements in our mind, which, once they have dissipated, leave the mind pure and free to see the world in pristine purity. The method by which we get the clouds in the mind to dissipate is to abandon all forms of attachment, both to the things of and in the world, but also and especially with ourselves. All things are anatman, and any attempt to hold on to something in the ever-changing world as if it does not and will not change will either create defilements in the mind or give them the fuel they need to continue to affect us.

To do this, we must abandon any such attachments, anything which could be used to seed new defilements, which would serve as the foundation for new clouds. That way, there will be no rain which can fall upon the seeds of defilement and give them strength to bloom in our mind once again.

Of some interest is the way the moon and flowers are said to serve as guides along the path. Ryōkan probably intended all the symbolism associated with the moon and flowers given to them by Zen Buddhism, but in relation to the poem itself, how they work for enlightenment is more important than the symbolism itself. The light of the moon shows us the light which shines in the darkness, and makes clear the path which we are to walk, while a flower, in its simple beauty, shows us that the beauty and joy of the real, of the truth, can be seen and experienced by us no matter how defiled we have let our mind become. Indeed, the beauty observed in a simple flower, despite its fragile and impermanent nature, is powerful enough to seize us out of ourselves, so that by experiencing such transcendence, we can let go of ourselves and follow the transcendence to where it shall lead.

But, reading the poem, I couldn’t help but interpret it also under the guidance of my Christian religious sensibilities. In doing so, the general principles remain the same. The world is good and pure and will reveal itself as such when we encounter it free from the defilements of sin. But the last line is suggestive of another, complementary interpretation. That is, while both the moon and the flowers can be seen to present the way, it is how they are used in Christian Scriptures which helps us interpret them as images of the way.

First, with the moon, I cannot but help think of the text of the Apocalypse:

And a great sign appeared in heaven: A woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars: And being with child, she cried travailing in birth, and was in pain to be delivered (Rev. 12:1-2 DR).

There are two major interpretations for the woman clothed in the sun, with the moon at her feet: one is that she is the Church, the body of Christ, and the other is Mary, the Mother of God. The thing with Scripture is that we don’t expect only one interpretation for it; hidden within are many interpretations, each which provide complementary teachings for us. This is not to say all interpretations are acceptable, which should be obvious when contradictory claims are offered. But that is not the case here: in either interpretation, whether the woman is seen as the Church or Mary, we have no contradiction because Mary is, in her own unique way, the personification of the Church. For the Church is the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:27), and Mary, as the Mother of Jesus, gave her flesh and blood over to Jesus for the production of his body. And so the moon is associated with the woman, being at her feet, reflecting the brightness of the sun of righteousness (cf. Mal. 4:2). The moon is a reflected glory, a mediated glory, which presents the light in the darkness, capable of guiding those in the dark of the night, in the darkness of sin. Its light reflects the greater light of enlightenment itself. The woman is clothed in the sun, that is, clothed with the glory of deification, sharing in the glory Christ demonstrated at mount Tabor. It is a glory which is not just meant for her but for all. Everyone who finds themselves in perfect communion and unity with the body of Christ, being freed from sin, will find that light shining through them as well, guiding themselves and others to the glory of the kingdom of God. So, the light of reflected glory helps mediate the glory of the kingdom of God, lighting the path for us as we journey on our way to full theosis.

Flowers and Barn, Photograph by Henry Karlson
Flowers and Barn, Photograph by Henry Karlson

Next, we turn to the way flowers can be said to act as guides. First, we can point out how the beauty and glory of the flowers certainly point to the source of such beauty, suggesting that if we love the beauty in the flower we would love even more the source. But, upon further reflection, they also come to us with a warning, a warning of what happens when we grasp after and attach ourselves to some secondary earthly glory. Flowers are not just nice, pretty things; they often contain thorns: “As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters” (Song of Songs 2:2 DR). We can be attracted to them, we can love them, but as soon as we grasp after them to hold them close to us, the thorns end up pricking us. The downside of earthly glory is the thorn which hits us in our side, pricking us, making us bleed. Or, as with what St. Ambrose said, there is yet another way we can be guided by the beauty contained in flowers. For, as he explained, our virtues are like the roses, where the beauty arises out of and through the thorns of wickedness which we have avoided:

And I also point out to you what flower is to be culled, that one it is Who said: “I am the Flower of the field, and the Lily of the valleys, as a lily among thorns,” which is a plain declaration that virtues are surrounded by the thorns of spiritual wickedness, so that no one can gather the fruit who does not approach with caution.[4]

Flowers, therefore, guide us with beauty, showing the glory of creation, while warning us against any undue attachment which might emerge in us as a result of our attraction to such beauty. We must learn how to let beauty grow naturally, to follow our nature and use it to direct us in our actions, less we get diverted from the harmony found within and get stung with one of many thorns of vice. Hold on too tight, and the wound might even get infected. This, of course, is something Ryōkan would have readily acknowledged: detachment is the way, and the rose, with its thorns, shows us the danger if we do not heed the wisdom of such impartiality.

The moon, with its glory, is the glory of the mediated light of grace which we need to see in the darkness before us. Flowers show us beauty and point the way forward to receive and become one with such beauty ourselves. The two, therefore, do work together and help present to us the path, and if we heed them together, we truly will abandon the self and the world together, emerging, at last, awakened to the kingdom of God (which, we will find, was already there within us all along).

This, in short form, is what I have gained by reading the poem. Now, it is time for me to once again go forward in the moonlight, appreciating the flowers along the path to glory.


[1] The book I am working on is my attempt to do a theological exploration on Beauty which takes into consideration my own experiences, what the Christian tradition says on Beauty, with what I have learned from my exploration of Buddhist and Platonic thought. Because it is not common for the Buddhist texts which I read to directly and significantly reflect upon notions on beauty, I found such secondary works which demonstrate Buddhist aesthetics in action serve as useful confirmations of what I have understood thanks to my research.

[2] Such purification is possible thanks to grace. We must work out our salvation with much fear and trembling, cooperating with grace, so that we can become pure at heart.

[3] John Stevens, intr. and trans. One Robe, One Bowl. The Zen Poetry of Ryōkan (New York: Weatherhill, 1984),23.

[4] St. Ambrose, “Concerning Virgins” in NPNF2(10): 370.


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