A lovely white peony

White peony flower. (Liz West, flickr.com/photos/53133240@N00/19700021 and used under Creative Commons 2.0)

Jesus and Buddha, it has been said, discovered the same spiritual landscape. With that wisdom tucked away in my heart I have taken myself twice a week for the last two years to zazen, otherwise known as Buddhist sitting meditation, with an interfaith prayer group that meets close to my home. I have not regretted this decision. The profound silence and stillness that surrounds me at these gatherings has nourished me deeply.

At a recent meeting following the usual two 25-minute periods of sitting meditation separated by brief periods of walking meditation, the allotted time for the teacher to speak was upon us. He reminded us of a famous story in which the Buddha rose to preach a sermon and turned, picked up a flower and held it up before his listeners. This was the sermon in its entirety. Our teacher then turned, picked up a flower which lay on a simple altar behind him and held it up. He spoke not one word.

Then in a move which caught me completely off guard, he nodded to a nearby practitioner who came forward. He gave her the flower. She turned and faced the community and once again held the flower aloft.

 This continued as some 30 people in the room silently came forward, and held the flower, a lovely white peony, for the rest of us to see. There was a six- foot-4 bearded man who held the peony; there was a dainty female yoga teacher — with everyone else in-between. Together we were a slice of life, a motley crew, holding up a peony. Notably, the experience was neither boring nor repetitive. Each “showing” was a deepening. I watched transfixed. At first I was focused on that one unique-in-all-the-world peony. Then somehow that one unique-in-all-the- world person holding the flower actually became the flower. Then as I held the flower myself the faces of those beholding it were suffused with a certain light as was that lovely peony.

It took a long time to fall asleep that night. A certain energy was running through my body. It quieted only in its own time.

The next morning as I sat in silent meditation back in my own home something essential about that spiritual landscape shared between Jesus and the Buddha became apparent to me. Both beckon us beyond recognition to beholding. To say that differently, both plead with us to be at one with ourselves, others, and what surrounds us even in the midst of difficult circumstances. This is the message of the peony. It simply drew us all into its depths in the present moment where all is one.

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh does the same when he proclaims, “This is it.” So does Trappist monk Thomas Keating’s Contemplative Outreach community in their little book the Welcoming Prayer: Consent on the Go. The point is that whatever is before us in this moment, regardless of our likes or dislikes, is all that there is. In entering into that moment and responding to it with our full selves, infinity — yes Infinity — opens to us. This is lesson of the lovely white peony.

When I returned home from my meeting I checked my collection of Zen koans for the story of this unique sermon of the Buddha. (Scholars tell us that a Zen koan is a puzzling short story or statement that is used to transcend normal thought patterns.) I learned that one of the Buddha’s disciples smiled when the flower was held up. For some strange reason I never thought of the apostle Peter smiling, but that evening I wondered if he did when he uttered the words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” in response to Jesus’ question, “Who do people say I am?”

All of this is, however, so very subtle. In a recent conversation a friend was recounting the many tasks for which she was responsible. As I listened closely I began to hear her that her genuine longing for God had doubled back on her in a peculiar way, creating a kind of impatience with all the tasks of everyday life which were taking her away from what “really mattered” to her. While we all have these moments of being overwhelmed by the hum-drum tasks of life, I began to realize that there was a kind of splitting going on. The details which make life work, the things directly “in her face,” those things for which others count on her, even some things which she loved, were being devalued, even resented in the name of “something more” awaiting her in some unknown future. All the while, the white peony lay on the table in the middle of it all waiting to be picked up.

This is a huge challenge in a world which has a million different ways of splitting our attention. Perhaps they can all be bundled together in the band of red which runs along the bottom of the TV proclaiming some breaking news while at the same time the anchor person appears front and center screen reporting a completely different story.

What is the antidote? The capacity to “behold the peony” doesn’t come with a garden membership, although tending a garden might be a good first step. It is born of any one of the multiple methods and opportunities abounding today to practice intentional silence — from John Main’s Christian meditation, to Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault’s Centering Prayer to sitting Zazen, to name just a few. Each in its own way offer the opportunity of enlarging our capacity to enter into whatever is before us so that we may respond to the present in a way which opens up new opportunities for personal and planetary peace.

After all, the Universe is filled with peonies just waiting to be picked up.

[Margaret Galiardi, is a Dominican Sister from Amityville, New York, whose passion is the contemplative integration of justice and peace for people and planet. She is a “lover of the wild,” a spiritual director and workshop and retreat leader who has lectured nationally on the New Cosmology and the Christian Story. She spent a year living with the Trappistine monks in their monastery on the Lost Coast of Northern California in the Redwood Forest.]