How To Appreciate Blooming & Withering Peonies


观世音菩萨 (心经)

Form is not different from emptiness;
emptiness is not different from form;
form is the same as emptiness;
emptiness is the same as form.

– Guanshiyin Bodhisattva (Heart Sutra)

The second emperor of the Southern Tang (南唐) Li Jing (李璟), of the period of the Five Dynasties And Ten Kingdoms (五代十国), once invited Chan Master Fayan Wenyi (法眼文益禅师) to join him in appreciating some flowering peonies, whereupon the Master wrote an untitled poem:



Those* wrapped around with fine fur facing fragrant flower clusters,
are originally with interests that are not the same.**
Hair from this day whitens,***
while the flowers from last year are redder.****

Changing colours following the morning dew,***
with fragrance chased by the evening breeze.***
Why is there need to wait till they have withered and fallen,
thereafter beginning to know emptiness? ****

* … who are worldly officials in their uniforms
** … as nature (of reality) and the Master’s spiritual goal
*** … as impermanence occurs as we speak
**** … as things are already not as before

While the Master described ordinary beings’ lovely experience of the flowers, he also reminded all of the constantly fleeting nature of their beauty. Though wonderful in the moment, they are also empty of any fixed substance. It is with impermanence too, that the flowers are able to flower, to change in colours, and to perfume with their fragrance. Impermanence is thus not merely about death and decay.

Yet, there is no contradiction in appreciating phenomena as it is, with its wonders, while not becoming attached to them due to their already always empty nature. Being attached would only lead to suffering when they fade away. Having aversion to their decay leads to the same suffering. Thus is there need to walk the Middle Path between seeing ‘form as emptiness’ and ’emptiness as form’, to be caught up in neither form nor emptiness.

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