Pine, Bamboo, and Plum

As we turn the page on the truly extraordinary year that was 2020, some of our Sangha members will be adorning their homes with branches of pine, bamboo, and plum (shōchikubai) to welcome the New Year 2021 with these auspicious symbols that embody the virtue of resilience in the face of adversity. 

Pine remains ever green, even in the cold of winter.  It expresses consistency and stability.  Bamboo does not break when bent by winter storms or piling snow.  It shows us that there is great strength in remaining flexible during challenging times.  Plum flowers blossom in the cold months and remind us that winter gives way to springtime.  Just as our pleasurable experiences do not last forever, neither do the times of pain and difficulty.  The beauty of the plum flower blossoms in the season of cold and darkness.

This past year has tested our resilience.  In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have endured anxiety, loss, and disappointments great and small.  And yet, like the plum flower, the beauty of kindness has blossomed in a season of cold and darkness.  The following poem written by Matsuno Yamaguchi in early 20th century Hawaii captures my mood as I reflect on my life this past year:

The sick child

Who longs so for a friend,

Says, “Hello,”

To the bird that

Flys from eave to eave.

(Sounds from the Unknown: A Collection of Japanese-American Tanka, translated by Lucille M. Nixon and Tomoe Tana, p. 133)

Faced with the challenges of separation and isolation from our loved ones, like the young child, we open our minds to new possibilities and come to cherish encounters and connections that we have overlooked in the past.

The New Year is traditionally a time of hope and expectation.  This year, as Covid-19 vaccinations have just begun to roll out into our communities, our expectations are particularly high.  We hope for an end to the pandemic, a return to normal life, and the start of the economic recovery.  I share these hopes for a joyful year to come.  And yet I find that this year, it is the following words by Kobayashi Issa that seem most fitting:

I will leave all to Buddha, and through the path ahead be difficult and steep, like a snow-covered road winding through the mountains, I welcome the New Year—even as I am.

Only

Moderately happy

Is my spring

My New Year.

(The Year of My Life by Issa, translation by Nobuyuki Yuasa, p. 38)

Issa’s poem captures the heart of the Middle Way, the resilience of the Buddha mind that travels peacefully through the journey of life, not led astray by likes and dislikes.  This is the settled mind we receive from Amida Buddha in the words Namo Amida Butsu.  It is the mind that welcomes each moment of this life just as it is. 

Namo Amida Butsu