Posts Tagged ‘forsythia’

If you have been reading this column for a while, you may remember Imre, the rambunctious three-year-old whom I taught to sit still. As his reward, he received a matchbox car.*

Imre is now four, and he recently learned the word forsythia. At the time, we were examining the forsythia bush in our front yard. Its buds were green and about to turn yellow. “Can you say forsythia?” I asked.

Imre could not. So I broke the word into syllables, giving special emphasis to the second, which is difficult to pronounce. For-SITH-ee-uh. Imre practiced the word several times and finally got it—more or less. He seemed pleased with his achievement, though his newly acquired word could not compete with the word stinky, which he relished saying, over and over.

The forsythia plant is named after William Forsyth (1737-1804), a Scottish botanist and a founding member of the Royal Horticultural Society. Had it been named after William’s great-grandson, Joseph Forsyth Johnson (1840-1906), the famous gardener and landscape architect, it would been much easier for Imre to pronounce.  But perhaps it deserves the more difficult name, being as it is a foreign import.

The forsythia is a genus in the olive family, with eleven species, all but one of them native to eastern Asia. Forsythia is an integral component of Chinese medicine and is sometimes used in Chinese cooking. In Korea, a stringed instrument called the ajaeng is played with a stick of forsythia wood. The stick is scraped across the strings, producing a deep and raspy sound.

Given its exotic origins, the forsythia might be regarded in Western New York as a prized plant, worthy of infinite care. As it happens, it is more often viewed as a common shrub, whose chief function is to announce, in bright yellow hues, the end of another winter. By some, the forsythia is seen as a nuisance, requiring frequent pruning if it is not to become a monster. To a four-year-old child, a forsythia bush is something new and even exciting. But is it possible for conditioned adults like ourselves to see it afresh?

According to one school of Zen thinking, the name itself presents an obstacle. In a four-line poem fundamental to the Zen tradition, the First Zen Ancestor,  Bodhidharma, describes Zen as a practice of “direct seeing, not dependent on words and letters”. Following Bodhidharma’s lead, Zen teachers sometimes view language with suspicion and regard words as impediments to fresh seeing. The word forsythia is one thing, the shrub another. Proud of knowing the name, we may fail to see the object at all.

That point is well taken, but  knowing the name of a plant or tree can sometimes help us to notice it.  And beyond that, the name can provide access to its “suchness”—its unique and transient presence.

If  you would like to experience this for yourself, sit in a comfortable, upright position, following your breathing. Choose an object in your surroundings, and while looking at that object, contemplate its name. Repeat the word slowly, listening to its consonants and vowels. As you continue to intone the name, notice how its meaning gradually dissolves, leaving a succession of syllables or merely a gauze of sound. At that point, ask the question “What is this?” Let the question resonate in silence. Then ask it again, and yet again, and see where it leads you.

First propounded by the fourteenth-century Zen master Bassui Tokushō, the question “What is this?” is sometimes followed, in Zen practice, with the statement “I don’t know.” Practiced with diligence, Bassui’s koan can reveal the limitations of our knowledge and our language. It can remove our mental cataracts and restore our sense of wonder. And it can refresh a world “sicklied o’er,” as Hamlet put it, “with the pale cast of thought”.


See #   8     Sitting without goals

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