Sweet Plum Blossoms

by Shoken Winecoff*
Abbot, Ryumonji Zen Monastery, Domchester, IA

“Unless a plum is chilled to its core, how can its blossoms smell sweet all over the ground?” - Eihei Dogen, 13th century Zen master. “The truth to live is just to live” - Katagiri Roshi.

I’ll be 70 this June! How did I get here? Impermanence is swift. Time waits for no one. It sends a certain chill to my core. It’s sobering! And yet there’s a sweet smell.

My life is 70 years past gone! I have maybe 10 – 20 – 30 years. Ha! We’ll see. We’re never ready! There’s always something else we would like to get done, even if it is to find our shawl.

When I was 50 I was three years in a Japanese monastery. As you approached the monastery, the front entry walk was lined with plum trees. Even in February and early March the plum trees provided an umbrella of sweet blossoms. They say in Japan that it is the chill that makes the blossoms smell sweet all over the ground.

There are always chills to life. These are the chills that help us to grow, that soften us, that produce a fragrance in our lives that we would never otherwise have. In the moment we wish the chill wasn’t so chilling. But in time we grow to appreciate the sweet smell of ensuing days.

I was sad when both my parents died. My mother was 67 when she died, my dad 91. But in their deaths I found a new part of myself. I now was the senior generation. The chill produced a fragrance that I could never imagine.

In the chill of the cold winter there is just living in vow. If you attach to desire, you come to resent the chills. Living in vow is just to get up in the morning. “The truth to live is just to live” - Katagiri Roshi. Be alive in the moment. Embrace the ten directions. Little by little blossoms appears. Chills produce the fragrance that makes the blossoms smell sweet.

In the morning just get up. Go to the zendo of your life, whether feeding babies, working on the computer, or chopping wood. Sit up straight in the moment at hand. Chant the Heart Sutra – in joy or in sorrow – in appreciation for all those beings who have lived before with the chills. Their continuity produces a fragrance to pass on to others. What more could be asked for?

Let’s continue to walk together hand in hand. We walk under the umbrella of plum blossoms that smell sweet all over the ground.

In gassho, Shoken

*Shoken Winecoff, Abbot of the Ryumonji Zen Monastery in Domchester, IA, can be contacted at www.ryumonji.org. My thanks to Eido Espe, teacher of the Zen Center in Des Moines, IA, for granting permission to reproduce Shoken’s essay, which appears in the monastery’s Spring 2009 “Dragon Gate” newsletter. Shoken is currently in Japan. 5/9