The "Medicinal Herbs" chapter has always been my favorite chapter in the Dharma Flower Sutra, a beautiful and profoundly moving analogy. Today was also the last day of our DRBU (Dharma Realm Buddhist University) biology class on the trees and shrubs of Mendocino county. Interesting coincidence, but then the Dharma often works in this way. So tonight I'll try to speak some Dharma concerning pine cones. This here is a pine cone from right here in the CTTB (City of Ten Thousand Buddhas): it is rather large, halfway opened, and very pretty.
In the Sutra text the Buddha mentions the three-thousand- great-thousand world system. This is a huge concept, and I don't know if our minds can really grapple with the whole idea. But as the Venerable Master always said, the myriad dharmas can just as well be considered in terms of a single dharma. So we don't necessarily need to investigate the whole universe. We can focus just on Mendocino County, or Ukiah Valley, or our environment here at CTTB.
We are all aware that here in the City we have a complex mix of people, languages, and cultural backgrounds. But in addition to people we also have an impressive variety of other life forms: trees, shrubs, herbs, flowers--all kinds of plants from all over the world, coming from places as far apart as the Far East and the Mediterranean, Norway and North Africa. The variety of these plants is just as amazing as the variety of living beings, and the variety of Dharma doors the Buddha has provided for them. The sun and rain benefit every sort of plant according to its kind: from the dry, low-growing chaparral high on the eastern hills to the humid evergreen forests of the coast in the west, every species gets just its right share, just what it needs to grow. Similarly the Buddha provides 84,000 Dharma doors to bring living beings to maturity. The rain of Dharma nourishes living beings according to their roots and capacity, ignoring none, neglecting none.
What does this pine cone contain? Seeds. These seeds can be likened to the seeds of the Buddha nature inside of us, inside all living beings. These seeds need to come out, to be planted in the soil, to be nurtured so that they can grow strong and healthy. Plants have very ingenious and complex ways to transport and plant their seeds. Some seeds have tiny wings to propel them, others have hairy tails, still others have spiny burrs or tough nut cases to protect them while the seed waits for the right time, for the conditions to ripen. Often it is not a simple or easy matter for the seed to come out and be planted--it may take a great deal of time. The cones of some trees, especially cypress cones, take several years to open. Nuts of other trees may wait in the ground for years before the seed starts to grow. This is a real lesson in patience for us humans.
In our cultivation we, too, may experience times of waiting, great tests of patience, when nothing much seems to be happening. One may feel like one was stranded on a high desert plateau, engulfed by monotony. With nothing behind and nothing to look forward to, one wanders as if lost in a wasteland, where all conditions seem inimical to life. One's mind may feel totally parched and arid, totally unable to grow in any direction. The only thing one is able to do is to wait it out, endure the adverse states, and patiently wait for the Dharma rain to rejuvenate the stunted desert vegetation, to moisten one's mind.
Some seeds even seem to resist opening. Some nuts, like those of the black walnut, are incredibly hard. You need to hammer them in order to break the nut case, to get to the part that is sweet and delicious. Similarly, as Buddhist disciples we may be tough nuts to crack: stubborn, opinionated, clinging to our narrow views and bad habits. These kinds of disciples may need hammering, seemingly tough treatment, before their own best qualities emerge from under the tough casing of ingrained habits and faults. But inside it all is the seed that contains all the wonderful potential of growth towards Buddhahood.
Other seeds need a forest fire in order to be planted. The knobcone pine grows in the chaparral, and its cones need to be consumed in a brush fire to open up and release their seeds. A widespread brush fire like the one we had on the hills earlier this month is an impressive, even frightening, sight, and it may be hard to believe that new life and growth can result from this vast destruction. As Buddhist disciples we, too, may sometimes have to pass through ordeals by fire. We may have to suffer intensely, even die to our old selves. There doesn't seem to be any reason why anyone should suffer so much, yet, if we can pass the test, the resulting fruit will be rare and wonderful.
In nature, many animals and plants form symbiotic relationships with each other. In these relationships both life forms benefit each other. For example, some seeds need to pass through an animal's digestive tract before they can open. The benefit is mutual--the animal obtains food and simultaneously helps the plant distribute its seeds. Many factors help out in the distribution and growth of plant seeds: the sun, wind, rain, and soil provide the conditions, and animals and humans contribute, too. When we cultivate the Buddhadharma, we are not doing it alone, either. The Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Patriarchs of old are always there to lend us support and inspiration. And our Dharma brothers and fellow cultivators are close at hand, helping us in ways we may not even be aware of. So whether we are discussing plant or animal life or life in a human community, we are always connected with others, aided by others in innumerable ways. And the benefits are often mutual: in helping others one finds one is helping oneself.
Still, in nature many seeds or seedlings don't make it. Unlike the Buddha nature which is indestructible, plant seeds are perishable. But in nature nothing gets wasted purposelessly. These seeds don't benefit themselves or their species; instead they give up their life to nourish other living beings, other species. The seeds and plants consumed by other species become "gifts to the food chain"--such is the dana paramita [Perfection of Giving] of the plant world.
In conclusion, I would like to encourage everybody to keep his or her eyes open while walking around the City. We really don't have to seek far afield. All things speak the Dharma, if we only have the ears to hear, the eyes to see. With an open and appreciative mind we can learn from all species, listen to the Dharma that the redwoods, pines, sycamores, the flowers, or even the grasses speak... And as the winter rains will soon start, we might keep this chapter on "Medicinal Herbs" and the analogy of the Dharma rain nourishing all plants in mind while sloshing our way to the Buddha Hall.