Shundo Aoyama first entered a Zen temple at the age of 5, and became a priest at 15. She is one of the most well-known Zen masters in Japan and at 86 years old, she is still active in her teaching of the practice. Her book, Zen Seeds, is a collection of short reflections about life, compassionate love, and the beauty and joy to be found in a human life in spite of the hurdles and difficulties that present themselves.
Plum blossoms are all the more beautiful when the branches are covered with snow. They perfume the winter air. As I gazed out at some, I recalled the saying of an ancient sage: “A branch of plum blossoms harmonizes fragrantly with snow. ” The thought made me straighten up from being hunched over the table where I was sitting, since I realized that plum blossoms had something to teach me about life. Instead of succumbing to severe winter weather, they exude their fragrance, look noble in their garland of snow, and flourish.
A sad experience can easily discourage some people, leaving them feeling that everything has gone wrong, even taking away their courage to go on living. When they have to deal with an unpleasant situation or with suffering, some people try to escape, lie their way out of it, or blame someone else. Constantly comparing themselves with others, they may come to feel inferior. In this way, the unhappier they are, the more it warps and embitters them; eventually they may give up hope.
But consider this: plum blossoms that bloom in a greenhouse have no resistance to cold and no fragrance. Vegetables grown outside, exposed to the wind and rain, are much more delicious than those grown out of season in greenhouses.
The same may be said of human beings. What helps to enrich us and make us strong is not favorable circumstances, but failure, misfortune, or illness. What matters most is how we take misfortune. The saying “A branch of plum blossoms harmonizes fragrantly with snow” teaches us how to deal with difficult circumstances.
Zen Master Hakuin (1686—1769) wrote on a scroll, “Welcome the great Bodhisattva of Hell.” If one falls ill, one should welcome the illness with thanks. If misfortune strikes, learn from it. This is how I would like to live.