Our Service today was Intergenerational, celebrating together our diversity as a congregation. As with our previous 'Fifth Sunday' Service, we considered the role of the changing seasons in helping us to move along our spiritual journeys, and our day-to-day activities.
The focus of the Service was Cherry Blossom, Sakura in Japanese. We had songs, guided meditation, and a story. The Sermon pulled these different aspects together. The words are below, or an MP3 is available to download by clicking the link at the top of this post. The beautiful picture above is available on a number of websites, and I am therefore unable to credit the original artist.
The beauty of the cherry blossom.
In Japan, as evidenced in part by the song we have just sung, the cherry blossom holds a special place in national culture. The Cherry Blossom Festivals, starting in April, are a time when families, couples, and individuals will make a deliberate effort to go out and see the cherry blossom on the trees.
In Japan, as elsewhere, cherry blossom is a true mark of Spring. It is a beautiful reminder of the glory of this Earth. A return of light, natural beauty after a period of darkness and rebirth. The clouds of blossom that a cherry tree will produce are the clouds of dreams of a new year.
An important part of the appreciation of the cherry blossom for Japanese people is to take time to stop and simply look at the flowers of the cherry tree.
Not a casual glance and comment on the beauty. But to really stop and look hard at the flowers.
To concentrate. To focus. To marvel at this glorious feat of nature.
When you start to look closely at flowers you begin to notice the intricacy and complexity of each one. How no two flowers are identical. How even no two petals are quite the same.
And yet, in the blizzard of white and pink, it is only by concentrating on the individual parts that you become truly aware of how so many similar but different parts are able to make one amazing whole. The single, enormous cloud of blossom that surrounds the tree is in fact not a cloud, but rather a crowd thousands upon thousands of tiny parcels of beauty. Each wonderful in its own way, each amazing and beautiful when studied close up.
And yet together, these thousands upon thousands of petals make individual flowers, amassed on a single branch. Alongside hundreds of other branches. To a single explosion of colour and dreams.
Japanese society is, like most societies, influenced by the religions that have been strongest in the country for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. And in Japan there are two core religious traditions, Shinto and Buddhism.
In different ways, both Buddhism and Shinto have a reverence for nature at the heart. Buddhism is not so straightforward – there is a complex notion, depending on the tradition you follow, that can suggest that neither humans nor nature are of greater value than each other – but that both are of little value, since all is transient.
That is, perhaps, a route we might consider another time.
I would like instead to consider the great truths that exist and are manifest in Shinto.
At the heart of Shinto lies the idea that wa (or ‘benign harmony’) is inherent in all human relationships and in nature itself. In Shinto, the idea that things must be kept to order and in agreed places is essential.
To break that balance, to undertake an individual action that disrupts our relationship with each other or with nature is simply unacceptable. Should it happen, we must be prepared to apologise – to take responsibility for our actions and recognise when we have upset the natural order of things. But it goes wider than simply understanding our individual responsibility.
Shinto instead reminds all that we are part of a greater single thing. That imbalances in society or the natural world, or both, are as much our own responsibility as it is someone else’s. We are part of the collective. Despite our individuality and personal thought, we are a part of a much larger community.
The beauty of the individual cherry blossom, as wonderful as it is, will never compete with the collected ordered flowering glory of the cherry tree.
This idea can of course feel quite alien to us in our Western world. We see everyday the encouragement to be different. We are told it is good to be different. And this takes many forms.
To be different might mean to self-promote, to try and be different to everyone else at school, at home, at work. We are all X-Factor contestants. Well, I suspect we are not. And we know, don’t we, that if everyone was like an X-Factor contestant in real life, every day, it would all get a little boring.
But before we get too smug about our wholesomeness, we might want to keep in the back of our minds that we, as Unitarians, have proudly waved our Non-Conformity as a battle flag. We are different. We will not do something just because we are told to. We need to be persuaded there is good reason behind it.
And yet we are all human. We are all people. Some of us are men or boys, some are women or girls. But we are all human.
And we are all part of this planet. And we are all responsible for this planet. And we are all responsible for the actions of humans on this planet. And maybe that hope for a benign harmony. A time and a place where we are in complete harmony with nature.
Our poems today, those by Karla Kuskin and Langston Hughes remind us of the importance of being at one with nature. And the story of Rengetsu, the Buddhist nun who was able to witness the glory of a golden moon through the beautiful cherry blooms is surely an image we can all aspire to see.
The excitement we feel deep inside when we are facing the emerging flowers and growth of Spring. Or the pleasure we sometimes feel when we allow the rain to drop softly onto us. We are happy under a shower. Perhaps we could be happy under the rain sometimes!
These are the reminders perhaps of the sacred web of existence if which we are each an equal and important part. Our relationships with our families, with our friends, here in the congregation and elsewhere.
Our part in society, the difference we are able to make to people’s lives through kindness and generosity of spirit.
Our impact on the world around us. This world of wonder and amazement, which we can so easily take for granted.
We are part of this world. Each and every one of us.
‘Let us give thanks and praise’, are the words of a great hymn (that we are not going to sing today!). Let us give thanks and praise.
How can we not give thanks and praise for the wonderful opportunities that life can present to us.
Spring is a time of rebirth, renewal, revitalised interest in life and love and the future.
And like the plants emerging from the winter, it is only ourselves that can fully complete this rebirth. We can use the warmth of the sun, the freshness of the rain. But the growth and rebirth comes from within us. It cannot be put there by anyone or anything else. It is a part of us and, as such, part of everything else.
And like the blossoms on the trees, it is beautiful.
We have thought today about the beauty of the Earth.
We have used the image of a cherry blossom wood to open our minds to rebirth and renewal
We have made promises to ourselves on steps we will take to change our lives for the better. We have made written reminders to help us follow those through.
We are one, we are many. We are beautiful.