One Sunday, while Seung Sahn Soen-Sa was staying at the International Zen Center of New York, there was a big ceremony. Many Korean women came, with shopping bags full of food and presents.
One woman brought a large bouquet of plastic flowers, which she smilingly presented to an American student of Soen-sa’s. As quickly as he could, the student hid the flowers under a pile of coats. But soon another woman found them and, with the greatest delight, walked into the Dharma Room and put them in a vase on the altar.
The student was very upset. He went to Soen-sa and said, “Those plastic flowers are awful. Can’t I take them off the altar and dump them somewhere?”
Soen-sa said, “It is your mind that is plastic. The whole universe is plastic.”
The student said, “What do you mean?”
Soen-sa said, “Buddha said, ‘When one’s mind is pure, the whole universe is pure; When one’s mind is tainted, the whole universe is tainted.’ Every day we meet people who are unhappy. When their minds are sad, everything they see, hear, smell, taste, and touch is sad, the whole universe is sad. When the mind is happy, the whole universe is happy.
“If you desire something, then you are attached to it. If you reject it, you are just as attached to it. Being attached to a thing means that it becomes a hindrance in your mind. So ‘I don’t like plastic’ is the same as ‘I like plastic’— both are attachments.
“You don’t like plastic flowers, so your mind has become plastic, and the whole universe is plastic. Put it all down. Then you won’t be hindered by anything. You won’t care whether the flowers are plastic or real, whether they are on the altar or in the garbage pail. This is true freedom. A plastic flower is just a a plastic flower. A real flower is just a real flower. You mustn’t be attached to name and form.”
The student said, “But we are trying to make a beautiful Zen Center here, for all people. How can I not care? Those flowers spoil the whole room.”
Soen-sa said, “If somebody gives real flowers to Buddha, Buddha is happy. If somebody else like plastic flowers and gives them to Buddha, Buddha is also happy.
“Budhha is not attached to name and form, he doesn’t care whether the flowers are real or plastic, he only cares about the person’s mind.
“These women who are offering plastic flowers have very pure minds, and their action is Bodhisattva action. Your mind rejects plastic flowers, so you have separated the universe into good and bad, beautiful and ugly. So your action is not Bodhisattva action. Only keep Buddha’s mind. Then you
will have no hindrance. Real flowers are good; plastic flowers are good.”
Excerpted from Dropping Ashes in the Buddha: The Teaching of Zen Master Seung Sahn (New York: Grove Press, 1976)