A conversation with Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh about his prose poem “A Rose for your Pocket”
Quảng Kiến: Most Respected Teacher, as we understand it, after you wrote the short text, “A Rose for your Pocket”, you started the tradition of wearing roses to remember the kindness and love of parents. Could you please share with us: when did this tradition first begin, and where? This tradition is very beautiful, but also relatively new for our culture. Did you encounter any difficulties when you proposed it?
Thầy: I had no intention to begin the tradition of wearing roses to commemorate one’s parents. The tradition just began spontaneously, on its own. It also came as a surprise to me!
Back in 1962, after nine months of doing research in the Comparative Religion at the Princeton Theological Seminary, I spent the summer break at Camp Ockanickon in Medford, New Jersey, USA. During the day, I engaged in social activities and spoke to young people about Vietnamese culture and went boating on the lake. At night, I wrote. I wrote the short prose poem, “A Rose for your Pocket” in a wooden hut that the young people reserved for me.
After I finished writing, I sent it to my disciples in the Saigon Buddhist Student Union, which I led at the time. The article was then sent to Ms. Trương Thị Nhiên. Ms. Nhiên and the group of students were very touched after reading it, so they were determined to share it with everyone. They planned to write three hundred copies by hand, as gifts for their friends studying in the faculties of Saigon University. Each copy included a red flower for those whose mother was still alive, and a white flower for those whose mother had passed away.
On the full moon of the seventh month of that year, they gathered together at Xá Lợi Temple to celebrate the very first Rose Ceremony. Tôn Thất Chiểu, a member of the Buddhist Student Union, sent the article to Most Venerable Thích Đức Tâm, who was then editor-in-chief for the monthly journal, “Liên Hoa” that belonged to the Central Sangha. The Liên Hoa Journal published the entire article under the title “Looking Closely at Mother”. Most Venerable Trí Thủ, the teacher of Most Venerable Đức Tâm, read the article in the monthly Liên Hoa magazine and was moved to tears.
After that, “A Rose for your Pocket” was printed many times, and a number of temples also began to organize the Rose Ceremony. Since then, the Rose Ceremony has become a tradition. I don’t think there were any obstacles encountered when this movement was spreading.
In 1964, the Lá Bối Publishing House introduced to readers a pamphlet with its current title, “Bông hồng cài áo” (“A rose for your pocket”), printed in rectangular format so that they could be put in envelopes and sent to friends on the occasion of Vu Lan (Ullambana, an occasion to an occasion to remember and offer our love and support to deceased parents, or friends and family who are suffering, as proposed by the Buddha to his senior disciple Mahamogallana). This pamphlet had to be reprinted many times. In 1965, the modern Vietnamese folk opera group “Thanh Minh Thanh Nga” directed and performed a play called “A Rose for your Pocket”, and invited me to attend.
In Vietnam as well as abroad, the text of “A Rose for your Pocket” has been translated and printed into many languages, including English, French, German, Dutch, Chinese, Russian, Thai and Lao.
Quảng Kiến: According to you, Most Respected Teacher, what are the similarities and differences between Mother’s Day in Japan [where you first encountered the tradition of remembering one’s mother with a flower on the lapel] and Vu Lan (Ullambana) in the Vietnamese culture?
The Rose Ceremony in Plum Village every summer since 1983 has been held in the Vietnamese spirit, different from the Japanese tradition. This festival is not only to honor mothers, but also to remember and honor fathers. Each individual can wear two roses, one for their mother and one for their father. The flower for the father is slightly raised to distinguish it from the flower for the mother. A red rose will be worn for our father if our father is still alive, and a red rose for our mother if our mother is still alive.
Quảng Kiến: Many people wonder why you chose roses and not any other kind of flower? Is it simply because the rose is a flower that symbolizes love?
Thầy: We should understand that the word hồng in “hoa hồng” means red. (rather than pink, as in a literal translation.) Wearing roses means wearing red flowers. Some people use red carnations, for example – we don’t necessarily have to use roses. When our mother is no longer alive, or our father is no longer alive, then we pin a white flower.
In 1995, my Taiwanese disciples organized the first Rose Ceremony in Taiwan. They used red and white carnations for the ceremony. If their parents were still alive, they wore red carnations. If their parents passed, they wore white ones. Any flower is fine, including orchids.
Quảng Kiến: Composer Phạm Thế Mỹ has composed the well-known song “Bông hồng cài áo” from your poem. The success of this song contributed to bringing the Rose Ceremony deep into the Vietnamese culture, and the hearts of its people. Could you tell me how you felt when you listened to that song – for the first time and now?
Thầy: Phạm Thế Mỹ composed “Bông hồng cài áo” very easily and naturally like breathing in and out, like taking a walk, like drinking a cup of tea. I don’t see myself and him as two different people when I listen to “Bông hồng cài áo”. It was like that in the past, and now it is still the same.
Quảng Kiến: As someone who cares very much for the younger generation in Vietnam in particular and young people around the world in general, what message would you like to share with the youth?
Thầy: The Rose Ceremony is not just for us to remember the kindness and love of our parents. We must know how to practice looking deeply. That is to say, we must practice meditation and reflection in our daily life. We must recognize all the talents, virtues, and beauty we have received from our mother and father. Then you can see that your parents are not outside of you, but are within you. We are the continuation of our father, we are the continuation of our mother, and we bring them with us into the future. We must know how to smile for our mother, breathe for father and walk for both. Continuing our parents beautifully is the most concrete way we can express our love and gratitude.
If you ever have difficulties with your parents, please do not think that they don’t love you. Maybe some mistakes or difficulties in their past created layers of suffering that weighed down and obscured that love. We know if anything did happen to us, our parents would cry all their tears. And if something happened to our mother or father, we would also cry until our eyes turn red. We should recognize that they themselves must have had a lot of suffering and difficulties. They suffer, and haven’t been able to transform that suffering, so they transmit that suffering to their children. We are no different. We suffer because of misunderstandings, because of anger; and as a result, we may also have accidentally spoken unkind words or reacted unkindly to our mother and father.
Each party shares a part of the responsibility. Seeing the suffering of our parents, we find a way to help them. We must know how to express our deep regret, and apologize for the times when we were unable to help them, but instead we made them suffer more. We can use the method of deep listening and loving speech to restore communication, to rebuild our relationship. I have many disciples who have been able to do that, Vietnamese as well as non-Vietnamese.
There are young people who are not yet so skillful and have committed suicide as an act of desperation, but also an act of punishment. Punishing the people who made them suffer – in this case, those who gave them this life. We were born to love, not to punish. To die like that is to fail in this purpose of loving; it is a great sadness.
If you are a practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings, you must know that the teachings have the power to transform garbage into flowers; to turn afflictions into Bodhi (awakening); to bring to life the source of love, even from the dead corpse of hatred. Our parents are Buddhas. Don’t go looking for the Buddha anywhere else. If you can say something or do anything to make your mother happy, to make your father happy, do it right away, don’t wait until tomorrow, or I’m afraid it could be too late. Read “A Rose for your Pocket” to remember exactly that.
If you are wearing a white flower [to remember a deceased parent], contemplate that your mother and father are still in you and present in every cell of your body. Raise your hand and look at it. You will see that this hand of yours is also the hand of your father and mother. In your hand, there are the hands of your parents. Now place that hand on your forehead, gently, lovingly. You will see that it is your mother’s hand, your father’s hand, that is resting on your forehead. Isn’t it wonderful?
Chúc Phúc – Quảng Kiến (Giác Ngộ Monthly Journal 2008)