This isn’t the Buddha, although many websites say it is. So far I haven’t found it in any books.
“If we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe” is very similar to another Fake Buddha Quote that I’ve documented, “If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change.” That one’s from Jack Kornfield’s delightful “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book,” which is not a book of canonical quotes (as the name might suggest) but sayings that have been “distilled and adapted” for contemporary life.
Now that I’ve seen the two quotes side by side, I wonder if Jack distilled and adapted the “if we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe” quote.
Anyway, the quote I’m discussing here may well be an adaptation of something Borges wrote: “Tennyson said that if we could understand a single flower we would know who we are and what the world is” (“Jorge Luis Borges: A Personal Anthology,” page 136). This is so close to our suspect quote that I believe it is almost certainly the original template.
Borges’ reference is to Tennyson’s poem, “Flower in the Crannied Wall.”
Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
The closest the Buddha said to this that I’m aware of is that the entire world can be understood within this fathom-long body. This is from the Rohitassa Sutta:
“I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the world where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and distress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, endowed with perception and cognition, that I declare that there is the world, the origination of the world, the cessation of the world, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the world.”
The word “world” here doesn’t refer to the world of atoms and subatomic particles and forces, and all it makes up. It refers to the world of our experience. (Jayarava has an article on this topic.) The Buddha referred to this “world of experience” as being “the all” (sabba) and said that there’s nothing we can know outside of that. He’s not saying that there’s no external reality, just that all we can ever know if our experience of whatever external reality there might be.
You could be forgiven for thinking that if the Buddha’s saying we can understand ourselves then we’d understand the whole world in the sense that we’d know in detail how a computer works (or how to cure cancer, or to travel faster than light). But that’s not what he’s saying. His point (as I understand it) is that in looking closely at our experience of the body and mind we’ll understand the arising and passing away of our perceptions, thoughts, and emotions, and through doing that we can liberate ourselves from craving, aversion, and delusion, as well as the suffering they bring.
The association of both these quotes with the Buddha may arise from a story in the Zen tradition (not found in the earlier scriptures) where the Buddha is sitting silently with his monks (and presumably nuns, although inevitably they are ignored), and instead of delivering a discourse he holds up a single flower. One disciple, Mahakashyapa, smiled, showing that he had understood the Buddha’s teaching. This led to Mahakashyapa becoming the Buddha’s heir, and the first patriarch of the Chan (later Zen) lineage. This story is, of course, completely ahistorical. apart from anything else, the Buddha specifically chose not appoint any successor. But spiritual traditions, when their authority is called into question, like to create validating myths. And the story very elegantly makes the point that spiritual awakening is not a matter of understanding words, but of seeing/experiencing in a particular way.
(Thanks to Doni W. for bringing this quote to my attention.)