“If we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe.”

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.

And I believe that Tennyson borrowed this from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” written much earlier than “Flower in the Crannied Wall” but published in the same year:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand.
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.

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.)

8 thoughts on ““If we could understand a single flower we could understand the whole universe.””

  1. Also evokes Blake’s “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/And Eternity in an hour”.

  2. Interesting that you quote the Tennyson poem. Alas, I am rushing now so don’t have the time to source it properly but I remember reading somewhere a fascinating piece by I think a Zen Buddhist who lay that poem alongside – again I think – a haiku to contrast the classic Western/Eastern spirituality models.

    His point was that the western response to the beauty of the flower was to pluck it. To intervene in a brutal topdown way. Overpower and remove. Changing the landscape irrevocably etc etc.

    Whereas in the Japanese poem, the monk sits and observes in silence. Watches. Meditates. Then moves on leaving the flower in its natural place undisturbed. And crucially so that others may come along and have the same experience but in their own unique way etc etc

    Now, obviously big brushstroke generalisations there and I’m sure there’s loads of western poems where the poet just sits and appreciates. Daffodils come to mind! Likewise, I bet flowers weren’t always safe around passing Zen monks :)

    But it’s an interesting point and again, sorry I don’t have time to find the article/book now!

  3. My first thought when I saw this went to my guru. Well, not really in the traditional sense of the word. Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev. He is an enlightened being and possibly the most sensible I know of that is currently living. He once said how knowing oneself can lead to knowing the whole existence, because if we know the microcosm or the macrocosm then we know the opposite. Since we are also a manifestation of the same universe and so is everything else, knowing something in its entirety will lead to knowing oneself and existence.

  4. From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.
    “A Study in Scarlet”, -Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,

  5. I think the quote is, in some form, originally from Meister Eckhart (1260-1328).

    The quote “if one could understand a flower as it has its Being in God – this would be a higher thing than the whole world!” is attributed to Meister Eckhart in Mysticism: A Study in Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness by Evelyn Underhill.

    And in Gustav Landauer’s “Through Separation to Community” in Revolution and Other Writings, Landauer claims “The Old Meister Eckhart, the great heretic and mystic, was right when he said that if we were able to comprehend a little flower and its nature completely, we would comprehend the whole world”

    Unfortunately I cannot give page numbers or proper references – researching has becoming a little difficult during lockdown!

    1. Hi, Heather.

      Thanks so much for this

      That quote — “If one could understand a flower as it has its Being in God – this would be a higher thing than the whole world” is definitely from Eckhart. It’s found on page 404 of “The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart,” translated by Maurice O’Connell Walshe as:

      There is no life so feeble but, taken as it is being, it is nobler than anything that ever lived. I am certain that if the soul had knowledge of the least thing that has being, she would never depart for an instant from that thing. The meanest thing, known in God — if one were but to know a flower as it has being in God — that would be nobler than the whole world. To know the meanest thing in God as it is one being is better than to know an angel.

      (Incidentally, Walshe was a Buddhist scholar, and he translated Wisdom Publications’ edition of the Digha Nikaya.)

      But this quote is about knowing God through knowing that the flower has its being in God, and thus seeing the flower as “nobler than the whole world.” It doesn’t say anything about knowing the world through knowing the flower.

      If Landauer’s quote (which I believe dates to 1901) was paraphrasing this, it’s not a very good paraphrase, but it does sound like it could very well be the source of our quote. Having searched through “The Complete Mystical Works” for the keyword “flower” I haven’t found any variants of this saying.

      If that’s the case, it’s an amazing case of convergent evolution of thought, since the Blake-Tennyson-Borges lineage has ended up offering us a phrase that’s so similar! I wonder if Landauer’s interpretative paraphrase was influenced by references he’d seen to Tennyson or Blake?

      Anyway, when I have a moment I’ll update the article to take account of your finding.

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