Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Rose . . . Would Smell as Sweet

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
— Shakespeare  

It’s 7 a.m., May 28. David is out fishing this morning with our two dogs, and I’m inside by the woodstove where it is toasty warm. Late May in Maine, still cool in the mornings. Earlier this week I chose An Arrow to the Heart, by Ken McLeod, for my “daily reading” book; each morning I read a few pages from a “special” book . . . it’s a routine, a practice, something that keeps me grounded and steady in the face of strong winds and choppy seas.

An Arrow to the Heart is a commentary on the Heart Sutra, one of the most popular Buddhist texts. It is home to these puzzling lines:

Form is emptiness.
Emptiness is form.
Emptiness is not other than form.
Form is not other than emptiness.

I’m looking forward to McLeod’s commentary to help me understand these words. But the first page in the book made me laugh . . . out loud. It simply says . . .

The Title: Heart Sutra
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. — Shakespeare

One summer when I was young, I think in junior high, I decided to read Shakespeare . . . all of his works. I didn’t quite reach my goal, but it was after all a bit lofty. I did get through a few plays and some sonnets. And that summer I encountered this line:

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

I remember it so clearly. A flash went off in my head, and my adolescent mind thought: all those swear words I recently learned are really meaningless! There’s nothing really wrong with the word “shit.” A rose could be called a shit and would still smell as sweet. Words don’t mean anything if you can substitute a different one and nothing changes. A rose could be called a chair; a chair could be called a boat. It’s all the same. Our mind, our collective mind, has given meaning to these words, but any combination of letters is really meaningless without the social overlay. That's when it happened: those black-and-white lines of Catholic doctrine started to blur.

So, some fifty years later, I open a book on the Heart Sutra and see those words: A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. What could I do but laugh? Things do have a way of going around and around.

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