That one spring day when I smelled the sweet fragrance of the common purple lilac,* I became aware of myself in the world and the environment. Before that moment, I have only fuzzy fragments of memories—nursery class at the internment camp at Rohwer, Arkansas; Obon dance music; shaved ice; early morning breakfast in the mess hall; the “L-train” in Chicago when my father got a job as a welder in the shipyard; the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis;” the African-American porter on the train coming home to California when WW II ended; my mother holding my feverish sister on that train; listening to the howling wind at night in a dark house on the levee of the San Joaquin River; our milk cow that got loose and drowned in the river; crossing the river on a ferry; walking down the back stairs to the outhouse; taking a bath in the washtub in the kitchen–It all seemed like I was dreaming.
I was about four years old when suddenly one day, I smelled the lilacs! Out of the blue, I was in another place, away from the river. The scent of the lilacs was so intense, I felt as though I had awakened from my dreams and was fully conscious. I felt intensely alive for the first time in my young life. I was standing beneath a walnut tree near the kitchen to my right. On my left, there was a clothesline, and the chicken coop was next to the clothesline. The ranch house where we lived was in the middle of a hundred-acre grape vineyard. The lilac bush was about ten feet in front of me; the sweet fragrance was intoxicating. This was the first time in my childhood that I could remember such detail in my environment: I was fully aware of everything around me.
I can still remember that moment as though it were only yesterday, but I don’t remember anything else as vividly between that time and now, over sixty years ago. The lilacs seemed to jolt me out of a dream world that day. I can no longer smell anything, but I’m thankful that I had that one memorable day when I was able to know the sweet scent of lilacs.
There is a dark side to smelling the lilacs. I was allergic to them, as well as all other plants that produced pollen. Every spring I suffered, unable to breathe through my nose, feeling as though I was suffocating. My eyes were itchy and blood-shot, my eyelids became crusted shut when I slept. The lilacs were like a curse, as well as something to enjoy. Little did I know that the lilacs that had given me so much pleasure that one special spring day would cause such misery, clogging my nose so badly that I could breathe only through my mouth.
When I reflect on the positive and negative effects the lilacs had on me, it seems that the flowers were an upaya, teaching me about life’s realities, that things don’t always go the way we like. When I picked some to put in front of the Obutsudan—family altar–, the flowers eventually shriveled and died, even though they were in a vase filled with fresh water. I realized, at the young age of six, that when flowers are cut from the main plant, they do not last as long as they do when they remain uncut—a lesson on impermanence.
I don’t see many lilacs now, but when I do, I immediately recall that one special day I became fully alive and consciously aware of the experience of the sweet fragrance of the common purple lilacs.
*There are several kinds of lilacs in different colors and shades of purple; I’m not familiar with the scent of the others, but, just as each person is unique, I’m addressing the unique scent of a specific variety of lilacs, the “Common Purple Lilac.
Edi Sasaki is a Lay Minister with Bright Dawn Way of Oneness Sangha. For information about Bright Dawn and the Lay Ministry program please visit our website.