Beyond Name and Form

We have a habit of assigning names to things. Being a student of wildflowers, I marvel at all the common and Latin names given to plants. Those who hike with me sometimes roll their eyes when I spout off strange syllables assigned to a flower. But I find it brings a plant to life in ways otherwise hidden to me.

A wildflower might have a botanical name associated with a characteristic and/or the first European to observe it. Bitterroot (lewisia rediviva), for instance, is a small perennial herb originally given its Latin designation by a botanist who named it for Meriwether Lewis who collected specimens on his travels. Its specific epithet rediviva (“revived, reborn”) refers to its ability to regenerate from dry and seemingly dead roots. 

The common name, bitterroot, is a name assigned by French trappers who called it racine amera. It refers to the bitter taste of the edible root. Native peoples had many names including spetlum meaning “hand peeled”, a process of preparation. All names expand the mandala of the flower in many directions, freeing it from the prison of a single name and form.

Where common names are concerned, there are no standardized rules for naming a plant—and no generally agreed upon name. I call the bitterroot, “lotus of the desert”, as it usually grows on seemingly inhospitable arid terrain. The white to pink blossom appears after all its green foliage has disappeared, making it appear to float upon the sand. I take annual spring pilgrimages to see this wildflower offer its beauty to the world.

When I am on the trail, I often hear people say, “that is a pretty flower” or, “it is just another flower.” They walk on without knowing the vast world beyond the name. But, that is okay. Not everyone is going to be as nerdy as me. This is symbolic, however, of our tendency to be dismissive, to ignore a kind of understanding made available through deeper observation of what is in front of us.

We do this to people in our midst by assigning color, gender, style, etc. and hold them inside a little prison in our mind. This can easily lead to racism, sexism, or what I call “otherism.” The name has now distanced us from the form. But when we develop greater compassion, which only comes from discovering more about a person, we can free ourselves from any limiting name.

When Siddhartha Gautama realized his true nature and became called “Buddha” (awakened one), he was freed from his birth name. People were attracted to a radiant being who seemed to transcend limitation. Buddha’s teachings are all about becoming free of the limited dualistic thinking that leads to separating ideas of self and other.

So, on your next nature hike, you may consider diving into a wildflower with childlike curiosity and see what happens. It is helpful to carry a good flower identification guidebook. As your mind is stimulated to learn, you might see a Buddha laughing with joy.

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