“I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
– Henry David Thoreau
The seed, so tiny and humble, is a powerful metaphor for countless interior processes. It’s no surprise that countless teachers, including the founders of just about every religion, use seeds to bring out attention to some very important aspects of life.
The seed is quite a fascinating phenomenon. On the most basic level, the seed is the means by which the plant reproduces itself. In the same way it’s hard to believe an entire human is contained in a zygote, it’s hard to believe that entire trees are contained in tiny kernels. Something that can grow to hundreds of feet tall can fit easily in the palm of your hand. The entire tree is contained in the seed, but equally true is that the entire forest is contained in the seed, since a single tree can give rise to countless others.
Many spiritual traditions see the seed as representative of transformation and the emergence of potentiality over time. In one of the best-known metaphors, in Mark 4:30-32 Jesus uses a mustard seed to communicate the idea that a new way of Being (what he called “the Kingdom of Heaven/Reign of God”) starts out small and inconspicuous, but emerges into something dramatically different over time.
“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it?It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
The “seeds” that he encouraged us to plant were those of forgiveness, nonviolence, generosity, and compassion. If we live our lives trying to apply these virtues, it might not seem like much is happening. But with enough patience, individuals and societies will become something that they could not foresee.
As with the growth of a seed, the growth of the Kingdom of Heaven cannot happen all at once or through force or expectation, but only as a result of cultivating patience and trust.
The Buddhist tradition also used seeds to convey teachings. The first line of the Dhammapada states, “Our life is shaped by our mind; we become what we think.” The idea is that thoughts are the seeds that give rise to actions, habits, and character. The seeds of unskillful or harmful behaviors lie in the mind. With awareness and practice, we can begin to dig up undesirable seeds (jealousy, anger, ignorance), and can even begin to plant new seeds for a happier future (by practicing the six paramita: generosity, ethics, patience, joyful effort, meditation, and wisdom).
Over time, with effort, your Buddha nature (enlightened consciousness) expresses itself more and more fully. This aspect of interior knowing (which goes by many names- Christ consciousness, Messiah, Atman, etc.) is lying there in wait, like a seed in the ground. Spiritual practice helps that seed to emerge and blossom.
Many mystics have said that the emergence of this enlightened potential in consciousness is the purpose of the universe (woo hoo! we finally got to that!). We should recognize the tremendous power of this “precious human birth” to consciously collaborate with this evolution and fully actualize the potential that we have within us.
Even if becoming Christs and Buddhas is our purpose and destiny, it is important to keep in mind that the fully-grown tree is no more perfect than the seed. The seed and tree are just at different stages of development.
In the same way, there are many human beings who seem very far from expressing their inherent enlightenment (Assad comes to mind), while others seem quite “advanced” (Dalai Lama perhaps?).
Looking at the issue that way, however, is only from a time-bound and limited perspective. If we could see the unfolding of consciousness from a larger vantage point, we would understand the paradox that all of us are already fully enlightened, but that we have to work to express it. We are already fully divine, but we just don’t realize it. We’re perfect, but there’s room for improvement, as the Zen saying goes.
Of course, many factors determine to what extent a seed can blossom, most notably the soil in which it grows. So perhaps natural place to continue would be to more thoroughly examine soil as a metaphor.