East, Love, and Lavender
On the lavender farm of East Marion’s Lavender By the Bay, one gets the feeling of being lost. Despite the French and English lavender only rising a few feet above the soil, the purple directs the eyes to unwinding rows that are reminiscent of cornfields. In the near distance, a Chinese woman crouches among the radiant bloom where more purple flowers stream from her hair and stretch out in all directions. Thousands of bees find their flight paths between crevices of the plants, culminating in a sound that is a low blissful murmur. This, perhaps, is what “Nam myoho renge kyo” translates to, the phrase that is the motto of the Soka Gakkhai International-USA chapter of Buddhism, which literally means “I devote myself to the Lotus Sutra of the Wonderful Law,” but extends to imply a habit of listening to the world around us, an oral practice of attaining patience, compassion, and courage.
I am handed a business card of SGI-USA from a Chinese woman who tells me of the chapter’s residence in Union Square of Manhattan, and how this lavender farm out east has become a popular landmark for her friends, family, and fellow Buddhists. She points over toward two men. “He is from Flushing,” she says, “and the smaller one is from Hong Kong.” She tells me how uncommon lavender farms are in Asia, but how essential the crops’ yields are to their culture. Lavender soaps, satchels, pillows, oils, honey ¬¬ all are sold at the store just steps from the farm, and tourists fill their wicker baskets with freshly cut stalks or other artisanal products.
What is interesting, though, is how uncommon lavender fields are to Americans as well; this is one of six farms in New York and the only one on Long Island. Walking through one is a sensual encounter unlike anything that can be experienced in traditional farm fields or wineries. The scent is invigorating and overpowering, and there is a certain element of wildness, disorder, to how the plants grow around each other. Even the English and French varieties are in quiet contention with one another: the English plants are bitter to the scent and sweet to the taste while the French are opposite. We might as well be talking about people. “It’s romantic,” another woman tells me while trying to locate her husband between the rows. “It’s hard to not be happy here.”
And one has to be aware of this physical happiness, the impressionable supplication of the flowers and how they jolt from their brownish bases, pointing toward the sun; how, too, the bees idle along their stems, as if nurturing their trust. One of the farm’s staff members shows me how the bees don’t scurry off when guests put their fingers along the lavender. It is a natural confluence of nature and people — that is so long as this balance is respectfully maintained. The Buddhist faith teaches a fine attunement to the senses and, specifically, symbiotic respect – and better off that Buddhists practice it rather than simply espouse it. Opposite the sign that reads “Welcome to six acres of fresh lavender” is a sign written in all Chinese, detailing the rules and regulations of lavender picking. It is clear that Lavender By the Bay has well-accommodated the Asian visitor population that has surged of late, and also that this very population has stopped nothing short of spreading the word themselves [I should mention that the SGI-USA headquarters are located just blocks from Union Square, where Lavender By the Bay participates in weekly farmer’s markets]. But the act of physically traveling (by tour bus, mind you) to see and walk through the farm augments Buddhists capacity for happiness. Or it at least provides a natural beacon for pleasure.
Despite the sound of wheels rolling on gravel when cars pull in to park, the farm seems isolated from main road, route 25, traffic. Out there, though, cars line the sides of the grass, and recently there have been complaints about this. It is typical of small town posturing, the likes of which will make it into an editorial letter or, at best, a town board meeting. But the reality is that traffic has increased if only because the reward that lies behind the store is magnificently generous.
I walk alone between the lavender, trying to remember the title of the movie the Chinese woman had told me, the one about two lovers who find romantic delight within their own lavender field. It’s a popular movie, she had said, and has brought many people to East Marion, as if recreating one of its scenes. I think about my own girlfriend and wonder if I should purchase one of those organic lavender-scented soaps for her, or an eye-pillow, whatever that may be. But my girlfriend is in Italy for a month, and I question too whether she would find this gift as becoming second-hand than having experienced the lavender herself. What does that say about time and place, that we can’t distill it within a gift box?
The last time, and perhaps the only time, I was in a Buddhist church, I had purchased a spiritual battery-run candle that was supposed to recite a prayer whenever you clicked it on. It was a gaffe, something I purchased to get out of the admission fee of eight dollars. Walking onto the field today, I noticed the same fee amount. I looked around at the Asian tourists, many of whom snapped pictures and laughed into each other’s t-shirts. I figured if they could find it in their hearts to pay for happiness, then so could I. Most pleasure isn’t found as cheaply.