Over the years, I performed around a hundred wedding and domestic union ceremonies. I’d usually end up tearing up at some point during the ceremony. Sometimes it was from feeling thrilled, like when a young man picked his bride right up out of her wheelchair to give her a proper wedding kiss. Sometimes the tears were from laughter, as when an entire congregation in a church yelled at the couple and me to go back up to the altar—I had neglected to ask them to kiss each other as husband and wife.
Sometimes I wept at the kindness of strangers. I remember a wedding nearly 20 years ago in a small town in Michigan, for a young lesbian couple whose families hadn’t been able to come to grips with their relationship and wouldn’t attend. Yet the couple found themselves walking up the aisle together in a church crammed with supportive people, people they didn’t even know. Their friends, filling the first few pews, had been joined by catering staff, church staff, their wedding planner and her assistant, and just about everyone else within hearing distance, including the groundskeeper.
But even now that I’m attending weddings, not performing them, I find that Buddhist weddings are the toughest to survive dry-eyed. I can usually make it through the beginning, when the young couple bow to their parents to thank them for having brought them into the world so they could meet each other; for sharing their wisdom so they can tap into it for the difficult times during a shared future; and for teaching them about love, so they won’t have to start from scratch. The readings and candle lightings that follow the bows? No problem. When the couple exchange flowers, though, pretty much everyone loses it.
The flower-exchange tradition comes from an old Buddhist story about Shakyamuni Buddha, several lifetimes before he became a Buddha. In it, he is a gorgeous young warrior, known for his kind deeds and bravery. One day he is walking along a road when a young woman, seeing him, falls instantly in love. She uses all of her money to buy him a bouquet of flowers. Accepting the flowers, the young warrior recognizes her love and promises her that, in a future life, they will be together. She will know it’s him, he tells her, because he will give her a bouquet of the very same flowers.
Many Buddhist weddings celebrate this concept of a lifetime-after-lifetime love with a flower exchange. Both people choose the type of flowers they want to give to their mate, and then hide them until the right moment in the ceremony. As the flowers come out, the couple explain why they made their choices to all of us witnessing the ceremony. We learn about experiences they’ve shared, traditions from their families, or, in one instance, which flowers were on sale that day at Fred Meyer. While most couples choose roses, symbolic of lifelong love, others select wildflowers or even tiny wild plants. A surprising number of birds of paradise have appeared. Maybe this is because, in the language of flowers, they mean “I adore you.” Sunflowers, another favorite, reflect the light that the person brings to the relationship. The couple are asked to remember these flowers and to use them as a way to illustrate their shared intimacy; sometimes as a reminder of the immeasurable love they share, sometimes as a deeper-than-words-can-go apology.
If I were still performing weddings today, I would ask every witness to the ceremony to use the same flowers in each of their lives as a reminder of the great gift that love is and how each and every one of us deserves to feel its splendor. Those of us not attending any Buddhist weddings in the near future can make up our own bouquets and share them with the people we love. May that be everyone we know.
The Language of Flowers
Every flower has a meaning. Use this list to choose the right blossom for your love story.
Red roses—beauty that beams out
Gerbera daisies—a life lit up
Red poppies—dreaming of you
Daphne—a yearning to please