Buddha Holds Up A Flower & Confuses Everyone

Picture this: you go through an existential crisis so overwhelming that you leave everything behind and become a homeless spiritual seeker.

You survive by begging, and go from philosopher to philosopher trying to resolve your doubts. You endure the elements and disappointment. No matter where you go, you don’t seem to fit in, and even though some of the teachings and methods help, none of them help you move through your suffering.

Then you meet some wanderers who belong to Siddhartha Gautama’s Sangha. They call him the Awakened One, the World Honored, the One Who Is Thus. You’re intrigued and decide to tag along with them for awhile. The teachings make sense, and the methods suit you well, so you ask to join the Sangha.

Even though you’re cruising right along, you still have questions that your new friends can’t answer. So, you all make the long journey to Vulture Peak so that you can get teachings directly from the Buddha.

Once you get there, you’re awed by how many monastics and laypeople are quietly assembled. The crowds are usually loud at such gatherings, but everyone there seems so composed, respectful, and at ease. After a few minutes, you see the Buddha come out of a hut. You can feel an electric expectation rush through the assembly.

The Buddha sits down and looks over the crowd. Everyone waits, poised and hungry for another insightful teaching. The silent seconds tick by, the crowd gets a little restless. Why isn’t he saying anything? What does this mean? Should I ask a question? I wish someone would.

Instead of speaking, Buddha reaches down, plucks a flower, and holds it up before the assembly. He looks from person to person, observing their reactions. Everyone’s uncomfortable and confused, not knowing what to do.

Then, Mahakashyapa—a senior monk—smiles. Buddha smiles back, hands Mahakashyapa the flower and says to the assembly, “I have said what can be said. What cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa. The light of the true dharma eye which is birthless, deathless, wondrous, the real form of no-form, delicate, the true teaching.” He looks at Mahakashyapa and says, “You must cherish it.” Then he gets up and goes back to his hut.

The crowd disperses and you find yourself with your group of friends. Everyone’s trying to analyze what just happened. What does the flower mean? Why did they smile? What secret teaching did Mahakashyapa just receive? Why didn’t we get it? Are we not good enough, do we need to cultivate more merit?

What the fuck, right? Imagine going through all that seeking, and hearing about the Buddha’s reputation as an excellent teacher, only to see him hold up a flower and speak vaguely about something that’s supposedly beyond words. I might be a little disappointed.

The Flower Sermon is considered the first Zen teaching. After that, Mahakashyapa passed it on to Ananda, and then Ananda passed it. It went from person to person for about a thousand years before making its way to China with Bodhidharma. Once it got to Sixth Ancestor Huineng, the one to one aspect of it changed. Huineng shared the teaching with hundreds of people, and many of them passed it on to hundreds or dozens more eventually forming particular lineages that exist to this day.

I’m guessing that the Flower Sermon is mostly fictional. It’s possible that a Chinese Chan teacher used a similar technique at some point, and then a student loved it so much that they solidified its place in history by attributing it to the Buddha. Also, the lineages of Dharma transmission are probably fictional as well. The patriarchal, mind-to-mind transmission thing seems like the invention of one of Huineng’s students, and it didn’t fully become a formal fixture in Zen until around the Song Dynasty.

Does that mean what all this points to is BS as well? Not at all. I can vouch for it, and many others can too. The confused part of it is thinking it’s about the student and teacher. Really, it’s all about reality.

Everyone was on a different page in the Flower Sermon assembly. They were all distracted and burdened by expectations, questions, and preferences to the point that they couldn’t see what was really happening: the Buddha holding up a flower and enjoying a moment. Mahakashyapa smiled because he was there. He was there with the Buddha and the flower, not stuck in his head or off in la-la land.

Mahakashyapa and the Buddha had the same mind in that moment, a mind free of preferences, expectations, questions, answers, judgments, and desires. That’s all transmission is, it isn’t like a beam of light flew from the Buddha’s head into Mahakashyapa (even though that does happen in some Sutras). It was magical, but it was ordinary magic. The magic of everyday life.

That everyday mind is birthless and deathless because it’s free of self-views. It’s wondrous because it’s so common, and yet it can’t be described. It’s delicate because it’s easy to forget it, misunderstand it, and overlook it. It’s the form of no-form because it’s the basis of all knowledge, views, and experiences.

It’s like a flash of light that shines on everything without picking and choosing. And then, that’s it, we can just go about our business. Maybe we choose to keep studying and practicing, maybe we drop Buddhism altogether and just live. Maybe we take a bunch of vows and put on robes—it’s all acceptable.

But one thing’s important: if you do find yourself in Mahakashyapa’s shoes, it’s harmful to try and keep wearing them or to seek them out again. A lot of people go chasing after Awakening after they’ve had an Awakening. That’s besides the point. Once you Wake Up, you don’t need to Wake Up again. That’s Seon Master Subul’s view anyway, and I agree with him.

We only need to have our heads explode with a light that burns away all suffering one time in life, there’s no need for a repeat performance. It’s like Alan Watts said, “When you get the message, hangup the phone.”

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