One of the most influential incidents in Zen was invented in China about a thousand years ago. The story is set in India during the life of the historical Buddha, 2500 years ago.
In this story the Buddha teaches “The Flower Sutra” – a teaching “without words.”
The Buddha sits before the assembly of monks. They wait for him to speak. He remains silent. Looking out at them he holds a flower, and turns it slowly in his hand. They sit in silence.
The Buddha scans the faces of the crowd. He sees perplexity on every one. They do not understand what he is doing, or what it might mean. There is only one exception: on the face of the great monk Mahakasyapa there is a smile. The Buddha recognizes what this means. This one disciple has understood.
In this story, as told in the Zen tradition, (cited by Heinrich Dumoulin in his History of Zen), the Buddha then says:
“I possess the true Dharma eye, the marvelous mind of Nirvana, the true form of the formless, the subtle dharma gate that does not rest on words or letters but is a special transmission outside the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahākāśyapa.”
A few generations after the appearance of this story a Japanese monk named Dogen imported a new stream of Chinese Chan to Japan. He wrote about it in a collection of essays he called the “Shobogenzo” – the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye – linking his work to this quote attributed the Buddha.
The event presented in The Flower Sutra is fundamental to Zen. It is used to show that there is, and always was, since the beginning of Shakyamuni Buddha’s teaching mission in this world, a transmission “beyond words,” a transmission of insight directly “from mind to mind,” “outside the scriptures.”
This incident, according to the Chinese Chan or Zen tradition, marked the inception of the Zen School. This is its validation of Zen as a true Buddhist school: it was taught by the Buddha himself.
This story was made up for a reason. It was useful as a teaching tool as well as to authenticate the new “tradition.” Even though there is no historical record of this story in the early Indian, Pali and Sanskrit traditions, its validity is not questioned in the Chinese and Japanese Zen traditions.
In fact it is canonical in East Asian Zen; it has been presented in the classical collections of stories since the 11thcentury. In this sense it is inside the scriptures. It is conveyed in words, and has been commented on by teachers in every generation. So it is not a teaching beyond words. It uses words to point beyond words. Like every teaching – in science, philosophy, engineering and art.
It is legitimate to ask whether the Flower Sutra is a teaching at all. If it is then what does it mean? Many commentators say it points to “thusness.” Very good. It also points to the wheel of life, the cycle of samsara, to cause and effect, to dependent origination, to impermanence, to change, to relativity, to the union of subject – object – action as one, and as distinguishable; to the union of perceiver and perception, and to every other category of Buddhist analysis that we might learn and use.
We could speculate on this forever. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It is not an invalidation of the story. But if it is a teaching, which Mahakashyapa understood, what did it teach? What does it teach now?
It may point to the reflection of mind in phenomena and to phenomena in mind, or to their indistinguishability; it may point to botany or to the utility of an apposable thumb. It may point to the potent relation of student to teacher, when minds are ripe for connection and exchange, in which spontaneous insight may appear.
Why be lured into saying it “means” anything? If it was meant to mean something other than itself you could just say what it means. You could say “remember thusness” or “it is what it is.” But then everything is what it is, in a way; and nothing is limited to being what it appears to be. Why turn a flower to point that out? Or maybe it is absolutely necessary to do just that, to touch the one mind that is prepared to be catalyzed at that moment, at that time and place, in just that way.
Why did no one but Mahakashyapa understand it? Why is there no report of what he understood? This was a sangha full of beings so graced by karmic accomplishment that they sat in the presence of the one Buddha to appear in this world and hear the teaching directly from him. Within the beliefs of early Buddhism this is a uniquely blessed condition.
Why do contemporary listeners to this story, and the commentators on this story for centuries, identify with Mahakashyapa and not with the perplexed congregation? That identification may be more revealing than the turning of the flower.
We might ask: Is it necessary to dismiss the use of language to convey spiritual knowledge? Why claim more authentic realization because you have set aside language, study, and linear, discursive thought? Why does the idea of being “the one who gets it” versus the multitude who do not, appeal to you? Is it true?
Zen fans and practitioners today, and many martial artists, instantly identify with Mahakshyapa when they hear this story. It is easy to think “I’m the one.” Noticing this directs our attention to an error Buddha’s teaching is designed to root out.
Mahakashyapa was highly trained. His training was ready to bear fruit. He had approached this threshold for a very long time. Now was his time to cross it. How did he prepare? What did he understand? What happened as a result? We never hear about that, in words. This silent gesture may be one way of sharing insight, but not the only way.
What is expressed, in words, from the beginning of Mahayana Buddhism, is that love and compassion for other living beings is the beginning of the path – and that taking personal responsibility for helping them out of suffering, helping them to find freedom and bliss – is how you travel the path. Without this there is no Buddhist life. Neglect this point and you are lost. The highest ideals of warriors and martial artists include providing protection for people and values which are in danger.
Words are useful. They are tools. Words point at things which are not the words themselves. They point our attention to the objects they refer to. When we know what they refer to they can help us transfer knowledge and understanding from mind to mind. In ancient times people might leave their camp and go to the woods seeking food. Then, when they all met up back in the camp later, one could say “there is a fruit tree over there” and people would understand what that was, why it mattered, and what to do about it.
Someone could say “There is a sabre tooth tiger.” And then they could all run, hide or fight. They could understand the object that the words referred to.
Maybe the flower the Buddha turned was a symbol, like a word, intended to point to something else. Maybe not.
Central to the motives of wordless Zen, is that words are themselves deceptive: they appear to refer to a bounded, discrete objects, when in fact the things referred to exist as interconnected, changing and transitory things. No problem if you are alerting your friends to an approaching tiger but a big problem if you are talking about the path to mastery, or perfection, or enlightenment.
In martial arts we call something a “punch.” We know what we mean. Kind of. In context. But different people’s punches are different from each other in many ways. We may call something a “block.” That might be interpreted as an interception of an incoming technique; a rerouting of an incoming technique; a strike to a forearm or a backfist to the jaw. If we call any of those things a “block” when we describe it then the label may mislead – it may confine the understanding of the technique to a range of uses and meanings that hide the meaning of the move. And the “block” doesn’t stay a block. Our arm, body and motion are all changing all the time. The “block” is not actually a thing. It is a temporary set of conditions, posture and motion, in the context of defensive movement. A word can point to this so-called block and we get it. But words can mislead. They can be imprecise, deceptive and changing, and yet remain a necessary tool to convey information from person to person.
Words intermediate between our perception and the objects we are perceiving. They make a connection between us and our world. They also create categories, so we can identify things that are similar, and learn from our experience. Our categories will include similar objects with similar characteristics.
We learn by labeling, by placing things in categories, and we get confused when individual members of a category do not share all the same attributes.
But still we need words. To learn. To share. To plan. To evaluate. But they can interfere when it comes time to experience directly, and when it is time to act. Then the words will disappear from view. But they will remain the lens through which we see our world, interpret our experience and find our place in it.
We read the map, then go. We read the plan, then build. We observe the expert’s waza, then move. No one mistakes the map for the road. The blueprint for the building. The teacher’s technique, or life, or mastery, for their own. You do not need to be a Zen Master to observe the distinction.
We can delete the words, signs and representations, when we finish with them. Not before. Is that the point of the “Flower Sermon?” If it is it has been omitted in the Zen tradition as it has come to us. The naive and shallow Zen assumes words are bad, direct experience good. Thought is bad. Silence is good. Analysis is bad. Spontaneity is good. Dualism is bad. Wholeness is good. But the whole program is presented as dualisms – of good vs. bad, advanced vs. primitive, good posture vs. poor, ignorant vs. enlightened. This is an incoherent use of language. It is not “beyond words.”
We can use martial arts as a corrective for misunderstood words and misused silence.
With this understanding we are free to move – and to be still. In silence or with sound, together or alone. Not talking. Not explaining. Not analyzing. Not interpreting. Because after a while there is no need to.
We have a scroll in our school that says “Damatte Keiko.” “Don’t talk. Just train.” As we practice we deepen our technique and master our body and mind. Then we are ready when the moment comes.
If you need to know something, seek the answer. Then, when the time is right, after long practice, instruction, reflection and polishing, the moment may come when your teacher shows you something and you will understand it immediately and deeply.
Maybe from that moment on nothing will be the same.
Then, if you need to do something, you can just act.
Post text and photo Copyright © 2019 by J. Michael Brooks and Mountain Karate, LLC
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