The Buddha Twirls A Flower

In the Flower Sermon, Shakyamuni Buddha passes something to his disciple, Mahakashyapa. According to the story, Shakyamuni is on the teaching seat surrounded by his disciples. But instead of giving the usual kind of lecture, he holds up a flower and gives it a twirl. His disciple, Mahakashyapa smiles. Whereupon the Buddha 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 rely on words or letters but is a special transmission outside of the scriptures. This I entrust to Mahakashyapa.”

Did this actually happen? Who knows. It was a long time ago. But it’s a famous story that’s a favorite among Zen practitioners. Whether it happened or not, it’s often cited as the first example of Zen teaching. The Flower Sermon presents a teaching without using words (at least up until the Buddha’s florid commentary) or referring to scriptures. A teaching about a direct experience that can’t be described.

It’s good to keep this idea of indescribability in mind given the jillions of pages of Buddhist writings, hours of talks (including this one), and now hours of Zen on YouTube. We can’t resist using words and words and words for something we think can’t be expressed in words. We use words to try to express our understanding, and also to express confusion and yearning to understand what we’re doing here and what it means. And even while we’re using all these words, we know we’re not really getting it perfectly right. If we’re honest, we admit we’re not getting it perfectly right. This is true whether you’re a poet, a novelist, a journalist, or a Zen teacher. Still, as Katagiri Roshi said, “you have to say something.” And of course, the Buddha was actually saying something when he held up the flower.

The Flower Sermon isn’t a teaching about beauty or about nature, or about natural beauty as holding the secret to enlightenment. The Buddha wasn’t the original flower child. So what was Mahakashyapa smiling about? (Apparently, the Chinese way of saying it is “Mahakashyapa’s face cracked.”) What did he understand? And what about that flower? Really, the Buddha could have held up anything. A leaf, a rock, a piece of cloth. An iPod. A cheeseburger. Or nothing at all. An empty hand.

The Buddha was teaching about the essential nature of reality, an essence not separate from the everyday. It’s the essence we can experience of any and every thing, of every moment. It is just “thus!” Sometimes it’s called “thusness.” The experience of just thus. The Buddha could have held up anything and expressed this perfectly. It sounds mysterious and abstract. It is, but it’s also basic. But saying it’s basic isn’t much help unless you discover it yourself as basic. Something right here. And fortunately, you can. You can experience this basic reality directly during zazen. It’s simple, which is not to say it’s easy or quick.

What happens in zazen? When yousettle down into your posture and begin to watch your breath, to focus your attention, you notice a lot of activity in consciousness. Thoughts come and go in your mind. Physical sensations. Emotions. Memories. All kinds of stuff. It can feel like an unstoppable blizzard. You only have to do zazen once to understand this. Everyone who’s done zazen understands this. So in zazen, you notice every bit of this, but the practice is to just keep bringing your attention back to your breath, over and over. That’s our way.

You do this zillions of times, which requires a ton of patience and a distinctive kind of effort. It’s a kind of effortful not doing. Effortful not doing might sound like Zen doubletalk, but it’s not. If you stick to it, sometimes the thinking does die down and you’re completely immersed in breath. Notions of you and immersion and breath recede and disappear. There’s an experience without any narrative to intercede between awareness and the experience itself. No separation at all.

Usually, the moment of realizing this comes afterwards, because when you do become self-conscious in this way, in that moment of self-consciousness you’re immediately separated from the experience. Once again, there’s a you, a noticing you, and breath and the moment. You – observing and thinking about breath and the moment. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s natural and it’s fine. But for just a moment there, the separation is gone and there’s just thusness.

And in such moments, the experience – the moment – is truly indescribable. It doesn’t need to be described because there’s nothing lacking. No words are needed and no words are adequate. This is a taste of “thusness,” your fleeting experience of the twirling flower. You could say it’s the essence of life or of awareness, expressed in breath and consciousness and time and you all as one complete perfect moment.

Of course, you could say a lot of things. I just did say a lot of things. It’s hard not to say a lot of things. But saying a lot is kind of misleading because it makes the whole business into something complicated or mysterious or grandiose. But it really is essentially ordinary and simple. It’s ordinary because it’s always right there. It’s just that we don’t know how to find it most of the time because we’re lost in the dream of our thoughts. So it tends to feel extraordinary.

If the way I’m describing this makes it sound like thoughts are the enemy, that would be misleading. A thought isn’t essentially different from a breath or from a twirling white flower. Our Zen way of seeing things isn’t that there’s the good “thusness” stuff, and the bad stuff like thinking, opinion, and ego. Our understanding and our teaching is that everything shares the same essential nature. Thoughts too.

The reason it can seem like thinking is the bad guy isn’t thinking itself. It’s the relationship we have with thinking that tends to be a problem. We have a kind of addiction to thinking and our thinking tends to revolve around a selfish center of gravity – “Me” – and as a result it gets in the way of our ability to see things clearly, which is beyond selfish thinking. Thinking is necessary and inevitable. But it’s not really possible to see any thing, any phenomenon, any moment itself as just itself, when you’re looking through a self-centered lens and when you believe your thoughts are reality.

It isn’t that thoughts are not reality. It’s that my thoughts are not a uniquely important aspect of reality because they’re MINE, thought by and about ME. When we can see our thoughts as simply empty phenomena, changing impermanent contents of awareness, just like the sound of the barking dog around the corner, the breathing of the person sitting on the right or the left, the cars driving up and down the street, then we have a different experience of reality. Thoughts don’t go away, they’re as real as anything else, but our relationship to them has changed. We don’t believe them to be anything other than thoughts. They don’t define the moment, they’re part of it. Or you might even say they accompany it.

If you keep doing zazen, this new relationship to thinking keeps developing and deepening. At some point you might even have a big, shattering experience – not just a momentary glimpse but a comprehensive and more durable waking up to this understanding of thusness, of each thing just as itself, and at the same time empty and impermanent. But either way, as you meditate, you keep recognizing that when you trust in and are lost in your thoughts (and I’m including emotions, ideas, reactions, etc), you’re living in a kind of fog. I say “you” but this includes me too.

Through practice, you recognize your thoughts and feelings as just thoughts and feelings. Your thoughts about breath are not breath. They’re your thoughts. They accompany your breath. They sing harmony with your breath and the moment. You don’t take your feelings to be special or compelling or assume they are defining reality in the same way you had, which is automatically and all the time. And this gives you a taste of a freedom you didn’t have before.

I’m purposely saying “a taste” of freedom because it would be misleading to suggest or promise that this experience or insight is utterly transformative and that you will enjoy complete clarity at every moment and freedom from all your previous hang-ups, and further that you will act kindly and skillfully in every moment once you’ve had this insight. I’ve heard people suggest something like this to be so, but personally, I don’t believe it. Certainly, I’ve never seen it and I haven’t had and don’t have this experience of complete transformation and absolute freedom myself.

It could be that I’m skeptical about the possibility of a complete transformation of consciousness and character because my own practice and understanding are feeble. Be that as it may, in my experience people who meditate sincerely for their whole lives are still capable of thinking and doing stupid crap. And teachers who are devoted to practice and who are able to be helpful to students are still capable of thinking and doing stupid crap.

I believe it’s useful to remember this. It’s useful to remember that practice never ends. We’re never done. And it’s useful to consider that a teacher who says s/he is beyond doing stupid crap or a community that subscribes to such a proposition is headed for a trainwreck and has almost certainly left a lot of bodies and hearts broken on the traintracks already.

This is not to say that waking up through practice, slowly but surely waking up, doesn’t matter or doesn’t change things. It does. However, my saying so doesn’t matter so much. It’s only what you experience yourself that counts. It’s only the transformation you realize in your own heart and mind and in your own relationships and activities that matters.

To get back to the Flower Sermon, Buddha was pointing to the simple, tangible, twirling reality of the present moment as the whole story. “Here it is. Right here. Right now.” No need to look elsewhere. And because words as we usually use them tend to be part of the fog, he didn’t use words. When you see it this way, as I said, he could have held up anything at all – a rock, a cup, a twig, a piece of toilet paper. Or nothing at all. Because if you’re pointing to thusness – to the essential nature of things – what Suzuki Roshi used to call “things as it is” – anything will do.

But do be careful about being a Zen smarty pants. If a friend asks you, “What’s with this Zen stuff?” Don’t run outside and grab a flower and twirl it around with a smirky smile on your face. You need to actually realize it for yourself and become your own Buddha. Then you’ll have your own authentic way to answer your friend.