The Flower Sermon
(Interjection – Extracted from the book “The Spirit of Zen” by Solala Towler a book of stories to describe the practice of Zen, about ‘cultivating the mind.’ While obviously not the author’s intent, however, in my mind a large number of these stories, except for this one, was closer to describing the activities of a cult or religion involving (self-described?) “Masters.” Whether true or not (because historically, the practice of Zen supposedly came about long after Buddha’s transition into Spirit), this was the only story in the book that REALLY “spoke to me.” ~ Don Chapin)
It was early evening and the Buddha’s followers were gathering up on Vulture Peak for his nightly sermon. Many people in his community had gathered there, including monks, householders and ·even nobles. There was an air of expectancy and excitement as everyone found places to sit and await the wise words of the Awakened One.
In the front row sat some of his most trusted and experienced followers, including his cousin, Mahakasyapa, who had followed him for years now. In the years since his enlightenment experience under the bodhi tree it often seemed to the Buddha that he had walked over the entire land of India. But while his body felt exhausted his spirit remained strong. His mind was still clear and his will indomitable. The problem was putting his experiences and insights into words that his followers could understand and a pply to their own lives. In his experience, true understanding was something that was beyond words.
No matter how many times he tried to describe his awakening and the knowledge that he had gained in that instant, he found himself wrestling with concepts and images that he could barely describe.
He was not interested in offering. abstract ideas to his students. He wanted to be of use, to offer them something that would make t heir often-challenging lives if not easier, at least more rewarding. He had tried many ways of using words to help them but he felt that whatever words or images he used he was missing out something of vast importance.
Once again, his followers and students, the learned and the illiterate, had gathered this evening. They were waiting for the Buddha to fill them with his wisdom, to lighten their spiritual load, to inspire and uplift them. The low hum of hundreds of voices filled the evening air, drowning out the usual insect serenade.
Finally the Buddha made his way slowly through the crowd and up to his usual place on a low rock overhang. They waited to hear his deep voice, which always carried easily whenever he spoke, but on this night he was silent for so long that his students and then the crowd at the back began to whisper among themselves, wondering when their revered teacher would begin speaking.
Longer and longer he sat there, looking out over the throng with a small smile on his lips, his breathing deep and steady. Then, when the tension had built to an almost unbearable crescendo, he suddenly lifted his right arm and raised it to the level of his head, still without speaking. In his hand he held a lotus flower.
The whispering stopped for a moment, then restarted as everyone waited for him to begin. Why was he not speaking? they asked each other. Was he perhaps ill or had he run out of things to teach them? As he sat in silence, simply holding up the flower, some people at the back began to rise and take their leave, convinced there would be no teaching that night.
Yet Mahakasyapa, who had followed him for many seasons now as they made their way across India, found himself smiling back at his teacher. There was something just so perfect about the Buddha sitting in silence and simply holding out this lotus flower, a symbol of spiritual purity, that filled him with joy and gratitude. He could not help smiling a great wide smile.
The Buddha took one last look around and then nodded to Mahakasyapa, whom he later made his first successor, as it was he and only he who understood the Flower Sermon.
And thus, say the stories, Zen was born.