The Significance of the Flower Sermon to Zen Buddhism


The Flower Sermon

A legend tells how Buddha, nearing the end of his life, took all of his disciples to a pond. There he stood, with his back to the pond. Customarily he would now begin to speak, but he did not. Throughout the entire time that he would normally give a sermon, he stood silent. Eventually, the old man reached into the pond, and from within it, he drew out a lotus flower, which he showed to his disciples. He came close to each one of them, and each one wondered in silence what the lotus meant, what it could symbolize. The last of the disciples to be shown the flower was Mahakashyapa, who suddenly began to laugh, though rather quietly. Buddha then remarked What can be said I have said to you, and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa. From that day forward Mahakashyapa was Buddha’s successor.

Relevance to Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism is not scripture-based so much as a spiritual experience. Each practicing member is trying to get to the same place (perfect unity with surroundings), but no two hold the exact same beliefs about what that place is, or how to get there. The Flower Sermon illustrates how each person can have their own specific interpretation of Buddha’s teachings, and still all be right: Buddha specified “what cannot be said”. This means there are parts of Buddhist belief that cannot be written down or articulated in language. Instead, they must be discovered by the devout, practicing Buddhists.

This is not to say that Zen Buddhist knowledge is not accumulated or passed down. As the knowledge was passed from Buddha to Mahakashyapa, so Mahakashyapa passed it on to his students and they to theirs. The critical distinction, however, between “book-learning” and Zen learning, is that learning Zen is a voyage of self-discovery. The Zen Master (a direct student-to-student descendant of Buddha) does not teach facts but instead teaches the student how to find the facts himself.

The Indian-language version of Buddha’s explanation that he gave “all that cannot be said” makes clear that he is not giving his student information, but a method by which to find the information. In some sense, Buddha is acting as a teacher who gives a student an encrypted book and the cipher’s key and asks him to figure out the rest for himself.

The flower sermon was the birth of Zen Buddhism, both in its modern and ancient forms, as it has changed little over the past two millennia. The flower sermon is an integral part of Zen Buddhist teaching.


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