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The traditional story is that the Buddha silently held up a flower one day before a congregation, Mahākāśyapa…
July 16th, 2013

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

The traditional story is that the Buddha silently held up a flower one day before a congregation, Mahākāśyapa alone understood it and had his attainment acknowledged by the Buddha.

This gave rise to Zen's often-misunderstood transmission outside scriptures (

One possible interpretation of the "flower sermon" is to connect it to the "taking the Earth as witness" episode of the Pāḷi Canon. Holding the flower merely represents (demonstrates… leads by example…) the direct access to "reality as it is," without words, without concepts, and without 'transmission': pay attention here and now (

One may interpret that most monks had expectations and were not paying attention: they expected a speech and then went busy in their heads trying to interpret (find a reason as to) why there was no speech given that day. They were making reasons up, rather than staying present! Only Mahākāśyapa avoided projecting on the Buddha an expectation on how a teacher 'should' behave (i.e. talk, teach, share, etc.) e.g. due to generalising past behaviour as a 'rule'… In a way, Mahākāśyapa was already free from entanglement in 'automatic' thoughts and mental fabrications, but the episode marks the moment when he realises so! Thus the episode is indeed helpful to him, and one could say the episode was an opportunity given to Mahākāśyapa by the Buddha… But such an interpretation doesn't require 'transmission' in any traditional sense.

The flower sermon also gave rise to the interpretation of the absence of the Buddha's utterance as the supreme evidence of some 'profundity' of 'truth', a view rejected by Dōgen (1200–1253):

« If Buddha's utterance is shallow, his holding up a flower and blinking without a word must also be superficial. When you say that Buddha's utterance is mere names and forms, you do not understand the Buddha Dharma. Although you know that the utterance is words and letters, you do not yet discern that there are no mere words and forms with Buddha. This is due to the deluded state of ordinary mind. To the Buddhas and ancestors, the whole being of body and mind is cast off and constitutes sermons, discourses through utterances, and the turning of the Wheel of Dharma. »

As I once wrote, "ignorant silence is not wise silence" (
Buddha's holding up a flower in silence was a 'speech' or expression in this particular occasion. Sūtras, words, and silence were all possible forms of expression, all activities of emptiness and buddha-nature responding appropriately to the particular circumstances and conditions at hand.

Neither a derogation nor an idolisation of language will do: we may simply acknowledge the place of language in our experience! We know from experience that we can feel without necessarily putting words on the sensations, but we also know that a lot of our life is passed with words in our heads, and narratives about "he did this to me" and "she said that to me"!

We can pretend to transcend language altogether and leave "conventional truth" behind… or we can use language radically, to get beyond where we stand but without severing relationships, to make a bigger concentric circle rather than another disconnected circle somewhere else, to be inclusive and in communication rather than argumentative, defensive and closed, to become the true man of no rank (, to expand our potential rather than our certainties, to realise the "two truths" (

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image from the text of this post, © Denis Wallez