One day the Buddha gathered his students for a talk.
Instead of delivering a discourse on the dharma, he
simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. His other
students were puzzled, but Kashyapa’s face softened as his
eyes met the Buddha’s. Something silent and profound
moved between them. From that moment on, Kashyapa
became Buddha’s principal disciple.
For many people, this is the origin story of Zen
Buddhism’s central idea: Wordless transmission and
direct experiential awareness are superior to conceptual,
language-based understanding. The Katha Upanishad
calls it spiritual osmosis—when embodied wisdom flows
directly between teachers and students, unhindered by
the fog of words and concepts.
As a guest speaker in various New Thought
communities, I’ve often wondered what would happen
if I showed up on a Sunday morning and instead of
delivering a well-wrought sermon I simply held up
a flower for 20 minutes. Most people would squirm,
but for the Kashyapas in the congregation something
profound might happen.
The fifth-century Indian patriarch Bodhidharma
defined Zen as “a wordless transmission outside the
scriptures, a direct seeing into the mind, and the
realization of Buddha-consciousness within.” In contrast
with more elaborate forms of Buddhism already present
in China at the time, Bodhidharma spearheaded a
stripped-down approach that would become what we call
Zen Buddhism today.
At the root of Zen practice is meditation because
meditation is the art of breaking free from the grip of the
conceptual mind and slipping into the infinite awareness
beneath the waves of the thought stream. Prajna, or
transcendent wisdom, is only possible when we make
this shift, returning to our original nature and becoming
what we already are—illumined beings. We cannot think
our way into enlightenment. In fact, it is our thinking
that has kept us out.
This deep state of stillness and concept-free awareness
is known throughout Buddhism as nirvana. The
contemporary Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh defines
nirvana as “awareness without concepts.” Nirvana is not
an afterlife reward for good Buddhists, nor is it a pleasure
palace for the senses. Nirvana is a state of awareness
free from all concepts—no fixed self, no separate and
distinct objects, no cravings, no fears. Reality is finally
experienced as it is—a fluid, ordinary, miraculous,
sacred, and deeply interconnected phenomenal field
without beginning or end. In the wordless depth
awareness of prajna, all is one.
When Jesus counsels us to not judge, and seek first
the Father’s kingdom, this is what he means: Abandon
your concepts and come into awareness. When Jesus
says, “Become like children” (Matthew 18: 3), he means
to see the world without the paralyzing grid of our
prejudices and categories. When Jesus says, “My yoke
is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11: 30), he is
saying to slip free from the conceptual chains we and
the world have constructed.
When we shift from the complexity of our ideological
frameworks into the simplicity of present-moment
awareness, all is right with the world. Nothing but love,
gratitude, service, and bliss. Nothing to cling to. Nothing
to resist. Complete and utter freedom. From this stance
we can now get to work, moving into the actions that
will heal the world, ourselves, and each other, without
anxiety, without egotism, and without shame.
Who knew there could be all of this in the silent sound
of a flower?
Spirituality, philosophy, and mythology from the world’s wisdom traditions
PETER BOLLAND, CHAIR OF THE
HUMANITIES DEPARTMENT AT
SOUTHWESTERN COLLEGE IN CHULA VISTA,
CALIFORNIA, ATTENDS THE UNITY CENTER
IN SAN DIEGO, WHERE HE TEACHES
CLASSES ON WORLD SPIRITUALITY. VISIT
The Sound of a Flower
A TO ZEN