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 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 principle disciple.
For many, this is the origin story of Zen Buddhism’s central idea – that 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 twenty minutes. People would squirm. But for the Kashyapa’s in the congregation something profound might happen.
The 5th 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 evolve into 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 that which 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 again as a child,” this is what 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,” this is what he means – to slip free from the conceptual chains we and the world have constructed. When we shift from the complexity of our ideological frameworks and 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, but without anxiety, without egotism, and without shame.
Who knew there could be all of this in the silent sound of a flower?