Wednesday, November 30, 2022

The Wordless Sermon

Zen Buddhism traces its origin to a single afternoon in the life of the Buddha.
One day Buddha gathered his followers for a dharma talk as he had done many times before. But on this day he simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. How would you feel if your minister tried that this Sunday in church? Awkward rustling sweeping through the congregation. Sideways glances turning to outright confusion. But on that long-ago afternoon, one man, Kashyapa, met eyes with Buddha and smiled.

When the Indian Buddhist teacher Bodhidharma brought Zen Buddhism to China in the fifth century CE he penned the famous mission statement of this nascent movement: “A special tradition outside the scriptures, not dependent on words or letters, directly pointing to the mind, and seeing into one’s true nature and attaining Buddhahood.”

As a movement, Zen Buddhism replaced all of the normal trappings of religion—scriptures and beliefs, devotion to deities, dependence on authorities—with the direct experience of life as it is, pulled into sharper focus through the practice of meditation. In fact, the Japanese word Zen is a rendering of the Chinese word Chan, which is a rendering of the Sanskrit word dhyana meaning “meditation.” At the heart of the entire Zen project is the claim that we already are what we seek. We just have to empty out enough to realize it.

Another hallmark of Zen is its refreshing dearth of boundaries. “Your entire life is Zen,” said Bodhidharma. Our natural proclivity for compartmentalization is gently (and sometimes not so gently) shaken loose in the practice of Zen.

After a recent talk on Zen Buddhism, a woman raised her hand and said, “I came here looking for something tangible, but this was all very abstract.” She was right. I felt her disappointment. She was looking for guidance. An old Zen story popped into my mind. Maybe this will help I thought.

A young man went to stay in a Zen monastery. They graciously took him in and he was invited to participate in all the activities of the community, primarily meditation and chores—lots and lots of chores. One week passed, then another, then another. But nobody was talking to him about Zen. His frustration grew. Finally, he worked up the courage to go see the master. 

“I came here to learn about Zen,” he exclaimed. “I have been here a whole month now and no one has said one word to me about Zen!”

“Have you eaten?” asked the master.


“The go wash your bowl.”

Stories like this drive us into the immediacy of this moment, reminding us that true religion is not in books, beliefs, ministers, or rituals. All of those things are the plates we eat off of—they are not the food. Lived experience is the food. Every lunch is as sacred as a Eucharist. Washing your bowl sanctifies this moment as powerfully as any prayer. The mind asks for answers and explanations. But when the Buddha held up that flower, he was gently rebuking our tendency to build conceptual barriers between us and the here and now. 

Kashyapa understood what the congregation did not—that something sacred passes between us in every moment as if there are no barriers at all. Because there aren’t. Kashyapa passed the test, becoming the second patriarch after the Buddha. He understood the wordless sermon.

[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the January/February 2023 issue of Unity Magazine and is reproduced here with permission.]

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