The Origin of Zen


It is believed that the origin of Zen lies in an interpretation of the Buddha’s Flower Sermon,

in which Shakyamuni upheld a lotus flower before his disciples, who wondered about the message or significance of the flower, held in the Buddha’s hand.  It is said that one of them, Mahakashyapa, reacted by smiling - without giving any comment about what he understood.

According to Zen literature, this sermon established a “new way of teaching Buddhism”: through “silent-communication” or “mins-to-mind” transmission:


        To Zen Buddhists this sutra [Flower Sermon] shows the origins of the wordless

        teachings of Zen. http://www.katinkahesselink.net/tibet/flower-sermon.htm


Zen interpretation of the Flower Sermon is as follows:

          "The Flower Sermon was held near a pond during Buddha's later years. When he held up

            the freshly-picked lotus flower -- roots and all, dripping mud -- the assembled crowd was

            silent, not understanding its significance. But after a moment or two, Buddha's disciple

            Mahakasyapa smiled.

            He was the only attendee to receive the Buddha's message that day,

            but the account of The Flower Sermon is remembered and revered in Zen Buddhism even

            now".    A Wordless Transmission:

Zen literature explains that the method of “wordless transmission” worked only for one disciple, and that the transmission of wordless messages to other disciples failed. 

The Superstitious Mind of Zen

The background of Zen description of its idea of wordless communication makes of the Flower Sermon a superstitious story about telepathy transmission among two exceptional individuals: the Buddha as a "mind-energy transmitter" and Mahakashyapa as a sole receiver.  We are told that Mahakashyyapa smiled during the sermon, and this smile meant for Zen believers that he received a mental message of telepathy from the Buddha.  It is possible to consider Zen as one of the various Buddhist schools, which employ stories of supernatural powers to overwhelm ordinary believers.

According to the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia:

           "Once, while the venerable Anuruddha was meditating in solitude, he considered how, by

            means of the four Foundations of Mindfulness (satipatthana) the Noble Path that leads to

            the extinction of suffering can be perfected. Then Moggallana, penetrating Anuruddha's

            mind by his own, appeared before him through supernormal power and requested him to

            describe in detail this method of practice". 

The Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia / Penetration of Others Minds and Thoughts

Zen story of mind-to-mind transmission, and Anuruddha's story of "mind penetration" mentioned above - can be regarded as examples of monks overwhelming ordinary people by telling them about supernormal power to penetrate minds.

Telepathy and Clairvoyance

The Skeptic's Dictionary clarifies that mind-to-mind messaging - the fundamental origin of Zen - is indistinguishable from clairvoyance:

            [TELEPATHY] Literally, "distance feeling." The term is a shortened version of mental

            telepathy and refers to mind-reading or mind-to-mind communication through ESP.

            There is no way to distinguish telepathy, clairvoyance, retrocognition, or precognition

            from a mind perceiving directly the akashik record. " http://skepdic.com/telepath.html

Zen interpretation of the Flower Sermon as a teaching about telepathy - does not have any meaningful connection with Buddhism.

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Interpretation of the Flower Sermon as the Buddha’s Reference to the Lotus Sutra

Time wise, it is believed that the Flower Sermon took place around the same time of the Buddha’s preaching of the Lotus Sutra.  Shakyamuni’s action of physically holding the lotus flower before his disciples can be simply perceived as his indication for the importance of the teaching of the Lotus Sutra. 


This means that - in terms of the metaphor of pointing to the moon” - (frequently used in Zen to indicate one pointing to the truth) - the Flower Sermon is referring to the Lotus Sutra as being the “moon”, while the holding of the lotus plant as the “finger pointing to the moon”

Zen position is like someone fixated at looking at a finger pointing at something important, while neglecting the important subject (here: the message of the Sermon about the Law of Lotus).


As a flower in a pond, the lotus was generally regarded as a symbol for highly esteemed qualities, such as beauty, transformation and purity.  The Lotus Sutra goes further than viewing the flower as a mere symbol: it identifies the lotus both as a symbol as well as a manifestation of the Dharma (the Law of Cause and Effect). 


The Law (of Cause and Effect) is operative in all phenomena, but the example of the Lotus flower is particularly indicative of the Oneness of Cause and Effect - because the flower produces its seeds (cause) and flower (effect) simultaneously.


In his writing The Entity of the Mystic Law, Nichiren quotes from Nagarjuna the following explanation:The lotus represents both the Law itself and a metaphor for it”. 

In this light, it can be seen that Shakyamuni was conveying to his disciples that the lotus flower - he held before them - is not to be viewed as just a symbol for the Dharma, but - on a deeper level -  as a manifestation of the Dharma itself, or an expression of it.  Shakyamuni was clearly indicating to his disciples: “when you see this lotus flower - you see the Dharma itself”.


The Flower Sermon and the concept of Bodhisattva-Buddha


Nichiren elaborates further on the relevance of the principle of the Lotus (being the principle of the Inseparability of Cause and Effect) - to one’s Bodhisattva practice:


As a physical plant in a pond, the flower manifests the natural law of Oneness of Cause and Effect.  This principle is also operative within the life of Bodhisattvas. The Bodhisattva practice (cause) and Buddhahood (effect) constitute an integral and inseparable process in the life of the individual.  In other words, the Lotus Sutra erases the distinction between Bodhisattva and Buddha, because the process for revealing one’s Buddhahood is one’s action as a Bodhisattva.


Contrary to the provisional teachings of Shakyamuni (pre-Lotus teachings) - which required accumulation of bodhisattva practice over many lifetimes, in the Flower Sermon the Buddha was pointing to the “Law of the Lotus”, which enables ordinary people to complete the whole process of “maturing” and “harvesting” in this lifetime, leading to attaining Buddhahood in one’s present form -  :


        “the bodhisattvas, by practicing the Law of the lotus, are - as a result - able to obtain

        [Buddhahood]. Thus we should understand that the cause [that is the Bodhisattva]

        and the effect [that is the Buddha], are all the Law of the renge, or lotus”. WND1 p 425 


        “A single mind, the entity of Myoho-renge, simultaneously brings to maturity both the

        blossom of cause and the calyx of effect. This concept is difficult to understand, but

        through the use of a metaphor, it can be made easy to understand. The teaching that

        fully sets forth this principle is called Myoho-renge-kyo”. WND1 p 426


As the above passage mentions, the concept of Oneness of Bodhisattva and Buddha “is difficult to understand, but through the use of a metaphor it can be made easy to understand”.

Using the flower as a metaphor for the concept (of the oneness of Bodhisattva and Buddha states) was the profound indication of the Flower Sermon, and which Zen is missing.  


Nichiren describes the Bodhisattvas who practice the Lotus Sutra as:


        “The sutra says, “[They are] unsoiled by worldly things like the lotus flower in the water.

        Emerging from the earth . . .” Here we see that the Bodhisattvas of the Earth are the lotus of

        the entity of the Mystic Law, and that the lotus is being used here as a simile.” 

        The Entity of the Mystic Law


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