In this post, we discuss Buddha’s most unique sermon on epistemology in his Flower Sermon, conducted in response to the question, “If there is any supreme Dharma you have yet to discuss, please proclaim them now, for me, for the bodhisattvas of end-times, and for all ordinary beings seeking to follow the Buddhist path.”
The Flower Sermon (Chinses=拈花微笑) is a sermon “in which Gautama Buddha transmits direct prajñā (wisdom) to the disciple Mahākāśyapa.”
The Flower Sermon is described in the “The Sūtra of Mahābrahma-deva-rāja’s Consulting the Buddha” (Chinese=大梵天王問佛决疑經).
Brahma [alt. Mahabrahma] (Chinese=大梵天王), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “an Indian divinity who was adopted into the Buddhist pantheon as a protector of the teachings (Dharmapala (Chinese=護法) and king of the Bramaloka.”
Brahmaloka (Chinese=梵界), according to The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, is “in Sanskrit and Pali, the “Brahma World.” In the narrowest sense, brahmaloka refers to the first three (celestial realms) of the realms of subtle materiality.”
During the sermon, Brahma offered Buddha “auspicious flowers from heaven,” known in Sanskrit as “udumbara flower (Chinese=優曇婆羅花).” According to this article, “Volume 8 of the Buddhist scripture Huilin Phonetics and Interpretation (Chinese=一切經音義), “Udumbara is the product of ominous and supernatural phenomena; it is a celestial flower and does not exist in the mundane world. If a Tathagata or King of the Golden Wheel appears in the human world, these flowers will manifest due to their great virtue and blessings.” Having realized the highest level of enlightenment, our historical Shakyamuni Buddha is a Tathagata.
Brahma then asked Buddha, “The Exalted Buddha (Sanskrit=bhagavat; Chinese=世尊), you have been enlightened for more than fifty years and have preached and given myriad instructions for the benefit of all beings with the opportunity to hear. However, if there is any supreme Dharma you have yet to discuss, please proclaim them now, for me, for the bodhisattvas of end-times, and for all ordinary beings seeking to follow the Buddhist path.” (Chinese=世尊今佛。已成正覺五十年來。種種說法。種種教示。化度一切機類眾生。若有未說最上大法。為我及末世行菩薩人。欲行佛道凡夫眾生。布演宣說.”
Buddha accepted the flowers, kicked them up, and held them. However, he did not speak. The whole assembly of his followers remained still, and all kept silent (Chinese=皆止默然).
That is, all but Mahakasyapa (Chinese=摩訶迦葉), who smiled a gentle smile (Chinese=破顏微笑) at Buddha.
Seeing the smile, Buddha immediately started to speak (“Chinese=佛即告言.”)
“Yes, It is so. I possess the true Dharma-eyes (Sanskrit=dharmacaksus; Chinese=正法眼藏) and the subtle ways of teaching (Sanskrit=dharmaparyaya; Chinese=法門) the wondrous Citta of Nirvana, the Dharma of the Ultimate Reality without form, using no words and separately outside the regular curriculum. (是也。我有正法眼藏涅槃妙心。实相无相微妙法门。不立文字。教外别传).”
Furthermore, Buddha continued, “For the transmission of the First Principle of Truth allowing ordinary beings to be enlightened, I entrust to Mahakasyapa today (凡夫成佛第一義諦。今方付屬摩訶迦葉).”
“After speaking, Buddha remained silent (Chinese=言已默然).”
Mahakasyapa (Chinese=摩诃迦叶), according to this article, “was one of the principal disciples of Gautama Buddha. He is regarded in Buddhism as an enlightened disciple, being foremost in ascetic practice. Mahākāśyapa assumed leadership of the monastic community following the paranirvāṇa of the Buddha, presiding over the First Buddhist Council. He was considered to be the first patriarch in a number of early Buddhist schools and continued to have an important role as a patriarch in the Chan and Zen traditions. In Buddhist texts, he assumed many identities, that of a renunciant saint, a lawgiver, an anti-establishment figure, but also a “guarantor of future justice” in the time of Maitreya, the future Buddha—he has been described as “both the anchorite and the friend of mankind, even of the outcast.”
So, what did Mahakasyapa understand from Buddha’s wordless sermon?
Having already been enlightened, Mahakasyapa, of course, understood that Citta, the Ultimate Reality, could not be understood through word-based knowledge. Instead, it must be realized empirically through direct perception.
So, when Mahakasyapa smiled gently at Buddha, Buddha understood that Mahakasyapa knew why he did not speak. Words are unnecessary for transmitting Citta, the First Principle of Truth. Consequently, by immediately giving Mahakasyapa the responsibility to transmit The First Principle of Truth, Buddha hinted to Mahakasyapa that he should teach others The First Principle of Truth the same way he relayed the message to him, wordlessly.
In India, Mahakasyapa’s lineage was passed from Mahakasyapa on to several others before reaching Bodhidharma (Chinese=菩提達摩), “a legendary Buddhist monk, who lived during the 5th or 6th century.”
Bodhidharma eventually traveled to China, bringing with him the teachings of Buddha, including that of Chan Buddhism. Therefore, while Bodhidharma is regarded as the “28th patriarch in a line of descent from Mahakasyapa,” he is considered the first patriarch of Chan Buddhism in China.
Chan Buddhism (Chinese=禪), “is one of the major forms of East Asian Buddhism, which originated in China around the fifth or sixth century and was then transmitted from China into Korea (as Korean Seon), Japan (as Japanese Zen) and Vietnam (as Vietnamese Thiền). In the West, this form of Buddhism is most commonly known by the Japanese name of “Zen.” “Chan emphasizes direct insight into the nature of reality.”
However, in China, Bodhidharma faced a big obstacle when he faced Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (Chinese=梁武帝). The Emperor was a devout Buddhist and had built many Buddhist temples, printed a lot of Buddhist sutras, and supported a large number of monks by the time Bodhidharma entered China. The Emperor was extremely proud of how much he did for Buddhism.
During Bodhidharma’s first audition in the palace, the Emperor boasted of his work and asked the Bodhidharma, “for all that I have done, how much spiritual virtual can I get (Chinese=我做了這些事有多少功德)?” To which Bodhidharma responded, “No spiritual virtual at all (Chinese=並無功德).”
In Buddhism, there is a distinction between spiritual virtual or meritorious quality (Sanskrit=guna; Chinese=功德) from blessed virtual (Sanskrit=punya; Chinese=福德). The difference between them is the intention of the benefactor.
For example, if a benefactor such as Emperor Wu does magnanimous deeds intending to get personal rewards, such as fame, power, adorations, etc., then the person is said to be blessed. While being blessed is good and can fructify into a better life in the future, they are not good enough to escape the samsara of determinative birth and death mentioned earlier. Buddha left his two gurus for the same reason. He certainly does not wish it on others.
Therefore, Buddha teaches that anyone doing benevolent deeds must do so willingly without any self-benefiting intention to receive meritorious virtuals. Again, the emphasis is on keeping the mind pure and doing magnanimous deeds willingly and naturally without selfish intentions.
The Emperor, however, was not pleased with Bodhidharma’s response and subsequently denied him his royal support.
Bodhidharma then traveled to Mount Song (Chinese=嵩山), home to the Shaolin Temple, famous for its kung-fus. There, Bodhidharma meditated for nine years while facing a wall. Subsequently, besides being known as the cradle of Shaolin Kung Fu, Mount Song is also recognized as the birthplace of Chan Buddhism.
However, not all was lost, as Bodhidharma did find a successor in Dazu Hui Ke (Chinese=大祖慧可), who succeeded Bodhidharma’s lineage and became the Second Patriarch of Chan Buddhism. From Dazu Hui-Ke, the Chan lineage continued until the Sixth Patriarch of Chan Buddhism, Dajian Hui-Neng (Chinese=大鑒惠能), a central figure in Chan Buddhism, known for his Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, or simply as Platform Sutra. The enlightenment experience of Dharma Master Hui-Neng was discussed in two previous posts.