While the Buddha gave many spoken sermons after he became enlightened, during one sermon in particular he did nothing but hold up a flower. It is said that upon seeing it, his disciple Mahakasyapa was immediately enlightened. Why did the simple display of a flower have such a profound effect upon Mahakasyapa, and what can we learn from this lesson?

Form and Formless

Historical records show that the flower the Buddha held up at the sermon was a lotus flower, which is associated with Buddhism to this day. The lotus is known for its great beauty, but it is also unique in that it requires thick mud and muck in which to extend its roots so that it can grow and eventually yield flowers. It is because of this thick mud and muck — not in spite of it — that the beautiful lotus blooms.

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

It is said that when the Buddha saw Mahakasyapa smile, he told the crowd that since he, the Buddha, possessed the true and marvelous mind of Nirvana, the Dharma eye, and the form of the formless, a subtle Dharma Gate that needs no forms or language but is a special energy transmission, he was now entrusting it to Mahakasyapa. Since the Buddha was getting on in years, Mahakasyapa became his successor from that day forward.

What did Mahakasyapa see and experience? What can we learn from a flower? Besides the hope of peace and beauty arising out of suffering (mud and muck), flowers embody both form and the formless at once. They are a wonderful reminder that while all forms can be appreciated, they are fleeting. The formless Oneness of All That Is is ever-present, a field from which everything arises and to which everything returns; the flower and this field are one and the same.

The Roots of Zen Buddhism

This story is a pillar of the Zen school of Buddhism, which focuses on direct experience rather than dogma or intellectual analysis. Meditation to reach the formless consciousness of Oneness is favored over dwelling too much on doctrines, words or concepts.

The simple act of seeing a flower, bold yet fleeting, was enough to help Mahakasyapa through the “gateless gate.” How might meditating upon a flower help you to see the true nature of things?