The Z Files – Case 6: The Buddha Holds Up a Flower

731 Views 1 Comment
buddha holds up a flower1
A spiritual transmission outside tradition—
not established on words and letters.


The Case: 

When Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta, he held out a flower to his listeners.  Everyone was silent. Only Mahakashyapa broke into a broad smile. The Buddha said, “I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa.”

Mumon’s Comment:

Golden-faced Gautama really disregarded his listeners. He made the good look bad and sold dog’s meat labeled as mutton. He himself thought it was wonderful. If, however, everyone in the audience had laughed, how could he have transmitted his True Eye?  And again, if Mahakashyapa had not smiled, how could the Buddha have transmitted it? If you say the True Dharma Eye can be transmitted, then the golden-faced old man would be a city slicker who cheats the country bumpkin. If you say it cannot be transmitted, then why did the Buddha approve of Mahakashyapa?

Mumon’s Verse:

Holding out a flower,

The Buddha betrayed his curly tail.

Heaven and earth were bewildered,

At Mahakashyapa’s smile.


A short while later, at the Deer Park, the Buddha turned the dharma-wheel for the five men (his first disciples), expounding the Four (Noble) Truths and how they would lead to nirvana.

When he had taught for forty-nine years, he said to his disciple Mahakashyapa, “I transmit to you the light of the pure dharma eye which is birthless, deathless, wondrous, spiritual, the real form of non-form, delicate, the true teaching. You must cherish it.” Then he also instructed Ananda to assist in the continuance (of the dharma).

The Buddha then delivered a stanza, which runs:

The original dharma of all dharmas is no-dharma;

The dharma of no-dharma is also a dharma.

Now, when no-dharma is transmitted,

How can this dharma be the dharma?

Then the World-Honored One spoke again to Mahakashyapa, “I am handing to you the cloak, golden and brocaded, transmitted among substitutes. You must not allow it to decay until Maitreya Buddha comes to this world.”

Having heard this, Mahakashyapa bowed low until his head touched the feet [of the Buddha], saying, “Well said! Well said! O Enlightened One, I will follow your instruction.”

(From, The Record of Transmitting the Light. Translated by Francis H. Cook.)


This is a well known Buddhist story, and one that means a lot of different things depending on where is coming from.  If we are reading it in the context of Zen, like in the story of Gutei’s Finger and Joshu’s “Mu,” in this case we have another example of something presented with no explanation, which defies our attempts to attach a meaning to it, and in doing so provoking a response.

This is a difficult koan. It is difficult also because the event cited in the koan is unauthentic. There is no known Sanskrit text that contains this story. And according to Aitken Roshi the first record of this story is in a Chinese Sutra dated AD 1036, or 1400 years after Shakyamuni’s death. That is, during the Sung Dynasty, the period when all the koans were written, collected and made into the great volumes of koans we have today. Even the “language” of the koan gives away its Chinese origin for it is very similar to language attributed to Bodhidharma.

Another problem with this koan is that it establishes Kashyapa as the dharma heir and leader. And doing so, the lineage of Buddhism begins.The problem is that the lineages were all created during pre-Tang days of China by conflicting schools of Buddhism, each of which claimed that their own Buddhism was the one true Buddhism and the others were false. And in order to prove it they developed lineages that linked them and their Buddhism back to Kashyapa and thereby to Shakyamuni himself.

***It is known that Kashyapa did assume leadership of the early Buddhist sangha. He called together the first Buddhist councils in which the Sutras were first recited, thereby creating the Buddhist canon. In this sutra Shakyamuni specifically says that there should be no human leader of the Sangha but that the Dharma should be the leader. And yet, Kashyapa was the first leader.We can see how the Chinese, from this quasi-historical fact, needed some sort of transition between Shakyamuni and Kashyapa and maybe this is the reason that the story of the flower was born.***

Of course, we can come to the conclusion that this case is about the transmission, and about how this has to be done through personal experience and not by what is conveyed by teachings. This is what is meant by the words “independent of words and transmitted beyond doctrine”. Words cannot convey Zen understanding to another person; they must find it and experience it for themselves. So, in truth, the Buddha didn’t entrust anything to Mahakashyapa. Mahakashyapa perceived it on his own. This is how Zen Buddhism is “passed on”.

– But what did Mahakashyapa understand? Everybody wants to know. For centuries everybody’s been asking, “What message did the Buddha give to Mahakashyapa?”

– Some people say that the root, stem, and flower represented the Three Worlds: underworld, earth, and sky, and that the Buddha was saying that he could hold all existence in the palm of his hand. Some people say that the root, stem, and flower stood for the base, spine, and thousand-petaled lotus crown of the Chakra Yoga system and that by raising the plant he was advocating that  discipline. Other people say it could just as easily indicate a result of that discipline, the Trinitarian fulfillment: as the Buddha was Father and Mother, he was also Son- the Lotus Born and Lotus Holding Maitreya, Future Buddha.

Trying to break down the circumstances of the koan doesn’t help us.  That is the same as trying to derive an explanation from the Buddha’s flower.  But if we cast away our discriminating mind and see it for what it is, we can break it down to the simple and ordinary.  We don’t have to be deceived by the convoluted “True Dharma” label, or by the mentality that this is exclusive or limited.

The truth is that, 2500 years ago, on Mount Grdhrakuta, Buddha held up a flower, and we, all of us, broke into a smile.


photo credit: pinterest

  • Eu July 30, 2016, 5:14 pm Reply

    The flower represents life.

Leave a Comment