In offering his discourse, Shakyamuni decided to present a flower to the audience. If this really did happen, it probably happened when Shakyamuni was in his late 60’s or 70’s, and just like the first sermon that took place in Isipatana Park, where Shakyamuni presented the Four Noble Truths, this is the first sermon in the lineage of Zen. It’s the sermon that the Chinese teachers in the Sung dynasty highlight as the point in which the mind-to-mind transmission started—when the first transmission of the secret of the dharma took place and then continued for eighty-seven generations. So this is a koan that is embedded very precisely in history, yet it sits outside of time. It is one that attempts to underline the pivotal dimensions of what the Zen teachings have to offer—the nature of reality, transmission, communication, that which is mysterious, and that which is unavoidably clear.
Here, in the midst of no time, the Buddha raises a flower and offers us a glimpse of the dharma, and in the audience, Mahakashyapa smiles, apparently responding. Then, the Buddha proceeds to clarify what just happened, “I have the all-pervading True Dharma, incomparable nirvana, the exquisite teaching of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside the scriptures. I now hand it to Mahakashyapa.” All of that is contained in a single flower, in a simple gesture. How is that possible?
Here begins our inquiry into the true meaning, not just of the Tathagata’s dharma, the dharma of the moment—undeniable suchness—but also inquiry into the nature of who we are. This flower, this teaching, this body of the Buddha, is shobogenzo, the true dharma eye—an all inclusive reality, which is the very eye of reality. It is the eye of non-dual wisdom, which sees reality with complete clarity and lives this life as it needs to be lived. It is seeing itself. It is complete and completely concealed. It is incomparable.
The Buddha’s flower has no reference point. We can approach it, dissect it, label it, do anything we wish with it, precisely because it has no reference point. It is inaccessible to our rational, sensory-based mind. This flower is nirvana, the end of suffering, the fulfillment of the Four Noble Truths. It is exquisite teaching, precise, clear, without a glitch, without a trace, the formless form. A flower that is not a flower. It is complete mystery and complete clarity in its manifestation—in the same instant, the same moment, the same bit of life. The flower is the beginning of Zen, as Bodhidharma would later describe it, and is a direct pointing to this human life. It points to a reality that does not rely on words, letters, thoughts, concepts, or understanding. To this day, the flower offers a seed for commentaries, yet it has nothing to do with those commentaries. It’s just a flower.