Shakyamuni raises a flower, blinks. In one version, he raises his eyebrows. What if he had blown his nose at that point, or simply adjusted his seat, or cleaned his glasses? What are your expectations of what the dharma should look like, should sound like? How do we prepare for a dharma teaching? That flower was nothing special—a simple gesture, very practical. In India at that time, it was probably a tradition to offer flowers to a teacher before a talk. The plains around Vulture Peak might have been covered with flora. Shakyamuni’s flower could even have been a flower that Mahakayashapa walked by five minutes earlier. What is the dharma of that flower? What was Mahakayashapa’s mind?

When we introduce a talk, we say this dharma is “dark to the mind and radiant to the heart.” Is it dark because it is incomprehensible through thought, because of our complete intimacy with the words and our mind, because of not understanding intimacy? Is it dark to the mind if you don’t understand that it’s Shakyamuni’s secret teachings? “It is radiant to the heart”—is this Mahakashyapa’s not concealing it? How do we recognize, how do we hear? How do we respond to the truth?

Somebody recently told me a story in the context of asking the question about how to hear, how to receive the teachings. She told me how, in college, when she was taking a psychology course, the teacher brought a list of lines and presented them to each student and said, “Some of these lines are lines from poetry. Some of these lines are ravings of schizophrenics. See if you can tell the difference.” She looked at them, and realized that just looking at the grammar, the choice of words, the imagery, there was no way of entering. And she, bless her heart, recognized that what was being asked of her was a completely different way of approaching the problem. So she started reading the lines and just feeling—not even feeling for something, but just watching and feeling what was happening, and she recognized that there was a clear difference that she was able to notice. Reading certain lines there was a sense of reaching out, of warmth, of connectedness. Other lines left her completely on the outside. There was a sense of separation, of being pushed away, of hollowness in her body. She kept on studying, and she was able to recognize each one as poetry or raving. When she brought her results to the teacher, he confirmed that she had gotten every single one right.

How do we hear the ravings of the dharma, the poetry of the Tathagata, the secrecy and the non-concealment of the single flower? What is the meaning of the Buddha’s appearance at Vulture Peak? What is the true meaning of a flower? No meaning whatsoever. Every possible meaning. What is a meaning of a word, of hearing a word as completely as Mahakashyapa saw that single flower, and what is the nature of communication, of true transmission?

Some thirty-five years before this exchange, the Buddha had decided to teach the dharma, to present the Tathagata’s true meaning as the Four Noble Truths. It was a small audience, a different setting, with five ascetics gathered. One of them was Kodanya. They started listening to Buddha’s words. Somewhere in the middle of the presentation, Kodanya cracked a smile—he got it— with a word, with a sentence. He couldn’t contain himself, and exclaimed, “What is subject to the law of origination is always subject to the law of decay. There is no more suffering.” And Buddha acknowledged him in the same spirit with which he later spoke about the True Dharma Eye being handed over to Mahakashyapa. That was the beginning of the Buddhist lineage with Kodanya, just like the later episode was the beginning of the Zen lineage with Mahakashyapa—the beginning of the transmission, the beginning of true communication, the beginning of the secret. Yet, everything is in plain sight. Is the first sermon any different than the flower being lifted? Is it somehow dark to the mind and radiant to the heart?