Buddha Twirls a Flower: Or, Buddha Albert Einstein, and George Carlin walk into a bar

Posted by on Nov 4, 2014 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Buddha Twirls a Flower: Or, Buddha Albert Einstein, and George Carlin walk into a bar

By Lee Shields

The Gateless Barrier, Case 6:

Once, in ancient times, when the World-Honored One was at Mount Grdbrakuta, s/he twirled a flower before her assembled disciples. All were silent. Only Mahakasyapa broke into a smile.

The World-Honored One said, “I have the eye treasury of right Dharma, the subtle mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, and the flawless gate of the teaching. It is not established upon words and phrases. It is special transmission outside tradition. I now entrust this to Mahakasyapa.

This is an utterly simple story; in another context we could weave many explanations around it, but as a Zen koan, we know it directly points to essential nature. It can also evoke curiosity: What did Mahakasyapa see? What did Mahakasyapa see, beyond words and phrases, outside tradition? Was it with his eyes that s/he saw it?  In this koan we also find Mindfulness at home within Zen – with the Buddha asking the assembly to bring full attention to the flower, without distraction of words, like “flower.”  Only then can we experience the flower for what it is, just as it is. There are others examples throughout the Zen cannon that present the immediate as an invitation to direct experience. We have the famous shit-wiping stick, and many stories of slaps and blows in response to sincere questions by followers of the way. Each response is a call to be fully present, a call to recognize the flower, the answer, the slap, the as it is, to recognize the questioner for who he or she is. But recognized by whom?

In the sutra, The Coincidence of Opposites, we chant:

Each of the myriad things has its particular virtue

inevitably expressed in its use and station.

Phenomena accord with the fundamental as a lid fits its box;

the fundamental meets phenomena like arrows in mid-air.

Hearing these words, understand the fundamental;

don’t cook up principles from your own ideas.

If you overlook the Way right before your eyes,

how will you know the path beneath your feet?

Advancing has nothing to do with near and far,

yet delusion creates obstacles high and wide.

Students of the mystery, I humbly urge you,

don’t waste a moment, night or day!

Each of the myriad things has its particular virtue, revealed right here, now. We are reminded we need look no further than this room, this body. The flower we seek is not somewhere else. Once I started thinking about this talk, I realized I was hearing stories regularly of people like me and you receiving what is before them. One woman told me of a friend on his death bed, a physician, clouded by morphine for pain and facing his end. While meeting a visitor he correctly diagnosed the visitor as having very early signs of Parkinson’s missed by the visitor, a physician himself. In making the diagnosis, the man in bed was in that moment not a patient, not dying, but present for his visiting friend.

In another less extraordinary but moving story, a woman I know was telling me of the grief she felt at the recent unexpected death of her beloved husband. She told me what she missed was the ordinary. She missed watching TV together. She didn’t expand but I was touched by the intimacy of these invisible acts of our day, alone or with another, doing the things that create the fabric of our lives without grand purpose. This woman was telling me of the glimpse she had of the virtue of one of the myriad things, without requiring the grand, in the here and now.

We can find this clear-eyed recognition in sources all around us as well. The physicist, Richard Feynman wrote of lessons from his father:

His father said: “See that bird…It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all languages of the world but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing –that’s what counts.”

His father held up the bird and twirled it.

Another physicist was an early hero of mine for his ability to recognize outside traditions. At one time of my life I studied the mathematics of Albert Einstein’s relativity. Not the esoteric theories, I’m sure, but the calculations of expected motion of objects in a relativistic world. Each time I sat down to solve problems, I found I first had to find a sometimes agonizing way to release my mind from the standard paradigm of how things moved, and find the Einsteinian perspective in which time and distance were not fixed. Once it clicked in, I could live there for a while, only to be dismayed that it was gone by the next time I had to think about it. And I was doing this with Einstein’s map laid out right before me. How I admired and still admire that Einstein himself, sitting in his patent office around 100 years ago, was able to set aside the rules he clearly had learned deeply, and start over, absolutely fresh, leaving out  nothing of the old out but seeing it all new as well. That is freedom of mind. And even after creating it he said (I’m paraphrasing), “We do not hold these truths to be self-evident. If the facts don’t bear them out, throw them away”. Again, he was willing to see his work outside words and phrases, willing to look freshly.

We don’t have to look at esoteric religious practices or esoteric science references to find the freedom possible beyond the apparent constraints of words. The minds of comedians find such openness all the time. Steven Wright, who referred to himself as a “peripheral visionary said, “The other day, I went to a tourist information booth and asked “Tell me about some of the people who were here last year.” And the late George Carlin said, “If four out of five people SUFFER from diarrhea, does that mean that one enjoys it?” Each of these are examples of people who can hear the same words we all hear, but release the constraints of traditions and receive them again, receiving the world as it is.

Let me add an example that is even more ordinary. My friend Sherri came to visit when my son Eli was maybe 7 or 8 years old. Being an artist herself, she brought Eli a little gift of a pen that had a choice of three different color inks and a switch that activated a motor that rotated the chosen pen tip so that it created a spiral line if you moved the pen straight down a page. Eli took the pen, turned it on and tried to balance the oscillating object on his open hand, he put it against his throat and hummed to hear how it changed the sound, he laid down and set it against his cheek to feel the tickle, and so on. Sherri laughed with delight as she watched, and then said with appreciation, “you just did 6 things with the pen in a minute, none of which were what it was designed for.” Someone else than Eli might have received the gift and thought “pen,” I know what to do with it. Someone else than Sheri might have stopped him and told him how her gift of the “pen” was intended to be used. Instead both were able to see this object as it was – a pen, but perhaps not. It’s “pen-ness” did not constrain either of them.

Artists, scientists, athletes, musicians, many people talk about the state sometimes described as being “in the zone” – a state of engaged action, self falls away leaving only that upon which one is focused. I mention these examples because I expect we can all remember such a time. We know the taste of that freedom. In Zazen we practice the focus, not leaving it to grace.

We don’t all have the ability to be physicists, or comedians, or artists. But we do all have the ability to loosen the conceptual bands on ourselves and others – you are this and not that, and shouldn’t be this other. I am this, and not that, and shouldn’t be this other. Engaging intimately, distinctions of man and woman, divorcee and spouse, Buddhist and Muslim, self and other are lost. Buddha held up a flower and twirled it. If there was something extraordinary about the flower, it is not part of the koan story.

It is easy to have our habitual responses, maybe half-thinking about other things, or having our own overlays about what we see, in this case the Buddha, and the right ways to live and practice. If in the assembly, we could see Buddha holding the flower and think, “he gained a few pounds since the forest, I wonder if I should say something.” There is nothing wrong with doing so, and there’s a place for efficiently getting through our day relying on habitual responses. But doing so we don’t see Buddha or the flower, we see them through our own scrim of ideas. The vivid experience is lost. Offering encouraging words our sesshin leaders for a time would make a sound in the silence of the dojo, tapping the stick, and say, “just this.” A very simple and concise reminder to exhaust your words, empty your thoughts. This phrase, of course, taken from the the sutra, On Zen, in which Dai-o Kokushi said:

O my good worthy friends gathered here,

If you desire to listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma,

Exhaust your words, empty your thoughts,

For then you may come to recognize this one essence.

In this passage we are encouragingly told that each of us can listen to the thunderous voice of the Dharma, though doing so isn’t becoming anything new, just recognizing what is already there. And like the language of the koan, we are given a path – exhaust your words, empty your thoughts.

Would this be any different if the Buddha were here today, in this assembly, and s/he lifted and twirled this lectern, might you be inclined to look at it differently? What about if s/he lifted the person next to you? Would you smile? Let’s bring this even a little closer. It is you being held up, just as you are. Not after some special experience, not on only a good day, not just when you’re rested, focused, free, but even today.

Let me expand on this point by bringing in a story from Taoist tradition:

Chuang Tsu – Prince and the Cook

Prince Wen-Hui’s cook was carving up an ox. Every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every stop of his foot, every thrust of his knee, with the slicing and parting of the flesh, and the zinging of the knife – all was in perfect rhythm, just like the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or a part in the Ching Shou symphony.

Prince Wen Hui remarked, “How wonderfully you have mastered your art.”

The cook laid down his knife and said, “What your servant really cares for is Tao, which goes beyond mere art. When I first began to cut up oxen, I saw nothing but oxen. After three years of practicing, I no longer saw the ox as a whole. I now work with my spirit, not with my eyes. My senses stop functioning and my spirit takes over. I follow the natural grain, letting the knife find its way through the many hidden openings, taking advantage of what is there, never touching a ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.

“A good cook changes his knife once a year because he cuts, while a mediocre cook has to change his every month because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for 19 years and have cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the edge is as if it were fresh from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints. The blade of the knife has no thickness. That which has no thickness has plenty of room to pass through these spaces. Therefore, after 19 years, my blade is as sharp as ever. However, when I come to difficulty, I size up the joint, look carefully, keep my eyes on what I am doing, and work slowly. Then with a very slight movement of the knife, I cut the whole ox wide open. It falls apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there with the knife in my hand, looking about me with a feeling of accomplishment and delight. Then I wipe the knife clean and put it away.”

“Well done!” said the Prince. “From the words of my cook, I have learned the secret of growth.”

(Translation y Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English)

Here we have the cook, his spirit takes over from his eyes and the knife finds its way while his body moves in accord, as natural as a grove of trees moving in the wind. The cook was able to set aside words, like “ox.” He set aside not just words, but all, allowing his spirit to take over, and truly recognize what was before him – not just his idea of ox, or yesterday’s ox. Here we have a prince of China who happened to see his cook at work as he walked through the kitchen one day. Rather than maintaining his focus on the many tasks he must have had competing for his attention he stopped, he saw the cook, and he appreciated him for what he was and said he learned from him about the secret of growth. In his stopping, the prince appreciated something beyond words, like “cook,” or “servant,” and thus was able to experience something beyond those labels.

The cook said he didn’t experience his work in this way on his first day; it changed over years. Along the way there must have been times he was a mediocre cook, and then a good cook. His ability to fully focus and perceive changed. And it could not have been otherwise – how could he have been an expert immediately? And yet as a mediocre cook, he was just as in accord with his path. If the emperor had seen him then, would he have been appreciative? Would Mahakasyapa smiled if s/he had been witness? The cook was no less in the dance of the Mulberry grove. How about as the cook ages and such that his dance becomes a little stiffer? Again, it could not be otherwise. Taking more license, the cook is probably lousy at some other things that he or others expect he’d be good at – maybe he leaves the toilet seat up. Each snapshot of the cook can be transplanted in the story of the World-Honored One and Mahakasyapa, and each time Mahakasyapa smiles. In each moment the cook is already home, and Mahakasyapa smiles, not waiting for a future stage. The cook is both already home throughout, and growing all the time.

Perhaps it’s easier to give the cook a break as he learns his way, and as he does some things well and others not so much. We can probably all be open-minded about the cook, dropping words and phrases that bind, him, able to appreciate something of beauty and wonder. Can you do the same for yourself, where you are right now in your life, your work, your Zen practice, and your relationships? That too is letting concepts fall away, seeing one self, as-I-am, as-you-are, now. This doesn’t imply there is no need for practice or refinement. But that even that practice and refinement can be approached in accord, like the Mulberry grove dances in the wind.

You can be already home, right now, and still get hungry and order a pizza. We don’t see any discord in having arrived and sleeping when tired. There must be some hunger in each of us that brought us to spend our day sitting in the dojo on a Sunday in October. How could the hunger for refinement lessen one’s suchness now?

We are not talking here about doing anything more than what we each are already doing or who we are, but perhaps we are talking about doing less. Just me, just you, sitting on Sunday, not deeply or distractedly – just this sitting. We can rest in the truth, the simple fact, I am, you are, and could not be otherwise, just like this. If we release words and phrases we need no struggle against the truth, no need for shame or evaluation, or even celebration. But if, like the cook, we feel delight, that too is a fact. If critical of self or others, hungry or tired, chagrined at the mistake made last year that comes to mind, that too is a fact. Each fact is complete. And each fact is a call for recognition beyond words and phrases.

To end, let me return to the koan of the flower being twirled, The World Honored One, and of Mahakasyapa. Let me leave you with a question; how many are we talking about here?

This talk was originally given by Lee Shields on October 12, 2014 at a Three Treasures Sangha zazenkai.