The date of the Flower Sermon

The origin of the Zen school is traditionally traced to Mahakassapa, who was said to have received a direct transmission outside the scriptures. This transmission is illustrated with the evocative story of the Buddha holding a flower silently before the assembled Sangha: only Mahakassapa understood, and smiled. The story is gains special resonance since Mahakassapa is renowned as a curmudgeonly old monk – although his authentic verses in the Theragatha do indeed show a delightful love of nature.

Despite the fame and importance of the story, it is not attested in any Indic scripture, and is a Chinese Chan invention. It’s first appearance is apparently in the compilation of koans, the 無門關 (Wúménguān, often rendered in English as The Gateless Gate), compiled by the Chinese Zen master Wumen Hui-k’ai (無門慧開) and first published in 1228. The development of the notion of lineages is discussed by Dumoulin.

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42 thoughts on “The date of the Flower Sermon

  1. Although I didn’t see it myself, someone told me on sixty minutes there was a group claiming all the earthquakes etc are deserved that god judges and punishes etc without any compassion or understanding but through force and domination and that more of this type of thing is necessary to punish humankind for their evilness etc; initially I thought ohh!! people who think they are buddhas/gods and give themselves and their followers the right and power to judge and dominate everyone else ummm…. must be a groups of vajrayana Buddhists — but apparently it wasn’t.

  2. Bhante Sujato, not quite sure of the reason for this post. Is it to help push forward your Buddhist Fundamentalist agenda?

    • Hi Dee, It is no more or less authentic than the story of Siddhattha sitting in meditation as a child.

    • Peter,

      If you look on the internet there are heaps of groups you can join that are not ‘theravarden’ or ‘fundamentalist’. They do some really ‘out there’ practises which you would really like if you are such un unconventional and way out sort of guy.

      FPMT for example are one of the biggest vajrajana cults …whoops sorry… groups around, you can get into tantic sex I think they advise this on their website, you can study the lam rim – it is sort of like a hand book on how to be a good little cult follower, and includes imagining yourself as weird and wonderful things. It is the same group that the Dalai Lama belongs to so it is probably quite legitimate, these more esoteric groups do the sort of things that you seem to want from this group.

      Many of these practises are probably just as useful as the academic explanations. I too am not an academic and am not going to pretend to be but I don’t see the need to tear this down even if like you I don’t see knowing lots of information as being the goal of Buddhism.

      Why not try these groups instead of trying to change this one because Buddhism needs to have a group and a site whereby the original teachings can be studied etc and honestly your constant efforts at trying to undermine and destroy this type of Buddhism seems really full of ill will .

      I personally am not some sort of genius when it comes to ‘knowing and analising stuff” but I appreciate it if other people are and am not jealous of it and see the need for it.

    • Dear Peter,

      I’m a Buddhist monk, I’m making a comment about a Buddhist teaching. No further explanation required. I won’t respond to the flame-baiting ‘fundamentalist’ charge!

      The statement about Siddhattha sitting in jhanas as a child is made in an authentic early Sutta, and is found in similar forms in half a dozen or so versions across the traditions. The flower sermon is a riddle invented by Chinese Buddhists 1500 years later to illustrate a doctrinal point. To conflate these things historically is to negate the very idea that through studying history we can learn meaningful things about the past.

    • I can sort of see or project onto the sermon that it could have meaning that holding up a lotus and saying this is all that there is could have meaning in that it is making a comment on emptyness – and I vaguely think that is what Zen is about isn’t it? but I am not really sure. That is the only way i can understand it anyway.

      By what would the Buddha say such a stupid but smart thing it just doesn’t sound like something the Buddha would say, because if you could understand what is meant by holding up a lotus you would be a/the Buddha in the first place and if you not then it is a pointless teaching it because it teaches nothing to those wishing to learn only to those that already know, like some other teachings.

      So great the teacher finds a person who already knows but what can they teach those that don’t? Congratulations to those that already know – but how does that help anyone, it is like giving more money to people who are already rich – fine for them but……oh ok they can help the poor by giving them money which might help initially but what would really help would be to give them knowledge and opportunity for them to make their own money, not make them dependant on handouts.

    • Bhante Sujato

      I do not wish negate to the value of history, I just feel that we need to keep its value in perspective and to remember the limitations. The notion of an “authentic early Sutta” is a strange one to me. When does the physical sutta date from?

      My feeling towards this overly academic path is possibly a bit like your feeling towards western science as expressed in your post “That Shining Prince: reflections on Vesak 2011″: “Western science has not stopped with dethroning the sun and the moon” etc.

      Science in my opinion is actually more in line with spiritual endeavour as it is moving forward, progressive and adaptable to change. History however is backward looking and has the wish to solidify a position.

      Re: “I’m a Buddhist monk, I’m making a comment about a Buddhist teaching. No further explanation required.” Now to practice and to teach in a way that you feel comfortable is fair enough but it also seems that you are keen to dismiss the practice and teachings of others using notions like “authentic early Sutta” and “Early Buddhism” as your tool/authority. And that you are keen to do this in a very public and centre stage way.. When you use this fundamentalist approach to dismiss what I see as “authentic” manifestations of Buddhism it upsets me. It seems to me that you are encouraging those who would like to create some kind of a Buddhist “revivalist” type movement and would like to position themselves at the centre of the Buddhist conversation. It is my opinion this fundamentalist type of Buddhism is narrow and divisive and deserves to be challenged and addressed, especially when it is put centre stage. I’m sorry that you feel that it is “flame-baiting”.

    • Hi Peter,

      Yes, of course, we have to be aware of the limitations of the method of study, something that in my more considered and reflective writings i have mentioned again and again. When i’m dashing off a quick blog post, however, i don’t feel that it’s necessary to repeat such caveats every time i make a comment about a sutta.

      What is the problem with an “authentic early sutta”? We all know that some suttas are early, that is entirely unproblematic. As for ‘authentic’, I mean it in the sense that: ‘probably taught in more or less this form by the Buddha himself’. Agree or disagree with whether this is true or not, but this is my belief, and i need some word to express it – do you have a better one?

      I’m not sure how you think i’m ‘keen to dismiss the practice and teachings of others': see, for example, the recent exchanges with Nicolas regarding the modern abhidhamma-based meditation systems. I always support and encourage anyone in whatever spiritual practice they feel is beneficial. I am also very clear that I want to follow the Buddha’s path, and this means learning how to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic. As you can see on this blog, there are many other people who have similar concerns, and I try to share what i know with them.

      What do you mean, ‘put center stage’? Who’s center stage? I’m writing a blog here, like, you know, millions of others. It’s a pretty broad stage. My reason for doing this, if you look back at the history (again!) is because I was disturbed at the way important matters in Buddhism were being dealt with unhealthily, in silence and oppression. That’s why I always encourage a variety of views, and when I can i take the time and care to reply meaningfully to meaningful criticism – like yours. My views are my own – see the subtitle of the blog – and i offer them for anyone who’s interested. What you should be worried about is those who pretend not to have any views…

      And finally, I strongly disagree that what I do is fundamentalism. From Wikipedia: “Fundamentalism is strict adherence to specific theological doctrines typically in reaction against the theology of Modernism.” Read the article: there’s nothing that I do that is remotely fundamentalist. What i am doing is in the tradition of modernist text-criticism, which questions the fundamentalist belief in the absolute and invariable normative truth of its own orthodoxy.

      The basis for fundamentalism is a rejection of historicity and text-criticism, and an absolute insistence on traditional dogma, including the notion that all one’s sacred scripture is 100% of divine authorship. Most traditional Buddhist teachers have a strong fundamentalist tendency in this regard, and I have been one of the few to actually say that not everything in the ancient texts is 100% authentic. For this reason actual fundamentalists regard me as a heretic who will burn in hell.

      But in addition I have warned against creating a ‘Sutta fundamentalism‘. I have for years consistently argued against the position maintained by some that the later traditions are no more than a mass of error. On the contrary, we owe the traditions a tremendous debt because it is they who have passed the teachings down to us, and if we don’t understand them we cannot understand how they did this. In addition to introducing the comparative study of early Buddhist texts on a non-sectartian basis, I have also introduced the serious study of later Buddhist traditions in my monastery. We are at the moment studying the Yogacara tradition of Vasubandhu and Asanga. Even though I don’t have much expertise in the area, i regard it as essential that my students have a grounding and understanding of the different forms of Buddhism and how they sit in their historical context. I encourage them to pursue research, study, and practice in any area of Dhamma that they feel inspired by, whether it is different schools of Buddhism, or modern innovations like insight dialogue and the like.

    • Dear Peter

      I’m curious why authenticating what the Buddha taught is upsetting to you. In Christianity the Nativity is celebrated, but most people take it for what it is – a nice, uplifting story but probably didn’t happen.

      There’s no harm in seeing your manifestations of Buddhism in the same light. They still teach and it’s great to see such poignant ideas come from people who weren’t the Buddha. It doesn’t diminish them just because the Buddha didn’t actually say it.

      Personally, I think it’s amazing that 2600 years on there can be any authenticating, to think of the amount of time that’s passed…

      But I think you have to accept that while some people do enjoy the ‘manifestations’, the wise stories, some do really want to know where possible which Suttas are authentic, which ones the Buddha said and which he didn’t. Because then we can see somewhere in all that history if something has gone wrong, ie the whole bhikkuni debate.

    • Hi Dee
      The only way to authenticate the teachings is through the practice. There is no authentication through study. This, in my opinion, is Beautiful.

      Interestingly the worlds oldest bible dates from about 400 years after the death of Jesus and the worlds oldest Buddhist texts date from about 400 years after the death of the Buddha (I think, could be wrong here).

    • Hi Peter,

      Just briefly on the date of the texts: The dates of the early Buddhist texts have been argued on a variety of grounds, none of which are dependent on the existence of actual manuscripts. Compare the Rig Veda: though agreed by scholars to have been compiled around 1000 BCE from verses that for the most part are considerably older, the oldest manuscript dates from perhaps the eleventh century. There are indeed genuine reasons to question the authenticity and accuracy of early Buddhist texts, but the lateness of the manuscript tradition is not one of them. It is purely a furphy introduced by a western bias towards written texts, and tells us nothing about about the reliability of actual text transmission in ancient India. It’s just as easy to falsify a written text as an oral one.

    • Hi Peter

      Thanks for the response, you’re right that it’s only through practice we know if what the Buddha taught was authentic.

      But we have to know that the practices our teachers give us are as close as possible to what he taught. I’m very vaguely aware there’s issues over what meditations to use, what the Buddha prescribed, whether jhanas are needed, and of course the Bhikkuni debate yet again (sorry for bringing it up twice!)

      I don’t think there’s any harm in being as specific as possible, just look at the Biblical text regarding homosexuals, now there’s a text that needs someone like Ajahn Sujato to look into!

      And it’s not just lay people who need to know, it’s Buddhist teachers who teach but haven’t realised quite yet for themselves whether that teaching resonates with what the Buddha taught.

      I guess I just don’t see the harm in accuracy, I don’t think it will smother that little Zen lotus flower, people will always continue to celebrate the Nativity and follow uplifting stories. And perhaps look at the positives too, perhaps find inaccuracies that have caused possible misguided teachings. I mean, I wouldn’t want to spend ten years on a practice only to find out it doesn’t feel authentic, and actually isn’t, by the end of it!

    • Bhante Sujato,
      Re authentic early sutta: Early used in the phrase “authentic early sutta” already implies a disconnection from the historical Buddha unless we are referring to early in the life of the Buddha (or do you mean the teaching was rendered into the sutta form at an early period after the death of the Buddha?) . You qualify authentic with “probably” and “belief”, which negates the meaning .

      Now I may be wrong but I think how we generally process history is based on western thought (evan if there are many great historians are from asia) and from the perspective of someone who wishes to be a practioner rather than a scholar I don’t think this is nesceseory (note I’m not advocating that we stop reading of sutta). And this is where fundamentalism comes in; we start to take an overly literal approach based on perceived historical authentication and we start to disect and then put forward a teaching which we identify with as orthodox and authentic and create divisions which really don’t need to be there. Now when we put our views forward from a position of authority sometimes these views are latched onto and our interpretations become a new dogma which is latched on to.

      I think your final paragraph from your post May 25 2011 9:33 am clears up many of doubts and questions that I have raised very nicely. Thank you.

    • Hi Peter,

      On a website there is not much else you can do except put down words and we all have different was of expressing ourselves, some people with lots of words, some not. I am not too sure I can understand how a website that sort of discusses Buddhism with a focus on early Buddhism can be otherwise than it is and I am not one really for denying people their individuality in forms of expression.

      i checked out that website and I like that too, although I do not see that it does or says anything that conflicts with what is here.

      I am still interested to know what you mean by practise; ie you state it is your main focus, what kind of practise are you talking about?

      Regards

      Daisy

    • Hi Peter,

      Thanks for that but I am still a little confused, what practise specifically are you referring to ie meditation, saying mantras.

      What exactly do you mean by practise?

      Kind Regards

      Daisy

    • Daisy
      I was not referring to a specific practice. You are free to choose your own practice.
      In Theravada Buddhism a frameworks for practice could be generosity, morality and meditation.

  3. Please Note: Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Peter,

    If you look on the internet there are heaps of groups you can join that are not ‘theravarden’ or ‘fundamentalist’. They do some really ‘out there’ practises which you would really like if you are such un unconventional and way out sort of guy.

    FPMT for example are one of the biggest vajrajana cults …whoops sorry… groups around, you can get into tantic sex I think they advise this on their website, you can study the lam rim – it is sort of like a hand book on how to be a good little cult follower, and includes imagining yourself as weird and wonderful things. It is the same group that the Dalai Lama belongs to so it is probably quite legitimate, these more esoteric groups do the sort of things that you seem to want from this group.

    Many of these practises are probably just as useful as the academic explanations. I too am not an academic and am not going to pretend to be but I don’t see the need to tear this down even if like you I don’t see knowing lots of information as being the goal of Buddhism.

    Why not try these groups instead of trying to change this one because Buddhism needs to have a group and a site whereby the original teachings can be studied etc and honestly your constant efforts at trying to undermine and destroy this type of Buddhism seems really full of ill will .

    I personally am not some sort of genius when it comes to ‘knowing and analising stuff” but I appreciate it if other people are and am not jealous of it and see the need for it

    • Hi Daisy

      I’m really not an “unconventional and way out sort of guy” and really have no interest in Tibetin Buddhism or cults. In fact I’m rather anti-cultist.

      Looking at the “about” page for this blog I feel that I should be able to find a space to articulate my opinions here on this open public forum: http://sujato.wordpress.com/about/

      I’m sorry if I come across as being full of “ill will”.

    • Hi Peter,

      I was being a bit rude in calling them Buddhist cults, I should not really say that, if people can and do choose to follow a guru (which is just another word for a teacher) then that can be benefical, many people do and it works for them.

      Although possibly the actual teachings of the Buddha maybe “fundamental” to Buddhism (and I can’t see anything fundamentalist about it) there are other Buddhist practises out there and it just seems that it is these that you seem to be supporting , but when asked about this you say you don’t.

      I can’t make sense of it, I don’t understand, why criticise the early teachings in support of these other types of Buddhism but then say you don’t follow them either.

      What actually is your view on Buddhism – where does it stem from? what are your beliefs, what practises or dogma do you actually follow then if you do not follow the early teachings of the Buddha. Who is your teacher?

      I am just confused that you constantly criticise a practise of reading what most people would believe or hope might be the words that the Buddha spoke but then don’t put up where your view, knowledge or beliefs stem from?

      Have you studied or practised with many of the noteable or wise lamas from maybe India or studied Zen possibly, where are you coming from and through what linage or practise are you learning about Buddhism if not from the early teachings of the Buddha.?

      From what I know of Buddhism which is nothing at all I thought one must have a teacher, dogma or practise to base their knowledge on; personal opinion and views on Buddhism I think can only be credible if based on some knowledge of Buddhism and used and useful when you may be relating it to a certain time or place or experience, although I don’t know this for sure it is just my opinion (ha ha)

      For example (this is probably not a good example or analogy) but …if some one says for instance that Buddhism is just for people from the East and that Westerns are Christians, that is not based on anything they have studied or learnt maybe but on their personal experience due to their environment, if though they studied Buddhism and learnt about it they would learn it is not about tradition etc it is a personal view but incorrect.

      Maybe secretly you are a student of the Dalai Lama here to test people?

      Regards

      Daisy

    • Hi Daisy
      I have been interested in Theravada Buddhism for close on 30 years including time spent as a monk. I have never studied with a Zen Master or a Lama. I also wasn’t aware that I had been criticising the “early teachings”.

      Today I came accross this on Bhikkhu Yogananda’s blog. It is the final part of an interview with Ven. Katuku­runde Ñāṇananda Thera. It is well worth a read in my opinion: http://nidahas.com/2011/05/nanananda-heretic-sage-6/

    • Ajahn Sujato, Peter,

      In alternate forms of Buddhism they say that the Buddha wrote something like 87,000 teachings. What that (i think) means that there was no one size fits all teaching rather that the basic principles as possibly contained in the early teachings relating possibly to overcoming greed, hatred and delusion or whatever where taught, written or related to the specific karmas of the population rather than the other way around.

      Have you heard of this or is that something different?

  4. Hi Peter

    …so I guess to me what you are you saying that people should not loose sight of the other side of Buddhism ie mediation, lovingkindness etc when studying the suttas?

    Kind regards

    Daisy

  5. Hi Peter

    Some alternate forms of Buddhism see Buddhism as the wings of a bird, one being compassion and the other wisdom, without the the wings balance with compassion and wisdom the bird cannot fly.

    Therefore would it be correct to state that your point is that when undertaking Buddhism in the form of studying the Suttas people should not loose sight of the other side of Buddhism ie mediation, lovingkindness meditation, generosity, patience etc?

    If this is your view then I competely agree. I would also add that coming from a more Mahayana background the opposite could be said, and that people who only practise meditation and compassion may need to balance that with the theory side of Buddhism.

    Kind regards

    Daisy

    • Hi Daisy,
      Yes I would agree and add that they should see the teachings as “merely for the sake of’” (hopefully I have understood Bhante Ñāṇananda correctly).

    • Hi Peter,

      ..merely for the sake of, didn’t get that far but will have another read.

      Kind Regards

      Daisy

    • Hi Peter

      “The teach­ing was given to be made use of, to go to the other shore, not to get entan­gled in words.”

      Yes good point (or entangled in anything, ego, hierachy, self righteous, being right) …it is easy to get entangled I’m sure do it.

      The point about unbalanced wisdom and compassion is not that I am making some great wise or profound point here simply that as a lay person Buddhism when it becomes all lovey dovey and overly moral and virtuous it tends to attract controlling young “good” little people who feel they are so virtuous they have the right to control others; when it just becomes tedious analysis of intellectual doctrine it is just that basically Buddhism become F______ boring!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and the hell realms actually start to look interesting.

    • Hi Daisy
      I agree that Buddhism tends to attract a fair number of the self-righteous and those who are into power dynamics. The most “committed” tend to be youngish and male (excuse the generalizations please).

    • Hi Peter

      Well nothing wrong with commited i suppose.

      At least Ajahn Sujato and this website is not like that and very open and accepting of views etc.

      Kind Regards

      Daisy.

  6. The flower he held up was a metaphor for the burgeoning element of unconditioned mind that is brought forth with us. It is the culmination of spiritual practice to create the unconditioned mind-made spiritual body… If you understand this one thing… you understand cessation.

    The twirling of the lotus is the most simple and beautiful was to communicate… That was why he used it at the very beginning.

  7. To live in the unconditioned mind/mind-made body of pure light is to renounce the body of the flesh… it’s fetters, and live in complete cessation of all hindrances. To live in a pure egoless state of pure unconditioned mind and light.

  8. The jhanas are integral in learning how to make the permanent transition from rudimentary gross mind… to perfected subtle spiritual mind.

  9. With the opening of the True Eye of Dhamma (pure divine sight)you gain supreme faith in the buddhas teaching,, and enter the stream… You are now on your way to unfolding the permanent transition to the spirit… of practicing Spiritual sight and hearing, and then into the creation of the spritual person within… the deathless.

  10. All of the Buddhas teachings are for the mastery of the mind and body so you have the strength to blow out the flame of false consciousness.

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