Zen Superstitious Origin

Zen is based on an interpretation of a sermon attributed to Shakyamuni Buddha, known as the Flower Sermon, in which Zen masters claim that the Buddha - instead of speaking - used "silent transmission" of a message (transmitted by his mind to his disciples) - but that only one person could receive that message:

          "The Flower Sermon was held near a pond during Buddha's later years. When he held up the freshly-picked          

          lotus flower -- roots and all, dripping mud -- the assembled crowd was silent, not understanding its significance.

           But after a moment or two, Buddha's disciple Mahakasyapa smiled. He was the only attendee to receive

          the Buddha's message that day, but the account of The Flower Sermon is remembered and revered in

          Zen Buddhism even now".      https://www.buddhagroove.com/the-flower-sermon/

Zen literature informs us further, that only one disciple could receive the mind-transmitted message (reacting by a smile). Other disciples (who failed in receiving that mind transmitted message) had to be informed by the Buddha in the usual way of speaking, about this new way of "wordless transmission of Buddhism":

          "A Wordless Transmission: It is said that when the Buddha saw Mahakasyapa smile, he told the crowd that since he,

          the Buddha, possessed the true and marvellous mind of Nirvana, the Dharma eye, and the form of the formless,

          a subtle Dharma Gate that needs no forms or language but is a special energy transmission,

          he was now entrusting it to Mahakasyapa. Since the Buddha was getting on in years,

          Mahakasyapa became his successor from that day forward".

In other words, the Buddha used mind-to-mind transmission of information, or telepathy, but this failed to work except - as Zen literature mentions - for one disciple, who reacted with a smile at the content of that telepathic message!

The sermon as a "simile":

Some Zen followers try to interpret the Flower Sermon as a 'simile' - not an actual event, claiming that it is a simile about forming connection between Master (Buddha) and Disciple (Mahakashyapa).  This interpretation makes the meaning of the sermon suffer deeper contradiction, because it shows that the Buddha had failed in making connection with all other disciples (who did not receive the wordless message).

So, what is the essence of the simile - that the Flower Sermon presents?  What does it teach us?

It teaches that the "mental aspect of a message" and "physical aspect of voice vibrations" are separate.  It conveys the perspective of Dualism. Dualism regards the mental and physical aspects (of a phenomenon) as different and separable.  Non-duality regards that the mental and physical aspects (of a phenomenon) as different but inseprable.  Zen is based on Dualism in its deepest roots.

The Superstitious Mind of Zen

The background of Zen description of its own roots makes of the Flower Sermon a superstitious story about telepathy transmission among two exceptional individuals: the Buddha as a "mind-energy transmitter" and Mahakashyapa as the sole receiver.  

Simple and naive ordinary people would have been overwhelmed upon hearing Zen monks teling a story about the extraordinary powers of the Buddha - effectively being able to use telepathy to penetrate the mind of that disciple, (whom they consider as their founder).   Similar stories of "mind-penetration" of thoughts - were popular in folk-stories in feudal China, as the Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia informs us:

          "Once, while the venerable Anuruddha was meditating in solitude,

          he considered how, by means of the four Foundations

          of Mindfulness (satipatthana) the Noble Path that leads to the extinction

          of suffering can be perfected.  

          Then Moggallana, penetrating Anuruddha's mind by his own,

          appeared before him through supernormal power

          and requested him to describe in detail this method of practice".

The Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia / Penetration of Others Minds and Thoughts


Telepathy and Clairvoyance

The Skeptic's Dictionary clarifies that mind-to-mind messaging - the fundamental belief at the origin of Zen - is indistinguishable from clairvoyance:


          “To the present day, no one has come up with a persuasive experimental design that can unambiguously distinguish

          between telepathy and clairvoyance....

          Based on the experimental evidence, it is by no means clear that pure telepathy exists per se, nor is it certain that

          real-time clairvoyance exists.  

          [TELEPATHY] Literally, "distance feeling":  The term is a shortened version of mental telepathy

          and refers to mind-reading or mind-to-mind communication through ESP.

          Since there is no way to distinguish direct communication with another mind from communication with a future

          or past perception by that or some other mind,

          there is no way to distinguish telepathy from precognition or retrocognition. There is no way to distinguish telepathy,

          clairvoyance, retrocognition, or precognition from a mind perceiving directly the akashik [astral] record.

          There is no way to distinguish telepathy,clairvoyance, retrocognition, precognition, or perceiving the akashic record from

          perceiving what is directly placed in the mind by God (occasionalism)."   http://skepdic.com/telepath.html

The illusion of silent transmission

as a tool for domination in modern Zen

After years of training their monks to silently obey and serve the master, young monks serve their master "roshi" without having to speak.

This has been attributed to the ability of the master to send

telepathic commands of "silent transmission" -

as it is mentioned in this observation of a western Zen practitioner:  

            "An attendant monk is supposed to know his "roshi's" needs without being told.  

           Before a "roshi" reaches for his teacup, someone will fill it.  Before he moves toward a door

          someone will open it. ...

          The quiet profound and dynamic intimacy that can develop between "roshi" and monk     

          is both a development of Zen " mind-to-mind transmission"  

          and a complete fulfilment the social convention that governs interaction

          between teacher and student".  The poor monk enslaved by his master must not look at the master

         in the eye in order to make the silent transmission work.  

Interestingly, there is a cultural difference between behaviour of

Western and Japanese Zen practitioners.  

          "What Western students do not understand is that this ritual formality is actually much more

          detailed than they realised ... between "roshi' and monk.  

          As part of the same social protocol, monks in a Japanese monastery

          also do not look at the face of the "roshi' but point their eyes downward. ...

          they remain passive and do not speak unless spoken to.  

          Monks bow to the floor whenever they enter and leave the "roshi" room....

          keep their eyes pointed downwards whenever they are in the "roshi's" presence and never initiate conversation.  

          An American practitioner who had become quite friendly with a Japanese "roshi" on the latter's trip to the United States

          and England - was amazed at the way the same "roshi" was treated in Japan.  

          In particular he could not understand the silence of the monks in the presence of the "roshi"...


         Source:   page 70 - 71 of Article by G. Victor Sogen Hori: Japanese Buddhism in America,

          included in book: "The Faces of Buddhism in America" edited by Charles Prebish and Kenneth Tanaka,

          University of California Press, 1998.


Author:  Safwan Darshams

The Flower Sermon through the perspective of the Lotus Sutra