Koan commentary

How can we convey the teaching beyond words and letters… in words?

Flower image
Photomechanical print by Ogawa Kazumasa (Rijks Museum/rawpixel)

Once, when the World-Honored One in ancient times was upon Vulture Peak, he held up a flower before the assembly of monks. At this all were silent. The Venerable Kashyapa alone broke into a smile. The World-Honored One said, “I have the all-pervading Eye of the True Dharma, the Secret Heart of Incomparable Nirvana, the True Aspect of Formless Form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside the sutras. I now hand it on to Mahakashyapa.”

The Commentary
Golden-faced Kudon is certainly outrageous. He turns the noble into the lowly, and sells dog flesh advertised as sheep’s head—though with some genius. However, supposing that at the time all the monks had smiled, how would the “All-including Eye of the True Dharma” have been handed on? Or again, if Kashyapa had not smiled, how could he have been entrusted with it? If you say that the True Dharma can be handed on, the golden-faced old man with his loud voice deceived the simple villagers. If you say it can’t be transmitted, why did Buddha say he had handed it on to Kashyapa?

The Verse
Holding up a flower
The snake shows its tail.
Kashyapa smiles,
And people and devas are confounded.

This case is based on a famous story. Some have called it a fable and said it never really happened, but it doesn’t matter in terms of its value as a koan. Whether it has historical veracity or not is not important; it’s a rich koan.

About Mahakashyapa: “Kashyapa” is the short form of Mahakashyapa. The prefix “Maha” means “great” or “large,” and here it’s an honorific. With this incident of him on Vulture Peak smiling in response to the Buddha holding up a flower, he became the first patriarch of Zen. For the scant biographical information available on Mahakashyapa, let’s turn to The Transmission of Light (Denkoroku in Japanese), a collection of koans compiled by the Japanese Zen master Keizan, the Dharma Heir of Dogen. This text purports to be Zen’s ancestral line, presented in stories—enlightenment accounts—of each of the fifty-two or so earliest masters. It says that Kashyapa was born in an Indian Brahmin family, and his name in Sanskrit means ‘drinker of light.’ When he was born, supposedly a golden light filled the room and went into his mouth; hence the name. We’re also told that his complexion was golden.

As a monk he was renowned for his ascetic self-discipline and moral strictness, and these qualities enabled him to assume the leadership of the Sangha after the death of the Buddha. It was Kashyapa who convened the first Buddhist Council in order to counteract tendencies toward a less strict lifestyle within the Sangha. He had differences of opinion with Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant, but in the end authorized Ananda as his Dharma Heir in Zen’s ancestral line.

In the Chinese temples and in our own Buddha Hall in Rochester, the figure of Mahakashyapa stands on the Buddha’s right and Ananda on the Buddha’s left. Iconographically, Mahakashyapa is often identified by his cracked and wrinkled face, meant to show his age and his asceticism.

When Kashyapa met the Buddha, the latter said, “Welcome, mendicant”—so by that time, apparently, Kashyapa was already wearing the patchwork robe of a monk. The Denkoroku says that “Kashyapa had practiced austerities and never wasted any time.” Remember that the Buddha himself began his journey to enlightenment by first spending six years practicing severe austerities, but then gave them up when he realized they would not lead to enlightenment. The Buddha then warned that self-punishment was not the way, but Kashyapa stuck to his ways, drawing the disapproval of others in the Sangha:“Only seeing the ugly emaciation of his body and the wretchedness of his clothing, everyone doubted Kashyapa.” Still, we’re told, “every time the Buddha was going to give a talk in someplace or other he shared his seat with Kashyapa, who thenceforth was the senior member of the community.”

We will return to this text later, but let’s wade into the case. “Once, when the World-Honored One”—this became the standard way of referring to the Buddha—“was upon Vulture Peak….” Vulture Peak was one of the sites I visited with several other Zen Center staff members on a pilgrimage to India forty years ago. We were glad to have put that on our itinerary because of the relief it provided. We had just spent some days at Bodhgaya, the seat of the Buddha’s enlightenment, which is a kind of Times Square of Buddhist pilgrimage sites. Every year it draws thousands of Buddhists from all over the world, monks and laypeople, and proved to be a lot noisier than we had been expecting. After leaving there, we took a taxi—in India it’s cheap enough for four people dividing the fare—to Vulture Peak (known there as Mount Grdhkuta, a name even harder to pronounce than mine). When we got there we found, to our surprise and relief, that we had this famous pilgrimage site to ourselves. It was just a low mountain, most of it wooded, and we were able to savor the silence. We just wandered around and hung out on the rock where the Buddha reportedly sat and held up the flower.

At the time there was a snow-white Nichiren temple overlooking the site from afar, and that appeared to be the only structure around. I remember only one simple sign identifying what had transpired at the place. Ever since this visit, I have been grateful to be able to picture the surroundings of this mythic incident, the context of the koan.

“He held up a flower before the assembly of monks.” The Buddha’s talks were so revered that sometimes hundreds of monks would gather to hear him speak. But this time he simply held up a flower instead. Some versions say that he twirled the flower a bit. “And the venerable Kashyapa alone broke into a smile.” The 19th-century English poet Francis Thompson said, “Thou canst not stir a flower / Without troubling of a star.”

Back to The Transmission of Light… the little chapter on Kashyapa begins, “When the Buddha raised the flower and blinked his eyes, Kashyapa broke out in a smile.” Although the blinking is not mentioned in the sources we used for our version of the story, the author, Keizan, says, “leaving aside the raising of the flower for the moment, everyone should clearly understand the blinking of the eyes. You raise your eyebrows and blink your eyes in the ordinary course of things, and Buddha blinked his eyes when he raised the flower. These are not separate at all. Your talking and smiling and Kashyapa’s breaking into a smile are not different at all.”

Then, with all the others remaining silent, Kashyapa alone smiled—and the World-Honored One approved. He gave his sanctioning. He said, “I have the all-pervading eye of the true Dharma, the secret heart of incomparable nirvana, the true aspect of formless form. It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside the sutras. I now hand it on to Mahakashyapa.”

This phrase, “all-pervading eye of the true Dharma,” is the standard English translation of Shobogenzo, the title of the great work by Zen master Dogen. Dharma is the original word that in China became Tao, the Way. “The secret heart of incomparable Nirvana, the true aspect of formless form,” and then this final line, “It does not rely on letters and is transmitted outside the sutras.” This became the hallmark of the Zen sect—a teaching beyond words, the school of direct experience.

In the late Aitken Roshi’s comment on this koan, he refers to a distinction between two kinds of communication. One is presentational communication and the other is discursive communication. Discursive describes what most people think of, probably, as communication: ordinary, explanatory words. Presentational communication also can be with words, but it is more direct. The koans are full of presentations: a shout, a striking of the stick, raising a finger, and so forth. This style of communication comes more naturally over the course of long Zen practice. Roshi Kapleau used to say, “In Zen we want to do less talking and thinking, and more feeling and acting.”

Patriarchs of Zen Buddhism. Scroll painting by Yamamoto Jakurin, Edo period (17th century). Kofukuji-ji Temple, Nagasaki.

Over time we learn to appreciate how eloquently we can communicate through movement, simple declarative speech, a word or two or five. When we do the standard bows in the dokusan room, we’re communicating through presentation. Every once in a while, someone, as they’re leaving the dokusan room, will say “thank you”—but the final bow is saying just that. It’s redundant to say it, and the bow says it more eloquently than any words—if, that is, the mind is free of thoughts. Even thoughts of the words “thank you.”

To respond when someone calls you is a presentation if it’s immediate, with no gap. It’s a demonstration of an empty mind—a mind of awareness and readiness.

In the book The Man Who Killed the Deer, Frank Waters puts it this way: “Nothing is simple and alone. We are not separate and alone. The breathing mountains, the living stones, each blade of grass, the clouds, the rain, each star, the beasts, and the invisible spirits of the air: we are all one, indivisible. So I would have you look upon this thing not as a separate simple thing but as a stone, which is a star in the firmament of the earth, as a ripple in a pool, and as a kernel of corn. I would have you consider how it fits into the whole, how far its influence may spread, what it may grow into.”

The influence of this holding up the flower and, perhaps even more importantly, of the smile that grew out of it, initiated the mind-to-mind transmission of Zen. After Mahakashyapa came Ananda, and then on and on right down to our present time. Just with the flower and the smile. A flower smiles, a smile flowers.

In dokusan, of course, the student has to demonstrate her or his understanding of what really dawned on Vulture Peak. He or she has to present, not explain.

Let’s move on to Mumon’s commentary. Here we have Mumon toying with the monks and even with us, starting with his wry poke at the Buddha. We see this all through the Mumonkan—and not just the Mumonkan, but in Zen generally—where the masters will deliberately bring their predecessors down to earth with these earthy, seemingly belittling comments.

“The golden-faced old man with his loud voice deceived the simple villagers.” In these words of Mumon I’m reminded of a scene we came upon on one of my pilgrimages through China. It was in a rural village that probably had remained largely unchanged over the course of centuries, and where it seemed the only entertainment they ever had was staged extemporaneously. On the day we passed through there, some local impresario, after gathering a crowd in a loud voice, presented a “demonstration of strength.” The villagers crowded around, gawking, in a dense ring. Probably at other times the performer would have been telling stories. The presenter would then pass around a hat and make some money this way.

“Golden-faced Kudon”—Kudon is a Japanese nickname for the Buddha—“is certainly outrageous. He turns the noble into the lowly and sells dog flesh advertised as sheep’s head.” The Sanskrit word for noble is arya, and it was often a modifier for the Sangha: the arya Sangha. How did the Buddha turn the noble into the lowly here?

If we put ourselves in the assembly on Vulture Peak that day, we can well imagine our reaction—and the reaction of everyone else there—to the Buddha singling out Kashyapa as The Man. I see all heads swiveling around to see this special monk who alone smiled with understanding. How many of us could simply rejoice with him? In Buddhist terms, that would be called mudita—“sympathetic joy,” or sharing in the good fortune of another. It’s sometimes said that it requires a higher level of development than even compassion.

Roshi Kapleau has said that when he was at Hosshinji, the monastery where he spent his first three years of training in Japan, at the end of each sesshin Harada Roshi would publicly recognize, in the zendo, the participants who had achieved kensho that week. It was done as a brief ritual, but imagine what it put people through. Besides inviting feelings of envy on the part of the “losers,” the ritual might well have been hard on the “winners,” too; in Japan, you never want to stand out from the group. So why did Harada Roshi do this? Two reasons come to mind: first, by publicly presenting those who had just seen into their nature, he hoped to boost others’ faith that they, too, could break through. Second, now that those who had glimpsed their True Self were “outed,” they would feel a greater responsibility to live up to that Self in their daily lives.

However well these strategies may have worked at Hosshinji, for an American Sangha I would expect them to do more harm than good. They would too likely reinforce the delusion that there is something to be “attained” in Zen. On the contrary, if awakening gives us anything, it’s the realization that from the very beginning all beings are endowed with the same originally enlightened nature.

And then Mumon poses this mischievous question: Hey, wait a minute, what if all the monks had smiled? Wouldn’t the Buddha have been at a loss then? He’s practically suggesting that Zen might never have got off the ground—and that we might not be here in this zendo. And then he wonders, what about if Kashyapa had not smiled? Mumon is dangling these hypotheticals before us to throw sand in our eyes and get us to see with our third eye.

To Mumon’s probing questions we can add this one: What if there had been no flower on hand that day on Vulture Peak? (I don’t recall seeing any flowers growing there.) Would a distinctive looking twig have done the trick? How about a button? Or what if there had been no object at all on hand—say, he was sitting on bare rock—what then? A situation similar to that appears in a koan in the Blue Cliff Record: the Buddha took his seat on the platform, and Manjusri struck a table and said, “Clearly understand the Dharma of the King of the Dharma—it is like this,” and at that the Buddha simply descended from his seat.

It’s not a matter of what the Buddha did or didn’t do. In fact, it’s not even in the realm of “doing.” It all boils down to the Buddha’s being, and Kashyapa’s. And Kashyapa’s seeing.

In Zen, theoretically, Dharma transmission takes place when the teacher feels the student’s understanding matches his or her own. In Japan some take it further and claim that to give Dharma transmission, the student’s understanding has to exceed the teacher’s. But we don’t need to take that literally. If that were the case, then by today any teacher would have an understanding that would dwarf the understanding of the Buddhas and the patriarchs.

The key point is that, like successive generations of photocopies, if the transmission is not true, if the student is not fully qualified for the transmission, you risk the decline of the tradition—which is what’s happening, frankly. Most Zen teachers today don’t require the student even to have seen into his True Nature in order to receive Dharma transmission. In fact, they don’t even claim to have that as a requirement.

I fished a story out of this wonderful book called Stories of the Spirit, Stories of the Heart: Parables of the Spiritual Path from Around the World. “The Zen master Munon sent for his disciple, Shoju, one day and said, ‘I’m an old man now, Shoju, and it is you who will carry on this teaching. Here is a book that has been handed down for seven generations from master to master. I have myself added some notes to it that you will find valuable. Here, keep it with you as a sign that I’ve made you my successor.’ And at that, Shoju burned it immediately.”

Just as Mumon is dangling this hypothetical question about transmission—what if everyone had smiled, what if Kashyapa had not smiled—we can also see the Buddha’s reference to the All-pervading Eye of the True Dharma, the Secret Heart of Incomparable Nirvana, the True Aspect of Formless Form, as a kind of goad. He’s calling on us to see through all that conceptual language, so that we’re not attached to the idea of it, and instead experience ourselves what it’s pointing to.

There is a story of the great Nanchuan, known in Japanese as Nansen, the Tang Dynasty master of Zhaozhou (Joshu). He was out working in the garden when a disciple came to him and asked, “What is the way of Nanchuan?” In other words, show me your understanding, what is your teaching? And Nanchuan held up the sickle, the garden tool he had been using. Just held it up. The disciple then said, “I’m asking about the way of Nanchuan, not the sickle.” And Nanchuan said, “I can use it with pleasure.” In holding up that sickle, Nanchuan was beautifully demonstrating the way of Nanchuan—the Buddha Way.

Because standards for transmission have become so unreliable today, we have to turn elsewhere to acquire a fuller sense of a prospective teacher’s abilities and character. Most valuable of all is to spend a stretch of time—in real time—with a teacher, and if possible also with the teacher’s more senior students. That’s an opportunity we offer in Rochester at our all-day introductory workshops. You can also get something of a read on a teacher through what he or she has written, but that, too, may not be reliable; the teacher’s conduct can be at odds with what’s on paper.

And now Mumon’s verse: “Holding up a flower, the snake shows its tail. Kashyapa smiles, and people and devas are confounded.” Who’s the snake in this, showing its tail? What is Mumon talking about?

When we were kids we had a family dog named Heidi, a dachshund, who would sometimes get into mischief when we were out of the house—chew something up or get into some food not meant for her. When we came back Heidi would scurry under the dining room table, which had a tablecloth that came down almost to the floor. She would hide there, unaware that her little tail was sticking out. She was thinking her secret was secure! Zen has been called an “open secret.”

“Kashyapa smiles, and people and devas are confounded.” “Humans and devas” became a conventional way of referring to the two highest realms of the six realms of unenlightened existence. So then “people and devas” pretty much comprises all of those who have a shot at understanding things of this nature—those who have risen to a level of consciousness where they could benefit from hearing the Dharma. But now, leaving aside devas, why are we confounded by this teaching that is a no-teaching? This Dharma that is a no-Dharma? Why are people stymied by the koan they’re working on, or even snarled up at times by breath practice?

We complicate things. We complicate things unnecessarily through our thinking, or, more correctly, our clinging to our thoughts. But not Kashyapa. He just looked directly at the Buddha’s presentation. He saw. How so? Because his mind was undivided by thoughts. Kashyapa could not have been thinking for a second about getting anything out of that flower or coming to awakening. His mind had to have been as pure as a white sheet of paper. Completely free of thoughts, concepts, notions, hopes, expectations, regrets. Certainly it had to have been free of thoughts of self and the self’s ambitions and progress and any other such nonsense.

It takes absolute devotion to one’s practice to reach true purity of mind, emptiness of mind. Even now, the minds of people here are much more empty than they were earlier in sesshin—much more so. The clouds are getting very thin; clouds of thought are thinning out and very light. Some of you may be satisfied with this feeling of buoyancy and freedom, the lightness, the quiet joy. Other people will not be. Most people will be: that’s the truth, based on all past experience. Most people will be grateful for what they’ve gotten out of this sesshin so far—and then after sesshin this elevated state will pass, as all states do. Others, mostly those who often enough have seen this buoyancy pass after sesshin, will not be satisfied with it. They will continue to grapple with the koan, get deeper into whatever their practice is, knowing that on this path we never want to coast.

Right now, on this sixth day of sesshin, we are at the top of our game. No matter what you think the condition of your mind is, we are all enormously concentrated relative to our ordinary state. It really doesn’t get much better than this. Because of that readiness of the mind, this is where we have the best opportunity to wipe away those last wisps of cloud. Not by trying to wipe them away, not by doing anything with the thoughts, but just by making the final little leap beyond this ordinary mind, and reaching complete oneness with the practice.

When the Buddha held up the flower he was presenting what Hakuin said centuries later: “I am the sun and the moon and the stars and the wide, wide earth.” “I am the flower,” he’s saying. All beings are this flower.
Let us close with part of a poem we read during our funeral service:

The world is a flower.
Gods are flowers.
Enlightened ones are flowers.
All phenomena are flowers.
Red flowers, white flowers, green flowers,
yellow flowers, black flowers,
all the different kinds of the colors of
flowers, all of the different kinds
of love’s shining forth. / / /


Roshi Bodhin KjolhedeKoan commentary by Roshi Bodhin Kjolhede

On the sixth day of the seven-day sesshin, July 2004