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Non-historical fact of essential nature

March 26, 2012

By Stephen Damon

I’ve been working with the koan of Mahakasyapa smiling when Buddha twirled a flower on Vulture Peak from the Mumonkan , The Gateless Barrier:

When Buddha was on Vulture Peak he twirled a flower before the assembly. Everyone was silent. Only  Kasyapa smiled. Buddha said: `I have the eye treasury of the true teaching, the heart of Nirvana, the true form of non-form, and the ineffable gate of Dharma. It is a special transmission outside the teaching. I now entrust it to Maha-Kasyapa.’

The image of the silent Buddha twirling a flower in front of large gathering of monks, buddhas and bodhisattvas is very strong and cuts through. or maybe I should say, illuminates, centuries of Buddhist books and commentaries like a flash of lightning in the dark, midnight sky. I first came across this story when I was very young, but it has stayed with me throughout my practice.  And yet, I have noticed that many contemporary commentators, as if taken by surprise, first discuss whether or not the story is literally true.  Frankly, it never occurred to me to ask whether this or any of the hundreds of stories about the Buddha actually happened.  The point for me has always been, are they occurring right now, in my life.  Do they illuminate some part of myself that is too deep to be reached by the ordinary light of the world?

Robert Aitken addressed this point in his commentary on the koan: I don’t believe it is very important  whether Jesus, and Moses and Buddha were historical figures.  True religious practice is grounded in the non-historical fact of essential nature. The “World-Honored One Twirls a Flower,” “Pai-Chang’s fox,” all the other fabulous cases of Zen literature are your stories and mine, intimate accounts of our personal nature and experience.

So the point of any religious story, myth, or legend is not whether it happened at some particular point in time and space.  If you find it helpful in studying yourself from another point of view, it’s worth keeping in your mind, for as long as it has some force in your life.  If you don’t find it helpful or if you see that it has lost its power to help you then just let it go and move on. 



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