THE FLOWER SERMON
Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching.
But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water.
The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching.
When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak.
“What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”
Mahakashyapa became Buddha’s successor from that day forward.
Background to the Flower Sutra
The Flower Sutra is a sutra in the Zen (or Chan) tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. It's earliest versions date from the 11th century. Zen Buddhism stresses wordless insight more than most other types of Buddhism. This sutra exemplifies that very well.
In many versions of this sutra the Buddha doesn't walk around, he merely holds up the Lotus, roots and all, to a group of disciples. Most disciples are confused.
To Zen Buddhists this sutra shows the origins of the wordless teachings of Zen - its history started with the Buddha himself.