On the central wall of the Guest House at the monastery where I lived during the 1980s, there was a mural painted by the Japanese Jesuit priest Father Maxima depicting a scene from Buddhist legend. Once when Shakyamuni’s disciples had gathered on Vulture Peak to hear a sermon, he simply stood in their midst and, holding a single flower aloft so all could see, twirled it between his thumb and forefinger. At this, all were puzzled. Mahakashyapa alone, among all the disciples, broke into a smile, indicating that he had understood the final truth of Buddhism. Father Maxima’s mural was a faithful depiction of all this. At the center stood Buddha holding up a lotus blossom. About him were the various monks and animals, bodhisattvas, devas, and other heavenly beings normally to be found when Shakyamuni delivered a sermon. But Mahakasyapa wasn’t smiling—at least not like any smile I’d ever seen. Rather, he wore an expression approaching horror.
Needless to say, I found this disturbing. I’d always believed that the gentle smile you saw on the faces of most Buddha statues was where I was headed in studying Zen. I didn’t want the kind of smile Mahakashyapa had. In fact, I was a little afraid of it. When my turn came to clean the Guest House, I’d always avoid the mural, working with my back to it, and when some visitor would ask to have the story explained, I’d recite it from rote without dwelling too much on the part about the smile. Even so, I’d often hear someone murmur behind my back as we turned to continue the tour, “Doesn’t look like much of a smile to me!”
I finally asked the Abbot about it, but all he said was, “Father Maxima got it right.”
When Jesus first opens his mouth to teach in the New Testament, it is clear at once that “he gets it right” and, consequently, that we are in for a rocky ride. Because as loving and inclusive as his teachings are, they are completely uncompromising when it comes to the worldly concerns of the self.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Sermon on the Mount, when he counsels his disciples not to worry about the things that normally occupy people’s minds:
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matt. 6:27–30)
On its surface, Jesus seems to be saying we ought to trust in God to provide for us at every moment of our lives—that if God cares so well for all the rest of nature, he will surely care for us. But at the heart of that teaching lies a far more radical revelation that, if we truly embrace it, eliminates suffering altogether, because it removes the cause of suffering— because it goes back to the moment when, through an act of self-assertion, we first came to see ourselves as separate from all that is.
The simple fact is, no one feels able to live like a flower. Flowers don’t pay mortgages on the fields where they live, don’t have to worry about their jobs, their pensions, their children, or their health. Even when it’s hot and doesn’t rain for a long time, flowers never worry. They are born without worldly cares, and live and die in like manner. Flowers are at ease in the universe, even without thinking or trying at all. Over the centuries they have witnessed the fall of Troy, the death of Jesus, the bubonic plague, and the destruction of the World Trade Center—all without missing a single pulse of the universal heartbeat. Their attentions never wander, they never become lost in the world. No wonder they look better than Solomon in all his fine robes. Dress yourself up any way you like—in Armani, Brooks Brothers, or Ralph Lauren—and it doesn’t change for an instant what you are underneath: naked and fearful of what the next moment will bring.
When Jesus points to the lilies of the field—flowers that are born in a day and die in a day and never depart from the presence of God— he is not telling his disciples to live like them (which for most would be impossible), but that they are like them. That however much they worry, or puff themselves up, or tell themselves in a million and one little ways every day that it isn’t so, they are one with all of creation. How could it be any other way?
This is the meaning of Shakyamuni’s flower, and the reason why in Father Maxima’s mural Mahakashyapa’s mouth falls open in horror when he sees it. He knows at once the meaninglessness of individual selfhood, the pointlessness of all human enterprise and endeavor in the face of final annihilation. But then why at the end of the story does Shakyamuni say to those assembled, “The mind of true enlightenment I now pass on to Mahakashyapa”? Could that really be all there is? Is what many Christians say about Buddhism true, that it is a fundamentally nihilistic and pessimistic religion— which is to say, that it isn’t really a religion at all?
No. What Shakyamuni understands is that the death of the self is always followed by the birth of God. He has experienced this for himself and therefore knows that Mahakashyapa’s enlightenment is assured. Had Father Maxima painted Mahakashyapa on any subsequent day, he would have found the same smile the Buddha wore, but being a Christian, he chose to depict the moment before that smile, the moment he reaches the end of separate selfhood. The smile is left to God.
The first thing to realize on the spiritual journey is that we did not cause ourselves to be. The second is that over the course of our lives—whether they last for a day or a century—we are supported by a Power Beyond the Self, which in the West we call God and in Asia is referred to as Amida Buddha. That “Other Power” takes the form of everything from the earth we stand on, to food and water, to sunlight, to the very air we breathe. We cannot live for even one day apart from these blessings, and yet we also don’t cause them to be. Last of all, we need to know that we cannot catch ourselves when we fall—that in death we must surrender the self and all that we have made of it (or failed to make), entrusting everything, including all our thoughts, to that eternal Power. But really, these three realizations are all contained in a flower. Look at a flower and you have learned the complete teachings of the Buddha. Consider the lilies, and you have heard the entire Sermon on the Mount. ▼
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