Kanji for Muryoko

'Infinite Light'

Journal of Shin Buddhism


Flowers of the Dharma
by Mark Healsmith

There are many instances of flowers in the Buddhist teachings and each instance has its meaning. I wish to talk today both about some of the specific instances of flowers in the Dharma, but also of flowers and the Dharma. That is, what flowers have to teach us.

The most well-known flowers in Buddhism are the lotus flowers that bloomed where the new-born Shakyamuni Buddha placed His feet as He took His seven steps. These blossoms herald the destiny of the infant Buddha - in fact teach us that the infant is already the Enlightened One, but would act out the drama of His life to teach us the Way. They teach us of the purity of the Buddha Nature that is the true face of each of us and which persists despite our inability to perceive it due to our anger, greed and ignorance. When we contemplate this event it can be seen perhaps that all the Buddhist teachings are abstracted in it. The lotus flowers bloom because the Buddha is the Buddha. Later in His life Shakyamuni Buddha taught the Pure Land teachings and declared that these were the most important teachings that He would transmit. These teachings have been transmitted to us so that we can learn that the mind of Amida Buddha is freely given to each and every being as shinjin or true entrusting. This is because of the vows of Amida; because Amida is Amida. This freely bestowed insight does not depend on our overcoming our burden of karmic evil, that is, our burden of anger, greed and ignorance.

According to the Zen tradition, at a teaching assembly Shakyamuni held a flower up in one hand, and turning it in His fingers, winked. Mahakasyapa, one of the Buddha's chief disciples, smiled. The Buddha confirmed that Mahakasyapa had understood His teaching. The Zen tradition claims this as the first instance of what it terms wordless mind-to mind transmission of the truth outside the scriptures and claims Mahakasyapa as the first patriarch of their tradition. If only we will listen, though, each flower has a wordless teaching for each of us. The scriptures are always guideposts, summaries or hints and true teaching is essentially wordless and finally consists of feelings and knowledge that words can never fully convey. Amida's call too is, paradoxically, entirely wordless. Memory is wordless. Aesthetic emotion is wordless. Love is wordless.

The three Pure Land sutras include many references to flowers. In the Contemplation Sutra there are described jewelled trees adorned with blossoms and leaves made of seven jewels. In the ponds there are countless jeweled lotus blossoms. One can almost imagine this. To visualize the Pure Land is only a preliminary though to visualizing the Buddha Himself and the visualization of the Buddha begins with the lotus flower on which He stands. This flower rests on the seven jeweled land, has innumerable petals and the veins of the petals emit innumerable colored lights. It is, in the end, beyond my imagining and probably beyond the imagination of any but a very advanced meditator to visualize even this miraculous flower, let alone the Buddha Himself.

In the Smaller Sutra we learn that exquisite mandarava flowers rain onto the Pure land six times every day and night and that the flowers are gathered by the inhabitants of the Pure Land and used by them as offerings to the countless Buddhas in all the directions.

In the Larger Sutra flowers made of precious metals and jewels bloom from jeweled trees. As the breeze blows miraculous flowers are scattered through the land and lotus flowers fill the land - each has one hundred thousand kotis of petals and each radiates innumerable coloured and intense beams of light.

What are we to make of the flowers of the Pure Land? Nirvana, the state of complete enlightenment, the epitome of the Dharma, is described in numerous ways in the vast and diverse records of the Buddhist teachings; from its literal meaning of 'extinction' - extinction of all the ties that bind us to samsaric existence and the entry into an entirely new mode of existence - to a state of oneness with the absolute. The vast Prajnaparamita teachings point at what nirvana is and is not in thousands of lines or as the brief Heart Sutra, but the meaning of these teachings is inaccessible to most. The voluminous Flower Garland (Kegon) Sutra contains many teachings, but is another attempt to illuminate the enlightened state. I read it in awe of its universal scope and vision, but ordinary people cannot achieve the state of mind it describes.

Bodhisattva Nagarjuna, who lived in India perhaps from 150 to 250 CE, is the towering figure of early Mahayana Buddhism. A monk of unparalleled intellect, learning and spiritual accomplishment he is held as the founder of most schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Shinran Shonin held Nagarjuna to be the First Patriarch of the Pure Land School and for all his learning and accomplishment, in his 'Discourse on the Ten Stages' Nagarjuna taught the recitation of the names of the Buddhas and Great Bodhisattvas as the quick and safe way of achieving the stage of non-retrogression. In his philosophical works that founded the Madhyamika School, Nagarjuna cut through all viewpoints about what we can know of reality in his 'tetralemma'.

Everything is real, and not real,
Both real and not real,
Neither real nor not real.
This is Lord Buddha's teaching.

What is real - Nirvana - therefore cannot be expressed verbally in any meaningful sense and we must understand that all the Buddhist teachings are 'fingers pointing at the moon.' For us the personal realization of our teacher Shinran based on his understanding of the teachings is what matters. The gorgeous images of the flowers and all the other attributes of the Pure Land served no doubt as visualization guides to meditational adepts in times past, but now serve as images to point us towards a realm beyond our limited understanding, to the ineffable truth of the Buddhist teachings which Amida ensures us we will realize if we hear His call.


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Everyday life has many teachings for us though that we can hear even without opening a book. Even those who claim not to have any religious feelings at all can be moved by the glory of a natural vista or simply a sunset, their daily interaction with their cat or dog, or the intimate beauty of a flower.

Flowers can open people to intimacy. My wife ensures that I always have a flower, usually a rose, on my desk at work. For patients who are shy or afraid especially the flower leads naturally to the start of a conversation, at first about the flower, then about other matters.

Each flower is perfectly itself. Like each of us it is living its unrepeatable life. The flower is unique and individual, yet it depends for its existence on an infinitely complex web of nature: the sun, rain, fertile soil, insects and so much more. The flower is a wonderful exemplar of the uniqueness yet interconnectedness of all life.

As well as their colour and form and perfume, it is equally the nature of flowers that they dry out and fall. This can serve as a reminder to us of the Great Matter of Life and Death, of the rare opportunity of human life and of the importance of listening to the Dharma and attaining settled faith in Amida's grace. Like the flower we have no choice but to live out the life we have, to live out the burden or benefit of our unfathomable karma, but unlike the flower we have the ability to hear Amida's call and when we fall, to fall into Amida's embrace.

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