Twirling a Flower: The Question of Form

Noelle Oxenhandler

Shakyamuni twirls a flower. Mahakashyapa smiles.

You might say that this first transmission from teacher to disciple is the beginning of form for Buddhism: the infinite vastness of awakened mind expressed in the utter particularness of this hand, this flower.

Or you might say that this spontaneous gesture, which can be rediscovered but never duplicated, is the very opposite of what is meant by form—if by form you mean a reservoir of previously used particulars, a museum of words and movements made valuable by virtue of being well worn, passed down from hand to hand, from mouth to mouth.

But perhaps there is a middle way, one that can bring us to the very mystery of form in Buddhism. For what else can we call it when an ancient relic, preserved for centuries, suddenly flares up, becoming as fresh and single in our lives as the movement of Shakyamuni’s fingers twirling a flower?

Some twenty years ago a friend of mine saw a small sign in a store window in Mendocino that said “Buddhist Retreat.” A few days later, having never meditated before, she found herself in the midst of a seven-day sesshin with a Japanese Zen master. Hour after hour she sat before a window, peacefully watching the movement of raindrops down the glass. But there was one point where everything jammed. The chanting service each morning included the Heart Sutra in Sino-Japanese. “What do the words mean?” Carole asked when she went for her interview with the roshi. “There’s no need for you to know now,” he replied. “Just throw yourself into the chanting. I’ll translate for you when the“sesshin”is over.”

Carole repeated her question each time she saw the roshi, and each time he gave her the same reply. Finally, she walked right out the door and headed toward the ocean. She walked and walked, and she had already gone quite a long distance when she heard footsteps behind her. She turned and saw the roshi.

“Let me tell you about the Heart Sutra,” he said, continuing to walk with her in the direction in which she was going. The Bodhisattva of Compassion, practicing deep prajna wisdom. . . .  Line by line he translated, until Carole exclaimed, “I can say those words!” Together they turned and walked back to the sesshin.

Something about Carole’s unwavering refusal had moved the Zen master. She was lucky to have found a teacher who recognized that our resistance to a form may be inseparable from the very energy that the path requires of us: the fierce determination to have an authentic, first hand experience. “Be a lamp unto yourself,” Shakyamuni said.

Buddhism encompasses a vast spectrum of possible relationships to form, from the elaborate rituals of the Vajrayana to the simpler - at times radically iconoclastic - practices of Zen. To this spectrum, each of us brings our own tendencies. For some the ancient forms provide exquisite aesthetic pleasure, like a walk through beautifully tended gardens. For others, they provide deep reassurance, the sense of being brought into alignment on a thread going back for centuries. Doing it this way, and not that as others before us have done it this way, and not that, it is possible to feel relieved of the burden of our own willy-nilly desires and aversions, free to participate in what Buddhists call the great “thusness” of the universe.

At the other extreme, there are those who have a profound temperamental aversion to form, a kind of allergic reaction. Beyond the posture of meditation, they experience every other form as a kind of obscenity. When I see such people gritting their teeth through one ceremony after another, I imagine they would have been much more at home in the earliest days of Buddhism, when all images of the Buddha were prohibited, save a linear pattern of waves or the simple outline of a footprint. Traces - nothing more.

“Why ride in a Volkswagen if you can ride in a Rolls Royce?” Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say - but not everyone wants to ride in a Rolls Royce. Ideally, we would each enter through the gate that most suited us temperamentally. But unfortunately there is not always a perfect match. Through the mysterious circumstances that bring each of us to the path, a Volkswagen person may find herself riding in a Rolls-Royce, and the one riding in a Volkswagen may yearn for the still greater simplicity of a footprint.

Even when we feel a perfect alignment with our vehicle, there can be jarring moments. When Philip Kapleau was training in a Zen monastery in Japan, he had an excruciatingly hard time bowing. One day, observing him as he fell stiffly to the floor, his teacher exclaimed, “Kapleau-san, who do you think you’re bowing to?” At the deepest level, this question is not fundamentally different from the famous Zen question “What is it?” - and hearing the question was a memorable moment for Roshi Kapleau.

There are times, then, when a particular form can function like a koan, intensifying and collecting our resistance to the point where something gives. When it does, the sense of release can be extraordinarily sweet. For when the small self lets go at the point where it has been clinging most fiercely - suddenly a breeze can blow in through the windowless room.

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