Friday, 31 March 2017


99. In the 13th century collection of koans known as the Mumonkan, there is an account of how the Buddha transmitted the Dharma to his disciple Kashyapa. The story has it that at one time when Shakyamuni Buddha was on a mountain called Grdhrakuta, someone presented him with a flower. The Buddha immediately held it up before the gaze of his assembled disciples. They were all dumbstruck. All, that is, except for Mahakashyapa who couldn't help breaking into a broad smile. Noticing this, the Buddha is reported to have said, 'I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words, and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa'.
     This story appears to have all the hallmarks of an historical account of the occasion on which Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted the Dharma to his disciple Mahakashyapa. We are told the time and the place of the transmission: when Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta. This Mount Grdhrakuta is a peak in what is today North India. Both Gautama Shakyamuni and Kashyapa are real historical figures. In the Zen tradition this story is taken at face value and considered to be factual.
     All, however, is not as it seems. Scholars point out that no account of this transmission event can be found before this story appeared in a sutra of Chinese origin in the year 1036 CE, some fourteen hundred years after the event would have taken place. In addition to the chronological issue is that of language. For here the Buddha does not speak the language of ancient India but rather that of a Sung dynasty Chan master. The general consensus among contemporary scholars and historians is that this story that figures as Case 6 of the Mumonkan is an invention, a fabrication, a piece of historical fiction.
     Granted the truth of what the scholars tell us, how are we to take the Mumonkan's account of the time and manner of Mahakashyapa's reception of the Buddha's Dharma? The first thing we should note is the literary form of our story. namely, that of the koan. And koans, like poems, are not meant to be taken literally. They do not give us factual information about the world or its history. What they do give us are expressions and patterns of how our deep yearning for liberation for ourselves and all beings, the yearning known as bodhicitta, awakens within us, and is tested, acknowledged and affirmed by the Zen master and Sangha.

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