The Buddha Holds Up a Flower: A Meditation on the Birth of Religions

The Buddha Holds Up a Flower: A Meditation on the Birth of Religions September 16, 2021




Once upon a time the world honored one was at Vulture Peak. Before a vast crowd of lay practitioners, nuns, and monks, angelic creatures, and even gods, he held up a single flower and twirled it. Of the assembled crowd only the disciple Mahakashyapa, responded, breaking into a wide grin.

The Buddha, lord of wisdom, physician of the heart, announced “I have the eye treasury of the true Dharma, the marvelous mind of nirvana, the true form of no-form, the subtle gate of the Dharma. This wisdom does not depend on letters, it is transmitted outside all formal teachings. I now entrust it to Kashyapa.”

Gateless Gate, Wumenguan, Case 6

It turns out today, the 16th of September in 681, was when the Pope Honorius, first of that name, was excommunicated for heresy by the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Interesting for a couple of reasons. One, he had been dead for about forty years. The other establishing a troublesome problem for advocates of the idea of papal infallibility.

But the part that caught my attention was learning he may have been the first pope to know about the rise of Islam. The Hijra, when the prophet and his followers fled Mecca to Medina (then Yathrib) in 622. Six years later his position was secure enough for Mohammed to send a letter to the emperor of Byzantium inviting him to convert to the prophet’s message.

The pope died in 638. So, he’s already hearing about Islam ten years after the letter and sixteen before a ragged band flees Mecca. It would appear the echoes of Islam that the pope heard led him to believe Muslims were some form of Arians. So, the news wasn’t totally clear.

Still. For me among the interesting issues is how fluid the Christian religion was, even six centuries and change after Jesus had died.

First the Council of Nicaea in 325 and then with Constantinople in 381 Trinitarianism was established as normative for the mainstream of the Christian community. But there were a lot of wrinkles left to iron out. So, a full three hundred years after the Nicene Creed was promulgated, a pope, no less, was still struggling to square the circle of Jesus being a human and God.

The specifics were super inside baseball, turning on Jesus having two wills, one divine, the other human. But, there you go.

It makes me think of the rise of Buddhism and where the tenets that touch me fit into the arc of that story. In the moment I’m trying to find the source for the Four Seals. So far I’m having trouble getting an attestation any earlier then the fifth century of the common era, pushing on a thousand years after the death of Gautama Siddhartha.

When I was young I recall reading a story, possibly by Arthur C Clarke, where someone develops a time scope, you couldn’t travel, but you could see. One result was the end of every one of the world’s religions, except Buddhism, and it ended up being seriously reformed.

For me it’s not a problem. My religion is based on what seems true while not denying the evidence of our senses and the world within which we live. For those who want their religion to be true in some historical sense, where the founder and the received tradition don’t have gaps, well, the more I look the more I suspect there are none.

Letting go of the need for one’s tradition to be historical, allows the wisdom of reflection and correction and constantly digging deeper.

It turns out, near as I can tell, that the birthing of religions takes a very long time. No emerging from Zeus’ forehead full blown.

Instead, unfolding, if done well, like some wonderful flower twirling in the Buddha’s hand.


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