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The Flower Sermon and our expedition to the Sattapanni or Sattaparni Cave


I was recently reminded of a retreat at Plum Village led by Thich Nhat Hanh. I recall when he held up a blank sheet of A4 paper and asked the assembled guests, “How did this sheet of A4 paper come into being?” That incident was a significant moment in my life. And, I was reminded that the origin of Zen Buddhism is ascribed to the story named ‘Flower Sermon’ in which Lord Buddha silently held up a flower before an assembly of his disciples. However, no one in the audience understood the Flower Sermon except Mahakasyapa (Sanskrit; Pali: Mahakassapa), who smiled faintly.

After the death and Parinirvana of Lord Buddha, the assembled monks were grief-stricken. But one spoke up and said, in effect, that at least they wouldn’t have to follow Lord Buddha’s rules any more. The alarmed Mahakasyapa convened a meeting of 500 enlightened monks during the rainy season to decide how to keep the Buddha’s teaching alive. This meeting is known as the First Buddhist Council, and one of the most important events in Buddhist history.

The participants agreed on what they were taught and how the teachings would be preserved for future generations. Over several months, Ananda aided by his word-perfect memory was able to recite Lord Buddha’s sermons from memory, and Upali recited the rules for monastic conduct. The Council, with Mahakasyapa presiding, voted to approve these recitations as authentic and prepared to preserve them through oral recitation. Because his leadership held the sangha together, Mahakasyapa is remembered as the “father of the sangha.”

Amazingly, our recent tour included the actual site where the First Buddhist Council was held in the year after Lord Buddha’s death. The Sattapanni or Sattaparni Cave, is located on one of the hills around Rajgir, Bihar, India.


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