Udumbara Flower / Udonge

· Essays, Teachings · ,

by Jan Chozen Bays, Roshi

Why would Dogen Zenji devote an entire fascicle of the Shobogenzo to praising a flower, a flower that some people say is mythical and does not exist? Others say it does exist, but it only blooms every 3,000 years, to herald the arrival of another Buddha, an enlightened being.

In modern times there are stories and photographs from Asia, of thousands of tiny white blossoms called udumbara flowers, mysteriously appearing on bricks, on buildings, on monuments, on grasses, and under a nun’s laundry tub. Biologists say, no, these are not miraculous apparitions, they are simply the ordinary eggs of lacewing insects. Botanists counter that the udumbara is a ficus, a fig tree, different from ficus religiosa, the tree under which the Buddha was awakened.

This particular fig tree bears fruit very close to the trunk. They also say that it actually blooms all the time, but the flowers are hidden inside the fruit. In the Shobogenzo Dogen Zenji puts the udumbara flower in the hand of Shakyamuni Buddha, where it has the power to produce an enlightened being, smashing eyeballs and curving lips into a smile.

Each of these varied descriptions offer clues as to what the udumbara flower is. Is it non-existent, rare, or common? Does it flower continuously, hidden from our eyes, or does it bloom openly, for all to see, once in three millennia? These accounts of udumbara flowers seem contradictory, but in Zen we are intrigued, we are drawn in by contradictions and paradoxes. We begin to appreciate the weaving of the very fabric of our world out of the warp and woof of opposites, a world of delusion and enlightenment, of the impermanent and the deathless, of sacred and mundane, of the Unity and the Diversity. Dogen Zenji is at home in this world of apparent opposites. He is a mountain goat at play in the mountain range of paradox, happily leaping from peak to peak, jumping across huge chasms of apparent contradictions.

Dogen Zenji uses the udumbara flower to speak to us about enlightenment. Holding up the flower is holding up the Buddha-mind, he declares. He describes the udumbara flower in many ways, to help us understand what cannot be described in words, what can only be experienced directly by each individual for themselves. Dogen Zenji is speaking from his own experience of deep awakening, of the complete resolution of apparent opposites, using beautiful and evocative words. Let’s investigate some of his words and the truths they point to.

Dogen Zenji writes, The World Honored One held up an udumbara blossom and…said, ‘I have the treasury of the true dharma eye…’ This word treasury means that the udumbara flower, the flower of enlightenment, is a treasure, an inheritance given to everyone, waiting to be taken up, owned and used. It is not diminished by being bestowed upon billions of beings. It is an inexhaustible treasure store, which will open of itself [to] use as you will.

We think of money and valuable possessions such as jewelry or cars as treasure. However, this is a false kind of treasure. It cannot buy happiness, wisdom, or ease of mind. Just look at the state of heart and mind of those who are considered wealthy, successful and honored, movie stars and wealthy financiers. All Buddhas and their descendants equally hold up this flower. This word equally reassures us that no matter who we are, rich or poor, pale skinned or gleaming brown, articulate or silent, we each hold up the udumbara flower fully. Each one of us gets the entire bequest, so there is no ground for envy or strife. We are each the unique actualization of the Buddha Mind-and-Body at this very moment, in this very place.

It has never been lost. That it cannot be lost tells us that this flower is clearly visible and always present. It is each breath, each heartbeat, each hair, each eye blink, of every body; it is each leaf, stem and root tendril of every plant; it is the imperceptible disintegration of every mountain into every grain of sand beneath our feet. There is no place it does not exist, no place outside of it, so where is there a place for it to be lost? We also have never been lost. It is only when our mind grows confused or dark that we lose sight of it, like the sun disappearing temporarily behind storm clouds. Our practice is “eye medicine” to restore correct vision, and “mind medicine” to clear the mind ground, so that we can see and appreciate the continuous blooming of the udumbara flower for ourselves.

We must hold up the same flower. Dogen Zenji admonishes us to practice, to experience the same holding up of the same flower that Shakyamuni, Mahakasyapa, Dogen Zenji, and our own teachers did. However this flower is holding up itself. However, this flower does not need us to hold it up. It is continually held up. Out of this great flower everything in the world unfolds, a holy man in India, a cypress tree in China, a pebble in a cemetery, and you and me.

It is humans who divide this One Flower into five petals, eight stamens, three vehicles, twelve schools, three sages and ten saints. It is our ordinary mind that divides the world into categories, what we like and want more of or what we do not like and want to get rid of. It is this process of continually dividing, clinging and pushing away that obscures our pure, clear mind and prevents it from blooming and providing refreshment to those who inhabit a weary world.

It is beyond the understanding of (even the)… bodhisattvas. It is beyond the understanding of anyone. Although our minds are it, our minds cannot comprehend it, just like one cell that is the product of, functions within, and is intimate with, the entire body, but can never comprehend that body. Each ancestor has experienced the udumbara flower nature and revealed it in a unique, irreproducible way, as each of us are doing now. Because it is everywhere, the gate to this blooming is always open. It is visible in the falling of pink petals, audible in a stone’s strike, palpable in the grinding of a mortar, constantly given away in the movement of our bodies, constantly received in the touch of our clothing.

Holding up the flower existed before…during (and)…after the World Honored One attained enlightenment. The flower’s life is eternal and it exists in all times and places at once. It exists before the Buddha of our time, during his life and forever afterward. At first startling to contemplate, this truth becomes comforting, because it means that our Enlightened Nature has always been, is, and always will be available, and thus can be experienced by anyone, any time, anywhere.

Arousing the aspiration for enlightenment and receiving initiation, as well as practice, realization, and continuation, all stir up the spring wind of holding up the flower. The holding up of the flower…transcends time.

The time of our first awareness that enlightenment was possible, the time of our first step onto the path of practice, the time of our actual enlightenment and the time of our further practice all occur simultaneously. This means that as soon as we conceive of the possibility of enlightenment, we are enlightened. All the rest is “busy work.” However, it may take a long time, even lifetimes. This is the identity of sudden and gradual enlightenment.

Shakyamuni conceals himself in the udumbara flower and yet reveals himself in the udumbara flower. Until we see it for ourselves, it is completely hidden, in plain sight. When we see it, it is seen everywhere. “So obvious,” as my late master often exclaimed. When we see it, we also exclaim, “So obvious!” and its many costumes and disguises never fool us again.

I was moved by a recent photographic exhibit of homeless addicts in New York City. Their faces were ravaged. They supported life by selling scrap metal, drugs, and their bodies. Each one was happy that the photographer took the effort to take their picture and to talk to them. When asked what they wanted the people who passed them by all day to know about them, one said, “I am a good person with a good heart.” Another said, “I’m just a person trying to get it right. I am caught in the grips but I am trying to get it right.”

We are each the unique actualization of the Buddha Mind-and-Body at this very moment, in this very place.

They are actually saying, “I am the Udumbara flower.” The Udumbara blooms within the scarred face, the broken air conditioner being dragged on a leash down the street, the pendulous breasts of the middle aged prostitute in the red coat, the cardboard shelters that the street cleaners took away.

The coming and going of birth and death is a variety of blossom and their colors. It is like the largest organism in the world, an underground fungus that is 2,400 years old and covers 3.4 square miles. Walking around in the forest, we are unaware of this huge existence right under our feet. We only see its appearance above ground in the autumn when it blooms as a small mushroom here and there. Each birth, each death is the blooming of the udumbara flower, in its infinite variety of shapes and colors. The individual lives around us are what we are usually aware of, but they are just the visible manifestation of a Life of interconnection without boundaries. There is always more to see.

All beings love and enjoy it. Our own life is the flowering of Life; we should love our life and enjoy it. We get one chance to savor each bite of food. We get one chance to savor each moment of our life. How can we truly taste and enjoy it?

“When Gautama’s eyeball is smashed…” Smashing an eyeball sounds violent, but more violent are the consequences of retaining the intact eyeball that sees “I am here looking at you over there.” When we look through this eyeball, we can become angry or afraid of people whose skin or hairstyle or dress look different from ours. When I look at people with dread locks I am grateful to my son. Because he was a Rastafarian for a while, people who have dreads don’t look strange to me. They look like my son. Instead of being anxious when I encounter them on a dark street, I can smile. And they can smile back.

Our practice has the ability to reveal the gold within the rich earth of our life, and to refine our life into something of benefit to ourselves and everyone we encounter. Where can we find this miraculous wind of Buddhism? We need only to open our minds to it.

On various peoples faces hang Gautama’s eyes, but still they beat their breasts with fists in empty grieving. When we cannot see with the Buddha’s eyes, we are dissatisfied. We seem to have enough, but we know that something is missing. When suddenly we see through the Buddha’s eyes, we see that everything is star-bright and blooming perfectly. Grief for the world dissolves, our hearts open and our lips naturally curve into a smile. His face immediately changes and is replaced with the face of taking up the flower.

Our eyeball is immediately smashed… When we sit in zazen and “think of non-thinking,” the notions of time and space, self and other that are intricately embedded in our mind are loosened. If we sit long and deep enough, they disappear. Then we look at “our” hand with wonder, as it raises a spoon, a hoe or a flower. When the flower is held up everything, hand—eye—flower, participates in one complete activity. At the time of holding up there is no difference in time or space between the Buddha, Mahakasyapa, Dogen Zenji and us.

At the very moment of taking up the flower, all Gautamas, all Mahakasyapas, all sentient beings, all of us hold up a single hand and together take up the flower. All the ancestors manifest here and now, in our activity of sitting on the cushion, chanting, bowing and holding up our oryoki bowls. Shakyamuni Buddha holds up the flower, Dogen Zenji holds up the flower, I write and you read. I will smile as I write it if you will smile as you read it. We should enjoy all these as the activities of holding up.

When you take up ‘I have’ and replace it with entrusting, you uphold the treasury of the true dharma eye. This is the moment of transmission, when the “I have” of “my” small body and mind drops away. We are catapulted into the huge Dharma body and vast Buddha mind, which become our permanent refuge. We trust, it entrusts.

Further our entire body becomes the hand holding up the flower. The activity of our bodies, putting on robes, sitting, breathing, walking, bowing, chanting, cooking, cleaning, is the twirling of the flower, the turning of the dharma wheel. This is the way the practice of the ancients is held up so that future generations can recognize and enjoy it.

The most important thing is…complete and undivided attention. If you can manifest this spirit when you make a prostration in the Buddha Hall or practice zazen in the monastery the flower of your mind will become more brilliant and the things around you will become more beautiful. When zazen clears our mind’s eye, everything becomes more brilliant and beautiful. When we observe this we should realize that this is not an extraordinary condition. It is the way things actually are.

When Shakyamuni lost his ordinary vision it was like a single branch of a plum tree blooming in the snow. Soon after the plum blossoms were in full bloom, tiny branches appeared all over. Instead of wondering about this people should laugh at the spring wind blowing wildly. In our monastery garden we encountered a few old plum trees. Over decades of neglect they had dropped fruit that grew into a dense thicket of thorny, vigorous young trees. Thus one branch of blossoms became a forest with many branches, spreading everywhere. We thinned those trees into rows, so they have more light and air. When the wind blows, plum blossoms fall and you can see the small green fruits forming amidst the thorns.

The opening of peach blossoms is stimulated by the spring wind. Here Dogen Zenji talks of the openings caused by the spring wind. Elsewhere he says, “The wind of Buddhism actualizes the gold of the earth and turns its long river into sweet cream.” Gold is worthless until it is extracted from the earth and refined. Even then it is only given worth by human interchange. Our practice has the ability to reveal the gold within the rich earth of our life, and to refine our life into something of benefit to ourselves and everyone we encounter. Where can we find this miraculous wind of Buddhism? We need only to open our minds to it. It is generated by our every breath, by our bows, by our robes as we walk in kinhin. This wind stimulates the opening of blossoms of all kinds, blossoms that will drop off over and over, producing fruit that ripens now and continuously for all eternity. This is the wind that ripens the life of each one of us into sweet fruit that can be enjoyed by all.

The udumbara flower inside of each of us calls us to practice, to sit, to chant, to translate, to be born, and to die, so that it can bloom. Over and over, over and over, the udumbara flower appears and disappears, as the millions of insect eggs hidden in the leaves in our gardens, as the millions of people on our planet, as the millions of fiery suns encircled by planets inhabited by unknown life that are hidden in our Universe. The udumbara flower blooms as the mysterious shining being that has your name.

Dogen Zenji calls us not just to read about the udumbara flower, but to directly realize it, to seize the rare and precious opportunity to practice, so that we can experience for ourselves the unfolding of its creamy petals and the subtle scent of its blooming in our unique life. The udumbara flower, may all beings enjoy and love it!


Jan Chozen Bays, Roshi, is the co-founder of Great Vow Zen Monastery in Klatskanie, OR where she is coabbot. She teaches internationally and is the author of several books, including the recent The Vow-Powered Life.

Originally published in Receiving the Marrow: Teachings on Dogen by Soto Zen Women Priests, published by Temple Ground Press. Copyright 2012 Jan Chozen Bays. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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