English Section

      Buddhism Today 

Vietnamese Section


...... ... .  . .  .  .
It Is More Difficult to Crush a Flower
By George Teschner

 In the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha,[1] a statement is made that may appear highly paradoxical against the background of the austerities that are prescribed by Yoga as a moral foundation for liberation. In the midst of statements describing methods of sense withdrawal and detachment it is stated that It is easier to cease to entertain notions, than it is to crush a flower that lies in the palm of your hand. The latter demands effort, the former is effortless.[2] If the expression "ceasing to entertain notions" is understood to mean "no mind" or, in other words, the condition of cittav.rttinirodha (cessation of mental modifications), then the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha is claiming that nirodha is an effortless achievement.

The context in which this claim is made is a story which is intended to show the origin and nature of the world. It is the story of a king about whom it is said that his valor and deeds were too great to be described and cataloged. By means of the power of maayaa the king had created a world in which he sported. In his sport he sometimes destroyed himself, lamenting his ignorance and misery, and at other times he was joyful; sometimes he conquered, while at other times he was conquered. The king moved from city to city, from one body to another, until, gaining wisdom and becoming disillusioned with the pleasures of the world, he achieved the cessation of all ideation which is the necessary and sufficient condition for liberation.

This is a familiar tale symbolizing the journey of infinite consciousness through the world of maayaa. Consciousness has become aware of itself as object instead of as transcendental subject. In this infatuation with itself as object, the world appearance is differentiated into the individuated subject and the multiplicity of objects that comprise the spatiotemporal world. This world is throughout nothing other than ideation. When ideation ceases there is the return to the unity of infinite consciousness. Certainly the most important practical question which Hinduism can ask is: By what means can ideation come to an end? The response given here, surprising in the context of the spiritual disciplines of Hinduism-think of the yamas (forms of restraint) and niyamas (observances) described in the Yoga Sutras of Pat~anjali-is that the means is easier than crushing a flower in the palm of the hand, because it is effortless. How can this statement be interpreted?

Perhaps it could be said that effortlessness here refers to the final moment prior to which there occurs the preparation which includes disciplines that shape action, desire, speech, and so forth. Once established through practice, disciplines that are difficult for the novice are performed with ease by those who have mastered them. Although such an interpretation would make the claim of effortlessness consistent with the disciplines of Hinduism, it is at the expense of making the statement trivial, for there is little with which to raise issue in the George Teschner is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Christopher Newport College, Virginia.

Philosophy East and West 36, no. 4 (Oct. 1986). O by the University of Hawaii Press. All rights reserved proposition that a technique becomes easier with practice. For an accomplished dancer, executing a movement gracefully may indeed be easier than crushing a flower in the palm of the hand. Such is the nature of practice. The claim of effortlessness, however, has a more important place in the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha than this interpretation would allow.

A more interesting and provocative interpretation is that from the very first, ceasing ideation is easier than crushing a flower. It must also be remembered that the reason being given is not merely that less effort is required, but that the cessation of ideation is effortless. In short, in order to stop ideation, from the very first, no effort is required at all. Assuming this interpretation is correct, we ask again, how can this effortless way be reconciled with the seeming effortful way of spiritual practices?

A number of separate claims in the Yoga Vaai.s.tha as well as a general interpretation of spiritual practice may provide an understanding of this extraordinary pronouncement.

The Yoga Vaasi.s.tha speaks of two methods of stopping ideation. O Rama, there are two ways in which this cessation can be achieved: one is the  way of Yoga which involves restraint of the movement of thought, and the other is the way of knowledge, which involves the right knowledge of truth.[3]

The method of Yoga is based upon the principle that the energy which circulates through the body, called praa.na, is "indistinguishably united with the mind." [4] We are told that it is the disposition of consciousness toward thought that is praa.na. By restraining praa.na the mind becomes quiescent, the movement of thought stops, and the world illusion ceases.

The other method is said to be the Way of Knowledge. We are told elsewhere in the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha that Even ideas like "this is to be done" and "this is not to be done" are droplets of this infinite consciousness. Abandon even these and rest in the unconditioned. All these (austerity, etc.) are indirect methods. Why should one not adopt the direct method of self-knowledge?[5]

Surely the distinction between "this is to be done" and "this is not to be done" is a general principle at the root of prescriptions concerning the control of praa.na given by self-knowledge. Methods based upon what should and should not be done lead to quiescence only by leading away from it: that is why they are indirect. The distinction between what is to be done and what is not to be done is itself an ideation. Discriminations between what ought to be done and what ought not to be done, between right action and wrong action, whether in ethical or meditational practice, are part of the very cognitive processes which must be halted. The method of Yoga creates a notion in order to achieve the cessation of all notions. The "Way of Knowledge" by contrast is direct because it rejects all notions, all discriminations, at the outset, even the notion of itself. It is said in the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha that the state of equanimity which is called 'sattva' should be renounced by sattva itself.6 Language fails to express this means, since how can it be said that sattva should be renounced by sattva, once it has been asserted that the distinction between what should be done and what should not be done is to be abandoned? Let us accept that we have reached the limits of language in such a statement as "we should abandon the distinction between what should be done and not be done." If such a statement is an instance of the class of things about which it itself speaks, then it is a contradiction. Nevertheless, we can observe that at the basis of all effortful means of achieving the cessation of ideation is the distinction between what should be done and what should not be done and that if an effortless means exists, it need not rest on this distinction, which itself is claimed to be part of the world illusion.

We have found a distinction between two ways of ceasing ideation. The one is represented by the path of Yoga, which aims at the control of praa.na and which adopts the language that employs expressions such as "what should and should not be done." It is an indirect method because, among other things, it makes distinctions in order to achieve an awareness that makes no distinctions. It is effortful because it is directed toward affirming what should be done in contrast to avoiding what should not be done. The direct method of self-knowledge abandons the distinction between what should be done and what should not be done. It is effortless because it makes no prescriptions, advises neither action nor inaction. It leaves neither something to do nor something not to do.

Yet this may seem a disturbing result. If we understand the statement that it is easier to achieve the cessation of ideation than it is to crush a flower to be a claim that it is a way that is effortless from the very first, then what distinguishes the effortlessness of the master who follows the direct path of self-knowledge from someone who makes no effort at all toward liberation? If we abandon the distinction between what should and should not be done, what is the difference between effortlessness and making no effort?

In order to attempt to make this distinction clear it will be necessary to consider another important assertion in the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha. It is the proposition, familiar to the Bhagavad Giitaa, that the infinite consciousness is neither the agent nor the patient of action. Consciousness is a no doer and a no enjoyer. Individualized consciousness, however, what is called the jiiva, appears to be the agent of action and is therefore a moral agent, subject to pride and guilt, approval and disapproval. Also, the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha makes a distinction, important to the Bhagavad Giitaa, between action, no action, and inaction. The Giita cautions us not to believe that we easily understand this distinction.

What is action? What is non-action? Thus, even the wise are confused in this matter.[7]

The term action, which we may also call volitional action, suffers under the illusion that "I do this," "I enjoy this," and inaction by the illusion that "I do not do this," "I do not enjoy this." What is illusory is the relation of subject, action, and object of action. It is the experience of "I walk toward this," "I am thinking this," and so forth. Such is the structure of that formation that we have called effortful action, which distinguishes between what should be done and what should not be done. It is this whole complex, being constituted by the notions of agent and patient of action, by discriminations that lead to the distinction between correct and incorrect action, that constitutes the effortful way that would understand the cessation of ideation to be the consequent of austerity and discipline. Such qualities as detachment from the senses and equanimity in the face of pleasure and pain are here not being denied as part of the life of one who is liberated. The question is whether these qualities are the cause or the result of the cessation of ideation. Are they things to do in order to achieve liberation or are they its consequences. The answer, which would have to be given by the method that is effortless, is that they must be consequences. Otherwise, if they were antecedents and the basis for moral prescriptions, there would then be the discrimination between what one ought to do and what one ought not to do.

If action is based upon the false notions of "I do this," and "I enjoy this," then what can be said of the distinction between what is called no action and inaction?

We are told in the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha that Enlightened men, though they be constantly engaged in activity, do nothing. It is not by means of inaction that they reach the state of non-action! This very fact of non-action frees you from experience, for there is no harvest where there is no sowing. When thus both the notions of "I do" and "I experience" have ceased, there remains only peace; when that peace is firmly grounded, there is liberation.[8]

Just as action is plagued by the illusion of agent and patient, so also is inaction. Action chooses what should be done, inaction what should not be done. Both action and inaction hold to the notions "I do" and I "experience."

On the other hand, what should be, already is, namely, no action. It is not a possibility, it is an actuality. We are told that it is a fact. That which is a fact is easier to achieve than crushing a flower because it already is, whereas the other remains a possibility. To live in the light of this fact is the life of one who is enlightened, of whom it is said that although he be engaged in activity, he does nothing. With life no longer experienced as originating in or impinging upon the self, the accumulation of inclination stops and habits (vaasanaas) disintegrate.

It is this misunderstanding of the conditions of action that is the cornerstone of ignorance. With its elimination, the whole complex of the world appearance is destroyed.

The sickle harvests with the energy of the farmer, hence the farmer is said to be the harvester.... [I]f you realize this truth, you will be instantly dissolved.[9]

The you that is dissolved is the individualized consciousness, thejiiva, of which it is said that it acts and that if suffers. The notion of effort rests upon the belief in the existence of an agency of action and in knowledge, which discriminates between what should and should not be, between what is and what is not. The difference between action and nonaction depends upon whether or not action is accompanied by the notion of agency.

When the mind ceases to entertain the notions "I do this" "I enjoy this" in regard to the actions thus performed, action becomes non-action.[10]

Actions are performed, but they are not accompanied by the experience that there is an individualized consciousness that is the source of the action.

We are therefore told in the Bhagavad Giitaa,

"I do not do anything," thus steadfast in Yoga, the knower of truth should think whether seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, eating, walking, sleeping, breathing,[11]

It is not that there must be the stopping of action. There was no agent engaged in action from the very start. To speak to the mind about stopping to entertain notions is like asking a statue to dance, taking an image from the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha. The mind is said to be inert. It neither acts, for its motion is caused by conditions outside it, nor knows, since it is a material thing through and through insentient To whom can moral prescriptions be addressed? The answer is: to no one. We now can hear the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha saying, Engage yourself in non-volitional actions as are appropriate from moment to moment"[12] as no more than a manner of speaking. If it were more than merely a manner of speaking, the phrase "engage yourself in non-volitional actions" would directly contradict itself.

The effortlessness of achieving cessation of ideation thus must be understood in relation to the illusory nature of the "I think" and "I do." What appears in need of being achieved already exists as fact. There is nothing to be done because there is no doer. There is nothing to be known since all discriminations and distinctions are unreal; therefore, there is no knowledge and, consequently, no knower.

Thought is unable to comprehend anything really.... Can a battle-scene painted on a canvas generate the roar of the fighting armies? Does the figure of the sun carved on a rock dispel darkness? Similarly, what can the inert mind do.[13]

To think that we have understood the effortless way of achieving the cessation of ideas and have distinguished it from what it is not is itself part of the illusion, just as is the moral effort that is made to achieve a peace conducive to the condition of "no-mind." The practices and principles of Hinduism are as much apart of the illusion as the problems that they seek to correct. To see that there is nothing to do and nothing to know is itself neither a doing nor a knowing. It is a fact that does not need to be accomplished. Clearly that which does not stand in need of accomplishment is easier than that which yet must be done even if it is nothing more than crushing a flower in the palm of the hand.

What, then, is the difference between one who is enlightened and one who is not, if there is nothing that should be done, nothing that should be known? How is the one who is enlightened to be distinguished from the one who is ignorant? What makes the difference?

The Yoga Vaasi.s.tha claims that the product of ignorance is real only to the ignorant person; to the wise, it is just a verbal expression.[14]

O self, the distinction between you and me is verbal, like the distinction between the word and the substance it refers to; the distinction is unreal and imaginary, like the verbal distinction between the wave and the water.[15]

Here we are told that the difference between wisdom and ignorance is a verbal difference. What the ignorant take to be real, the wise see as an illusion created by words. The difference that is verbal is not a real difference; if it were, the achievement of the cessation of ideation would require a distinction between what should be done and what should not be done, and we would return to having to speak of the cessation of ideation as requiring some effort. To say, however, that the distinction is verbal is to say that there is not a real difference at all.

It might be argued that if it is a verbal difference, then what must be done is to change the language, that is, change the way we speak and consequently think. But if it is true that the way is effortless, then not even a change in language is necessary. No difference should be required in the way we speak or in the way we think. Any real difference would make the means effortful and would require something to be done. We are being told that there is nothing to do, nothing to be known, because there is no real difference between wisdom and ignorance. The difference is only verbal. However, if may be replied, "Does not even a verbal experience require some action, some knowledge, and consequently some effort to remove?"

What kind of difference is a verbal difference, if it is in reality no difference at all? In order to illustrate verbal difference, the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha uses the illustration of the wave and the water out of which the wave is composed. The familiar analogy of the water that had the name of the river Ganges and now has the name Indian Ocean functions similarly as an illustration. Yet in these analogies we are tempted to say that the names correspond to real differences, not in the material but in the form of the things named. Accordingly, the term wave, it could be argued, refers to the shape water takes in motion in contrast to water when it is calm. Such an analogy of verbal difference does not take us far enough.to gain insight into what sense the distinction between truth and error is nonexistent, so that no effort is required at all to cause ideation to cease.

To the ignorant, we are told, verbal difference is a real difference; to the wise, it is a difference only in verbal expression, not in substance. If the difference were substantial, then an effort would be required; since there is no substantial difference between truth and falsehood, between the individualized self and  infinite consciousness, to achieve self-knowledge is effortless. We are being told that the problem of ignorance and suffering is essentially a matter of language. We speak as if we were agents of action and so we experience ourselves as responsible and culpable. We speak of ourselves as the patients of action and so we experience joy and sorrow. The Yoga Vaasi.s.tha cannot, however, be telling us to cease speaking in this manner, for that would be an effortful action presupposing agency and discriminative knowledge. No prescription is being given, since whatever we could say is already a fact.

To see the fact is to cease any effort toward achieving it. To say that the fact should be seen or to say that such and such should be done is to speak the very language which denies the fact. If the notion of agent and patient are part of the very structure of language, if we cannot refer to ourselves without representing ourselves as doers and enjoyers, then the transmission and communication of self-knowledge must be other than linguistic, at least in any direct sense.

What of meditational practice? The answer is that there is no practice, no knowledge of the way or means to achieve the cessation of ideation; there is no ideation except from the point of view of ignorance; there is no ignorance. Why then has not everyone achieved enlightenment? There is no one; there is no achievement; the problem of existence as well as its solution exists in name only.

It may appear evasive to respond to the question as to what to do in order to achieve the cessation of ideation by saying that there is no one to achieve and there is no achieving. However, it must be understood that the concept of the illusory nature of the world includes all actions taken to remove the illusion. This is at the root of the effortless cessation of ideation. It is effortless because effort is an illusion, namely, an agent-initiated action directed toward a goal. An analogy that may be helpful in understanding the effortless way of the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha is that of someone with raised arm holding a heavy. object above the ground. What must be done to be free of the object? Simply, let go. It is not effort that is required, but a discontinuance of effort. This discontinuance is not itself something that is done. The cessation of ideation is not itself an ideation. It is an object neither of knowledge nor of action. In order to do nothing we simply do nothing. Although the illusion is verbal, there is no need to change even language.

Looked at linguistically, the Maadhyamika tradition of Buddhism by contrast could be interpreted as recommending a change in language. It replaces ordinary language, which depends upon formulating its description of the world in terms of permanent identity over time, with its dharma analysis which dissolves substance into a stream of discrete co-dependent moments. By restricting language in this way, the notions of self and will are dispelled. They arise out of our use of ordinary language; their existence is nominal.

For the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha, on the other hand, language reform would be effortful and would depend upon discriminative knowledge. It would indeed be too much. Rather it is for the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha to see language in its proper place. We get an insight into the function of language from an observation concerning temporality and the cessation of ideation.

Live in the present, with your consciousness externalized momentarily but without any effort: When the mind stops linking itself to the past and the future it becomes no-mind. If from moment to moment your mind dwells upon what is and drops it effortlessly at once, the mind becomes no-mind.[l6]

Language, among other things that we can say of it, is a system of signs. Steam is a sign that the water is boiling, the car parked in the driveway is a sign that someone is home; the cigarette in the ashtray is a sign that someone has visited. If the present experience did not signify in this manner, then there would not be a consciousness of past or future. To experience phenomena for what they are without the effort that transforms them into signs is no-mind.

It is only when we fail to see the role of language in existence that language appears to be about a world and words appear to say something. The relationship implied by the terms "about" and "say" does not apply to material things. No thing is "about" another thing. They may be above, below, or inside one another, but they do not refer to one another. To say that the mind is inert is to say that it is capable of only material relations. Nevertheless, the illusion is that the mind is sentient. It is a common intuition that the audible and visual marks that comprise language would be mere physical things without meaning and intention. It is believed that it is because of human cognition that signs speak and say. For the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha the same insight would apply to human cognitions. The mind is inert without the presence of consciousness. Without consciousness it would be insentient. With self-knowledge, the nature of mind and its relationship to consciousness is seen. Language is revealed as no referential, as no intentional. The expression "I act," for example, has no entity to which it corresponds. It is a speech sound that exists in a system of functional relationships. Its use may be to specify the location of action, to assign responsibility and liability, to maintain certain syntactical patterns in a sequence of grammatical transformations, and so forth. To insert the term "I" into formulations in which it functions as the source of action may be seen as a convention to account for human action in the absence of knowledge of the antecedent conditions that were the true causes of the behavior (karman).

To see the mind as inert is at the same time to know the causes and conditions animating language. The computer, by analogy, does not "read" the instructions. Marks on the card trip switches that activate the circuitry. To speak of awareness in such a process is metaphorical. So also with human language. To see how language works is to realize that it is an inert and insentient process. It is no longer to experience language as referential, with the important consequence that there is the cessation of reification because the impression of correspondence to a reality has ceased. This does not require a reformation of language, but a revelation of its causality. Nothing is added or subtracted from the world. There is nothing to do, no one to do it, and no doing in the sense of goal-directed, agent motivated action. The effortless way of the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha is to live without the reification that occurs as a result of a failure to see the role of language. It is to realize that the individual self, the agent and patient of action, the world of plurality and multiplicity, and distinctions between what should and should not be done are all mere verbal expressions, efficacious, yet denoting nothing.

We have found a solution to our problem in an analysis of language. It is our experience of language that needs to be rectified. The cessation of ideation is the cessation of reification, and reification stops when language is no longer experienced as having a referential relationship to the world.

The above solution has wide application to many other apparent paradoxes in the literature of Hinduism and Buddhism. Some of the more important of these are the moral prescriptions of the Bhagavad Giitaa in the light of its denial of agency; the rejection of discriminative knowledge in Mahaayaana texts such as the Sura`ngama-Suutra, where the rejection is itself a discrimination; and the prescription of Theravaada Buddhism to give up desire, which would itself presuppose motive. Such an issue as the latter has been raised in earlier publications of Philosophy East and West without the linguistic solution that we have suggested being considered.[17]" It has been claimed that there was a paradox of desire wherein actions taken to stop desire presupposed the desire to do so. Such a paradox appears to be a problem particularly for the Buddhism of Nikaaya literature, since one is encouraged to develop a desire for liberation, that is, a desire for liberation from desire. However, it can be argued that for the Buddhism of the Praj~napaaramitaa, which has recourse to the same analysis of language as is developed in this article, such a paradox is not present. A denial of the referential function of language, even in the case of the most central terms of Buddhism is clearly evident in the Praj~napaaramitaa suutras. Nirvaa.na, bodhi, and the five aggregates, such as form--all are mere signs empty of reference. A solution to the paradox of stopping desire is neither to resolve it by an interpretation by which desire for release is first cultivated and then discarded, nor to retain it as a pedagogical device such as in the use of the kooan in Zen Buddhism, but is instead to appreciate that the very term 'desire' denotes nothing more than merely a practical designation subject to the same sort of analysis as the concept of aatman and svabhaava. If there is a paradox, then its function is to signal the emptiness of its terms.

Our reading of the statement.

It is easier to cease to entertain notions than it is to crush a flower that lies in the palm of your hand. The latter demands effort, the former is effortless. has changed because we are able to read such a term as 'effort' as no longer denotative. The fact is, according to the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha, that there never is effort since there is no doer or enjoyer. To see this fact is itself liberation. Spiritual practices are relevent only as long as the notions "I do this," "I enjoy this" are entertained. When the questions "what should I do," "what need I know" are asked, the illusion persists. On the other hand, when the syntactic structures and semantic practices governing such terms as 'agent', 'action', 'object of action', and so forth, and their cognates are no longer reified into self and world, the illusion ceases.


1. The Yoga Vaais.s.tha is one of the most important texts in the tradition of Hinduism. Its composition went through a number of phases, incorporating themes from Vedaanta, Saa.mkhya, Yoga, and Mahaayaana Buddhism. Its final form was reached sometime during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the Yoga Vaasi.s.tha, Raama, known from the Raamaaya.na is instructed by the Sage Vaasi.s.tha. The Yoga Vaasi.s.tha describes the stages which Raama passes through in his search for enlightenment.

2. Concise Yoga Vaasi.s.tha, trans. Swami Venkate Sananada (State University of New York), p. 152.

3. Ibid, p. 237.

4. Ibid, p. 238.

5. Ibid, p. 372.

6. Ibid, p. 372.

7. Bhagavad Giitaa, IV, 16.

8. Concise Yoga Vaasi.s.tha, p. 200.

9. Ibid, p. 242.

10. Ibid, p. 168.

1 1. Bhagavad Giitaa, V, 8.

12. Concise Yoga Vaasi.s.tha, p. 368.

13. Ibid, p. 172.

14. Ibid, p. 107.

15. Ibid, p. 196.

16. Ibid, p. 208.

17. A. L. Herman, "A Solution to the Paradox of Desire in Buddhism," Philosophy East and West 29, no. I (January 1979): 91-94; John Visvader, "The Use of Paradox in Uroboric Philosophies," Philosophy East and West 28, no. 4 (October 1978): 455-467; Wayne Alt, "There is no Paradox of Desire in Buddhism," Philosophy East and West 30, no. 4 (October 1980); A. L. Herman "Ah, But There is a Paradox of Desire in Buddhism," Philosophy East and West 30, no. 4 (October 1980); John Visvador, "Reply to Wayne Alt's 'There is No Paradox Desire in Buddhism'." Philosophy East and West 30, no. 4 (October 1980).

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Bhikkhuni Lien Hoa


Updated: 15-1-2001

Return to "Buddhist Philosophy"

Top of Page