The Flower Sermon at the Bar: A Story

I was at a bar sharing a table with a Buddhist monk. He was in full regalia — bright orange robes and shaved head.

The monk was an American who’d converted to Buddhism and gone off to Thailand for a few years to meditate in the forest.

This monk, in fact, was an old high school buddy of mine — Stephen Wexler.

Wexler was back in the States to visit his family. We made time during his visit to meet for a couple of drinks and catch up.

Wexler was a Buddhist monk, but he was not monastic. His order allowed him to live as a layperson. This meant he could still dance, sleep on a soft bed, and drink alcohol once in awhile. He chose to take a vow of celibacy, however.

I knew Wexler well. This meant that we didn’t have to mince words. He’d loaned me some of his books about Buddhism. While at the bar we were talking about them, and I was playing devil’s advocate about his religion.

“Wexler, you’ve got a hell of a lot to prove,” I said, emboldened by a martini and ready to puncture his metaphysics. “And what you’ve got to prove is that nirvana is inherently more compelling than chocolate and sex and money. You want me to give up my orgasms for your holy Void. You’re saying that Nothingness matters more than credit cards. Gee, I don’t know about all that.”

“And what could you possibly mean by saying that this life is just a dream?” I added. “If I throw this drink in your face, is that a dream?”

“A dream is something that takes place in your mind and then passes away,” Wexler replied. “And that’s a perfect description of your life and just everybody else’s life. You think you live in the world, but you really just live in all your ideas about the world. When have you ever experienced a single sensation without the violence of your demands — declaring that this feeling is pleasant and has to last forever, or that it is painful and has to stop right now?

“And your orgasms,” Wexler added, “are they any basis for wisdom and compassion? Sex for you is a desperate dance that you do to distract yourself from the fact of mortality.”

“So I’m going to die,” I said, “and that’s supposed to be news? So what? That’s all the more reason to get nude and crude and drink wine and go shopping when I can enjoy it. You’re telling me that there’s something more real than pleasure, more real than a paycheck — some state of mind that’s more secure than having money in the bank and time to spare? I have no conception of that state of mind. Do you?”

“You’re right,” Wexler rejoined. “You’re right that I have no conception of all this. Nirvana transcends all conceptions. In fact, it is our conceptions that cloud our direct perception of nirvana.”

Wexler paused, letting that comment sink in.

“Nirvana is not a thing,” he added. “You can’t place it in time and space and give it a name and a street address and a social security number. Because if you could, nirvana would just be something else that arises and passes away. Nirvana is simply something that we see to when the mind is silent.”

“There’s something real that you can’t locate? Really? Tell me, Wexler, what the hell is that?”

Wexler opened his mouth to reply. Then he stopped. For a few seconds he just stared at me.


Then his eyes melted into a soft gaze and closed. I saw him take a deep breath. It was a breath that stopped time and rippled right through him, chest to toes. I could see that single breath melting him, softening and freeing each muscle along the way.

After a moment that seemed eternal, Wexler reached for a small vase full of fake flowers sitting on the bar. From it he plucked a single plastic daisy and held it out to me.

I knew what he was doing. He intended to stop my stream of thought in its tracks. He wanted me to take refuge in direct perception — to just see something right in front of me without having any conceptions or inclinations about it.

He also wanted to reveal the state of my mind in that very moment — my agitation. My attachment to opinions. My rightness.

It was a cheap move.

And it worked.