Wednesday, December 15, 2010

If you meet the Buddha in the road...

There is a Buddhist saying that goes, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
I ran across this as the title to a book on an old index-file card in the Rolvaag Library at Olaf.  I was in the middle of turning said index cards into notecards for class, but I took this particular card, tucked it into my Oxford Annotated NRSV, and decided to come back to it later.
Four years or more later, I have no idea where the card is.  The phrase occurred to me again today - only G-d knows why - so I looked it up.
The road, the killing, and even the Buddha are symbolic.  The road is generally taken to mean the path to Enlightenment; that might be through meditation, study, prayer, or just some aspect of your way of life.  Imagine meeting some symbolic Buddha. Would he be a great teacher that you might actually meet and follow in the real world? Could that Buddha be you yourself, having reached Enlightenment? Or maybe you have some idealized image of perfection that equates to your concept of the Buddha or Enlightenment.
Whatever your conception is of the Buddha, it’s WRONG! Now kill that image and keep practicing. This all has to do with the idea that reality is an impermanent illusion. If you believe that you have a correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, then you need to throw out (kill) that image and keep meditating.
Sam Harris at Shambhala Sun says:
Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism. 
The Zen Master warns: “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him!” This admonition points up that no meaning that comes from outside ourselves is real. The Buddhahood of each of us has already been obtained. We need only recognize it. Killing the Buddha on the road means destroying the hope that anything outside of ourselves can be our master. We must each give up the master without giving up the search. The importance of things lies in the way we have learned to think about them. How often we make circumstances our prison and other people our jailers! At our best we take full responsibility for what we do and what we choose not to do. The most important struggles take place within the self.
And, interestingly (and a little eerily), a blog post by someone named emmy:
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. It ain’t the real Buddha, but more likely a manifestation of your own longings and desires. You can’t see the Buddha. You’re not supposed to. As soon as you “see” the one you are to go through, your way is blocked. The Buddha says, “[E]ven this view [about no one in particular possessing The Truth], which is so pure and so clear, if you cling to it, if you fondle it, if you treasure it, if you are attached to it, then you do not understand that the teaching is similar to a raft, which is for crossing over, and not for getting hold of.” Listen—follow the voice—keep going.
So:  if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha, because any concrete experience of the one Being, of the mu (the nothing-beyond-nothingness), is false.
My first thoughts were:  isn’t this interesting in comparison with Christianity.  Buddhist teachers say to kill the manifestation of Buddha because it is false.  We killed the Messiah because he was true.
We could pretend we killed the Messiah because - as the Buddhists would argue - no man can be the manifestation of G-d.  But the opposite is true.  We killed the Messiah precisely because he was the manifestation of G-d.
We killed the Messiah because we already knew who we wanted him to be.  We wanted a powerful leader, who would crush the Romans, who would purify Israel.  John the Baptist wanted one who would cleanse with fire.
And we got Jesus.  Born in a stable to an unwed mother.  Raised in backwater Nazareth.  Gets mouthy with the religious leaders, won’t get into debates about taxes or life after death.  Eats meals with people we don’t like.  Touches the unclean.  Talks about the absurdity of G-d’s mercy, and asks more of us than we can bear.
So we kill him.
And we kill him every day.  We are lax when we should be strict, and we are angry when we should be loving.  We quash new ideas with cynicism disgusted as realism, and we maintain traditions that choke the life from us because we fear the new.  We draw lines.  We debate endlessly.  We box up mercy.  And I sit here googling “If you meet the Buddha on the road” while children sleep homeless.
Yet every year we gather in the dark to say:  come again!
When he comes, will we only kill him again?

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