website design software

Killing the Buddha

There's an old saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."

Who's that Buddha? What does it mean to "meet" the Buddha? What does killing the Buddha imply?

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, on attaining enlightenment, is said to have realized that all beings, just as they are, are Buddhas. If that's so, meeting a Buddha on the road should be a pretty commonplace event! So should being a Buddha on the road! But that's where the word "meeting" comes in. It implies encountering something or someone outside or other than oneself. We all come to practice carrying around images or ideals of who we should be and what we imagine a Teacher or Buddha should look like. And we may chase after individuals that for a while seem like they live up to our image, ignore those who do not, and generally treat ourselves with contempt for not living up to the standards set by our imaginary inner "Buddha." All this may keep us pretty busy, but it has nothing to do with real practice, which is an awareness of who and what we actually are, not the pursuit of some ideal of who we think we should be. So "killing the Buddha" means killing or wiping out this fantasy image, and "the road" is two fold: the road outside where we look outside ourselves for the ones who have all the answers, and the inner mind road, where we set up all the "shoulds" we must obey to turn ourselves into the Buddhas we don't believe we already are, but think we must become.

It is said that Shakyamuni's last dying words to his disciples were, "Be a lamp unto yourselves." Be your own light, your own authority, your own Buddha. Kill off every image of the Buddha, see who and what you are in this very moment, see that there is no Buddha other than THIS MOMENT.

A psychologist friend recently complained that Buddha's last words themselves were a trap. (Actually he called them something much less polite!) How can anybody TELL you to be your own authority? In the guise of liberation, these words become just one more dogma that the disciples submit to. Anybody who TELLS you to "Kill the Buddha" is giving a command as self-contradictory as "Be spontaneous!" It's a good point, and one that shows that this koan and Buddhism in general can't escape a more complex involvement with issues of authority. Our psychological reality is that we have to learn and practice to achieve our independence, and that learning almost inevitably has to take place within the context of some kind of disciplined practice. Remember we have to "kill the Buddhas" inside as well as outside ourselves. If we take this saying to mean only that we should reject all forms of external authority, we will end up leaving ourselves at the mercy of all sorts of, often unconscious, inner "Buddhas." Isaiah Berlin distinguished two kinds liberty he called positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty is freedom FROM, freedom from outside interference of one kind or another. Killing the outside Buddha may give us a version of this negative liberty. Positive liberty is freedom TO, the liberty of enabling conditions. And these are what are provided by a Teacher, a practice, a discipline. Berlin emphasized that the two kinds of liberty were conceptually at odds with one another, and an increase in one automatically meant a decrease in the other. And yet, we cannot thrive without both. Without a formal practice, we will never engage the deeply ingrained unconscious determinants of our character. But any practice, any teacher inevitably offers the risk and the temptation to hand over responsibility to someone or something outside of ourselves. The middle way is our balancing of these two truths. There is no one correct way to balance them, and every teacher, every discipline will offer a unique mix. No one can tell you how you, as a particular individual, ought to practice. Each of us must decide and take responsibility for the balance works best for us. That is how we truly can be a "lamp unto ourselves."