89 – Killing the Buddha

There is a famous quote in the Zen tradition that says “If you meet the Buddha, kill him”. This quote is attributed to Linji a prominent zen master. What does it mean? How can this teaching help us in our day to day lives as we seek to be less habitually reactive? In this episode, I will discuss this koan and dig deeper to see if we can all apply this teaching to our own lives.

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Transcript:

Welcome to another episode of the Secular Buddhism podcast. This is episode number 88. I am your host, Noah Rasheta, and today I’m talking about killing the Buddha.

As always, keep in mind the Dalai Lama’s advice to not use what you learn from Buddhism to be a Buddhist, use it to be a better whatever you already are. There’s a famous quote in the Zen tradition that says, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” This quote is attributed to Lin Chi, a prominent Zen master, and the expression is often considered a koan, and if you’ll recall, I’ve talked about Koans in the past. A koan is somewhat of a riddle or a paradoxical question or a statement or story that is meant to confuse the listener out of their state of habitual reactivity.

So, the idea behind the koan is to present a question or a statement that cannot be understood with the intellect and much less answered with the intellect. And you can imagine this one doing exactly that if you are a Buddhist or a practitioner of Buddhism, especially in older times where Buddhism was very intertwined at this point with the culture in Asia or wherever you may be living in this case with Lin Chi, you know, imagine telling a group of monks who venerate and are trying to emulate the Buddha’s example in everything that they do, to suddenly be told this expression, if you meet the Buddha, kill him.

Now, Lin Chi was known for his way of teaching the dharma was, this is typical of his teachings. He would say something that would really make your head turn. And that’s the point of this expression. Now, this specific koan has caught on and in the West and western Buddhism and it’s been interpreted in many different ways by various teachers and practitioners. And one of the interpretations that I want to share is actually from Sam Harris, in a 2006 essay called “Killing the Buddha.”

Sam Harris, who many of you know is an author, a neuroscientist, and he’s the host of the Waking Up podcast, he had this to say about the koan. He said, “The ninth century Buddhist Lin Chi is supposed to have said, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.’ 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 21st century. I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism.”

So, that is the interpretation by Sam Harris, someone that I admire a lot of the work that he does. And I think there’s a lot of truth to what he’s saying, but I don’t think that’s enough. It’s beyond that. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism is accurate. But I would also say as students of any ideology, we should dispense with that ideology. So it’d be accurate to also say as students of atheism, we should dispense with atheism, or of students of Christ or followers of Christ, we should dispense with Christianity or any expression along those lines, I think gets closer to what Lin Chi trying to accomplish with this koan, with this statement.

Now, another thought that we can explore here with this comes from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In this book he says, “Zen master will say, ‘Kill the Buddha. Kill the Buddha, if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha because you should resume your own Buddha nature.'” So in this sense, kill the Buddha. The Buddha exists somewhere else. It’s like saying, if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. In other words, if you encounter the concept of Buddha and discovered a separate from yourself, then you are living in a delusion. You’re living in the dichotomy, in the world of dichotomy. And if you’ve studied Buddhism or studied a lot of these concepts, you’ll know that the whole idea of separation is a delusion because of interdependence.

So in this sense, the phrase killing the Buddha, it’s often used to mean rejecting all religious doctrine and I think this certainly goes along the lines of what Lin Chi was probably wanting his students to understand. But I think it goes further. I think it goes beyond a conceptual understanding of the Buddha’s teaching because it’s about having an intimate, intuitive realization of the experiential understanding. So, in that sense of we’re conceptualizing it, then we’re not understanding it experientially.

But this applies to anything. Any conceptual understanding, whether it be kill the Buddha or killing the Buddha, it’s always going to fall short of what the experiential understanding of that concept would be. And I think that’s what Lin Chi was trying to accomplish with this quote, to conceptualize non-duality or to conceptualize Buddha nature or the idea of what a Buddha is, is not the same thing as having an experiential understanding of what a Buddha is.

And as a rule of thumb in the zen tradition especially, if you can grasp it intellectually, then you’re not quite there yet. You haven’t understood it the way that it’s meant to be understood, which is experientially.

So I want to correlate this a little bit more into just our day to day lives. This is a koan that I really enjoy and I like to think of it as ideas, not necessarily kill the Buddha, but think of this concept of kill the idea, kill the idea of the Buddha, and this is why I want to correlate this to ideas. If you think about this, nothing unites us or separates us more than ideas, whether these be societal views, financial ideas, political, especially political or religious ideas. Ideas have the power to unite us and separate us more than anything else.

And ideas are powerful. They can be useful certainly, but they can also be dangerous because at the end of the day, the ideas are not real. They may lead to reality, but they are not the same thing. They are essentially the finger pointing to the moon, but they will never be the moon.

So, when you think about this, the conceptual world versus the real world, you know, one example that I like to think of often is with the idea of flying. I like to paraglide and paramotor and I belong to Facebook forums and groups where people talk about paramotoring. Now as you can imagine, I know you’ll be shocked to hear this, Facebook is a horrible conceptual world where we’re all living in these delusions and fight about everything. And it’s so fascinating to me how a group of flying enthusiasts, all they do is they fight.

They fight about whatever you post. If you posted this, this is wrong. You did this. That’s right. This is wrong. This is the right brand. This is the wrong brand. You’ll die if you fly that kind of wing. It’s almost as if you joined a group that was talking about religion. It’s like if there was a Facebook group that says, “Hey, this is a Facebook group for people who are enthusiasts of life, so come talk about your life doctrine or your life ideology,” and you know, that would be chaos. You’d have people in there pertaining to several different ideologies all debating and fighting each other all the time. And that’s what it feels like sometimes in these paramotoring groups because people get so attached to their specific brand of a wing or brand of a motor or a specific instructor. Or you can fight about almost anything these days on Facebook.

So, I like to imagine that it’s the same way with everything. For me, the idea of killing the Buddha serves as a reminder that the idea is always conceptual and never the real thing. You know, for me, if I meet the Buddha on the road, I would want to ask, “Well, what does that mean? How did I decide that I met a Buddha? What makes this person a Buddha?” Because whatever those ideas and concepts are in my mind that a paint that picture in my head that says, “Oh, there’s a Buddha,” well, those ideas and those concepts, those are intellectual. They’re not experiential.

And I’ve noticed this, again, going back to the paramotor group. In the group, it can be hostile and crazy and chaotic, but you leave the group and go out and actually do the real thing, you go to fly, you meet up with people from the most diverse backgrounds, people far left on the political spectrum far right on the political spectrum. And guess what? When we’re there, nobody talks about it. Everyone’s experiencing flight and everyone cares about the other person taking off safely, flying safely. And when we land, we all talk about what we saw and the experience of flying. And it’s honestly like you’re on a whole different universe than the universe that we were on in the conceptual land of Facebook and talking about flying. So, it’s like the conceptual world of talking about flying versus the real world of actually flying.

And I think about that often, that how this is with everything, anything that’s conceptual gets muddied up fast. But the moment you’re in the experiential world, it seems like we connect easier and now we’re experiencing together and we don’t necessarily argue and fight about it because we’re not caught in our conceptual world anymore.

And I feel that everyone in everything that we meet, we’re encountering this. You’re meeting people just as they are, where they are, doing the things that you’re doing. And I like to pause and ask, is there, when I encounter a concept, I look and I see, is there aversion? Is there aversion to this idea or concept? Is there a craving or clinging to it? I like this idea. To me, that’s the invitation in the expression, kill the Buddha. How am I meeting the things that I meet, the experiences that I am experiencing, the people that I’m meeting, the circumstances that are unfolding in my life. When I meet them in that moment, am I caught in the experiential world of just feeling it and experiencing it? Or am I often finding myself in the conceptual world, where I have ideas about what I’m meeting? This should be this way, this shouldn’t be that way, this could be this way. You know?

And again, I’m not saying that the ideas are bad. I think ideas are great. If I go back to flying, the whole reason that we’re flying is because someone conceptualized the idea of flying and followed that all the way until they were able to accomplish flight. So, I’m not saying that ideas are a bad thing here in the same way that meeting a Buddha isn’t a bad thing. But the invitation to kill the Buddha is a direct invitation to pause and say, “Wait a second, what do you see? And how does that compare to what you think you see?” Because those may not be the same thing.

And to me, that’s the difference between talking about flying and just going and flying. You know, what if I was able to convert this same mental disposition or attitude into the difference of talking about living and just living? I think most of us would recognize there’s a very big difference between the two when I’m talking about living and I’m just out living. Those are not the same thing.

And I think in my opinion, again, this is just my opinion, that’s what Lin Chi was trying to get at with this expression. I can just imagine in a room full of people who were highly devout Buddhists, monks, trying to emulate every aspect of the Buddha’s life, what would that have done to them in that moment to have their teacher say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

It would force them to say, “Whoa, wait a second. What on earth are you talking about? I thought we wanted to be him. Follow him. Ask him questions,” you know? And that’s exactly what he trying to accomplish is pause for a second. This may not be what you think it is. So, my invitation for you with this podcast episode this week is to think about this koan.

Think about the expression, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” and see what comes up for you in your own life. How can you apply this idea and relate related to the ideas in general? What does it mean to you to kill the Buddha and think about the things that are meaningful and precious to you that you know, what if someone turned around and said, “Yeah, that thing that means so much to you? If you see it, kill it.” What would that do to you? What would that make you think? And then see if you can try to understand or correlate that a little bit with what Lin Chi was trying to accomplish as a zen teacher, as a Buddhist teacher, trying to get you to snap out of that conceptual world for a moment and to snap back into the experiential world.

Again, I like to imagine that in that moment these monks hearing this expression felt something. They felt something, probably a really strong emotion in that moment. And there’s that invitation. What did you just feel when you heard that, you know? Lin Chi was, that’s what he was trying to do. Get them to feel for a moment. This is what you feel. This is real. The idea you had in your mind a second ago? That’s not real. I just imagine that’s what he was trying to do.

So, think about that this week. Speaking of a Buddha. If you meet the Buddha on the road, I’m actually on the road right now. I’m traveling and I’m recording this podcast episode in the middle of my travels. My family all went upstairs to have dinner and I told him, give me about 15 minutes, I’m going to record a podcast episode and then I’ll meet you guys for dinner.

So I’m going to probably have a window of two weeks before my next podcast. I’ve been trying to do these weekly. But since I’m on the road trying to find Internet, it’s a little harder for me to be consistent with the weekly thing, but I get home in a week. Well, a week and a half. So, I may miss the next Sunday window when I normally try to upload these, but you can count on more consistency once I get back. So maybe just plan on the next one being two weeks from now, just for me, to be safe and not promise something I can’t deliver.

But again, thank you guys for listening, as always. It’s a fun process for me to share my thoughts and to know that people all over the world are listening in and hearing these concepts and these ideas. And again, these are the ideas. These are not real. The invitation is to go out and jump back into the experiential world for a moment and really experienced being alive.

In podcasts like these, I think we run the very problem that Lin Chi was trying to get at. You know, we’re talking about life and this isn’t about talking about life. It’s about living life and that happen happens when you turn off the podcast and you’re back out in your day to day living. So that’s where I hope that these concepts are beneficial and helpful to you.

If you want to learn more about Buddhism in general, of course you can check out my books, Secular Buddhism, the first one, my second book, No Nonsense Buddhism for Beginners and my newest book, the Five Minute Mindfulness Journal. You can learn about all of those by visiting NoahRasheta.com.

If you enjoyed this podcast episode, please share it with others. Write a review, give it a rating in iTunes, and you can always join our online community by visiting SecularBuddhism.com/community. If you would like to make a donation to support the work I’m doing with the podcast, please visit SecularBuddhism.com and click on the donate button. And that’s all I have for now, but I look forward to recording another podcast episode soon. Thank you. Until next time.

About the Author
Noah Rasheta is a Buddhist teacher, lay minister, and author, as well as the host of the podcast Secular Buddhism. He teaches mindfulness and Buddhist philosophy online and in workshops all around the world. He works with others to make the world a better place as he studies, embodies, and teaches the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy, integrating Buddhist teachings with modern science, humanism, and humor. He lives in Kamas, Utah, with his wife and three kids.