The phrase, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him,” is often used in Zen teachings, but it is a misunderstood adage. At first glance, this koan, a puzzle meant to radically shift one’s consciousness, seems crude, and non-spiritual, even. Why would someone seeking enlightenment ever ‘kill’ anything, especially when the Buddha himself preached the precept, “do no harm.” The meaning of the phrase is meant to be jarring, even paradoxical. When Buddhist master Lin Chi said this to his Zen students, that was his entire point.
In monastic life, Zen practitioners were not even allowed to kill insects, why would they be told to kill a person like Gautama Buddha?
Firstly, when we even begin to think of killing someone we meet along our path to enlightenment, we’ve proven that we’ve slipped back into a “comfortable” perspective that is so well-ingrained in our world. Studies have proven that our children are exposed to more acts of violence on television than in any other generation. Before they reach kindergarten, they’ve likely seen at least 100,000 acts of violence. These “pretend” violent scenes are meant to desensitize them for the real violence that is happening all over the world.
Violence is the leading cause of physical death around the world. The first paradox of the koan is that we are meant to look past a literal meaning in the phrase, and understand that we shouldn’t kill anything – to a degree.
Another paradox inherent in this teaching is our tendency to make enlightenment a thing – a person, a place, a guru, a book, a religion – something we can touch and feel, and more importantly, use as a short-cut to finding our own path. The Buddha is simply the pointer to enlightenment. It is not a person journeying on the road, but a single expression of realized consciousness that we may bump into on our own journey.
Some mistakenly think that once they’ve seen mystical figures in their meditation, or they’ve become vegetarians, or they’ve practiced ten thousand acts of kindness, they’re automatically enlightened. This is not how enlightenment works.
There are various stages of illumination that occur as we practice. Eating a cleaner, more light-filled diet, or practicing loving-kindness might make raising your consciousness easier, but the moment of illumination can happen in an instant, or take hundreds of lifetimes. We simply make it more likely to occur with our diligence.
Reading a certain religious text may even help to jar you out of your now-limited view, but no person or thing is enlightenment – these are simply tools. The Buddha is no different. This is why Buddha said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
The Buddha also encouraged his followers to practice observing their own minds. He is dissuading people from following a spiritual guru when he says ‘we must kill the Buddha’. Instead we are supposed to find truth within ourselves by observing our thoughts.
This idea is also aptly described in a little story. A Buddhist teacher said very little about Buddhism and instead just gave farming advice to the laypeople who sought out his wisdom. He also admonished the monks in the monastery for smoking, drinking, and other vices.
One day an American monk was walking through the forest just outside the monastery when he ran into his teacher, happily puffing away on a cigarette. The American was incensed at his teacher’s hypocrisy and was even more infuriated that he didn’t apologize when he found him obviously indulging in one of the very acts he had told the other monks not to do. When he confronted the teacher finally, the monk took a long exhale, filling his students’ face full of smoke and said, “You want to find Buddha?” Stop looking to me.”
While Buddhism supplies us a rich, contemplative tradition, to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what the enlightened one taught. That’s why we “kill the Buddha.”