I was in the metro (underground train) once in Milan, Italy. And I was in the first car, standing with my face towards the last car. As the metro was going through the streets towards downtown Milan, suddenly, for a second, all the cars lined up straight and I saw the people sitting and standing in the last car, which was probably the 7th or 8th car from me. I am sure it has happened to many people at many times, but it was the first and probably the last time for me. That’s why it was so interesting. I said to myself, “Wow… tunnel vision”.
At another level, I think that that is what happens to people branded as geniuses. Through hard work, perseverance and a bit of luck (in different proportions for different people), all the dots in their particular discipline suddenly line up for them and they see something maybe no one has seen before. They make sense of things which could have been non-sensical before.
I think Gautam Buddh, if he existed, was one such genius. He was able to connect the most critical dots about the human psychological and spiritual condition thousands of years before others did. He especially came to understand the effects of attachment like very very few others have before and after him. His words astonish and enlighten us to this day.
His basic saying on attachment is: “Attachment is the source of all suffering.”
Another one is, “You only lose what you cling to.”
There are many others.
Twenty five hundred years or so after his death, we still don’t get it. We still continue to be attached to innumerable things, people, ideas, concepts, thoughts, desires, goals, images, etc.
Gautum inspired thousands of others to start exploring themselves. When Buddhism reached China, one of these inspired ones was Zen Master Linji, who gave one of the most shocking yet illuminating pieces of advice to the disciples, also about attachment, i.e., spiritual attachment in this case. It goes like this:
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him immediately.
What? Kill the Buddha? Isn’t he like the originator of the Buddhist tradition? How can a seeker / a disciple kill the Buddha?
Lets break up the sentence and go deeper into it.
The sentences has two parts:
– “If you meet the Buddha on the road”
Lets remember that Linji is advising the disciple. Not all disciples are going to have the same path or the same experiences on the path. Hence he used the word, “if”.
What is the experience Linji is talking about? “Meet the Buddha”. It can have many meanings. One meaning is that when you are on the path, you have to leave all images behind. ‘Buddha’ is also an image. (And I am not talking about the statues of Buddha, which Gautum Buddh would be shocked and disappointed to find, since he was so much against statues and worship.) When we read about Buddhism or we listen to Buddhist sermons or we see Buddhist quotes or we see the statues, we develop an image in our minds as something good or bad or useless or something to be pursued or something to be converted to. We develop goals, i.e., to be a ‘buddhist’, to attain enlightenment, etc.
Another meaning could be that, when you are on the path you might come to a point when you start feeling that you are progressing towards enlightenment and that you are becoming a buddha yourself. Again, that is an image you hold in your mind. And Linji is warning that if you start thinking in terms of what you are ‘achieving’ or ‘gaining’ on the path, then you have actually left the path. You have lost your way. Thus, he says, if you see the buddha on the road, kill him immediately.
The moment we have developed goals and images and the moment we start thinking of ourselves as ‘special’ or as a ‘buddhist’ or as coming close to enlightenment, we are finished. We are no longer going in the right direction. Then the real teachings of Buddha will remain out of our reach and we will be stuck to those goals and images and thoughts.
The moment we we start getting attached to or holding on to a ‘scripture’ or a ‘book of God’ or when we start worshipping a prophet or ‘son of God’ or ‘the mother of the son of God’ or the Buddha or a ‘guru’ or ‘tirthankara’, the spirituality in us dies.
The difference between a living spirituality and a dead spirituality is the difference between a beautiful living flower on a stem and a dead flower someone has saved in a book. If you like to save dead flowers in books, of course there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with it. Its just that it will not have the fragrance and the colors of a living flower. But if you don’t want the fragrance or the colors, then it’s not a big deal.
Buddha and Linji were talking to people who like living flowers on stem rather than dead flowers. They wanted us to stay alive, not become spiritually dead.
So, as we saw above, the words, “meet the Buddha” can have different meanings. It could mean having images or thoughts of the Buddha in your mind. Or, it could also mean having images about your own buddhahood. Yes, you are a buddha. Its just that you have forgotten that you’re a buddha. And you have started thinking of yourself as a much smaller ‘I’, i.e., the ego
And what is a buddha? Someone who is unattached, silent, observant and unshakeably present in the herenow.
What is the road?
There is only one road, one path. On this path, one direction goes towards the inside, towards God. It is the direction of silence, stillness, quiet observation, simple and content living, a blissfulness without any goals. A world without time. Time is a utility which can be put aside and one can be timeless, without the attachment to the past or the future. Just being in the present. The forever flowing stillness of now. The pendulum stops. The polarities disappear. If someone throws a stone in the lake, it disappears in the lake without creating any ripples. No ripples at all. Someone hits me, I don’t respond. Someone abuses me, I don’t respond. Someone praises me or says they love me, I don’t respond. Someone takes away all of my possessions, I don’t respond. There is no response to the ‘good’ and no response to the ‘bad’. There is just silence, stillness and observation. Images are flashing on the inner screen and passing away, then more images and more. And none of the images elicits a response.
The other direction is towards the outside, towards money, towards material possessions, images, goals, desires, discontentment, mental stress, anxiety and fear. ‘Time is of the essence’. Goals need to be met. Net worth needs to keep growing. Images need to be maintained. The ‘circle of control’ needs to be expanded all the time and power needs to be exercised over as many people as possible. The past defines the present and the present must lead to a certain well thought out future. Everything must conform to our own plans. Otherwise, there is discontentment. Stillness is death. Silence is weakness. This direction also includes religious or spiritual goals, dreams and aspirations. Trying to be a good person to win the ticket to heaven, where there are all kinds of pleasures and comforts.
There is a beautiful Native Indian Cherokee story, in which a father teaches his son about good and evil through a parable involving two wolves. He tells his son that there is a terrible fight going on inside him between two wolves. One is good and the other is evil. The evil wolf has anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The good wolf has joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, kindness and compassion. This fight, he told the young boy, is going on inside every one, including the little boy.
The boy is listening attentively. He asks, “Which wolf is going to win?”
The father says, “The one you are going to feed.”
It is is a beautiful parable. The two wolves are the two directions on the path we are talking about. You can choose which wolf to feed, which direction to start walking in.
Attachment, including attachment to spiritual or religious goals and aspirations, lies on the path of the ego.
Again, there is absolutely nothing ‘wrong’ with the path of attachment and ego. If that is what you need right now, then that is what you will get.
Whether you know it or not, consciously or sub-consciously, there is one thing you are seeking in life (see my other Post titled, ‘The Big Fish’). That is the thing you will give anything to get. That is what you are after. It could be money or power or prestige or spiritual status or any other thing. That one thing, the ‘Big Fish’ in your life, determines which wolf you are going to feed, which side of the path you are going to choose.
Next, what does it mean to kill the Buddha?
It means, be silent, watchful and still. When the seeker is on the path, he / she has to stay silent, watchful and still.
Linji is warning that on the path, the seeker has to be absolutely naked. There must not be any attachments or images when you start the journey and also during the journey. There will, of course, be moments when the seeker is weak or discouraged or harbouring doubts and tries to get encouragement from the image of the Buddha or the goal of attaining nirvana. And there will be moments when, for example, the seeker has mastered the art of meditation or has attained an insight into some sutra or saying of the Buddha or has achieved something else which he considers as a substantial step on the journey and is ecstatic over it. Linji is saying that all these will pull the seeker back on the path.
If we see the teachings of the great wisdom teachers in parallel, we will find many consistencies / similarities. Why? Because their paths were identical and their destination was the same. Jesus, in one of his parables, has also warned that the seeker can be set back on the path if he is not watchful. This is the parable of the woman with the jar full of wheat grains (Thomas 97). It goes like this: There was a woman who was carrying a jar of wheat grains. As she was walking along, the handle of the jar broke and the grains started dropping out. The woman, not being very mindful and perhaps busy with her thoughts, did not realize what had happened. By the time she reached home and looked inside the jar, it was empty. All the grain was gone.
This is probably what Linji is warning about. We have to be watchful on the path. Otherwise, we will lose whatever understanding we have gained, whatever progress we have made. If there are any images arising in our minds, these need to be discarded. The mind has to be like a mirror. Any dust on the mirror has to be removed, otherwise we will not be able to see ourselves in the mirror. Whatever thoughts, ideas, images, experiences arise, we observe them and let them go. There is no holding on to anything, any thought, any image. If there is a reaction to these thoughts, ideas, images, we observe that reaction too. The more we observe, the more these thoughts, ideas and images will become like clouds passing by in the unchanging sky. There will emerge a silence and a stillness. That silence and that stillness is the path and it is also the destination. In that silence and stillness is the divine / the eternal / the universal, i.e., our true self.
So, “kill the Buddha” means letting go. Osho used to say it brilliantly: spirituality is not about finding God, its about letting go of yourself. The ‘I’ is the only thing separating God and us. If we let go of the ‘I’, there is no separation. All is one.
The ‘I’ / the ego is like a robe we are wearing and this robe is made of images. If we are not watchful, the Buddha or the idea of nirvana or moksha or enlightenment also becomes one of the images that the ego is made up of.
Linji is telling us to remain utterly naked. To maintain the oneness by not letting anything come between ourselves and God, not even the Buddha.
The events in Jesus’ life, especially towards the end of his life, are also relevant here. Just before his arrest and trial for blasphemy and sedition, he is at a place called Gethsemane. Judas Iscariot (his disciple who turned traitor) has already told his enemies where Jesus is, so that they could come and arrest him. Jesus knows that he is about to be arrested. He is saying his final prayers, asking to be saved: “—Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet, not as I will, but as You will”
Jesus knows that he will be tried and crucified. However, as the time is approaching, Jesus is feeling afraid of losing his life. He is fearful of death and is requesting God / Father to help him avoid death, if possible. At the same time, he is also submitting himself to God’s will by saying, “not as I will, but as You will”
This is a moment of weakness which Jesus had just before the crucifixion. He has fallen prey to the fear of death. He is an enlightened being, he has felt oneness with God, he has transcended the boundaries ordinary individuals have and has experienced the eternal / universal self, he calls God his ‘Father’ and himself God’s son, he has already become a great teacher, his vision is clear. And, yet, here he is, telling God that he does not want to die. He has lost his Buddha-nature. Or, to be more precise, he has lost his Christ-nature. Here he is just the man Jesus.
In the version given in the Book of Matthew, he says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
He is complaining. It is as if he had some image of God and some expectation of what God was going to do if he (Jesus) was about to be hanged and that expectation is not being fulfilled.
But, Jesus is no ordinary being. He does fall, but he bounces back very quickly. When he is being crucified, he says from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
For someone beaten mercilessly, hanging on the cross, with nails in his hands and feet, about to die, these are not the words of an ordinary man. No, he is back as the enlightened master and is setting yet another example of love by praying for people who are killing him.
This event from Jesus’ life shows vividly what Master Linji was trying to teach. If you fall on the path, you’ve got to pick yourself up. You’ve got to kill the Buddha. Jesus killed his buddha, to speak metaphorically. He conquered his weaknesses and doubts. He regained his mindfulness. He let go of the final attachment, i.e., to his own life.
So, in a nutshell, meeting the Buddha on the road means falling down, falling prey to your own attachments… killing the Buddha means getting back up and letting go.