A Chinese Zen Master named Lin Chi said, “If you find the Buddha by the side of the road, kill him.”
This sounds terrible to us at first, of course. Why would we kill the Buddha? But Lin Chi is trying to make an important point. Lin Chi is giving us a metaphorical argument for the rejection of dogmatism. It can be easy for us to accidentally put our teachers on a pedestal.
Far from being hateful, it’s because Lin Chi loved the Buddha that he wanted to remind us not to turn him into an object of worship. The Buddha didn’t want people to look at him as a god; he was simply a teacher who provided instructions for a way of life. This kind of iconoclasm isn’t rare in Buddhism.
It reminds me of a poem by the Japanese Zen Monk Ikkyu. He said,
“Without a bridge
Clouds climb effortlessly
No need to rely on
anything Gotama Buddha taught.”
Ikkyu is reminding us that it’s the path that matters. The Buddha provides a good example and it is important, but we can’t make it our whole practice. Devotionalism is fine to a point, but we have to engage in the practice too.
The real Buddha is within ourselves, it’s our Buddha nature.
Placing leaders and teachers on pedestals is dangerous. Throughout history we have repeatedly seen what can happen when religious leaders have too much authority. This is true in Buddhism as well as in every other religion. Teachers are just people. And teachers don’t take us to enlightenment—even the Buddha doesn’t.
Teachers only point the way—we have to walk the path ourselves.
It seems that the Buddha didn’t want that kind of religious devotion anyway. When asked if he was a god, the Buddha said no. When asked who he was, the Buddha only replied, “I am awake.”
The Buddha isn’t a God and he didn’t want to be worshiped as one.
We have to save ourselves.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise
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