September 19, 2013

Don’t Forget to Kill the Buddha.


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.

This would be a mistake.

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

To heaven;

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.

The Buddha is not going to save us.

We have to save ourselves.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise



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danielschar Sep 20, 2013 7:14am

having a hero is fine. Hero worship is not.

Padma Kadag Sep 20, 2013 6:24am

"Teachers only point the way—we have to walk the path ourselves" Your use of the word "only" in this sentence combined with your overall theme of not relying or at least dimishing the roll of the teacher is something I have not ever heard from HH Dalai Lama, HH Jigme Phuntsok, HH Dudjom Rinpoche, the writings of Mipham, the writings of Patrul Rinpoche, the writings and descendants of Milarepa, The Vajrayana path, Ati teachings, Preliminary teachings, and on and on and on. And….if I am misinterpreting your "teaching" here Daniel then what purpose does it serve anyway? Rather than writing numerous articles stressing the importance of the Guru or Lama, as have all of the above mentioned masters, you would rather misinterpret an over used "killing the Buddha".

danielschar Sep 19, 2013 6:25pm

You're welcome!

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Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg lives in Kansas City. He’s been practicing Buddhism for nearly 20 years. He teaches at the Open Heart Project Sangha and is a Zen Teacher (Fashi) in the Dharma Winds Zen Order. His main focus is on mindfulness practices rooted in the earliest Zen teachings and compassion practices rooted in the Bodhisattva Tradition. He has taken Bodhisattva Vows and Brahmajala Precepts and he is affiliated with the Zen Buddhist Order of Hsu Yun.
Find out more about Daniel on his blog and connect with him on Facebook