Killing the Buddha

There’s an old saying, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."

Who’s that Buddha? What does it mean to "meet" the Buddha? What does killing the Buddha imply?

The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, on attaining enlightenment, is said to have realized that all beings, just as they are, are Buddhas. If that’s so, meeting a Buddha on the road should be a pretty commonplace event! So should being a Buddha on the road! But that’s where the word "meeting" comes in. It implies encountering something or someone outside or other than oneself. We all come to practice carrying around images or ideals of who we should be and what we imagine a Teacher or Buddha should look like. And we may chase after individuals that for a while seem like they live up to our image, ignore those who do not, and generally treat ourselves with contempt for not living up to the standards set by our imaginary inner "Buddha." All this may keep us pretty busy, but it has nothing to do with real practice, which is an awareness of who and what we actually are, not the pursuit of some ideal of who we think we should be. So "killing the Buddha" means killing or wiping out this fantasy image, and "the road" is two fold: the road outside where we look outside ourselves for the ones who have all the answers, and the inner mind road, where we set up all the "shoulds" we must obey to turn ourselves into the Buddhas we don’t believe we already are, but think we must become.

It is said that Shakyamuni’s last dying words to his disciples were, "Be a lamp unto yourselves." Be your own light, your own authority, your own Buddha. Kill off every image of the Buddha, see who and what you are in this very moment, see that there is no Buddha other than THIS MOMENT.

A psychologist friend recently complained that Buddha’s last words themselves were a trap. (Actually he called them something much less polite!) How can anybody TELL you to be your own authority? In the guise of liberation, these words become just one more dogma that the disciples submit to. Anybody who TELLS you to "Kill the Buddha" is giving a command as self-contradictory as "Be spontaneous!" It’s a good point, and one that shows that this koan and Buddhism in general can’t escape a more complex involvement with issues of authority. Our psychological reality is that we have to learn and practice to achieve our independence, and that learning almost inevitably has to take place within the context of some kind of disciplined practice. Remember we have to "kill the Buddhas" inside as well as outside ourselves. If we take this saying to mean only that we should reject all forms of external authority, we will end up leaving ourselves at the mercy of all sorts of, often unconscious, inner "Buddhas." Isaiah Berlin distinguished two kinds liberty he called positive and negative liberty. Negative liberty is freedom FROM, freedom from outside interference of one kind or another. Killing the outside Buddha may give us a version of this negative liberty. Positive liberty is freedom TO, the liberty of enabling conditions. And these are what are provided by a Teacher, a practice, a discipline. Berlin emphasized that the two kinds of liberty were conceptually at odds with one another, and an increase in one automatically meant a decrease in the other. And yet, we cannot thrive without both. Without a formal practice, we will never engage the deeply ingrained unconscious determinants of our character. But any practice, any teacher inevitably offers the risk and the temptation to hand over responsibility to someone or something outside of ourselves. The middle way is our balancing of these two truths. There is no one correct way to balance them, and every teacher, every discipline will offer a unique mix. No one can tell you how you, as a particular individual, ought to practice. Each of us must decide and take responsibility for the balance works best for us. That is how we truly can be a "lamp unto ourselves."

The Sound of One Hand

Everybody who’s never practiced Zen knows, or thinks they know, the koan, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" In popular culture it typifies the paradoxical riddle-like side of Zen. Most people try to puzzle out the answer or come up with some clever "Zen" response without bothering to ask what the question means in the first place. So let’s begin to investigate what this koan is actually about.

As you probably know, this koan was invented as a teaching device by Hakuin Ekaku Zenji (1686-1768), who many consider the greatest, and certainly most influential teacher in the recent history of Japanese Zen. Virtually all the koans that Zen students normally study date from the heyday of Chinese Zen, a period a thousand years before Hakuin, and which were compiled in the 11th century into the two great collections most studied today, the Mumonkan and the Blue Cliff record. Hakuin’s "sound of one hand" is unique in modern times in taking it’s place among the sayings of the old masters like Chao-chou and Yun-men and Lin-chi. Unlike the koans attributed to those old teachers, which were words or phrases that latter generations singled out from among the collected dialogues between master and student, the sound of one hand was specifically devised by Hakuin as a teaching tool to give students in place of the traditional beginner’s koan "mu."

Hakuin came up with this koan only after many years of his own arduous practice. He has left us a rather unique document, a spiritual autobiography entitled "Wild Ivy" (Shambala 1999; translated by Norman Waddell) that recounts all the tribulations and triumphs of his journey.

He tells us that as a child, his mother took him to hear an itinerant Nichiren preacher who frightened his audiences with graphic descriptions of the torments awaiting in each of the "eight Scorching Hells." (Evidently it isn’t just Christian fundamentalists who preach fire and brimstone!)

Hakuin tells us that as a result he stayed awaked all night sobbing miserably, quaking with fear. He developed a phobia about going into hot baths, which reminded him of the cauldrons of hell. Although we don’t know just why young Hakuin was so preoccupied with his own sinful nature and the prospect of eternal damnation, his fear led him to be ordained as a monk at the age of fourteen. He hoped that Zen would provide a release from torment. He idealized what he knew of the old Chinese masters. One day however, he heard the story of the great master Yen-t’ou who gave a great shout as he was murdered by a band of bandits. Hakuin was thrust back into despair – if a master like Yen-t’ou could not escape a painful death, what hope did he have?

Hakuin practiced with great intensity trying to find the answer to his problem. His autobiography is filled with accounts of the determination and austerity with which he practiced – going to such extremes as sitting on a plank suspended over a well – if he fell asleep he’d fall in and drown!

Eventually, his practice culminated in a series of what he thought were great satoris. What is remarkable in Hakuin’s record is his honesty with which he recounts how he nonetheless kept falling back into confusion or despair. After his first breakthrough, he felt that his body and mind had completely dropped away.

"Overwhelmed with joy, I hollered at the top of my lungs "Old Yen-t’ou is alive and well!"

It sounds magnificent doesn’t it, but what happened after that? Hakuin admits "I became extremely proud and arrogant. Everyone I encountered seemed to me like so many lumps of dirt." Fortunately, he soon encountered a new teacher to whom he tried to display his enlightenment. "How do you understand the koan about the Dog and the Buddha-Nature," the master asked him. Hakuin confidently shot back, "No way to lay a hand or foot on that." Whereupon the master grabbed him by the nose and said, " Got a pretty good hand on it there!"

Well, Hakuin went through all sorts of great satoris and great relapses into despair for another twenty years or so before finally curing himself of his various Zen sicknesses.

Looking back, it became obvious how preoccupied with his own mind, his own subjectivity, he was during all those years of practice. Finally at long last, he realized that true enlightenment is a matter of endless practice and compassionate functioning, not something that occurs once and for all in one great moment on the cushion.

Which brings us back to our koan, "The sound of one hand." First of all, what does "one" hand imply? Obviously, we usually clap with two hands – let’s take that as a metaphor for our usual dualistic functioning. "One hand" therefore asks us to put aside duality and manifest oneness. How do you do that? What is an expression of reality before we divide it up into subject and object? A koan asks us to manifest oneness by becoming one with the koan itself. What is Mu? Totally become Mu. To become one with one hand, we do what? [Hold up one hand] There’s a wonderful scroll by a turn of the century master named Nantembo where he’s inked his right hand and impressed a hand-print right onto the scroll!

To be one with the sound of one hand is to be one with what? What expresses undifferentiated reality? [SILENCE]

Silence is one kind of genuine of presentation, when it is the silence of being fully present, yet fully emptied of self, body and mind having dropped away into that bottomless silence. This is a silence that manifests itself only after years of practice. Don’t confuse it with the silence of simply not knowing how to answer!

[WHAT!!!!] is another presentation – in the midst of a shout – or getting hit – we can’t help but be fully present, there’s no place for a thought or judgment to intrude. So Lin-chi and a lot of old teachers liked that kind of presentation: the shout or the slap that obliterated any thought, any duality. What is Buddha? Come closer and I’ll tell you! WHACK! When Lin-chi first asked his teacher Huang-po that question, he got hit – only later did he realize he wasn’t being punished – he had been given the answer. Of course, such behavior can quickly become stereotyped and over the years became a caricature in many people’s minds of "Zen" behavior. I don’t know any teachers who think that sort of thing has much teaching value anymore – the freshness and immediacy have gone out of it and it all too easily becomes a caricature of spontaneity. How can you make it new? I just came across a scroll by a 18th century master named Daikuku Seppou ( ? – 1761 nicknamed Datsue-Seppou; the "Nudist Buddhist??) who apparently was known for taking his clothes off in public. Now, there’s a presentation of Naked Reality for you!

The Soto tradition has cultivated a different expression of non-separation, the kind manifested in the wholehearted attention to the details and rituals of everyday life. It has more in common with the subtle Zen of master Chao-chou, who quietly offers newcomers and old-hands alike a cup of tea. We should recall that Chao-chou’s didn’t shout "Mu" at the monk who asked about the dog and Buddha-nature. In fact, in another version of the story, (Case 18 in The Book of Serenity, Lindisfarne Press 1990), two different monks ask him the same question and he answers, "no" to one, and "yes" to the other. This is the Zen of "being just this moment" Nothing special, nothing even to call "Zen."

All of these are ways we can express "oneness." Funny, in a way, isn’t it, that there are so many? ! So far, we’re treating "the sound of one hand" as a koan like Mu and indeed Hakuin used the koan as an initial concentration device to push beginning students to have that first experience of oneness. Actually, you can’t "answer" Mu or any initial koan – the only "answer" is to have a certain kind of experience. Then you just show yourself – but your "self" is no longer in the picture the way it was before.

But Hakuin doesn’t stop there. The next level this koan addresses has to do more specifically with another sense of the word "sound." Having achieved oneness, what is its sound? In other words, how does it reverberate? How does it go out into the world and function?

If we’re just being "one" with our own hand, what have we accomplished? If it’s all about our own private experience, it’s nothing but a hand job! The hand of oneness has to reach out and become the hand of compassion. An extended hand, not a silent, impassive hand. Further, once the right hand realizes it is part of one body along with the left hand, the two function together as one. Then clapping itself can be an expression of the functioning of the one hand. Our two hands do not function separately, but each act as part of one body, making one sound. "Oneness" no longer is something we achieve as the result of our practice, some special state we enter into through sitting, but rather is the way things already are in their natural state of interconnectedness.

Hakuin himself finally came to understand that after all his impressive satoris, if they amounted to nothing more than cultivating his own private experience, he would end up being "no different from a sleepy-happy old polecat drowsing away down inside his comfortable den." Teaching became the vehicle for Hakuin to finally get outside of himself, to travel, to lecture, to go wherever he was asked on behalf of others. All of us have to find our own realization, and our own expression, our own sound, our own voice. His style is not mine and won’t be yours. What is the sound of your one hand?


 Chao-chou’s Dog

A monk asked Chao-chou, "Has the dog Buddha nature or not?" Chao-chou said, "Mu."

Wu-men’s Comment :

For the practice of Zen it is imperative that you pass through the barrier set up by the Ancestral Teachers. For subtle realization it is of the utmost importance that you cut off the mind road. If you do not pass the barrier of the ancestors, if you do not cut off the mind road, then you area ghost clinging to bushes and grasses.  

What is the barrier of the Ancestral Teachers? It is just this one word, "Mu" – the one barrier of our faith. We call it the Gateless Barrier of the Zen tradition.When you pass through this barrier, you will not only interview Chao-chou intimately. You willwalk hand in hand with the Ancestral Teachers in the successive generations of our lineage – the hair of your eyebrows entangled with theirs, seeing with the same eyes, hearing with the same ears, hearing with the same ears. Won’t that be fulfilling? Is there anyone who would not want to pass this barrier?

So, then, make you whole body a mass of doubt, and with your three hundred sixty bones and joints and eighty-four thousand hair folliclesa concentrate on this one word, "Mu." Day and night, keep digging into it. Don’t consider it to be nothingness. Don’t think in terms of "has" or "has not." It is like swallowing a read hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can’t.

Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes you have held from the past. Inside and outside become one. You are like a mute person who has had a dream – you know it for yourself alone.  

Suddenly Mu breaks open. The heavens are astonished, the earth is shaken/ It is as though you have snatched the great sword of General Kuan. When you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha. When you meet Bodhidharma, you kill Bodhidharma. At the very cliff edge of birth-and-death, you find the Great Freedom. In the Six Worlds and the Four Modes of Birth, you enjoy a samadhi of frolic and play. How, then should you work with it? Exhaust all your life energy on this one word, "Mu." If you do not falter, then it is done! A single spark lights your Dharma candle.

Wu-men’s Verse:

Dog, Buddha nature –

the full presentation of the whole

with a bit of "has" or "has not"

body is lost, life is lost.

The first thing we should notice is how much of practice is contained just in the title, "The Gateless Barrier," (sometimes translated as "The Gateless Gate.") What is it saying? That life is wide open to us just as it is, that there really is no barrier anywhere. But we don’t experience our lives this way at all, do we? We feel that there are barriers everywhere, inside and out – barriers that we don’t want to face or cross, barriers of fear, anger, pain, old age, death… And our practice consists of nothing but learning to recognize these barriers one after another, and to face them. And when we are really willing to enter the territory they have shut off from us, we find ourselves in that wide open, barrierless life that Mumon wanted to help us discover. At the most basic level then, these old stories, and especially this first story about Joshu, are all about the problem of separation, about the artificial barriers we experience between ourselves and life as it is. And Mumon is offering a technique of concentrating on Joshu’s one word answer, "Mu" as a way of breaking down these barriers. By trying to become completely absorbed in this "Mu" the student would bump up against his own barriers, and by filling his whole consciousness with "Mu," his whole world with "Mu, the barriers themselves would disappear along with everything else into this one word.  

Mumon summarizes these barriers in the phrase "has or has not" and thinks of them as essentially consisting of our thoughts and concepts. Today, we are more prepared to see the emotional underpinnings of our barriers. When Mumon speaks of "great doubt," at one level we can feel the overwhelming confusion and perplexity of the monk trying to intellectually understand Joshu’s truly un-understandable answer. The monk has had pointed out to him the deep, seemingly unbridgable sense of separation that thoughts (in this case the thought of "Buddha nature" which feels millions of miles away from the real world of dogs and ordinary monks) create all the time, and that we become acutely aware of as we begin to practice. The "red hot iron ball" that we can neither swallow nor spit up is a picture of how it feels to come to grips with that painful sense of separation we don’t know how to escape. But paradoxically, Mumon also means "great doubt" to be the way we eliminate that gap, because in the midst of doubt and not-knowing, our habitual ways of thinking and separating ourselves from the world lose their grip.

Today, we practice by focusing on our own inner barriers, one by one, especially the emotional barriers of fear, pain, emptiness, and anger that we can feel manifesting as hard knots of bodily tension. These are truly the "red hot iron balls" we have to work with. These are the feelings we’ve doubting & thinking. So tried to stay separate from, and in doing so, have erected barriers between ourselves and life. In therapy, I often say that we must come to doubt our deepest feelings – to question all that we are so sure is at stake when we keep parts ourselves and our life at bay.

Mumon asks us to answer the question, "What is Mu?" This is precisely like asking "What is life?" And you can’t answer by somehow standing outside of life, examining it, and offering your description. You yourself, just as you are, alive, are the answer. Mumonkan Case 1 – (continued) Last time, I spoke about "great doubt" and how we in the West are used to thinking of the opposite of "doubt" as "knowing" or "certainty," whereas in Zen, the opposite of "knowing" really is non-separation, and "doubt" or not-knowing can mean intimacy. Today I want to go explore these distinctions and connotations a little bit further.

The 17th century philosopher Descartes established how the West was going to look at doubt and certainty for hundreds of years. He began with a picture of the individual, separate from the world around him, receiving data about that world via the senses. But he argued, our senses can deceive us. We can never be absolutely sure we are not hallucinating, or seeing an optical illusion, or dreaming. So any knowledge we have about the world is always subject to doubt. The only thing Descartes thought we could be sure of was that we there Descartes’ individual is an essentially a disembodied mind, tenuously attached to the world (including his own body) via fallible sense data. For hundreds of years, nobody could come up a way to refute this picture of things, even though it painted a pretty bleak picture that made it hard to understand how anybody ever managed to believe in the existence of other people, let alone ever hope to really understand what other people were thinking or feeling or saying.

Around the beginning of the 20th century, some philosophers started looking for ways out of Descartes dualism. G.E. Moore (now mostly remembered for his influence on his Bloomsbury friends) tried to offer a defense of "common sense." He would stand up in a lecture hall full of very serious, technically minded philosophers and logicians, hold up his hand, and say, "I KNOW this is my hand." His point was that this sort of knowledge was as clear and direct as Descartes’ knowledge that he was thinking. But Ludwig Wittgenstein made a very interesting criticism of Moore. He said it was superfluous to add that "I know" to "This is my hand." Because if knowing is supposed to be the opposite of doubting, and Moore is claiming we can’t really doubt "this is my hand," then there’s no place for "knowing" either. And (believe it or not!) this actually brings us right back to Mumon’s verse: "a bit of "has or has not body is lost, mind is lost."

For both Wittgenstein and Mumon, what we put between ourselves and the world were concepts, our ways of "knowing." As we gradually become aware of them and label them as just concepts, they lose their grip on us, leaving us in a kind of "doubt" that actually brings us closer to intimacy precisely because we no longer "know" anything with our previous rigid certainty. The way we practice here emphasizes becoming aware of the emotional components of our "knowing" as well. We all have deep resistances to "being just this moment" – resistances born out of our knowledge of past hurt and our attempts to figure out ways to protect ourselves from more hurt in the future. That defensive knowledge holds us back in a futile attempt to protect ourselves from life itself. To close the gap of separation, we first of all must be aware of it, physically and emotionally, and how we maintain it in our bodies and minds moment by moment. Only then will we be able to not doubt that we have a hand, not know we have a hand, but to just reach out and use our hand – which is compassion’s way.  



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