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Killing the Buddha
September 4th, 2016 (November 13th, 2016)

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

Killing the Buddha…
once more ;-)

Zen offers this classic record attributed to Zen Master Línjì where one is advised to « kill the buddha » if one ever meets one… This is classically interpreted as "don't reify" anyone (not others, not yourself!) into being, or not being, a buddha… "don't project onto, or idealise" anyone (not others, not yourself!)… "stop dreaming, go back to practice!"

There's a koan, the presentation / translation of which left me in doubt about this whole interpretation though, or —rather— about how this whole interpretation is used in other contexts!
Zen master Mazu Daoyi (Baso) was an attendant to Nanyue and personally received the mind seal from him, exceeding his peers. Before that, he lived in Kaiyuan Monastery and did zazen all day long.

Knowing that Mazu was a dharma vessel, Nanyue went to him and asked “Great monastic, what do you intend by doing zazen?”
Baso said “I am intending to be a buddha.”
Nanyue picked up a brick and started polishing it.
Baso said “What are you doing?”
Nanyue said ”I am trying to make a mirror.”
Baso said “How can you make a mirror by polishing a brick?”
Nanyue said “How can you become a buddha by doing zazen?”
Baso said "What do you mean by that?"
Nanyue said ”Think about driving a cart. When it stops moving, do you whip the cart or the horse?”
Baso said nothing.

Nanvue said ”Do you want to practice sitting Zen or sitting Buddha? If you understand sitting Zen, you will know that Zen is not about sitting or lying down. If you want to learn sitting Buddha, know that sitting Buddha is without any fixed form. Do not use discrimination in the non-abiding dharma. If you practice sitting as Buddha, you must kill Buddha. If you are attached to the sitting form, you are not yet mastering the essential principle."
Mazu heard this admonition and felt as if he had tasted sweet nectar.

Interestingly, the sentence in bold is presented by D.T. Suzuki as « if thou seekest Buddhahood by thus sitting cross-legged, thou murderest him. » (in "Essays in Zen Buddhism",

In a way, both presentations mean the same: if you caricature Buddhahood (e.g. reduce it to specific visible signs), then stop right there! You're missing it! But I do find Suzuki's presentation a lot clearer than the classic "if you meet the buddha, kill him" on this point.

Of course, there's another meaning: if you see Buddhahood separate from yourself, external, not-you, then stop right there! You have buddha-nature, and "the ordinary mind is the Way", so don't seek Buddhahood elsewhere ( Maybe Suzuki's presentation doesn't capture this side of the coin so well, or maybe it does… by reminding people that a buddha does engage in other forms than just sitting, in accordance to what the context calls for or needs! Don't turn a buddha (your better self) into a mere statue!

so… must you kill the buddha, or are you killing the buddha already (and maybe shouldn't)?


The interpretations of the above koan often discuss « When an ox cart stops rolling, do you strike the cart or the ox? » by echoing the ox preceding the cart with the Dhammapada's « the mind precedes all phenomena », and by equating mind and ox, body and cart; therefore, if you want to progress toward Buddhahood, you need to discipline your mind, not your body… It's about mental states, not bodily postures. So they conclude.

Personally, I think the question should remain a question: When an ox cart stops rolling, what do you do?
Maybe disciplining the ox is the appropriate answer in a particular context, but it isn't necessarily so in another (e.g. if the wheels of the cart are blocked by some obstacle)…
When an ox cart stops rolling, what do you do? You ought to look at causes and conditions! You ought to discern what's blocking, without preconception (e.g. about the ox probably being at fault)! Did you even feed the ox enough for it to have the necessary strength? How about remembering Sujata 's offering of milk rice to the Buddha, and the Buddha's insight that asceticism was unhelpful (in line with "don't focus on the posture") but also that bodily strength was necessary to cultivate the mind (more in line with "do focus on your body, to provide a supportive, healthy foundation for your mind")!
The mind might be a forerunner, but it's also co-dependent with the body, it doesn't exist without it: co-dependence works both ways! To focus on body or mind, at a particular time, depends on the situation at hand! Don't assume the 'problem' is with the ox! Don't struggle, trying to force reality to comply, or your mind to comply, when the conditions and circumstances have not been enquired into! Look, and only then engage appropriately…

December Zen retreat at

photo: "Zen" by Kàrolyi Claverie (