Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Second-Hand Truths

“My point is, an enlightened person will overcome suffering because suffering is just a state of mind”, Henry told me.

“How do you know that?”, I asked.

Henry and I go back awhile.  He was one of the first people I met when I came to Colorado some years ago.  And his real name is so distinctive that I am calling him “Henry” here to preserve his privacy.

Although raised a Christian, Henry is today religiously eclectic.  He borrows things from several religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Taoism, and Buddhism.   Yesterday, I managed to mildly irritate him during a phone conversation by asking him how he knew somethings to be true.

“The Buddha himself said suffering is just a state of mind, and he said that an enlightened person will overcome it”,  Henry said.  “And don’t ask me how the Buddha knew — he certainly knew more than you do.”

“The Buddha also said you should look for yourself”, I reminded Henry, “and to not rely upon his or anyone else’s words for the truth.”

Rightly or wrongly, I suspected Henry was missing the point.  And I further suspected that he might be missing the point because he was stuck in taking the Buddhist scriptures he was reading on faith.

East and West

It seems to me there is a sense in which the West and the Middle East expect you to take important religious truths on faith, while the East expects you to test such things for yourself.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that in practice.  There are different attitudes towards teachers, for instance.  Westerners often challenge their teachers to defend their views.  Easterners tend to take it for granted their teachers are right.  But even with those qualifications and others, the West seems more prone to taking religious truths on faith than the East.

Why is that?

It seems the most important religious truths of the West are truths that you have no choice but to accept on faith — if you are going to accept them at all.   For instance: There is no conclusive evidence for the notion that Jesus was Christ, nor any conclusive evidence for the notion that Mohammed was the last of the prophets.  These are not truths that can be established by observation.

In contrast, it seems the most important Eastern truths can be established by experimentation and observation.  Henry’s notion that an enlightened person will overcome suffering can be tested.  That is, in theory at least, Henry could become enlightened, then observe whether or not he suffers.

Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

Many Westerners seem to bring to Eastern scriptures the faith they were taught to have in Western scriptures.   Perhaps they never heard the Zen expression, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

So far as I can guess, there might be at least three reasons why the East often insists on killing the Buddha — that is, on not blindly following anyone, even the Buddha.

First, what works for the Buddha might not work for you.  Humans are a diverse species.  While humans do have a lot in common, there are enough differences between individuals that it’s pretty safe to say what works for some of us might not work for all of us.  You see that principle in such mundane things as the various shapes of the human nose.  There are no two humans, other than identical twins, with exactly the same shape of nose.  Yet, almost all human noses are recognizably human.   The psychology upon which our spirituality is based is probably just as diverse as our noses.  Why else are there no “Sixteen Sure Steps to Enlightenment” that can be successfully repeated by everyone who is interested?

Second, you are not really looking unless you are looking for yourself.  At the very best, scriptures and the sayings of your teachers are guides or maps.  Even when they are accurate, if you look no further than the scriptures and sayings, you are not really looking.  You have not really looked at Paris if all you have looked at are maps of Paris.  You are not really looking at, say, suffering if you do not look beyond what is said about suffering.

Third, scriptures and teachings can remove the urgency to change.  Basically, scriptures and teachings label things.  And what we label loses some of its vitality.  Often enough, once you have labeled a headache a “headache”, you no longer feel quite the same urgency to deal with it as before.

Fourth, we become attached to scriptures and teachings.  It is quite easy to become attached to scriptures and teachings.  But all attachments — very much including our attachments to ideas — seem to be impediments to realization.  If that’s the case, then attachments to scriptures and teachings are no less impediments to realization than are attachments to cars or houses.

 ◄A Good Habit

I’m no expert on East and West, so it’s just my impression that the East is more likely than the West to encourage you to test for yourself the truth or falsity of any scripture or teaching.  But whether or not the East insists on testing them for yourself, it strikes me as a good habit to be in.  “Killing the Buddha” is not just good advice.  It is probably necessary if you are really going to get anywhere in these matters.

8 thoughts on “Four Reasons to Kill the Buddha

  1. I really like what Bart Ehrman has to say about Western suffering in God’s Problem. That book chronicled Ehrman’s enlightenment, if you will; I liked him before and had read all his publications I could find, but, with this, he’s gained my deep respect.

    My take-away from Buddhism is a philosophy of radical acceptance, including the notion that suffering is an integral part of human life. Enlightment lightens suffering by removing the Vast Argument we want to make with Life over the existence of suffering. The Dalai Lama is as close to an enlightened being as I can find in modern example, and I have read that the full range of human emotions, including suffering, plays across his face like weather across the atmosphere. He clings to no one of them. They all come to pass.

    If Henry gets enlightened, ask him to get back with us.

    • Thanks CD. I agree with you that all religions should adopt the same attitude. In fact, several do — but they tend to be Eastern religions, for some reason. At least as far as I know.

  2. I think that this is a feature of Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified in this quote:

    “Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”

    or this one:

    “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”

    There’s a lot of wisdom in what Prince Siddharta said.

    Still, saying that sort of thing applies to Asian religions generally strikes me as something of a stretch. Hinduism is different, for instance, in that it has gods and idols. Confucinism defines roles that people play in their society, then tries to lay down rules about how people should act when they are in those roles. I think it’s fair to say that they’re as different as paganism and christianity.

  3. But wait, if I read that I am not supposed to believe anything I read, then how can I believe that advice! :-p

    Kidding aside, I’m a big fan of empirical truth myself. I’ve got a friend who was brought up Buddhist. It’s interesting to see that while he finds wisdom in the teachings, he does not really seem to adhere to them. For many it seems, daily life is a little more seductive, with its heartfelt joys and pains, than an enlightened status of flash-in-the-pan emotion.

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