On the Necessity and Consequences of Slaying the Buddha

There is a famous statement in Buddhist literature: "if you meet the Buddha on the path, slay him." Upon first encountering this conditional imperative, I was as puzzled by it as the next wannabe student of enlightenment. It is only after several decades of chasing after understanding of the realities of life that I have come to know what it means.

In the beginning, I was as haphazard in my search as I have been undisciplined in my practice. I was finally led to my teacher by the woman who became my wife. Together, we studied for many years with a man whose startlingly clear insights and brilliance at defining spiritual terms and ideas, and enunciating profoundly helpful principles seemed light years in advance of all of the popularly celebrated new-age gurus. That I have apparently failed to absorb any significant measure of the wisdom he consistently exhibited and communicated indicates somewhat the deficiency of his instruction (but not his message) but more importantly my individual reluctance to "slay the Buddha."

What it means is that "the Buddha" (like "the Christ" or "the Messiah") is never a person, but rather a quality of awareness discovered by those rare souls who have sought it purely and single-mindedly. As such, it can only be realized in consciousness, and not obtained from any other individual who is, at best, just pointing the way. It is incumbent on the genuine seeker, i.e. one on the path, to destroy the cherished image of the teacher as the Buddha, as an individual endowed with exceptional, unique perceptual powers beyond his or her own capacity. This does not mean devaluing our invaluable guides, but merely recognizing them as fellow travelers on the unending journey to the truth. Excessive reliance on teachers reveals a sense of inadequacy, and the acceptance of such a defect in character undermines the quest for understanding.

My teacher, despite his apparent good humor and stated disinterest in taking himself or anyone else seriously, did not hesitate to influence the use of certain language in group meetings. He would emphatically correct terminology that deviated from the established norm, sometimes ridiculing the perpetrator, and jokingly calling the technique "a verbal bamboo pole," which refers to the traditional attention-directing method employed in certain Zen Buddhist schools. Although his precision with language and quintessential definitions of phenomenological and noumenal issues were and are enormously beneficial and welcome blessings, the intolerance exhibited toward the ideological and linguistic struggles of his students, too facilely classified as "a lack of sincerity," has proven more demoralizing than challenging or uplifting to most of his followers.

Further, whenever excessive intimacy is achieved between teacher and student, inevitably, over time, certain human foibles (which seem to render inauthentic the spiritual wisdom that has been expressed) become evident. This revelation, no matter how disingenuous the student considers himself or herself, never fails to detract from the heretofore total credibility of the teacher. What is crucial for the student is to learn to distinguish and appreciate the teaching above the teacher. All too often, the shocking disillusionment experienced by the would-be seeker upon encountering the fragility or fallibility of the leader is transmuted into a sense of bitterness and spiritual hopelessness, and followed by a renunciation of the message.

This occurs most frequently when the acolyte is focussed more on the relationship with the master than on the spiritual truths to be learned. Such an interpersonal perspective is certain to produce disappointment, for no individual is consistently capable of the perfection attributed to him or her by the beginning student, and no individual can long withstand the more critical scrutiny of the experienced student.

And the discomfort, not unlike that of a divorce, involved in noticing the imperfections of the master, in questioning one's own judgement and qualifications, and in determining a viable course for the future, is substantial. One is both anxious to find a new guide and hesitant to consider any alternative ideology that would contradict those parameters of reality one has come to trust. The period resembles that of mourning, during which the events and realizations of the old life are carefully reviewed while a pall of uncertainty about one's new life and search hovers. Family, friends and even fellow students are of small consolation after the Buddha has been slain. How this interim is mediated is clearly of great consequence in the spiritual destiny of the slayer.

Being confronted by the shortcomings and limitations of the previously presumed paragon also impels us into examining the very notion of enlightenment. Can an individual attain sufficient understanding of reality that he or she becomes forever thereafter permanently immune to the self-confirmatory inclinations of human consciousness? It appears, based on the evidence of personal observation and biographies of spiritual guides, that there are no such enlightened individuals. Rather, there are only enlightened ideas, which, nevertheless, themselves merit our profound gratitude.

This realization can help us to further appreciate the oft-mentioned assertion that “the thinker and the thought are one.” It declares that there is no enlightened consciousness, and hence no enlightened individual, without an enlightened thought filling it. For the quality of our lives depends on the quality of the thoughts welcomed into consciousness, and the nature of those thoughts, as phenomenology teaches us, depends upon what we value.

Becoming a finder of spiritual reality demands a departure from the well-marked trail of the teacher's accumulated knowledge, and a turning toward a mind-inspired bushwhacking course up the enticing but rigorous slopes of the mountain of truth. The meaning of the meager evolution of spiritual understanding among mankind lies precisely in the difficulty of this task of breaking away from the messenger, and of integrating the message into our being in an authentic and mutative way. It tends to discourage nearly all that are willing to face it. And yet, if one can examine oneself and discern a "sincere interest" in attaining wisdom and understanding, one will find a way to persevere. Commitment to constantly assessing one's receptivity to inspired ideas is required, and the cultivation of such a seeking orientation needs to be a preoccupying priority.

The path of the spirit is ever difficult, always unmarked, and unusually susceptible to self-deception, with progress, stagnation and regress occurring in ostensibly random fashion. What it has to offer, however, is precious beyond measure, despite being only truly knowable to those mysteriously drawn to it, and always not provable to others. It is the light, the answer, the reason for being, the promise of redemption after all our mistakes to those souls yearning desperately for it (i.e. "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"). And despite the many available guides that inform us of and validate its reality, ultimately it is a voyage made in solitude.

Therefore, the apparent Buddha must be transcended in order for the trip to continue. Spiritual hitchhikers huddling too long close to the warmth of their teachers represent, not the healthy symbiosis that they originated as, but rather tend to decline into an unhealthy parasitism. Our gratitude and loyalty to our leaders serves to bond us too strongly to them. We must separate, preferably not by being cast out by them in order to fend for ourselves, but by recognizing that our own individual salvation depends upon it. There are no instances in history where a disciple of a spiritual teacher communicated the identical ideas and description of truth as the predecessor. Finally, our uniqueness, individual perfection, and spiritual reality can only be known when we are ready to find them.