“If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him”

“Like they say in Zen, when you attain Satori, nothing is left for you in that moment than to have a good laugh.” ~ Alan Watts

The title of this article is a koan attributed to a 1st century Zen Master named Linji Yixuan. It’s obviously not meant to be taken literally, since killing is wrong. It’s a koan with shock-value, meant to jar us awake, a tool meant for self-exploration and self-interrogation. In this article we will attempt to dissect this curious koan and try to bring some clarity to it so that we can use it as a tool toward our own self-development.

The “road” is generally meant to symbolize the path to enlightenment. But it could also be interpreted as our own personal path, or even something as simple as the direction our life is going. The “Buddha” we meet on the path is our idealized image of perfection, whatever that might be.

It’s our conception of what absolute enlightenment would look like. One could argue that the Buddha on the path is us, or at least our projection onto the world about what it means to be Buddha. But, and here’s the rub, whatever our conception of the Buddha is, it’s wrong!

Like it says in the opening of the Tao Te Ching, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” What we’re “killing” is the idea that enlightenment is achievable. If we believe we have achieved enlightenment then we need to “kill” that belief and keep meditating. This is because there is no permanence. Permanence is an illusion. Everything is constantly changing.

Travel Well
Travel Well

Even if we think we have all the answers, those “answers” must still be questioned. This is the urgency inherent within the koan. A true master “achieves” enlightenment, “kills” it, and then keeps meditating. He or she does so in order to keep learning, to keep enlightening. Indeed, to reinforce the journey truly being the thing.

Every master knows that we are all Buddha disguised as the Self. We are all God in hiding. It’s just that some of us are playing the victim and some of us are free.

Like Alan Watts asked, “Do you define yourself as a victim of the world, or as the world?”

Most of us are walking tragedies, suffering in a cruel world. We all experience pain. We all have scars. But true masters flip the tables on tragedy and choose comedy instead, thus completely altering the power dynamic.

They choose happiness without reason. They choose laughter and joy over anger and spite. They honor their scars rather than resent them. They choose dancing rather than depression.

And this is precisely where the Fool and the Sage merge, where humor and wisdom coalesce. Up until the point we meet “Buddha on the road” we are victims of the world, but once we “kill” the Buddha we become the world. We become sacred clowns.

We become holy fools, with the power to keep the journey going despite wounds or set-backs or even enlightenment itself! This is the wisdom of the Fool/Sage –to fail (or succeed), to let go, to have a good laugh, and then to start all over again with our wisdom in tow.

“You must change in order to find your truest self,” writes Bradford Keeney in The Bushman’s Way of Tracking God. “And keep changing. The false idol is any form that hangs around too long and gets fossilized. It’s worth considering that if your ideas of God don’t change, then your ideas are dead. God is not dead. He simply went elsewhere because you were too boring.” Yes! God is us. Buddha is us.

This sacred energy is hiding inside us because we have been too boring. We need to shake ourselves awake. The world is not a frozen thought, but a dynamic feeling, a heroic expression, a comic guffaw.

Our bones are too serious inside us. Even our funny bone is serious. We need to loosen up. Let’s not be serious, let’s just be sincere. Shake up your bones. Unloosen the straightjacket that society has strapped around your soul. Let’s hone ourselves into instruments that are sharp enough to cut God. And then let’s have a healthy enough sense of humor to laugh about it afterwards…

…Imagine you are a clown walking down the path toward sacred clownhood. You encounter me standing on one leg. You approach me to get a better look. I am trickster-fabulous with my coyote-throat and crow-tongue, with my Thunderbird wings and smoking-mirror skin. I am whispering unspoken truths to power when you draw near. You ask me my name and I open my moon-eye, keeping my sun-eye closed.

“I am Jester Guru,” I say, laughing and bouncing from foot to foot. “I am Slapstick Soothsayer. I am Wag & Sage. I am Blessed Buffoon. I am Charlatan Shaman. I am the Fool’s Philosopher. I am Prankster Pope. I am Mystic Muppet. I am Elder Funnyman. I AM THE HEYOKA WHO BEFUDDLES ALL HEYOKAS! I am the all singing all dancing Juggernaut Oracle, and I’m here to inform you that you have finally arrived.”

What do you do?!

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Gary Z McGee
Gary Z McGee
Gary 'Z' McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide awake view of the modern world.


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