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If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him

Question:

I have heard the phrase “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” many times. Can you explain this?

Answer:

It actually comes from an old koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, (the founder of the Rinzai sect). It’s a simple one:

“If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”– Linji

I’m sure you already realize that it’s not being literal. The road, the killing, and even the Buddha are symbolic.

The road is generally taken to mean the path to Enlightenment; that might be through meditation, study, prayer, or just some aspect of your way of life. Your life is your road. That’s fairly straightforward as far as metaphors go.

But how do you meet the Buddha on this “road?” Imagine meeting some symbolic Buddha. Would he be a great teacher that you might actually meet and follow in the real world? Could that Buddha be you yourself, having reached Enlightenment? Or maybe you have some idealized image of perfection that equates to your concept of the Buddha or Enlightenment.

Whatever your conception is of the Buddha, it’s WRONG! Now kill that image and keep practicing. This all has to do with the idea that reality is an impermanent illusion. If you believe that you have a correct image of what it means to be Enlightened, then you need to throw out (kill) that image and keep meditating.

Most people have heard the first chapter of the Tao, “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.” (So if you think you see the real Tao, kill it and move on).




107 comments to If You Meet The Buddha On The Road, Kill Him

  • Amit

    Interesting..so does this mean we will never realize enlightenment?
    How do u know that you have attained enlightenment if there is no reality or image of it?

  • I don’t think it means you cannot achieve Enlightenment, but it does mean that you really cannot conceive what it is until you get there.

    How do you know when you have reached Enlightenment? Hmmm. Once I get there, I’ll let you know :) Seriously, I suspect that once someone reaches that point, they’ll know.

  • Amit

    Brian,
    Thanks! Makes sense..this concept really goes in line with the Vedanta school of thought..just by doing meditation we cannot expect to achieve enlightenment as an obvious consequence. We have to wait and watch. Be patient! :)

    Thanks
    Amit

  • Nadeeka

    According to the things i have learnt so far in Buddhism meditation is only one of the things that sholud be practiced to develop your mind. in addition need lots of things to do in several life times ( next life and past life).it give the practice of patient,courage and lot of things.if you study the Buddha’s life story cleary may be can have idea how hard it is.and it is true any human can try and acheive enlightenment,because loard Buddha himself is a normal human beign but with a well developed mind and a charactor compared to normal people.

  • Hi Brian,

    The vanishing concept is illusive. But enlightenment is not going to be an essential concept if it is open to such radical subjectivity.

    Impermanence, as an idea, is, in the end, not an idea; if it was, then, surly, it is open to explanation?

    Buddhism has been criticised for this playful intellectualism and, for this reason, it is regarded as beyond daily practicalities; and serves, in the end, so its argued, clergy more than lay persons.

    Just a thought.

  • Steven

    I think it would be fair to say, Jesse, that enlightenment is not a concept. It is a realization.

    If understanding the nature of reality and being free from suffering is beyond daily practicality than i would feel sorry for humanity. Fortunately I don’t believe thats the case.

  • Hi everyone,
    My understanding of this is: There is no Buddha but the Buddha that you are if you meet the Buddha on the road you haven’t understood what the Buddha is. It is none other than your original mind. The idea of seeing the Buddha as outside of your self is conceptual as is “becoming enlightened.” One can not become enlightened because that would assume that you are gaining something that you don’t have. Your basic nature is enlightened, awake, free, non-dual, add your own adjective. This is completely experiential and not conceptual you have to kill the concept of Buddha both inside and out. Good luck everyone. Look deeply and don’t grasp!
    JJ

  • phauna

    I suspect there is no realisation and no goal. Enlightenment is the practice itself, whether it be meditation, refining a skill, reciting a mantra, etc. So if you don’t continue to do that stuff then you don’t have enlightenment. If your habit is to do Tai Chi every morning at 6 for an hour, and then one day you don’t do it, then that day you have missed your way. You have denied yourself the state of enlightenment that you are already used to.

  • Luke C

    An interesting parallel to the internal Buddha is with the Christian practice of Holy Communion. While not expressed as such in doctrine, it has always struck me as a means of very literally demonstrating that the holy is within us all.

    These are the sorts of associations one makes when reared by recovering Catholics turned Buddhist.

  • Slyon

    I like JJ Simon’s understanding, to whigh I would add the following. In duality one perceives self and not self. Identity and identification are inherent properties of dualistic mind. Thought is a representation of reality (whatever that is) and conceptual in and of itself. There is, however, a conscious presence, a witness, if you will, between the thoughts. Thought is a mechanism of mind. The practice of meditation quiets the thought process, and the “witness” can be experienced. Between thoughts, outside of language there is no identity, no ego, no duality, no separation, no concept. When the next thought occurs, you are back to identity, concept and duality. “Those who know don’t speak, those who speak don’t know.” That should shut everybody up! Talk is cheap, keep meditating.

  • Enlightenment is a process and moves forward, even if a pinnacle is reached. If you stop the motion, the processes ceases. When you reach the city, you still walk through the city, ever more enlightened.

  • Babu

    Enlightment is defined as that
    a. which cannot be known by ‘thinking’ or using intelligence i.e. mind is not a tool.
    b. which cannot be decribed by talking or using the mouth/language i.e. which cannot be conveyed from one person to another.

    so if somebody walking down the path of practice, says he has seen the buddha ‘personified as enlightment’ or symbol of enlightment, then this is just not possible based on the above defineaion in the first, hence this ‘kill the buddha’. not be taken literally.

    even a teacher can only show the path that’s is it.

  • MAB

    There is no one meaning to this koan, what you take it to mean depends on where you are on your journey.

    It can mean that if you meet a Buddha on the road, you have stopped your journey, and possibly they have stopped their’s, so at least one of you is no longer on the path to enlightenment. If it is you, “kill him” simply means ignore him and move on. If it is him who has stopped, he is a false Buddha, so again, ignore the phantasm and move on.

    Another thing is that Enlightenment is not a destination, an internal place where you arrive and enjoy certain knowledge or awareness. In the moment you believe you have achieved Enlightenment you have lost it, or rather, there is a different kind of Enlightenment you now need. This is the cyclic nature of things.

    Enlightenment is a pure state of simply being at one with yourself and the universe, in which the quest for Enlightenment (or anything else) ceases to be important. Any thought that takes you out of that pure state of being takes you out of Enlightenment.
    In many ways, the harder we try to become Enlightened, the further away we are from being Enlightened. The best way is simply to surrender the self to the processes (meditation etc) that calm the mind and allow us to experience simply being at one. Enlightenment will then come when we are ready for it.

    Seeing a Buddha on the road just distracts us from being at one – it imposes a seperateness (me, the road, the Buddha) which is exactly the opposite of what being at one means.

  • [...] Pears are tasty, but would you feel comfortable eating a Buddha? Brings new meaning, I guess, to if you see the famous If you see the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him koan. [...]

  • Dodecadude

    It is not the goal (enlightenment, happiness, bliss, etc.) that is important.

    Neither is it that the path is important.

    Enlightenment will never be achieved.

    Enlightenment has never been grasped.

    It simply is.

    Now.

    Do you feel it?

    Now.

    Here it is.

    Now.

    Now.

    Now.

    Now.

    Now.

    Be it.

    Now.

    Now.

    Now.

    Now.

    Now.

    :o)

  • Zen Master Seung Sahn used to tell all his students that there were three things each of them had to kill: first, their parents; then, the Buddha; and, finally, Zen Master Seung Sahn, himself!

  • MANJIT

    Buddha went through many teachers and masters to no avail. The way he gained the so called enlightenment was after he realized he was complete, the student and the teacher. To follow the Buddhaa outside on the road is a distraction from the path and affirms separation.

    To put it simply, look to yourself for enlightenment and not Buddha.

    Just another point of view.

  • Dodecadude has a good point. If you must take even one step from where you are at this very moment to achieve enlightenment, you will never achieve it. That goes the same for reading even one book (sentence or word for that matter) it will always elude you. Simply by wanting it you will never have it. You cannot become enlightened because you cannot become that which you already are. There is nothing that exists beyond you, you are all that there is, and you therefore are also fully enlightened. But in this illusion of universe, you have agreed to believe that you are incomplete, so you seek that completeness. You must give up all of what you think is true, you must give up seeking, because you are already there, you are the one you are waiting for. You simply aren’t allowing the recognition of it. There is no place where you end and I begin, nor where I end and you begin, as we are all one, a Perfect Oneness. One Puppeteer many puppets, and the tiny agreement to see through each ones eyes as though they were the only one. There is only ONE, and we are it. This universe is false – a thought within a thought within a thought, a dream within a dream within a dream, and when we awaken we are ONE again. We are, all of us, absolutely perfect and whole and innocent, right here and right now.

    Perfect Health and Clarity of Mind,

    – Victor

  • ZEIN

    Because the real Buddha lives inside us!

  • Emptyhead

    If you do happen to meet the Buddha on the road, remember that its inherent nature is emptiness, that the nature of the road is emptiness, that your own nature is emptiness – emptiness being potential – then the Buddha may vanish in an enlightening flash, and ‘your’ ‘world’ will vanish with it and all preconceptions of selfness and otherness. Buddha lives nowhere, Buddha is nowhere.

    If you meet the Buddha on the road, eat him!

  • ALEX

    I think it just means , don’t worship the buddha, treat him/her as you would treat any one else.

  • Luke

    It’s a koan. Trying to figure out a concrete meaning is SO not the point.

  • Nora

    If you meet the Buddha on the road, don’t let this stop you from listening to the great teacher within you. If it has this power to cloud your connectedness and listening to what IS then it is better to kill that image. Do not elevate the stature of another person such as is done with people like the Buddha. Do not respect persons too much. It will stop you from connecting directly to Source, and Source from feeling 100% of your energy…it puts something in the way energetically because of the adoration energy diverted to the Buddha. Think roots to water or branches to sunlight for the amount of lost reservoir. What are we reaching for?

  • kmkfiction

    This statement refers to slaying the concept of duality, i.e., that enlightenment is reposed in a teacher but somehow beyond you. I say: do not believe it. The power of the mind to open to new avenues of experience in some ways depends on perceiving the faulty thoughts and attachments of others. Often the people that take great airs in being enlightened are weighed down by their self-perceived mastery of doctrines or by virtue of their ascension in some organized religion. I believe this quote is aimed towards that dynamic. I do not think the founders of the Rinzai sect wanted to start their own sect at all but, rather, to have no sect, no separation and no attachments.

    Perhaps that is why a certain Buddhist hermit, when he would come across a monk enmeshed in the attachments that pervade organized religion was known to say, “you deserve to be hit with a stick 30 times.” That is why I believe Cold Mountain by Han Shan (Burtson Watson translation) is best for me. I stay away from organized religion. Year after year, just this.

    Stated differently, “it ain’t about believing in God, Mr. Cash, it’s about believing in yourself. That is what truly saves people.” – Walk the Line

    Peace.

  • Kage Kuma

    you already are enlightened. it’s just that your’ mind gets bubbly and you can’t always see yourself as well – like looking underwater without goggles. it’s not that you’re not there, the water just got a little riled up. watch and wait if you want to see. and learn how to control the mind and live in balance.

    as for all these meanings some of you are coming up with, and even the idea of the non-meaning, they are all false. it’s fine to think if you want, but thoughts aren’t to be your’ aim. the koan ends the question, it is not the answer. even to say that it is the non-answer is too much. just relax. see things. smile. breathe. you already are enlightened, just give yourself permission to be yourself.

  • giggity

    The mind is naturally enlightened to begin with. Just have to clear away the stuff stuck to it. I think its trying to say if ya see a buddha on the road, and its not you , get rid of it. You can’t believe yourself seperate from what you already are.

  • Aidan Breen

    When it doesnt matter.

  • Deborah

    The kingdom of heaven is within. I am who I am. I am the Being.

  • Buddhanature is not some particular thing, so you can’t kill it. It’s a koan!

    All ‘things’ including us as individual people with individual bodies, hearts, minds, memories, etc. are transient, including the person known as Sakyamuni Buddha, statues of Buddha, etc. What is not transient? What neither arises nor passes away?

  • Deborah Lake

    If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him….. For YOU are the Buddha….or in other words from Rocky Horror Picture Show, “Don’t dream it, be it!”

  • J

    I thought it meant that the Buddha would rather be in a better world but that he shouldn’t really commit suicide as that would not be the right or proper thing to do. So if you killed him then you would be doing him a favour. He would no longer have to suffer in his physical body. He would be free of it.

  • J

    But it can have a double meaning in that the authorities may not want the Buddha to be alive (should he expose their wrongs etc). So you would be doing the right thing for them too. But that would not be right, because their corruption should really be exposed. So to kill the Buddha would be right, but it would also be very wrong too.

  • Gerrie Steyn

    You are enlightened when you realise there is no suchness (enlightenment)

  • Thomas-Per

    OK, so far I’ll agree with “JJ Simon” anyhow. According to the phrase “If you meet Buddha on the street” should/would/could mean (at least) two things: IF you meet Buddha on the street – apparently you didn’t realize that you ALREADY ARE Buddha yourself and you couldn’t have met him – in the outside of yourself. And IF you meet him, you can as well kill him, cause it’s not you, being Buddha and always have been it and will be it the rest of time being. YOU ARE Buddha, thus it’s not possible to meet him wherever. Furthermore, IF you meet/see him, you can kill him, becaue it’s NOT Buddha, cause Buddha would be you. Ad nauseam. :-)

  • AnGon

    In my view, this means that when on the path (your chosen path in life), always focus on your journey which is symbolised by your mind. If you meet the Buddha on the path..do not stop to worship him, do not get caught up in idol worship or focus on the Buddha himself…because Buddha is not the end…So you kill him (kill the concept of Buddha in your mind) and focus on your path and your mental development.
    Put this in perspective with various religions where people are caught doing idol worship and ritualistic practices. They assume that God is the end…God is nothing but means to an end. The end in itself is your journey on this earth & enjoying each minute of it with complete detachment. When you are enlightened this is what it means…it doesnt mean that you look in a mirror and try and look for that halo round your head.

  • TvSa

    i like JJSimon’s take on this too,

    for me, the Buddha is your ego,
    and you aint goin nowhere

    till you face up to it, end of

  • TvSa

    and kmkfiction knows what he is talking about too ;-}

  • TvSa

    ps just bought cold mountain burton watson translation

    thank you

  • Matthew

    there are many different conceptions of the phrase; however, the one i find most relevant is as follows.

    Buddhism teaches people to follow the eight fold path: basically, its about having the right virtues and intentions towards life. This eight fold path is what Buddha taught his apprentices to reach nirvana, which is the end of the reincarnation cycle, or the ultimate reality.

    if one focuses more on who the Buddha actually was and recognizes him in the street, that person is not following the eight fold path and is focusing more on who Buddha was as a person, and not what his teachings were. So, in order to fix this problem, if you see Buddha on the street, kill him.

  • Lee

    Whatever you “think” enlightenment is, it is not. The images that may come to you in meditative practice are not enlightenment. At most they are a finger pointing at the moon. The map is not the territory; the word is not the thing. The most counterproductive hindrances to zazen are the conceptual thinking and images (and the words on which they are based) that keep intruding on your attention to your sitting. Even if you have images of the Buddha during your practice [on the road], you must return your attention (thus “slaying” your conceptual thinking) to wordless, image-less, bare awareness. “Attention, attention, attention,” instructed the master. “There, I’ve told you everything [about enlightenment].”

  • “You think that’s air you’re breathing?”

  • Gerard Pacificar

    The initial post seems consistent with what Watts discusses. To have a conception of the Buddha is to think about the Buddha, to employ the conscious mind which implies that you are not in the present, are not being spontaneous in your experience. Similarly, you are creating a hierarchy, creating a sense of competition which puts you smack into the middle of Samsara, the place from which we are trying to gain freedom, release—a place of needless suffering.

    Just my two cents : )

  • Gerard Pacificar

    come to think of it, Mr. Luke who earlier in this post writes “It’s a koan. Trying to figure out a concrete meaning is SO not the point” hits on something essential about koans. I would put it to you this way, the point of a koan is to try to figure it out, is trying to find concrete meaning. Struggling with a koan is what might lead to some realization, an “a-ha” moment that will nudge you in the right direction. It’s in the story of the samurai student which I’ll try to relate as accurately as possible.

    On the first day of samurai instruction, the samurai master is surveying his new students as they stand at attention. He goes down the line one by one looking each up and down. As he nears the end he stops in front of one student, noticing something peculiar about him. He asks, “Have you been trained as samurai before?”
    The student says no.
    The master thinks this over then asks, “Do you fear death?”
    The student replies, “No. I do not fear death.” Then proceeds to explain, “In my youth I was frightened of death, of dying, and thought about it very, very often. I eventually realized that death was nothing to fear. That it will come when it shall.”

    The point of this little story can be captured in what William Blake had opined centuries before,”If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.”

    Well, that’s all. I hope this does something for somebody somewhere : )
    Namaste yo!

  • In a nut shell: The Buddha you meet is YOUR reality, and you have to go beyond that.

    You can’t put a personality onto ‘ultimate reality’. Your mind can only deal with things on a certain level and so the mind tries to make Buddha a person. …We’re trying to go beyond that (the Void), you can’t put a word to ‘ultimate reality’.

  • Raj

    How do you know when you have reached Enlightenment? Hmmm. Once I get there, I’ll let you know Seriously, I suspect that once someone reaches that point, they’ll know.
    When you come to a state of enlightenment you WILL be in a state of bliss. And you will not be able to get out of it even you want to! :-)

  • Greg

    Just before Christmas, my wife and I were walking in our new neighborhood and I found a small smiling Buddha figure on the road. I immediately took this as a good omen, thanked God for the blessing, brought it home and placed it in our new home- we have a number of Buddha figures throughout the place. Then, telling this story to friends last night, I heard about this koan and have wondered if it was a good idea to take this little guy home. Perhaps I should first perform a cleansing ritual? Any thoughts?

  • Elizabeth

    ZEIN and giggity said it the way I was taught. If you ask someone who is Buddha?” If you are on the right path, the answer is “I am Buddha!”

  • alex

    People meditate in vain, God is offering ALL Chakra ON ALL THE TIME AT ONCE AND FOR ALL in the Living Water but MOST Christians don’t know says the LORD!

    1. Jesus said Heaven is within you in Luke, sell all and follow me in Matthew, by sell all He means forget the world and all you think you know, listen to me. He said, Seek the kingdom and MY righteousness, while Paul prophesied in Rom 10:3 Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Jesus destroyed ALL the devils works on the cross, its us who have to claim Eden if we really want it. Fast some day, do it with lentil only or water only, but fast from the world! ONLY read, fast and ask for what? Do not pray for what you shall eat or what you shall wear or where you shall sleep, seek the KINGDOM FIRST.. AND THEN ALL things will be added to you. PRAY PEOPLE.. for the Living Water and HEAVEN Itself to come upon you. BREAK your chains of disbelief in heaven NOW if you FAST, ASK, REFRAIN from pleasures and suffer for SHORT while with no stimuli but the word, walking, reading … from work to home, you do that… and the first page of Matthew 1 become the first day of the fast asking for heaven within, Living Water bursting out form your belly John 7:38. THIS IS A TREASURE HUNT as Jesus said heaven is like a man who finds a hidden treasure! Not a man who dies and goes, but gets it HERE and NOW. FAST. ASK. READ A LOT.. Matthew 1 fasting and asking… and before you finish HE WILL DO IT if you stop chasing ‘fun from the world’ .. comfort from people, tv, etc… suffer.. nothing. WAIT for POWER to cloth you from on high HE said in: But wait in the city of Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high. Luke 24:49. God has shown me visions later… ask for a new spirit… ASK FOR THE SINFUL nature to be totally removed and fast for it… heaven.. etc.. do this friends, family, loved ones.. .my heart yearns and cries out for you to hear me and enter in His rest NOW… AS WELL as forever more! Sincerely your brother in Christ whom God the Father, HIS FATHER who is the HEAD, Christ who is the VINE, the HOLY SPIRIT which is the VINE, the HIDDEN MANNA the LIVING WATER .. AMEN.

  • alex

    Altered states, how about bodiless and spirit hovering IN THE SKY EMBEDDED… as if you are the sky, some of it… I was way bigger than human.. i had no body and was invisible but felt nothing but: PURE LOVE AND BLISS in an eternal state. THEN a voice spoke and EACH WORD went through me like a WAVE… lifting the already eternal bliss and love to higher states and gently, as the words ran out, the state came back to the lower perfect eternal state… then more words and more LIFE of LOVE ENERGY of CHRIST SPEAKING to me in SPIRIT as I am asleep until the RESURRECTION took place but I didn’t know it because I felt as if it was forever, perfect and forever perfect.

    God has revealed much, nothing more significant than the actual streams of Living Water one must seek solitude, fast in secret and read the New Testament not to learn knowledge but to receive the LIVING WATER.. understand best as you can, but keep the PRIZE in mind, ask away and read away and anticipate heaven within you… as you SEEK it… ASK God for the Holy Spirit… and for the Living Water and read the Gospel to receive not retain info. PERSISTENCE!!! 1-4 weeks HARD PUSH … and GOD has a prize somewhere HE sees FIT! ASK for more info at djvalis (AT) gmail (DOT) com

    ASK for visions testimony to read more of what GOD has shown, but its not about that…visions cease! THE SPIRIT grows and the Living Water FLOWS!

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