When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him #1 of 21

The next series of blogs will be on the fascicle of Dogen’s Shobogenzo called “Going Beyond Buddha.” I have listened to Shohaku Okumura’s lectures on this fascicle and have given lectures on it at this last sesshin, our Zen meditation retreat, and now I am going to try to gather my thoughts in writing for this series of blogs.

Perhaps we have to begin by exploring what does Dogen mean by the word “beyond”? and then, consider what he might mean by the word “Buddha”?

Actually, perhaps a better word for going beyond is going through Buddha. When I was younger and had a less mature understanding, I really wanted to find “transcendence.” Isn’t that what Buddha said, that he was here to help us end our suffering? I thought if I practiced, I would transcend the suffering of my life. What would that look like, I wonder, now, as I reflect back? Would I have become a saint? Or an angel? Or become transparent and disappear like Shantideva supposedly did at the end of his lectures? But, alas, none of that happened. But I do have now a different understanding and attitude towards my suffering. Through both a deep acceptance of human suffering (the First Noble Truth) and a much larger perspective of human life and my own unique life, I can say that I have a different relationship with personal or human suffering. It can’t be escaped, but it can be digested and in someways be released. In other words, our suffering lessens when we can deeply radically accept it. Through that acceptance, we can come out the other side, which is cultivating compassion and wisdom.   Now, I don’t look to my spirituality to transcend my life but to deeply allow me to accept my life and live it vividly. That in turn allows me to truly be myself. When I started my spiritual journey, I wanted to get a way from myself and become someone better. Now I see that expectation as the wrong trajectory. Of course, I can improve but actually I’m Buddha exactly the way I am.

Which brings us to the question of “what is Buddha?” which is the fundamental emphasis of this whole fascicle.

In this fascicle there is a reference to the very famous koan or saying:

When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

 What strong language! Kill him! Isn’t that breaking of the first precept – do not kill? Why would the Zen teachers of yore put this admonition in such strong language?   This use of “killing” seems to indicate how very important this “going beyond” is to the old Zen Teachers. Buddha is not our idea of who Buddha is. It cannot be described by a concept, a mental construction or language. Actually, this is not so unusual. Many of the main religions in the world, do not allow you to speak the name of “God”. It is unnamable. We need to kill our “idea” about what Buddha is and not name it. This fascicle continues with this idea by also adding that we also kill our constructed mental concepts.  We stop living our life through our minds. This is very American, I suggest. Many Americans live their lives from their neck up, disconnected from their bodies and heart. The fantasy of our life, past and future, is not the actual suchness of our life. This is the direction Dogen is taking us as he walks through the various aspects of this fascicle. Dogen writes:

Even though he kills a Buddha, he meets the Buddha; precisely because he meets the Buddha, he kills the Buddha.

 We have to kill any concept of what the Buddha is or even what the “self” is, in order to meet the true Buddha or the true non-buddha as Dogen goes on to explain. We have to leap into the present moment and forget all of our ideas about the present moment in order to taste the Buddha, the suchness, of this very moment. Each moment must have a direction.  That direction that we are facing or walk towards, our aspirations and our vows, but, nevertheless, there is still the leaping into the suchness of this moment as it is. This is called going beyond Buddha.