“If you see the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha.”

Zen Saying

Huh? I am the Buddha, kill the Buddha? As we have said repeatedly by now, Buddhism is a worldview, and a worldview that likely strikes most Americans as pretty strange in some ways. I have tried to explain it and to relate it as much as I can to concepts that Americans will find more familiar, but we should perhaps not be terribly surprised if we still run across statements that make us do a double take.

The point of the title of this chapter, “You are Buddha,” is that, according to the Buddha, we all have Buddha nature. Obviously, you are not a son of the Shakya clan born in 563 BCE. The claim, rather, is that Buddha nature is a transcendent characteristic of human existence, actually of the existence of all sentient creatures, and a precious human birth is a rare opportunity to realize this fact in a transformative way, escaping the cycle of birth, old age, and death entirely. Zen practitioners say if you see the Buddha on the road, kill the Buddha. The point is that you should not look for the Buddha anywhere outside yourself. Look for the Buddha inside yourself. The only reason you haven’t already recognized your own Buddha nature (if you have, good for you) is that, like all humans, you suffer from a constitutive form of ignorance. Buddhists often use the metaphor of the sun obscured by clouds. The only problem with this metaphor is that, with the clouds obscuring your Buddha nature, unlike real clouds, you can shoo your clouds of ignorance out of the way. On a cloudy day, trying to see the sun is pointless. Trying to see your own Buddha nature is the most important thing you can do with your time as a human, according to Buddhists.

Another common description Buddhists like to use is being present. This is what you’re doing when you meditate, cultivating presence. You may think that you’re usually present already, but again, the next time you drive a route you drive frequently, notice when you arrive at your destination how much of the drive you can remember in any detail that time.

One effect of a consistent meditation practice will be increasing presence, or presence in the moment, as Buddhists often say. Again, we’ve talked about how mindfulness of the body is the First Foundation of Mindfulness and that one of the great things about mindfulness of body is that the body, unlike the mind, is always present wherever you are.

Being present in the moment, however, is a subtle experience that deepens gradually as you continue to meditate. You’ll find that, whatever you’re doing, reading a book, washing dishes, attending a meeting, you’re paying more attention and better attention. Especially the example of attending a meeting may make you wonder if this is necessarily a good thing. If you hate going to meetings, you are not alone. But increased presence is an entirely good thing partly because you may find your meetings go more smoothly and more quickly and partly because you find yourself noticing things you hadn’t noticed before, most of which are positive. Your appreciation for, and patience with, your coworkers may improve, likely will improve.

Increased presence is closely related to increased equanimity, which we have discussed. Together, they help us deal with what Buddhists call the Eight Worldly Concerns. The Eight Worldly Concerns are not conceptually related in any way to the Noble Eightfold Path. It’s just a coincidence that there are eight components in each. The Eight Worldly Concerns, also sometimes called the Eight Worldly Dharmas, come in pairs, good and bad, and they are praise and blame, riches and poverty, good repute and ignominy, and pleasant and unpleasant experiences. The obvious human instinct is to go for the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff, but again, from a Buddhist perspective, the goal is equanimity, and from that perspective, the best attitude to take toward all of them is indifference. That is, do not strive to experience the good side or to avoid the bad side. Another aspect of Buddhism that will likely strike modern Americans as peculiar is the idea that one should accept one’s experience as it comes, whether good or bad. Again, not necessarily specifically as Americans, but likely as humans, our instinct is to strive to avoid all the bad stuff such that our life is nothing but good stuff, as if we were living in a television ad where we’re always young, gorgeous, and rich. Buddhists are relentlessly realistic about this issue. Recalling the six realms of existence, we might have been born in the god realms and actually be gorgeous and rich, but even if you do have such a life, you will not remain young forever, unless you die that way, in which case you won’t be able to continue enjoying your good fortune.

Better, according to the Buddha, to accept that most lives have their ups and downs. Sometimes, it’s even hard to tell which is which. It is by no means unusual in human existence for an event to seem bad when it occurs, only to turn out for the good in the long run. This attitude in Buddhism extends to death.

In my opinion, one of the best things about Buddhism is that it is very matter of fact about death. Buddhists simply acknowledge that all sentient beings will die eventually and advocate preparing for that eventuality. Different schools put different emphases on this point, but all Buddhists recognize the inevitability of death and recommend some measure of preparation for it. Perhaps the best known example is The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, where Sogyal Rinpoche claims to offer a detailed description of what happens to humans after death, including the opportunity, which most people miss, to achieve complete awakening and thus to escape the cycle of birth, old age, sickness, and death and never to be born again, and he offers what he claims are specific steps one can take before death, and at the time of death, to increase dramatically the odds of, if not guarantee, a highly favorable rebirth if not escape from the cycle entirely. Whether you choose to believe any of that is entirely up to you. Tibetan Buddhist monks have been known to meditate in charnel grounds, fields where the local population throws dead bodies for the vultures and jackals to feed on, as a way of overcoming fear and accepting, as the Buddha did, the inevitability of death.

Related is one thing that most Americans know, or think they know, about Buddhists. There is the expectation that all Buddhists, in keeping with the injunction not to kill, have to be vegetarians. As with most things, it’s not that simple. In Tibet, in particular, the terrain is not well suited to growing crops for the most part, so Tibetans have to rely on meat more than most just to survive. Buddhists are relentlessly practical. Their ethical principles grow out of the simple observation of cause and effect, not on any appeal to a metaphysical being who made the rules. Certainly it is true that, even if one expects eventually to eat a given animal, one still has the responsibility to treat the animal humanely and compassionately as long as it lives, and to kill it in a compassionate manner. But even tilling crops necessarily disturbs the soil and likely kills bugs, and increasingly results in the destruction of habitats where other animals had lived, so even being a vegetarian entails killing some other sentient beings. When your starting principle is that life is full of disappointment, it is difficult, if not impossible, to be a perfectionist.

Again, the Buddha’s moral principles grow out of the very practical, real-world observation of cause and effect, which is another way of saying, “karma.” As a result, the rules do not usually come in the form of commandments, but more guidelines that you have to think about as you decide what to do at any given moment.

Written by

Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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