Killing the Buddha

If you meet a Buddha on the road, kill him.

According to tradition, the 9th century Zen Master Linji Yixuan instructed his students with the koan, “if you meet the Budha on the road, kill him.” I am fairly sure that he did not mean this literally. Let’s be clear. Nobody should kill anybody, of any religion, on or off of the road, for any reason. Don’t do it. 

But, as Zen koans go, this one is easier than most. The whole idea of a koan is that it is supposed to make you think for, like, ten years about all of the nooks and crannies of meaning that it contains. Koans are supposed to be confusing. They are supposed to challenge our understanding of what “meaning” means.

But the Buddha-killing koan really does have a point. It is probably a surface one—the sort of thing that you can get after only a few months of contemplation before getting smacked in the face with Enlightenment, but it is still important: institutions that teach stuff often get in the way of the stuff that they teach precisely because they are institutions and not the teachings themselves.

This works really well for Buddhism as I understand it. The core of Buddhist thought is that attachment leads to suffering. Attachment to ANYTHING leads to suffering: children, spouses, cars, memories, Diet Dr Pepper–whatever you are attached to will ultimately go away and make you suffer. If you want to stop suffering, give up all of the things that you are attached to. Even Buddhism.

This last bit seems to me to the point of the koan. When Buddhism becomes a thing, people can get attached to it, and it can make them suffer. To actually practice the ideas that we call “Buddhism,” one must be willing to give up the thing we call “Buddhism” the second that it gets in the way. The illusion of thingness can prevent us from reaching the whole point of the thing that is not a thing. Got it?       

This same idea works well with all kinds of things that we call “religion” and many of the things that we call “philosophy” because these things are not really things, and when we try to make them into things, we stop doing religion and start doing “religion,” which is not the same thing at all. “Religion” is an identity that separates us into groups with names and addresses and tax-exempt statuses and things that you have to believe. Religion, on the other hand, when it is working, is about how we live and what kind of decisions we make and how we treat other people.

How should we live, and how should we make decisions and treat people? Jesus gave us a pretty good idea when a certain lawyer (it is always the lawyers) prodded him to sift through all of the laws of the Pentateuch and come up with the greatest. It was supposed to be a trick question, but Jesus nailed it:

Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)

These two things, it seems to me, come as close as anything can to religious universals. Every religion or life philosophy I have ever encountered has two components: 1) acknowledgment that there is something in the universe that is beyond our understanding but that nonetheless commands our respect; and 2) the moral imperative to treat other people as having fundamentally the same worth and moral status that we have. Christianity teaches these things. Buddhism too. And Judaism, Islam. Hinduism, Confucianism, Wicca, Zoroastrianism, and the rest. 

This is not, of course, how most religious people behave. We miss the mark for many reasons: we are selfish, aggressive, small-minded little creatures whose natural lives, Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Religion is supposed to help us become better—less solitary, less brutish, and less short. But “religion” can also make us worse. It can make the lines between us bolder and the differences irreconcilabler. It can tell us who we should not love, or who we should love less. It can turn us into the brutes that we are trying not to be.

Can “religion” and religion coexist? Up to a point they can, but if you try to do them both long enough, you will always find times when you have to choose one or the other–maybe not permanently, but at least for answers to specific questions. This is not specific to any one religion or another; it’s how “religion” works. The institutional aspect of religion is a circle. The minute you draw a circle, you draw some people in and draw some people out. That’s the nature of circles, but it is decidedly not the point of religion.

This is the great paradox of Master Linji’s koan: the only true Buddhists are those who are willing to give up Buddhism when it gets in the way of Enlightenment. With a few contextual tweaks, this is true of any form of religion. At some point, any formal institution with a name, an address, and a tax-exempt status will get in its own way and force its adherents to choose between the form of what it is and the substance of what it says.

When this happens, kill the Buddha. Every time. 


  1. Alan Watts opined that we tend to guide our thinking based on our language. Subject and predicate. As an avid non-dualist Watts believed (as do most modern vedantists) that we should reconsider “things” as events instead of objects. And, of course, all those events are part of greater events going all the way back to the Big Bang. So instead of being a person we are the universe “personing”. As the digression goes back we all become one.

    That goes along with Lao Tzu’s daodejing as well. He who knows doesn’t speak and he who speaks doesn’t know, I mean, there are other dhammapada issues to draw from the Buddha-killing koan, but the issues revolving around duality actually harken further back to the Upanishads. Specifically the mandukya upanishad. The ascetics from which Siddartha sprang took their canon from the upanishads – divurging only from the Hindu in the scope of their involvement.

    So we’re all just bigger and bigger wiggles on an unimaginably large overall wiggle and it’s our language that makes the “things” of which you and dualists speak.


  2. Stirling McKay Adams says:

    Thanks for the post Mike. It brings to mind Paul Tillich’s concept that idolatry occurs when we confuse a religious symbol for what it points to. Also, your summary of the paradox as “the only true Buddhists are those who are willing to give up Buddhism when it gets in the way of Enlightenment,” makes me think of family members, friends, and neighbors who left Mormonism — because they were Mormon.

  3. Truckers Atlas says:

    “Killing Buddha” by Bill O’Reilly (2021 Henry Holt & Co.)

  4. There is a great book called the Soloist by Mark Salzman that features this same koan. My comment really isn’t anything more than a plug for one of my favorite books. Highly recommended.

    Back to Mormonblogging.

  5. Love this post. Why do we meet the Buddha on the road? Because we are pilgrims, on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. We are “on the road” so to speak, with questions. Spirituality is about questions; Religion is about answers. Spirituality is about a journey to find answers to big questions like ‘why am I here.’ Religion is just the opposite – it is someone telling you why you are here. If religions’ answers do not speak to your questions, you need to “kill the Buddha”, look past that obstacle, and continue your pilgrimage down the road. Thank you for this wonderful post!

  6. I’m just happy I saw a post on Koans on BCC.

  7. I talked about this concept briefly in my post last week at W&T:

    I was talking about it in the context of developing your own moral reasoning. If you instead substitute authoritative command for personal thought, you atrophy your ability to determine morality. Unfortunately, we have really steered hard into the authority fallacy in the Church with everyone quoting apostles to determine rightness instead of learning to evaluate moral decisions for ourselves. That’s what kill the Buddha means to me within the Church. We have to develop our own moral reasoning, and not just amass proof of leader approval (the Buddha) for our actions, either in our own minds or in defending our actions to others.

  8. D Christian Harrison says:

    This feels a lot like (but more adjacent to, than equal to) the Faulkner/Ginsburg/King idea of “kill your darlings”.

  9. The issue I have with this is whether suffering itself is to be completely avoided or rather to be concentrated? I think where religion goes wrong is when it tries to sell people on the idea that suffering can be eliminated entirely. My money is on that it cannot. Not here and not in the next life either. Suffering is eternal. To me that’s one of the great revelations of the restoration.

  10. Michael, you killed BCC – and here I thought it wuz dead already!

  11. Angela, this is a great post. Thanks for steering us towards it.

    Carey, suffering here is kind of the McGuffin of the piece. It is what Buddhists teach, and it shows how a definitive doctrine can get in the way of what the doctrine means. But the same principle holds true for nearly every doctrine that anybody believes: agency, grace, obedience, etc. At some point, think, the symbol always works against the thing it symbolizes.

  12. The formerly religious or disaffiliated often use the thought “I am more enlightened” to untether themselves. I would love a survey of how disengagement from religious affiliation impacts charitable giving and time use including volunteering. In general I would guess the society benefits from religious engagement.

    I’ve heard some talk of religion being a binding that gets you somewhere the disagreement would be on when that binding should end.

  13. We do this with political symbols, as well. The symbols become more important than what they represent, which robs the symbols of there initial power.

  14. I have re-read this post again after a couple weeks, and I just have to pipe up to say I love this so much. My religious compliance was (quite literally) killing me, the purpose of religion is to give life, and more abundantly. I have (still) not abandoned my religion, but my standing profoundly changed after I decided that I was going to live. Kill (metaphorically koan style, I am not advocating violence) what is killing you, every time. Every time. Every time. Thank you Michael, this post brought me both hope and tears of joy.

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