“If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him!” this is an old Koan attributed to Zen Master Linji, (the founder of the Rinzai sect of Zen).
This like all Koan is a puzzle to which each person must find their own answer and before they can find the answer they must discover what the question actually is. Even though this is a statement and in fact a very emphatic statement it is in fact a question at the base of deciding to become a Buddhist. Over the years I’ve heard many people give their own interpretation of what this means. Some people’s answers seem so obvious that they hurt to listen to while others go so far away from what I see in this that they mean nothing to me.
A Buddhist is a person who is decided to take a refuge in the Buddha the Dharma and the Sangha, at the same time the initiation ceremony that soon follows symbolizes leaving home. But I have often thought that a better translation for the word refuge in the English language might be the word home. A refuge in English defines more of a condition than a place, it can be defined simply as a condition of being safe and sheltered from pursuit, danger, or troubles. In English the word home is a place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. But most simply home in English refers to a place where one lives. We often refer to the things we do, the ceremonies we perform, the skillful means by which we approach the idea of Buddhahood as our practice.
As a verb in English practice means to perform an activity or exercise a skill repeatedly or in regular order to improve or maintain one’s proficiency, as a noun on in English the word practice means the actual application or use of an idea, beliefs, or method as opposed to theories about such application or use. I think most of the people that I have run into see their “practice” as the ceremonies that they perform, and the meditation that they do. In this sense their practice is separate from their daily activities.
Anyone who spends any time studying Zen knows that one of its more frustrating admonitions is that it is composed of nothing more than your own daily activities. When asked what is Zen many of the old Buddha’s simply said when you wash the dishes wash the dishes, when you carry water carry water, when you eat eat. This is very frustrating to us Westerners because it doesn’t seem to convey anything in the way of mystical meaning or anything that would push you towards that ever present goal of enlightenment.
In Buddhism enlightenment in the English language is usually defined as a final blessed state marked by the absence of desire are suffering. Put more commonly I think that many people have all sorts of ideas as to what enlightenment means that have nothing to do with the Buddha or for that matter Buddhism. And this idea that enlightenment is marked by superhuman psychic powers and even omniscience has been part of the Buddhist legend probably from the moment that Buddha gave up the ghost.
One of the earliest stories about Buddha was that after his, what has today been called enlightenment, under the bodhi tree, he was walking along and he was met by someone who noticed that he seemed different from other people and they asked him what he was, his response was not that he was enlightened but that he was "awake". Many of the old sutras referred to him as the Tathagata. When you look up this word you’ll usually find it defined as “one who has thus come’ and this is explained in saying that he is beyond all coming and goings beyond all transitions. Which is to say he is beyond the cycle of birth and death and rebirth. But in a few of the old sutras it is simply defined as "one who sees things as they really are". And that definition of one who sees things as they really are is much closer to what Buddhist himself said that he was, not enlightened but “awake”.
“If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him!” –Linji
I’m going to make the simplest assumption that a Zen master wasn’t instructing his students as they traveled around the countryside to murder anyone they found that looked or seemed like they were enlightened. I think this is an safe assumption. If you have taken the refuge vows, I suppose you must decide if this means that the teachings of the Buddha, the Buddha himself and other Buddhists, are to be used like a parasol to protect you from the rains of life, or as I prefer whether you have decided to make the Dharma your home, the place where you live. If you make it a shield and not a home and you make your practice separate from your daily life, Buddhism becomes a thing, that you brandish when you feel that you are in danger or threatened. If you make Buddhism your home, if you make it the place you live every day for the rest of your life, if your practice is your life, then the admonition to chop wood when you chop wood, to eat when you eat, and to wash when you wash becomes not a useless mystical saying but a common sense direction to make the road from birth to death your practice. In this way Zen holds no mystery it simply becomes your state of being and your state of mind. In doing this you can become awake but you may never become enlightened because enlightenment is nothing more than a bunch of preconceptions that you had when you came to Buddhism in the first place.
If you see enlightenment is a state of being marked by omniscience and magical powers, and you see the Buddha as a person who was omniscient and had magical powers and you meet this creature in your meditations or even in the form of a teacher, then it is time that you woke up and killed this creature in your mind. This certainly doesn’t mean you should shoot your Zen master, but it does mean you should stop projecting your fantasies onto him or her. If you are striving to become a Buddha and that Buddha is composed of all your preconceptions, it is doubtful you’ll ever meet him or her, so it’s much better to kill that Buddha, and once you have made Buddhism, the Dharma, the Sangha and the Buddha your home, and once you’ve made your practice your life and your state of mind and not these ceremonies and meditations, then perhaps you will actually have killed the Buddha and then maybe you’ll be one.