Monday, June 14, 2010

kill the buddha

Continuing the theme of the last few blog posts, I began with a discussion of systems of thought, and the philosophy of science.  Then continued with how apparently contradictory perspectives may in a sense all be right (anekantavada).  Next I identified several of Zhuangzi's allegories that illustrate the equality or fundamentally indistinguishable nature of things, and ask us "why should we be attached to any particular preference?"  Now I'd like to point out where Zen Buddhism intersects with these ideas.  Zen emphasizes direct perception of reality; words and ideas only get in the way.  With this approach, the methods of instruction are therefore unconventional.  Consider this quote from Linji:
Seekers of the Way, if you want to achieve the understanding according to the Law, don't be deceived by others and turn to [your thoughts] internally or [objects] externally.  Kill anything that you happen on.  Kill the Buddha if you happen to meet him.  Kill a patriarch or an arhat if you happen to meet him.  Kill your parents or relatives if you happen to meet them.  Only then can you be free, not bound by material things, and absolutely free and at ease. 
I think this may be the most shocking Zen koan (certainly one of the best known).  What other religion says "kill the founder" and shows no sign of remorse?  But this is, as he says, about emancipation from the obstacles that we place in our minds.  If I hold a particular opinion on a matter, or think this is right and that is wrong, then I have circumscribed my innate freedom.  Though they may be seen as a progression of thought, all three approaches to knowledge are unique and each has its virtues.  Zen is about realizing how the mind works, Taoism is about realizing how nature works, and anekantavada is just the doctrine of non-exclusivity.  It was due to Zen's emphasis on the mind that my Eastern philosophy teacher was attracted to it.  

I know too little about Zen koans, though it may be better to begin with a review of Feng Youlan's books on Chinese philosophy.  The shock value of koans like "kill the Buddha" is really wonderful.  I need shock value to grab the attention and interest of people who are distrustful, angry, and disillusioned... and who need to think; to grow and change.  I don't want to frighten or give the wrong idea however; violent imagery isn't really appropriate for all audiences.  Linji's lessons can be... strong medicine.

I like a non-goal oriented philosophy that makes no assertions of its own and frees me from the pursuit of thoughts and concerns.  A philosophy that allows me to engage in life as it is.  I like the freedom to pick and choose among ideological traditions without guilt, knowing full well that each has its limitations.  It seems to me that Zen's emphasis on the mind and realization of non-self makes it by default goal oriented.  It gets lost in the philosophy of mind too easily, obscuring the simplicity to which it aspires.  Philosophical Taoism is the most non-goal oriented philosophy that I have seen so far.  Since all things are equal, any line of action is just as good as any other; all goals are value equivalent.  But lest the Zhuangzi is praised over much, it is important to see how it developed in the context of ancient Chinese philosophy, where it inherit many methods from other sources including the "School of Names".  Over time is has developed further to address problems in Chinese philosophy, so it is no more immune to sewing confusion than any other tradition.  The only philosophy that is immune is a philosophy of pure skepticism, that denies any powers of elucidation that it may appear to have.  None exists, but some are more skeptical than others.

But then, how does one distinguish philosophical traditions from one another?  Ideas are lumped together and someone puts a name to the piles thus created without the consent of the idea makers.  Rules as to which ideas belong where are usually vague.  Then others choose from among the piles to create their own philosophies, adding a few ideas of their own in the process, and still others give these new piles names of their own as well.  It seems more coincidental than orderly what ends up where.  Taoists are not merely proponents of an idea call the Tao, and Buddhists are not all followers of the Buddha.  Neo-Confucians have little to do with Confucius.  Feng Youlan (aka Fung Yu-lan) in the second volume of History of Chinese Philosophy (p. 390) identifies the five main points of Ch'an, the original Chinese Buddhist school of thought of which Zen is the Japanese version: 
  • The Highest Truth or First Principle is inexpressible.
  • “Spiritual cultivation cannot be cultivated.”
  • In the last resort nothing is gained.
  • “There is nothing much in the Buddhist teaching.”
  • “In carrying water and chopping wood: therein lies the wonderful Tao.”
Clearly, these are not easily understood without additional explanation!   But among these points you can still see the influence of other schools of thought in China at the time.


I'd like to add another quote that I find interesting, if not consoling in a way.  Zhuangzi writes that when Lieh Tzu discovered eventually that 'he hadn't yet begun to learn anything':
He went home remaining inside for three long years. He did all the chores for his wife and fed the pigs as if they were people. He showed no affection for the affairs of the world, giving up the ostentatious for the plain. He stood alone inside himself like a clod of earth. And amid the flutter of confusion and division, he was at one to the end of his string of days.  

7 comments:

aratina cage said...

There is a strange familiarity in Linji's "kill them all" philosophy that can be found in Western religions which are quick to resort to violence to end conflicts. I'm not clear on which side was influencing which side in the matter, if they were dually influencing each other, or if the Eastern and Western traditions share a common cultural ancestor. Perhaps the reason this similarity stands out to me is because I just watched The Book of Eli with Denzel Washington. It has been panned on Pharyngula, but I rather liked it. It is very Daoist and very much in the spirit of "kill them all".

Keir said...

Linji is not immune to criticism, far from it, but I am unaware of any Buddhists who cite this passage in support of physical violence. Here's an interpretation: "If you are thinking about Buddha, this is thinking and delusion, not awakening. One must destroy preconceptions of the Buddha." The Buddha, partriarchs, arhats, parents, and relatives are all ideas, they have no independent reality of their own. Some people tend to attribute preconceptions of sacredness to some ideas as well, but in Zen nothing is sacred. Ideas can be dangerous because they tend to get confused with reality. But thankfully, it is understood that removing obscuring ideas from one's perception of reality can only be done with the mind, physical violence is completely ineffective at that task. Have you ever heard the saying "Do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon"? You can chop off the finger, but that won't help you any.

Zen is the Japanese name for what in China is called Cha'an. Regarding its development: Ch’an was, in fact, an indigenous Chinese development that fused Daoist sensibilities with Buddhist metaphysics (Wright, Arthur F. Buddhism in Chinese History. p78 and Ch'en, Kenneth. Buddhism in China: A Historical Survey. p.213). Western religions, OTOH, certainly do use violence, and mean it literally. They contain very little reflection on the role of the mind, but that is the whole emphasis of Zen. The differences could hardly be bigger. (I haven't seen The Book of Eli yet.) On either side there is always someone who wants to claim precedence and having historical influence over the other, but I regard these as primarily separate cultural movements.

aratina cage said...

I am unaware of any Buddhists who cite this passage in support of physical violence.

It's not that (although we do seem to have different conceptions of Buddhists or perhaps violence), the East and West seem to share an underlying philosophy that nothing matters, that even the most sacred should be torn asunder. "Do not trust reality." It is expressed literally in Western religions but aesthetically in Eastern religions.

Also, don't forget about Bushido. The samurai were masters of religion as well as the sword, kind of a violent version of a monk.


...are all ideas, they have no independent reality of their own.

Here, too, I think this is similar to the idea that life is just God's game and real living doesn't start until one dies and takes on one's true form.


Have you ever heard the saying "Do not confuse the pointing finger with the moon"? You can chop off the finger, but that won't help you any.

I had not. It is like the opposite of Chopra's quantum woo. "Even if you are not looking at the moon, it is still there."


The differences could hardly be bigger.

I beg to differ. The expression diverges but the root belief that this reality is the real fiction is the same.


I haven't seen The Book of Eli yet.

It's one of those movies you either enjoy or hate. There is no middle ground.

Keir said...

I have to claim ignorance of the specific role Buddhism played in the development of Bushido. At a cursory glance, it seems Bushido adopted some Buddhist values and discarded others. That is not unusual, it happens all the time. People pick and choose from established traditions to find support for their preferred version of reality. Bushido, strictly speaking, is not Buddhism. In addition to Buddhist ideas, Bushido was also influenced by Shintoism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and I would say it is no more consistent with these traditions either. But again, IDK.

It would be inaccurate, I think, to say that the message of Zen is "Do not trust reality". In fact I think it is more accurate to say it is the opposite: only trust reality. To clarify my last comment, when I said that the "Buddha, patriarchs, arhats, parents, and relative are all ideas" I was refering to the mental constructs and symbolism of the words, not the actuality that our mental constructs represent. It is the actual reality that is what Zen Buddhists are after. In some ways, Zen appears to be the most scathing critic of human folly I am aware of. But that isn't surprising. There are many traditions, that for one reason or another early in their development decided to adopt an atheistic perspective on reality, and Zen is just one of them. It is highly skeptical of the deceptive tricks the human mind plays.

aratina cage said...

I'm still gathering my thoughts, but I did manage to watch a Q&A session with Sam Harris at an atheist conference in 2007. Have you read his writings? It seems you and he may have a great deal in common. Q&A with Sam Harris on YouTube

aratina cage said...

You might also want to check out this blog post titled, The Tao is good but not moral.

Keir said...

I haven't had access to a fast enough internet connection to watch youtube videos for the last few days, but I'll check it out when I do. I did enjoy reading that entry over at The Budddha is not Serious!