essays on suffering and awakening

If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him

I’ve been feeling powerless lately. A week like this past one is a good reminder that we have influence, but not real control, over the events of our lives. But I also keep thinking of the old Zen teaching, “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Almost all of us have a tendency to look outside of ourselves for a savior. This savior can take the form of a new romantic partner, more money, a family—whatever we think is going to make our lives better. In the past eight years, we have seen America elect two presidents, very different men, but both elected because their voters believed their candidate would save them. Of course President Obama couldn’t, and President Trump can’t either.

That’s why we kill the Buddha. The teaching is not a call to actual violence, of course. It’s an urging to recognize that we don’t need anyone or anything else to save us. We don’t need to put anyone on a pedestal. We are perfect and powerful and free, exactly as we are, and we need only look deeply and honestly inside ourselves to experience that truth. 

Jesus and Krishna and Mohammed and the other great spiritual masters did exactly that. But they are not idols to be worshipped but trailblazers marking a path and pointing to what is possible for all of us. Indeed, the Buddha went out of his way to explain that he was not a god—although he had godlike power and wisdom and compassion—but just a teacher. He recognized that all his power and wisdom and compassion didn’t make him special. It made him ordinary.

What the election of Mr. Trump has made abundantly clear is that we can no longer pretend that institutions and leaders can save us. President Obama failed to create his promised era of hope and change, and I cannot imagine President Trump will do so either. 

This isn’t a slight against either president. I have no doubt that both men have done the best they can. But this election is an opportunity to see that we must tap into our own power and wisdom and compassion. The revolution is inside each of us. The more we let it flow, the more we heal ourselves, our leaders and our world. No authority can hold us back or tell us differently unless we let them. 

To everyone who supports Mr. Trump, and to everyone who stands against him, I offer the same truth:

There is no one on this earth more powerful than you. 

Ian Cooper