Do you ever hear or read something that echoes in your head for hours afterward? Like it’s meant to find a home in you and is canvasing your internal landscape for a plot to settle? What if you choose to believe that everything that shows up in front of you today is meant for your growth? And the continuing cultivation of practice is your only goal?
“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Don’t start making that mean anything yet.
That seemingly disturbing sentence is called a koan. I heard it during a sermon at Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan.
Tim Ferriss references koans regularly in his podcast, The Tim Ferriss Show, so I had a vague idea what they were when I heard this one. A koan is a riddle or a puzzle that Zen Buddhists use during meditation and in daily life to help them sink deeper into truths about the world and themselves. There are said to be 1,700 koans in all. Zen masters used them regularly to test a student’s progress. This particular koan is by Zen Master Linji.
Even though Reverend Cho at Redeemer explained the koan well, I walked away anxious to do my own research. The road reference was transparent; the journey of our lives is often referred to as a path or road in literature and poetry. After more investigation later that afternoon, I developed a cognitive understanding of the main two interpretations of The Buddha reference. The Buddha in that koan is anyone whom you believe contains greater wisdom and spirituality than you do. It can be a teacher, a mentor, a spiritual leader, a partner, a friend- anyone who you don’t measure up to in the game of compare and despair. The Buddha can also be inside you. It’s your relationship with the concept of your spiritual growth and enlightenment.
And this is the part I love- whatever interpretation of the Buddha currently applies to your life, kill it immediately. There is no such thing as achieving enlightenment. It’s ungraspable, the second you point to it, poof it’s gone. The Zen masters believed only in practice. Practice has many meanings and includes meditation, studying texts, doing chores, following moral guidelines and trying to embody spiritual ideals. There is no destination. No happiness to obtain, no person who will ever make you whole and complete. No one is more enlightened than you are. Once you kill the Buddha, quietly return to your work.
Koans were not developed to be understood and then discarded. Students would sit with koans for months and sometimes years. The longer they sat with one, the more they realized about the nature of Zen and themselves.
I don’t attend church regularly, nor am I instinctively drawn to Zen masters. I am however a believer in paying close attention to what the universe leaves at my doorstep. Steeped in an internal conversation lately about whether I am “good enough,” this koan is what I need.
For years I “worked” on myself believing that there would one day be a conclusion. Once I was sufficiently transformed, I would be ready to get started with whatever I settled on as my vehicle of contribution in the world. The voice in my head said that although I had grown immeasurably, there was still a lot of work to be done. It was never enough, and my development was always lacking some essential aspect.
Although I don’t believe in goals anymore, I continue to take my spiritual temperature, measuring myself against the phantom fully evolved Thayer. The woman in this comparison is the Buddha I must kill. Killing her once doesn’t work, I must do it as a practice. Anytime I attach myself to results instead of questions she returns.
This experience prompted me to order a book on koans, and after a little research I settled on:
“Bring me the Rhinoceros and Other Zen Koans That Will Save your Life” by John Tarrant. It’s simple and powerful. Every chapter reveals a koan with the story of its origin, meaning, and ways to work with it.
Trying to control your mind is a no win battle, but letting go of thoughts by focusing on ideas and questions that will support your growth is a technique that works.
Practice takes practice.