Kill the Buddha?

A Closer Look at a Confusing Koan

Lichen Buddha
A statue of Buddha overgrown by lichen in Kyoto, Japan. © Ernst Haas / Getty Images

"If you meet the Buddha, kill him." this famous quote is attributed to Linji Yixuan (also spelled Lin-chi I-hsuan, d. 866), one of the most prominent masters of Zen history.

"Kill the Buddha" often is considered a koan, one of those bits of dialogue or brief anecdotes unique to Zen Buddhism. By contemplating a koan, the student exhausts discriminating thoughts, and a deeper, more intuitive insight arises.

Read More: Introduction to Koan Study in Zen Buddhism

How Do You Kill a Buddha?

This particular koan has caught on in the West, for some reason, and has been interpreted many different ways. I once saw a version of it pop up in a discussion of violence in Buddhism; someone apparently believed Linji was being literal (hint: he wasn't).

Many other interpretations abound. In a 2006 essay called "Killing the Buddha," author and neuroscientist Sam Harris wrote,

"The ninth-century Buddhist master Lin Chi is supposed to have said, 'If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.' Like much of Zen teaching, this seems too cute by half, but it makes a valuable point: to turn the Buddha into a religious fetish is to miss the essence of what he taught. In considering what Buddhism can offer the world in the twenty-first century, I propose that we take Lin Chi’s admonishment rather seriously. As students of the Buddha, we should dispense with Buddhism."

Is that what Master Linji meant by "killing the Buddha?" Zen records tell us that Linji was a fierce and uncompromising teacher of the Buddha Dharma, famous for instructing his students with shouts and blows. These were not used as punishment but to shock the student into dropping meandering, sequential thought and to bring him into the pure clarity of the present moment.

Linji also once said, "'Buddha' means pureness of the mind whose radiance pervades the entire dharma realm." If you are familiar with Mahayana Buddhism, you will recognize that Linji is talking about Buddha Nature, which is the fundamental nature of all beings. In Zen, it's generally understood that "When you meet the Buddha, kill him" refers to "killing" a Buddha you perceive as separate from yourself, because such a Buddha is an illusion.

In Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (Weatherhill, 1970), Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said,

"Zen master will say, 'Kill the Buddha!'  Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. Kill the Buddha, because you should resume your own Buddha nature."

Kill the Buddha if the Buddha exists somewhere else. If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha. In other words, if you encounter a "Buddha" separate from yourself, you are deluded.

So, although Sam Harris wasn't entirely wrong when he said one should "kill" a Buddha that is a "religious fetish," Linji probably would have punched him anyway. Linji is telling us not to objectify anything -- not Buddha, and not the self. To "meet" the Buddha is to be stuck in dualism.

Other Modern Misinterpretations

In researching this article I found the phrase "killing the Buddha" often used to mean rejecting all religious doctrine.

Certainly Linji pushed his students to go beyond a conceptual understanding of the Buddha's teaching that blocks intimate, intuitive realization, so that understanding isn't completely wrong.

However, any conceptual understanding of "killing the Buddha" is going to fall short of what Linji was saying. To conceptualize non-duality or Buddha Nature is not the same as realization. As a Zen rule of thumb, if you can grasp it intellectually, you aren't there yet.