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Nancy McDonald Ladd November 7, 2010 Linji was not a nice man. This ninth-century Buddhist master, founder of the Linji school of Chan Buddhism, is said to have whacked his students with a fly swatter. If Internet image researches are to be trusted, there appears to be not a single surviving sculpture or engraving of this man in which he is not scowling like he just found something distasteful in his lunchbox. And today I give you this scowling sage’s most famous story. Like Linji, this story is not nice. It is, in fact, something quite different than nice and perhaps very much more important. It is a story that knocks us out of our comfort zones, that invites us to consider something different than whatever Chicken Soup for the Soul populated the cultural equivalent of Oprah’s book club in Ancient China. It is a challenge, a goading drama that is intentionally shocking, and here is what Linji said to his students who came to ask him how they might find enlightenment. Followers of the Way, if you want to get the kind of understanding that accords with the Dharma, never be misled by others. Whether you're facing inward or facing outward, whatever you meet up with, just kill it! If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha. If you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch. If you meet an enlightened one, kill the enlightened one. If you meet your parents, kill your parents. If you meet your kinfolk, kill your kinfolk. Then for the first time you will gain emancipation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.1 If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That is the phrase that has been passed down for ages, from one befuddled yet oddly enchanted storyteller to another. If you meet the blessed one, do anything in your power to strike her down. This, my friends, is a truly challenging teaching, and that is why I love it. It is a story that does not follow the cultural conventions of its time or any time and that leaves us scratching our heads, wondering out loud what the heck the point could be and if it’s a point we want to surrender to at all. The scowling sage Linji is, of course, not the only great teacher in the course of religious history to unfurl a story such as this – a difficult story that challenges all that we know. Jesus of Nazareth comes to mind when I consider other sages whose stories were, well, less than obvious much of the time. These two men, disconnected by centuries and representing vastly different cultural and religious traditions, nonetheless spoke their stories with a similar intentionality. From what one can discern in their stories, neither of them, Jesus or Linji, had anything as mundane as the comfort of their listeners in mind. Each of them, in fact, aimed toward something much greater than that when the told their stories that made no sense – namely, they aimed for the utter transformation of the people who came to them for wisdom.
Utter transformation. Not comfort in the night. Not bolstering of self- confidence. Not spiritual deepening, nor even peaceful rest or right answers, but utter transformation that calls into question all certainties and makes room in their stead for something unimaginably new. With their stories, the great teachers endeavored to break town the images and icons and accepted mores of their time, turning everything that was once certain on its head, and beginning to build a new world of thought and being from the crumbly bits of the old.
Burton Watson; tr. The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-Chi: A Translation of the Lin-chi lu, p. 26
They were, in a word, iconoclasts, and it is that word – iconoclast, that is most often attached to Linji by western cultural critics. He was the iconoclast of his age, and I would argue that Jesus was similarly the greatest iconoclast of his age and that we, above all others, are a religious tradition that should value the wisdom of iconoclast. Iconoclast – the one who destroys idols, who tears down the graven images, who challenges the orthodoxy and decries all self-righteous form of outward piety in favor of inward transformation. You may think of yourself as an iconoclast, or perhaps merely admire such courageous ones from afar. I’m not sure I really have the courage to be an iconoclast, but these men did, and even if I could never be them, I can bear some inspiration from them. Linji didn’t even bother to bow to the time-honored conviction that one ought to be a nice guy – to his mind, even that outward form of good behavior was an impediment to the truth. Even being well behaved was a sign of your cowing to the patterns and orthodoxies of your day, and even the Buddha himself was knocked down from his pedestal because reverence even for such a wise one as that could be twisted into lazy submission rather than followed toward earnest transformation. Linji’s students came to him asking, “How do I reach enlightenment?” How do I get the job done? What rule do I follow and will you, my teacher, guide me there? Those questions, then and now, are often asked with an implicit assumption that enlightenment has a recipe, which, if handed down from generation to generation and followed in just the right measure, might manage all the hard work of discernment and values clarification for you. It is as if salvation were a cupcake and all you need in order to whip it up rightly is the white flour of sanctity, the pure sugar of charity, and the warm leavening of prayer. Different leaders and traditions might offer you different combinations of ingredients. The way may be laid out before you in a thousand clear-cut steps and you may well choose to follow those steps as a part of your own journey, but Linji knew that the recipe itself is not enough to feed you when you are hungry and the steps, no matter how carefully you follow them, will not fill the soul that yearns for truth. The truth that Linji knew, that Jesus knew, is that there is no one single way forward and in the place of absolute answers, we must ask our wisest teachers simply to hold us accountable so that we might be ever-willing to change and be changed. The way
forward, salvation, enlightenment – these things do not come to us when we follow the rules. They come when we dare to question the rules, and then come back again, on the other side of all of our rebellion, to a place of peaceful willingness, a place where we are able to make a wise and compassionate choice not because we are supposed to, but because we can. They were iconoclasts, and with their stories and sayings that challenged everything familiar, they stood up to the idol worshippers of their times. Idolatry, or the worship of idols, can be defined roughly as the uplifting of finite objects of faith or limited causes to the level of loyalty and trust intended for the ultimate. It’s making a God of something lesser than God, the raising up of temporal causes to the level of the almighty. It’s pretending that any one teacher, no matter how wise, can give you the recipe for life, that any one way is the way for all time. Somewhere deep in the DNA of the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there has long rested a profound dis-ease with the tangible imaging of the godhead and the idolatry that may result from it. As the poet Rilke has said, “We must not portray you in king’s robes, you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.” We must not take the mystery, the ultimate holy mystery, and wrap it up in images that look suspiciously like we ourselves. Nor may we take the truth, the complex and glorious truth of our existence, containing as it does both darkness and light, and pretend that it is contained in one single phrase or picture or teaching which can be handed down from master to student without struggle and even, sometimes, they bitter taste of tears. Linji, standing firmly in the world of Zen thought, did not have the challenge of grappling with images of the godhead. In his tradition there is no such concept as a separate, independent spirit called god. But there were, and are, images of the Buddha. There were, and are, those among his followers who mistook the teacher’s wisdom for the end of the road rather than the beginning, and what he saw among those eager students who came to him begging for answers was nothing less than another form of idolatry – elevating the teacher on a level higher than the journey itself. It was an idolatry that he would not stand for. And so he called it out boldly and challenged it even when others could not. In saying that one should kill the Buddha on the road, he stated that not even the beloved leader could take the place of an earnest and difficult journey. Not even the ones you love the most, not your parents or your children or your friends, have the answers for you. Not even the ones you aspire to be like have the answers for you. Not anyone, not the seemingly enlightened guy in the next cubicle who never seems to break a sweat and has all those precious pictures of his perfect children lined up on his desk – not even that guy has the answers for you. Nobody, but there is a journey that stretches out before you, and
with courage, with the commitment to break free from the bonds of all that came before, it is a journey you are courageous enough to undertake for yourself. And so, the cranky teacher tells his students that if on your journey, you should ever meet an enlightened one, you should kill him and move on, and if you ever meet the holiest teacher of all, the Buddha himself, leave him dead in the road and walk toward a distant horizon, because he does not have the answers for you. Pretending he does is only an impediment to the ultimate truth, that this is a journey you must take, that these are decisions you must make, that nobody can hand you the recipe. Now, one might imagine that in preaching of iconoclasts and those who break away from the expected patterns of the teachers who came before them, I am, in fact, preaching to the choir here among us. Unitarian Universalists, after all, pride ourselves on a long history of iconoclasm, sometimes to the point that we not only reject the wisdom of teachers as ultimate and final but assume we do not need any teachers at all. The fact is that even among the iconoclasts, there can be idolatry. Even among those who reject what most consider to be traditional practices of religious piety, there is a tendency to raise up lesser things to the level of ultimate concern, to assume that if and when this or that happens, if and when everyone turns away from their particular pious paths, everything will be OK, and if the whole world were Unitarian Universalist, we’d be sitting pretty. These days, I see idolatry in the political process, a tendency among people of all sides to believe that if and when their party rises to ascendency, everything will be fine again. In and around the 2008 election, many held an idolatrous image of our president, believing, really believing, that, like the Buddha, he might give us the recipe and guide us all the way home. With each successive election cycle, those on one side mourn the seeming loss of the way forward, those on the other celebrate as if, here, with an election that turns the colors from blue to red or back again, all our problems are at an end. But no political leader, no party, no color, no legislation, is the end and nobody, not even the best leaders this world will ever know, can solve our problems and hand us the truth the form of a political platform. If you see the perfect president in the middle of the road, well, move right on down the road. If you see the party that claims to own the truth, walk away and greet the horizon. In this age, I do not worry about golden calves, about the building of monuments to the representative Gods of the ages, but I do worry about idolatry. I worry that we do harm to one another only to keep faith with finite things, finite things like power and hegemony and the flow of global economic tides. I worry about the uplifting of Gods who do not speak for us, do not represent us, and do not make us more whole. We should have teachers. We should always have teachers. It is to make an idol of the self to assume that we do not need them. We always need loved ones who point us forward and help to shape our paths, but the lesson that Linji tells us in this story that makes no sense is that every teacher, every practice, every tradition, can offer only a beginning for the journey, never its culmination.
Enlightenment cannot be purchased from an infomercial, wisdom is not handed down in a series of easy-to-follow steps, salvation is not won with mathematical precision, and God does not care when you bow and if you cross yourself with the right hand and how each grain of the sand lies in the garden of the Buddha. God does not care if you do it right because neither God nor the enlightened ones among us ever did appoint one right way to do it.
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