Archive for August, 2012

Killing the Buddha, an anthology of creative nonfiction edited by Peter Manseau and Jeff Sharlet (and a website of the same title), is a work that defies easy categorization. Its subtitle, “A Heretic’s Bible,” hints at the unifying theme: this is a book about heresies, a word that derives from the Greek haíresis, the “act of choosing.” Chapters with titles (and topics) taken from biblical books are interspersed with Manseau and Sharlet’s accounts of their travels throughout the U.S. The result is an evocative account of all the American religious landscape and the dazzling array of choices it offers.

I’m writing about Killing the Buddha here because of its title. As the editors explain in their introduction, the phrase “killing the buddha” comes from a story about the Chinese Zen monk Linji (Lin-chi; d. 866) in which he explains to his disciples that they should kill the buddha if they happen to encounter him. Manseau and Sharlet read this as a statement of heresy, and extrapolate that Linji’s “buddha” includes all the dominant ideologies of his day. “Killing the buddha” for them means rejecting a single explanation of anything.

Linji’s instructions to kill the buddha come from his recorded sayings, a collection of teachings attributed to him after his death. The full passage reads as follows:

Monks, if you want to attain understanding of the dharma, just do not be misled by people. Kill everything you encounter, within and without. If you encounter a buddha, kill him. If you encounter a patriarch, kill him. If you encounter an arhat, kill him. If you encounter your parents, kill them. If you encounter your relatives, kill them. Only then can you attain liberation, such that you are not restrained by anything and can be completely free and at ease.

Manseau and Sharlet are correct in their basic interpretation of Linji’s meaning: “The Buddha you meet is not the true Buddha but an expression of your longing. If this Buddha is not killed, he will only stand in your way” (p. 1). Zen teachings hold that attachment to external buddhas prevents people from seeing that they themselves are already buddhas. We find in Zen writings many other statements or actions that are meant to shock: calling the Buddha a dried shit-stick, tearing up Buddhist scriptures, burning Buddhist images, etc. Zen rhetoric lends itself well to a book about heresy.

Zen’s heretical side is just one of its facets, and historically it has been a pretty small one. Linji’s buddhacide occurred in a world where Zen temples enshrined statues of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and gods; reserved halls for portraits of abbots; and Zen monks performed funeral rites for lay people for a fee. In some cases monks took steps to preserve their deceased teachers’ bodies through mummification, which is pretty much the opposite of killing the buddha.

Killing the Buddha uses an idea of Zen that is common in the American religious landscape: a godless, heretical Zen provides an alternative to the pious theism of Christianity. American Buddhists are also less likely to get mad about a book called Killing the Buddha (though I wonder how Buddhists in Asia would react). Had Manseau and Sharlet titled the book Killing Christ or Killing God, which would better fit the mainly Judeo-Christian content, it might have incited outrage.

One of the goals of this blog is to show how casually Americans throw around “Zen” without consideration for Zen’s historical or cultural context. Perhaps it is only fitting that a book about religious experience in America would reproduce the dominant view of Zen in America, but in such a reflective book I would hope for more serious reflection on this kind of appropriation.




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