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Kill the Buddha

The Buddhist saying, “Kill the Buddha” (Chinese: sha fo) has been current in RS culture since it was used some years ago in an iconoclastic satsang given at the Dera by a Westerner, who adapted it to “kill the master.” Baba Ji has often mentioned the saying and the meaning that underlies it.

“Kill the Buddha” is part of a famous saying credited to the ninth-century mystic Linji Yixuan, Chinese founder of the Linji (Japanese: Rinzai) school of Chan (Japanese: Zen) Buddhism. The fuller saying runs: “If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha (sha fo); if you meet a (Buddhist) patriarch, slay the patriarch; if you meet a luohan (enlightened one), kill the luohan; if you meet your parents, kill your parents.… In this way, you will attain liberation.”1

Linji is well known for having used shock treatment in order to surprise the minds of his disciples into the realization of spiritual truths. His methods included sudden shouts or exclamations into a student’s ear, physical blows, and nonsensical or unrelated responses to questions. The point of this particular saying is to bring about the understanding that every person is complete in himself and is already a potential buddha, so there is no need to rely upon or unduly revere any other person. All such reliance lies in the mind, and is a source of weakness to be overcome. Truth is found by focusing within oneself and by self-realization, which cannot be given by anyone else.

The Linji school became the most popular and widespread of the five schools of Chan Buddhism. It was also the inspiration behind the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism, where the saying was used as a koan, in forms such as, “If you meet demons, kill the demons; if you meet buddhas, kill the buddhas,” sometimes adding “then for the first time you will see clearly.” In other words, whatever you encounter, inside or out, eliminate it, because it is blocking the way to deeper realization.

Linji Yixuan makes the point very clearly. He also introduces the notion that enlightenment involves living an ordinary life and doing nothing – something that is actually quite out of the ordinary:

Followers of the Way, if you want insight into the Dharma as it really is, do not be taken in by the deluded views of others. Whatever you encounter, whether within or without, kill it at once. If you meet a buddha, kill the buddha (sha fo); if you meet a patriarch, kill the patriarch; if you meet a luohan, kill the luohan; if you meet your parents, kill your parents; if you meet your family, kill your family. In this way, you will gain liberation, will not be entangled with things, will pass freely anywhere you wish to go.… I have no trick to give people. I merely cure disease and set people free.… My views are few. I merely put on clothing and eat meals as usual, and pass my time without doing anything. You people coming from the various directions have all made up your minds to seek the Buddha, seek the Dharma, seek emancipation, and seek to leave the three worlds. Crazy people! If you want to leave the three worlds, where can you go? ‘Buddha’ and ‘patriarchs’ are terms of praise and also bondage. Do you want to know where the three worlds are? They are right in your mind, which is now listening to the Dharma.2

He is saying that we already have whatever we are seeking. All we have to do is to realize it. Further elucidating the saying, the Chan Buddhist Master Sheng-yen (1930–2009) observes:

Obviously, Linji is not advocating that one should actually kill buddhas, parents, and teachers; but what is the point of such a seemingly violent attitude? Can this really be considered a method of practice conducive to Buddhist enlightenment and compassion? Indeed it can. Linji’s point is that we must ‘slay’ these things as objects of attachment or self-expectation. We must be relentlessly self-reliant (zixin) and cut off all conditional thoughts in our minds until there is nothing further to cut off. When all such discriminations – all such naïve views that shape the small self and its world – are exhausted, we will truly be ‘ordinary, with nothing to do’.2

Adapted from the entry “Kill the Buddha,” in A Treasury of Mystic Terms, vol. 16 (Science of the Soul Research Centre, New Delhi, 2019)

  1. Linji yulu (‘Record of Linji’), Taisho Shinshu Daizokyo (ed. Takakusu Junjiro & Watanabe Kaigokyu; Taisho Issaikyo Kankokai, Tokyo, 1924–32;, ret. April 2017), vol. 47, text 1985:500b
  2. Master Sheng-yen, Hoofprint of the Ox (Oxford University Press, New York, 2002) p.119