Killing the Buddha

There is a famous saying that says 'if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.' The saying is not a literal instruction, but instead an insight into the importance that Buddhism places on freedom from attachment, even attachment to things we see as positive and seek to emulate. Buddhist philosophy cuts through all the noise and distraction by focusing on the cause, rather than the effect, of suffering, then guides one toward the gradual removal of that suffering, and the enlightenment that follows. 

As I go over some of Buddhism's most basic ideas, it's important to remember that idolatry, emulation, and deference to authority - all common components of Western religion - are not desirable for any practicing Buddhist. One does not ideally seek to become like Buddha. According to his teachings, one does not look to the teacher as a direct example of how to be, how to act, how to speak, et cetera, but instead uses the teachings themselves as a way of fine tuning perception in what is a very intimate, very focused practice. While instruction and training is an acknowledged formality for any aspiring Buddhist, many spiritual guides who wander the earth today should be viewed cautiously. They may be inspirational catalysts helping along our relationship with self discovery and enlightenment, but should not be allowed to play the role of rigid taskmaster to be obeyed or aped.

The numerous - one might argue endless - concepts and precepts comprising the whole of Buddhist philosophy are like transparent layers of an onion. Each individual layer is peeled back and absorbed, but layers can be overlapped in any order and absorbed intuitively as various steps on the path to a freer, more contemplative existence. There is no structured, tiered ascendancy in any conventional sense. These teachings are presented and phrased as useful standards for living, guided by the principle of cessation of suffering. 

The many teachings of Buddhism, as I understand them, are not meant to be read, memorized and obeyed in a particular order. However, the basic ideas should be absorbed before the underlying concepts are introduced. Buddhism is, above all, a highly philosophical practice. It may resemble a labyrinth of analytic traps, but over time, repeated, personal use of doctrine in meditation dissolves that perceived complexity.

Individuals practicing mindfulness are encouraged to guide their process how they see fit, but they are not without a very structured set of rules and terms to abide by. The process is rife with specific meanings to understand and follow, but at the end of it all, the purpose is instruction rather than expectation of obedience. 

The Four Noble Truths comprise Buddhism's hook, or opening statement:

1. Life is suffering
2. The origin of suffering is attachment
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable
4. The path to the cessation of suffering is the Eightfold Path

Various components of Buddhist philosophy don't intend to usurp, replace, eschew or topple the teachings of other Religions and belief systems. They are not intended as commandments or warnings to be taken literally, such as in much Western Religious practice. Everything in Buddhism, from the Foundations, to the Nidanas of meditation, to the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold path, and the Precepts, is relative and interdependent. Enlightenment is not meant to fall upon the subject in one intense revelation, but instead is seen as the gradual convergence of mindfulness techniques. In a way, for any advancing student of Buddhism, the layers of that metaphorical onion re-adhere until the overlapping truths converge back into a single, solid whole.  

When studying pluralism in college, I was immediately drawn to mindfulness practice as it draws upon one's capacity to guide perceptions based upon basic awareness of what causes harm, and why. What drew me further to Buddhism is the practicality of its foundation. It begins with an explanation for Dukkha, or suffering, for which daily, practical evidence exists. The cause of suffering is desire and attachment, and the cessation of suffering can be accomplished, over time, due to the removal of desire. This is a simple idea - one that removes the need for a comprehensive list of all the ills in the world like hunger, violence, war, hate and fear. It professes instead to dig deeper than the symptoms and straight for the cause of these things, which is attachment and desire.

Of course, the word 'desire' is a loaded word, especially in our culture, where it is often associated with sexual longing or with general yearning for a greater rank in society. Buddhist teaching is not, as a layperson might assume, dedicated to stripping individuals of all that which keeps them tethered to the world, or committed to condemning attachments and goals per se. Buddhism is, as I said above, instructive philosophy, and for that, a student might spend an entire lifetime flitting over the layers of mindfulness practice and never run out of applications, never stop learning and growing.

The place where Buddhism most resembles its Western neighbors is in the Precepts. They are recommendations - and not commandments - for abstinence and avoidance. Do not harming living beings. Don't take what is not freely given to you. Avoid sexual misconduct. No false speech. Avoid intoxicating drinks and drugs to the degree that they cause heedlessness. Avoid taking untimely meals. No dancing, singing, music and watching 'grotesque mime' (entertainment). No use of high seats. No acceptance of gold or silver.

Some of the modern Buddhist teachers have taken it upon themselves to only highlight the first five, but the rest of the Precepts are important, too. They are not commenting on the 'goodness' or 'evil' of things. They are not declarations worldly acts considered 'good' and 'bad.' They instead intend to foster an atmosphere of contemplative silence and meditation, free from distraction, free from feelings of superiority. Understanding this is a key to understanding all of Buddha's instruction, and a key to understanding what separates much Eastern philosophy and religion from Western. Buddhism is free from moral instruction in the Christian sense. 

The Eightfold path, rather than a list of avoidable things, is a more affirmative series of guidelines for obtaining enlightenment. There is a right way to view things, a right intention, a right speech, right action, right way to make a living, a right effort, and finally right mindfulness and right concentration. Each step in the path is not to be studied in order, one after the other, but simultaneously, and in conjunction with observance of the precepts and engagement with meditation and study. 

These Foundations are important to focus on because they comprise the core of meditative exercise. Each places the mind in a different states of contemplation: of the physical body, of feelings, of a general state of mind, and of phenomena, including the mind / world / body relationship and one's relationship with the very tenets of Buddhist teaching. After a while, the intended effect of meditation is for the concept of mind itself to break down, finally omitting the observer from that which is being observed.

Body contemplation, or Kayanupassana, is the act of mental removal of the physical imperfections and distractions that embody the physical self. This does not refer to plastic surgery or to removing limbs, but instead an inner, mental focus fine tuning your perception of yourself. You place yourself in a state of awareness that systematically removes perceptions of that which might block you from attaining enlightenment.

Vedananupassana, or reflection on all feeling, is a practice similar to body meditation, but involves a whole different kind of reflection, that of our emotional patterns and states of mind that become reflexive and fixed over time. As our feelings become fixed and habitual, we gradually lose control over them; we lose the ability to forestall their emergence.

Cittanupassana, contemplates various citta, or states of mind. This meditation practice hinges on the fundamental Buddhist notion that our concept of 'mind' is nothing more than a sequence of citta, all moving by in sequence. Cittanupassana extracts the mind to passively, observe the citta. We engage in knowing the mind as it grapples with and without things like delusion, aversion and concentration. In a way, the subject abdicates ownership of the mind, holding it at a distance, observing until even the observer disappears from view. Similarly, the Dhammanupassana meditates on the world with the purpose of seeing that it is all illusion. This contemplation observes the sankhara, or functions in the mind that creating reactions and connections in response to 'things in the world,' or 'things in general,' or Dhamma

As you might surmise from all of the above, Buddhism is vastly more effective in practice than when explained. There are a lot of concepts to learn, but it's important to remember that mindfulness is not about learning terms. It is fundamentally about process, one free from the fear attachments people develop with most religious practice: superstition, fear-mongering, condemnation, materialism, and all the rest.

There is something to be said for mindfulness, even if you don't consider yourself a Buddhist. The proverbial 'Buddha in the road,' the one we are instructed to kill, represents what we feel we are expected to become as a result of enlightenment. That has the effect of focusing us too much on the goal, and diminishes the usefulness is the process, which in Buddhism, is paramount. By killing the proverbial Buddha in the road, we eradicate knowledge of our limitations as we have been instructed, a sense that there is a spiritual tier, or ceiling, past which we cannot traverse. Freedom from attachment to that limiting idea is freedom from suffering. That, after all, is the whole point.


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