Zen Anarchy Pt. 2

by Max Cafard

II. Killing the Buddha: Zen’s Assault on Authority

Some people think that the exalted place in Zen practice accorded to the teacher or master proves that Zen is “authoritarian.” Not to mention that the poor student sometimes gets whacked with a stick. Sado-masochistic authoritarianism, no less! No doubt Zen can decline into a cult of personality, but it to the extent that it follows its own path of the awakened mind; it is radically and uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian and anarchistic.

Neither Shakyamuni Buddha nor any Buddha, Bodhisattva or arhat, much less any master, guru or teacher has the least authority over anyone. As Shakyamuni himself said, we have to “work out our own salvation with diligence” rather than relying on him or anyone else as an authority. No gurus, no saviors. Hui-neng points out that “scripture clearly says to take refuge in the Buddha in oneself, not to take refuge in another Buddha,” and Hakuin echoes this, saying, “Outside us, no Buddhas. / How near the Truth, yet how far we seek! / Like one in water crying, ‘I thirst.’”

Open Road

The most sustained and most notorious Zen assault on all forms of authority is found in Lin-Chi, the founder of Rinzai, the most overtly anarchic branch of Zen. For Lin-Chi, “things like the Three Vehicles and the twelve divisions of the scriptural teachings—they’re all so much old toilet paper to wipe away filth. The Buddha is a phantom body; the patriarchs are nothing but old monks. . . If you seek the Buddha, you’ll be seized by the Buddha devil. If you seek the patriarchs, you’ll be fettered by the patriarch devil. As long as you seek something it can only lead to suffering. Better to do nothing.” Doing nothing (wu wei) is the famous Taoist concept for natural action, action in accord with Tao, action in which we freely follow our own way and allow other beings to do likewise. Zhuang-tzu, the great anarchic Taoist sage, compared it to “riding on the wind.”

To do this, we have to free ourselves from our heavy load of the mental formations, habits, prejudices, filters of experience that are the poisonous legacy of our past egoistic strivings for domination. A lot of the burden consists of images of external authorities—gods and other higher beings, leaders and experts, teachers and gurus, sacred scriptures and other revered documents—that we use as panaceas to avoid confronting our own experience and solving our own problems. Lin-Chi says “Get rid of all of them!” As Lao-tzu (the great donothingist) said, the wise person can travel very far without taking along any baggage! (Maybe just a roll of old toilet paper!)

So then Zen says we should look away from the world and all external authorities, and turn inward to find our source of authority? Far from it! We need freedom from both internal and external authorities and principles. After all, all those external authorities control us only because they take on the form of a powerful image within our mind. So Lin-Chi says, “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 arhat, kill the arhat. 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.” If we kill all these dominating authority-figures (images or figurations within consciousness), then we can experience the reality behind the image, the reality of mind, the reality of beings.

Lin-Chi exhorts the “Followers of the Way” not to “take the Buddha to be some sort of ultimate goal. In my view he’s more like the hole in a privy.” This (like the toilet paper remark) is a typical Zen comment, and should always be looked upon as is a form of highest praise. The hole in the donut may be relatively useless, but some holes serve a very important practical purpose. Lin-Chi is harsher with bodhisattvas and arhats, who are dismissed as “all so many cangues and chains, things for fettering people.” The point may be to emphasize the fact that only the free, awakened mind (“Buddha”) is beyond being turned into a new source of subjection and bondage. The Buddha is just the hole through which all the old shit (“die alte Scheisse,” as someone called it) passes when we relieve ourselves of it.

So where should we look as our source of authority. To ourselves, of course—and since there’s no self, that means we should look nowhere. “Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and the Buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!” There’s a bit of irony in lecturing the Buddha on the Dharma ! But what’s really absurd is all these Buddhas running around looking for gurus to give them the truth. “Students don’t have enough faith in themselves, and so they rush around looking for something outside themselves.”
Nothing outside, nothing inside.

Stone Buddhas

Another reproach, similar to the charge of authoritarianism, which is sometimes leveled against Zen is that it is ritualistic. Zen sometimes appears ritualistic for the very good reason that it has a lot of rituals. But it must also be seen as the most scathing attack on all forms of ritualism. Hui-neng did the best job of demolishing this distortion of Zen. For Zen, a central problem with rites and rituals is that they easily fuel what Hui-neng calls the “religious ego”: the condition of those “who understand and practice yet entertain a sense of attainment, producing a self-image.” None, he says, can attain “great liberation” as long as they cling to this ego that constantly gazes at itself in a spiritual mirror, admiring all the layers of merit collecting on the sacred self. A consciousness very similar to that of the political militant who glories in possessing the correct line, the sacred sectarian truth.

Hui-neng also shows how some people confuse sunyata, the emptiness of all things, including the mind, with the need to turn the mind into a vacant lot. They assume that when all the greater and lesser vehicles are on the road, wheels turning, the parking lot of the mind is finally vacant. But Hui-neng attacks this as the “wrong view” of those “deluded people who sit quietly with empty minds, not thinking of anything whatsoever, and claim this is greatness.” He doesn’t say that this kind of practice is necessarily a bad thing, but rather that we shouldn’t take it for “the essence of Zen” or as an occasion for great spiritual pride at having the emptiest mind on the block. It’s a bit like the well-rounded individuals who do a bit of hatha yoga at the Y, but never suspect that there could be a yoga of diligent study, compassionate action, and selfless devotion.

Hui-neng also notes the problem of making a fetish out of zazen or sitting meditation. There are, he says, “confused people who sit in meditation fanatically trying to get rid of illusion and do not learn kindness, compassion, joyfulness, equanimity, wisdom, and expedient skills.” These people are “like wood or stone, without any function,” and “are called nonthinking.” Hakuin learned the same truth from his “decrepit old teacher” Shoju Rojin, who said of the Zen monks of his time: “What are you really like? I’ll tell you. Large sacks of rice, fitted out in black robes.” Sort of like the dummies at the end of “Zero for Conduct.”

Zen offers us a double-edged sword. One edge is the Buddha-killing edge for slaying those Buddhas, patriarchs, traditions, rituals, and revered texts that would enslave us for the name of our own liberation. The other edge is the killing-Buddha edge that cuts in the opposite direction. For those Buddhas, patriarchs, rituals and texts that might enslave us, once slain with the uncutting sword of non-discrimination, can help us annihilate everything else we hold dear.

Nothing is spared in this massacre—Lin-Chi, who said to “Kill the Patriarch if you meet him on the road” was himself a patriarch.

Zen Anarchy Pt. 1
Zen Anarchy Pt. 3


  1. […] Zen Anarchy Pt. 2 Zen Anarchy Pt. 3 Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Quest for enlightenmentThe Single Hair Which Stirs The Sea: A Look At The Similarities Between Zen…Dogen Zen and Its Relevance For Our Time « The ZenFrogKoans and The Non-Logical Character of Zen […]

  2. It is great, part 3 tomorrow!

    Doug, just wanted to say thanks to you, you comment quite a bit here which means you keep coming back, and I appreciate that. Thanks again!

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