Meeting the Buddha in the Road

I’m a fan of Justin Whitaker, a young Buddhist scholar who blogs as an American (in England) Buddhist Perspective. In his most recent posting he ruminated on the nature of good and evil in Buddhism using categories introduced from the Western Philosophical tradition, and particularly referencing Kant and a contemporary interpreter of Kant, Stephen Palmquist. I enjoy this sort of thing as it is highly unlikely I’ll ever delve more deeply into Kant than I had in a college survey of Western Philosophy. And I think such enterprises are more than worthwhile, pushing us to inquire ever deeper into the great matters of our lives and our deaths.

Toward the end of his recent posting Justin writes “So rather than project all of one’s hope and dreams onto this dying person and then weep over his imminent death, one should “look beyond” him/her to the higher truth that they have come to represent.” And then Justin adds,”Isn’t this what the Zen saying, “if you see the Buddha on the side of the road, kill him!” is all about?”

Here I feel a need to throw in a couple of cents.

Not, not precisely. The encounter story does point us away from our ideas of the real. And this pointing has both a practice aspect and a “deeper” assertion, as well.

Now there are numerous Buddhist perspectives, and the “beyond” and “higher truth” certainly have a place. But, I would caution the reader who is pursuing the Zen path in taking that beyond too much to heart.

We often speak of two truths, that phenomenal world where we are born and die, where we love and hate, where every thought and every action has a consequence, and the open, boundless, empty realm, where all categories collapse more completely than if captured by a black hole.

The “good news” of the Zen path, at least as I’ve encountered it, is that we can and do know both these realms as our intimate truths. And as we come to know both in their various permutations (a look at Dongshan’s Five Ranks or Modes addresses that dynamic) we find who we really are in a way that is at once meaningful and where meaning and meaningless are both dropped.

So, that call to the walk down the road and that encounter.

We can never know this fullness if we’re stuck in our separation, or in our emptiness.

We need to see wider.

Well, we don’t have to. But, if we want to traverse beyond merely being caught in the thrall of endlessly rising grasping and aversion and confusing our stories as the truth, we must find our open hearts, our open minds.

So, kill the idea of Buddha.

Kill the idea buddha is something out there.

Kill the idea buddha is something inside here.

And, truthfully, the killing needn’t happen, either.

Let go of the idea buddha is out there. Let go of the idea buddha is inside here.


Just notice you already are the buddha out there. You already are the buddha in here.


A hundred gates. A hundred snares…

Now, Justin’s real concern, at least in his blog post, is ethics.

And, I have a thought or two on that, as well…

In the real world of form, of action and consequence, mourning the death of a loved one is totally appropriate, matching the moment. And if it is also informed at the same time by a deep and true knowing everything is empty and there has never been a birth nor a death as also totally true, then something emerges, a perspective I’m coming to call the Engaged Heart or the Wise Heart. Of course also just more words set out to entangle as much as to liberate. Such is our condition.

But, I’ve noticed that as I live my life with joys and sorrows, great and small, and endless ethical decisions, having that other insight, or that deeper insight or that grounded insight, pick your misleading words, then my actions seem a little kinder, a little more useful for myself and for those around me.

And, today, as the snow falls outside, I find myself ruminating on what that looks like…

  • Richard Greydanus

    I enjoyed your post. I’m not a Buddhist, but I teach a general overview of Buddhism in a World Religion’s class. A few days ago, I put my own take on the differences between Buddhism and the Western intellectual tradition up in a blog. I appreciate your comment, since you have an ‘insider’s’ advantage of a lengthy and deep familiarity that I lack.

    The post is here:

  • James

    Thanks for the pointer, Richard. I read your post. An interesting take on the Buddha story. I’m also interested in those who attempt to place the Buddha and aspects of Buddhism within the Western philosophical traditions. The blogger Justin Whitaker does something along these lines, as well. You may also find the Kyoto School interesting, if you’re not already familiar with them. While there has been some criticism of how easily they were captured by the idea of Japanese uniqueness and how that played into Japanese nationalism during the war, they, nonetheless, offer, at least for me, a fascinating cross cultural Zen Buddhist/Western philosophical investigation. Fond regards, James