Sep 10, 2021

Losing Illusions: The Teachings of Rinzai Gigen

“If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha”. The writings of the Zen masters are full of stories and phrases like this. So what are we to make of such statements when so much praise and reverence is devoted to the Buddha? Michael O'Neil investigates.

Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru


Huang Tingjian, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A recent BBC Radio 4 program about Zen began with the quote from Rinzai: 

“If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha”. 

Unfortunately, the discussion never came back round to explain this remark or put it in any sort of context. This sounds like a very extreme statement and clearly one that deserves some explanation, beginning with who Rinzai was and how this remark came about? 

We believe that Rinzai Gigen (jp.) or Lin ji (ch.), died around the year 866 although this and almost every other detail we know of Rinzai, is the source of much scholarly debate. 

The Tang era in China (618-907 C.E.), is a long way from us and although a number of documents have come down the centuries from Rinzai, nothing we have can be dated to more than two centuries after his death. 

Buddhism had already been in China for approximately eight hundred years by the time Rinzai began his studies. It had absorbed many Chinese influences and evolved a long way from the contemplative, scholastic forms of Buddhism in India. 

Buddhism had also experienced varying fortunes in its early centuries in China. 

It went from periods of great popularity to suppression and downright persecution. It had become formalised in the early Tang period and become almost like a religious branch of the state bureaucracy. 

The Zen (Chan) school strongly rejected all of these scholarly and theoretical forms of Buddhism and instead focused on “a direct transmission from heart to heart, outside of the scriptures”, tracing a lineage back to the legendary founder of Buddhism in China, Bodhidharma, and through him back to the Indian Patriarchs. 

This school put personal experience rather than scholarly learning at the heart of its training. 

Although Zen masters such as Obaku (Huang Po) and his student Rinzai constantly berate monks for studying the canonical sutras and writings, they clearly display a deep knowledge and profound reading of these works. It is clear that while they saw these texts as a necessary step along the Buddha’s path, they were equally clear that no amount of study would ever bring the kind of insight they taught to be at the heart of Zen Buddhism. 

The Record of Master Rinzai contains accounts of his teachings, recollections of encounters with students and fragments of his life story. If we are expecting something remote from us, exotic or esoteric, the directness of speech, the clarity of the message and its simplicity can come as a jolt. 

We can be grateful for the “plain language” translation of Ven. Myoko-ni (Irmgard Schloegl) in her rendering of the work in The Zen Teaching of Rinzai, but she makes it clear that she is only reflecting and capturing the very direct language of the original. 

We read of Rinzai’s early and frankly, undistinguished training as a monk. 

Where other masters showed a deep knowledge or an exceptional understanding at an early stage, Rinzai seems to have gone through his first three years as a monk without drawing any attention to himself. 

At the suggestion of the Head Monk who had noticed Rinzai’s quiet and dedicated manner, he went to see Master Obaku. Rinzai did not know what to say, so he asked the Head Monk what he should do? 

The Head Monk told him to ask “What is the fundamental principle of Buddhism?” 

Each time he asked Obaku, the master struck him with a pole across his head. 

Rinzai did not understand the message of these blows and decided to leave the monastery. He asked Obaku for permission to leave, which was granted but only if Rinzai went to the nearby Master Daigu (jp) Ta Yu (ch) . 

Rinzai duly went to master Ta Yu and told the story of his interview and treatment by Obaku. 

Ta Yu said “Why, Obaku was to you as your own grandmother. Why have you come here suddenly, asking me about your faults?” 

With these words Rinzai attained a great understanding. He saw that he had been caught up in dualistic and conceptual thinking. He realized the emptiness of words, thoughts and philosophical speculation. He saw instead the power of the world as it is directly experienced. 

If we look at the full quote that began this short piece, we will see why Rinzai could say what he did. 

“Followers of the Way, if you wish to see this Dharma clearly, do not let yourselves be deceived. Whether you turn to the outside or to the inside, whatever you encounter, kill it. If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; if you meet the patriarchs, kill the patriarchs; if you meet Arhats, kill Arhats; if you meet your parents, kill your parents; if you meet your relatives, kill your relatives; then for the first time you will see clearly. And if you do not depend on things, there is deliverance, there is freedom! “ 

(The Zen Teachings of Rinzai translated by Irmgard Schloegl, Berkeley: Shambhala, 1976, pp. 43-44). 

I am sure that no one needs to be told that this monk was not exhorting us literally to kill our teachers, our parents and our relatives. In all of the writings we have from Rinzai he constantly urges us to let go of our ideas and to see our true selves and the world as it is beyond the filtering of our own hopes, fears, prejudices and expectations. 

In our study of Buddhism, we build up ideas as to what Buddhism should be about. We develop an understanding that is partial, both in the sense that it is incomplete and that it is seen from our own particular perspective. Sooner or later, this understanding will be challenged and broken apart as life experience will contradict the view we hold. 

We cling tenaciously to our views, to our “sticky attachments”. These underlying assumptions are often unexamined but are powerfully held and it is these that Rinzai is asking us to take on in order to “see the Dharma clearly”. The writings of great masters such as Obaku and Rinzai are a great support on the way but only we can walk the path. 

If we see even the Buddha as something special, outside ourselves, we are building a fantasy and making it real. Whatever we build up in our minds by thoughts only removes us ever further from reality. 

We have to be ready to abandon whatever conceptions, ideas and notions we have about ourselves and about the world and look at the place where our own feet stand. 

It is an insight,  resonating down the centuries from Master Rinzai, that with effort, concentration and attention we can make real in our lives today. 

Text copyright to Michael O’Neill 

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