“If you see the Buddha, kill him,” say the Buddhists. What a strange thing for people to talk about their beloved teacher! Of course, they do not refer to Gautama himself, since this enlightened one died thousands of years ago. So what does this saying mean?
Religions, philosophies and ultimate reality
The famous Buddhist aphorism means that ultimate reality is ultimately elusive. Suppose you are walking down the street one day and meet the Buddha. From the Buddhist point of view, this figure claiming to be the Buddha can be a channel, but cannot be the source of absolute truth. Anything that appears to be perfect is less than perfect and only represents perfection. Even Gautama, whom Buddhists revere, points only to the ultimate. And whatever we perceive as supreme is still mastered for human beings to grasp.
Taoism says something similar. The Tao Te Ching begins by saying, “What can be described as the Tao is not the Tao. Taoism uses many metaphors to describe the ultimate path. The Tao is like water, strong but gentle. But water is not the Tao, it only represents the way of the watercourse. Lao Tzu said, “Nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth; The named is the Mother of all things. Thus, the constant vacuum makes it possible to observe the true essence. Even calling it the Tao is insufficient, because whatever you call it falls short of ultimate reality.
Even Plato agrees. The philosopher imagines that any tangible thing that exists only exists because it has an ultimate model. A chair is only a chair because it is informed by the ultimate chair that exists in an ethereal plane called the World of Forms. Everything that exists, says Plato, can only exist as a shadow of its perfect form. So it follows, according to Platonism, that a god is only a god because somewhere the ultimate God exists. But as soon as you point out something that looks and smells like a god, you know it can’t be the ultimate God. Why? Because you saw it too clearly.
God from an angle
The ultimate truth is something you can watch out of the corner of your eye. But once you turn your head to focus, it disappears like smoke. Perhaps that is why God placed Moses in the cleft of the rock and only allowed him to see the divine back (Exodus 33). It is said that no one can see the face of God and live. Metaphorically, this means that we cannot fully understand God. We can only catch a glimpse of God from one angle, because our minds are too small to comprehend the fullness of God. We cannot put God in a box because once we do, God will prove to be bigger than the box.
Like Lao Tzu, Jesus used metaphor to describe ultimate reality. The kingdom of God is adaptive, like childhood. Or free, like the wind. Or invigorating, like living water. The kingdom of God is expansive, like a bit of leaven in the dough or a seed that grows into a tree. But these things are analogies, pointing to perfect truth without themselves being that ultimate reality. You can’t hold a seed in your hand and think the seed is God. Although God is in water, wind or yeast, they are not God. What points to God is not God. “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” Anything that claims to be non-metaphorical God must be destroyed.
god in a box
This explains the Hebrew prohibition of graven images. Prophets and heroes of ancient idols smashed to prove that stone and wood could not contain the Divine. The Tabernacle and the Temple, considered resting places for God, were not God and could not contain God. Although the Ark of the Covenant contained divine artifacts, it could not contain God, because you cannot put God in a box.
On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter tried to put God in a box. He had such a sublime experience with Moses, Jesus and Elijah that he wanted to build three tabernacles to hold all the glory (Matthew 17). But God spoke of the fog, telling Peter to listen to Jesus. In other words, instead of trying to contain the moment, it should just be in the moment. If you have a mountainous experience of God, don’t try to cling to that experience. Let your experience of God be fleeting, for God will not be contained.
“If you see the Buddha, kill him.” If you find a man to sum up the ultimate truth, destroy him. Of course, that’s what they did to Jesus who claimed to be the way, the truth and the life. Jesus was so God they couldn’t get a hold of him. Their theology couldn’t hold it. He upset them so much that they had to get rid of him. The Cross could not defeat him, and the grave could not enclose him. You can’t put God in a box, and you can’t grab Jesus.
Human nature, however, is to idolize anything that looks like God. It’s not good Buddhism, but some Buddhists pray to the statues of the enlightened. It’s not good Christianity, but some Christians pray to saints. Others pray in front of statues or images of Jesus, but in doing so they miss the ultimate reality of God. What they are looking for is not an image of God, but the real God.
Still others idolize their own theology. Facts and ideas about God become God to them. They become so certain that they have encapsulated God in their understanding that their notions of God become ultimate in their own minds. This is what Jesus meant when he said there would be many deceivers. If you hear someone say, “There’s Jesus on the mountain,” don’t go. Because Jesus did not come to show us ideas about God. He didn’t come to give us better theology. He came to direct us to the real God and the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Don’t cling to me”
Even after his resurrection, Jesus said to Mary, “Do not cleave to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17). Jesus knew that he was not the Source, but he only came to indicate this Source to us. He came from Source and ascended to Source, but should not be confused with Source. Jesus is part of God and told us that to see him is to see God. But only in part. Yet we only see in a dark mirror. Now we know part of it, but one day we will look Ultimate Reality straight in the eye.
Of course, the face of God is also a metaphor. But for now, we are dealing with metaphors, images and analogies. If you see the Buddha, kill him. The Tao that can be described is not the Tao. The Kingdom of Heaven is near, but not yet. We will see him face to face, but God has no face.
Seize after the wind
Does it bother you that so much theology seems to be clinging to the wind? Instead of frustration, try to hold the mystery lightly. “Let your attitude be like Christ Jesus, who did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped (Philippians 2:5-6).” The constant gripping wears out the hands. You cannot grasp or contain God with your doctrines or beliefs. With the humility of Jesus as an example, you can freely hold your ideas about God, like putting your hands in a bowl to draw water. For a little while you can contain it, but soon it will slip through your fingers. Let it be good when God escapes your grasp. Because the god that can be described by your theology is not God. And you can only really see God out of the corner of your eye.