There’s a Zen maxim that commands this: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”
There are several closely related interpretations of this maxim in Buddhist tradition. The most obvious one is that worship of the Buddha interferes with comprehending what he actually said – that religious fetishization is the enemy of enlightenment.
While I completely agree with this interpretation, I’m writing to argue for a more subtle and epistemological one. I interpret Zen Buddhism as a set of practices for not tripping over your own mind – avoiding our tendency to bin experiences into categories so swiftly and completely that we stop actually paying attention to them, not becoming imprisoned by fixed beliefs, not mistaking maps for territories, always remaining attentive to what actually is. Perhaps the most elegant expression of this interpretation is this koan setting forth the problem: “The mind is like a dog. His master points at the moon, but he barks at the hand.”
In this sense, Zen is discipline that assists instrumental rationalism by teaching important forms of self-monitoring and mental hygiene – in effect very similar to General Semantics.
In this interpretation of Zen, “killing the Buddha” can be taken to stand for a very specific practice or mental habit. Here’s how it works:
Find the premise, or belief, or piece of received knowledge that is most important to you right at this moment, and kill it.
That is, imagine the world as it would be if the most cherished belief in your thoughts at this moment were false. Then reason about the consequences. The more this exercise terrifies you or angers you or undermines your sense of self, the more brutally necessary it is that you kill your belief.
Sanity is measured by the ability to recognize evidence that your beliefs are wrong, and to detach yourself from them in order to form improved beliefs that conform to reality and better predict your future experiences. Killing the Buddha is an exercise to strengthen your sanity, to decrease your resistence to inconvenient facts and disruptive arguments. It teaches you not to become attached to beliefs, as you gradually learn that your rational coping capacity transcends any specific belief about how the universe is.
Being sane, being rational, does not consist of attachments and knowledge and beliefs. You do not become one whit more rational by knowing Newton’s Laws or the Periodic Table or the Pythagorean Theorem, or by believing evolutionary theory; what matters is how you acquired such beliefs and how you maintain them.
Sanity is the process by which you continually adjust your beliefs so they are predictively sound. By regularly killing the Buddha, you prepare yourself for those moments in which you must abandon a belief not because you choose to do it as a mental exercise but because experience of reality tells you it has failed the predictive test and is thus false.
When you have reached the point that killing the Buddha every day no longer frightens you, but is instead a central part of your self-discipline that you greet each and every day as an opportunity to learn, you are on the road to full sanity.
But only on the road. Your next challenge, which never ends, is to learn how to see — and kill — the Buddhas that are invisible because they lurk behind your own eyes.