We have this stone buddha in our yard. We bought him when we got our first house in Providence. That house was built in the early-1900s by some rich old Italian who owned a sausage shop. In the back yard, surrounded by roses bushes was an empty pedestal. The old Italian likely had a whitewashed statue of the Madonna there, since that was the thing to do. If you drive through that neighborhood today the Italians have been replaced by Mexicans, Guatemalans, Dominicans and the like. Yes, the old Italians have left but the Madonnas are still there proudly blessing the devoted families within.
Being “new” Italians rather than an “old” ones, we decided to top the concrete pedestal with a buddha, rather than the Virgin Mother. He sat there, amongst the roses for seven years — a good number. Then we moved to a new house. He sat in several places at that house: nestled between three pines, just to the right of the front entry in the garden, up in the corner by the fence and the forsythia — he was a transient buddha then, for the 18 months we lived there (also a good number).
When we moved to this house, he was placed under the swamp maple near the walk and just shy of the front steps. He sat there for a while, until he began looking worn. Originally, buddha was a deep rust color — a brownish red. Over time, the red began to wear away and the pale cement he was cast out of surfaced in unsightly pale pock marks from below the surface.
When I noticed this, I suddenly became and “old” Italian — I took a can of white spray paint and whitewashed the buddha. This did not go over well. What I though now looked clean and fresh screamed, “Tacky! Tacky! Tacky!” to my wife.
Buddha had to move, no longer handsome enough to grace the front garden. Thus began his movements around the back yard for the last twelve or so years — by the wood pile, near the kayak, next to an old SUV tire that now supports the kayak.
When the white finish began to wear down he returned to some place of prominence sitting by the deck planters, beside the cement steps up to the deck; eventually he made his way back beneath the maple out front but when we redid the front walk and garden he was evicted yet again. Now he sits in the backyard again, in a mulch bed not far from where we hang our hammock. Despite all of the upheaval in his life, the fat little dude still has a smile on his face.
Two days ago something happened. I took my dog out in the morning, as usual, and as usual he did his locate-the-perfect-spot dance which was even more annoying than usual considering it was 26 degrees out.
“C’mon,” I encouraged impatiently. “Hurry up, will ya.” To which my dog was more that happy to comply by lifting his leg and peeing on the buddha. Holy Crap! Sacrilege, I thought. You’ve defiled the buddha! This can’t be good. I was ready to discipline the disrespectful mutt when I immediately recalled the line:
If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.
Zen Master Linji, founder of the Rinzi sect, is often attributed with this koan. A koan is a type of riddle or puzzle that has no obvious answer or purpose. Its main purpose is to get the student to try to think about that which seems immediately un-thinkable.
This koan, this quote by Linji, is often used to explain the destructive nature of preconceptions. Imagine meeting the Buddha. What does he look like? How does he speak? What does he say to you?
In your imaginings of the Buddha, what is being created is not the reality of Buddha himself, but some “wishful” Buddha — a Buddha who becomes the illusion created in one’s own mind and not actually the Buddha himself.
We often tend to build our reality from superficially pretty little Lego blocks, rather than the sharp and irregularly shaped stones of daily experience. We reject the sharp stones in favor of the smooth blocks because the blocks are neater and easier to work with. We are all guilty of forcing our projections on the world rather than accepting everything the world contains — people, places, things, ideas — on its own terms.
After all, I tried to whitewash the Buddha to make him prettier, to make him fit some ideal. Interestingly, the Buddha sat with a smile on his face as I spray painted him. He smiled when I moved him all over the yard. He smiled when my dog peed on him.
The goal is not to avoid thinking in this superficial and somewhat self-centered way — that’s going to happen no matter what. The goal is to “kill” the idea, “kill” the pre-conception and move forward with the practice not-thinking in a superficial way. The more often you notice this thinking, the more often you become aware, the more aware you will be as it is happening. Easier said than done, I know, but the least any of us can do is to keep trying.
Whatever our conception is — of Buddha, of a friend, of a spouse, a child, whomever or whatever — we must kill that conception when we meet it on the road. Chances are that conception is a barrier to us fully knowing ourselves, others and the nature of acceptance things as they are.
As for my dog, well he gets it. I mean, just look at the culprit’s face. There’s no denying that he knows; and he knows that he knows. Unruly little pooch. Hey, even the Buddha gets a kick out of him, look at that smile, and he just got peed on.