I will start with a personal experience:
When I first joined this meditation group, I noticed the photographs of gold-bedecked gurus that adorned the walls and smelled a rat. If these gurus were enlightened, they wouldn’t care for gold and would have sold it to help those in need… like their struggling centers.
This center was so broke that it had to move out of its suite. Well, as luck would have it, another Buddhist group offered to share its space, but the center turned it down because it meant they couldn’t erect their altars and guru photographs! These were the same gurus who pranced around in gold chains while the centers struggled. Yet did this lessen the centers’ dedication to the gurus? No…
The parent organization managed to raise funds for a building to house the relics of their founder. So while the centers struggled to survive, a dead guy got his own building. Worse still, this dead guy was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a controversial figure.
Trungpa’s behavior was white-washed at every opportunity. For example, one person recounted how Trungpa would come drunk to meditation, but claimed his attention was so developed that he was more lucid drunk than most people were when sober. Another person remembered how he and some others had to dress in finery and wait on Trungpa, then hastened to add that it was a great exercise in attacking the ego.
This white-washing strategy was called “Crazy Wisdom”. Any time a guru acted badly, it was justified as a teaching method, a way to shock people out of their complacency. I never believed it and cringed every time I heard that phrase. Where was the wisdom when Trungpa assigned a successor who had unprotected sex with students, despite knowing he had AIDS? Where was the wisdom in the human rights abuses in Tibet under the “Enlightened” Lamas — the same tradition from which Trungpa and his organization emerged?
I stopped attending the center.
These problems (and many more) stem from attitudes towards The Buddha, so it’s time to kill him. Let’s start by scrutinizing his story:
Once upon a time there was a prince named Gotama who was so sheltered he didn’t know people got sick, old and died. Then one day he went outside the palace and saw those things. This troubled him so much that he abandoned his family and joined the ascetics of his time. That didn’t work, so he left them and sat under a tree until he figured it out. After that, he started teaching and people called him The Buddha.
This is an abridged version as I didn’t want to get into the prophecies about his birth, him coming out of his mother’s side, or his stopping an elephant with The Force. I hope you don’t mind. Also, because I think one of the problems is his deification, I will refer to him as Gotama, and not by the honorific The Buddha which invites the very deification that’s the problem.
Gotama’s enlightenment (if it ever happened) consisted of the removal of mental pain. However, people missed the point and treated it as cosmically significant, gave Gotama a whole bunch of titles (The Buddha, Lord, Blessed One, Tathagata), looked at his achievement with awe, and told themselves they could never do the same.
From there, it was a short step to believing Gotama was above others and thus beyond reproach. Therefore, if he appeared to do something wrong, it obviously wasn’t, and others were simply not enlightened enough to see the wisdom and correctness of his acts. Take this “post-enlightenment” story:
One day, Gotama went back to his home town. His wife heard of his arrival and decided to give him the cold shoulder until he apologized for abandoning her. Yet when he arrived, he did not apologize, and she fell at his feet and became one of his followers.
Enlightenment breeds compassion, so why didn’t he apologize? One could claim that the Gotama that abandoned his family was a pre-enlightenment Gotama, but the chance to make amends was provided to the post-enlightenment Gotama. Those who believe the myths of enlightenment would claim he was trying to help her by “skillful means” which we cannot understand. The more skeptical would reject his enlightenment and say he was still behaving badly.
Let’s take another story:
One day, a distraught mother came to Gotama and asked to have her child resurrected. Gotama told her if she could get a mustard seed from any home that didn’t suffer a loss, he would do it. She went from house to house, but could find no such home. She came back and Gotama told her this was the nature of life and she left — presumably consoled.
What stands out for me is that Gotama led this woman on to think that he could bring back her dead son. What if she got lucky and found a house that didn’t suffer a loss? Can you imagine the poor lady, thinking her son will come back and then getting shattered all over again? Is this skillful means?
I’ll stop here to keep the article short, but I’m sure you can easily find plenty to object to in the various Gotama stories. Charlatans have been capitalizing on this nonsense since. Realizing this enlightenment myth equated to an ethical blank check, they took it and ran. Now they could abuse people AND be thanked by their victims.
Nothing is lost by demolishing Gotama because he never mattered and never will. Buddhism stands on its own merit. It does not require a historical figure to give it authority, for anyone can scrutinize the teachings themselves. Anyone can apply the techniques and see if they work. Those who instead choose to rely on an authority are setting themselves up for abuse. This is how cults get started.
Yet Gotama stories are out there, so what are we to make of them? Well, we can treat them as allegories. In fact, his enlightenment story makes a nice two-part allegory for the human condition.
Part 1 says we cannot ignore the realities of life, which will intrude no matter how sheltered we are. They demand a response. This is why Gotama was made a prince — to show no one is immune. This truth is so universal that even Christianity co-opted this part of the story. Existentialism takes this as a starting point. Gotama is anyone who had it all yet wondered what was the point. Gotama is anyone who was forced to wake up when tragedy struck. Gotama is anyone who looked underneath the stable veneer of life and realized the instability, waiting to swallow them whole.
Part 2 is the response, which counsels acceptance. This is why Gotama abandoned his family — not because one should, but because it shows that even abandoning everything won’t work. One can’t run. The only thing that worked out was when he gave up. Then he found it.
What did Gotama find under the tree? It wasn’t an answer; he never wanted one. Even though his quest is treated as an attempt to find the “why” of sickness, old age and death, this is not the “why” of the interested scientist, but the “why” of Job. This “why” is a protest that expects no answer, and it can only be silenced. It’s silenced by acceptance. Here Gotama is everyone facing death who fully accepts that fate and takes joy in the time left; Gotama is everyone who hit rock bottom with no way out and started enjoying the view; Gotama is Camus’ Sysyphus who realizes he will never escape his fate and finds joy in the abandonment of hope.
The allegories are simply literary forms that start with “The Buddha said X”. By killing Gotama, the only thing that can support X is it’s own internal consistency and hence we are invited to scrutinize and study X. In the process, we either reject it or learn more about it and can benefit more from it. Both approaches are superior to accepting X just because some washed out prince supposedly said it 2,500 years ago.
This is what emerges when we look more deeply at the allegory of Gotama. As allegory, it speaks directly to us, contains the key to practice and takes away the silly enlightenment superstitions that have prevented serious practice and gave self-styled gurus free reign to abuse their followers.
Killing The Buddha may be the best thing for Buddhism. Of course individuals and institutions with a vested interest in the myth of enlightenment would disagree, but they don’t matter. After all, no one asks the cancer cells if they mind chemotherapy…