Being Your Own Light

If you reflect someone else's light you never know why you do what you do.

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Linji Yixuan

There are many ways to interpret this; mine isn’t the true one.

To kill the Buddha means to not deify him. To take the ideas, not the man.

What we have today is instead – take the man and not the ideas. The man worshipped, literally, and the ideas forgotten. It’s easy to worship and idolize someone. It’s far harder to try to understand what they had to say.

There are many Buddhists, but few if any Buddhas. Just as it is for Christians and Christ. And it’s not about religion either – it’s the same everywhere. Take a person hero-worshipped, and you’ll be hard pressed to find among the throngs of worshippers someone who’s read their works or understood their ideas.

I recall being pleasantly surprised to learn about Bhagat Singh’s writings. I don’t subscribe to his views, but it changed my view of him for the better. Not simply a rough-and-tough man of action hurling bombs, but one of those rare breeds – articulate, intelligent and full of conviction. I wonder how many of those who venerate him know that side of him, or are aware of his beliefs.

I wonder how many of those who idolize particular humans know what those humans really thought. And above all, how they’d have hated the thought that a day would come when millions would worship them yet no one would understand them. Worshipping is easy; attempting to understand isn’t. Easiest of all is to reduce a human being to a binary good/bad – especially if he’s long dead & unable to defend himself.

This is really a specific manifestation of a more general malaise – the incapacity and unwillingness to exert oneself to go deep enough to understand something. To superficially deal with everything at a very high level; knowing nothing about anything yet presuming to know everything about everything. To make up a mind (or what passes for one) at a glance, and once made, to never be re-made, no matter how compelling the reasons for it.

It’s a similar plague to the one that causes its victims to seek a ban on a movie without watching it, or a book without reading it – they’ve not read it, and they’ll never be able to, but they already ‘know’ what it’s about, and more importantly, that it’s ‘bad’.


What is it to do with ‘killing the Buddha’?

It goes back to Socrates and the Euthyphro Dilemma – whether the good is good because God wills it or whether God wills it because it is good.

The one who deifies the Buddha is the one who believes something is good because the Buddha said it. Not that the Buddha said it because it’s good.

The former implies that goodness stems from a God. Nothing is good or bad intrinsically, by itself. Tomorrow, if the gods so choose, theft and murder may well become good. The latter holds that goodness and badness are independent of the gods – you don’t need to look to them for goodness (though they presumably would affirm something that was good, otherwise what’s godly about them?).

To kill the Buddha doesn’t mean to swing to the other end of the pendulum and reject or contradict him. It simply means to not deify him, not to look to him for your own light.

To kill the Buddha in this sense isn’t to slander him; if anything it’s what he himself apparently wanted from his ‘followers’ in his last lesson. Wondering who would guide them, they were told – ‘Aatm deepo bhav’ – be your own light.

I recall reading that the Buddha’s disciples asked him what to do with his body when he died, and all he told them was to not let his remains become a distraction for them. Even while dying, he didn’t lose sight of what mattered, and what didn’t – including himself. What actually happened though, not surprisingly, was the opposite – relics grew up around fragments of his body, and the one who didn’t look to gods for his salvation was himself made into one.

To kill the Buddha is to reject blind imitation, and to hold everything to the test, to take nothing for granted just because it’s been handed down by a great man.

Many people see it when you discuss religion or god or tradition – rituals are often and easily questioned. Yet it’s just the same for everything else, but that seems harder to notice. To be liberal because it’s cool or a conservative because it’s contrarian or stoic because it’s ‘good’. To be spiritual or Zen or liberal or conservative or stoic or anything else because it’s packaged and sold that way.

When you order your beliefs and thoughts in bulk – and to subscribe to an ideology or follow a great person is to do that – you don’t get to pick and choose and test your thoughts individually. They’re pre-packaged for you and come in a bundle, and removing unwanted ones likely comes with cognitive dissonance (“how can you call yourself a communist if you don’t believe in Marx’s views on religion?!”).


That’s ‘top-down’ philosophy – when you start with the big-buzzword, whether it’s stoicism or spirituality or capitalism or liberalism.

Top-down approach makes a ‘philosophy’ as an end in itself. It’s very common – whether it’s Buddhism or Stoicism or spiritualism, they’re laid out as lofty goals to be attained – or put yet more profoundly, ‘things you work towards’.

This intentionality, the attempt to mold myself into something that I think is desirable, itself ensures I will never be what I’m trying to become.

Worse though, it takes what’s supposed to be an accessory or tool that makes your life better and makes it into something holy that you’re supposed to mold your life toward. The slave becomes the master; the man shapes himself into the ideas instead of the ideas serving him.

“I am not fond of philosophical essays. I think a little philosophy should be added to life and art by way of spice, but to make it one’s speciality seems to me as strange as feeding on nothing but pickles”.

Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak

I share the distaste for philosophical essays. A few rare authors can pull it off. I’m aware I can’t – any philosophy in my writing is purely incidental, simply the result of generalizing from particular instances.

The truth is that someone who was really a stoic or a Buddha wouldn’t talk about it, nor need to. They’d be too busy getting on with their lives – lives that those very ideas had done a lot to improve. It’s the one who’s internalized the ideas, derived real value from them, who doesn’t need to constantly reference them. Those who do either haven’t been able to harness the value, or are too much in love with it to the point they make it part of their identity.

Of course, many of those gurus who peddle such ideas can’t afford to stop, because they’re strongly incentivized not to – they’ll become redundant and jobless. And yet it’s true – the test of a good doctor is that you don’t need to see him again soon, of a good trainer that you learn enough to workout by yourself, and of a real mentor that you learn to do without a mentor. But those who know how to make no other dishes will continue to consume only pickles.

Bottom-up philosophy ‘kills’ the philosopher, even if it’s the Buddha. You can stand on the shoulders of giants, but you’re still making the effort to climb up on to them and stand; you’re not letting them carry you.

Top-down begins with enshrined rules and principles to be applied to situations; bottom-up is the inverse – dealing with situations & generalizing principles from them. After forging a principle, you apply it elsewhere, instead of worshipping it.

It’s the understanding that you take the value from the best ideas and then you get on with your life; you don’t fetishize them, you don’t subordinate your life to them, and you don’t identify with them.

It begins with just one thing, what Socrates said – know thyself.

Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?”
Starting with your own.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius

Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m certain that this single question could lead someone, who’d never heard of stoicism or Buddhism or any other set of beliefs, to adopt them – if he chose to.

As Sherlock Holmes put it, “From a drop of water, a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other.” And in the same manner, from a single question, without having heard of the Buddha or Marcus Aurelius, a person could discover their ideas.

When you ask “Why am I doing that?” you probe for the cause behind the action. It’s a test, the test of value or utility – why am I doing that? It’s to ask – what am I getting by doing that?

The one who loses his shit when his order is delayed or his someone overtakes him on the road – what does he get by losing his shit? It certainly doesn’t speed up his order or stop the one overtaking him. Nothing is achieved except a foul mood, wasted energy, loss of mental equilibrium – all of which carry forward for hours. And if he really begins to test why he does that, perhaps he might see the cost-benefit fails – without needing a Roman emperor to tell him that. And that’s what it really means to say that wisdom begets stoicism, stoicism doesn’t beget wisdom.

Just as the one who, craving for one thing after another, sets his happiness as conditional upon fulfilling his craving. Unhappy till he gets a new phone, then happy for a few brief moments until he wants a new car, and so on and so forth. And when you ask – why am I doing that, what is it getting me – if you find that it costs you more than you get – then you perhaps don’t condition your happiness on your cravings anymore. Without needing any Buddha to tell you that the cause of suffering is desire.

Sometimes you find yourself going out of your way to create a charade, inconveniencing yourself to put up a front to make people think of you the way you want to be thought of. Why am I doing that, what does it get me – what do I get by trying to make a particular impression on people? And when you begin to ask that of yourself, perhaps you eventually stop bothering with those games. Without needing any influencer or guru to tell you to ‘be yourself’.

Something I learn this way – by understanding why I do what I do, and whether it makes sense – is far deeper than something I’m told by an authority. When I see and experience and learn that my anger has net negative utility, that it causes me loss and fetches me nothing, I learn that better than I do when I read Marcus Aurelius, great as he may be. When I feel the suffering that my own cravings bring me I learn better than any teaching that the cause of suffering is desire.

That’s not to say that the top-down approach is totally devoid of value, that there’s nothing to be gained by reading a Marcus Aurelius or a Buddha. To discover for yourself everything others have already done is needlessly inefficient and likely unachievable – in any case it’s a pointless reinvention of the wheel. A candle that’s been lit up by another can generate its own flame, and become its own light.

Yet I don’t think the top-down approach amounts to anything by itself, or that you can even understand something till you reason it by yourself for yourself, applying it in your own circumstances – and that happens when you unearth the reasons for doing what you do.

What it comes down to is that the most admirable traits and qualities do not have to be derived from lofty philosophies, nor followed out of fear or veneration of a deity or authority, nor ‘learnt’ by weird tricks and hacks, nor ‘trained’ through discipline. They can just as well be the outcome of a simple process of introspection.

Nor are they ends in themselves, things you ‘work towards’ or ‘try to become’. They’re tools, meant to serve humans, not ends that humans need to mold themselves into. If they add value, use them; if they don’t, reject them, without berating yourself for not living up to them – there’s no necessity to.

And I think they’re more valuable that way, when they’re consciously adopted to serve to make life better, rather than commandments to be unquestioningly lived up to.