Chop its Head Off: Emptiness, Buddhism and God

I am not one to talk about Buddhism, and even less to teach others what Buddhism is about. My grasp of it is minimal, and I have heard many people ...

I am not one to talk about Buddhism, and even less to teach others what Buddhism is about. My grasp of it is minimal, and I have heard many people speak about it much more knowledgeably than I can. With that in mind, what follows are the things that have stuck with me the most.
It was the end of the summer in Barcelona, and my bags weren’t anywhere close to being packed. Sophomore, beginning of a second year. I was looking for things to bring to Abu Dhabi to help me create a nice space. A beautiful desk. My father, who had been meditating since the age of fifteen, gave me a white figurine posed in meditation, handing it over with his child-like smile and an unassuming, “Do you want this?” The figure’s head was a bit loose, and had been stuck back on with superglue. We wrapped it a bit amongst socks and underwear, and I packed it in my bag. When I got to Abu Dhabi, it had broken again.
There is a Buddhist saying that goes like this: if you come across a Buddha walking in the street, chop its head off. Buddhists tend to love controversial statements just as much as they dislike clear explanations, but here goes: The idea is, if you see a Buddha on the street walking like any other person, then it is clear you’re not seeing a real Buddha; if it had reached illumination, it wouldn't be walking in the samsara world. Yet, the metaphor also has deeper implications. The body of Buddha is empty, just like all other touchable and smellable reality. It is the image of the Buddha, however, that helps us move forward. That is, one must never get lost in the image – god is not a white-bearded man, but rather an idea we project onto reality. If it helps you be a better person, then please, maintain your belief. But keep in mind that it, like all other thinkable and conceptual reality, is empty as well.
So I keep the meditating figure with me, on my bedside table. It has its head on most of the time, but it’s nice to take it off, to move it around.
Meister Eckhart, a thirteenth century Christian mystic cited by many Buddhist philosophers, proposed a different controversial statement: in order to get to God, we must kill him. This is a great logical argument; as long as you want to reach God — a main impulse of medieval European mysticism — it is clear you haven’t. As long as, in your vocabulary, there is a word for god, no union can be found because you are placing yourself outside of god by giving him a name. God is ultimately found if, and only if, two necessary and suficient conditions are met: God must be inexistent, and you must be inexistent too. Meister Eckhart in many of his writings concluded that we must think of god as the absolute emptiness and that our selves, like all other essences, are empty as well. Of course, he was condemned as heretic, and his writings were banned from the church until 1992.
Buddhism gave me the license to accept paradoxes as they are, a license I’d never had before in an “A is A” and “Not A is not A” society. To me, Nothingness is the god of Buddhism, and Buddha was just the first to find this out, which is something I find beautiful, both as an idea and as a practice. Reminding myself that I am emptiness and everything else is emptiness too, yet that the emptiness is precisely that sacred thread in which we can find each other, is the healthiest practice I have found so far. And so I stay with it. And while I breathe, I remind myself that ultimately, it is false, like everything else we think and see. And we smile.
Correction: 9 Nov. 2014
A previous version of this article was titled as Denying An Image of God.
Oscar Lozano Pérez is a contributing writer. Email him at 
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