Translated By: Andrew Yang
A popular Buddhist saying goes, “Lay down the killing knife and instantly turn into a Buddha.” Its meaning is subtle, and should not be taken word by word.
By the Song dynasty (960-1279), a form of this proverb had already appeared in numerous Zen quotes. According to Volume 25 of Records of Passing On the Lamp in the Jingde Era, “The Zen master Fa’an Huiji of Bao’en Abbey in Jinling told the audience, Be aware of illusion and depart right away. Doing so is not an act of expediency. Once away you have awakened. This awakening is not gradual… You should follow the example of Guang’e the butcher, who dropped his cleaver to attain arhatship.” Later on, in A History of Zen Buddhism Based on Five Books of Zen Quotations, this metaphor became the saying, “Put down the butcher’s knife and right away change into a Buddha”.
Imagine a killer laying down his knife. How is he ever likely to become a Buddha at once, without going through any cultivation?! Mustn’t one who has killed first repent and then go all out to master the Dharma before embarking on a journey to Buddhahood?!
This story originates in Nirvana Sutra translated by Dharmaksema (385-433) during the Northern and Southern dynasties (386-589), which goes, “In Benares, India, a butcher named Guang’e killed sheep every day. Once, however, he met Buddha’s disciple Sariputra, and received the Eight Precepts from him. With such karma, in one day, he was named son of Vaisravaṇa, the Guardian King of the North.” The gist of the story has now crystalized into the proverb as we know today, “Lay down the killing knife and instantly turn into a Buddha”.
Some may wonder that since becoming a Buddha instantly is sudden awakening, it should take no accumulative cultivation whatsoever. Rather, it is awakening right here and now to perfect Buddhahood. If that could happen, should one practice Buddhism through epiphany, i.e., sudden awakening and revelation of the truth, or progressive enlightenment? There are many factors to consider but in the final analysis, it depends on the practitioners’ roots of good karma, their level of wisdom already attained, and the environment befitting the particular cultivation approach they are taking.
Buddhists have long entertained differing views regarding approaches to enlightenment. During the Eastern Jin dynasty (317-420), the Zen master Daosheng (355-434) wrote The Meaning of Sudden Awakening to Buddhahood, pioneering an eponym approach, while Huiguan authored On Gradual Awakening, expounding a differing path. These two perspectives continued and by the Tang dynasty (618-907), Master Huineng (638-713) and his followers were leading the epiphany camp whereas Master Shenxiu (606-706) with his disciples were advocating a progressive enlightenment approach. Hence grew the two opposite styles of Buddhist cultivation known typically as “sudden awakening of the south” and “gradual awakening of the north”.
If you go by the pedagogy used, then a teaching methodology that leads to rapid awakening without following a prescribed order of practice is considered part of the sudden camp, and one that emphasises a long road to awakening and follows a set order of practice step by step is considered typical of the gradual camp. If you go by the content taught, then one that starts with the more esoteric is likely of the sudden camp, whereas one starting with the easier stuff more likely belongs to the gradual camp.
Some ancients, with the help of wisdom and good karma roots achieved, were born in the Right Dharma Age and Semblance Dharma Age. In those times monasteries were built in the deep mountains of Aranya, far away from the hustle and bustle of towns and cities, and even homes of lay Buddhists were situated closer to peaceful wilderness. On the whole, a simple, primitive agricultural society in those days offered a tranquil, serene environment for cultivating faith, and made it easy for practitioners to access Buddhism with wholesome meditation or medication through samatha and vipassana. In contrast, however, people today with a superficial level of wisdom and roots of good karma, have been born in an Dharma Ending Age. A profit-driven industrial, commercial society tends to orient people towards greed, anger and delusion. Their career, family and everyday work are more often devoted to a chase after fame and fortune, plus their living environment is likely urban and noisy. For them, then, being able to cultivate Buddhism through gradual awakening could be a luxury, let alone practising for sudden awakening. Therefore, the Great Collection Sutra (i.e., Mahavaipulya Mahasamghata Sutra) says, “Among those practising Buddhism in the Dharma Ending Age, rarely does anyone attain Buddhahood. Only by chanting the name of Buddha could one hope to transcend life and death.”
In fact, even after one attains sudden awakening, it is still necessary to go through additional intensive practice to achieve Nirvana. In the Tang dynasty, the Zen master Huangbo Xiyun (? – 855) would use this motto to encourage fellow Buddhists,
“It is hard enough to clear your mind of worldly concerns,
As to do so you need to pursue with firm determination.
The wintersweet, without going through bone-chilling freeze,
How could the aroma from its flower strike one’s nostrils?”
To paraphrase, liberating oneself from earthly affairs takes resolve and sustained efforts. It is as if a wintersweet shrub, without having weathered the bitter cold of winter, may not blossom and emit a delicate fragrance after all.
During the Song dynasty, the Zen master Puzhao (1158-1210) wrote in Rhymes for Nurturing the Mind,
“One may have attained sudden enlightenment.
Nevertheless, bad habits accumulate after all previous lives.
The wind may have died down, yet the sea is turbulent.
As truth appears, so do thoughts invade.”
Even after a practitioner has realized the truth manifesting for him, his delusion and attachment gathered since before the beginning may penetrate his mind without his knowing, so it is necessary to heighten awareness and diligently pursue follow-up practice after enlightenment, until his ignorance is completely eliminated before achieving the full Bodhi. This is just like the ripples going on after a storm is over and it takes time for the sea to go back to its normal calmness prior to the storm.
Guang’e the butcher in Nirvana Sutra had slaughtered countless sheep for a lifetime. Later, upon encountering Sariputra the Great One and receiving the Eight Precepts, in one day and night he was awarded merit, and upon dying was reborn into the realm of heavens, but note that he did not attain Buddhahood. In popular culture, however, people mix up the two different levels of attainment, i.e., rebirth into heavens and rebirth into Buddhahood. The butcher did so much evil killings throughout his life. However, he had the karma to access Buddhism and become enlightened. Yet he still had to persevere in cultivating the Dharma in order to eradicate the ignorance he had accrued through all his many previous lives.
As highlighted in Volumes I and II of The Annotated Lotus Sutra, while Master Daosheng advocated sudden awakening, he did not give up on the progressive cultivation leading to that happening. Consequently, the famous proverb under discussion here does not mean that after a butcher puts down his knife, he naturally becomes a Buddha without the need to practice at all. In truth, it is a metaphor used to mean that given a Buddhist’s unremitting practice, once a superior conducive condition occurs, such as a timely warning from a master mentor, it may enable the practitioner to break through the confines of his ignorance and immediately attain a higher level of wisdom.