Zombie Buddha 4evah

What compels me about the idea of Zombie Buddha is the very undesirability of that state. If we, in our attachment-ridden samsaric condition—bogged down with karma and the perception of conventional reality—were able to see Buddhahood as desirable, I would doubt its truth. Just as emptiness is at first difficult to conceive of, and the idea of no-self can be deeply troubling, Buddhahood should seem strange to us. What we can understand through conventional reality is necessarily flawed because of the very nature of our dualistic perception; so perhaps what is true should actually never make sense right off the bat. Therefore, Zombie Buddha is fascinating to me.

As a concept, Zombie Buddha is beautifully, fundamentally necessary because of the very nature of karma—once the Buddha reaches enlightenment he cannot collect more karma, because karma is what tethers sentient beings to samsara. Since all cognition generates karma, the Buddha necessarily cannot have thoughts after becoming the Buddha. If he were, he would still be bound by samsara, and therefore not enlightened. But the question is: how did he walk around and give teachings with no thoughts? Even though the necessary lack of karma seems to leave the idea of Zombie Buddha philosophically sound, when we step back to examine the life of the Buddha post-awakening it suddenly seems ridiculous again. As Yoshi pointed out in class, in stories of the Buddha’s awakening it is said that he thinks about how he should communicate the ultimate truth, considering not communicating it at all. These thoughts at least, let alone all of the thoughts and actions that accompany his teachings, would seemingly be karmically entrenched.

The idea of the Buddha’s pre-awakening karma spinning itself out like a potter’s wheel throughout the remainder of his lifetime addresses some of these concerns, but still leaves me with a few questions. For instance: usually, it seems that in the experiences of sentient beings, karma begets more karma, and that is precisely why getting out of samsara is so difficult. Since the winding-down karma of the Buddha that enables him to give teachings still has vast and formative karmic effects on the world and the sentient beings in it, how would it not have any karmic effect on him? By the nature of the interdependence of sentient beings, the fact that the karma of the Buddha is acting on others would seems to necessitate some kind of karmic reflection back on him as well. And yet this would mean he would remain stuck in samsara. So what are the terms of his karmic immunity?

I suppose what may be happening is that the Buddha himself actually no longer exists after awakening, and in fact all that is left are the reverberations of his karma, playing themselves out independent of the sentient being that caused them. But here I think I might be straying into the realm of the questions the Buddha said not to ask—maybe it’s best to let Zombie Buddha lie and focus on yanking out that poison arrow.

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3 Responses to Zombie Buddha 4evah

  1. Gabriel says:

    I’m deeply compelled by what Yoshi reminded us of–the possibility that the Buddha could have, instead of going around teaching others how to attain enlightenment, decided to tell no one at all. The very ineffability of the ultimate truth might have rendered it not only strange and not-quite-knowable but unknowable, unspeakable. If the metaphysics of the ultimate truth had been slightly different, would any preaching on it categorically have missed the mark? Would he have kept silent because attempting to speak about it would not have been worth it?

    Despite Buddhism’s unflinching pragmatism (the Four Noble Truths first explain why existence is materially difficult and then present a how-to manual on escaping that difficulty), the alien nature of Buddhahood takes on a kind of sanctity. These stories of the Buddha’s awakening suggest that there is an alternate world where Buddhism as we know it does not exist, because it was too strange to express. Yet we do not live in this world; the fact that the ultimate truth is so strange and yet we try to talk about it anyway is a paradox and a miracle. Perhaps the closeness of the alternate world, the miracle that we do not live in it, is key to understanding Buddhism as religion, as a phenomenon with a relation to the sacred.

  2. jolsen says:

    Yes, I too wonder how it is there could suddenly no longer be karma when Cause and Effect was still occurring (the Buddha was still interacting with our world, so he was still causing an effect on others). It just seems like this “leftover karma” was still doing a lot- creating thoughts, actions, etc. and how does it just conveniently last until the body passes away? Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  3. Marie says:

    You articulate so well some of the same questions I’ve been having (but have been completely unable to even fathom how to put them in words–this is such complicated material.) Your question “So what are the terms of his karmic immunity?” is essential. Honestly, I cannot wrap my head around any of this still–when you say that perhaps “all that is left are the reverberations of his karma”, this seems like it makes sense, and thinking about it this way gets me closer to understanding the zombie Buddha concept. On an unrelated note, does the zombie Buddha concept come up only when considering Mipam’s argument? Is it exclusively a product of the fusion of two different perspectives on ultimate truth? So many questions!

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