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.