I remember encountering this phrase many years ago, and being intrigued, but perplexed at its apparent violence. I know it’s a metaphor, but still, the concept I had of Buddhism was that it was a religion that stressed peace and nonviolence, calm and meditation. And Lotuses were involved. Granted, my concept of Buddhism was pretty much entirely formed from perusing New Age bookstores during my “Pagan-needs-crystals” phase, but still, peace and nonviolence are fairly critical to many Buddhist traditions.
“If you meet the Buddha, kill him” is a koan, or mind-puzzle, attributed to Zen Master Linji in the 9th century (source, Shambhala Sun).
I wince at the violence of that statement, even though it is a metaphor. I think this comes from my Christian side, where the founder of the faith, Jesus, was brutally killed in order for him to complete his mission and bring salvation to believers. More or less. But Jesus’ killers are the bad guys in the story, his violent death the evil that had to occur for the hero to advance and fulfill his destiny. So to place myself in the role of “God-killer”, even metaphorically, is uncomfortable. So I wince.
But then that’s kind of the point. It is uncomfortable to view the reality of impermanence sometimes. Ideas can be powerful motivators for good, but clinging to them as permanent is a big problem. Having a static idea of the Buddha, an “idol”, a “fetish”, as it were, is to miss the reality, to miss the teachings of Buddha.
Fascinatingly, the etymology of the word “idea” comes from the Greek, where it meant form, shape, “the look of a thing (as opposed to its reality)”. (online etymology entry) The look of the thing is not the reality of the thing. The idea in your head is not reality.
Perhaps sometimes it is necessary to do violence to those ideas that get stuck and clung to in the mind. I think I have a particular dislike of such destruction, as I am, at heart, a preserver and an archivist. My field of archaeology is all about preserving things, after all.
But then, just as a brush fire can clear the way for new growth, so the destruction of such ideas is necessary for mental and emotional growth.