It’s no secret that we have, in the West, an entire celebrity industry, dedicated to perpetuating the cult of personality. Actresses are airbrushed. Actors are declared “the sexiest”.
But why is it that we elevate these people above us? Is it that we need some justification for our own perceived inadequacies? Is it some penchant for escapism, in which we cling to these fantasy stories to forget our suffering? In the end, it is a poor excuse for living if we allow ourselves to substitute the reported exploits of others for the in-the-moment experiences we miss through our own inaction and inattention.
Even in crafts such as woodworking, we have celebrities. We all know who they are, and many of us have learned great things from them. These, I think, are the more difficult celebrities to let go of, especially when the knowledge they’ve shared has helped us grow in our own skills. In Isaac Newton’s words, “If I have seen further it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is this admonition that “if you meet the Buddha in the road, kill him!” – that is, by bestowing Buddhahood upon another, you negate your own Buddha nature. By abandoning the distinction between Buddha and “not Buddha”, the practitioner achieves a greater sense of his Buddha nature. Killing the Buddha does not diminish one’s gratitude for the Buddha’s teaching. It is nevertheless a necessary step toward enlightenment.
Likewise, as artists and craftspeople, we must learn to “kill the Buddha” in our creative lives. As novices we depend on the teacher to lead the way. But once we learn to navigate the path, we are no longer novices, and we must let go the teacher’s hand.
We are still grateful for the teaching we received, and we still respect the work they do, but if we are to continue to grow, we must take our place alongside our teachers, fully human, doing the work that we find meaningful.