“Place no head above your own” is found as a quote attributed to the Buddha in Bhante Gunaratana’s “Mindfulness in Plain English” (page 28 in the 20th anniversary edition) where we read:
His invitation to all was “Come and see.” One of the things he said to his followers was, “Place no head above your own.” By this he meant, don’t just accept somebody else’s word. See for yourself.
However, “Place no head above your own” is not a phrase you’ll find in the scriptures. According to a number of sources, including Charlotte Joko Beck’s book, “Nothing Special,” it’s from Zen master Rinzai (Chinese name, Linji). Although I’d heard of the Rinzai school of Zen I confess I didn’t realize there was a Zen master by that name.
A helpful reader pointed me toward the passage in Rinzai’s teachings where this quote is found:
I say to you there is no buddha, no dharma, nothing to practice, nothing to enlighten to. Just what are you seeking in the highways and byways? Blind men! You’re putting a head on top of the one you already have. What do you yourselves lack? Followers of the Way, your own present activities do not differ from those of the patriarch-buddhas. You just don’t believe this and keep on seeking outside. Make no mistake! Outside there is no dharma; inside, there is nothing to be obtained. Better than grasp at the words from my mouth, take it easy and do nothing. Don’t continue [thoughts] that have already arisen and don’t let those that haven’t yet arisen be aroused. Just this will be worth far more to you than a ten years’ pilgrimage.
(Record of Linji, Discourse XVIII)
So it seems Joko Beck was paraphrasing Rinzai rather than quoting him: “Place no head above your own” versus “You’re putting a head on top of the one you already have.”
The person who originally sent me the “Place no head above your own” quote asked Gunaratana about it, and the author replied by quoting the following passage:
Therefore, Ananda, dwell with yourselves as your own island, with yourselves as your own refuge, with no other refuge; dwell with the Dhamma as your island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge.
To my mind it’s inadequate to explain “place no head above your own” in terms of the “be an island” quote. “Place no head above your own” is not what that quote says. Nor does the Buddha say this elsewhere.
It’s one thing to paraphrase the Buddha, along the lines of “what the Buddha is essentially saying is, ‘place no head above your own.’ ” But it’s another thing to present those words as a quote from the Buddha when in fact they aren’t.
Lest you think that the Buddha was some kind of egalitarian, you should know that the Buddha expected reverence and respect from his followers.
To take the phrase “place no head above your own” entirely literally, in the Maha-Parinibbana sutta the Buddha is recorded as saying “A burial mound for the Tathagata is to be built at a great four-way intersection. And those who offer a garland, a scent, or a perfume powder there, or bow down there, or brighten their minds there: that will be for their long-term welfare & happiness.”
It was standard for people to bow to the Buddha upon approaching him, and the stock phrase is that someone, “having bowed down to him, sat to one side.”
Upon meeting the Buddha, or any other respected person, we would be expected literally to place his head above our own.
To be more metaphorical, verse 392 of the Dhammapada says “Just as a brahman priest reveres his sacrificial fire, even so should one devoutly revere the person from whom one has learned the Dhamma taught by the Buddha.”
Now the Buddha being the Fully and Perfectly Awakened One, and therefore the most developed individual in existence, there was no-one worthy of his reverence, and so he said that his object of reverence was the Dhamma. This brings us back around to the “island quote.” Since following the Buddha means, by definition, taking the Buddha, his Dhamma, and the Sangha as refuges, the phrase “with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge” I think means (and I never realized this until now) that he’s encouraging his disciples to become Arahants. That, I presume, is the only way one can not have the Buddha and Sangha as refuges along with the Dhamma. But the only way to become an Arahant is to go for refuge to the Buddha, which means (metaphorically and literally) placing his head above our own. This is a great example of the Dhamma as a raft.
So with respect to Bhante Gunaratana’s deep knowledge of the Dharma, I have to say he’s wrong in saying that “place no head above your own” is a quote from the Buddha.
To place no head above one’s own (in the sense of not reverencing anyone) may be the fruit of the path, but it’s not the path itself. It’s where the raft takes us, but it’s not part of the raft.
However, Rinza’s use of this expression doesn’t seem to be about reverence, exactly. In saying “What do you yourselves lack? … You just don’t believe this and keep on seeking outside … Better than grasp at the words from my mouth, take it easy and do nothing” he seems to be talking about a common (even near-universal) tendency to pay more attention to texts than to actual practice. Putting a head on top of your head means seeing the world through someone else’s experience rather than using your own experience as a basis for insight.
This would correspond, I believe, to the third fetter of “clinging to moral rules and religious practices” (sīlabbata–parāmāsa) as opposed to its antidote, which is “knowledge and vision of what is and is not the path” (maggāmagga-ñāṇadassana). In this context placing no head above your own becomes at some point an indispensable practice. We’re of course dependent on the teachings of others at first, but increasingly we take those teachings only as a guide to seeing things as they are, and learn to look directly at our own experience. Or, as Gunaratana put it, “…don’t just accept somebody else’s word. See for yourself.”