Sunday, March 20, 2005
Today is both the Vernal Equinox (happy spring!) and Palm Sunday. I guess these two days don't always fall on the same date - in fact, I guess that it's impossible to always be the same day of the year. Just a coincidence this time, I suppose.
I don't recall exactly what Palm Sunday commemorates; it has something to do with Jesus' triumphant arrival in some city shortly before the crowd turns on him and has him crucified. All I remember is that you would get some sort of long leaf at church, a frond, to take home and play with, only to realize that there was really nothing you could do with it, so after waving it around for a little bit and trying to whip your sister with it, you'd give up and go on to other things. I guess that Palm Sunday's main significance was always that it marked one week until Easter.
Now, I don't want to get off on a rant here, so let me first point out that I generally have little patience for those who define their religious beliefs by bashing the beliefs of others. This applies not only to televangelists, but also to some so-called Buddhists that I've met, who seem more interested in rebelling against their Judeo-Christian upbringing than in really embracing Buddhism. I've also been dismayed to read Japanese Zen masters who try to talk about Christainity, when it's painfully obvious they have no clue what they're talking about. So I offer my comments on Jesus here not to criticize the belief of others, but to provide an alternative view of Jesus as bodhisattva.
If you look at the four gospels and take away all of the obvious mythology (the virgin birth, etc.), and look at the common themes, you'll find the story of a man who lived at the intersection of a nomadic spiritual tradition (Judaism) and a secular world power (Rome). Meanwhile, John the Baptist was whipping up a religious frenzy with prophesy of a coming messiah. Into these heady times comes a carpenter from Nazareth.
The gospels are generally quiet about Jesus' early life, and what little is presented makes it sound like he was a fairly typical carpenter for his time. However one day, this carpenter wanders off into the desert and fasts for 40 days and when he comes back, he is profoundly changed.
Now, we'll never know what happened to Jesus while he was fasting in the desert, but his preaching career began when he returned, and he started saying things like "I and the Father are one." From a Buddhist perspective, it seems that Jesus experienced a profound sense of identity with the universe, much like the Buddha experienced while sitting under the Bodhi tree, and much like Zen offers to everyone.
The primary difference, and the fundamental tragedy of Christianity in my opinion, is that while the Buddha taught that everyone could have the same experience of being one with the Almighty, Jesus' followers claimed exclusivity, that only he could have that experience and no one else. What Jesus himself might have said about that may be lost, although, as Julie pointed out in her email, the Gnostic Gospels suggest that he didn't view the experience as exclusively as the Church later claimed that it was ("if you read the Gnostic Gospels, he spends a lot of time telling his disciples that they are no different from him & that if they want to see the Kingdom of God, they should just open their eyes in the here and now").
Well, as we all know, Rome didn't take very well to the notion of an enlightened mystic stirring up the masses, and they had him killed. Now, the Easter myth states that three days after being crucified, Jesus rose from the dead and appeared again among the people. What I don't understand is, if you accept his return to the world, what did he do with this Second Act?
Not very much. Apparently hang out with Mary Magdalene, convince Doubting Thomas that it really was him, and, strangely, ask for meat. Here, he just made literally the greatest comeback of all time, and no great closing sermon, no profound last teaching, no memorable last words. What a squandered opportunity!
So what I see is the story of a Semitic carpenter who goes off to the desert and experiences an enlightenment, comes back and tries to tell the others about it but is misunderstood and eventually murdered, and his followers, who never really understood his message anyway, begin a religion around their view of his teachings. As the church grows, those accounts that enable and give authority to the church are codified into the scriptures, and those that encourage the follower to think for himself are rejected and later classified as "heresy."
Of course, I wasn't there, so I don't really know.