Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What with Christmas coming and all, much of the talk around the Zen Center has revolved around the teachings of Christ, and any Zen interpretations one might infer there from.

On the one hand, one can look at the story of Jesus and draw similarities to the life of the Buddha. An interpretation of Jesus' life could be that he was a normal, average Aramaic carpenter, living a normal, average Aramaic carpenter's life, when for some reason he went out into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. The Gospels indicate that he fasted, and had visions of the devil tempting him. It is not written whether or not he meditated, but he must have been profoundly alone and quiet. In any event, when he came back, he was markedly changed, and began his preaching career saying things like "I and the Father are one," and "The Kingdom of Heaven is all around us." Granted, the latter is only in the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Gnostic Gospels suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church, but we'll get to that in a moment.

Like the Buddha, then, who sat and meditated under the bodhi tree and achieved enlightenment when the morning star arose, one could presume that after his experience alone in the desert, Jesus too achieved a sense of unity with the universe. Unfortunately, his preaching career was cut off quickly by an unfortunate martyrdom, and his teachings were kept by a small and persecuted sect for many years before they were written down, so we may never know what he really taught.

Now at this point in the conversation, someone usually interrupts and says that you can't interpret the Gospels from a Buddhist perspective. It's dangerous, it's not respectful of the beliefs of others, and it ignores certain other unpleasant teachings, such as Jesus' statement that "No man enters into the Kingdom of Heaven except through me." You can't, the argument goes, smorgasbord among the teachings you like and ignore those you don't.

I disagree. First of all, I intend absolutely no disrespect and if others take offense, it's an unfortunate effect of their narrow mindedness, not my provocation. I am not trying to make fun of or belittle Christ's teachings, but instead embrace them, find commonalities instead of differences, and incorporate them into the Buddhadharma.

Second, the entire history of Christian dogma has been selecting texts that meets the needs of those in power, from Popes to Kings to charismatic preachers, while expurgating the rest. At some point, at least in the English-speaking world, the scripture became "frozen" into the popular King James translation and selections, but other Gospels, such as Thomas, have been dropped, while epistles of his followers have been added. There's no reason not to continue this process of selection to fit the times and one's wisdom.

On that note, someone once pointed out to me that Americans in particular have become uniquely literal in the interpretation of the Bible. This may be, it was reasoned, because of our roots as a frontier society, far removed from the churches and scholars, and our only authority was the written text. So we came to rely on that text to a far greater extent than, say, our European brethrens.

And as for exclusive and dualistic statements like "No man enters into the Kingdom of Heaven except through me," one needs to look a little deeper. If Jesus also said "I and the Father are one," what did he mean when he said "through me?" Just his mortal self? Or he and the Father? And if he and the Father are one, what does the Father not also encompass? What limits can one place on God? Could not his "me" actually refer to the entire universe?

If one considers this all-encompassing view, the statement "The Kingdom of Heaven is all around us" no longer sounds heretical or suspect. The Kingdom of Heaven is all around us, and no one enters into the Kingdom because we're all already there. There is no arriving.

How Zen is that?