Composition with Bears, Church, and Red Jacket, Helsinki, 2010
I've always rolled my eyes at the "Jesus was a Buddhist" crowd. There are people out there arguing that during the gap in the Gospels, the Christ traveled to India, became a Buddhist monk, and the came back to Palestine to preach. There are so many things wrong with that story that I'm not going to even start on them. Jesus wasn't a Buddhist. He was something else.
I've lately revisited some of the Gnostic gospels discovered with the Nag Hammadi documents. The Gospel of Thomas is my favorite. It's a short text, in question-and-answer format, and it reads disconcertingly like a kōan collection.
Jesus said to his disciples, "Compare me to someone and tell me whom I am like."
Simon Peter said to him, "You are like a righteous angel."
Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher."
Thomas said to him, "Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying whom you are like."
Jesus said, "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out."
And he took him and withdrew and told him three things. When Thomas returned to his companions, they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?"
Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."
The Gospel according to Thomas, 13
I have no idea what that means, but I get a physical reaction from reading it—a lump in my throat, a vertiginous feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I almost tear up, like I'm standing on the edge of a precipice. Why? Not a clue. Some kōans I've come across do the same to me, as does some of Rumi's poetry, and a few other things too.1
The Gospel of Thomas has a powerful, individual voice to it. The New Testament, in contrast, feels fragmented, like a patchwork sewn together of bits and pieces. However, there are places in the New Testament where I think I hear the same voice as in the Gospel of Thomas. Specifically, in the parables of the Kingdom.
The Kingdom parables are cryptic, short stories where Jesus discusses the Kingdom of God. I understand that these are the few bits in the New Testament that can be somewhat reliably attributed to a historical Christ. You can find a quite a lot of discussion about them on the Internet. Most of the exegesis strikes me as frankly childish, ex post facto explanations where, for example, an already-established church attempts to justify itself by making the parable of the mustard seed into a prophesy of the growth of the Church.
The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field: Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs, and becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches thereof.The Gospel of Thomas and the Kingdom parables make no sense at all if you look at them through the conventional lens of Christian cosmology, with a Heaven and Hell that are "out there," rewards or punishments meted out to saints and sinners, an anthropomorphic Heavenly Father sitting on His throne in Heavenly Jerusalem waiting to judge the quick and the dead, and so on.2Mt. 13:31-32
However, if you switch your perspective and think of God and His Kingdom as immanent—something that's right here, right now, in this moment, if you can only manage to look at it this way, it all starts to make sense.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."The conventional way to read this would be as a moral judgment of rich people—that they're bigger sinners, more deserving of punishment than poor people, and God will set the balance straight and make them pay for their sins once Judgment Day rolls around. However, if you think of the Kingdom of Heaven as something that's right here, right now, the meaning shifts: the rich man's problem is that he has way more samsāra weighing him down than a poor man. That interpretation makes a lot more sense to me!
The Christ wasn't a Buddhist. He was a mystic. He is mapping out the same terrain as the Shakyamuni, as Rumi, as Isaac Luria, as St. John of the Cross, as Patañjali, as Lao-tse. Each of them approach this terrain from a different direction, using a different vehicle. Some of the vehicles are more easily described and used than others.
Christianity, especially in its old core countries, has lost touch with its mystical traditions. There may be a halting attempt at reviving some of them, or importing new ones. For example, I heard that Zengården in Sweden originally started to make their own zafus because it turned out that the Church of Sweden had bought up the entire supply in the country for their own retreat centers. While it's way cool if the Archbishop does zazen, it's sad that he had to look to Japan to find a meditative tradition, when his own has its founder withdrawing to a desert for forty days to grapple with his demons.
My grandmother was a devout Lutheran. Her father was a clergyman, and she understood her religion very thoroughly. She had internalized the idea of salvation through grace and faith only. Yet she was tortured by the idea that her faith might not be sufficient. Like most of us, I suppose, she was damaged. Whenever that damage manifested itself, she took it as evidence of lack of faith; of being hellbound. That was her kōan. Lutheran Christianity never gave her the tools to work with it. I don't think she ever did solve it. That is a failure of her tradition.
Every world religion has its mystical practice. I would even venture to say that a mystical practice lies at the root of every world religion, no matter how much the religion has lost touch with it.
Tony Blair just said that radical Islam is the greatest danger in the world today. I disagree with him. I think the danger is tribalism, of which both Islamic fundamentalism and Tony Blair's singling out of Islamic fundamentalism are symptoms. There are attempts at bridging these gaps, some of them by religious leaders. Perhaps a recognition that all these religions have their roots in the same earth could help with that. Perhaps mysticism really is more than a matter of individual happiness. Perhaps it really can liberate all beings.
There are few mystical traditions left in Christianity that are practiced by the laity. Perhaps the Rastafari have something to teach all of us. Maybe the Archbishop could invite them in as spiritual consultants. If Christianity is to rediscover its mystical traditions, perhaps it would do better to look to its own living traditions, even if (especially if?) that means passing around the ganja.
1I have not practiced with kōans, so, as usual, I'm totally out of my depth here. If I ever manage to pass one, though, I definitely want to return to this text to see if it looks any different.
2In fact, that whole cosmology strikes me as absurd to start with.