Monday, September 6, 2010

Kōans of the Christ

Composition with Bears, Church, and Red Jacket
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.
Mt. 13:31-32
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.2

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."
Mt. 19:23-24
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.


  1. "God is the Universe, the Universe is God." - Gudo Nishijima Roshi.

    I believe in God. ""Yet every decent Zen teacher I have ever encountered does believe in God. I believe in God too." - Brad Warner

    God is all around us!


  2. I agree with you, the Jesus was a Buddhist thing is nonsense. At the same time I think it is entirely possible that he could have been exposed to some Indian teachings, or even more likely, that his followers were, since there was far more cross-pollination between religions during that era than would we normally imagine.

    I also think there was some strain of religious thought lost to us now that promoted the ideal of the “suffering savior” and influenced the concept of the Bodhisattva in Buddhism, as well as influencing the burgeoning Christian movement.

    I don’t know what to think of the comment above. Most Buddhist teachers I have known, including a couple of Zen masters, both decent and indecent, had the attitude of “What’s God got to do with it?”

  3. It's possible. The question is, how much, and how significant was it? I'm still inclined to the view that they were dealing with the same human universals as the Indian thinkers, and therefore visited some rather similar territory. One reason being that many medieval Christian and Jewish mystics reached similar places, and their contact with Indian thought was tenuous to none. The "suffering savior" dimension sounds more likely to me.

    I think the key to Uku's statement are the first and last phrases, i.e., I don't think he's talking about a theos here. I believe that what theistic mystics call God is a synonym for what Buddhists call bodhicitta or any of a number of other things—and it would clearly be a bit tricky to teach Zen without that, no?

    (It's also probably not the same as what, say, Sarah Palin calls God.)

  4. @ Petteri

    I like when, in your above comment, you said:
    "...therefore visited some rather similar territory."

    That is, they visited the same territory (a wide area) and not the same place (a small area).

    You said, "The Christ wasn't a Buddhist. He was a mystic."
    Some of the voices in Christian writing may be a mystics -- we don't know if it was Jesus. To force read the gospels (orthodox and others) as all speaking about the same person is probably mistaken. Heck, there may never have been a person but instead a puppet for dozens of speakers.

    In the end, does it matter? It seems clear you know the voice you wish to hear.

  5. (1) Yes, that was intentional. I think there's a lot of territory there, more like a continent than, say, a nice restaurant.

    (2) Jesus is very hard to discuss unambiguously without going on a dozen pages of exposition first. What you're pointing out is part of the "so many things wrong" that I didn't get to. I am interested in the question of the historicity of Jesus, and the question of which bits in the New Testament—or the Gnostic gospels, for that matter—are attributable to a historical Yeshua bar-Yusef. This was not the question I was asking in this text, though, and not the point of view I was using.

    There are two other approaches I also like to use. One is to discuss the idea of Jesus—the character (various) Christians think of when they think of Jesus. This is pretty complicated too, because there are so many different competing images; there's the social revolutionary kicking over the moneychangers' tables in the temple; there's the mystic withdrawing into the desert for forty days; there's the Savior sacrificing His human life for our sins; there's the miracle-worker walking on water and changing water to wine; there's the ethical philosopher of the Sermon on the Mount; there's the supernatural apparition that followed the Crucifixion, and so on and so forth. I used this approach in this text: namely, I discussed the character of Jesus the mystic. For the Gnostics, at least, this was the Jesus, and there's plenty of him in the canonical gospels as well.

    The third approach is, simply, to listen to a voice I want to hear, regardless of where it comes from. I hear that voice in Rumi, in Buddha, in Dogen, in St. John of the Cross, and, yes, in Jesus. That was also the approach I was using here.

    So, to answer your question, yes and no. No, it doesn't matter, if we're discussing what the texts are saying and what they may mean; yes, it does matter, if we're discussing the history of Christianity.

  6. Petteri wrote:

    I think the key to Uku's statement are the first and last phrases, i.e., I don't think he's talking about a theos here. I believe that what theistic mystics call God is a synonym for what Buddhists call bodhicitta or any of a number of other things—and it would clearly be a bit tricky to teach Zen without that, no?

    (It's also probably not the same as what, say, Sarah Palin calls God.)

    Yes! You're right, Petteri. Sometimes I like to use a word "God" because it confuses people and sometimes it pisses them off. "What? You're a Buddhist! No way you can talk about God, that's bullshit!" God is just one word for the Universe or the Reality or the Ineffable or what ever. I'm not talking about Christian God or God in Islam etc. I'm talking about GOD.

    Totally off-topic but bodhicitta is totally different. Dogen defined bodhicitta as 'a mind of the enlightenment' or 'the will to the enlightenment'. Nishijima Roshi has translated it as 'a will to the truth'. It's a very practical term, not philosophical or metaphysical at all. As a Buddhists, we should practice with bodhicitta in our heart, in our body and mind. Without bodhicitta practice is just mechanical, without 'soul'. Like Bobby Marley is singing I'm a rebel, let them talk,
    Soul rebel, talk won't bother me
    I'm a capturer, that's what they say
    Soul adventurer, night and day
    I'm a rebel, soul rebel


    Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our minds.

    That's The God what I'm talking about. It's about me, it's about you, it's about everything. Reality is here, right now! It's all about the practice in daily life! Kaboom!

  7. I’m not so sure they were dealing with the same universals. Perhaps on a very basic level. They certainly took different approaches. One based more on superstition and the other more psychological.

    God is not just one word for the universe, reality, etc. That may be the connotation some people want to give it, but the word has a very specific meaning. Because of that, I think it is rather useless in any other context. Plus, it is weighed down with so much baggage, it just confuses people.

    From a Buddhist point of view, since God has nothing to do with it, why drag him into the mix?

  8. David, you might find this Wikipedia page very interesting:

    Here are some quotes from Rinzai Zen master Sokei-an:

    The creative power of the universe is not a human being; it is Buddha. The one who sees, and the one who hears, is not this eye or ear, but the one who is this consciousness. This One is Buddha. This One appears in every mind. This One is common to all sentient beings, and is God.

    Another Rinzai Master Soyen Shaku:

    At the outset, let me state that Buddhism is not atheistic as the term is ordinarily understood. It has certainly a God, the highest reality and truth, through which and in which this universe exists. However, the followers of Buddhism usually avoid the term God, for it savors so much of Christianity, whose spirit is not always exactly in accord with the Buddhist interpretation of religious experience ... To define more exactly the Buddhist notion of the highest being, it may be convenient to borrow the term very happily coined by a modern German scholar, 'panentheism', according to which God is ... all and one and more than the totality of existence .... As I mentioned before, Buddhists do not make use of the term God, which characteristically belongs to Christian terminology. An equivalent most commonly used is Dharmakaya ... When the Dharmakaya is most concretely conceived it becomes the Buddha, or Tathagata.

  9. @david, I disagree with you about 'God.' That is, I do not think it has a specific meaning. It has a huge number of sometimes incompatible, sometimes complementary, sometimes overlapping definitions. 'God' means something very different for a Muslim (a universal, monistic, transcendent, non-anthropomorphic, ineffable entity or principle), a Neoplatonist (the prime mover, the original Idea), a Hindu (alternatively, one of many powerful, anthropomorphic spiritual entities, or a universal soul of being), a Jew (the Holy, the Other, the Awesome, the Source), an Orthodox Christian, a Roman Catholic Christian, a Lutheran, a charismatic Christian, etc. etc. All of them use the word "God," and many of them believe that they're all referring to the same thing, yet the properties they assign to their idea of 'God' are vastly different. Uku's usage fits in very well in this framework, methinks.

    It is true that in American popular discourse 'God' does have a specific meaning, but that's already very different from the meaning it has even in Finnish popular discourse, let alone discourse in general. And, for the record, I kinda resent the attempt at making that parochial definition *the* definition of 'God.'

    This complexity is why I answer "I don't understand the question" if someone asks me if I believe in God.

    (@Uku, thanks re the clarification about bodhicitta. Further reading required here, clearly…)

  10. Good reply. It seems we largely agree. I love your eloquence!

  11. The word God is derived from the German and essentially, it means deity. Specifically the same deity worshiped by Jew, Muslims, and Christians. They all three worship the same God, there are only minor difference in how each sect view him/her/it. And the same with the various dominations within those sects. The concept of God, that is, a single supreme being who created the universe and with whom one can have a personal relationship, did not exist in Asia prior to the introduction of Western religion. When Hindus, for instance, talk about “God” they do not mean a personal God, as we would understand that term to mean, or they are using the word to represent a concept which may be similar in a very broad context but is not exactly the same and they are using it because they think it will help Westerners understand their meaning easier. Another reason why use of the word God is misleading.

    I’ve read the Wikipedia article before, and briefly perused it again, and it seems to be that in general it does not counter my assertion. But the use of the word “God” in the article does result in some inaccuracies. "Gotama regarded the belief in God as unhealthy." Buddha never said any such thing. He regarded believe in Brahma as unhealthy, but Brahma is not God or a god in the sense that we normally understand the word.

    The key point here is that the Buddha asserted that “salvation” cannot be found by grasping at things outside of one’s own life. And this is the primary reason why Buddhism and theistic religions are ultimately irreconcilable.

    Sokei-an may have been a very fine teacher, but dharmakaya is not God. To make such a statement requires a very long caveat. When Buddhist teachers, even the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, however well-intentioned, make similar statements, I believe they are really doing people a disservice because the concepts are not at the same.

    There is probably an element of semantics at play here. I am taking the word God literally because most people do. It is a word that triggers certain conceptions within the Western mind that are deeply embedded. What you guys are talking about is a different conception for which there is no single adequate word in our languages.

  12. The word God is derived from the German and essentially, it means deity.

    True, but irrelevant. The word 'dieu' is derived from Latin, the word
    'jumala' is Fenno-Ugric, the word 'bog' is Slavic, the word 'allah' is Arabic. All can refer to the same concept, in any of the senses I listed.

    Specifically the same deity worshiped by Jew, Muslims, and Christians.

    Only if you capitalize it, and not exclusively even then.

    They all three worship the same God, there are only minor difference in how each sect view him/her/it.

    That, David, is just not true. The God-concept of a Sufi is very, very different from the God-concept of a charismatic Christian. As different, I would say, as the concept of Brahman is from the concept of Zeus.

    The concept of God, that is, a single supreme being who created the universe and with whom one can have a personal relationship a charismatic Christian one; the parochial American one I mentioned. Muslims do not see this way. Jews do not see it this way. Orthodox Christians or Christian mystics do not see it this.

    There is probably an element of semantics at play here. I am taking the word God literally because most people do.

    I would say that it is all semantics. What's more, your 'most people' only includes 'most Americans of Protestant culture.' As stated, that's a very narrow, parochial view, and one I strongly object to. It is certainly not broad enough to include 'the Western mind' whatever that may mean.

    Once more: the word 'God'—or its equivalent in the local lingo; Jumala, Bog, Allah, Elohim, Dieu, etc.—is used in a myriad of different ways by many different people from many different cultures or religions, and it can refer to a vast range of different concepts. The one you're insisting on—"a single supreme being who created the universe and with whom one can have a personal relationship"—is a minority view even within Christianity, and entirely unapplicable to Judaism or Islam, never even mind the Eastern religions.

  13. PS @david: I would highly recommend Karen Armstrong's excellent book The History of God to you. It explores how the concept of God has evolved, branched, and reunited through the history of the Abrahamic religions.

  14. Well, I am coming from an American point of view, that’s true. But Jews, Muslims, and Christians are all worshipping the God of Abraham and the differences between their conceptions of this deity are to my mind slight. Which is not to say that there are no differences. The Sufi movement is one example, but it does not represent mainstream belief which is my referent.

    “Most people” means most people. Ask a Chinese, a Thai, an African, an Italian, etc. what the word God (capitalized) means and you are likely to receive an answer that conforms to the definition I offered. There may be some variety in how the relationship with God is understood, but to say that it is a minority view in Christianity is just not accurate. My step-brother is a Christian theologian and he would definitely argue with you on that point.

    Yes, I’ve read Karen Armstrong’s book. In fact, I was going to recommend you read it. LOL

    Again, I think you are using a very broad interpretation of the word, which is fine, but I don’t believe that is how the majority of people in the world understand it. It is a narrow view, that’s the problem. However, in expanding it, you are deviating from the original meaning, or perhaps I should say the established meaning, and transforming God into something else, which is also fine and somewhat desirable, yet in that case, I think another word that does not conjure up the same referents would be better.

  15. If I lock down "God" to the narrow definition you're offering, then what do I call the God of Ibn 'Arabi, Jalaleddin Rumi, Yahya Suhrawardi, St. John of the Cross, John Chrysostom, Isaac Luria, Simon the Stylite, or any of the other Christian, Jewish, or Islamic believers whose God-conception does not fit the one you offered?

    Point being: I don't like your definition because it only really fits one subset of Christianity—the 'born again' variety and the culture influenced by it, which considers 'a personal relationship with God' central to it. It's not applicable to Muslims, Jews, or Christians not influenced by the 'born again' movement, whatever your theologian brother may say.

    Also, I'm pretty damn certain that if I asked a Chinese, Thai, African, or Italian your question, most of them would not include the 'personal relationship' thing in their definition. I would expect stuff like 'creator,' 'supreme being,' 'the god Christians worship,' and so on.

    So if we stick with your definition, we'll have to find another term for all of the others, which strikes me as a bit futile, not to mention a tad offensive.

    Why does this matter? Because you're also insisting that your definition of God fits what, say, Muslims or Jews or Orthodox Christians or Christian, Jewish, or Islamic mystics use, which is factually incorrect. It does not accurately describe their beliefs.

  16. I erred in using the "personal relationship" thing, but at the same time it seems like nitpicking to me. By far the majority of the people in the world understand God to mean a supreme being who created the universe, while it may not mean exactly that in their own personal understanding. I'm talking about the general use of the word and the meaning it generally brings to mind.

    So while you are correct that Jews and Muslims do not teach a personal relationship with God, to say that it's the understanding of only one subset of Christianity is flat wrong. At least in the United States. Maybe it's different where you are.

    Anyway, either you missed the point I was trying to make or I stated it too badly to be gotten.

  17. Well, you're making progress. I think I'm getting at what you're saying now, and I am a good deal more comfortable with your extended definition—'supreme being who created the universe.' That does fit what the majority of Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe.

    Then again, it also fits what Hindus, Deists, and Neoplatonists believe.

    I do still have a problem in that it specifically excludes an immanent God. Would you demand that the Gnostics, Rastafaris, Sufis, and Kabbalists discard the term and find something else to call what they call God? What word would you use to rewrite the Gospel of Thomas or the Kingdom parables, which plainly refer to such a God, and not the one of your definition?

    Again: my solution is to use a flexible definition. We can restrict it one way when discussing the theology of born-again Christians, another way when discussing the theology of Salafist Muslims, and yet another way when discussing the God-conception of Isaac Luria. And we can broaden it to include all of the above when discussing the points all of these have in common. There isn't any one, rigid, fixed definition for God, nor anything else—they're all constructs in the mind, negotiated as we go.

  18. I think God created adjectives to help you boys:

    Personal God
    Immanent God
    Creator God
    Intervening God
    Tribal God
    Theist God
    Mystic God

    I agree with Petteri's main point. And instead of arguing over a word, you may find that phrases may offer common ground.

    As an atheist talking to theists I have trouble with the word GOD also. So I agree with some of David's intent too. I wrote a short post on my problem with this word when talking with Theist God people: "Monkey vs Cat God"

  19. Yes, adjectives are good. As were your thoughts on monkey and cat gods—that's a very fruitful way of looking at it.

    Now cue Nick Cave.

  20. Thanks, Petteri, I had never heard of "Nick Cave" but just spent 40 minutes reading on him while watching videos on him. Quite the interesting chap.

    -- your culturally unsavvy reader

  21. Nick Cave is brilliant. Like the dark side of Leonard Cohen. (You have heard of Leonard Cohen, I hope?) ;-)

    Try listening to Murder Ballads and The Boatman's Call back to back. I find it wonderfully cathartic in this order, but it scares the shit out of me the other way around.

  22. Petteri Sulonen, I am so glad you think I am making progress. What a load that is off my mind.

    I am not sure that I would lump Hindus in with Deists and Neoplatonists, as the Indian understanding of this subject is complex and, I think, rather unique.

    Nor am I as confident as you apparently are that Gnosticism, Rastafarism, Sufism, and Kabbalism do not contain some element of a supreme or creator being.

    None of which speaks to the two points I raised. One being that going forward if you want to use “just one word for the Universe or the Reality or the Ineffable or what ever,” the word God is a poor choice because it is loaded with associative meanings that are counter to what you are trying to express. As I said, it just confuses the issue, and the dialogue we’ve had here is a good example of that.

    Secondly, there is no need to mix God as a supreme being or as “reality as such” with Buddhism. There is no supreme being or creator in Buddhism, and in fact, such concepts are flatly rejected. And again, use of the word God just clouds the issue and leads people into making statements such as yours that “what theistic mystics call God is a synonym for what Buddhists call bodhicitta” which is simply not correct, as Uku pointed out. Or that God in any sense of the word can be equated with dharmakaya or Buddha.

  23. @david: I think I understand how and why you think and feel about this subject now. I still disagree, but I don't have a great deal to add to what I (and Sabio, and Uku) said about it above.

    Also, I apologize for any irritation I may have caused with the quip about 'making progress;' that was not my intention, but I realize that it easily comes across that way. I should have reflected more on my choice of words before hitting the Post Comment button.

    Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing your thoughts.