Thursday, March 28, 2013

Forgiveness, Part 1 - Self and Other


‘He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ Those who think such thoughts will not be free from hate. ‘He insulted me, he hurt me, he defeated me, he robbed me.’ Those who think not such thoughts will be free from hate. – The Dhammapada

 
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another … sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”NRSV

 

Yes, we can all stand to be a bit more forgiving, can’t we? It’s a capacity that spiritually-oriented individuals will likely recognize as being worthy of cultivation – for the sake of community, for the sake of relationships, for the sake of our own well-being, for the sake of the world. But even as we aspire to being more forgiving we might also wonder at the possibility of being too forgiving, thereby condoning bad behavior that serves nobody well in the long run. Is it even possible to be too forgiving? Should we finally say “enough is enough” after being sinned against for the seventy-eighth time? I hope this exploration of forgiveness will allow us to both see it with greater clarity and open up to it much more readily.

 

I get the sense that some people – either out of a genuinely felt need to be more forgiving, accepting, compassionate, etc., or in reaction to some internalized image of how the "ideally spiritual being" should behave – come to think that the role of the spiritual practitioner is to unquestioningly place everyone else’s perceived needs ahead of his or her own. With respect to us Buddhist practitioners, I suspect that this tendency frequently arises from a fundamentally dualistic way of thinking about ourselves. On the one hand we recognize and honor the wisdom of our bodhicitta – the awakening buddha-mind that we embody – and on the other hand we believe that we have this malicious and unwaveringly self-centered ego that is never to be trusted and never to be listened to. It’s rather strange, I think, that we should strive to rid ourselves of all dualistic thinking when we are looking at the world “out there” even as we continue to think of the world “in here” in such starkly dualistic terms!


 
 
 
 
The more reactionary tendency to place everyone else’s perceived needs ahead of our own might also arise from confusion resulting from a more superficial or even nihilistic interpretation of teachings related to emptiness, in general (nothing exists!), and no-self, in particular (I don’t exist!). Consider how a tendency to look at the world through such a lens might influence our reading of the following passage – one in which the Buddha encourages his followers to maintain a forgiving attitude towards even the most violent of individuals:

Monks, even if bandits were to carve you up savagely, limb by limb, with a two-handled saw, he among you who let his heart get angered even at that would not be doing my bidding. Even then you should train yourselves: ‘Our minds will be unaffected and we will say no evil words. We will remain sympathetic, with a mind of good will, and with no inner hate. We will keep pervading these people with an awareness imbued with good will and, beginning with them, we will keep pervading the all-encompassing world with an awareness imbued with good will — abundant, expansive, immeasurable, free from hostility, free from ill will.’ That's how you should train yourselves. – Majjhima Nikaya 21

 
Despite containing quite an extreme hypothetical situation, this passage does indeed contain some very practical lessons for our modern world. One lesson to be gleaned is that, once you recognize that you can no longer escape from whatever abusive situation you might find yourself in, then feelings of hatred, enmity, and anger are pretty useless to entertain. Another lesson relates to the “even if” phrase of the first sentence. We can, in fact, approach all situations in this way – without hatred, enmity, or anger towards either the situation or those responsible for creating it. However, nothing in this passage suggests that we should willingly place ourselves in the hands of those who would abuse us. Thus, if anyone finds him or herself being approached by bandits wielding saws, then I hope they will run as fast and as far as they can without a single thought of hatred, enmity, or anger entering into their adrenaline-fueled brain. Likewise, if anyone finds him or herself in an abusive situation, then I hope they will take wise and compassionate action to either correct the situation or else extricate themselves from it – without a single thought of hatred, enmity, or anger crossing their minds. Ah, but isn’t that a tall order!

 
Why don’t we take a moment to consider a situation much more common than forced dismemberment – that of a woman or man presented with the reality that her or his partner continues to be unfaithful, untrustworthy, and insensitive in their relationship. Here’s a great Lyle Lovett song from his eponymous 1986 release – performed here by Patty Loveless:
 

 

 

God Will

Who keeps on trusting you

When you've been cheating

And spending your nights on the town

And who keeps on saying

That he still wants you

When you're through running around

And who keeps on loving you

When you've been lying

Saying things ain't what they seem

God does

But I don't

God will

But I won't

And that's the difference

Between God and me

 
So who says he'll forgive you

And says that he'll miss you

And dream of your sweet memory

God does

But I don't

God will

But I won't

And that's the difference

Between God and me

 
So, how should we as spiritual practitioners respond when we find ourselves in such situations for which there is no mutually satisfactory resolution? Should we strive to “forgive and forget” – continuing to remain invested in the relationship? Should we accept the circumstances with equanimity and strive to compassionately accommodate the perceived needs of the offending individual? (After all, it’s so much easier to accommodate a cheating partner than it is a band of murderous bandits!) Or should we look for a way to remove ourselves from the situation or the relationship as compassionately as we possibly can?

 
Now, perhaps you find this last option just a little bit unsettling. Perhaps it is difficult to reconcile your present image of the “idealized spiritual being” with this concept of legitimate self-interest – the legitimate interests of ‘the self that is not other.’ Towards that end, let’s look to another of the Buddha’s teachings for some practical guidance related to proper associations. Here is the Buddha addressing Sigala, a young householder who has come to hear him teach (I’ve edited the original in order to enable it to be read much more fluidly):

These…, young householder, should be understood as foes in the guise of friends:
…he who appropriates a friend's possessions, …renders lip-service, … flatters, …brings ruin; … he [who] appropriates his friend's wealth, …gives little and asks much, …does his duty out of fear, …associates for his own advantage; …he [who] makes friendly profession as regards the past, …makes friendly profession as regards the future, …tries to gain one's favor by empty words, … [but who] when opportunity for service has arisen, …expresses his inability; …he approves of his friend's evil deeds, … he disapproves [of] his friend's good deeds, …he praises him in his presence, …he speaks ill of him in his absence; …he is a companion in indulging in intoxicants that cause infatuation and heedlessness, …he is a companion in sauntering in streets at unseemly hours, …he is a companion in frequenting theatrical shows, …he is a companion in indulging in gambling which causes heedlessness.

...

These…, young householder, should be understood as warm-hearted friends:
…he who is a helpmate, …he who is the same in happiness and sorrow, …he who gives good counsel, …he who sympathises; …he guards the heedless, …he protects the wealth of the heedless, …he becomes a refuge when you are in danger, …when there are commitments he provides you with double the supply needed; …he reveals his secrets, …he conceals one's own secrets, …in misfortune he does not forsake one, …his life even he sacrifices for one's sake; …he restrains one from doing evil, …he encourages one to do good, …he informs one of what is unknown to oneself, …he points out the path to heaven; …he does not rejoice in one's misfortune, …he rejoices in one's prosperity, …he restrains others speaking ill of oneself, …he praises those who speak well of oneself. – Digha Nikaya 31

 
What we have here is some pretty good advice regarding the skillful and unskillful cultivation of associations. And if you take the time to read the entire sutra via the link below, you will be left with no doubt whatsoever regarding the more general question of whether or not there is room for legitimate self-interest in the practice of Buddhism. What does remain to be determined, however, is how to appropriately balance the needs of both self and other on a moment-by-moment basis. This, of course, is just one very practical reason for our continuous practice.

 
Practice shows us that we need not focus on the self in reaction to enmity or anger towards others (aversion), or vice versa; neither do we need to focus on the self on the basis of egoic self-centeredness (attachment), or vice versa. Continuous practice allows us to view these dynamic situations in their entirety with clarity, with equanimity, with a sense of compassion for both self and other, and with an eye on what is best in the long run for all beings. And this is where the discussion returns to forgiveness.

 
Forgiveness is the relinquishment of hatred, enmity, and anger towards those who we perceive as having offended us. Forgiveness is not predicated on the other person or persons changing, expressing contrition, or asking for forgiveness. It does not require us to be “nice” to them, nor does it require us to remain in close relationship with them – although it does behoove us to keep in mind that, in an ultimate sense, we remain in relationship with everything in the universe whether we choose to be or not.

 
Forgiveness does not require that we forget; forgetting is an unattainable goal, anyway, notwithstanding some neurological deficit. However, forgiveness might be accompanied by a new willingness to act as if the perceived offense or indiscretion had not happened – assuming that the offending party is sincerely agreeing to change, that is. For instance, if one’s partner has been unfaithful and dishonest and one wishes to remain in close relationship, then it might be in the best interest of the relationship (and therefore you) to behave as if your partner has indeed returned to faithfulness and honesty. You may still have twinges of doubt; suspicion may cross your mind from time to time; but you will be able to let these go without them having a corrosive effect on your relationship.

 
But even if our forgiveness is not accompanied by a willingness to act as if the perceived offense has not occurred, it nevertheless allows us to move more freely and seamlessly through both our outer and inner world by allowing the offending person to be in our presence or in our thoughts without the arising of afflictive emotions. For instance, we might very matter-of-factly not trust someone without having or displaying any particular animosity towards them. In this way forgiveness allows us to navigate in a world without people, places, and things having “negative charge,” so to speak. We just see them as they are. In this way, we might no longer feel the need to exile ourselves from gatherings where the offending individual might be present. We might be able to return once again to those activities that we’ve not allowed ourselves to enjoy ever since we last enjoyed them with our lover prior to our betrayal. Perhaps most importantly, though, we might open up once again to the very sort of trust and openness that allowed another to hurt us in the first place.

 
Forgiveness encompasses a greater sense of equanimity towards that which has occurred and those who have caused it to occur. While it is not a forgetting of that which has occurred, it is a recognition that what has occurred need not dictate who we are or who we will become. Forgiveness encompasses an acceptance of that which has occurred without any accompanying need for it to have been different. Forgiveness encompasses compassion for those who are perceived to have perpetrated harm by recognizing that they, like all human beings, are flawed individuals subject to their own measure of positive and negative karma.

 
Lastly, forgiveness of another may well encompass forgiveness of ourselves – for whatever role we might have played in creating the offending situation or interaction – for not being “perfect” spiritual practitioners willing and able to withstand any and all circumstances or to remain in close relationship with anyone and everyone no matter how much of our energy might be drained away in the process. Yes, certain aspects of our ego do tend to pull us toward self-centeredness; and so it is good to test the limits of our comfort zone and to look at ourselves deeply and unflinchingly. But we also embody great wisdom – wisdom that has resulted in us walking the spiritual path that we presently walk. Sometimes walking that path requires us to remain in place, using every last ounce of our energy in order to salvage what is good in the situation or relationship; but sometimes walking that path requires us to move toward greater solitude – thereby creating fertile space in which something new might grow. Either way, forgiveness will allow us to offer to the world the best of what we have to offer.

 
 

References
 
Digha Nikaya 31. Sigalovada sutta: The discourse to Sigala – The layperson's code of discipline (Narada Thera Tr.) Access to Insight, 24 March 2012, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.31.0.nara.html#guise

Majjhima Nikaya 21. Kakacupama sutta: The simile of the saw (Thanissaro Bhikkhu Tr.). Access to Insight, 30 June 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.021x.than.html

The Dhammapada – The path of perfection (Juan Mascaro Tr.). Published by Penguin Group, 1973.

  

Image Credits

Buddha and white dove via:

 

Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Dropping the Lotus Seed Back in the Pond


It had been a workday like many others – not particularly memorable, but pleasant enough in its normality. Spring was just around the corner after what had been a long, dark winter. In fact, it was already warm enough for one to say that spring had arrived – in reality, if not in name. Briefcase in hand I let the door swing wide into our apparently ransacked living room, and from that moment on it seemed that life would not be normal ever again.

 
The first thought that appeared within the stunned blankness of my mind was that we’d been robbed. Unfortunately, however, it was a thought that couldn’t quite be squared with the reality of that which had been left behind. Why wouldn’t they have taken this? Or that? And then a pattern began to emerge. The walls were bare because her artwork was gone. Things were in disarray because her things had been removed. I went into the bedroom and threw open one of the drawers of the chest still standing where it had always stood; and that was when I knew. No, I didn’t know why or how, but in that moment I knew full well that she was gone.

 
She must have been waiting for my call, given the fact that she answered her cellphone on the very first ring – a wonderful gift in and of itself I would come to realize with the passage of time. For even though it was not a conversation that would answer my questions as to why or how, it did at least let me know that she’d not vanished into the ether. Yes, the woman to whom I’d been married for five plus years did still exist. The woman whose birthday we’d celebrated at her favorite restaurant just days prior without a hint of anything seeming awry did indeed still exist, although my ideas of who she was and what we’d shared were just as ransacked as our house. Everything but the reality of her existence had vanished sometime between the 9:00 and the 5:00 of that day. And as I sat in stunned silence after hanging up the phone – feeling as if beaten and pummeled into submitting to something that I couldn’t as yet comprehend – my gaze drifted to the far side of the room where something that looked a bit like an acorn lay all by itself on the bare hardwood floor.


 
 
 
 
Ah, yes, I knew exactly what it was; and an instant was all it took to relive the entire arc of its existence up to that point. It was early in our marriage and we were walking through the park on a bright autumn day when we happened upon the lotus pond with its bounty of drying seed pods thrust up into the chilly air. We marveled at their almost alien appearance, and of course we wanted to take some home. After strolling the perimeter of the pond we finally found a couple of specimens that were both nicely formed and within safe arm’s reach of the shore. For years those lotus seed pods sat prominently upon the bookshelf in her study – until that fateful day.

 
I remember feeling strangely gratified that she still cared enough to take them. Perhaps they reminded her as well of happier days – days lived before some inexplicable change in the biochemistry of being made everything turn cold and distant and dark – days that I had deluded myself into thinking would return.

 
For many months that lotus seed rested in a tiny bowl upon my altar. It sat there day in and day out while I sat day in and day out with the cold and dark reality of what had become of us, of what had become of me. And every now and then in the midst of that cold and dark reality I’d catch a fleeting glimpse of what that lotus seed might one day be – a static symbol of loss and potential unfulfilled…, a relic of happier times forever in the past…, a monument to the dangers of life and love and trust… And what, then, would become of me? Would I live the rest of my life clinging tightly to what has been, savoring only what has been, falling slowly back to earth from a place where I once held high my bloom?


 
 
 
 
And so it was that in the midst of summer, with everything warm and bright and alive, I made the choice to live a life fully accepting of all its joys and sorrows – those of the past and those most surely still to come. With that lotus seed in hand I retraced the steps that I’d taken with my lover way back when. And when I reached that pond once again I said goodbye as well as hello. I stood upon the bridge where we'd once stood in love together and let that seed roll slowly from my palm to drop into the dark water of the unknown.
 
CCC

If you think that time is just so much water passing under the bridge – that yesterday is gone never to return – then you must simply be forgetting how you’ve marked the years since your loved one passed away, or since that driver swerved into your path, or since the doctor told you the news that in an instant changed you from who you were to who you are. Yes, all of time is always with us. The you that looked into the eyes of your beloved is forever here in this very moment. The you that was before the you of now is always present – as if that driver is forever on the verge of drifting off to sleep, and that doctor is forever in the process of clearing her throat before saying those words. The past is always with us. We know this to be true; and when we recognize those anniversaries – some too personal and raw to even share – we are acknowledging that it is so.

 
Such anniversaries don’t even need to be marked off on any calendar in order to be remembered. They’re always with us. We are their calendar. And so it is that without any prompting whatsoever I came to realize that at the end of this month I will have lived five years’ worth of wonderment why, five years’ worth of the lowest lows and highest highs, five years’ worth of watching a beloved flower die only to gradually turn into the soil in which another has so graciously sprouted and bloomed.



 
 
 

Please see Dogen's 'Being-Time' - Part 1 and Part 2 if you’d like to read more about the nature of time and being.
 
 

Image Credits
 

Lotus seed pod by Vmenkov via:


Lotus pods lying on the ground by Vmenkov via:


Lotus blossom by liz west via:


 
 

Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank

Sunday, March 3, 2013

A Buddhist Takes Communion / A Buddhist Take On Communion


Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”Luke 22:19-20, NRSV

 
Yes, at the risk of prompting the eyes of many Buddhist-leaning readers to begin glazing over (What, is this going to be a sermon or something?), and at the risk of prompting the eyes of many Christian-leaning readers to narrow in suspicion (What does this Buddhist know about Christianity, anyway?), I’m going consider how the Lord’s Supper might appear if viewed through a Buddhist lens. In doing so I hope that Buddhist and Christian alike will glimpse something that leads to deeper spiritual understanding within each respective tradition.

 
 
 
Perhaps a little personal background will assuage your curiosity as to why I’m even considering such a topic in the first place. As some of you already know, the love of my life happens also to be a Christian minister. Yes, and what a strange and wonderful irony that is – that a practicing Buddhist and erstwhile Christian, one with far too many doubts for his faith to be sustained, should fall in love with one who has dedicated her life to that very faith tradition! As with any sincerely loving relationship, we each seek to know and accept the entirety of each other’s being. And so it is that we sit together in meditation and prayer, and nary a day goes by without at least some discussion of matters related to our respective spiritual traditions. She reads Dogen at times, and I attend her church services at times – to hear her preach, and to take part in the tradition that is most important to her.

 
One aspect of my taking part in church services involves my engagement in the ritual of Holy Communion, the Eucharist – receiving the bread and wine which, with varying degrees of literal or metaphorical interpretation, are the body and blood of Christ. Now, long-term readers will also know that I am of two minds when it comes to ritual. One is skeptical (see Confessions of an Ambivalent Buddhist, for instance), and one is embracing – recognizing that the skeptical mind can be transcended such that engagement in the ritual itself comes to reflect the unity of the practitioner and all things (see A Defense of Ritual, for instance). My understanding of this latter ritual-embracing, all-embracing mind is perhaps best conveyed by what I refer to as a reimagining of a Dogen Zenji poem. What is here entitled Practice is inspired by a combined reading of three different versions, variously translated as Bowing Formally , Worship, and Prostration (Tanahashi, 1985, p. 214; Heine, 1997, p. 117; and Yoshida, 1999, p. 76, respectively):

 
Practice

A white heron

On a snowy field

Loses itself within

The vastness of being.

 
The all-embracing mind with which a Buddhist might take part in communion, or bathe a statue of the infant Buddha for that matter, is the mind that does not set itself apart from others, the mind that is unencumbered by thoughts of belief or disbelief, the mind that recognizes the manner in which ideas and conceptualizations overlay a much more mysterious and ineffable reality, the mind that reflects the totality of the universe in each embodied gesture. Now, I’ll not say that it was with precisely such a mind that I first approached the ritual of the Eucharist some years after last taking part, but it was with some approximation of that mind that I approached it. It is also with such a mind, or its approximation, that I approach this present post. So, how might a Buddhist overlay the concepts or beliefs of Buddhism onto the mysterious and ineffable reality underlying the ritual of the Eucharist such that both traditions – that of Buddhism and that of Christianity – are equally honored, and ultimately transcended, so that the self becomes lost in the vastness of being? That is the task of the remainder of this post.

CCC

Was Jesus wholly human? This is a question that even a Christian might ask. He was a wise being, yes, perhaps even a transcendent one at that – having placed his love for all others above even his own life (as a bodhisattva would). But despite the extraordinariness of his life, did he nevertheless die as all the rest of us die – with no particularly exalted status in any grand metaphysical scheme? Yes, was Jesus merely human, or was he in fact God? Did he only appear to be human, or was he, as most Christians believe, both truly man and truly God? And what about the Buddha? Was he just a man, as Theravada Buddhist teachings are more inclined to suggest – albeit one no longer necessarily subject to ordinary death and rebirth – or was he much more God-like, as depicted in Mahayana Buddhist texts such as the Lotus Sutra? Let’s explore for a bit the Mahayana doctrine related to the trikaya, or three bodies – a doctrine that is very much akin to the Christian teaching of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

 
The three bodies of the trikaya, according to Schumacher and Woerner (1994), are 1) the dharmakaya, which is “the true nature of the Buddha… identical with transcendental reality, the essence of the universe”; 2) the sambhogakaya, “the body of buddhas who in a ‘buddha-paradise’ enjoy the truth that they embody”; and 3) the nirmanakaya, which is “the earthly body in which buddhas appear to men in order to fulfill the buddhas’ resolve to guide all beings to liberation” (p. 377). Skilton (1994) sheds further light on these three, stating that the dharmakaya is “the pure, non-dual flow of consciousness experienced by the Enlightened person.” The sambhogakaya, on the other hand, represents “the Buddha that appears in Pure Lands to help beings attain liberation, and therefore it is also the Buddha that teaches the Mahayana sutras… it is the Buddha of devotion – the archetypal Buddha of visionary experience.” Lastly, the nirmanakaya, Skilton notes, “is the body of the historical Buddha, who was nothing more than the magical creation of an archetypal, sambhogakaya Buddha” (pp. 127-128).

 
So it seems that Buddhists and Christians alike have pondered the exact nature of their respective prophets. Christians, for instance, have wondered about the materiality or lack thereof of the human form of the Christ. A wholly human body would, of course, truly suffer upon the cross of his crucifixion. This is the suffering depicted in Matthew 27:45, NRSV, for instance: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  The presence of the Christ in the Gospel of Luke 23:34, NRSV, on the other hand, is that of unwavering and exalted awareness: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”

 
Such unwavering and exalted awareness is quite often considered to be the state of mind of the Buddha, even upon his deathbed. The Buddha is reckoned to have lived into his eighties before succumbing to what is generally thought to have been some type of food poisoning. Mettanando (2000) hypothesizes that the actual cause of death may have been mesenteric infarction. As such, unless the Buddha enjoyed some type of avataristic body, he would have experienced great pain – the real pain of a failing human body – and done so with presumably unprecedented mindfulness. (See also, Too Big For Any Sticks or Stones to Hurt Us.) Thinking of the historical Buddha in such avataristic terms is not entirely incorrect according to the doctrine of the trikaya. For instance, Sangharakshita (1980) notes: “According to [the trikaya] the Buddha is not merely a human being but Reality Itself. This Reality, being not only Wisdom but Compassion, for the purpose of preaching the Dharma to all beings assumes innumerable forms. These forms, of which Gautama Buddha is the one best known to us, are all identical with Reality and hence themselves wholly transcendental” (pp. 240-241).

 
Now, I know it’s tempting at this point, but let’s hold back just a little bit before rushing headlong down the path of equating each of these three bodies with one of the aspects of the Trinity and concluding that both Buddhism (Mahayana Buddhism, anyway) and Christianity are in agreement on the precise nature of metaphysical reality. Yes, the concept of the nirmanakaya would seem to encompass the earthly form of Jesus. Likewise, the “buddha-paradise” in which the sambhogakaya dwells would seem to be a lot like the heavenly realm in which the God (both Father and Son) of Christianity dwells. Furthermore, the dharmakaya, the “essence of the universe,” might seem to be a lot like what Christians call the Holy Spirit. But whether we are considering the Trikaya or the Trinity, we are still merely utilizing conceptualization to make sense of that which is ultimately ineffable.

 
My own inclination is to think of Jesus and the historical Buddha as exceedingly advanced spiritual beings – unique in that they each grew out of very different cultural traditions, but alike in that they each developed to unprecedented depths and reaches the spiritual capacity that is inherent in all human beings. If we boil the teaching of each down to its barest essence, we have a very similar picture. Each attained unprecedented wisdom related to the nature of ultimate reality. Each, out of a sense of deep love for all beings, committed his life to saving them from the hellish existence of living in ignorance and separation. Each, by necessity, had to make use of the language and customs of his time and place in order to make himself understood as best he could. Each, as well, had his life and teachings subsequently reinterpreted by followers and believers who sought to make sense of the reality of the life and death of their beloved teacher and prophet.

 
Let’s consider another passage of the Christian Bible, for instance. This is a story from earlier in Jesus’ ministry, one in which he addresses those who would think of him as the apostate rabbinic son of Joseph and Mary:

Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”John 6:49-59, NRSV

 
It became important to early Christians to reinterpret as part of a larger plan the incongruity of their Messiah being brutally and summarily dispatched by the authorities of the day. As such, Jesus’ life and death came to be interpreted by his followers in terms of a sacrificial atonement that had to take place so that the rest of us might be saved from our hellish existence. But how might a Buddhist think about it?

 
Eating the manna in the wilderness and being subject to ordinary life and death sounds a lot like living in samsara, subject to the karmic forces borne of our deluded self-centeredness. Jesus invites his followers to live with awareness, in accord with his teaching of love, thereby enjoying life everlasting. This is very much a Buddhist message. We Buddhists simply tend to let it get lost amongst our conceptions of God and heaven and souls and so forth. Both Jesus and the Buddha are emissaries of a sort. They have seen the supramundane realm of heaven or emptiness (sunyata), as the case may be, and they stand ready to lead the rest of us into that treasured realm.       

 
We might refer to it as dharmakaya – “transcendental reality, the essence of the universe” or “the pure, non-dual flow of consciousness experienced by the Enlightened person” (Schumacher & Woerner, 1994, p. 377; Skilton, 1994, pp. 127-128). We might call it ‘abiding in grace,’ or ‘the enjoyment of life everlasting,’ or ‘entrance into the Kingdom.’ Whatever words we might use to describe it, we are ultimately referring to that which we all have the innate capacity to experience as human beings. The ‘essence of the universe’ is in you and me – we just don’t always see it. The ‘essence of the universe’ is in Jesus and the Buddha – we just tend to think of them as representing two very different truths. The ‘essence of the universe’ is there in the wine and the bread of Holy Communion – we just have to get ourselves out of the way in order to experience it – in order to allow ourselves to be lost in the vastness of being.

 
Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”Luke 22:19-20, NRSV

  

 

References
 

Heine, S. (1997). The Zen poetry of Dogen: Verses from the Mountain of Eternal Peace. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.

Mettanando (2000). Did Buddha die of mesenteric infarction? http://www.lankalibrary.com/Bud/buddha_death.htm

Sangharakshita, Bikshu (1980) A survey of Buddhism, 5th edition. Shambhala Publications, Inc. in association with Windhorse Publications.

Schuhmacher, S., Woerner, G. (1994). The encyclopedia of Eastern philosophy and religion. Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Skilton, A. (1994) A concise history of Buddhism. Barnes and Noble, Inc. by arrangement with Windhorse Publications.

Tanahashi, K. (1985). Moon in a dewdrop: Writings of Zen master Dogen. (Tanahashi, K. ed.) North Point Press; Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York.

Yoshida, R. (1999). Limitless life, Dogen’s world: Translation of Shushogi, Goroku, Doei. The Missouri Zen Center.
 

 

Image Credits
 

Photo of Eucharistic stained glass window by Nheyob via:


 
 

Copyright 2013 by Maku Mark Frank