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

3 comments:

  1. Well thought out, Maku. Very well stated.

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  2. This is interesting. I have come to see the true nature of the christian trinity as being the Father, the Mother, and the Child, or in other words an expression of the Human Family. Two thousand years ago the church founders were in fear of the divine feminine and they had to somehow subvert the feminine by calling it the Holy Spirit. The pagan goddesses had too much power which they could not control. God the Mother became a demonic thing they had to suppress because She includes God the Lover and the erotic was a definite threat to the paternal power structure of the church. But a trinity of the family is the only thing that makes sense to me. It enshrines a multi-person family unit as an expression of the Universe's Unity which we call Divinity. Regards, Richard Fischer

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  3. Thanks, Mindy! I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you, also, Richard! I am aware of scholarship related to the active subversion of the feminine with respect to the development of a more patriarchal form of Christianity. However, I am not well-versed enough to say much more than that. It does seem clear, at any rate, that the absolute reliance on a virgin birth, the lack of a feminine gender in the Trinity (or the preponderance of the masculine), and the subsequent supression of women with respect to participation as priests does speak to an assertion of masculine power.

    Certainly the fact that we are talking about a male Buddha and a male Jesus speaks to the status of women at those respective times. Having said that, if more egalitarian conditions were to have existed during the lives of Buddha and Jesus, we might have had a female Buddha or a female Jesus, etc., but the questions that prompted the positing of the Trikaya doctrine or the Trinity would have remained. What is the nature of this PERSON, the Buddha, or this PERSON, Jesus. In other words, our metaphysical ponderings would continue.

    So, I suppose if I were to envision a gender-free Trikaya, I would simply leave open the possibility of female buddhas in human form and in the heavenly sorts of realms in which the buddhas give their teachings. That is not much of a stretch for me. If I were to envision a gender-free Trinity, I would refrain from thinking of God as an old white guy (as I already do)and I would leave open the possibility that whatever God is has come to inhabit human form, regardless of gender. That is not a stretch for me either.

    Of course, I do not say all this to discount your version of the Trinity. Ultimately we are talking about something ineffable, so how could argue the point!

    Thanks for the comments! Maku

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