A Buddhist Reads The Bible - Luke 12:32-38


Regular readers might recall that my partner is a Christian minister. As such, we often find ourselves discussing whatever Bible passages she might be reflecting on for an upcoming sermon. This past week the lectionary included a reading from the Gospel according to Luke. When she asked me what I thought of it, I immediately saw its abundant potential for initiating Buddhist/Christian dialogue. The passage is Luke 12:32-38. I’ll quote it in its entirety before reflecting upon it further:

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 35 “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.NRSV


 
From the film Into Great Silence
 
 
It seems that we can read this passage through at least a few different lenses. One lens would be an apocalyptic one: The Christ is set to return, so we must maintain vigilance lest we be caught unaware. Another lens would be that of our own mortality: We know not which breath might be our last, so we must ever be at the ready to meet our God. You probably know already that neither of these lenses is the one through which I intend to view this passage. Certainly others can do a much better job of that than I! No, it is through the lens of mindfulness that I will be examining it from here on out.

 
You might recall that I touched on the four foundations of mindfulness in my previous post – Seeing That Which Is. Very briefly, these four aspects of mindfulness – mindfulness of body, feeling, consciousness, and cognition – are the very means by which we Buddhists attain liberation from our suffering. These four foundations of mindfulness are referenced in shorthand (albeit with debatable precision) by such expressions as “being present”, “being in the moment”, “living in the now”, etc. So let’s take this passage from Luke’s gospel and attend to it line by line:

 
Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

Implicit in this line is the fact that we need not suffer. Whether we suffer because we are unaware of or forgetful of God’s grace or whether we suffer because we are unaware of or forgetful of ‘that which is,’ we always have at our disposal the means by which we can wake up once again.

 
 Sell your possessions, and give alms.

A wealth of Buddhist philosophy can be brought to bear upon this line. We can read this as a call to enjoy those very positive attributes that a life of elected poverty can provide: appreciation of sufficiency, attention to that which is real, simplicity of being, a sense of affinity with all beings, etc. Please see my exploration of wabi-sabi for more on the concept of poverty. Of course, our most dear possession is our concept of selfhood. Allow yourself to become empty of this idea. Give, for the benefit of all beings, of that life force that you once considered “yours”.

 
Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

This purse can be interpreted as the vessel of our awareness itself. Like the Zen story of Ryokan being robbed of everything but his appreciation of the moon in the window, the purse containing our unadorned awareness remains ever filled with treasure.

 
 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

This line, of course, complements the aforementioned brief discussion of poverty. If your life is filled with a multitude of things that are valued more than God, in Christian terms, or the true nature of being, in Buddhist terms, then your heart, your attention, will be elsewhere – you will be unaware of God’s grace, lost in the suffering of samsara.

 
Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.

Maintain awareness – the four foundations of mindfulness.

 
Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.

Okay, we’re getting close to the heart of the matter now! However, before we can truly apprehend the commonality of this Christian teaching and the Buddhist teaching of mindfulness we must address an apparent contradiction. A literal reading of the Christian text leaves us mired in a dualistic metaphysical reality, i.e. God is up there or out there and we are here, but someday God might come to us or we might go to God. If the Buddhist concept of liberation from suffering can be taken to be akin to dwelling in the Kingdom of God, then the four foundations of mindfulness allow us to enjoy the Kingdom right here and now. There is no place for “us” to go. There is no “other” that will arrive. Our mindfulness opens us up to the inherent lack of separation from that which is – the oneness of all “things,” the non-dual nature of reality. The act or process of becoming vigilant allows us to realize that the master has been with us all along!

 
Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.

Ah, but what is it that is being served? The Zen of Eihei Dogen, for instance, Soto Zen, has us sitting vigilantly without any expectation of being served anything whatsoever – neither Buddhahood, nor enlightenment, nor relinquishment from suffering, nor insight. Practice and enlightenment are one according to Dogen. The Zen of Lin-chi, on the other hand, Rinzai Zen, would have us actively working toward kensho or satori – direct realization of the nature of one’s self/reality – by “pondering” and ultimately “solving” various koans, for instance. Regardless of the apparent contradiction, both approaches involve simply ‘seeing things as they are.’ To use the terminology of Christianity, ‘seeing things as they are’ is simply seeing all things as manifestations of the Kingdom of God, which is never apart from us even for one instant – it only seems to be separate due to our lack of faith.

 
If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

Kensho is not experienced because we work towards it. We cannot say that there is a cause and effect relationship whereby doing “this” leads to “that”. Realization of our inherent enlightenment does not arrive/arise simply because we intellectually grasp that it is so. Neither does the “waiting” of contemplative prayer mandate the experience of oneness with God. God cannot be “conjured up”. We practice, we meditate, we pray, we maintain faith…, and every so often we glimpse the deep truths of the Saints and the Sages and the Buddhas alike. But here’s where it gets tricky: if we orient our spiritual practice towards the manifestation of these deep truths we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. Orienting our meditation or prayer toward any goal whatsoever only strengthens our very ordinary and dualistic conceptualizations of the world.

 
So, I would venture to say that those aforementioned slaves awaiting their master’s return came to wait with such diligence and purity that they forgot their “master” altogether; and in that state of “forgetting” all ideas they were indeed more prepared to be of service than ever before. Indeed, they became the ones served. Ideas regarding the “master” fill up the space at the table, thereby leaving no place for the master to sit. It is only in the complete forgetting of ideas regarding the “master” that the master is truly extended an invitation – however unnecessary that invitation may be.

 
 

Image Credits

Still frame from the film Into Great Silence.

 

Copyright 2013 by Mark Frank

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