January 31, 2016
In the Dona Suttra, there is a story about the Buddha that has an enticing parallel with Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
In the gospel, Jesus has just finished doing some miracles and is walking along with his disciples. He asks them
“Who do people say that I am?”
28And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ 29He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ 30And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,* will save it.
This is a central text for the Gospel of Mark. It is central in that it occurs in the middle of the gospel. The gospel of Mark has 16 chapters. This is in chapter 8. It is that center of the text that we hear the centrality of the author’s message. This is who Jesus is, what it means to follow him, and thus the meaning, purpose, and goal of life.
It starts out being about Jesus and ends being about you and me. Jesus says, cryptically,
35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel [the good news], will save it.”
That is tough to get your head around. Peter doesn’t get it. The messiah suffers, is crucified, rises again? That doesn’t make sense. Jesus never affirms who is he is. Peter calls him the ‘messiah’ and in response Jesus says don’t tell anyone.
Messiah, in Greek christos, or christ, literally means anointed, that is someone who has been anointed or ordained to do some task, usually a heroic task. David was anointed to lead the kingdom of Israel, etc. We all have a longing for a hero or heroine to come and make things right. Politicians bank on this. “I’ll make America great again, yada yada.” This is a common longing to wait for someone to come and fix it. In the time of Jesus, someone to come, defeat the Romans, make Israel great again, yada yada.
When Peter says that Jesus is the messiah or the christ, Jesus doesn’t say yes or no. He says don’t tell anyone. It is as if Jesus is saying don’t call me a messiah because you don’t know what it means. Then he uses a different phrase “Son of Man” which maybe is a synonym for messiah or maybe just means what it is literally, a child of the Adam, in other words, a human being. The human being, the messiah, will suffer, be rejected, crucified, then after three days rise again.
Peter says that that’s not a good answer. That doesn’t fit his plot of how things need to shake out, or as they say now, Peter doesn’t like how that narrative is taking shape. Jesus pushes back and says “Get behind me, Satan!” Now we should bracket later Christian mythology around the term Satan. Satan is not the fallen angel, but the tempter or tester, the being within God’s court who goes around and tests people.
Peter, in Jesus’s mind is taking up the role of the satan by saying, you don’t have to do that hard stuff, crosses and suffering, no.
Jesus is saying, “Don’t tempt me. Don’t let me lose my focus.” I think that is what is being said there.
Then Jesus puts it to all of them, his disciples and the crowd. If you want to follow me, you, too, must take up the cross. If you want to save your life, you will lose it. If you lose it for my sake and the gospel, that is for this path, this path of the cross, you will save it.
This is a cryptic passage. It is hard to get our heads around it, but even harder to actually do. What does it mean to take up your cross? We know it means something important. What are we really supposed to do? Is it literal? Is it metaphorical? Half and half?
And what about this business of rising again in three days? Is this literal? Is it metaphorical? Half and half? Does just the messiah, son of man, Jesus do that, or those who follow will do it, too? People have been dying on crosses and other means for a long time, they aren’t rising. Is this some future thing in another 14 billion years, or after your dead? Do you have to die on a cross first? Or do we just believe that Jesus did and then your bases are covered?
I don’t find this stuff particularly easy.
As I say that, my detractors will say, that is because you are a false teacher. You aren’t saved and so on. Well, maybe. But I also think that many preachers and theologians are a bunch of snake oil peddlers, selling superstition. They don’t know anymore than you or me.
They say you have to believe this or that to get to heaven or whatever. I think a lot of it is a bunch of theological gobbledygook. This gobbledygook keeps people feeling bad about themselves because they have doubts. It serves to keep people passive and obedient, doubting themselves and their own creativity and questioning. These religious experts take one verse here and another there and make a theological system that it my opinion tortures the text at hand.
It think this text in Mark 8 is a fascinating piece of literature. It is compelling and it has a pull but I am not sure what it means intellectually, and more importantly, what it means for me personally, but I know I can’t let it go, and I know that it has a hold of me. Haunting words,
“Take up your cross and follow me…lose your life to save it…”
I am going to let it sit, and dabble in some Buddhism. Then come back.
The Dona Suttra tells the story of encounter with the Buddha or the Blessed One. In this story the Buddha like Jesus is walking along the road. And a brahman, a holy person, is following him. And he sees in the Buddha’s footprints “wheels with 1,000 spokes, together with rims and hubs, complete in all their features.” He says this cannot be a human being!
Both Buddha and Jesus were probably historical figures who had layers of legend attached to them. I doubt that the historical Buddha made these footprints. I doubt that the historical Jesus walked on water. I do think that both figures had a gravitational pull that attracted people to their message or way of living that resulted in attaching miracles to them. Whether you believe in supernatural miracles or not is not important, I don’t think. I think what they taught and did was important and that was attractive. Thus miracle stories were attached to them.
Anyway in the story, Dona, the brahman follows the tracks and finds Buddha sitting tranquilly under a tree. He is chilling, doing his Buddha thing. The text says that Buddha was
“…confident, inspiring confidence, his senses calmed, his mind calmed, having attained the utmost control & tranquility, tamed, guarded, his senses restrained…”
Dona goes up to him and asks him:
"Master, are you a deva?"
"No, brahman, I am not a deva."
"Are you a gandhabba?"
"... a yakkha?"
"... a human being?"
"No, brahman, I am not a human being."
Deva, gandhabba, and yakkha, are different kinds of divine beings, or mortals with super powers. Buddha, says no, he is not any of those things. He also says no to whether or not he is a human being.
Dona, the brahman, asks him, “What kind of being are you?”
Buddha says in paraphrase, if I were any of those things, I would be subject to future arising, for example, reincarnation, but these ways have been abandoned. One life to another to human to deva he has cut off. He is not identified with anything.
Then Buddha says:
"Just like a red, blue, or white lotus — born in the water, grown in the water, rising up above the water — stands unsmeared by the water, in the same way I — born in the world, grown in the world, having overcome the world — live unsmeared by the world. Remember me, brahman, as 'awakened.'
Then he goes on…
"The fermentations by which I would go
to a deva-state,
or become a gandhabba in the sky,
or go to a yakkha-state & human-state:
Those have been destroyed by me,
ruined, their stems removed.
Like a blue lotus, rising up,
unsmeared by water,
unsmeared am I by the world,
and so, brahman,
Another passage tough to get our heads around and perhaps even harder to live out. Buddha is not identified with any category. He has transcended all of these identities, not because he is magic, or divine, but because he is awake.
The invitation from Buddha to us is to become awakened.
The invitation from Jesus to us is to lose our lives to find them.
Are these invitations similar or different? Are they complementary or contrasting? Do we take up a cross? Do we become a lotus? Or both? Must one be right the other wrong? Does one path inform the other? I leave the questions open.
I do find it helpful to find wisdom wherever it may be found. I think that the religious quest or the spiritual quest for those who have trouble with the word religion is to take what we can and then ask, to what is this invitation?
Personally, I want to follow Jesus and I want to be awake. I am probably neither, but I still have this day and maybe even more to give it a go.
Religion, in my opinion, and that is all it is, take it for what it is worth, my opinion, is a beautiful magnificent thing. At its best it invites us
to redefine ourselves,
to challenge all self-definitions,
to engage in an exciting quest,
to live with depth,
to recognize illusions,
to not cling to a version of self that is destructive,
but like a snake to shed the skin and be reborn,
and to contribute to this wild, amazing human existence on this beautiful planet.
And we have whatever time we have to do it.
I find it personally tedious to worry about what others think I should do or believe. I deal with the tedium by making light of it, like a lotus, rise above it. I find it actually abusive to try to manipulate people into thinking or believing in things in order to get some reward or avoid punishment. Religion is too important for that. It is too important to be left to the zealots.
The symbols of religion play with one another, and cross paths. I think it is fruitful to take a religious text and compare it with one from another tradition and see what is produced.
To pick up a cross like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to be awake like Thich Nhat Hahn, yes, yes. Not that we have to be those people or think we have to be something great, but to live the life we have with wakefulness, with not clinging, with experiencing the suffering in a way that acknowledges it and transcends it, to pick up the cross and to rise.
Our religious stories are not about things that happened or things that must be believed, but about ways of happening in the present.
I think these stories, Mark chapter 8 about Jesus and the Dona Suttra about Buddha have fascinating parallels and points of intersection. They contrast as well. Buddha does not want to rise again, Jesus does. What does rising mean for each of them? Jesus picks up the cross to engage suffering. Buddha meditates to transcend suffering. Yet both are of the world but not defined by it. Who are they? They both refuse definition. Lose your life to save it. Be awake.
As a lovely irony I chose the text where Jesus is about to be arrested to complete the task he spoke of, to suffer and be crucified. He prays and he tells his disciples to be awake. They sleep. You can take that story at face value, that is that Jesus wants the disciples to stay awake with him.
But with the insights from the Buddha story, I play with the idea that Jesus is inviting the disciples to be awake in the Buddhist sense. To transcend all identities put upon us. Why? Why would you do that? You do that to live freely. So you can be present to what is at hand and to who is at hand. To be awake, carrying the cross. Living a life that is engaged. Like a lotus, unencumbered, so that one can be with, be present to, feel with, in other words live compassion, which is likely the highest value for both Jesus and Buddha.
I am going to close with one more story. Here is an illustration of both following the cross and being awake. This is from another tradition, the Jewish tradition, from the Talmud as told by Henri Nouwen in his book Wounded Healer:
A Rabbi asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?”
Elijah replied, “Go and ask him yourself.”
“Where is he?”
“Sitting at the gates of the city.”
“How shall I know him?”
“He is sitting among the poor covered with wounds. The others unbind all their wounds at the same time and then bind them up again. But he unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying to himself, “Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment.”
Awake. Lose to save.