Sunday, February 21, 2010

Is Jesus God?


Actually, a lot of Christians do not believe that Jesus is God, they just believe that Jesus was a very special messenger and believe in his teaching. This obviously represents an easy way to reconcile Buddhism and Christianity – Jesus and the Buddha were both teachers tapping into the same thing and expressing it differently. This is one way to go but most of the really good spiritual writings from Christianity contain the belief that Jesus is God. Also, some of the worst, most intolerant parts of Christianity have this belief. But the message of Jesus is not just in his teachings. Understanding the mystical idea that Jesus is God is, in my opinion, essential for getting the whole thing. But it is also equally important not to understand it in the wrong way, the way that leads to intolerance and wrong-mindedness. Also, if we go with Jesus the teacher, then Christianity has very little to offer Buddhism. The teachings of Jesus are very limited compared to the Teachings of the Buddha. The most that can be said is that a case can be made that Jesus had a similar message. However, a big piece of Christianity lies in the story of Jesus, which includes his teachings, but also his actions, what happened to him, and his metaphysical relationship to God. This is the part that is valuable to Buddhists because it represents a completely different way of understanding the same thing (at least, that is the claim in this blog).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hair Shirts

Buddhism has a lot of practices designed to take you gradually to an enlightened state or to a state where you can suddenly become enlightened (as in Zen). Some of this does exist in the monastic practices of Christianity but not as much. When Thomas Merton discovered Buddhism what impressed him were the methods, not the message. In fact, he initially had difficulty reconciling the message with his own Christian beliefs. But, he immediately recognized the methods as valid and in some ways more sophisticated. He wanted to use those methods to improve himself as a Christian. Christianity focuses on copying Jesus, which can be difficult because his practices were all quite extreme, similar to a fully enlightened Buddhist master. For example, in Buddhism they teach a gradual approach to developing compassion where you start by having compassion for yourself, then someone you care about, then a neutral person, and then someone who irritates you. In contrast Jesus’ example is to love your enemies, to give them your coat, to let them strike you, get crucified, etc. For Saint Francis the greatest joy arose from being verbally and physically abused, while he maintained a loving state in the name of Jesus.  A lot of the self-torture practiced by Christian monks had to do with following Jesus and jumping straight into the deep end. Unfortunately, for people who had not attained the right understanding this often led to confusion and being seriously messed up. So I do not think the really nasty monkish practices of Christianity are needed if Buddhism is in the mix.
THE LITTLE FLOWERS OF ST. FRANCIS

Mary and the Wedding

Here is a really good teaching that I received (and in receiving it I may have elaborated on it a bit). Jesus famously works his first miracle at a wedding, but the story is a bit bizarre on the surface. Jesus is at a wedding and they run out of wine. Then Mary asks Jesus to fix it. So she either knows that Jesus can do miracles (possibly he has been practicing at home), or she knows that Jesus is a very intelligent person who is generally good at solving problems, or she knows that Jesus is a drinker (as elsewhere reported) and that he has a tab with the local wine merchant. Jesus is not really interested in doing this and says so. Then Mary, who ignores Jesus’ protests, tells the servants to do whatever he says. Jesus then commands them to fill up a lot of big jars with water and turns it into very good wine.
There is a lot in this story. It sets up the rest of the gospel where the wedding theme has deep symbolic significance. It also teaches that following Jesus will be rewarded, symbolized by the very large amounts of excellent wine (which refers to inner not outer rewards). However, it is also very important for understanding the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Mary cares about our earthly life, she cares that the wedding will be ruined, whereas Jesus does not. Throughout the gospels, Jesus seems indifferent to what Buddhists would call attachment based suffering (e.g., let the dead bury the dead). Instead he is concerned with helping people to transcend their earthly life (where earthly refers not to the physical earth but to a life conditioned by attachment). Mary cares in a more direct way. She knows that the people having the wedding, probably friends of hers, will be devastated by this social disaster, so she gets Jesus to fix it.
Mary represents our normal compassionate response to suffering. This is symbolized most strongly in her role as a parent. When a (good) mother (or good father) sees their child suffering they have an overwhelming urge to remove the source of that suffering. In contrast, Jesus expresses compassion by trying to get us to let go and transcend the attachment-based source of our suffering. Jesus cannot identify with our normal suffering or condone focusing on it. So Mary is very important for dealing with our normal response to suffering and that is why people pray to her to intercede with Jesus, instead of praying directly to Jesus. Mary allows us deal with our normal feelings of compassion without loosing site of the fact that this is not the ultimate solution (represented by Jesus).
Needless to say, if you think that praying to Jesus can get you a new car, you are deeply misguided, I don’t think even Mary could get him to do this (more on what “prayer” means later).

Note - I realize that some Christians do not pray to Mary. I'm not saying you have to do this. I'm just explaining one understanding of this passage that relates to the theme of this blog