My First Teacher Was a Rabbi

A Buddhist Reads the Bible: the Gospel of Mark from the New Revised Standard Version.  Oxford University Press.

Various things are conspiring to make me read the Bible, which I last read—a rather thorough reading—in 1966-7, when I was a freshman at Duke.  At a recent sesshin, I did dokusan with Shohaku Okumura and he mentioned that his teacher Kosho Uchiyama—the Zen teacher I most admire—had continued to read the Bible until the end of his life.  I knew he’d studied it as a young man, and he obviously knew the book (he makes extensive reference to it in Opening the Hand of Thought), but I had the impression he had stopped reading it when he became a Buddhist.  Apparently not.

Then after sesshin, when I read The Wholehearted Way for the first time, Uchiyama made the fascinating statement that he had never understood the Bible until after he’d been sitting zazen with Sawaki Kodo.  He’d read the book, but hadn’t made head nor tail of it.

I don’t mean to suggest that I haven’t dipped into the Bible since I read it for my religion class at the age of 18.  I attended Christian church through my twenties and early thirties, heard the book read and studied sections of it intensely.  Those were the days when I was trying to find religion through my intellect, and I battled the Bible—and the whole Christian faith—like a warrior.  It wasn’t two bears in a cage, as someone said about Tolstoy and God; it was more like a bear and a stymied intellectual, who sat there reading and scratching his head while the bear swiped at him, as if to say How can I engage this nitwit?  I never figured the whole thing out, and abandoned the book—and religion—in my mid-thirties.

It wasn’t until I turned 40, and began to sit meditation, that I began to realize you take religion in through the stomach, not the brain.  I still sometimes try to use the brain.  It doesn’t work.

And I don’t intend to read the whole Bible, at least not at the moment.  But as I’ve sat through the years the teachings of Jesus have come back to me in a whole new way.  I’ve understood things that were impenetrable to me previously.  It occurred to me, what if I read that stuff again, from the standpoint of where I am now?  What if I tried to read it as if I’d never seen it before, as if it were just a book I picked up (instead of one my grandmother gave me when I was ten, walking me through her favorite passages)?  What might that be like?

I started with the Gospel of Mark, which I remember as the simplest and most basic one, also the earliest, perhaps the basis for the others.  As a narrative it seems rather frantic, jumps into the middle of the story and sets a terrific pace.  A wild prophet was roaming the countryside, proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  He wore camel’s hair, had a leather belt around his waist, ate locusts and wild honey.  He knew that a more powerful person was coming after him, who will baptize not with the water but with spirit.  And then Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

Elsewhere in this Gospel it seems that Jesus has prophetic powers, knows what will happen to him and is walking through a pre-ordained script.  There’s no suggestion of that here.  He seems to be just one more pilgrim, coming to find out what this wild and radical teacher has to say, what the experience of baptism is like.  It’s completely transformative.  It changes his whole life.

Buddhism calls this an enlightenment experience.  It seems to come out of nowhere, though we don’t know what kind of life Jesus has led up to then.  It isn’t unprecedented for it to come out of nowhere; the Sixth Zen ancestor, Huineng, was an illiterate peddler and had an enlightenment experience when he heard a single line from the Diamond Sutra.  It is life that prepares you, not some scholarly teaching.  The moment is portrayed in the narrative as an outward change—“just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”—but there was obviously an inward transformation as well.

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

Teachers often say about enlightenment: it’s not the end of things; it’s the beginning.  You have an opening, and the real work begins.

Mark gives us all of two verses on the wilderness experience: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

That sounds like an accurate description.  It is like what the Buddha went through when he sat under the Bodhi tree (though his tempter, in that culture, was called Mara).  You are alone, with your own consciousness, confronting what is.  Jesus was profoundly alone, as was the Buddha.  Whatever tempts you in your life—whatever pulls you away from your confrontation with the cosmos, with life—comes up in that situation, comes up repeatedly.  The wild beasts are also there: Jesus was apparently in a place where he was in real physical danger, so he confronted that as well.  Yet when you let those things go—allow them to be, but don’t focus on them, turn your attention deeper—the angels do wait on you.  You find a deeper peace, which keeps—through the years—getting deeper.  I’m told the deepening never ends.

I assume that Jesus had had a conventionally religious upbringing.  He worked with his father, went to the temple, learned from scripture (he eventually shows himself to know it very well).  But something about that wasn’t enough, so he went to meet John the Baptist and had that profound encounter.  He was ripe for it.  He went off by himself because he knew he had to deepen it.  Forty days and forty nights—as my professors told me—was not an exact measurement; they were just numbers that indicated a long time.  We don’t know how long Jesus was in the wilderness.  He stayed until he understood the experience.

When he came back, he had a simple message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

He seems to be saying that a certain era has ended (another translation says, “The time has played out”) and a new time has arrived, when the kingdom of God is near.  What Jesus had seen when he was baptized, and what he understood more deeply in the wilderness, was the kingdom of God.  He wants people to turn from their old ways, and believe in this new thing.  It is good news.

It isn’t that Jesus has a new interpretation of the scriptures; he has a whole new way of looking at things.  “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes (the scholars of the Torah).”  His authority comes from the experience he’s had.  He’s trying to explain it to people who haven’t had it.