A Buddhist Reads the Bible: Gospel of Mark from the New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press.
(This is my second piece on the Gospel of Mark, reading it not as a Buddhist or Christian but just an interested reader; the first piece is here. I’ll blunder along at my snail-like pace until I finish.)
It seems that when Jesus was in the wilderness he had a vision of his ministry; as soon as he emerged, he began collecting disciples. These weren’t just followers—there were many of those—but people to help him with his work. He apparently had an instinct for recognizing them. He was also a man whom others naturally followed. He told them to leave what they were doing, which might be a lifetime’s vocation, and they immediately did so.
If you ask yourself early in the Gospel of Mark what Jesus’ message is, it’s not easy to find, though we’re told he was teaching something. All we have is that somewhat mysterious statement in the first chapter. (“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”) The message emerges from his interaction with people.
My first Buddhist teacher Larry Rosenberg said that the Buddha was less like a teacher—an instructor in some esoteric knowledge—and more like a physician, a healer. People were suffering and he came to relieve them. If that’s true of that Buddha, it’s true in spades of Jesus as he is presented in Mark. Most of what he does is heal people; that’s what happens again and again.
I believe in healing and the laying on of hands; I don’t think it’s a supernatural power that only Jesus had (and in fact he passed it on to his disciples, gave them the same authority). It’s a power that comes from God, of course, but everything comes from God. I don’t mean to say that there’s a “logical” explanation for these healings, as if everyone had a psychosomatic illness and Jesus was healing their psyches (though it’s obvious that illness is regarded as psychosomatic in the Bible). That explanation holds up in some places, but when Jesus brings someone back from the dead, as he does several times, our logical explanations fail.
What I’ve read—in non-Christian teachings about healing—is that people have blocked their energy and don’t have access to it, and an illness develops. Healers have a way of passing their energy on to another person, sometimes by touching, sometimes not. The healer releases the blockage, and the illness improves. Sometimes it may just be the person’s attitude that improves.
In his experience of opening—the moment when John baptized him—and his subsequent time in the wilderness, Jesus saw into the heart of what is, the Kingdom of God, and became one with it; he has become love (which does not mean that he’s always sweet or nice; his love can be fierce and even angry). Love opens to everything, and the demons Jesus confronts are an expression of fear, of closing off to life. Jesus is somehow able to get people to open up and transcend fear, open to the moment; that’s what casting out demons is. All of that comes from his “authority,” his baptism experience and time in the wilderness. It has nothing to do with the logical teaching of the scribes. It is beyond that.
There’s a distinct change in Chapter II: in addition to the many people seeking healing there are others around, the scribes, who may be there to hear the teaching but are also in opposition; his teaching contradicts theirs. On one occasion he is in a house crowded with followers, so that people who want to see him cannot; one group removes the house’s roof and lowers a paralytic in on a stretcher. Impressed with this show of faith, Jesus says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The scribes take immediate exception. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
My understanding is that “sins” are separation from God, a turning away and closing down; people are afraid of the immense and magnificent Kingdom of God all around them and have turned away. Jesus is able, by his mere presence, to relax and open them up, put them in the presence of God. The scribes’ approach was through studying scripture, obeying rules, using one’s will to live in a Godly way; that might work over time, but Jesus heals by his very presence. It isn’t that he is “forgiving sins.” His presence brings people into the presence of God.
There follows a series of incidents which show the difference between his teaching and that of the scribes. The scribes complain that he is dining with sinners and tax collectors, not those who—like the scribes—are leading a righteous life, and he says that his ministry is not for the righteous, but for those who need healing. The scribes ask why he and his followers don’t fast, like John’s followers and the Pharisees, and he says that his presence with his followers is a time of celebration, not of mourning; there will be time for fasting in the future.
He lets the scribes know that his teaching is entirely new, and doesn’t mix with their way of doing things. “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made.” When he breaks one of their petty rules that are supposed to lead to righteousness—plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath—he indicates how his teaching is different from theirs. “The Sabbath was made for human kind, and not human kind for the Sabbath.” It is supposed to help people, not restrict them.
When a man on that same day comes to him with a withered hand, and the scribes gather around to see if he will “sin” by curing someone on the Sabbath, he feels real anger at the hardness of their hearts, and the essential stupidity of their teaching. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath,” he asks them, “to save life or to kill?” They don’t answer, and he has the man hold out his hand and heals it. Thus—in only the early part of the third chapter—does his teaching begin to work against him. People can’t take the presence of pure love among them any more than they can see the Kingdom of God all around. It’s overwhelming.
“The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
 I’m reminded of what Diane DiPrima said about Shunryu Suzuki. “Meeting Suzuki Roshi for the first time I met some rockbottom place in myself. I have often said that if Suzuki had been an apple picker or a welder, I would have promptly taken up either of those arts. I sat because he sat. To know his mind.”
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