Having Faith Is Not Knowing

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

(This is my fifth piece on the Gospel of Mark; the other pieces are here and here and here and here.  I’ll blunder along at my snail like pace until I finish.)

My impression of the early part of Mark was that Jesus was hell bent—pardon the expression—on healing as many people as possible, and on enabling the disciples to heal.  The narrator didn’t seem interested in Jesus’ message at all.  But increasingly as the Gospel goes on Jesus seems to be teaching the disciples themselves, not so much his other followers.  He seems to feel that time is short, and he’s impatient with the disciples’ inability to grasp this message, tries all kinds of ways to get it across.  I don’t want to say he’s desperate.  But the word does come to mind.[1]

That having been said, I have no idea what the Transfiguration is all about.  Jesus takes the disciples who increasingly seem to be his favorites—Peter, James, and John—up on a mountain, where his clothes become dazzlingly white, Elijah and Moses appear, a cloud overshadows them, and from the cloud comes a voice—“This is my son, the beloved, listen to him!”—and then everything clears away and only Jesus is there.  (If I had to guess at a “meaning” for all this, it might be: this brightness, this whiteness, is how I really am.  It’s how you are too.  The prophets of the past are as much here as if they were alive now.  And by the way, you’re not listening!)  You can imagine Jesus thinking, okay, now do you get it?

They don’t.  Peter—at least Peter says something; he’s the most human and forthcoming of all the disciples—says “It is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  He seems to think the point is for them to hang out for a while.  The narrator admits that Peter was grasping at straws, because the three men were terrified (and who can blame them?).  Jesus swears them to secrecy until after he has risen from the dead—he’s getting ready for that event that he knows is coming—and the disciples talk among themselves about what this rising from the dead can possibly mean.  They ask if it is true that—as the scribes say—Elijah must come first, and he says it is true, but that Elijah has already come.  They’re on a literal level, and he’s way beyond that.

They come down to where the rest of the disciples are, with a whole host of followers—as usual—and some scribes arguing with them.  A man has brought his epileptic son to be healed, and the disciples haven’t been able to do it.  For the first time that I can remember—perhaps because the episode on the mountain didn’t go as plan—Jesus shows real impatience.  “You faithless generation, how much longer must I put up with you, how much longer must I be among you?”  The father asks Jesus to help “if you are able,” and Jesus jumps all over that phrase.  “If you are able!  All things can be done for the one who believe.”  The man—again, not a disciple—shows what seems to be the proper attitude.  “I believe; help my unbelief!”  He’s not claiming to have anything, or to be anything.  He throws himself on Jesus’ mercy.  And the child is healed.

The disciples are trying to figure things out, and it’s understandable; he’s handing them a huge responsibility.  And he’s saying, in effect, don’t figure it out.  Don’t want to know how to do it.  Have faith that the thing will be given to you.  It’s the same way he told them not to worry what to say when they went into the villages.  The words would be given to them.  When they ask why they couldn’t heal the child, he said, “This kind can come out only through prayer.”  That seems like a rather elementary statement: it isn’t you who’s doing it.  It’s God.

They in the meantime are arguing among themselves—this seems a constant preoccupation—about which among them is the greatest.  He has already told them they need to deny themselves, to lose their lives for his sake, but they haven’t understood.  They think they need to be somebody.  They need to be great.  That’s the opposite of what he’s saying.

So he gives the teachings again.  “Whoever wants to be last must be first, and servant of all.”  Whoever welcomes a child also welcomes him, and welcomes the one who sent him.  A man who is casting out demons in his name is not to be discouraged, or stopped—as the disciples tried to do—because “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  And it’s wrong to discourage anyone.  They should not stand in the way of anyone who is teaching in his name (as if they’re the only authorities).

Jesus seems to be teaching his disciples a spiritual knack.  That word seems to make light of it, but it has a certain lightness; it can’t be achieved by effort.  It can’t be known, and the problem is that the disciples keep wanting to know it; they want to have knowledge, something to go on.  There is no such thing.

The Zen tradition speaks of this knack in my favorite koan, the one, in fact, that I believe contains all the other koans.  The young Joshu—who would have a long career, live to be 119 years old—asks his teacher the most basic of all Zen questions, What is the Way?  And the dialogue proceeds from there.

“Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied.

“Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked.

“If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen.

“How can I know the way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu.

“The way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing.  Knowing is delusion; not knowing is confusion.  When you have reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space.  How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?”

With these words, Joshu came to a sudden realization.[2]

It wasn’t the words that gave him the realization.  He was ripe.

Jesus saw that vast space—which is both inside us and outside—when he was baptized by John.  It is why he speaks with authority, why he is able to heal; it is what he is trying to teach his disciples, without—at the moment—a whole lot of success.  It can’t really be shown; it has to be just seen, and it is seen partly by what Christians call grace.  It is right there in front of us and we don’t see it.  Then we do.

Joshu’s question—how can I know the way without trying?—is the exasperated question we all have.  The only way we know is to try.  But trying—as Nansen points out—gets in the way.  Once we understand that we can’t know, that the Way is a matter of not-knowing, then we can quit trying.  And then, perhaps, we see.

I think the Way is the same as Reality, the same as God.  But if I said that at my Zen Center people would blow the roof off.

[1] I can’t help thinking of the teacher J. Krisnamurti, who of course lived much longer than Jesus and had a much different career.  But as he got older and older he seemed to get more and more exasperated with people’s inability to grasp what he saw as a rather simple message.  He kept saying the same thing, and they kept not getting it.  (I myself don’t get it, by the way.)  By the end he seemed almost speechless, he’d been so utterly misunderstood.  Sometimes, in his later appearances, he seems exhausted, and furious.

[2] This version of the story comes from Two Zen Classics by Katsuki Sekida.