Difficult Teachings

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

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

The Gospel continues with what is for me a cluster of difficult teachings.  They don’t sound like the Jesus we’ve met earlier.  They don’t sound like the Jesus we see in most representations of him, the handsome man with the long flowing black hair.[1]  He’s difficult like the faceless teacher in the Gospel of Thomas, like certain Crazy Wisdom teachers I’ve heard of.  You never know what he’s going to say, or where he’s coming from.  He’s utterly unpredictable.

The subject in general is sin, and I’d like to begin by saying what I mean by that word.  I think of sin as separation from God, separation from Reality or the Way that I mentioned at the end of my last post.  We’re never actually separate from it, but we separate ourselves; we turn away.  We lose our connection with things as they are and feel alienated.  In that state we sometimes do unskillful things in a wish to connect, but we don’t need to do anything; we just need to settle down and feel the connection we already have (that’s what we do in zazen).  I don’t think of sins as particular acts.  I especially don’t believe in going around pointing out “sins” that other people are committing.

My attitude in general is beautifully expressed in a teaching I once read about celibacy, in a commentary on the Yoga Sutra.  The author was talking about the difference between regulating behavior and attacking the whole issue in another way.

“Brahmacharya means literally ‘moving in the immensity’ or ‘living in reality,’ but from earliest times it has been understood to refer to the sublimation of the life force that is normally expressed as sexuality.  Thus brahmacharya has frequently been translated as ‘celibacy,’ by which sexual continence is meant.

“This has led to much confusion.  True yoga is a natural process, and has no place for repression, whether of the ego, sex, or anything else.  Such an attitude of forced control is against life, and can only result in strain and tension incurred in the name of some supposedly ‘higher’ ideal.  However, as we progress on the path of yoga, needs and desires become more refined.  Sexuality is one area of experience that typically tends to aberration, becoming narrowly confined to the habitual need for release of tension and dissatisfaction, rather than the magnification of an already existing happiness.  Nourished by yoga, a wider loving-awareness that is present at all times begins to develop.  Such all-inclusiveness is the natural state of awareness; it has its own economy, self-sufficient and unforced.  And if such a transformation is experienced, it will only be because the limited self, which is always more or less motivated by the need to overcome its chronic and anxious sense of separation through repetitive and unexamined behavior patterns, has been transcended.  Transcendance has nothing to do with suppression, and brahmacharya does not mean ‘self-control’ as normally understood.  It is a state of self-sufficient wholeness, an innocence that is its own ecstasy.”

He’s talking about something that I’ve seen in my own life.  The “limited self . . . is motivated by the need to overcome its chronic and anxious sense of separation through repetitive and unexamined behavior patterns.”  That’s a great description of addiction.  Suppressing such impulses doesn’t work.  What does work, though it’s hardly a quick fix, is “moving in the immensity,” or “living in reality.”  That’s what we learn in meditation.

In other words, if you feel your connection with God, you won’t feel the need to connect in other ways.  If you don’t, it’s hard to regulate your behavior.  It’s in this sense that Augustine said, Love God, and Do as you Will.

I don’t believe in hell, in a lifelong punishment for sinners.[2]  I believe in hell as a state we enter when we separate from reality.  I therefore see all of Jesus’ teaching about sin as metaphorical; it’s as if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  That’s how bad the feeling of sin is.  It’s not what’s going to happen to you.

What he actually says is pretty rough, starting toward the end of Chapter 9.  If you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me—the disciples may just have done that by stopping the guy who was casting out demons in his name—it would be better to be thrown into the sea with the aforementioned millstone.  Rather than sinning, it would be better to cut off the offending hand, foot, or eye (we don’t want to go into sexual sins here).  The hell where we’ll be thrown is where the worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.  Mention of fire inspires him to come up with a real puzzler.

“For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good, but if salt has lost it saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

No matter how many times I read that, it makes no sense to me.

He has a more conservative view of divorce than Moses.  We can see where the Catholic Church got its attitude.  I don’t see any other way to read it.  It’s pretty harsh.  “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

He ends this cluster of teachings with a couple that are more familiar.  One is the famous teaching about little children.  “Let the little children come to me, for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs . . . whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  That statement has always been a bit of a puzzler to anyone who has spent time around children, and seen their utter self-centeredness and the way they knock the hell out of each other, but I think what he’s talking about is their pure presence, the way they do things with the whole of themselves.  That’s the thing we gradually lose by becoming more self-conscious.  If you want to see what we’ve lost, watch a baby breathe.

Then there is the famous teaching about the rich man, who sincerely wants to inherit eternal life.  He calls Jesus good, and Jesus says, interestingly, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”  (He really is getting contentious here.  Hey, man.  Lighten up.)  Jesus goes over the usual commandments, and the rich man makes the astonishing statement that he has kept all of them since his youth.  There follows one of the most striking sentences in the Bible.  I don’t know of another like it.  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”  But he sees what is keeping the man from eternal life (which is the life Jesus is leading at that very moment, not some life he will find later, in a place called eternity).  He says, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  The young man is shocked and goes away grieving.

Jesus then goes on a rant about wealth, making the famous statement about the eye of a needle.  The disciples look at one another and figure they’re all sunk.  (I wonder what they would say about us, with our computers and cell phones and cable TV.)  But Jesus reverses his field again.  He’s all over the place here.  “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Wealth is not the problem, as my teacher Larry Rosenberg once said.  (I vividly remember his words.  “That would mean a wealthy person can’t become enlightened.  What sense does that make?”)  The problem is the way wealth stands between us and the Kingdom of God.  I know myself—I who have a retirement fund, and health insurance, and money in the bank—the way that I can think, in a moronic way, I’ve got things covered, I can handle whatever comes along.  I obviously don’t and obviously can’t.  It is only when we see that we can’t handle everything, that in reality we can’t handle anything, that we begin to understand what our attitude toward reality, toward God, needs to be.  Dogen’s advice in Shoji comes back: “Let go of and forget your body and mind; throw your life into the abode of the Buddha, living by being moved and led by the Buddha . . . without relying on your own physical or mental power.”  We’ve seen glimpses of faith like that throughout the Gospel (though not, alas, in the disciples).  It’s always from the people who are the most desperate.

[1] I’ve always like Guy Davenport’s ideas about Jesus’ appearance.  This is from the preface to The Loggia of Yeshua, a must-read for all you Jesus fans.  “The falsest myth about him may be the Romantic and Sunday school pictures of him as a pious matinee idol with a woman’s hair, neat beard, and flowing robes.  History can tell us that he wore trousers of the kind we call Turkish, that he most certainly had oiled sidelocks and a full beard.  A man so out-of-doors would have worn a wide-brimmed traveler’s hat, a caftan, or coat.  His sandals are mentioned by Yohannan.  We can only guess a witty smile (“Behold an Hebrew in whom is no guile!”) and eyes capable of extreme sternness and kindness.  That he could hold an audience entranced goes without saying.”

[2] Bishop James Pike, in a sermon which I heard in the Duke University Chapel in 1966, said he didn’t believe in hell because, if there were people in hell, the people from heaven would be down there trying to help them.