A Buddhist Reads the Bible (and Finds the Buddha): The Gospel of John
One of the more interesting reactions to my piece on Jesus the Jew was from my brother Bill, a scholar of languages and the Bible who reads in both Greek and Hebrew. He said that the Synoptic Gospels were about the Galilean Jesus, but the Gospel of John is about the Jerusalem Jesus, a distinction which I must admit I had never heard. Vermes’ whole point in Jesus the Jew was that Jesus was from Galilee and behaving like a Galilean Hasid; a lot of what he taught made perfect sense in that context. I don’t know that Vermes didn’t talk about the Gospel of John at all, but he didn’t talk about it much.
I had thought John would be the final Gospel I would look at; my impression was that it was written in a different context, from the standpoint of the absolute rather than the historical, with its mystical opening from before time began. John is of course the site of the famous verse which every evangelical quotes, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” a simple and direct statement for a fundamentalist but deeply puzzling for the rest of us. It is also the site—perhaps not the only one—of the statement “The Father and I are one,” words which the Zen teacher Joko Beck once said express the true message of all religions.
We’ll leave aside for a moment the idea of God’s “only Son,” a concept which I dealt with to some extent in my last piece. But I asked Bill about that word “believe,” which has always been a bugaboo for me. Bill, who wrote a book with his primary mentor on this subject, as I did with my primary mentor, says that in Greek the word doesn’t have the connotation of assenting to some set of propositions, but means something more like trusting, “an attitude of trust and existential commitment.” For me that suggests trust in the nature of things, with which Jesus is at one. According to Bill, Jesus was saying something more like “come along and start to see,” rather than “believe this stuff or you’re out.” And being saved by faith, according to Bill’s mentor, is not the believer having faith in Jesus, but the world being saved by Jesus’ own faithfulness. That turns the whole concept on its ear.
Bill said that there are those, including John A.T. Robinson—author of the famous book Honest to God—who believe that John was the first Gospel, rather than Mark. Bill also spoke on the question of historicity. “Historians (as opposed to Biblical scholars) seem to agree that most famous speeches handed down from antiquity were a mix of memory of what someone like Pericles or Jesus said and the art of the historian. [Jesus’ followers] didn’t have Bic pens and notepads ready to take down the exact words—although ancient aural memory was good at preserving some of these and passing them along even for generations. Thus to say that the 4th evangelist reflects the way Jesus spoke is not to say that he is transcribing from a tape recorder.” Bill’s final statement really fascinated me. “I’m interested in the Gospel of John because it is one religious genius writing about another religious genius.”
All of these things made me want to give this Gospel another look, after 40 years, or whatever it’s been.
The first thing you notice about John is that its tone is different from that of the other Gospels. Whereas Mark seems to be a historical account, John opens with a mystical prologue that tells the whole story in a nutshell, and states its point of view from the outset. The first eighteen verses are all part of that, one statement after another that bowls you over and that, for any religious person, from any faith tradition—I would almost say even for an irreligious person—has a ring of truth. Take verses 9-13, for instance, which seem to sum up the continuing story of the human race.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
“He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.”
That sense of people not accepting the fundamental nature of things, not accepting the person who is at one with it, seems hard to deny.
The other thing you notice immediately about John is that the writer is more of a dramatist, or a narrative writer, than the other Gospel writers. Mark often seems fragmentary, the bare bones of the story, but John soon settles into longer scenes, like the long early conversation with Nicodemus, or the one with the woman at the well. Jesus seems remarkable in this Gospel not because of healing and casting out of demons, but because of what he knows and the way he speaks in memorable aphoristic teachings (I would guess that more famous verses come from John than from any other Gospel). I was surprised in Mark that Jesus didn’t teach much in the early chapters, but in two successive conversations in John he says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” to Nicodemus, and to the woman at the well, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
Jesus in all the Gospels—and the Judeo-Christian tradition in general—chooses to anthropomorphize God, speaking of him as a father. For me that creates as many problems as it solves. I prefer the way Taoism addresses this mystery—“There was something vague before heaven and earth arose. How calm! How void! It stands alone, unchanging; it acts everywhere, untiring . . . I do not know its name, but call it by the word Tao”—or various Buddhist writers, as in the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, “Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire. Just to depict it in literary form is to stain it with defilement,” or the Song of the Grass Roof Hut, “The vast inconceivable source can’t be faced or turned away from.” When I think of God less as a person and more as the vast inconceivable source, or the way, much of the Gospel begins to makes sense.
What if, for instance, as Margaret Ne-Eka Barragato suggests in a marvelous piece she wrote about Buddhism and rebirth, “born from above” (what used to be translated as “born again”) refers to an enlightenment experience, and the kingdom of God is what Buddhists think of as suchness, or what Suzuki Roshi called “things as it is”? “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. . . . The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or what it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.” If the word “believe” suggests something more like “trust,” believing in the son is something more like entrusting yourself to the way of things. An apocalyptic sounding statement like “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath” could be saying something more mundane, like what Dogen says in the Fukanzazengi—“If there is the slightest discrepancy, the Way is as distant as heaven from earth. If the least like or dislike arises, the Mind is lost in confusion,” or again, the Song of the Jewel Mirror Samadhi, “Move and you are trapped; miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation.” Zen teacher Gudo Nishijima taught that zazen produces what he called “the balanced state”; when someone asked him once about heaven and hell in Buddhism, he said heaven is when you’re in the balanced state; hell is when you’re not.
If Jesus is talking about being at one with the way of things, in the same way the Buddha was, then sentence after sentence makes sense, and the aphoristic expressions keep piling up.
“I can do nothing on my own.”
“No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me.”
“I declare what I have seen in the Father’s presence; as for you, you should do what you have heard from the Father.”
“Before Abraham was, I am.”
“I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”
The words become more poignant and more pointed as his death approaches.
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
“I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
No doubt it will seem to some people that I am trying to make a connection where none exists, trying to bring people together who have no wish to be together. I actually don’t care about any of that. But from the time I stared meditating I began to see the truths of Christianity in a new way, and at this point in my practice, the religious traditions I know all seem to be pointing to the same fundamental truth. It seems obvious that they do. I can’t understand why they quarrel.
What Joko Beck said on that Zen Calendar seems truer to me than ever.
 That verse, or at least the citation of it, should be familiar to every baseball fan, because there used to be some guy with a sign that said John 3:16 who was sitting at every important baseball game. Sometimes he had tickets behind the plate during a World Series or playoff game. Don’t know how he got those tickets.
 I’m afraid I don’t have a citation on that. I read it on a daily Zen calendar at my yoga center.
 I find that expression especially puzzling because Jesus will soon speak of us as becoming children of God.
 So there. We can all become children of God
 Walt Whitman, in a way, said the same thing. “Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,/ I wait unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,/ And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.”
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