September 20, 2008

the Kingdom is inside you, and outside you

This from Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Eharman:

... [T]he Gospel of Thomas [is] a valuable collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, many of which may reflect the historical teachings of Jesus, but all of which appear to be framed within the context of later Gnostic reflections on the salvation that Jesus has brought. Unlike the Gospels of the New Testament, in this Gospel Jesus does not talk about the God of Israel, about sin against God and the need for repentance. In this Gospel it is not Jesus' death and resurrection that bring salvation. In this Gospel there is no anticipation of a coming Kingdom of God on earth.

Instead, this Gospel assumes that some humans contain the divine spark that has been separated from the realm of God and entrapped in this impoverished world of matter, and that it needs to be delivered by learning the secret teachings from above, which Jesus himself brings. It is by learning the truth of this world and, specially, of one's one divine character, that one can escape this bodily prison and return to the realm of light whence one came, the Kingdom of God that transcends this material world and all that is in it.

A remarkable document, an ancient forgery condemned as heretical by early proto-orthodox Christians and lost or destroyed, until the remarkable discovery of the Gnostic library in Upper Egypt, near Nag Hammadi, preserved now for us as the secret sayings of Jesus, which, if rightly understood, can bring eternal life.

Elaine Pagels writes in her book Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas:
Thomas’s gospel offers only cryptic clues – not answers – to those who seek the way to God. Thomas’s “living Jesus” challenges his hearers to find the way for themselves: “Jesus said, ‘Whoever finds the interpretation of these words will not taste death,’” and he warns the disciples that the search will disturb and astonish them: “Jesus said, ‘Let the one who seeks not stop seeking until he finds. When he finds, he will become troubled; when he becomes troubled, he will be astonished and will rule over all things.” Thus here again Jesus encourages those who seek by telling them that they already have the internal resources they need to find what they are looking for: “Jesus said, ‘If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.’”

Yet the “disciples [still] questioned him,” Thomas writes, “saying, ‘Do you want us to fast? How should we pray? Should we give alms? What diet should we observe?’” In Matthew and Luke, Jesus responds to such questions with practical, straightforward answers. For example, he instructs them that “when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.” When you fast, “put oil on your head, and wash your face.” And “when you pray, play like this, [saying], ‘Our Father, who art in heaven. . . .’” In Thomas, Jesus gives no such instruction. Instead, when his disciples ask him what to do – how to pray, what to eat, whether to fast or give money, he answers only with another koan: “Do not tell lies, and do not do what you hate; for all things are plain in the sight of heaven” in other words, the capacity to discover the truth is within you. When the disciples still demand that Jesus “tell us who you are, so that we may believe in you,” he again deflects the question and directs them to see for themselves: “He said to them, ‘You read the face of the sky and the earth, but you have not recognized the one who stands before you, and you do not know how to read this present moment.’” ...

Yet Thomas’s Jesus offers some clues. After dismissing those who expect the future coming of the kingdom of God, as countless Christians have always done and still do, Thomas’s Jesus declares that
the Kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will see that it is you who are the children of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty.
This cryptic saying raises a further question: how can we know ourselves? According to Thomas, Jesus declares that we must find out first where we came from, and go back and take our place “in the beginning.” Then he says something even stranger: “Blessed is the one who came into being before he came into being” But how can one go back before one’s own birth – or even before human creation? What was there before human creation – even before the creation of the universe?
"Blessed is the one who came into being before he came into being," reminds me of the Zen koan "What did your face look like before your parents were born?", also known as the concept "original face." It is the same, no?

Hui-neng, the 6th Patriarch of Ch'an -- Chinese Zen -- said, "See what at this very moment your own face looks like - the Face you had before you, or indeed your parents, were born - there is nothing hidden. If you look within and recognize your own ‘Original Face', all secrets are in you."

Wikipedia offers a nice, succinct page re Original face that provide three ancient Zen poets' takes on what the concept means to us.

Contempory Zen Master Wu Kwang, a Gestalt therapist, offers a long psychology-based take on the concept. I am particulary taken by this idea found at the end of his article/essay "What is your original face?":
Another provocative implication of this [koan] is that time goes not from past to present to future, but, psychologically, from present to past. If you touch the moment where you perceive your original face before your parents were born, then you can also see how you give birth to your own parents! If you are having a moment of unencumbered freedom, and then begin to step back into the mental and emotional attitudes of better or worse, should or should not, good or bad, valuable or not so valuable, at that moment you are giving birth to a relationship with authority figures and parental edicts. At that moment, you give birth to your parents - whether your real parents or little bits and pieces which you extracted from them that sit in your mind-belly, giving you a lot of indigestion.

When you perceive that, you begin to take some responsibility in the present for what you are carrying around. 'Ihis sense of responsibility gives you a tremendous sense of freedom, and hopefulness, and a way to work with all of these things.

September 18, 2008

Buddha and Nietzsche spar in the Court of Heaven

The long quote that follows is from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy, published in 1945 – which, one source tells me, was the best-selling book of philosophy in the English-speaking world during the 20th Century. According to Wikipedia, Russell (1872 – 1970) “was a British philosopher, historian, logician, mathematician, advocate for social reform, and pacifist.…

“A prolific writer, Russell was a popularizer of philosophy and a commentator on a large variety of topics. Continuing a family tradition in political affairs, he was a prominent anti-war activist, championing free trade between nations and anti-imperialism.”

Here, Russell discusses sympathy as a matter of ethics and imagines a confrontation between Friedrich Nietzsche and Buddha before Almighty God in the Court of Heaven:

Sympathy, in the sense of being made unhappy by the suffering of others, is to some extent natural to human beings; young children are troubled when they hear other children crying. But the development of this feeling is very different in different people. Some find pleasure in the infliction of torture; others, like Buddha, feel that they cannot be completely happy so long as any living thing is suffering. Most people divide mankind emotionally into friends and enemies, feeling sympathy for the former, but not for the latter. An ethic such as that of Christianity or Buddhism has its emotional basis in universal sympathy; Nietzsche’s, in a complete absence of sympathy. (He frequently preaches against sympathy, and in this respect one feels that he has no difficulty in obeying his own precepts.) The question is: If Buddha and Nietzsche were confronted, could either produce any argument that ought to appeal to the impartial listener? I am not thinking of political arguments. We can imagine them appearing before the Almighty, as in the first chapter of the Book of Job, and offering advice as to the sort of world He should create. What could either say?

Buddha would open the argument by speaking of the lepers, outcast and miserable; the poor, toiling with aching limbs and barely kept alive by scanty nourishment; the wounded in battle, dying in slow agony; the orphans, ill-treated by cruel guardians; and even the most successful haunted by the thought of failure and death. From all this load of sorrow, he would say, a way of salvation must be found, and salvation can only come through love.

Nietzsche, whom only Omnipotence could restrain from interrupting, would burst out when his turn came: “Good heavens, man, you must learn to be of tougher fibre. Why go about snivelling because trivial people suffer? Or, for that matter, because great men suffer? Trivial people suffer trivially, great men suffer greatly, and great sufferings are not to be regretted, because they are noble. Your ideal is a purely negative one, absence of suffering, which can be completely secured by non-existence. I, on the other hand, have positive ideals: I admire Alcibiades, and the Emperor Frederick II, and Napoleon. For the sake of such men, any misery is worth while. I appeal to You, Lord, as the greatest of creative artists, do not let Your artistic impulses be curbed by the degenerate fear-ridden maunderings of this wretched psychopath.”

Buddha, who in the courts of Heaven has learnt all history since his death, and has mastered science with delight in the knowledge and sorrow at the use to which men have put it, replies with calm urbanity: “You are mistaken, Professor Nietzsche, in thinking my ideal a purely negative one. True, it includes a negative element, the absence of suffering; but it has in addition quite as much that is positive as is to be found in your doctrine. Though I have no special admiration for Alcibiades and Napoleon, I too have my heroes: My successor Jesus, because he told men to love their enemies; the men who discovered how to master the forces of nature and secure food with less labour; the medical men who have shown how to diminish disease; the poets and artists and musicians who have caught glimpses of the Divine beatitude. Love and knowledge and delight in beauty are not negations; they are enough to fill the lives of the great men that have ever lived.”

“All the same,” Nietzsche replies, “your world would be insipid. You should study Heraclitus, whose works survive complete in the celestial library. Your love is compassion, which is elicited by pain; your truth, if you are honest, is pleasant, and only to be known through suffering; and as to beauty, what is more beautiful that the tiger, who owes his spendour to fierceness? No, if the Lord should decide for your world, I fear we should all die of boredom.”

You might,” Buddha replies, “because you love pain and your love of life is a sham. But those who really love life would be happy as no one is happy in the world as it is.”

For my part, I agree with Buddha as I have imagined him. But I do not know how to prove that he is right by any argument such as can be used in a mathematical or a scientific question. I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy, as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all that I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.
Now, I don’t think that Russell quite has Buddha right. Buddha would not spar in such an ordinary, worldly way, nor would he baldly make heroes of some at the expense of others. Also, Buddha would love the world as it is; only with a change in attitude towards it and appreciation of it. Also, Russell's imagined Nietzsche is wrong to believe that Buddha's cure is one of non-existence [Woe, is THAT ever a complex tangent I won't go into here.] But Russell’s overarching point is sound, it seems to me: that the reasons for sympathizing with or loving the world are hard to justify using cold logic alone. Only someone who has the complete toolkit of emotions could begin to understand.

Living in Homeless World, as I now am, I sometimes see stark instances of people not having the complete toolkit, such that they enjoy the passion play of physical fighting, or other instances where the pain of others is cause, in them, for pleasure. Being Buddhist, I have great hope that folks who are acclimated to the mean streets can and will, one day, find the angels of their better natures and see changes in themselves as the flowering of their true Selves.