Sunday, February 12, 2012

The two-truths model applied to Jesus and the Cross

Image via Wikipedia
The two-truths model in Buddhism suggests that we must look at any spiritual reading and discern whether it is referring to an ahistorical, or timeless, truth which is only approached indirectly through mythic language and metaphor or whether it is referring to a more mundane truth about particular events as seen with ordinary eyes. The former is sometimes referred to as belonging to a deeper and more inclusive view of reality, while the latter is confined to a narrower empirical view reinforced by our general understanding of how things are supposed to be.

This does not mean that a religious view is always on the level of the mythical/mystical level of understanding or that secular views are always generic/mundane. Someone who takes miraculous language literally (it says Jesus turned water into wine and therefore actual water became actual wine) is rendering that teaching in an ordinary mode of perception, while someone who takes everyday language poetically (such as someone who feels a new sense of depth and interconnectedness upon hearing that we are all made of star dust) is rendering that teaching in an extraordinary mode of perception.

The more inclusive mode has been referred to by teachers such as Thich Nhat Hahn as the ultimate perspective and the more restrictive mode has been dubbed the relative perspective. The challenge for interpreting Biblical texts with this approach to determine which passages and images should be taken from the ultimate perspective and which from the relative.

Take the figure of Jesus and the symbolism of his Cross, for example.

Br. John Martin Sahajanda suggests in his books that references to Jesus being "the only son of God" should be taken as representing what we are referring to here as the ultimate perspective. Br. Sahajanda claims that in these instances Jesus is speaking from the perspective of non-duality, in which all form is the Body of Christ. Therefore Jesus isn't making an exclusive claim (I, the person named Jesus, and distinct and better than everyone else) but an inclusive one going beyond his personal identity and embracing the entire cosmos.

Working from that premise, the significance of the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension come into play, as do the calls for others to imitate Jesus and take up their own crosses. Taken from a relative perspective, Jesus was making an exclusive claim as the only son of God and his passion only has meaning as a unique historical event. The Cross itself was a piece of wood existing two millenia ago. While the Cross may have become a symbol, the symbols merely point back to this original piece of wood. In similar fashion, the body and blood of Jesus are also restricted to those historical physical elements from a past age. Even if one thinks that bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, they are simply replicas of the original historical body as only it has any significance.

This relativistic view is the current majority view for contemporary Christianity. But what of an ultimate perspective? Just as Jesus' claim of being the only son of God would no longer be exclusive but inclusive, so too would the Cross, the body and the blood of Christ. The crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension would all be opened up to include everyone. Try for a moment to imagine what this might look or feel like to you before reading ahead to my own first impressions of such a perspective.

Ahem. Have you taken a moment? Well, then, let us continue.

The Cross becomes something other than two thousand year old piece of wood. The Cross is sacrifice. This is a good thing to contemplate as the season of Lent approaches for those Christians in denominations and communions that observe a traditional liturgical calendar. But the Cross isn't just any sacrifice, it is giving up the illusions of the ego (Eastern term) or lesser/false self (Western contemplative term) as a self-contained and self-sufficient entity in control of its world, bound up in pyschological and cultural constructions obstructing its view of a greater reality and freedom. 

This death to the lesser self isn't a death to our personality or memories, as demonstrated in the resurrection account. It is an expansion. And the ascension can be compared to someone who has already entered parinirvana and taken on an enjoyment body for teaching purposes leaving the world of ordinary form, for those who are familiar with Buddhist teachings.

An ultimate perspective on these and other core aspects of the Gospel narrative make them truly universal as well as inclusive. A Buddhist who realizes liberation has born her own cross and found a new life as much as Jesus did, without ever worrying about the historical figure of Jesus or the actual piece of wood he died upon. Sadly, those who cling to a strictly relative view of the Gospel narrative may miss such an opportunity by not taking up a life of cherishing others and renunciation of the grasping nature of their egos. 

The fixation on the relative view of the Bible and of the story of Jesus is so strong in contemporary Christianity that any suggestion of expanding that perspective appears to be destructive. How can their be any significance to the Gospel if it isn't exclusive? If people don't have to think that the historical person of Jesus and the objects and individuals he interacted with were very, very special and essential? It is incomprehensible. Why not just be an atheist, or Buddhist, or Wiccan, or whatever? What is the point of identifying or practicing as a Christian?

Consider that the Gospels are still forming an important narrative providing a framework for moving towards liberation from the confusion of the lesser self, from sin, toward an awakening of a limitless peace and joy. It is providing symbols to represent and  and help people understand important truths that cannot be comprehended by approach them directly. And it is claiming that others, such as Jesus, have already followed this path successfully and others can do the same. 

Even if someone uses another model, such as the Buddha, this need not be seen as some kind of competition or threat. Different traditions have unique historical and cultural identities that serve the needs of those following them. They do not have the same end or goal from relative perspective, the perspective of form, because they are dealing with different combinations of temperament and personal experience and therefore distinct concerns. Yet it is possible that from the ultimate point of view, arising out of emptiness, they lead to the appropriate unique way of understanding life a group or an individual requires.

Note how I am using Buddhism here to cast a new light on Christianity (or perhaps revive a dimmed light, theologians and historians can interject their views on this point), even as I am then using Christianity to frame Buddhism. That's another benefit of identifying with and practicing within a particular sacred tradition. It grounds you and allows you to explore and to be generous not just with those who believe and practice like you but also those whose spiritual or religious life is different than yours. If Christianity is the path that calls to you or fits your life, then you have no need to imposing a relative view of its teachings and stories on others. You can be fully confident in the deepest truth it reveals to you and share that insight with generosity and in charity.
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