“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things”
Isaiah 45:7 KJV
“You can’t get there from here, and besides there is no where else to go.”
Sheldon Kopp, No Hidden Meanings
Christmas can be a hard time for many western Buddhists. Some of this is from family issues, some of it from toxic encounters with Christianity itself. We have touched on family issues and how the contemplative runs into them under the tutelage of training in compassion. I want to talk now about the toxic twisting of a Christianity too often co-opted by patriarchy and consumerism or otherwise used by people to play out the needs of their own neurosis.
A lot of this sour taste for Christianity comes from those of its salesmen (or women) that insist you need to be a Christian or else your going to hell. What a mixed up theology that is. That is using religion as a magic stick to torment and control others. What the theology was meant to convey, far as I can tell, was that if you are not a Christian you are already in hell. Or, equally, if you find yourself in a living hell the way out is to become a Christian. This followed naturally from the definition of Christian that was being used, namely, anyone who had faith that in the end the good guys win. Saying yes and thank you to the new day after a long, dark night of the soul – this is the morning of resurrection, something often very hard to find. When it comes, it seems to come as a gift, a grace given to the brokenhearted. The idea of who was and was not a Christian was here very catholic. It is one that applies to anyone in any time who comes to believe that in the final analysis life, the universe and everything, just as it is, is worth experiencing. It is the conviction that it is good, that in some fashion that far exceeds our intellectual grasp, our lives and loves are precious and meaningful.
Those who would dare to bully others by using god as their beat stick have confused one definition of what it means to be Christian, a member of a particular institution, with this other which was much more universal in its motivation and meaning. I think there is a lot of this mixing up the planes which has all but completely obscured some enlightening messages we would do well to remember. In this post I am going to try and use the voice of the western tradition to talk to the themes important in every tradition. We don’t integrate Buddhism with western thought by tossing Christianity out. In my admittedly limited and dim view, there seems a way in which their reconciliation works. Is it a particle or a wave? Buddhism speaks to what it means to be fully human, and speaks of it as being mindful and awake to the precious sacredness of the world here and now. Christianity speaks mythically of that which is sacred and precious in every human, and speaks of it that we might recognize how the divine god, creator of the world, lives right here and now in everyone we meet.
With the winter solstice darkness has gone as far as it is allowed to go in its absorption of the day. Though the sunlight hours have been growing fewer and fewer, they never wholly disappeared and now, at this very moment, the balance between night and day ever so slowly begins to tip the other direction.
The ancient conception of the universe and man’s place within it held to a number of ideas we would directly recognize. Previous posts touched on the parallels between the Christian and Egyptian holy families and the stories told about their dying and rising god men. Works like Tom Harpur’s The Pagan Christ, while hardly recommended for their conclusions, are useful for the summary they provide of other religious scholars data collection. They make the case that the key components of the mythical roles that Christ as the man-god fulfills are found assigned to Horus or Osiris as well as to Jesus. In other words, according to this reading of the evidence, the core western tradition we find in Christianity has western roots leading as far back as the archeologists can take us.
It is helpful to recognize that anything as long lasting and pervasive as a religious tradition that has spanned east and west for centuries will have a very rich and multifaceted presence. Different aspects of the western tradition have been emphasized at different times. I would like to suggest at minimum it is helpful to recognize three parts, that while they work together, each present fairly distinct teachings. The three are redemption, creation, and defeat of the powers.
Today when Christianity is discussed it is almost exclusively under its redemption mode. The whole of our mythic inheritance, for many people, consists of little more than a set of shoulds and should-nots. Religion, for these people, is what children are taught in Sunday school; be good little boys and girls and god will like you and you’ll get to go to heaven; be bad ones and you will go to hell. This is foolishly childish magical thinking which amounts to not much more than the ‘better be a Christian or you’ll go to hell’ magical beat stick we mentioned already. It captures the outer form but fails entirely to convey the essential point of the Christian conception of sin. This is not what I want to focus on in this essay but because there is so much confusion and pain around this topic a quick reminder of orthodoxy is in order. By the Christian view each human baby is created a loved child of god. The purpose of having created you and I, as well as every bird, worm, and wolf, is so that we can be happy. This is not easy nor is it always possible, but even then nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ.” That is, nothing can ever separate that which finds itself created amidst life, love and light from the life-love-light creator. This is a western version of a selflessness teaching. Sin is taught to be a collective problem that came into the world with Adam – not you – and was removed from the world with Christ – again not you. This view, properly understood, is as far from the Sunday schoolmarm trying to get rambunctious kids to make decent choices by threatening hell fire as it is possible to get. It is very adult, a teaching of freedom for free people.
The redemption story is concerned with forgiveness, vicarious sacrifice of the scapegoat, and tellingly, is the aspect of the mythology most able to be turned to good effect for supporting the ongoing viability of the church as a social institution. The presentation of the Christ as redeemer of sinners uses guilt and sorrow, human regrets and the hope that we can do better tomorrow which they cause. All of this has a vital role to play in the psychology of the church’s members. Yet, just because this is true it also lends itself to being abused, to being used to enslave rather than liberate. The classic image of a corrupt Catholic church selling indulgences, more to line its own pockets than to bring peace to its congregations, captures the shadow side well enough.
There is another set of teachings in the same Christian tradition that is less capable of being used to prop up sociological institutions. These are the ones related to what we are exploring in mindful ecology and deal with what is sometimes referred to as creation spirituality. St. Francis’s sermon to the birds and Pope Francis’ recent encyclical addressing ecology are both representatives of this current. In my opinion this mode of expressing religious sensibilities is only going to grow stronger as the years of limits to growth’s inflections go by. We have spoken of it a little already and will pick it up again by and by.
It is the third mode, however, that has most relevance on the solstice. It is concerned with the meaning of the descent of the Christ into hell and the ascent of the Christ into heaven. By these activities, it is said, the man-god defeats the demons and devils of hell and causes the angels, principalities and thrones to worship him. He returns to us with a boon from his healing work, a peace that “surpasses all understanding.” Do you see what is involved here? Christ is the western world’s shaman.
One of the Tibetan Buddhist prayers is for any who do not have their own protector. Jesus is the shaman that is the final protector of the lost. This is all about the last shall be first, how those who cry out ‘Lord, Lord’ do not know him, how he is the shepherd that leaves the ninety-nine in search of the lost one. Remember our discussion about how the shadow is 90% gold? Remember the biology of violence and the very real multi-generational “sin” we touched on? The final truth of things is far from clear cut in the place where mythic story touches on molecular history. It is the Christ who goes the last bloody steps with those who tread in blood themselves.
Reading the earliest works of the Christian world it cannot help but strike one as odd that the church fathers went on and on about how with the coming of Christ the kingdoms of magic and superstition had fallen. They discussed this by talking about how the invisible powers would be (or had been) overthrown. Those powers were not conceived of as spooky, ephemeral spirits such as a medium might channel, but as the very real deathless gestalts of institutional power. The angels, archangels, choirs of angels, principalities and powers all represented what we would recognize as emergent phenomenon. They were presented in a hierarchy of ordered creation, the so-called great chain of being. These angelic beings were said to represent a people, or a nation, a city or a family. They were related to the starry heavens as the place where astrological forces determined the fate of all that happens on the earth. The fall of Rome was taken by the early Christians as a result or illustration of the Christ defeating the powers. All this was rather common currency among the ideas of the time.
The main message of the of the Christ, pagan or otherwise, has been said many ways. I like ‘the sun at midnight is always the sun’ as it captures both the underworld journey of the boat of Ra, alludes to the Copernican revolution, is itself a quote from the Hellenistic mysteries and includes the essence of what I understand about the work of our shaman Christ. This work banishes the darkness of hell and reveals the darkness of night; aka reality is blessed just as it is, though there is darkness in it. But that is the darkness of the broken heart, a darkness without the devils, demons, and ghosts of our fears. Those are no more real than the horns of a rabbit. They are produced by a mistaken view of things. The boon the Christ brings us is the good news that creation is ultimately gracious not malign, that we can call the creator Abba, not monster. The power of the mind-spooks’ bewitching develry depends on the idea that the other side (or eternity) is somehow more real than this world of flesh and blood that we deal with everyday. The Christ light comes to call BS on all that. The passion of Christ shows, in no uncertain terms, that living includes dying. It is a package deal – but death is not the devil. Even god must die.
Christianity teaches that death is rest, peace. Life itself, that which sees through your eyes, feels through your hands – it does not taste death at all. And that which does die, this mystery that is our existing at all, this mystery ends in a beatific vision. The beatific vision is the teaching that for each and every consciousness that has ever awoken on god’s green earth there will be a reunion with that which created it. From dust to dust. In the process our unique longings for love are fulfilled by our expressions of love, for it is taught that god is love. Love mystically embraces the soul, spirit and body in death in what is taught to be a marriage celestial. In this that which has been created is always the bride, passive to the touch of its creator’s kiss of dissolution. As I understand Dante’s celestial rose, this teaching of the final beatific vision in the life of a soul, it is a view from individual love, our own very personal vision of god, that is, how everything in our own life was actually perfect.
Perfect? Well it was needed in the great work. To use western terms we could say god’s plan required it to be just so or, perhaps, because it was just so god used it as it was. In eastern terms we would say each event had to be the way it had to be to do its part in the all pervasive interdependent way of the Dharma or Tao. How do we know each thing that happened to us and within us and because of us was needed in the great scheme of things? Because they happened, really happened. Reality reveals complete interdependence. Whatever really happened stands under the creator’s purview, without one set of rabbit horns to be found anywhere.
However, the death is real. When a loved one is lost, as the poets say, god is the first to cry. The loss and the heartbreak, for those who remain among the living, is real. But, as anyone who has lost someone dear has learned, it is also true that in a very real way those people remain alive in our hearts. In the Christ myth, after the death of god, the disciples learned not to look into necromantic arts full of sigils and magic circles, books of the dead full of spells or any of the other tomfoolery centuries of superstition had burdened death and dying with. They found, it is said, an empty tomb because they too found their beloved teacher, their shaman, still alive in their hearts.
Buddhist eastern thought touches the same things in its teachings about rebirth where you come back but as someone else because, you see, you have no independent, unchanging self. The eastern teachings that include reincarnations, Hindu and Buddhist, also include the idea of eventually leaving the wheel of rebirth in a state of final nirvana or parinirvana. Is this so different than the final rest Christianity also teaches about, the peace which surpasses all understanding?
In all this it is easy enough the see the same mythic accounting for both the reality of death and the reality of ongoing life. Today we would touch on these things by talking about evolutionary deep time and the DNA: this mystery which has never itself tasted death and yet has only ever been expressed through unique individual incarnations each destined to die.
What east and west are affirming through these mythic teachings is that life is worth living. That it is worth living in spite of the fact that love must die. We are called to walk the path of beauty with a noble heart and live in a sacred world.
I offer you this to contemplate as my holiday gift. The sun in the sky also burns in our chests, sparks of stars that we are as molecular elemental beings. We walk the path that suspends these cosmic fingerprints between the earth and the sky, body and thought, perception and emotion. We live and move and have our being held between the ever embracing mother earth and father sky. Love, sometimes dark and elemental and other times light like a rainbow, really is all around us.