Tuesday, May 28, 2002

Who Was Jesus/Buddha/Krishna? Part III

My grandmother was my first piano teacher. Later, I had many piano teachers, but there came a day when my grandmother said "You need a really good teacher. I wish you could study with Bomer Cramer." I presented myself to Mr. Cramer and he agreed to take me on as a student. Cramer had been a child prodigy when my grandmother had first heard of him. He himself had studied with Henry Levine who in turn had studied with Rachmaninoff, one of the greatest composers and pianists of the 20th Century. Studying with Mr. Cramer was in a way like studying with Rachmaninoff because I received a direct, personal transmission of his style and technique which I could not have got in any other way (which is not to say I was capable of exhibiting everything I was taught.) Mr. Cramer had two nine foot Steinway grand pianos in his studio. He would sit at one and I at the other and he would play along with me. It's impossible to explain the kind of communication that takes place under such circumstances, but the student would sense and imitate the teacher's tempos, phrasing, timing nuances and dynamics in an instantaneous double performance. Many things can only be learned through such a direct transmission of an ongoing tradition from a teacher to a student. This is a phenomenon well understood by musicians, athletes, and dancers as well as religious mystics. It's not something that can be learned from a book because more is involved than mere intellectual activity or visual observation. The student physically takes part in the learning experience and is guided by the physical presence and actions of the teacher.

There is no doubt that both Jesus and Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) were actual historical persons. They lived 500 years apart and were about the same age when they stepped onto the world stage. Krishna is a much more complex figure out of a tradition several thousand years older and is probably a synthesis of several historical and legendary figures in ancient India. There are many points of similarity in the teachings of all three which have been transmitted to us through the writings of their followers but to be a disciple of any of the three involves much more than reading the sacred texts. Discipleship requires being part of the community of transmission, submitting to the authority of a teacher of the tradition and a lifetime of study, prayer and spiritual discipline, something that cannot be obtained by listening to a sermon or dharma talk or attending a yoga class once a week.

Even though there are many similarities in the teachings of these three figures, the similarities end there. The theology and the world view that shapes the theology of Hindu, Buddhist and Christian is vastly different. But it is true that the saints of each tradition are virtually indistinguishable in their persons and activities. Saints in all religions have a profound respect and love of all people regardless of national, religious, racial or cultural differences; they have strong, resilient personalities and a positive, joyful and creative openness to life and the future; they practice forgiveness and reconciliation in the midst of strife; they are non-judgmental and non legalistic. None of them would profess to have an exclusive and inexhaustible claim to the truth but all of them would express a humble understanding of the transitory and incomplete nature of all human knowledge.

Last week, when I wrote about following Jesus around, I ended my imaginary conversation with him with an open question about resurrection. Resurrection is the biggest problem in Christian theology for modern man. It also was the biggest problem for Jesus' contemporaries. It is a concept totally incomprehensible in terms of history or the scope of the world's knowledge. When I was in my twenties, I went to my pastor and told him that although I was strongly drawn to the church, I couldn't honestly accept the resurrection stuff because it was contrary to my common sense and everything else I knew. In many religious traditions, I would have been escorted to the door or patronizingly evangelized. Jack McGee did neither of these things. Instead he told me I might be interested to learn that many Christian pastors also struggled with the idea of resurrection and that in no way meant I didn't belong in the church. I was very welcome. He also is the first one to tell me that there are many pathways to God; through the heart, through the hands, through the intellect. He assured me God would be there for me whatever path I chose and to trust the process.

I haven't followed either Buddha or Krishna around so anything I say about them comes out of books I have read. What I have learned so far doesn't contradict anything I have learned about Jesus. It is all a vast mystery, like how in the world anyone can play all the Concord Sonatas at one time from memory (I heard Fred Fisher do it) or how it is one person can could die a terrible death and the whole world would be saved. In the gospel of Mark after Jesus cries out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," the first post Easter confession of faith, "Truly, this was the Son of God" was made by the Roman centurion who had just put him to death. Forget everything you have learned from the church, theology, Sunday School or wherever because in large part, Christians are no better than anyone else in understanding Easter, resurrection or salvation and furthermore, more often than not, believe, speak and act in ways totally contrary to the gospel. The confession of faith which the Christian tradition teaches is the one that leads to salvation did not come out of any religious tradition or from a disciple of Jesus but from a Gentile unbeliever. The confession was not the result of any biblical studies or spiritual discipline and it was made before any resurrection had taken place. In other words, we may understand that it was God/Allah/Jehovah/Whoever that created faith in the heart of a person who had no other access to the faith he confessed and it happened immediately after the commission of a murder. We may further understand that whatever happened on Easter morning, whatever truth or enlightenment or salvation is, it is something done by God, not by us, and is available to every single person on earth, living or dead (in whatever aspect) regardless of their religion and not as the result of any activity on their part whatsoever, but even in spite of it. And furthermore, it is a gift of God given to gentile Roman centurions, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Christians alike and no one has to convert to receive it.

So, who is/was Jesus anyway? We may be forgiven for asking since his disciples didn't figure it out either. But Jesus himself helped us out with this one. He told people who were questioning who he was,

"If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father."(John 10:37ff)

It's not what we say, it's what we do. It's not whether or not we can believe in the resurrection, it's whether or not we believe that we can be resurrected. That's what faith is all about.