“For whoever wants to save his ‘life’ will lose it, but whoever loses his ‘life’ for me will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his ‘life’.” Matt 16:25-26
The New Testament of the Bible was written in Greek. There are two different Greek words in this passage for ‘life’. This difference is lost to the English eye which can distort the intended meaning. The two occasions in the first sentence mean ‘soul’ (the Greek word used was psuche, from which we derive the English word Psyche as in Psychology). The other ‘life’ in the second sentence means the life principle in the absolute sense (In a word—essence—and the Greek word was zoe). Many Christians think of “soul” as the vessel of enduring life; that which designates the individual and we say things like “He’s got soul,” which means “personality”. An alternate reading or understanding of psuche is mental faculties. The soul is often believed by ordinary Christians to represent that part of the person which rises to heaven after death (or gets a ticket to some other place), but such understanding could only make linguistic sense by combining psuche and zoe and that combination does not exist in the selected passage. The common coin understanding of “soul” is selfhood which is characterized as our idea of who we are: Our image of self or self-image—the idea, rather than the reality of our essential being.
This passage from the Bible can be understood in a variety of ways. One way—the orthodox way—is that a person must lay down their life (tarnished soul or self-image, figuratively) and be born again thus receiving the essence of God lost in Eden—to trade in the Old fallen person for a New person with the Holy Spirit resident in their being, which couldn’t be there before due to our polluted and fallen nature. In other words to accept Christ’s payment, on the cross, to redeem us all from the debt owed for the sin of disobedience in Eden. God wants justice and demands payment otherwise the breech of separation will remain and we’ll just head for purgatory.
This entire explanation rests on the head of a pin: the basis that there was in fact a debt to be paid for the unjustified, sin of disobedience in Eden, which becomes moot if Eden was a metaphorical vs. an actual place. That sin was seen by God as so horrific that it required the sacrificial death of God’s ONLY son—curious notion since Genesis 2 is the story about God creating another son, Adam. And what was that terrible sin? Eating an apple from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, instead of fruit from the tree of life. In other words trading away life but gaining discernment. Clearly the severe punishment was unwarranted since Adam and Eve didn’t possess the capacity to know they were making a bad choice until after they ate from the wrong tree. This would be equivalent to imprisoning your child because they made a poopie mess (and their eternal progeny) for the rest of their life before you potty trained them. They could only have known wrong following the choice which equipped them with the requisite capacity for discernment and to understand wrong you must know what is right.
This presents a serious dilemma. Either God’s sense of justice was flawed (punishing the entire human race for a naive choice) or this story is a metaphor—the most logical possibility—in which case one needs to ferret out the deeper meaning. If you follow the story carefully, discernment came along as a package deal which involved self-consciousness. Before eating the apple neither Adam nor Eve had any self-consciousness. After they ate it they became self-aware and covered their nakedness and forever after, good Christians regard their nakedness as evil—the stain of Satan/the serpent—and temptation of Adam by Eve, which has caused a significant burden of guilt and perverted sexuality among millions of Christians for centuries.
So the story goes, God was angry about the choice to trade away life to get discernment, so much so that he cut off the entire human race from his union, and thus created separation and duality. If a human father acted in such a heavy-handed and unjust fashion he would properly find himself standing before a judge in family court charged with child abuse.
On the other hand there may be an alternate understanding. Perhaps the first understanding is not what Jesus meant at all. There is no support for this convoluted story, spoken by Jesus, anywhere in the Bible. The story is there, but not spoken by Jesus. The story has been knit together with various strands through a process known as proof-texting: the practice of using de-contextualized quotations from a document to establish a rhetorical proposition through an appeal to authority from other texts. Sort of a consensus by proxy. It is possible to knit pieces of disparate yarn together to make any fabric you wish. Isn’t it possible to see this as metaphor with deep meaning rather than a factual account of a real place with real people and a real talking snake? The clear answer to that rhetorical question is a resounding yes.
Perhaps what Jesus meant was that we must lose our mental illusions so that we could experience the essence of God without mental filtration. This second possibility is very close to the Buddhist formula. Very different view points with very different results. The orthodox church promotes the first understanding but many serious Christians accept the second. In any event, with ego-centricity intact, suffering continues. Common (or uncommon) sense proves that.
By accepting the first explanation a conventional born again Christian must only speak some words of acceptance (either silently or otherwise)—“I confess my sin of disobedience and accept Christ as my new lord and savior”. Nothing else is required or needed. The ego fabrication can stay entrenched and functioning with all associated corruption continuing, and no motivation to change a thing. No further action is required beyond the confessional words. The presumption is that the Holy Spirit will do everything else with no action required from the person. After those words of confession you become a robot moving at the dictate of the holy spirit, and Katy bar the door for anyone questioning the convictions of a born again Christian since in that case it is God speaking through a person. To a serious Buddhist, this point of surrender is the starting point, not the ending.
By accepting the second explanation—not recognized by orthodox Christian dogma—there is a different form of acceptance: by ridding oneself of a fabricated self-illusion (psuche) it becomes possible to accept one’s essential birthright and real identity as a genuine creation of, and inhabited by God, and by so doing acknowledge what has always been and can never be otherwise—the presence of God’s ubiquitous essence (zoe). Duality is a myth. Unity has always been. If there was a trick of Satan (ego?), that trick was to create an image of God (A Matrix of illusion) which masks the reality of God.
If God actually (vs. metaphorically) created duality that would be the same as God undoing his basic, intrinsic nature (his essence, which by definition is ubiquitous and omnipresent). God is everywhere all of the time, so how can God come and go? And even if God does come and go, does that depend upon human behavior? To suggest that, turns God into a sort of yo-yo traveler dependent upon circumstances. The Bible says that God’s love is unconditional and that a defining mark is omnipresence. There seems to be an obvious conundrum here. The problem is not God’s presence—God never left—but our awareness, which is obscured by self-generated illusions of a soul, placing the ego at the center in place of God. The only thing that is eternal is God’s ever-present essence. You—the carnal you—flesh, bones, blood and matter (including mental fabrications) will pass away like leaves in the wind. Your nameless essence endures forever because it is never born nor ever dies.
This lack of orthodox endorsement does not mean that there haven’t been solid Christians (Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross, many others, and most important of all Meister Eckhart, a German Christian theologian, philosopher and mystic who lived 700 years ago) accepted this second version. A case in point comes from him. Here is what he said:
“Man’s last and highest parting occurs when for God’s sake he takes leave of god. St. Paul took leave of god for God’s sake and gave up all that he might get from god as well as all he might give—together with every idea of god. In parting with these, he parted with god for God’s sake and God remained in him as God is in his own nature—not as he is conceived by anyone to be—nor yet as something yet to be achieved, but more as an is-ness, as God really is. Then he and God were a unit, that is pure unity. Thus one becomes that real person for whom there can be no suffering, any more than the divine essence can suffer.”
A very interesting observation about this quote is that Eckhart used different words here: “God” and “god.” And he says that St. Paul let go of god for God’s sake. Do you see this? Eckhart is validating the distinction between an imaginary god and the reality of God. God is transcendent and every idea falls short. God, according to Eckhart is “divine essence—is-ness.” Not an idea but a nameless, indefinable reality from which we cannot escape. Who would want to? What is equally interesting is the Buddha’s expression “thusness” to speak of the ineffable. Eckhart’s “Is-ness” is the same as the Buddha’s “thusness.” Both mean essence.
To many, this is an extremely important and delicate matter. It was for me. I struggled with the apparent dilemma for years, thinking I had to choose one side or the other. The fact is there really was no choice, only the one I imagined. If the matter of handles can be set aside if only briefly, it is possible to examine the underlying metaphorical meaning which transcends words and labels. If you re-read my Blog on “The Wall—Essence” you will see my thoughts about transcendence. In that realm, there are no names nor labels. These are things which we carnal folk use in order to communicate ideas. If God exists—and how can there be any serious question about the matter—then the nature of God is an eternally ever-present, transcendent essence—zoe, (The Buddha used the word “Dharmadhatu”—he didn’t speak Greek) which is getting blocked by illusions—psuche. That seems so basic but I guess not to everyone.
I do not refer to myself as a Buddhist or a Christian. These are just names which cannot encapsulate our intrinsic, essential self-understanding. Words are just boxes which we must struggle to get beyond. The Buddha cautioned not to be attached to names, even holy ones. He said, “So-called Buddha-Nature is not something that has been made”. Words can be prisons when we become attached. It is what lies beneath the words that matters and meaning is transcendent. In the final analysis, God is not an idea. Not even a name, but is everywhere yet, not abiding in a particular place: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Spoken by Jesus; Matt 8:20) The Buddha expressed this non-abiding thusly: “The Dharmata is Nirvana—the true essence of all Buddhas. Nirvana has no grotto or house to live in.” (Mahaparinirvana Sutra) The meaning of both these expressions is that transcendence infuses all of existence yet is not restricted to place or form.
The name of my blog is “Dharma Space” which means “Integration of one’s temporal nature with the underlying life principle by undoing of all egoistic falsehood”—thus accepting the indivisible conjunction of matter with essence. That premise is not limited to a particular perspective. I subscribe to teachings of the Buddha because they come along with a minimum of baggage, with a complementary focus on freedom from dogma. I also accept the truth about this integration from wherever it may be found. Jesus spoke such truth. Egotistical men have polluted the water of truth by pouring the poison of a self-image into the well of life and ruined the lives of many in the process. Awakening is what Buddhism is about and that is the meaning of a Buddha: to awaken from the self-created nightmare of ego and accept your essential nature. If you do that it doesn’t matter what label you use. You can use the label of Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Jew. It won’t matter. You’ll be a Buddha with a meaningless label.