Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Search for Understanding

"Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened."  -- Luke 11:9-10

This passage was part of the Gospel reading last Sunday.  It's probably one of Jesus's most famous sayings.  It's been one of the most significant passages for me on my journey of faith.  To me, these words honor the search for understanding, the desire to ask questions about faith, about God, about life.  Last Sunday, as I sat in church, hearing these familiar words again, I was struck by the thought that Jesus's words above must apply to everyone, at every moment in time, and not just Christians.  For if God is the creator of the world, then it makes sense that everyone would find the guidance they need from the source that created them, whatever they may choose to call that source.

You see, the day before I had watched a wonderful program on television, produced by the PBS, about the Buddha.  Born Prince Siddhartha Gautama, into wealth and privilege, sheltered from the world outside the palace walls, he one day desires to visit his subjects, and sees first an old man and then an ill man. When he learns that everyone ages and becomes ill, he begins to wonder about the purpose and meaning of life.  So he leaves the palace and begins to follow the spiritual leaders of his day.  Through their severe aesthetic practices, which include extreme fasting and bodily mutilation, he hopes to find the answers to his questions.  For seven years, he searches for meaning in this way, without success.  Finally, almost at the point of death, he questions the whole aesthetic way.  In that instant, he remembers a simple, happy moment in his childhood, and then a village girl walking by gives him some milk and rice pudding.   Guided by these two examples, Siddhartha begins to seek the answers to his questions within himself, tuning into his own inner being and pondering the insight that comes to him.  In this way, he finally reaches enlightenment, finding the answers to his questions, and many other truths besides. 

The similarities between the teachings of Buddha and the teachings of Jesus are striking.  Through stories uniquely fitting their own particular times and cultures, they both taught that wisdom was available to everyone, men and women alike, from every walk of life; that violence always leads to more violence; and that greed, anger, and ignorance must be replaced with generosity, compassion, and wisdom.  Both emphasized the individual search for enlightenment, as well as the importance of community; and both sent disciples out to teach others, stipulating that they not take anything with them.  But there are also significant differences between them.  Buddha's teachings emphasize the suffering of this world and the solution of non-attachment, while Jesus's teachings emphasize the healing power of faith and the joy to be found in communion with God.

So if there is only one ultimate source of wisdom, why do various spiritual seekers sometimes find different answers? 

I recalled the image of a mountain as a metaphor for the spiritual journey.  God is at the peak and there are paths to the top from all different sides.  We come to God from different places -- even within our own particular religious tradition -- because our particular family, our culture, our history, and our unique personalities, lead us to ask different questions.  Siddhartha asked questions about old age and suffering.  I frequently ask questions about unity amongst people of different beliefs.  The answers we get are as unique as the questions we ask.

Thinking again of the metaphor of the mountain, I wondered if our position on the mountain from bottom to top is not a matter of our age or the time we spend on the journey, but instead is a reflection of our ability to see each other on the same mountain..  For the closer to the top of the mountain one is, the more the paths converge, the more we see in common.  For example, among Christians one common understanding is that the grace of God is available to all.  Another is that we are all members of the body of Christ, uniquely gifted to reveal an essential part of the truth of God, without which the body would be incomplete.  The more we focus on those commonalities the less likely we are to see ourselves as separated from each other.  I am sure there are core beliefs shared by all the various sects of the major religions.  The more individual members of these religions focus on those core beliefs the more easily they would see what binds them together.  As would be the case for people of different faiths altogether.

In contrast, the more we focuses on the differences between us and our neighbor, the more separated we are from that neighbor.  People who focus on the differences could potentially be so far apart from each other that they might think there are no other people on the mountain with them, except those few who think like they do!  They might actually think there was only one path to God:  their path. 

But why are some paths so radically different?

Besides asking different questions, perhaps one reason why there are differences is because communication is difficult, even between people who speak the same language and are face to face.  How much harder is it for us to understand the great mysteries of the world, or to hear clearly God's guidance when we cannot even see God or hear God speaking audibly?  Then imagine trying to convey that great understanding you have discovered, or been shown, to someone who wasn't there.  And yet that is what all the great enlightened ones try to do.  They try to convey to others The Way.  How well this gets passed down, especially from generation to generation, is another story.  Coincidentally, both the Buddha and Jesus were frustrated by the slowness of their disciples to understand their message.  So perhaps one reason the great spiritual leaders seem so different is because their disciples didn't get the core of their message, or didn't focus on that alone, but instead were distracted by something else, something non-essential.  As I've written before, I often get in the way of God's guidance.  Now imagine everyone being this human.

I read in "The Teaching of the Compassionate Buddha," compiled and edited by E. A. Burtt, that the Buddha's teachings, called the dharma, conveyed "the way that man should follow in order to fulfill his true nature and carry out his moral and social responsibilities."  And yet the Buddha's disciples kept asking him metaphysical questions about eternity and life after death, questions that he had no interest in answering.  Buddha tried to keep his disciples focused on his message of practical wisdom and compassion, and away from matters which could not be attested by everyone because he did not want his great insight to be sidetracked by futile metaphysical arguments.  He said, "...bear always in mind what it is I have not explained, and what it is I have explained....  And why have I not explained this?  Because it profits not." (pgs 35 -36)  And yet today when one thinks of Buddhism, one thinks more of karma and reincarnation, both metaphysical constructions, than the way of Buddha. 

I think the same thing happened with Jesus.  Like the Buddha, Jesus tried to keep his disciples on his same path when he said, "Call no one father or rabbi.  You have one Father, which is God.  You have one teacher, who is the Messiah."  And yet, instead of following his way, his truth, and his life, many of his disciples focused, and still focus, on the afterlife or the second coming, or who Jesus was, or argue about diverse doctrinal constructions that Jesus never said anything about. 

It is no longer surprising to me that we are all on different paths. It is actually more wondrous that some of us walk together on the same path.  But this can only happen if we choose not to ask our own questions.  I've been there, on that kind of path.  And I can tell you that I knew very little of God, or of  myself.  Which makes me wonder if there is a corollary to the passage above:  if you do not ask, you will not receive; if you do not seek, you will not find; and if you do not knock, the door will never be opened...

Dear God, your light shines from many angles.  May I always be mindful of the unique path you want me to follow.  Love always, Pam

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