The Koan of the Historical Christ

Koans are riddles of existence, enigmatic statements that probe the depths of Buddha nature. Posed by Chinese sages with a mischievous sense of humor, they challenge the meditator to get inside the phenomenon of emptiness, to realize it for oneself and embody it. Responses to koans are often acted out in the dramatic setting of dokusan, or personal interviews with one’s teacher.

When a koan is trotted out before a nonmeditating friend, it can lead to extraordinary contortions. For example, this little charmer:

Say something without moving your lips and tongue.

Simple. But as your clever friend strains their wits to solve the dilemma, mumbling out answers or scribbling in the dirt with a finger, it’s obvious the riddle is perfectly impenetrable without logging some serious time on the meditation cushion.

Koans teach about transformation too, but not the magical kind. At least in my own experience, they teach how life and death are the same matter. Indistinguishable. And that when we realize “self-nature, self-nature that is no nature,” we go beyond “mere doctrine.”

Yet they must be penetrated first. Seen into. Experienced from within, not tinkered with from without.

The ethnobotanist and Amazonian explorer Mark Plotkin recently challenged me to write a book on Jesus as shaman. When I broached the idea to my 11 year old daughter, she protested vigorously.

“Jesus is way bigger than that!” He’s a spirit and you can’t claim he’s just one thing or another.”

And she was right. There are hundreds of “Jesuses” in contemporary culture, and if you add the many versions of Jesus that existed in the past – from the Jesus of St Francis of Assisi to the Jesus of the Inquisition — it’s justifiable to declare, as my daughter Maitreya did, any version of Jesus as glaringly incomplete, if not downright absurd.

Or worse: A crock, a holdover of an era of mystery religions that cling to us like a vestigial growth.

From the perspective of what we now know about the historical Jesus, and it’s become quite a bit, Christianity is an aberration. When the Temple fabric was rent, it was the soul of Humanity that was torn and no serious mind, able to hold the tremendity of the grief and joy of our species, can deny it.

Jesus, the healer, the wonder worker, the prophet, the lover of the people of Israel, the Messiah whose heart was broken well before his body upon a cross, was very likely a significantly different figure even from the one depicted in the Gospels, written as they were decades after Jesus’ life and by then divorced from the Jewish community of Jesus — whose family continued worshipping in the Temple, the heart of Judaism.

The Gospels are written in Greek, not the language or thought-ways of the original community of Jesus, and in them propaganda is clearly underway to ingratiate the new movement to the Romans, as well as to deify Christ in a way that Jesus clearly never intended.

Even worse are the false and exaggerated claims of Jewish persecution of Jesus that thread their way through these smarmy narratives: Romans good, Jews bad. Many of the claims made by those Hellenistic Gospel writers fly in the face of historical evidence or even plausibility. After decisively pinning two thousand years of unjust and undeserved persecution and genocide of the Jews, Jesus’ beloved people, his very heart and soul, upon the historical distortion of the Gentile-composed Gospels, A.N Wilson reflects,

“We are told that before Jesus died, he wept over the city of Jerusalem, and seemed to see its tragic fate. Matthew tells us that, his Messianic hopes in ruins, Jesus died with the words of the Psalmist upon his lips: ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Perhaps if he had seen the whole of Christian history, his despair would have been even greater, and he would have exclaimed with Job, ‘Why died I not in the womb? Why did I not give up the ghost when I came out of the belly?’”

The sober, historical fact is that violent, murderous persecutions by (not of!) Christians, even in the Ancient world, far surpassed those of the Romans towards them. The subsequent centuries of Crusades, witch burnings, religious wars, collusion with genocides of native peoples, festering corruption, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and many, many other crimes against Humanity to be laid at Christendom’s door is staggering. Has a greater mafia ever flourished on Earth? Has any creed brought more suffering to the people that St. Paul claimed it was meant to liberate?

Like a corpse laid out on a slab in a morgue, all is laid bare in a cold, detached, scientific light. Details of the causes of death may be disputable, but the main facts are not. Shall we not wheel this gurney away and lay the frame of its tortured inhabitant to rest?

Would not Jesus himself wish it?

So, here we are. The Mystery of the Cross. Extinction = Resurrection. All that joy in the paradox. It’s hard in this terrain not to write in platitudes, not fall into echoing Paul or Augustine, not slip gratefully into theological thinking.

Tell me, where does one go after burying the oh-so deservedly dead?

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