Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Great Schism

     This could be a relatively scholarly article, with translations from the Pali and lots of end notes and references, but I’m lazy, and furthermore I need to write several articles by the end of the month, as I intend to be in retreat during December, won’t be writing then, and need four articles to be posted automatically by Google’s artificial intelligence while I am occupied. So following will be some relatively unscholarly reflections, based mainly on memory, of some very early Buddhist history. It’s still well worth reading though, probably.
     According to the Pali texts, the first schism in Buddhism occurred during the Buddha’s lifetime, and was instigated by his cousin and brother-in-law Devadatta. Theravadin tradition portrays Devadatta as a murderous villain, considerably worse than the archetypal Christian villain Judas Iscariot, as Devadatta allegedly attempted to murder the Buddha more than once, and, after impressing Prince Ajātasattu of Magadha with his jhanic psychic powers, persuaded the Prince to murder his own father and become King himself. Yet ironically, the schism in the Sangha is said to have arisen over Devadatta’s insistence upon greater strictness in monastic discipline. He insisted upon five points, namely:

     1. That all monks should be forest dwellers, with staying in a village being considered wrong;
     2. That monks should not accept invitations for meals, but should eat only alms food collected by (silent) begging;
     3. That monks should not accept donated robe cloth, but should wear only robes made from cast-off rags that they had picked up and sewn together; 
     4. That monks should not live under a roof, but only under trees; and
     5. That monks must be vegetarian.

The Buddha replied that all of these are optional practices for members of the Sangha, but would not be made obligatory. Allegedly, Devadatta knew in advance that the Buddha would disagree, and insisted on these five points only as a pretense to make himself look good. Then he talked 500 monks into becoming his followers and left the presence of the Buddha with them in tow. When the 500 soon afterward went back to the Buddha, Devadatta is said to have become so frustrated and mortified that he vomited hot blood, dropped dead, and plunged straight into hell.
     So the attempted schism was presumably an abortive one. But the details provided by tradition may not be very reliable, partly because it is hard to believe that Devadatta could be so monstrously evil as portrayed in the texts, and partly because his sect or “reform movement” may have continued for centuries. I remember long ago reading an account of one of the Chinese Buddhist monastic pilgrims who traveled to India may centuries after the time of the Buddha; and he claimed that near the Jetavana monastery there was a monastery of monks who professed to honor all Buddhas except Gotama, and that the founder of their movement was Devadatta. But even if this is true, Devadatta’s sect never amounted to very much in the history of Buddhism, and it eventually died out. 

Devadatta allegedly attempting to murder the Buddha

     The first big schism in the Buddhist Sangha, the one that really got the schismatic ball rolling, is said to have occurred about one hundred years after the Buddha disappeared from this world. It is associated with the second Buddhist great council, the details of which are given in the same book—the Vinaya Cullavagga—that describes Devadatta’s most egregious attempts at stirring up trouble. I have read that other ancient schools of Buddhism, some of whose texts still survive, also gave similar accounts of this council.
     The Theravadin version of the story gives the account of a monk named Yasa from the western districts, who was traveling through the region of Vesālī farther east. He happened to come to a monastery where the monks collected monetary donations from laypeople; and when they tried to give him his share of the “take,” he refused, stating, in the presence of the laypeople, that handling money was improper and against the rules of monastic discipline. This naturally outraged the Vesālī monks, so they conducted a formal act of reconciliation against him (a formal act which, as far as I have ever heard, has not been conducted in Burma for centuries, if ever), requiring him to apologize to the laity for speaking so offensively. So the monk Yasa went to the laypeople and made things even worse by explaining the rules of discipline to them, including a little poem attributed to the Buddha, but, as far as I know, not found in any Pali sutta: 

     Some philosophers and priests are defiled by lust and aversion,
     Men enveloped in ignorance, delighting in pleasing forms;

     They drink ale and wine, they indulge in sexual relations,
     And they consent to silver and gold, the ignoramuses. 

     Some philosophers and priests live by wrong livelihood;
     These are called defilements by the Buddha, kinsman of the sun.
     Some philosophers and priests, defiled by these defilements,
     Are not bright; they do not shine—they are impure, dirty animals.

     They are wrapped in darkness, slaves to craving, led on by their own inclinations;
     Their sole fulfillment is an awful one—the cemetery—and they take yet another existence.

The result of this debacle should be easily predictable: The outraged monks of Vesālī decided to conduct a much more severe formal act against him, an act of suspension from the Sangha. So Yasa ran away before they got the chance, went back to the west, and told the stricter monks there about what had happened. Representatives of the two factions, east and west, convened to settle this controversy, and the meeting became known as the second great Buddhist council.
     The primary issue was the legality of monks handling money, although other, less serious matters of monastic discipline were also addressed, such as whether or not it is allowable for a monk to keep salt for the sake of seasoning his food, and whether it is allowable to use a sitting cloth without a proper border. The western, proto-Theravadin side reportedly got its stricter way on all counts, and I have read that some records, at least, on the other side agreed that the western faction won the debate, although of course they didn’t cast as dim a light on their own side as the Pali authors did for them. (I do consider it somewhat ironic, or like dark comedy, that the descendants of the victorious stricter side mostly handle money nowadays, not to mention keeping salt to season their food.)
     But recently I read that some non-Theravadin texts, especially a text of the Mahā Sanghikas (descendants of the eastern faction) called the Śāriputraparipṛcchā, claim that the westerners were innovators trying to add new Vinaya rules to the ones already established, with the eastern side actually being the conservatives. The fact that the easterners were the larger faction (hence the name Mahā Sanghika or “of the Great Sangha”), situated in the traditional homeland of Buddhism, and the alleged fact that the Mahā Sanghika Vinaya contains fewer rules and appears to be more primitive, would seem to lend some circumstantial support to this claim. Also it is fairly obvious that the rules of the Theravada Buddhist Vinaya do not all date to the first council. They were added in layers, so to speak, with essentially two different sets of rules: the Pāṭimokkha, and everything else. And some rules in the “everything else” category even prescribe the proper conduct with regard to monks of other sects of Buddhism, which of course didn’t exist at the time of the first council, or even the second—unless we assume that Devadatta’s sect was intended.
     The details of exactly what happened around the time of the second council are unclear, and some scholars claim that the council took place only about seventy years after the time of the Buddha, with the schism itself occurring approximately thirty years after that. This would explain why some eastern texts admit that the westerners won the debate at the council. It would also make more plausible the textual claim that a former disciple of the venerable Ānanda attended the council. In fact some accounts by the descendants of the eastern Buddhists say that the actual split occurred over matters of Dharma, not Vinaya—with the most famous issue of contention being the question of whether or not an Arahant could backslide and become unenlightened again. (I also seem to remember something about arguments over whether or not an enlightened being could have a wet dream.) The eastern side said Yes, and “our side” said No. If this is true, then it is a little sad that only one hundred years after the time of the Buddha they could already no longer find an Arahant and just ask him or her. 
     Disagreements over monastic discipline apparently had something to do with the breakup, or sanghabheda, between the Mahāsāṁghika Nikāya in the eastern homeland of Buddhism and the Sthavira Nikāya, or proto-Theravada, located mainly farther west, in districts more recently converted to Buddhism. In fact nowadays scholars theorize that Pali is an ecclesiastical language which developed as proto-Theravada moved westwards across northern India, picking up elements of western dialects as it was gradually displaced farther east. So pretty obviously geography was also a significant factor in determining the schism. Travel and communications were slower and more difficult in those days, and thus the cultural evolution of Buddhism moved in different directions largely as a result of isolation of various groups, and slightly different emphases taking precedence and growing into major distinguishing tenets. This kind of isolation serves as a factor in the evolution of religious organizations as well as in the evolution of species of biological organisms.
     The breakup continued within both of the original factions, so that within three centuries of the time of Gotama Buddha there were said to be 18 different sects of Buddhism. One of the more influential and well-known on the Sthavira side were the Sarvāstivādins, who may have been the “non-Buddhist heretics” allegedly purged from the Sangha in the Pali commentarial account of the third great council, conducted during the time of the emperor Asoka. 
     Despite the disagreements, it is heartening that the ancient Buddhists evidently did not abandon their peaceful ideals, as I am unaware of any sectarian violence erupting between the followers of different sects at this time. If it happened it didn’t make history. In fact, monks of different sects could be found studying together and debating at the same monastery compounds and Buddhist universities, although they did carry out their formal acts of the Sangha separately. Sometimes the debates could grow vitriolic, but there is no comparison with what happened in Western Christianity a few centuries later, with blood flowing in the streets from violent altercations over, say, whether Christ had two natures, divine and human, or only one, or whether the Holy Spirit emanated directly from the Father, or from the Father but through the Son.
     Vinaya and geography may have been the original factors catalyzing the division of the Sangha, but by the time of the “18 Schools” the primary source of disagreement had become philosophical theory. The two main groups, Sthavira (Sanskrit for Thera) and Mahāsāṁghika, including their respective subgroups, began moving philosophically into practically opposite directions in certain respects, which resulted in an interesting polarity arising to distinguish the two. In fact it is this polarity which is actually the main reason why I wanted to write about this in the first place.
     The monks of the Great Sangha and associated schools tended toward absolutism, or an emphasis on a transcendental Ultimate Reality. They also stressed the importance of the intuition of the individual, and favored elaboration of philosophical views, including the view of No View. Mahayana arose mainly from this side of the fence, with one of its high points being manifested in the Prajnaparamita literature, the “Perfection of Wisdom.”  
     The Sthaviras or “Elders,” on the other hand, favored philosophical conservatism, and adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy. They also tended to favor the view that Ultimate Reality is not so transcendental that it cannot be understood intellectually. This latter tendency reached its zenith in the various Abhidharma literatures of the various schools. Rather than mystical monism they preferred objective pluralism, with arguably the most extreme school in this regard being the Sarvastivadins, who were extreme atomists. They considered the elemental atom, or individual dharma, to be the ultimately real unit of samsaric reality, being itself unconditioned and eternal, with only the combinations of these atoms being subject to impermanence—or so I have read. Various sects of the “Elders,” including Theravada, came up with their own philosophical elaborations in the form of some kind of Abhidharma, but after this phase of getting everything suitably explained they adhered rigidly to their explanations, making minor adjustments here and there but disapproving of innovation.
     Thus Buddhism diverged, very generally speaking, toward the two polar extremes of traditional dogmatism vs. progressive “liberalism” of thought and intuition, which polarity forms two horns of a dilemma. But the dilemma is compounded if one considers that each of these two poles—traditional dogma and subjective intuition—bears its own dilemma of mutually negating positive and negative aspects. I have observed before that a strength tends to carry its own weakness, as a flip side of the same coin; and this observation tends to be borne out if one observes the paths taken by the two main branches of ancient Buddhism.  
     Which is better: spiritual conservatism or spiritual liberalism? Well, as the Bible says, “The letter killeth, the Spirit maketh alive.” And there can be little doubt that in traditional Theravada there is quite a lot of killeth. The established tradition has ossified to such an extent that even explaining some aspect of Dhamma in one’s own words, instead of the words of an authorized text, may be seen as Wrong. The notion that an intellectual system really can explain Reality, and even be the only correct explanation, has resulted in some famous Theravadins, for example the English monk Nyanavira and the Burmese Pah Auk Sayadaw, asserting that anyone who disagrees with their particular interpretation is so wrong as to have no hope of liberation. On the other hand, a common illustration of a fool in the Pali suttas is one who says, “Only this is true! Anything else is wrong!” But a dogmatist would reply that the fool says it with regard to a pernicious Wrong View, but that saying it with regard to orthodox dogma is Right. So spiritual conservatism can result in adherence to dead words and abstract concepts replacing genuine, living inspiration.    
     On the other hand, “progressive” freedom of interpretation may result in the seeker wandering away from the main point entirely, as arguably could be said of the Pure Land traditions that arose in some of the Great Sangha schools at the beginning of the Mahayana movement. Freedom from dogma is certainly no guarantee of wisdom; and without that wisdom one may throw away any valid guidance contained in the dogmatic tradition. (Dead words definitely have their limitations, but, like a dead hammer or saw, if used as a tool may not be entirely useless.) Consequently, Mahayana has diverged to the extent of being all over the map, ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime; and although Theravada has its own fair share of ridiculous as well as sublime, still it seems to have remained consistently closer to the original message. Mahayana over the centuries may have had more living inspiration, but it has also had more of everything else, with the inspiration often being overwhelmed in the flood.
     So a limitation of conservatism is that one may become attached to somebody else’s words, and fail to move beyond them into one’s own genuine realization of the Way. A limitation of liberalism is that one may wander completely off the track and wind up in La-La Land. Both approaches have their strengths and their weaknesses. It’s a multiple dilemma.
     But of course, Buddhist Dharma teaches a Middle Way, so one good solution would be to steer a middle course between relying on a map (without mistaking it for the terrain) and trusting one’s own intuition, inspiration, and experience (without disdainfully dismissing the map). 
     Another way of looking at it is to consider that strengths and weakness inevitably cancel each other out, so that the universe can remain in some semblance of a stable balance. Anything with strengths and corresponding weaknesses is a samsaric phenomenon which negates itself; and true Dharma is neither positive nor negative. It is purely neutral, and beyond strengths or weaknesses. It cannot really be negated, or confirmed either. So let the pluses and minuses cancel each other out, attaching to neither, and keep your heart and mind as wide open as possible. Be wide awake, be careful, follow your deepest sensitivity, respect teachers regardless of whether they teach anything you can use, and know that the blessings of gods and saints are upon you. And good luck.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

A Buddhist Monk's Take on Jesus (part 2 of 2: the remaining 100%)

     In part 1 of my Take on Jesus, the first half of this discussion, I got as far as his birth. So in this installment I will endeavor to discuss the remaining approximately 100% of his life, and what I suppose are the main points of what he tried to teach. Remember, this is all hypothetical, essentially my best guess; although much of it, possibly most of it, is backed up by the best guesses of Christian biblical scholars.
     For reasons touched upon in the first part I hypothesize that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Galilee to a human father and a mother who, although probably very respectable, was no longer a virgin. According to Mark 6:3, he had at least four brothers and at least two sisters, and before he was a spiritual teacher he was a carpenter by profession. It is also possible, considering some archeological evidence which came to light around 1980, that, as was reportedly the case with Gotama Buddha also, he was married and had at least one child—but I will return to this point later on.
     Though he started out as a carpenter, there can be no doubt that he was much more spiritually inclined than the average carpenter, or the average human being. This does not at all mean that, as many people suppose nowadays, Jesus traveled to India or Tibet and studied Buddhism or other Eastern spiritual systems there. I consider this extremely unlikely, as well as unnecessary. He may, however, have been exposed to some of the Greek philosophies such as Cynicism: The hellenized town of Sepphoris was only five miles from Nazareth, and is known to have been a center for Cynic philosophers. I doubt that Jesus himself was a Cynic, as some have hypothesized, but he was probably a restless seeker, and may well have been exposed to Greek ideas. At any rate, his spirit was too deep to be satisfied living an ordinary, worldly life as a carpenter in a small town, so eventually, as a young man, he left his home and went to the spiritual camp, or “retreat center,” of John the Baptist, in the wilderness near the River Jordan. It is likely that he became a disciple of John, who was an important figure in Judaism at that time, and may himself have belonged to an ascetic, mystical, messianic sect of Judaism called the Essenes (and to this day there is at least one religious group in the Middle East, called the Mandaeans, who revere John, but not Jesus, as their founder). It was while staying with John as his disciple that Jesus had his experience of transcendence which resulted in his founding the new movement of Christianity.
     It is impossible to say what really happened when the sky opened over the River Jordan, or what Jesus really attained. The Bible asserts that almost immediately John considered Jesus to be his spiritual superior, and the attainment was as simple as the spirit of the LORD descending upon Jesus like a dove as soon as he was baptized; but I would assume that it happened more the way it usually does when a person has a spiritual awakening, starting with more or less prolonged spiritual practice under a more experienced teacher (in this case John). But it might just be that he was “ripe,” and that the emotional intensity of baptism was enough to trigger whatever happened. Who knows. 
     Using Buddhist terminology, was Jesus fully enlightened? Was he an Arahant? Some would guess Yes, although staunch, more or less orthodox Theravada Buddhists could argue that he couldn’t be enlightened because he still harbored the wrong view of self, of an immortal soul. But I’m not quite so orthodox as to rule out the possibility that Jesus, or anyone with “wrong view,” could be enlightened. But in Jesus’s case I find insurmountable problems even to making an educated guess.     
     From a samsaric point of view, that is, a point of view that can be explained with words or understood with thoughts, true “enlightenment” simply does not exist. It is completely Off the Scale. Just as Nirvana cannot be grasped by the thinking mind, regardless of any neat formulae that one may cook up to account for it, by the very same token enlightenment also cannot be grasped. So we couldn’t be sure if Jesus was enlightened (or the Buddha either for that matter) even if he were standing right in front of us; and the fact that he died 20 centuries ago renders the task doubly impossible. At least doubly.
     And to make matters worse, it is pretty clear that Jesus was way ahead of his surrounding culture, and that most of his followers, including most if not all of his closest apostles, and most if not all of the people who wrote the New Testament, did not understand him. (This would be easily understandable if his closest disciples were fishermen and tax collectors.) Instead of trying to be like him, early Christians promptly declared him the Messiah and eventually deified him. Many of his most important teachings were downplayed and largely replaced by the notion that Jesus died for our sins, and all we really have to do is believe in him (or Him) as our savior. The stuff about “You must make yourselves perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect” was generally ignored, and replaced by the bumper sticker motto “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven”; and there is no telling what Jesus taught that just never made it at all into the New Testament. Almost everything that John the Baptist taught is lost to us as well. I have read that the official position of the Vatican, and thereby of the Roman Catholic Church, is that no more than about 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels is likely to be authentic. I once told this to a Roman Catholic priest, and his reply was, “It’s probably less than that.” Most of the inauthentic 80% may come from a single gospel—John—which Bible scholars admit was written with the intention of using John’s own theories to refute Gnostic sects which had arisen by the beginning of the second century CE. To make matters more worse, early Christian beliefs are derived as much from Paul of Tarsus as from Jesus himself, despite the fact that Paul never met him, unless it was a supernatural meeting after Jesus died, and he didn’t even meet with anyone who had been Jesus’s disciple until after he had worked out his own theory of what Christianity is all about. He appears to have had a falling out with the apostles who actually knew Jesus and knew what he actually taught, more or less, and to have gone his own way. It is unfortunate that James, author of the Epistle of James and probably a brother of Jesus, whose single contribution to the Bible is one of the wisest and most “dharmic,” coming fairly close to Buddhism in some respects, had so little of his teachings recorded. I suspect that he understood Jesus a heck of a lot better than Paul did. So anyway, understanding exactly how spiritually advanced Jesus was, let alone whether he was enlightened or not, is pretty much hopeless. The best we can do is make some educated guesses, while not forgetting that they are just guesses. 
     One central aspect of the legend which most modern materialists reject out of hand, including some modern Christians, is the ability of Jesus to perform what are vulgarly called “miracles,” which in more Buddhistic language would be called the exercise of “psychic powers.” Partly because it is so central to the legend, and to what Jesus apparently really taught, and partly because I am abnormally open-minded with regard to such matters, emphatically not being a materialist, I consider it likely that Jesus really did acquire the ability to break the so-called “laws of physics” in some respects. In fact I consider this ability to be what caused Jesus himself to believe he was the chosen Messiah—not the Christian one, mind you, but the Jewish one, as predicted by the apocalyptic literature and as feverishly expected by the Jewish people at large. Oddly, it was only after reading a book by Mary Baker Eddy, the 19th-century founder of Christian Science, that I could appreciate this aspect of Jesus: Mrs. Eddy herself was a kind of minor, latter-day Jesus. Both of them, apparently, found themselves with the ability to heal the sick mainly through nothing more than clearly seeing that healing the sick with a touch, and practically anything else imaginable, is possible; and they were so blown away by this astonishing ability that they easily came to the conclusion that they were specially chosen by God to share it with the world. As an aspect of likely teachings of Jesus of Nazareth I will discuss this more a little later on, but for now I will point out that the possibility and reality of miracles was a major factor in what he had to say, and a major cause of hysterical crowds following him wherever he went, and believing him to be the Messiah.
     Before getting back to the spiritual camp at the River Jordan, I will mention that, although Jesus apparently considered himself to be the Messiah also, he did not consider himself to be God. The Jews didn’t believe that their Messiah was going to be an avatar of God anyway. That part was added by non-Jewish Christians later on, with a bit of help from the Greek-influenced author of the Gospel of John, who declared Jesus to be the Logos, “the Word,” the cosmic Creative Force. There is one awkward verse in the Bible, Mark 10:18, in which, after a man calls him “Good Teacher,” Jesus replies, “Why do you call me good? There is none good except God alone.” This is hardly likely to be a bogus quote inserted into the gospel later on, as it is rather an embarrassment to the later, established system; in fact it is a tenet of textual critical analysis that such embarrassments are likely to be authentic, since later propagandists wouldn’t dream of adding them. So it would appear that Jesus not only didn’t consider himself to be God; he didn’t even consider himself to be all that good. This might be seen as a small bit of evidence that he was not fully enlightened. Miracle-working or psychic power are not indicative of full enlightenment; for example, according to Buddhist tradition Devadatta, the Buddhist villain and “Judas,” had powerful psychic abilities and then went to hell. 
     So anyway, at the time of his Awakening, or whatever it was that he experienced, Jesus was probably a spiritual disciple of John the Baptist; and some Christian scholars speculate that he had become John’s second in command who became leader of the group after John was arrested and imprisoned. As was already touched upon, the Gospel According to John is generally the least reliable of the four gospels with regard to accurately representing what Jesus actually taught; yet it may be most reliable with regard to the beginning and end of Jesus’s career as a spiritual teacher; and according to the author of that gospel, Jesus’s first apostles were also originally followers of John the Baptist. It does make more sense that Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, for instance, came from the same spiritual camp, and were not simply fishermen mending their nets when they decided to leave their homes and follow Jesus. At any rate, Jesus and John the Baptist had different methods of teaching; it may be that after considering himself to be the (Jewish) Messiah, Jesus decided to go directly to the people rather than letting a few of them trickle into a remote spiritual camp in the wilderness. So that’s what he did. 
     Before diving into a discussion of what Jesus was teaching, or trying to teach, to the Jewish people (and not to the Samaritans or Gentiles), I will skip directly to the end of his earthly career, the crucifixion. The fact that he was crucified by Roman authorities indicates that he was a political criminal, and not a religious one. Crucifixion was a particularly icky way of executing the worst rebels and traitors, as well as other scum of the earth like pirates, bandits, and renegade slaves. The Romans, being the forerunners of the modern West, were relatively indifferent to religious claims, and would care little if someone called himself the son of some obscure Jewish deity—in fact many of the Roman aristocracy traced their own ancestry to this or that god or goddess. But Jesus was believed by many to be the Jewish Messiah, who, it may be remembered, was considered to be a political leader first, and maybe a spiritual one second. So according to the Gospel of John, the little sign nailed to his cross declared Jesus KING OF THE JEWS. Challenges to their political authority the Romans would not tolerate.
     For their Messiah to be executed in the most humiliating manner as the most despicable of criminals, before ever leading his nation to greatness, was a huge embarrassment to the earliest Christians. For Jesus to have cried out, while nailed to the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” is another awkward embarrassment, which for obvious reasons is rather unlikely to have been spuriously added to the Bible by later propagandizing evangelists. (John, probably the least reliable gospel with regard to what Jesus actually said, simply omits it, or otherwise fails to mention it, since John’s Jesus is the Logos Himself, the Creator of the universe.) Christians over the centuries have put forth so many theories to account for this exclamation, a whole spectrum of explanations ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, that an entire book could be written cataloguing them…and I assume such books have already been written. I haven’t read them, though I have come across several theories. My own theory, a very non-Christian one, is that Jesus finally realized that he wasn’t the Messiah, at least not in a political sense. He was so obviously favored by God…and it all came to this. His bitter disappointment had some obvious justification to it. If this interpretation is correct, however, then it would be another bit of evidence that Jesus was not a fully enlightened being, assuming that Arahants do not cry out in anguish, even under such extremely anguish-inducing circumstances.   
     The Jewish people experienced a somewhat similar messianic fiasco in the mid to late 17th century, with regard to the self-proclaimed Messiah Shabbetai Zevi. Shabbetai was an extremely charismatic Jewish mystic well versed in Kabbalah, who for a time actually signed his correspondence “I am the Lord your God, Shabbetai Zevi.” He lived in the Ottoman Turkish Empire, but was ecstatically supported by Jews throughout the Jewish world, and he proclaimed, among other things, that the Day of the Lord and redemption were at hand. He caused such a commotion that he was arrested by Turkish officials and was eventually brought before the Sultan. The Sultan gave him the choice of conversion to Islam or death…and to the dismayed horror of his devoted followers, he chose Islam, and spent the rest of his life as a well-behaved Muslim. Karen Armstrong in her book A History of God described what followed, as follows:
Astonishing as it may seem, many Jews remained loyal to their Messiah, despite the scandal of his apostasy. The experience of redemption had been so profound that they could not believe that God had allowed them to be deluded. It is one of the most striking instances of the religious experience of salvation taking precedence over mere facts and reason. Faced with the choice of abandoning their newfound hope or accepting an apostate Messiah, a surprising number of Jews of all classes refused to submit to the hard facts of history. Nathan of Gaza devoted the rest of his life to preaching the mystery of Shabbetai: by converting to Islam, he had continued his lifelong battle with the forces of evil. Yet again, he had been impelled to violate the deepest sanctities of his people in order to descend into the realm of darkness to liberate the kelipoth. He had accepted the tragic burden of his mission and descended to the lowest depths to conquer the world of Godlessness from within. 
Jesus in all likelihood was much more spiritually advanced than was Shabbetai, although there are some nevertheless pretty obvious parallels between the earliest Christians and the later Sabbatarians. The believers felt their faith to be such a life-changing blessing that they just couldn’t let it go. And so, despite the debacle of Jesus, their king, being executed with maximum ignominy, like a pirate or a slave, the early Christians worked it into the system, and even had their version of Jesus know it would happen in advance. They also came up with the belief that Jesus rose from the dead and eventually ascended bodily into Heaven, a point to which I will eventually return, “God willing.”
     Now I arrive at the discussion of what Jesus, probably, actually taught. I may as well start off by getting another fiasco out of the way. 
     One thing that Jesus, and apparently all of the authors of the New Testament, firmly believed was that the end of the world would happen soon. As was already mentioned, this was a common belief in Judaism at that time, and Jesus and many of his followers were much influenced by apocalyptic literature such as the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch, the latter being a non-canonical apocalypse quoted in the Epistle of Jude. Apocalyptic fervor was a prominent characteristic of early Christianity, and even nowadays it still hasn’t entirely faded out. Jesus is coming, or so they say. But after the first few hundred years the world’s failure to end was becoming yet another embarrassment; and the impending Day of Judgement eventually was downplayed in favor of other plausible reasons for being a good Christian. But even if Jesus really did believe that the world would come to an end within a few decades of his own time, as he evidently did, that is not necessarily a sign of foolishness. Even very wise people can be wrong sometimes, especially with regard to conventional truth, as opposed to ultimate truth. It may be that a fully enlightened being sees ultimate truth clearly enough, but that it is qualitatively different from what common worldlings consider to be empirical fact. As far as the average person is concerned, ultimate truth is completely off the scale, and may as well not exist at all. And all that remains is mutually-agreed-upon mass delusion, with which an enlightened being might not agree.
     One teaching attributed to Jesus which many, including Karen Armstrong, consider not to be authentic is the repeated, vitriolic denunciations of the hypocrisy of Pharisees. Judging from the narratives in the gospels he seems to have gotten along with Pharisees fairly well; and after all the Pharisees were for the most part seriously, devoutly religious people. The anti-Jewish, anti-establishment sentiments crept into Christianity largely due to the success of Paul at converting non-Jews to the new religion, and also due to the early Christians distancing themselves from a rebellious nation that was continually punished and persecuted by the Roman government—although they eventually came to be persecuted even more themselves. 
     And although Jesus, it seems to me, apparently really did consider himself to be the (Jewish) Messiah, the message of “You must believe in me…I am the only Way…Believe in me…Believe in me…” which is almost the only teaching of Jesus given in the Gospel of John, is probably a later invention of well-intentioned religious propagandists. It has already been pointed out that Jesus, in all likelihood, did not consider himself to be God, the only begotten Son of God, or even outstandingly good. He was trying to teach people some things that he considered to be very important, but worshiping him was very probably not one of them.
     One thing he probably did consider to be very important is the miraculous power of faith. In fact it appears to be central to his message, or very near the center, as, according to my hypothesis, it was pretty much what inspired him to consider himself the Messiah in the first place, and for others to believe likewise. It is my impression that it is not necessarily a case of our faith “of a grain of mustard seed” causing God to, say, heal a sick person or cast a mountain into the sea as a reward for that faith; but rather our own faith, including of course the belief that anything is possible, which does it—ultimately, we create our own reality. Buddhism teaches something similar, but with very different terminology. By unlocking this secret, based on his own experience (though interpreting it in Jewish terms), and sharing it with others, Jesus thought that he was acting as a kind of “seed crystal” for a new way of being in this world, that is, the Kingdom of Heaven. This was apparently another failed prediction, based largely upon an overestimation of the wisdom of the human race, but it is not necessarily an embarrassing fiasco. At least he had a high opinion of us. But the faith of a grain of mustard seed is extremely rare nowadays, even among devout Christians, more rare than it was in his day. Now the primary mode of faith is in the so-called Laws of Physics, and in the idea that they can’t be broken. But modern science itself is starting to move away from that rigid attitude. The Laws of Physics as we know them may be just one of an infinite number of possible stable configurations.
     One teaching of his that may have had more of a lasting impact than any of the others is the emphasis on compassion and love—love not just for God or for family, but for everybody, including enemies. Christians over the centuries have demonstrated some outstanding lack of love and compassion, but nevertheless, this message of Christianity seems to have wrought a subtle revolution in Western civilization, resulting in what may be, using some Yogic terminology, the first substantial stirrings of the “heart chakra” in the mainstream of the West. People in classical antiquity, though very sophisticated in certain ways, could be extremely cold and ruthless in comparison with the people of later centuries. Lately it seems to be love of money (or basing one’s life upon it) more than anything else which is causing some return to that former ruthlessness. Again, it appears that Jesus overestimated the human race, thus far. 
     Which leads, sort of, to the ideas, apparently endorsed by Jesus and repeated again and again in the New Testament, that physical poverty and even mental suffering are of great value in the spiritual life. The very second sentence of the Sermon on the Mount (which itself appears to be a kind of compilation of various sayings, or “greatest hits,” with many of the same teachings scattered here and there in the other gospels, not assembled into a single discourse) says “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Traditional Buddhism accepts the value of poverty and asceticism, yet actual suffering is seen as something to be avoided if possible. The sacredness of grief may be a peculiarly Jewish idea which caught on for a long while in Christianity also. In a well-known parable in Luke’s Gospel a Pharisee stands up front at the Temple and says, essentially, “Thank you God for not making me like other people, especially including that tax collector standing back there. I keep all the observances and fasts, and I give one tenth of my income for the maintenance of the Temple and the priests.” Meanwhile, a lowly tax collector stands in the back; he doesn’t dare to approach the altar, and doesn’t dare even to look up at it. He stands in the back, head down, beating his breast and begging God to have mercy on him, a sinner. After describing this situation Jesus says that it is the tax collector who goes home having found more favor with God. As a Buddhist, however, I think it might be best of all not to adopt either extreme, but simply to sit quietly and meditate somewhere in the middle.
     Many times I have wondered why Jesus would have endorsed misery. The Christian idea that it is to help Christians to cultivate compassion seems not to receive much support in the Bible; for example this is evidently not the point of the tax collector’s misery finding divine favor. My old theory was that it was a kind of tradeoff: some worldly suffering now in exchange for some heavenly bliss later. But the exchange strikes me as completely lopsided and unrealistic, a very unbalanced equation: a few decades of sorrow is not an equitable, realistic trade for an eternity of bliss. But then again, the same holds true of eternal salvation and eternal damnation—how could anything we do in the course of a single lifetime warrant either? Again, it could just be a Jewish thing. And maybe Jesus never even taught it. But my latest hypothesis is that if the value of earthly suffering can be justified, it may be along the lines of the old saying, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Very unpleasant circumstances can dislodge attachments to worldly life, and even to unwholesome aspects of one’s own personality; breaking attachments is a virtual necessity, and can be very unpleasant, even excruciating, while it is happening, even though it may lead to much greater happiness in the long run. So being “triggered” and upset can be very useful as a spiritual vehicle or catalyst, and it may be that this was what Jesus was trying to say, and maybe it was misunderstood. But that’s only a guess. It could be just a Jewish thing.
     Suffering can also lead to humility, which appears to be another key factor in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Very early Christianity placed much emphasis on unselfishness and the effacement of “self,” regardless of any doctrinal assertions of the existence of an eternal soul. 
     There are other themes which may have been significant ingredients in the gospel of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, such as the importance of keeping one’s good works a secret, and using incessant prayer as a way of essentially pestering God into granting one’s wishes; but there is just one more that I would like to discuss here, one which ties together many of the others: that is, the idea that one should stop worrying or caring how one will survive, and just surrender completely to God in the faith that He will give us exactly what we need. Give no thought for tomorrow, what you will eat or where you will sleep…consider the lilies of the field…and all that. God will provide. (The Buddha taught something very similar, although of course his explanation did not include God.) It pretty much requires the aforementioned poverty and austerity; it requires faith—not theological belief, but a trusting, wide-open surrender to Divinity—since it is faith that provides the courage actually to go through with it; and it also requires love, in the sense of acceptance, acceptance of whatever happens to us, and of whoever makes it happen to us. It seems to have been essential to Jesus’s message, even if it has gone over like the proverbial lead balloon and come to be almost universally ignored by Christians. How many Christians give no thought for tomorrow and gather not up their treasures upon the earth? Not many, especially lately. Not unless they have no choice, anyway. He apparently overestimated us humans again; but he apparently foresaw that it wouldn’t catch on with the majority anyhow.
     Nevertheless, it is a very intriguing concept for me, because on the one hand I consider it to be true, but on the other I admit that it takes great courage and a complete leap of faith into the unknown. I experimented with it when I first came back to America in 2011: I didn’t know even where I would sleep on the night of my arrival; I wasn’t even sure if someone would meet me at the airport. I just flung myself into the unknown…and I must admit that it worked better than trying to plan things out. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being supported, as a monk, by an American community. But, showing up uninvited and essentially embarrassing people into not letting me starve is a rough road to follow. I did make some friends who supported me generously, but they were too few to make it work out very well, and I eventually took Jesus’s advice and cleared out, shaking the dust of the place from my sandals, so to speak. Maybe the situation faltered because my faith faltered, preferring some sort of “security.” Anyway, I still think letting go and flinging oneself into the unknown is a profound method which really works, even works miraculously, but it requires an almost superhuman level of courage or faith, especially in a relatively faithless world. It is a central teaching of Jesus, and of Buddha, which is much more important than people realize.
     A few times already I have briefly mentioned a kind of “scandal” which has arisen with regard to Jesus relatively recently; and since it is the biggest breaking news involving him recently, and since you may be unaware of it, I may as well briefly describe what happened. In 1980 some construction workers in Jerusalem accidentally broke into an ancient family tomb containing several ossuaries—small sarcophagi containing the bones of deceased Jewish people. (This form of preserving the remains of the dead was common in the time of Jesus.) When authorities were notified and archeologists investigated the site, nine ossuaries were found, along with evidence that at least one more had already been removed. One ossuary bore the inscription “Yeshua bar Yosef,” or Jesus son of Joseph. Others bore the names Maria (“Mary”), Yosa (the biblical “Joses,” the name of a brother of Jesus in the Bible), and Yehuda bar Yeshua, i.e. Jude, son of Jesus. The authenticity of the ossuaries was not in question; but the names are so common, with the exception of Yosa, that it was considered very unlikely to be a burial vault for the family of the biblical Jesus. But then a collector of antiquities came forth with another ossuary bearing the inscription Yaakov ben Yosef akhui diYeshua, or “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It was claimed by some that this was an ossuary removed from the family vault before archeologists arrived at the site. The ossuary itself was considered genuine, but the inscription, particularly the last part about the brother of Jesus, evoked a years-long controversy and fraud trial in Israel. But analysis of the patina on the ossuary, composed of mineral residues and microbial film, indicate that the patina inside the inscription is as old as the ossuary itself—and very recently this same analysis of the patina has determined that the mineral residue matches what is found in the family burial vault, and no other known source of ossuaries. So it appears probable now that the ossuary of James came from the same place, which further increases the odds of the Yeshua ossuary representing the actual remains of the biblical Jesus to well above 50%, just going with the statistical odds of finding all the names in the right familial combinations. Anyway, if this turns out to be the case, then of course Jesus did not ascend bodily into heaven after dying on the cross, his body didn’t really disappear from the tomb, and furthermore he probably had a wife and child—although the romantic stuff about Mary Magdalene, as one may have seen in The DaVinci Code, etc., may still be untrue. His family, like Gotama Buddha’s family, may have predated his career as a spiritual leader. So even if Jesus did have a wife and son, and even if he didn’t rise from the dead and appear bodily before his disciples (and it is significant that some of his disciples didn’t recognize him when he did appear before them), then it still doesn’t amount to much of a “scandal” as far as I am concerned, as it doesn’t necessarily diminish the essential profundity of what he experienced, and tried to teach, at all. Or maybe it does diminish it, but only for a traditionalist Christian, which I am not.
     Bearing this in mind, is Jesus up there in heaven hearing prayers? Does he still love us members of the struggling human race? Well, from a Buddhist point of view, if he was fully enlightened, then probably not. He left the scene, and is no longer existing within the context of the delusion. But if he weren’t enlightened, which is probably what most Buddhists would be willing to allow anyway, then maybe. He could have become a powerful deva after his execution on the cross, in which case he could really be in heaven right now, possibly even beaming metta at us as we sit here. Who knows? 
     Although I have mentioned Gotama Buddha a few times during the course of this discussion, some Buddhist readers may wonder, maybe with some impatience, why I would bother to discuss Jesus at all. Well, aside from the possibility of becoming more bahussuta, or “having heard much” with regard to comparative religion, and of understanding one aspect of the Western mind a little better, there is also the situation than the Buddha himself is considered by some to be a Roman Catholic saint. He goes by the name of Saint Josephat (not Jehosephat, as in Jumping Jehosephat—just Josephat). His feast day is November 27th, and I’ve been told by a Roman Catholic priest that he has two churches dedicated to his honor—one in Sicily and the other, if I remember correctly, in southern France. The same Catholic priest told me that at a monastery in Germany in which each of the saints has his or her own shrine, the shrine to Saint Josephat has upon it a statue of the Buddha in meditation. So there is evidently a peculiar connection here between Jesus Christ and Gotama Buddha, or at least between the Pope and Gotama Buddha.
     The way it happened was initially by Jataka stories, tales of the Buddha’s previous lives, becoming very popular in India and eventually being translated into Persian in the early Middle Ages. The Sanskrit term “bodhisattva” was rendered as “buddsaf.” When the Muslims conquered the area they liked the stories too, and had them translated into Arabic, in which “buddsaf” became “budasaf,” which eventually was corrupted into the name “Yudasaf,” this with regard to a virtuous prince in one of the tales. The stories, including the popular fable of Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf, traveled west along caravan routes until it reached Christian countries such as Greece. In Greek the name was further corrupted to Ioasaph, which, when inevitably translated into Latin in the 11th century, became Josaphatus, the English progenitor of Josaphat. As with the party game wherein one person whispers a story into another person’s ear, and then that person whispers it to another, and so on down a long line, so that the final version is laughably different from the original, the story of Barlaam and Josephat in Europe had little resemblance to the original Jataka story (which itself may have been a corruption of a yet earlier legend): The story eventually went that a certain King Abenner of India persecuted Christians. When astrologers predicted that his own son, Prince Josaphat, would become a Christian too, the King put him into a seclusion not so different from the seclusion Prince Siddhattha was put into by his own father in a more Buddhist legend. Eventually, though, Prince Josaphat met a Christian hermit, Saint Barlaam, who converted him to the holy faith. King Abenner himself eventually converted, handed over the kingdom to his son, and retired into a wilderness to be a religious hermit. Josaphat also abdicated after awhile, and went into the wilderness with his revered teacher Saint Barlaam. I’m not sure what the original Jataka story was even about. But the medieval Catholics were so impressed by the wisdom and saintliness of Josephat that he was considered to be a true Christian, and he was eventually canonized. He’s a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church also.
     Unfortunately, however, neither great Christian church endorses the doctrine of rebirth, and the original story was not about the Buddha himself, but a former “incarnation.” If I were, say, a Baptist minister in a past life, that is not the same as saying that I myself am a Baptist minister. And if there is no rebirth at all, then all the more reason why I’m not a Baptist minister. So from a Christian point of view, which is what really is at issue here, the Buddha and Saint Josaphat were never really the same guy. It’s kind of a shame actually, since it would be nice to be able to call myself a Catholic monk: Brother Paññobhása of the Order of Saint Josephat (discalced). 


Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Buddhist Monk's Take on Jesus (part 1 of 2: "The Moses Prequel")

     I just finished reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, which is a history of Western monotheism, and it has got me thinking about Christianity more than is usual. So now I find myself in the mood to write on the subject, or to be more specific on the subject of Jesus of Nazareth, a project I have been considering for a few years now. Back in the days when I was in Bellingham and was still delivering Dharma talks to Americans I actually gave a talk on this very topic, which resulted in the only Christian in the audience becoming a little riled up. Just a little, though.
     Before discussing Jesus I will point out that never in my life have I been a Christian. My father considered himself to be a Buddhist, although actually he was more of a Pagan spiritualist; and my mother, although raised as a Christian, did not have a religious bone in her body. So I was not exposed to much Christianity as a kid, and it didn’t make much sense to me. By the time I became an adult I had entered a church a total of twice, as far as I can remember. When I was an adolescent two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our house, and when one of them asked me which denomination I belonged to, my answer was like, “Uh…Protestant?” No doubt the guy immediately identified me as a Heathen Philistine.
     As I got older and began doing a little investigation of Christianity, the more I understood it the less I could believe it. I have never been able to believe, for example, in a personal God who answers prayers or gives a damn about us, or that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, who created the universe in his capacity as the divine Logos, and who died for my sins, to redeem me and everyone else from the original sin of Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit. I haven’t believed it in this life anyway. I have considered that it would be easier for me to accept Islam, which is much simpler, with no Trinity, no Incarnation, etc. To be a Muslim pretty much all that is necessary to accept is that God is one God and Muhammad is his prophet. But of course I’m neither a Muslim nor a Christian. If I weren’t a Buddhist I might be a Vedantist Hindu, or maybe something like a Unitarian. I once semi-considered becoming a Carthusian monk, with the idea that the vow of silence would protect me from having to confess that I wasn’t really a Christian. I admit it was a dumb idea.
     But although I am not a Christian, I do have a strange interest in Christianity. I find it vaguely intriguing. I feel a subtle, deep, almost subconscious resonation with it. If there is such a phenomenon as rebirth, as Buddhism accepts, then it is probable that I have been a Western Christian in past lives. (In fact I have been told that in the life immediately before this one I was a Baptist minister who was ostracized from the clergy for holding unorthodox views—and I was told this before I ever became a Theravada Buddhist monk holding unorthodox views. I don’t remember it though. That’s just what I was told.) And regardless of rebirth, the fact remains that Christianity has left a very deep impression on the Western mind, even on those of us who have never been believing, practicing Christians. Western cultural conditioning is itself profoundly conditioned by Christianity: for example, we English-speaking people harbor Protestant values, generally without realizing their origin. Even Western Buddhists tend to think more like Protestant Christians than like Buddhists. So it is good to have some understanding of the situation, in order better to understand the world we live in, and ourselves. 
     I have read the Christian Bible in its entirety, from Genesis through Revelation, twice (both times after becoming a Buddhist monk—before, when my attention span was shorter, I always bogged down around Exodus, although I had read the entire New Testament); and I have read some parts several times. And included among my relatively few possessions there is a Bible, a really good one in fact, containing the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonicals, maps, a glossary, alternate renderings, and explanatory notes which include information concerning differences between the standard Bible and the earliest biblical manuscripts. So although I am not a Christian, still I do not intend to bash Jesus or Christianity here. Mainly I’m just trying to understand. Some of what may seem like bashing actually comes from Christian sources such as a scandalous Anglican Bible commentary I read in Burma many years ago. It was written by an Anglican clergyman back around 1970 and was given the stamp of approval by the Church of England, yet nevertheless, in addition to pointing out parts of the Bible that are probably forgeries, or otherwise false, it categorically denies that Jesus or anyone else ever performed a miracle. It seems that the C. of E. sold out to Scientism quite a while ago. I think I might actually have a higher opinion of Jesus than that Anglican commentator did. Anyway, it may be that my attempts at understanding can help you to understand something more clearly, or maybe not. There’s only one way to find out, though…
     Let us assume for the sake of argument that a historical approach to understanding reality, at least worldly reality, is valid. That will be taken as granted, if only for the sake of convenience.
     So, just as our culture conditions our beliefs and attitudes (for example it conditions in us the belief that a historical approach is a valid one) in order to understand Jesus it can be helpful to understand the culture in which he arose, and that culture was predominantly Jewish. Jesus, in all probability, was a Jew of Hebrew ethnicity—which is rather ironic, considering the anti-Semitism of so many Christians over the centuries. Jesus remained a Jew, and his first apostles and early disciples remained Jews, much as the followers of John the Baptist remained Jews. Many scholars have endorsed the idea that the first actual Christian was Paul of Tarsus. 
     The more or less mythological Abraham, or maybe his grandson Jacob (alias Israel), could possibly be called the first Hebrew, but, if the Bible is anywhere near to being a reliable authority, the first actual Jew could be said to be Moses.
     As most of us already know, Moses was a Hebrew born in Egypt, round about the 13th century BCE. The Hebrews living in Egypt may already have regarded the God of Abraham as their patron deity, but he was not yet called Yahweh (alias Jehovah), and he was nowhere near to being the only God they considered real: the Hebrews at this early stage were far from being monotheists. They might have stayed in Egypt and eventually become absorbed into the Egyptian population without leaving a trace if a strange event hadn’t occurred, which I would like to discuss in a lengthy and possibly ill-advised digression, partly just to demonstrate how arbitrary some of the biggest events in history can be. So it looks like I’ll be giving my take on Moses also.
     Historians tell us that the First World War was triggered by a Serbian college student shooting the archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria during a parade. The Germans, and to a lesser degree the Austrians themselves, may have been planning a largish war in order to stir things up and to gain some territory, but WWI was largely unexpected and caught most of the world by surprise. One little bullet quickly escalated into a war involving most of the world, which in turn led to the collapse of three empires, the birth of the USSR, the rise of the Third Reich, WWII as a continuation of WWI, the Holocaust, the A-bomb, the nuclear arms race, the Cold War, and much else besides. One little bullet started that whole humungous ball rolling. It may be that the First World War would have started sooner or later anyway, but that is uncertain. Anyway, a somewhat larger but even more arbitrary event estimated by my Bible at 1290 BCE apparently resulted in the birth of Judaism, and eventually in Christianity, Islam, and Western monotheistic religion in general, and much else besides; and I hypothesize that that event was a volcanic eruption.  
     The book of Exodus in the Bible is essentially mythology. But most myths contain an element of fact, and the story of Moses and the Exodus is probably no exception. The early part about Moses being set adrift in a basket on the river, and so on, may be considered irrelevant to my point, and may be pure invention anyway, being a common theme in ancient myths; but when Moses leaves Egypt the first time and moves to Midian things start to get interesting. For starters, it is noteworthy that Moses left Egypt, according to the Bible’s own testimony, for no better reason than that he was a murderer fleeing from the law! He went to Midian, which was an area in northwestern Arabia south of the Dead Sea and immediately south of the land of Edom. While there he married a daughter of Jethro, a priest; and there is a good chance that his father-in-law was a priest of a war god called Yahweh. In fact the earliest mention of Yahweh, though somewhat controversial, is claimed to be in an Egyptian inscription dating to the 14th century BCE, referring to a place in Midian or Edom. The Song of Deborah in the book of Judges, which the notorious Anglican commentary declared to be possibly the oldest part of the Bible, hints that Yahweh came from Edom. This also would help to explain the odd legends of Jacob, the first Israelite, obtaining the birthright of Esau, the first Edomite, by trading a bowl of stew for it, and also of him tricking their father Isaac into giving him, Jacob, the blessing intended for Esau. Before the time of Moses the Hebrews, most of whom never went to Egypt and were still in Canaan, mainly worshipped the Canaanite king of gods, El (which is actually found in the name Isra-el), who had the fertility goddess Asherah as his wife. So, symbolically and mythologically at least, Moses, influenced by his father-in-law, began worshipping Yahweh and maybe identifying him with the El the Hebrews were already worshipping. It was with Moses that the Hebrews began calling their god Yahweh.
     While in Midian Moses led his flock of sheep and goats to a mountain called Sinai in the Bible, although it may not have been the modern Sinai on the Sinai Peninsula. The Mount Sinai of the Bible may have been a volcanic mountain in Midian, in northwestern Arabia. It was here that a burning bush instructed Moses to go back to Egypt and free his people there. A burning bush on a mountain is a tiny hint that something volcanic was going on, but the hints get much bigger. What apparently happened, according to my hypothetical interpretation, is that Moses had no idea of what volcanoes are, and when he saw the powerful phenomena going on on the mountain, he interpreted it as a sign of God, that is, of his new god Yahweh. These inexplicable (to him) phenomena inspired Moses to bring at least some of the Hebrews out of Egypt. So he went back to Egypt with a mission.
     After this, as signs of the power of Yahweh, came the Ten Plagues—most or even all of which could be interpreted as the results of a volcanic eruption, with accompanying seismic activity. First the Nile River turned to “blood,” or anyhow turned dark and toxic, which could be from volcanic ash in the water which poisoned the fish, or from mudslides upstream causing lots of reddish mud to choke the water, with the same fish-poisoning effect. After this, plagues of frogs and gnats afflicted the people, which could be explained as the frogs and gnats moving away from the toxic, polluted water. The following plague of flies could be explained similarly, or as the result of all the rotting fish and passive, stoic frogs, etc., poisoned by the water. The next plague was the death of the livestock, which could be explained as the result of drinking the same water, or of all the flies and disease eventually resulting from it. Next came boils and open sores on the people, with a similar possible explanation. Next came hail and lightning, or, in some translations, a rain of fire, or something like fire. I suppose it could be some of the same volcanic ash which plausibly poisoned the water, or it could be storms seeded by all the particulate matter and other volcanic emissions filling the sky. The eighth plague, of locusts, is the least easily accounted for by the volcano hypothesis, although they might have moved just to get away from the upheaval. Number nine was darkness in midday, which is a common side-effect of volcanic eruptions; it is said that after Mount Tambora blew up in the early 1800’s, a large area was in total darkness for about two days afterward. The final plague, the death of the first-born Egyptian children, could be a mythological adaptation of a situation in which, more simply stated, lots of Egyptian children died. Fewer Hebrew children succumbed, ex hypothesi, because the Hebrews were living in poorer areas away from the Nile and were required to drink well water or water from cisterns, which would be much healthier than drinking water from the river.
     As the smallish band of Hebrews (there couldn’t have been nearly as many as described in the Bible, considering that no uncontroversial archeological evidence for the Exodus has ever been found, assuming that the Exodus occurred at all) marched toward the volcanic “Mount Sinai” in Arabia they were guided by a pillar of cloud, or rather smoke, by day, and a pillar of fire by night, which would be easily explained by the idea that they were marching toward an erupting volcano in the distance. And of course when they get there, the whole mountain was covered with smoke and fire, inspiring some real awe and a lasting impression on these new Chosen People. Even Moses parting the Red Sea could be explained as an associated seismic phenomenon: it could be that they went along a coastal area, and a tsunami caused the water to recede, letting them pass, and then hit the beach, taking out the pursuing Egyptian soldiers. On the other hand, a common theory nowadays is just that they passed through the swampy “Sea of Reeds” located where the Suez Canal is now, which Hebrews on foot could manage but which caused Egyptian chariots to get stuck in the mud. 
     Thus it appears that an ignorance of what volcanoes are could have been the origin of the Jewish religion, and thereby of Western monotheism. Either Moses was fully convinced that the volcano was Yahweh descended upon the mountain, or he was a brilliant opportunist slyly exploiting the situation in order to get the Hebrews in Egypt to follow him. (Whether geological evidence supports this hypothesis of a volcanic eruption in NW Arabia circa 1300 BCE, I don’t know. Some authorities support the volcano hypothesis, but I haven’t seen any geologist come forward with evidence for an Arabian eruption at that time.) It is politically correct to consider Moses to be a great spiritual leader, but I have to admit that it disgruntles me sometimes to hear him placed in the same category as Jesus and the Buddha. As I already pointed out, the man was considered to be a murderer, and that is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It is supremely ironic that the Jewish people, who have much to say about the evils of genocide, had as a founder of their religion a man who declared genocide upon the people of Canaan. Moses insisted that all Canaanites, men, women, and children, were to be entirely exterminated, with very few exceptions. But we may as well not dwell on that.
     Anyway, the Jewish people settled in the Holy Land and combined El with Yahweh, editing their legends retroactively so that it appeared that the two had always been one, and that He never had a wife, and gradually they made their God into not only the patron deity of their race but the creator and LORD of everything. They still weren’t completely sold on monotheism, though. (Even good King David apparently was an idolater, considering the passage at I Samuel 19:11-17 in which his wife put their household idol into David’s bed to make it look like David was sleeping there.) They developed a kingdom, which before long split into two, and which were eventually wiped out by the Assyrians and Babylonians. It was after this, during the Babylonian Captivity, that the Jews finally were convinced that Yahweh/El was the only God. By this time prophets had become major influences in the Jewish religious tradition; and although many of them had prophesied the destruction of the Hebrew kingdoms, they began declaring that after the Jews had returned to the Holy Land their God would bless and protect them, they would rebuild the Temple, and that no foreign enemy would ever again invade Israel. Furthermore, a messiah, an anointed great leader, would arise who would lead Israel to be foremost of all the nations. He was to be a descendant of King David, born in David’s home town of Bethlehem, and he would be more of a political leader than a spiritual one.
     At first it seemed that these latter prophecies were coming true. The king of Persia allowed the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and to rebuild their Temple. (There are even a few hints in the Old Testament that the governor of Judea at that time, a Jewish man named Zerubbabel, was the promised messiah, although the belief didn’t catch on, and faded out.) Alexander’s Greco-Macedonians conquered the Persians, which resulted in some uproar in Judea, especially later when the Greek king Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” tried forcibly converting the Jews to Greek polytheism; but things started really looking good for the Jews and their prophecies when the Maccabees revolted against Antiochus Epiphanes and founded a more or less independent Jewish nation, with the help of the “friendly” Roman Republic.  
     The Jewish Hasmonean Dynasty lasted for a century…and then everything went kasplooey when the formerly friendly Romans invaded and conquered Judea. This threw the Jewish nation into a severe crisis, as God’s promise to them had obviously been broken—foreign invaders had conquered the Holy Land again. Even before this, at least as far back as the time of the aforementioned King Antiochus, the Jews were developing a new genre of literature—that is, apocalyptic literature. Also, the Messiah was seen more and more as a spiritual figure, and not primarily as an earthly king. The best example of this trend in the Jewish Bible is the book of Daniel, the second half of which is clearly apocalyptic. I have learned that it is much easier to understand the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel if one reads the first book of Maccabees also, as the two were written at approximately the same time (the book of Daniel dating to around 165 BCE, being a kind of sacred forgery claiming to be much older), and discuss the same events, though in different ways. Thus the “little horn” and the “hard-faced king” who serves as the prototype for the later Antichrist is none other than our old friend Antiochus Epiphanes, and the original “abomination of desolation,” later reinterpreted by the early Christians, and possibly by Jesus himself, refers to the statue/idol of Olympian Zeus which Antiochus had placed in the Temple, thereby defiling it (the Temple, not the statue). Although the prophecy was later reinterpreted, it is apparent that Daniel predicts that the entire world will come to an end before 160 BCE (see Daniel 12:11), which, as far as I can tell, didn’t happen. I suspect that this new apocalyptic trend was a bitter response to the fact that God’s Chosen People were not doing very well. They were not prospering like the favorite people of God, by all rights, ought to do. So with a kind of hysterical denial combined with righteous vengeance they began predicting, and even hoping, that the world would be destroyed.
     This was the world that Jesus was born into: a devoutly Jewish world in which people bitterly resented their Roman overlords, yearned and prayed for a Messiah, and expected the end of the world to come at any time. Which, of course, leads to the subject of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. 
     First off, it is very likely that the mother of Jesus, although for all I know a very respectable woman, lost her virginity at least nine months before Jesus was born. In fact the whole idea that Mary was still a virgin at that time comes from a misunderstanding of a mistranslation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, combined with some arguably dishonest propaganda. Judea and Galilee had been part of the Hellenistic world for more than three centuries by the time of Jesus, and many of the early Christians, though Jewish, spoke and wrote in Greek better than in Hebrew. So, they relied upon a Greek translation of the Bible called the Septuagint. So: in the book of Isaiah, there is a passage concerning the “sign of Immanuel,” which states,
A young woman who is pregnant will have a son and will name him Immanuel (which means “God is with us”). By the time he is old enough to make his own decisions, people will be drinking milk and eating honey. Even before that time comes, the lands of those two kings who terrify you will be deserted (Isaiah 7:14-16). 
This is a prophecy by Isaiah to King Ahaz, indicating that he has nothing to worry about from two other kings who were menacing him; within several years that whole situation will have blown over (mainly because an even worse danger, the King of Assyria, is coming). It has to do with Isaiah’s own time. Furthermore, even my deluxe Catholic Bible has this to say in a footnote with regard to the term “young woman”: 
The Hebrew word here translated “young woman” is not the specific term for “virgin,” but refers to any young woman of marriageable age. The use of “virgin” in Mt 1.23 reflects a Greek translation of the Old Testament, made some 500 years after Isaiah.
So the early Christian Jews who came up with the idea that Mary was a virgin misunderstood the passage to be a prophecy of the coming Messiah; and so, believing that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, they asserted that Jesus had been born of one, since they were eager for others to accept Jesus’s messianic status. And remember, I learn this stuff from Christian books, even from a Catholic Bible.
     (Incidentally, I used to wonder why Mary has been so consistently called the Virgin Mary, considering that, according to the Bible, Jesus had several siblings, and I very much doubted that they were all immaculately conceived. So she must have eventually lost her virginity, even if it wasn’t before Jesus was born. I eventually learned that the Catholics developed the theory that Mary did indeed remain a virgin her whole life, but that Joseph had a second wife not mentioned in the Bible, so that Jesus’s brothers and sisters were half-siblings. The Greek Orthodox church went one step further, declaring Joseph also to have remained chaste, with the so-called brothers and sisters being just cousins.)
     Jesus allegedly being born in Bethlehem is a similar case. According to Micah, one of the minor Old Testament prophets, the Messiah was destined to be born in Bethlehem, the native city of King David, being one of his descendants. So, in their efforts to promote Jesus as the Jewish messiah, the authors of Matthew and Luke came up with two very different stories to account for this, it being common knowledge that the man came from Nazareth in Galilee, not Bethlehem.
     According to Matthew's account, Joseph and Mary apparently lived in Bethlehem originally and had Jesus in their own house, there being no mention of a manger and no room at the inn. Then, out of fear of King Herod they fled to Egypt for awhile, until after Herod had died. Then they came back; but, still fearing Herod’s son, the new king, they moved to Galilee.
     Luke explains things differently. In this version, Joseph and Mary were apparently already residents of Nazareth and had to go to Bethlehem so Joseph could register for a Roman census decreed by Augustus. It is in this version that the manger is prominent; although there is no mention at all of any trip to Egypt. Presumably after the census they simply went back to their home in Galilee. Also, both Matthew and Luke provide genealogies of the ancestors of Jesus, to demonstrate that he was a descendant of King David, as the Messiah must be. However, the names on the two lists are very different with regard to the lineage between David and Joseph, with one of the few names in common being Zerubbabel (who had already been calculated as a descendant of David so that he could be the Messiah); and even the number of generations differs between the two accounts.
     So again, the details of Jesus’s life were doctored to make him look more like the official Jewish Messiah. This sort of propagandism runs rampant in early Christianity. However, this by no means diminishes Jesus’s stature as a spiritual teacher. Rather, it counts more as a strike against the honesty of some of his early followers. As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter where he was born, or whether or not his mother was a virgin, or who his real father was. As I mentioned earlier, I couldn’t really believe that he was the only begotten Son of God anyway. That sort of thing is largely irrelevant; what really matters most is the value of what the man was trying to teach. That has been radically doctored too, however. But then again, the same sort of thing has happened in almost all spiritual systems, including Buddhism. Buddhism may have even more of that than Christianity does. But I may or may not mention this next time. After all, I’m talking about Jesus here, not the Buddha.