Pentecost 13 Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
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Enlightenment isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. The downside to having a moment of enlightenment is you can never see things again as you used to no matter how much you might want to. A couple of weeks ago in my struggle with wisdom for dummies I shared my newly gained awareness that the Wisdom Jesus didn’t see his mission as saving us but as raising our consciousness. He was a spiritual teacher calling us to life-giving awareness not a sacrificial lamb paying the price for our sins. Specifically he sought to move us from a world seen dualistically where everything is black or white, good or bad to a unitive world where everything is singular. In this new world it is not me and everything else, there is just everything and no me. Our human task is no longer to differentiate the world into its parts but to integrate the parts, including ourselves, into a whole.
I seriously doubt I will ever fully grasp that concept. I’m running double time to keep up with Jesus the wisdom teacher and I’m still being left in the dust. But I’m in good company. With the possible exceptions of Mary Magdalene and Thomas, the disciples didn’t fully get him either and neither did Paul or the writers of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John or the early church fathers and so neither did the western church that shaped me. However, I get enough of it to know I hear today’s Gospel with new ears. My problem is that I was happy enough with how the old ones heard it.
As someone who by nature is not reluctant to test boundaries, I’m heartened by Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ objection to his disciples eating without washing their hands. Since, as good Jews, swine flu was hardly their concern, this wasn’t about good hygiene. It was about ritual purity. Jesus was challenging a system of rules intended to separate people. It put people into groups: clean or unclean, saints or sinners, insiders or outsiders, powerful or powerless. I hear his response as a clarion call for justice and inclusiveness and it is, but I now find his charge of hypocrite leveled at the Pharisees leveled at me as well. While I champion his message in one breath, in the next I condemn with enthusiasm those who oppose my own standards, separating myself from them by labeling them homophobes, fundamentalists, bigots or Republicans. Before chapter one of Wisdom for Dummies I could live with that. I could nurse past grievances of injustice with relish and long in self-righteousness for a day when justice reigns. Not anymore. I still do it; I just can’t enjoy it like I once did. So it is time to read chapter two.
This chapter focuses on my propensity to cling. I cling to past wrongs and injustices. I cling to my hopes for a better world. I cling to my ego invested in being a progressive Christian calling for justice. The problem is Jesus, the master of consciousness, demonstrated in his life that clinging prevents being. Letting go is part and parcel of letting be. It is the creative act. We’ve heard that before. In Genesis, when God spoke, “Let there be…” our world tumbled into existence.1 What Jesus challenges us to create by letting go to let be is the “Kingdom of Heaven.” What I am coming to think of as the “Holy Now.” It is the conscious act of living fully and only in the moment. Dragging the past and worrying about the future won’t get me there. In fact, not living in the now is at the root of all that, in the words of today’s Gospel, defiles us.
An example might help make the point. Two monks are traveling together; both are sworn to a strict celibacy that prohibits any interaction with the opposite sex. They come to a deep river and see a woman standing beside it, obviously desperate to get across but unable to swim. One of the monks simply slings her up on his back and swims her across. When they reach the other side, the woman goes her way and the monks continue on theirs. Two hours later the first monk notices that his brother is silently fuming. “How could you have done that?” the second finally explodes. “You are under vows never to touch a woman. Do your vows mean nothing to you? Don’t you care that you have contaminated yourself?” “My brother,” replied the first, “I picked her up and put her down. You’re still carrying her.”2
At this point I need to clarify a difference between traditional wisdom streams and the radical wisdom offered by Jesus. The former sees the path away from dualism to singularity as one of renunciation. Push things away from you. Just say “no” to anything that distracts you from higher consciousness or might contaminate you. It is the path of the ascetic. It can work for the few who can do it, but for most of us we have to live in the world. We have to get our hands dirty. If it weren’t for Jesus we could excuse ourselves then from the inconvenience of seeking higher consciousness. But Jesus, except for his brief time in the wilderness before beginning his ministry, was no ascetic. He was no John the Baptist, wearing animal skins and eating bugs. He embraced everything and everyone, but took nothing for his own profit. Quite the opposite -- he extravagantly gave all he had. And when it was time to let go, he did it with the same freedom he had shown in the embrace. He had no trouble getting his hands dirty in the messiness of life. In doing so, he took away our excuses. Living life fully and generously without clinging to is to live in the Holy Now.
J. Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher and spiritual teacher traveled the world for fifty years attempting to convey in words that which was beyond words: how to live in the now. In his later years he would surprise his audience by asking if they wanted to know his secret. Some of his followers were still trying to understand the essence of his teaching after twenty or thirty years. So, of course, they were eager to hear. “This is my secret,” he told them, “I don’t mind what happens.”3
At first hearing it is a shocking statement. How can he not mind injustice, poverty; oppression? How can he not mind the ignorance, cruelty, bigotry, and violence that are found every day at every level of society in every culture -- not just at American town halls. Certainly Jesus minded.
The story of Zen master Hakuin may clarify. Hakuin was greatly admired in the town and was often sought out for his spiritual teaching. Then it happened that the teen-age girl who lived next door got pregnant. Her parents were furious and demanded she tell them who the father was. She resisted at first but eventually told them it was Hakuin. The parents in great anger ran next door and with much shouting and accusing told him their daughter had confessed that he was the father. All he replied was, “Is that so?”
The scandal spread quickly. His reputation was ruined. No one came to see him anymore, but this did not trouble him. When the baby was born the parents brought the child to him and said, “You are the father. You take care of him.” Hakuin took loving care of the child. A year later, the mother remorsefully acknowledged to her parents that the real father was a young man who worked at the butcher shop. The parents rushed to Hakuin to apologise for the wrong they had done him and to ask his forgiveness. “We are really sorry. We have come to take the baby back. Our daughter has confessed that you are not the father.” All the old master said was, “Is that so?” as he handed the baby to them.4
Hakuin’s capacity to transcend his ego and stay in the moment and respond in the moment no matter what happens is the Holy Now. He is unfazed if the moment brings good or ill. He is not made a victim by events outside his control. He simply becomes one with them taking away their power over him. By not resisting the moment, he is free to change it. He redeems an ugly situation by taking care of the child and when the moment requires giving him back.
If I put myself in Hakuin’s shoes I shudder at how it might’ve played out if I let my ego with its dualistic outlook be in charge. There would’ve been no Holy Now just defilement as I responded with outrage, defensiveness and possessiveness. The potential harm I might’ve caused by not “not minding what happens” causes me to shudder. In my indignant self-righteous victim-hood, who and how many would I have victimized?
Hakuin shows that “not minding” is not the same as “not caring.” By not minding what happens moment to moment we lose the illusion of “self” allowing us passage into the oneness that is all. In that place that Jesus calls the Kingdom of Heaven we are one with justice. We are one with love and mercy. We are one with the creative process of “letting be.” It may only be a moment but it is there we have eternal life.
1 Bourgeault, Cynthia. The Wisdom Jesus, Shambala, Boston: 2008. P. 68.
2 Ibid. p. 79.
3 Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Create a Better Life, Penguin Books, New York: 2005. p. 198.
4 Ibid. pp. 199-200.