Jesus and Buddha-Kindred Spirits

“Jesus and Buddha-Kindred Spirits!” By Ian Lawton

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Two old Jewish characters, Moishe and Yonkel, had many conversations through their life about what heaven would be like. They had an agreement that whichever of them died first would make every effort to make contact with the one that was still living, and tell them what heaven was like.

Some time passed, and Moishe died. About a year later, Yonkel was living with the grief, waiting for that phone call. Sure enough, eventually the phone rang. Yonkel said, “Is that you, Moishe?” “Yes it is.” Yonkel was overjoyed, and said, “So, tell me, what is it like where you are?”

Moishe said, “This is wonderful. You wouldn’t believe what I am experiencing now. The most plentiful food and lush fields you have ever seen, I sleep in late, have a long luxurious breakfast, and then I go and make love. If it is a nice day I go out in the fields and make love some more. I come in and have a long lunch. I then go out into the fields again and make love all afternoon. I retire early in the evening.”

Yonkel responded, “Heaven sounds so amazing!” And Moishe said, “Heaven? Who said anything about heaven? I’m a rabbit in Minnesota!”

Which just goes to show that the Buddhists had it right. Reincarnation is the answer!

Making Love in Church

I wonder if some of you feel uncomfortable about talk of making love in church. Anyone? Everyone? This is not the place! Of all the times in the week, this is not the time to talk about making love. And yet, making love is a central theme in many world religions. Rumi said, “The way that you make love is the way that God is with you.” I don’t know what that means, but I love the sound of it.

In our own tradition, the Song of Solomon is full of love making:

“Thou hast ravished my heart, my spouse
thou hast ravished my heart with thine eyes, with the shape of thy neck.
How fair is thy love, my sister, my spouse! how much better is thy love than wine!
and the smell of thine perfume than all the spices!
Thy lips, O my spouse drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue
and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon.”

I haven’t been to Lebanon, but I take his word for it. There is wonderful imagery throughout the Song of Solomon, or the Song of Songs, as it is commonly known. As you read through it you find image after image of love making. The quality that religions are getting at when they speak of lovemaking is the experience of intimacy, the experience of coming together as one.

I wonder if, therefore, you would consider adding love making to your many images of God, and what that is going to mean for you? Many people interpret the Song of Solomon as describing the love relationship between Yahweh and the Israelites. Others suggest it is prefiguring the relationship of Christ and the church. Or else it is just a love song between Solomon and his wife, Pharoah’s daughter.

Either way, it is beautiful poetry and speaks of beautiful relationship. Its also very playful.

Laughing in Church

Christianity as a religion has been very serious over the centuries. Christianity is very intense, and takes itself very seriously. Let me share one example that points to this fact:

In the 1960’s many people would read Playboy magazine for the very insightful articles in it. Of course, at the same time it was pushing all sorts of boundaries in terms of its graphics. Some of the great thinkers of the time would write for the magazine. Buckminster Fuller and Harvey Cox are two examples. In 1968, Cox wrote a groundbreaking article in the magazine about Christianity. Included alongside the article was a charcoal drawing of a laughing Jesus.

Amongst all of the controversy over the images in Playboy, this drawing of a laughing Jesus was the most controversial of all. There were more letters condemning the laughing Jesus than any letters in the years leading up to it.

The laughing Jesus is very uncomfortable for westerners. It seems so wrong to Christians. After all, Jesus was the man of sorrows. Jesus knew the depth of suffering and brought enlightenment in the midst of suffering. Surely a religious guru must be austere, in order to remain compassionate.

I want us to rethink the possibility of the laughing Jesus. I want to break this down, and talk about some different meanings to laughter.

One of the predominant images of Christianity has been the man of sorrows, while one of the predominant images of Buddhism has been the laughing Buddha. Meanwhile, there is a wonderful image that comes from the Sufi tradition: Two giants in a tiny boat, bumping into each other, and laughing. That’s how they describe relationship with God. Laughing, being human, bumping into each other, and rocking the boat. Isn’t that a beautiful image? I wonder whether you would consider adding that to your portrait of God?

What I want to do this morning is bring Christianity and Buddhism together and show that the essence of the two are one and the same. There are all sorts of parallel teachings, but I would like to set those aside and go straight to the heart of the matter. The one thing that they are both doing is bringing together laughter and sorrow, to the point where the boundaries between them are blurred.

In the Proverbs it says, “Even in laughter the heart is sad and the end of joy is grief.” I believe we could turn it around, and it would make just as much sense- “Even in sadness the heart is glad and the end of grief is joy.” Christianity, from the wisdom tradition, through the axial age, and in the teaching and life of Jesus, understood this bringing together of laughing and suffering.

Suffering in Buddhism

It’s ironic that Buddhism is seen as just the laughing Buddha, because Buddhism at its core is a religion that addresses suffering. It’s all about suffering. So the noble truths of Buddhism are: Life is suffering. Existence means to suffer. The reason we suffer is because we are attached to a particular idea about the way life will carry out for us. A lot of our suffering comes about because we expect not to suffer.

That is the core truth of Buddhism. We expect things to go well, and when they don’t, we suffer. The truth of Buddhism is that when we drop our desire for life to be different than what it is, at least a lot of our suffering will disappear as well. Drop the attachments, and the suffering will be dropped as well. That’s the way to enlightenment in Buddhism. You hear in the core teachings of Buddhism the bringing together of laughter and suffering, laughter as an image for accepting everything as it is, as perfect just now, and sorrow as an image for wanting it to be more hopeful.

Laughter in Christianity

We hold those two things in balance all the time, and I believe the same is true in Christianity. Christianity also is an attempt to hold together laughing and sorrow. I want to suggest that as we move toward Easter that we might see this journey as that balance. You can’t have Good Friday without Easter Sunday. You can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday. Christianity at its essence brings together suffering and laughter.

Let me point out some of the ways that the laughing Jesus has come through in tradition. We speak sometimes about the Gnostic gospels here, and Gnosticism is a movement that pre-dated Christianity. It is separate from Christianity, and had influences in all the different religions of the time, and it had an influence on Christianity as well. Gnosticism had a very specific dualistic teaching. It suggested that the body is lower and the soul is higher. The body is shameful and the soul is enlightened, and the soul must be freed from the body.

With that in mind, consider some of the teachings related to the laughing Jesus. For example, the gospel of Judas, which was discovered in the 1970’s, and believed by many to be compiled in the 4th century, around the same time as Constantine. Constantine was making Christianity very serious, very focused around beliefs and practices, and Judas was painting a picture of Jesus, in which Jesus was laughing.

Laughing at Religious Self Indulgence

The situation is that Jesus bursts into laughter when he sees his disciples gathered around bread and cup. Here’s the scene:

“When he [approached] his disciples,[34] gathered together and seated and offering a prayer of thanksgiving over the bread, [he] laughed.”

When the disciples ask him why he is laughing he mocks their worship suggesting they are worshiping a false God.

Whenever we take our beliefs and practices too seriously, we need someone to laugh at us, and remind us that they are only practices. They are just the finger that is pointing somewhere else, and instead of following the finger, we suck it to give ourselves comfort.

Our beliefs and practices are a bridge that are taking us somewhere. But instead of going over the bridge, we stay on the bridge, where it is safe, and we can still go back or forward. We use our beliefs and practices to avoid going where we believe we are being led to go. And to that type of religion, Jesus laughs. There is a hint of derision in the laughter, no doubt. We need on occasion to laugh at each other when we get too serious about religion. That’s one of the things the laughing Jesus brought to the first century, but there is another one, that is that laughter is a humanizing force. It brings us back to our humanity.

Laughter as Humanizing Influence

It happened to me this week. Meg and I went to have our very first dance lesson. Most of the way through the class, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I dance the same way I do theology- big steps and little finesse.

The only other time we danced together was at our wedding when we were set up and forced to do a waltz. In any event, we were at the dance class trying to dance, tripping and falling all over each other, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. And so we laughed. We laughed for an hour, it was great fun, and we will definitely go back. It was a situation where we were brought back to our humanity. We were in that tiny boat, bumping into each other, and laughing. It was bringing us back to our limitations, and until we know our limitations, we can’t go deep into our humanity.

Laughing in the Face of the Unthinkable

There is yet another effect from laughing, and that is that we laugh in the face of the unthinkable. And by doing that we leave open the possibility for transformation, and resurrection.

Four rabbis were gathered before the desecrated temple in Jerusalem in the first century. Three of them were weeping. The fourth, the mystic Akiva, was laughing uproariously. The three rabbis were shocked at his response and said, “Why do you laugh?” He responded to them, “Why do you cry?” They said, “this temple that we have adored has been burned to the ground by the Romans. Foxes now roam in the space where up to this point, only the most enlightened of all Jewish leaders could even tread. How can you laugh? All is lost.” Akiva said “that is why I laugh because now I know the prophecy has been fulfilled. Until the temple is completely and utterly destroyed there will be no new temple. I laugh because I know the prophecy has been fulfilled.”

He laughs because resurrection is just around the corner, and that brings us to the passion story. Because of the Gnostic belief in the dualism of body and soul, Jesus’ death was less significant. It didn’t matter. It was just the body.

The Apocalypse of Peter reads,

“And I (Peter) said: ‘What do I see, O Lord, that it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?”

The Savior said to me: ‘He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus, But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness.” (NHL-377/VII, 3 81,6-25)

There are other accounts of the crucifixion that speak of Jesus on the cross, laughing and glad. It’s not one of the images that we have inherited, is it? And yet, there it is in some of the Gnostic gospels. In this passion play, Jesus held together sorrow and laughter. The nails on the cross represented the suffering of the entire world. The laughing, the gladness and the joy is Jesus accepting everything, as it is, as perfect. Accepting it, knowing that resurrection is just around the corner. It always is when there is death and destruction. This passion play is Jesus holding together laughing and suffering.
Laughing Because Life is Beautiful

I wonder if some of you remember the movie Life is Beautiful. It is a story about Italy in the time of the holocaust, and one man, named Guido and his family. He and his wife and 5 year-old son are held in a concentration camp- Guido and his son in one, and the wife next door in the women’s camp. There are some very profound scenes, which speak of some of the most horrific tragedy that we could imagine, and yet Guido is a clown, a spontaneous, creative joker. He uses his humor to keep his family hopeful.

In one scene Guido commandeers the PA system in the camp and sends a message to his wife, who doesn’t know if he is dead or alive. Guido speaks to his princess, and wants to make love with her, and says it over the loudspeaker.

There is another scene where Guido volunteers to be the translator for the German soldier who is barking orders about different rules that the prisoners must follow, or be killed. Guido translates it completely differently. What he says is a message in Italian to his son. He tells his son that this is all a game, and if you follow the rules of the game, you can win. If you win the game you get a beautiful big tank. The son’s eyes grow wide as he listens to his father, while the soldier barks out order about death. In the midst of unthinkable sadness, Guido gives his family hope.

It’s a tragic movie, and yet there are hints of resurrection all the way through it. There are always hints of resurrection whenever there is death, destruction, and suffering.

Over the next two weeks we begin the roller-coaster ride towards Easter. Next week is Palm Sunday, with Jesus coming into Jerusalem, the seat of power, riding on a donkey, the symbol of weakness. Amidst the hosannas and palm brushes, Jesus sets off on an Easter journey, from life to rebirth.

In the Christian church we have too often separated those two events. I want to suggest that we bring them together- you can’t have Good Friday without Easter Sunday. If all you have is laughing, then you don’t care. If all you have is suffering, there is no empowerment. This year, in one service on Easter Day, we will bring together laughing and sorrow, compassion and empowerment.

This passion play that we are a part of, we can care passionately about the suffering of the world, our own and others, but at the same time we can have gladness in our heart, knowing that resurrection is always around the corner. We find glimpses of resurrection even in the darkest, most desperate moments of pain. That’s the nature of life, and we can trust the nature of life.

The words of Proverbs, “Even in laughter the heart is sad and the end of joy is grief.” Turn it around, and it will make just as much sense, “Even in sadness the heart is glad and the end of grief is joy.”

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