March 19, 2017
I have been thinking of the narratives of the Bible in terms of leaving home or losing home. Whether it is Genesis to 2 Chronicles in the TaNaKh or from Genesis to Revelation in the Christian canon, both begin with home in the garden. But they don’t stay there long. The human condition is lived East of Eden. No real home.
Perhaps the story is the quest to find home again. The TaNaKh ends with the promise and the desire to “go up” to Jerusalem, the symbol of home, the navel, the center of Earth, where all the people of Earth will once again gather in shalom.
The Christian scriptures end with Revelation and the scene of the heavenly Jerusalem coming down from heaven where every tear will be wiped away.
Home to home. Garden to Holy City.
That is the journey of individual lives, too. We begin home in the womb and end at home in the tomb. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. What was it like before we were born? What is it like when we die? It isn’t a matter of not knowing it is a matter of not even being able to comprehend non-being. It is mystery to mystery.
That doesn’t stop us from imagining. We imagine and attempt to manipulate, to get ahead of the game, to plan for the eternal. Religious traditions have encouraged this and provide stories, teachings, and practices to manage the mystery of non-being.
But we don’t live in the eternal, the before or after. We live in this homeless now.
“Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the son of man has no where to lay his head.”
A reflection attributed to Jesus. The context is that following him is about voluntarily leaving the responsibilities and concerns of home, “Let the dead bury their own dead!” he says. Hit the road.
Perhaps he is talking about the human experience, the burden of self-conscious awareness of our own deaths. Foxes and birds don’t worry over the mysteries of the eternal, at least we assume, but humans do. We live with the terror of our own demise. We have no where to lay our heads. We can’t become foxes or birds. We know too much.
We live knowing that the loss of everything we have and are is coming.
When our kids were little, they had a friend across the street. A smart, precocious boy. His mother told us this story of overhearing him talk to another little kid, a little girl. They are probably both six or seven. The little girl was upset and told him that her grandmother had died. He hadn’t quite learned the art of showing sympathy. Instead, he said, “Yeah, well we all die. Your grandmother died. You mom will die. Your dad will die. I’m going to die. You’re going to die. Everybody dies.” The little girl ran crying into the house.
While he might have been a little more compassionate, he did tell the truth. We all die.
Not only individuals, but societies, empires, economies. Nothing lasts forever. Nothing is permanent. The Buddha recognized that. Upon his awakening he said that life is dukkha. Dukkha is often translated as suffering. It isn’t a physical suffering; it is an emotional and mental anguish that comes from wanting what we cannot have. It is the anguish that comes from expecting things to be different than they are and spending our time, energy, focus, and action on the attempt to retain what is impossible to retain. Dukkha is the anxiety, the bitterness, the spinning, the unhappiness. Dukkha is the problem.
Dukkha is avoidable, taught the Buddha. We can train our minds. The problem is not that we are going to die, nor is it physical suffering or illness or poverty or wealth. Dukkha has a cause. That is the second noble truth.
Dukkha is caused by desire. Desire isn’t the best word there either. Clinging might be better. Grasping. It is as the preacher in Ecclesiastes says, “chasing after the wind.” It comes from the illusion that there is such a thing as permanence. We want things to stay the same. Or we want them to be different. We want control. But we are seeking to control what we cannot control. Our real control is in the solution.
Life is dukkha. That is our existential condition. We know too much. Unlike the foxes and the birds we know that everything slips away. We don’t want that. We cling and grasp to what is there. That clinging and that grasping is the second noble truth.
Dukkha is caused by grasping at what is not real.
But, says Buddha, here is the good news.
We can cease grasping.
We can stop grasping, clinging, and craving what we cannot attain. We can be content. Happiness is possible. That is the third noble truth. Stop grasping and we will cease dukkha.
How do we do this?
That is the fourth noble truth. That is the eightfold path. This is essentially about cultivating discipline and mindfulness. Right view. Right intention. Right speech. Right action. Right livelihood. Right effort. Right mindfulness. Right meditation. Not going to go into specifics about them, but in general they are about living a life of discipline and truth.
The Buddha’s for noble truths are not a religion. They aren’t about beliefs. They are applicable to any other religion or philosophy or view of the world. I find them helpful in interpreting Christian texts.
Want to be happy? It takes some work.
Happiness does not come from having external things line up for us. It comes about living amidst impermanence. It is as my sermon title reads, “Being Real When Things Fall Apart.”
Things will fall apart. When they do, we can splash around in anxiety and tantrums and blaming. When we tire of that we can clarify what is true and be mindful.
Many of the teachings of Jesus seem to have a resonance with Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Jesus is teaching his disciples about impermanence when he shows them the impressive fortress of a temple that Herod built. A temple that supposedly housed God. On one hand a source of pride for the Jewish people but on the other hand a vehicle for oppression as well.
Jesus demonstrated in the temple, turning over the tables and cracking a whip according to one gospel account. He quotes Jeremiah that it has become a “den of robbers.” Often interpreted as Jesus being angry that they are selling stuff in the temple, the problem is not that. Robbers don’t rob in their den. They hide in the den after they do their robbing in the outside world. The temple, for Jesus, was a hiding place for bandits. The temple’s institution participated and collaborated with the oppression of the poor and the landless.
“Not one stone upon another,” says Jesus about the temple’s fate. A lesson in impermanence. If you see the temple as magnificent, great, and the source of pride for Israel or as a source of repression and injustice, its fate is the same. Not one stone will be left upon another.
Scholars think these words were put on the mouth of Jesus by the gospel writers after the fact. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE about forty years after the death of Jesus. The gospel writers beginning with Mark wrote his version of the Jesus story after that fact and had Jesus predict the temple’s destruction.
That makes sense to me. But even so, I think of the words of Jesus as saying words of truth that are more than the historical reality of the Jewish-Roman war. I hear Jesus talking about a larger existential reality. All temples will be destroyed.
After the World Trade Center towers one and two and building seven later that same afternoon were brought down by explosives on September 11th 2001, a truth that most of us have not yet been able to own even as the evidence is right in front of our eyes, the powers that be didn’t waste much time in building another monstrosity. We should have instead turned ground zero into a homeless camp. A tent city. A living memorial of the reality of impermanence.
All temples will be destroyed. Even those that worship the god of empire and exploitation.
Crazy old Ezekiel knew the same thing. Ezekiel with his vision of a wheel in a wheel has been marvelous fodder for UFO believers. He saw a spaceship, they suggest. Or perhaps good old Zeke was under the influence of psychedelics. What a long strange trip it has been.
Ezekiel understood impermanence. His vision of God on the chariot was a sermon of hope after all. God wasn’t confined to the temple. This was the first temple, Solomon’s temple. Herod’s temple was the third temple that Jesus was talking about. The second temple was the smaller one built by those who returned from exile. The story of its construction is in Ezra and Nehemiah.
Ezekiel was a member of the first deportation to Babylon in 597 BCE. Ten years later, the Babylonians destroyed the temple in 587 BCE. More Jews were deported to Babylon. In Babylon, Ezekiel has a vision of YHWH on the chariot. God is not confined to the temple, but on the move. Even the house of God is impermanent.
The hope was that even as the people were conquered and humiliated militarily, Ezekiel was one of the prophets that declared that their identity as a people was not destroyed. Like dry bones coming to life, like YHWH astride a magical SUV flying to Babylon, so impermanence has its good points. Some things we want to cling to are better left let go. Life has a way of rearranging itself.
Buddha’s four truths remind us that the suffering caused by clinging is not the experience of individuals only. When the powerful cling, destruction happens to others as well. It is really game over the American Empire when we think we need to build walls to keep out immigrants and to examine people naked in x-ray machines before they board airplanes, hold people without trial, resort to torture as just another means of interrogation, and spy on citizens in every clever way possible.
It is a sign that the temple is coming down.
“Look at these beautiful stones and wonderful buildings!” the disciples blurt out. Jesus gives them the hard truth. “They will certainly be torn down! Not one stone will be left in place.”
America is not going to be great again, no matter what demagogue tweets it. It is going to become humble again. That is not bad news even as there will be much suffering as the mighty billionaires cling to power before they fall.
The hope is not in them. Humankind and Americans in particular will one day see clearly when the fog of deception and exceptionalism is lifted. Then it will be the least of these, the remnant, as the ancient texts always say, who through kindness and human caring, who through Buddha’s eightfold path and Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount will call us back to our courageous, decent selves.
That is how we are real when things fall apart.