“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” – Matthew 5:17-18
A religious historian once said that saying the word “Christianity” is like saying the word food. There are thousands of different kinds of foods, and no one assumes that the word “food” accurately describes the spectrum of possible things to eat, which is unimaginably diverse. In public discourse, we erroneously talk about Christianity as if it were one monolithic entity. I reality, as scholar of religions Reza Aslan likes to say, there are “Christianities.” For every religion is, by definition, merely an interpretation of texts; so many interpretations, so many sects. Yet Jesus himself belongs to no religion or denomination, but is part of humanity’s universal library. Anyone is free to approach his sayings with an open mind, and to develop his/her own understanding of their spiritual meaning.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, and as I reached the age of reason, I developed a strong distaste for the intolerant and often ludicrous forms of Christianity I had thus far witnessed in life. I “threw out the baby with the bathwater,” and didn’t want anything more to do with Jesus’ teachings. It was only later in life, ironically while living at a Zen monastery, that I re-explored the teachings of Jesus, and found in them a treasure trove of wisdom, the ingenious mystical expressions of an awakened spiritual master.
When I re-read the gospels with a mind cleared of my anti-Christian bias, Jesus often sounded more like a Zen master than the founder a dogmatic religion, and I noticed that many of his teachings were nearly identical to similar ones found in Buddhism, and other of humanity’s great religious traditions. To see the universality of these recurring themes in multiple religious systems is important not only for Christians, but for anyone who ascribes to a particular faith. For, to me, religions are paths to God that do not exist in mutual exclusion to one another. It is my belief that humanity’s great religions will be doomed to extinction unless they learn to adopt this more universal, inclusive standpoint. If they do not, they will be drowned in the tide of globalism that the human race is on an inevitable collision course with, and will remain stuck in a tribal ethos that is merely an unfortunate vestige of our blood stained past.
To me, the mystical statements of Jesus undeniably reveal the mind state of an awakened person. When Jesus utters ridiculous and (in their historical context) blasphemous statements like, “I and the Father are One,” and “The kingdom of God is within you,” he is expressing his direct experience of God-Consciousness, or Enlightenment. Just as it would be ridiculous to worship a Zen master as a god for saying, “I myself am the Buddha,” it is ridiculous to worship Jesus the human being for saying, “I myself am one with God.” Both are merely expressing universal mystical experiences in different spiritual languages. The day will come when the majority of Christians will realize that their own Christ-Consciousness is the source of Jesus’ mysterious teachings, and will realize in astonishment that they themselves are one with God, just as he was.
Religion as a Path, Christ as the Goal
My belief that religions are a path to the experience of God-Consciousness/Enlightenment is hinted at in Jesus’s cryptic relationship to “the Law and the Prophets” expressed in the above quote. The Law of Moses and the subsequent prophetic writings (such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah) form the backbone of the Jewish religion. In them is found a system of rituals, quotations, and mythological stories that both organized and inspired the Jewish people for thousands of years before the Jesus’ birth.
When Jesus said that “I did not come to abolish the Torah (or “Law”),” he was telling the Jewish people that their rituals, stories, laws, and prescribed spiritual practices were still important. The Ten Commandments provided laws of righteous living whose ethical practicality is undeniable even 3000 years later. Similarly, the ritualized temple worship, the Sabbath, and the festivals prescribed in the Torah – like the pilgrimage to Mecca for Muslims – were revealed to be symbolic of higher truths, but Jesus knew that these rituals have a beneficial spiritualizing effect when people also engage in them physically.
Like the Law itself, the prophets incessantly reminded the Jewish people that following the Torah would bless them both materially and spiritually, and that neglecting to do so would even lead to collective disaster. The prophets also hinted at a new revelation that would come in the days of Jesus, a premonition of his ministry that was as much a quantum leap for Judaism as Einstein was for physics. For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote hundreds of years before the birth of Christ,
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. – Jeremiah 31: 31-34
This “New Covenant” is the direct experience of God that transcends any metaphorical description, or particular religious system. It is the Treasure compared to the treasure map, the Goal of the path, which Itself is one with the path. Jeremiah prophetically foresaw the coming of a man like Jesus who would teach the Jewish people that what their ancestors sought in outward rituals and penned scriptures was, in reality, within themselves, metaphorically “written on their hearts” through direct experience.
By “not abolishing the Torah,” Jesus meant that Judaism, as a path to God, was as important in his day as it was when it was first revealed to Moses over a thousand years earlier. He was also reminding people that the natural laws of righteous living which govern the material world (the laws of karma, in Hindu language) are impartial, and that without righteous living and spiritual practice Awakening is, if not impossible, at least highly improbable. Jesus accurately pointed out that as long as the material universe continues exists (“until heaven and earth pass away”) the ethical laws of karma still must be respected if one is to expect spiritual blessings and illumination.
By “fulfilling the Torah,” Jesus meant awakening to the Reality that the Torah merely points to symbolically. All the rituals and spiritual practices in the Torah culminate in the awakening of Christ-Consciousness, the direct experience of being One with God in this very body/kingdom. Jesus transcended Judaism by awakening to its Final Goal, but simultaneously reaffirmed Judaism by assuring the Jews that their religion was a path to It.
Although Jesus was referring to his own religion of Judaism, his words are generalizable to religion itself. For although Jesus was Jewish, he was destined to become a world figure – a prophet – whose actions and words would influence billions of minds that were not Jewish. Conscious of the global scale of his own mission, I believe that Jesus was speaking not merely to the Jews, but to any seeker of God taking on a specific spiritual discipline.
In teaching the importance of relative spiritual practices to arrive at Ultimate understanding, Jesus fits into a pattern set by many awakened masters who also had world missions. The Buddha tells his followers in the Diamond Sutra, “You are to regard my teachings as a raft that leads to the other shore.” The “Other Shore” is Enlightenment Itself, the Goal of the “raft,” which is the religion of Buddhism with its rituals, prescribed practices, and ethical codes. The Buddha could just have easily said, “I have not come to abolish the raft, but to fulfill it by taking you to the ‘other shore’ of the direct experience of your True Nature.”
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna similarly utters (paraphrased), “All spiritual practices lead to Me.” Like Jesus, Krishna was not implying (as some Hindu’s erroneously interpret) that the majority of humanity is destined to become Hindu. Rather, speaking from the perspective of his own Awakened Mind, Krishna declared that all the spiritual practices of every religion ultimately lead seekers to the exalted state of Krishna-Consciousness/Christ-Consciousness that he himself was enjoying. In my view, this universal idea that the direct experience of the Source is the goal of all particular spirtual practices was expressed by Jesus, the Buddha, and Krishna in a nearly identical manor, differing only in the cultural lingo that all great spiritual masters are compelled to channel their teachings through.
“I am no Longer your Master:” The Two Primary Christian Fallacies
In my opinion, this view that the teachings of Judaism (and, by extension, the teachings of Jesus the Jewish Messiah) are merely a path to Something beyond them is the understanding that Jesus was metaphorically attempting to convey to his disciples by his utterance that he was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Unless followers of Jesus evolve to this view, their various sects will have no future in the coming ages of the Earth destined to be characterized by an interfaith perspective.
In my view, any form of Christianity that clings to what I call “the two primary Christian fallacies” are doomed to die out in the inevitable spiritual evolution of humankind as a whole. Firstly, churches must transcend the absurd idea that Christianity is “the only correct religion” and that the mission of Jesus was to convert the entire world to his own particular brand of spirituality. They must learn to view their religion as merely one possible path to God, rather than the sole legitimate one. Secondly, they must transcend the idea that Jesus was somehow metaphysically different from everyone else, and had a special understanding of God that only he was capable of experiencing. In actuality, Jesus was a human being who attained God-Realization, and who taught that everyone is capable of experiencing It for themselves. Any follower of Jesus is capable of becoming an awakened Christ, just as any follower of Gautama is capable of becoming a fully awakened Buddha. If we assert that only Jesus was One with God, and that only through his intercession can we be saved, we are ironically undermining the very purpose of his coming, which was to abolish the intermediary role of the ritualized priesthood and proclaim that everyone is a Living Temple of the Divine with full access to God.
In the apocryphal gospel of Thomas (highly recommended), Jesus asks his disciples in Koan-like fashion, “Who do you say that I am?” Thomas answers, “Master, my mouth is utterly unable to describe What you are.” Jesus then tells Thomas, “I am no longer your master, because you drink from the same brook that I drink from.”
To me, Jesus is metaphorically saying, “Thomas has had an inner realization of his own Christ-Consciousness and, like me, has therefore become a Christ himself, attaining the goal of religion. He has intuitively realized the fulfillment of my mission, which was to awaken others to what I myself awakened to. I am therefore no longer his teacher, for now we are both completely equal. Furthermore, Thomas is a unique expression of the Christ-Consciousness. While I am Jesus the Christ, he is Thomas the Christ, his own individualized expression of the Absolute.” In Zen Buddhism, this idea is expressed by saying that when a student has realized their True Nature, they have “attained the marrow” of the past masters, and stand “eyebrow to eyebrow” with the Buddha himself. In other words, their awakening and his awakening are one and the same. They “drink from the same brook” of Enlightenment, ever-present and never limited to a single charismatic vessel.
A famous Zen master once said, “if you see the Buddha, kill the Buddha,” meaning that if you erroneously think that Buddha Nature exists outside of you, you are living in ignorance. Jesus was essentially telling Thomas, and by extension his followers of future ages, “If you see the Deathless Christ in the body of Jesus, kill that false idea you have of what the Christ is. You and I are no different!” Like Jesus’ teaching on the “Law and the Prophets,” he again affirms to Thomas that his teachings are merely stepping stones to The Real Thing. And, like Thomas, to truly follow Jesus we must eventually leave his words behind, realize God-Consciousness for ourselves, and embody this realization in a unique expression that only we can express.
My deepest prayer is that humanity as a whole will awaken to the inner Christ, thus fulfilling the personal mission of the prophet Jesus through the power of our collective awakening. May you yourself realize that Christ is seeing out of your eyes this very moment, and is in fact your True Nature.
All glory and power belongs to God, who alone is the do-er of action. Any wisdom I have is fractionally borrowed from His Infinite Grace. With love and gratitude for anyone patient enough to read this entire post,
- Re-interpreting Jesus II: The Kingdom of God
- Lessons from the Gita 3: God Realization – The End of Religion
- Jesus as Koan: The Zen Perspective
- A Bumbling Okie’s Brief and Shameless Ramblings On Easter
- Merry Christmas from Bodhgaya!
- Mechizzawhaaaaaa? Melchizedek and the Source of Spiritual Authority
- Homosexuality, Christianity, and The Future of Scripture
- Inspiring article I found on the New York Times website