Why, after 2000 years and massive changes in culture, language, and historical circumstance, are people still talking about Jesus? Regardless of your religious views, Jesus’ continuing worldwide influence is historically astonishing. If someone in the year 30 A.D. predicted to you that the most famous man to ever live would be a Jew who was brutally executed as a rebel by Rome, who was a relatively marginal figure in his own time, and who’s movement was rejected by the majority of his own religion, you would have assumed that he/she was crazy. At the end of the day, history is fundamentally unpredictable, and the human intellect will always fail to grasp the inscrutable ways of Fate.
In any case, why are people still talking about Jesus? For me, this fascination can be partially explained by the cryptic ways Jesus spoke about God and about himself that often make him seem like an unknowable enigma to people who study his life. Unlike the historical Buddha, who used precise technical language to describe his subtle mystical experiences (If Eskimos have 100 words for snow, Vedic religions have 1,000 words for meditation experiences), Jesus used simple metaphors that were profound, but that can be interpreted in countless ways as a result of their fundamental imprecision. This fact has made Christianity almost endlessly malleable, producing hundreds of conflicting denominations which all use the same texts to justify their beliefs.
For instance, one of Jesus’ central teachings is his almost constant emphasis on “The Kingdom of God.” What did Jesus mean by this? Many evangelical sects teach that Jesus was referring to a realm in the afterlife that only his devotees will be admitted to; more socially conscious preachers have taught that the Kingdom of God is a movement that will create an era of socioeconomic equality on the earth; more mystical interpretations argue that the Kingdom of God is a state of spiritual illumination similar to the Buddha’s Nirvana.
Jesus himself, in his characteristically secretive fashion, gives us little definitive information on the matter. Like a good Zen master, in various scriptures he ambiguously describes the Kingdom of God as a “Priceless pearl,” “A mustard seed,” “A farmer sowing seed,” and “Yeast hidden in bread.” When I read the gospels, I can almost feel Jesus smiling at the absurd inevitability of his future fame, and thinking to himself with secretive satisfaction, “They will try, but they will never figure me out!”
Based on my own study and inner experiences in meditation, here are some of my thoughts on what Jesus meant by the Kingdom of God:
The Kingdom of God is Within You
When talking about “The Kingdom of God,” was Jesus preaching a complicated theology to be “believed in,” or expressing inner mystical experiences in metaphorical language? Historically speaking, most listeners in Jesus’ time would have guessed something entirely different from these two purely spiritual interpretations. In his own time, the “Kingdom of God” was a loaded word that was both theological and political. At that time, Israel was occupied by the brutal and seemingly unbeatable Roman Empire. Most Jews awaited a Messiah, an “Anointed One” from the line of the warrior-king David, who would liberate them from Roman oppression just as David liberated their ancestors from the Philistines. It was almost universally understood by Jews that the Messiah would usher in the “Kingdom of God” by driving out the Kingdom of Rome, or whatever pagan tyrants happened to be in the Holy Land at the time of his coming. Jesus’ conspicuous failure to physically liberate the Jewish people from the Roman Empire is one of the primary reasons why many Jews today still do not recognize him as the awaited Messiah, and why his movement was so marginal in the immediate centuries following his horrific death.
Jesus was undoubtedly aware of the militaristic implications of “The Kingdom of God” in a Roman occupied Israel that was at a boiling point of inevitable political rebellion. Yet in spite of the unavoidable risk of misinterpretation, Jesus attempted to explain that the Kingdom of God was an inner spiritual reality rather than an outward political movement. For instance, one translation from Luke 17 reads:
Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.”
In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, Jesus also explains that,
“The kingdom is within you, and IT is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that you are sons of the Living Father.”
In saying that the Kingdom of God cannot be outwardly “observed,” Jesus was subtly denying to the Pharisees that he intends, as Messiah, to militarily defeat the Roman Empire. To me, he was also implying that his teachings are not describing the afterlife, but rather pointing to our own True Nature (or, Christ-Consciousness) right now in this very body. Christianity’s often one sided emphasis on the afterlife has hijacked Jesus’ teachings and obscured their original, revolutionary implications about the nature of human consciousness. For the Kingdom of God is not a theological doctrine, nor an outer political utopia, nor a realm in the afterlife, but rather a spiritual Reality within you at this very moment.
The actual experience of Christ-Consciousness in meditation transcends the dichotomy of Knower and known, object and Experiencer. As Jesus implied to Thomas, anyone who experientially realizes this becomes a “Son of the Living Father,” or a manifestation of the Absolute who is One with the Absolute. Jesus the man became Jesus the “Christ” because he realized that the deathless Christ-Awareness within himself was his own True Nature, thereby permanently destroying the spiritual enemy of ignorance that keeps us bound as long as we falsely believe that we are separate from the Divine.
Jesus forever transcended the boundaries of traditional religion when he realized, “I and the Father are One,” proclaiming in Jewish “jive” the truth that the Source of all things is our own True Nature. Like the Upanishadic sages who proclaimed in ancient India that “I am That (Brahman),” Jesus experienced that there is no division between God and the world. The Mahayna Buddhist scriptures also teach that Nirvana (the True Reality) and Samsara (the world of suffering) are one and the same. To experientially realize this Truth through spiritual practice is to enter the Kingdom of God within yourself in this very moment. Right now, what is seeing out of your eyes? If you truly realized that the Father/Brahman/Buddha Nature is That which sees and hears and tastes and smells and pretends to be your ego on the stage of the world, you would become a fully naturalized citizen in the Kingdom of God, and belly laugh with all the awakened masters of the past at the absurd idea that you and God have ever been separate.
Anyone who meditates deeply and realizes that “I and the Father are One” leaves behinds the boring school of religion, and enters the Graduation of Boundless Realization. They leave the sterile Kingdom of Religion to enter the inexpressibly blissful Kingdom of God-Consciousness expressing Itself in this very moment as the Universe. Jesus is whispering through the ages, “Oh my misguided church, leave the school, and enter the Graduation! Leave the “water” of worldly pleasures and drink the Eternal Wine of the Deathless Bridegroom, the Christ-Consciousness within you that is Joy Itself!” This Oneness with the Divine, contrary to traditional Christian teaching, is not the exclusive property of Jesus, but is the birthright of every human being, for all of us have the potential to realize exactly what Jesus realized within himself! Just as Buddha taught that every human being is a potentially fully awakened Buddha, so Jesus taught that every human is a potential fully awakened Christ, just as he was.
Graduating from Religion by Realizing Its Goal
At the end of the day, Jesus was an awakened master and cannot be limited to a specific religion. Although Jesus was Jewish in a human sense, and consequently channeled his universal teachings through the medium of his own culture, Jesus cannot be limited to Judaism any more than the Buddha can be limited to Buddhism, or Krishna to Hinduism. All three men, through rigorous spiritual practice, realized the nature of Reality, and expressed this realization in terms their cultural kinsmen could digest. If only the churches of the world would stop being so attached to Jesus’ specific vocabulary, and seek through meditation the inner truths he is symbolically describing! Then they themselves would become awakened Christs or “Sons of the Living Father,” thus fulfilling the purpose of Jesus’ mission which is only actualized in the spiritual awakening of his disciples.
The churches of the world, if they hope to survive through the continued spiritual evolution of the human race, must also begin to acknowledge that Jesus’ teachings exist in harmony with other religious traditions, like Zen Buddhism for instance. A famous Zen master, when asked by a student what the Buddha is, said that the Buddha is, “Not mind, not Buddha, and not things.” In other words, It is not something that can be “observed,” since the One observing, and what It is observing, are not two. Mind cannot experience “Buddha,” for ordinary mind and Buddha are one and the same. Similarly, Jesus could not “observe” the Kingdom of God because It was indistinguishable from his own natural Awareness. One cannot say of the Buddha, “Here It is,” or “There it is,” for by doing so we create the very duality that separates us from realization, the Simplest Fact of all!
Mystical traditions of Judaism, like Kabballah, have been teaching this nondual perspective for centuries. Even in the traditional Torah, God famously tells Moses that “no man can see Me and live.” To me, this verse is not talking about physical bodies “seeing” a physical “god” and consequently dying. Rather, the verse points to the truth that to experience God is, by definition, ego death. In Realization/The Kingdom of God, the ego is seen as an illusion, and God is realized as the Only Existing Reality. No one can thus “observe” or “see” God and live, for only God can experience God. You are not a human seeking God, but rather God pretending to have a human experience. As the great Avatar Ramakrishna puts it, “A salt doll dives into the ocean,” but when asked what the ocean is like, there is no doll that remains to describe the Merging. The Ocean alone knows the Ocean and “the Way seeks the Way,” as the famous Zen master Dogen put it.
Moses never pierced through the duality of God and devotee, for the Torah metaphorically says that Moses saw God’s “back” (or manifestation), but never his True Essence. Jesus, by contrast, experientially realized the Kingdom of God-Consciousness within himself, and embodied this realization through his exemplary life and service to humankind. For this reason, he was honored by God with the high title of Messiah, and thus represents symbolically the fulfillment of traditional Judaism, just as, for Buddhists, the image of the fully enlightened Buddha represents the culmination of all spiritual practice. All specific paths to God like Judaism culminate, and are fulfilled, in experiential God-Realization or Enlightenment. The Hindu rishis teach that when the Fruit of Enlightenment comes, the flower of the path drops away. Similarly, when Christ-Mind reveals Itself to Itself, the symbols and rituals of organized religion have served their purpose and are no longer necessary. The Apostle Paul (that ridiculous enigma!) perhaps expressed this mystical idea by proclaiming the heretical view that, “Christ is the end of the Law.”
God-Realization/Enlightenment simply cannot be explained or described, and is only realize-able for those who wholeheartedly dedicate themselves to the spiritual path. Is it any wonder then that Jesus, an uneducated peasant, had difficulty explaining himself to people in his own time? Again and again, he used strange metaphors to describe his experience of the Kingdom of God-Consciousness, saying that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, like yeast rolled into dough, or like a camel entering the eye of a needle. Such sayings remind me of Zen koans that absurdly describe enlightenment as “A cypress tree in the garden,” or “The sound of one hand clapping.” In the future, I believe Christians will study the sayings of Jesus in the same way that Zen Buddhists study koans – not as frozen theological pronouncements, but as doorways into This Very Moment where God is manifesting Itself as whatever you happen to be experiencing.
Where most Christians go wrong is trying to understand Jesus’ teachings with the human intellect alone. When Jesus was in the desert for 40 days, he was not memorizing Bible verses, but was probably practicing something similar to sense deprivation or meditation. As I point out in my book, you would understand more about the Kingdom of God by meditating for one day, and weeping for God to Himself to you, than by spending a whole lifetime memorizing the Buddhist Sutras or the Bible. Don’t be fooled and think you can reach God-Consciousness by skipping meditation practice, and by merely regurgitating the scriptures like a parrot!
Conclusion: From Metaphor to Reality
In today’s world, people must begin to see religions as paths to God and not the final goal. They are the menu and not the Food, the treasure map and not the Treasure, the description and not the Experience. Awakened masters like Jesus always use culturally specific language to describe their mystical experiences. As a Jew teaching other Jews, Jesus borrowed terminology from the Torah like “the Kingdom of God” to point people to higher levels of spiritual awareness. Just as many Jews of Jesus’ day missed his point by assuming that he was talking about a political kingdom, so many Christians miss it today by limiting Jesus to their own invented theological frameworks that promote narrow mindedness, and often belittle other religions that are expressing the same truths in different ways.
As an enlightened teacher, Jesus was not attempting to convert the world to his unique way of expressing spirituality. No teacher wants their students to mindlessly imitate their own style, or spend all their time propagating their teacher’s greatness without actually practicing the teachings. Jesus was a blissful candle lit by his own awakening of the omnipresent Christ-Awareness/Buddha-Nature, and desired that his disciples would become lit by the same Flame within themselves. Once you realize that “The Kingdom of God is within you,” how will you express this wondrous Reality through your own service to the human race? What will you do when you realize that you and the Father are One, and that the Kingdom of God has always been closer to you than your own self, hidden and yet the most obvious Fact of all, incapable of being lost, incapable of being gained, not joyful but Joy Itself, not loving but Love Itself, the goal of life, the Source of all things, ever present in this very moment, waiting to be revealed in the hearts of all?
Thanks for reading,
- Re-interpreting Jesus 1: Beyond Religion (The Law and the Prophets)
- A Bumbling Okie’s Brief Thoughts on the Kingdom of Heaven
- Jesus as Koan: The Zen Perspective
- Lessons from the Gita 3: God Realization – The End of Religion
- A Bumbling Okie’s Brief and Shameless Ramblings On Easter
- Thoughts on Matthew 6: 33
- God’s Forgiveness
- Merry Christmas from Bodhgaya!