Jesus as Koan: The Zen Perspective


-A rendering of Jesus in deep meditation.  In my opinion, the future of Christianity must be informed by the more experiential religions of the East if it is to remain relevant.



Jesus, Jesus Jesus….  Try as I might, I have never been able to escape this foreign name whose omnipresence in our society is, to me, an object of fascination.  Imagine giving an alien a tour through present day America and walking around a Midwestern city.  Inevitably the alien would ask, “What is this strange T-shape that adorns so many buildings and the necklaces of so many people?”  You would then answer, “It is an ancient device used to torture people to death that is a symbol of hope and transformation for billions of people on Earth.  It refers to a Jewish carpenter’s son who lived in Israel 2,000 years ago whom they claim was God Incarnate.”  What would the alien think about this?  Do we never stop to think about the strange uniqueness of the largest religion in the world? What a fascinating state of affairs!

This strange T-shape has dominated my spiritual life since childhood.  I was born in a Jewish family and converted to Christianity as a child.  I went to Catholic schools and non-denominational churches, and even have been the full time director of a Presbyterian ministry.  I can frequently be seen reading the Bible, and even have pictures of Jesus in my bedroom.  To the outside observer I might be labeled a Christian, but I do not consider myself one since I view all religions as equally valid paths to the Divine.

In high school I became disinterested in religion until I started practicing Zen meditation and ultimately went to live at a Zen monastery.  Ironically, my practice and study of Zen re-opened me to appreciating the original teachings of Jesus, now viewed from a new angle.  There is really no right or wrong angle, for there are many ways to understand the multifaceted life of Jesus and of religion in general.  In a previous post I examined Jesus’ death and resurrection from the Jungian perspective of an archetypal symbol, for instance.

In this post I am going to explore how the sayings of Jesus can be viewed from the perspective of the the Zen koan tradition. I hope to show that many of the sayings of Jesus can be approached the same way Zen students approach the Zen koan.  His sayings should be viewed as statements pointing to an awakened state of mind to be realized experientially, not as dogmatic edicts to be received with blind faith.  Jesus was not, as many Christian theologians have absurdly misinterpreted, God’s sole representative in the world for all of time to come.  Rather, to me, he was an awakened human being who taught about God and Enlightenment in the context of his Jewish environment in the 1st century.  He used various metaphors that people in his historical context were familiar with, but ultimately he was teaching about ineffable universal truths that other religions also symbolically express.

There are many levels to Jesus’ teachings.  Like the Buddha, Jesus advocated a code of ethics and other practical advice for the average person.  He also taught devotional and dualistic teachings that express an intimate relationship with the Personal God (the “Our Father,” for instance).  But many of his higher teachings describe states of consciousness that are more difficult to express and, in my opinion, can really only be approached as koans.  In this post I will use some examples from the Zen koan tradition to show the similarities between it and the traditional sayings of Jesus.  This post only scratches the surface of this complex interrelation, and is only a brief and modest attempt to show how viewing Jesus’ sayings as koans is, to me, the future of how his teachings will be understood en masse.

What is a Zen Koan?

A Zen koan is a short saying or story that is often paradoxical and difficult to understand, and is used as a tool to go deeper in meditation.  To practice with a koan in meditation one does not try to intellectually “get” the meaning of the koan, but rather experiences the state of mind (beyond words) that the koan is pointing to.  One then demonstrates this experiential understanding to a teacher, especially in the Rinzai tradition of Japanese Zen. Koans have been used for hundreds of years as potent meditation tools, and the most famous collection of koans is called the Mumonkan and was compiled by Mumon in 13th century China.

One cannot practice with a koan in the traditional sense without working with a Zen teacher who assigns it.  Yet the koan tradition’s formal elements are less relevant than its unique view of human spirituality itself. For the koan is merely a “finger pointing to the moon” beyond itself, a springboard into a direct mystical experience that the words merely hint at.  In fact, when historical students of Zen would present their koan to a teacher with mere intellect they were sometimes literally smacked or rudely shouted at to remind them that the koan is not separate from their very life!

In my opinion, the experiential koan approach is the future of how the average Christian will someday relate to the paradoxical sayings of Jesus.  Most Christians now view Jesus as the only incarnation of God for all of time to come. Yet if we view his statements as koans, Jesus is a merely human being who attained a state of awakened Christ-Consciousness or spiritual enlightenment.  His expressions of his awakened state of mind are often paradoxical and difficult to grasp, which is par for the course in the koan tradition. The point of his cryptic expressions are not to assert his own spiritual superiority but rather to help us realize exactly what he realized and become Christs ourselves.

“The Way, the Truth, and the Life.” – Jesus and Joshu Compared

There are many examples of Zen koans being very similar to a saying of Jesus, but here is a comparison I find particularly fascinating.  If you talk to an evangelical Christian long enough about religion they will most likely quote you John 14:6 in which Jesus says, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life:  no man comes to the Father but by me.” The reason evangelicals quote this verse so much is that it is the only time in the Bible Jesus seemingly claims to be the sole representative of God.  Yet, when viewed from the perspective of koan, this saying merely points to his awakened mind-state.  Jesus was so enlightened that he did not identify with his personal body and mind, but realized his identity as the eternal Christ-Mind that is our own True Nature.  He could thus speak from the perspective of the Christ-Mind (or Buddha Mind, if you wish) and say that Absolute Awakening (the Father) can only be experienced by attaining complete identification with Christ Consciousness, i.e. “except by me.”

A famous Zen koan in the Blue Cliff Record is eerily similar, and here is a rendering of it: “One day a monk asked Joshu: “It is said that the Great Way is not difficult; it only avoids picking and choosing. Now, what is not picking and choosing?” Joshu said, “I alone am holy throughout heaven and earth.” The monk responded, “That is still picking and choosing.” And Joshu said: “You country bumpkin! Where’s the picking and choosing?” The monk was speechless.

If we were to interpret this fascinating koan in the traditional Christian way, we might say that Joshu was personally claiming to be the sole representative of the Divine on Earth.  Is Joshu alone the “only way to God,” since he “alone is holy throughout heaven and earth?”  Perhaps there is a parallel universe where centuries of Buddhist theologians misinterpreted Joshu and claimed he was part of the Buddhist trinity:  in the name of Joshu, the Buddha Nature, and the Holy Spirit.  In this universe middle-aged soccer moms wear images of Joshu around their necks and preachers tell their congregations that Joshu is “the only way to the Buddha Nature” and that everyone who doesn’t accept this will be punished forever in hell. In that universe Joshu is worshipped by billions of people who believe he is the sole expression of divine perfection.  How interpretively presumptuous that would be, and how out of touch with the meaning of his original statement!

Zen Buddhists fortunately understand that Joshu is not claiming to be the ultimate teacher of humanity but rather expressing his awakened state of mind.  Joshu realized himself as the One Mind that alone exists.  Therefore, like Jesus, he could in all honesty speak from the perspective of that One Mind and say that he truly was the only Holy One in heaven and Earth.  Joshu did not mean, however, that he was the only expression of the Holy One.  Jesus similarly, in my opinion, never meant that he was the sole embodiment of the Christ Consciousness, but was merely expressing his own unique experience of It.

When will we stop obsessing so much about what Jesus the man said and did and become Christs ourselves?  To approach the words of Jesus as koan, we must stop asking “what does this saying mean about Jesus and ask, “what is the state of mind this saying is pointing to?”  If we delve deeply into meditation we can see for ourselves that we too are inseparably one with the nameless Christ Consciousness that is indeed “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

The Entrance Gate to Christ-hood:  Mu and John 10:30  

In Zen there are hundreds of koans but some take on more historical and spiritual significance than others.  An example of this is the famous koan “Mu,” which is probably by far the most assigned koan in the world.  In this koan Joshu is asked if a dog has the Buddha Nature and answers “Mu,” which is often translated as “no” but a form of no that implies absolute negation.  One must present the teacher with an answer to “What is Mu,” or “What is the state of mind Mu is pointing to?” In his famous commentary Mumon writes of Mu: “For the pursuit of Zen, you must pass through the barriers (gates) set up by the Zen masters. To attain his mysterious awareness one must completely uproot all the normal workings of one’s mind. If you do not pass through the barriers, nor uproot the normal workings of your mind, whatever you do and whatever you think is a tangle of ghost. Now what are the barriers? This one word “Mu” is the sole barrier. This is why it is called the Gateless Gate of Zen. The one who passes through this barrier shall meet with Joshu face to face and also see with the same eyes, hear with the same ears and walk together in the long train of the patriarchs. Wouldn’t that be pleasant?”

If the paradoxical sayings of Jesus are ever compiled into a format similar to the Mumonkan, in my opinion a single koan will become “the gateless gate” to becoming a Christ.  This koan is John 10:30 where Jesus says, “I and the Father are One.”  There is a fascinating dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders leading up to this statement, and this you can read for yourself. Yet the spiritual meat and potatoes of the chapter, and even arguably of the entire Bible, is contained in this one powerful statement.

For me, this statement is the “entrance gate” to the mind of Jesus partially because it reveals his revolutionary spirit.  Take a moment to appreciate that Jesus was a Jew, and as a Jew in his era this statement was utterly revolutionary.  As a practicing Jew Jesus filled many roles that people were familiar with through their knowledge of the Old Testament.  Jesus, for instance, was a travelling rabbi who allegedly performed miracles and claimed to be a prophet, and in this sense he was a new but somewhat unoriginal repetition of what had been done before by Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Elisha, etc.  Nothing Jesus did in his life on Earth was without precedent in the Old Testament: Elijah was credited with raising the dead, and Elisha miraculously provided food for thousands of people and also healed lepers.  There was one thing, however, which no prophet, rabbi, or probably any Jew before him had ever dared to do:  he publicly claimed equality with God. According to the Torah, anyone who did this should be stoned to death!  What courage was displayed by his willingness to express his profound awakening publicly, especially to people who he knew would misunderstand him and actively persecute him.

Jesus, through spiritual practice and the grace of God, realized that he himself was one with God and thereby transcended traditional Judaism. As a human being he was a practicing Jew but realized that his True Nature was one with the Eternal God he referred to metaphorically as Father.  He therefore became the Christ not because he was more important than other people or possessed something they did not posses, but because his spiritual realization was deeper.  Jesus the Jewish man became the eternal Christ, and we ourselves all have the capacity to attain that same freedom through meditation that culminates in spiritual realization.

To me, this koan of Jesus is the “gateless gate” to the oneness that is Christ-hood. To practice with this koan is not to think about it, but to use it as a way to explore our own experience in meditation:  if you and the Father are indeed one, that means that the Father is seeing out of your eyes, feeling your breath in meditation, and hearing with your ears in this moment.  It means that your very life is the life of God!  If we do not experience the truth of this koan we will never understand Jesus or the essence of his teachings.  It is indeed wonderful to worship the Personal God, to practice charity, to emulate the sacrificial lifestyle of Jesus, and to try to be a good person by keeping the great Jewish commandment to “love our neighbor as our self.”  Striving to be a good person is a necessary foundation but is not the goal of the spiritual path. I believe that to experience Christ requires ethical living, service to humanity, meditation, and God’s grace.  But ultimately we must realize that we ourselves are That which we worship.  We are all expressions of God with unique individuality, but our True Nature is one with God Itself

John 10:30 is the entrance gate into the mind of Jesus, and the only way its meaning can be penetrated is through deep meditation that transcends the ego.  Mumon said that, “The one who passes through this barrier (of Mu) shall meet with Joshu face to face and also see with the same eyes, hear with the same ears and walk together in the long train of the patriarchs.”  The one who passes through the barrier of John 10:30 shall similarly see “face to face” and “with the same eyes” as Jesus himself, become a Christ, and realize that we ourselves posses the exact same spiritual treasure his words merely point to.

The Central Theological Error

To view Jesus’ sayings as koans we must learn to separate his words from centuries of collective misinterpretation.  Throughout the ages there have been thousands of well-intentioned theologians who misinterpreted the sayings of Jesus.  They read things like “I and the Father are One” in the Bible and saw that they had never experienced that state of mind. So instead of taking the view that they needed to go deeper in their own spiritual lives to grasp it they postulated the false hypothesis that Jesus was somehow metaphysically different.  We are not one with God, they thought, but Jesus said he was; therefore, they thought, he must be part of the Trinity to explain his paradoxical statements.  The Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are on level 2.  Humanity and everything else is on level 1 and can worship level 2 but really never get to that level.  How fundamentally disappointing to be excluded from such an illustrious club!  Jesus got there, but, by definition, we never can…

The intellectual gymnastics of the theologians are impressive as literary works but are almost spiritually useless when it comes to actually experiencing Jesus’ state of mind.  Taking the traditional view that Jesus has greater access to God than everyone else robs us of our birthright to God-Bliss and defeats the whole purpose of his mission on Earth!  By viewing Jesus as the only person who can experience God fully, it follows that we ourselves can never do so but can only cheer Jesus on like cheerleaders on the sidelines.  We can be in Jesus’s fan club, but we can never really have what he had.

As Paul the Apostle said in Romans 8:29 Jesus was, “the first-born among many brothers,” meaning that his mission is only fulfilled if we ourselves experience the Christ-Mind.  The theological exaltation of Jesus the man into the Godhead, leaving everyone else behind, was the central theological error that turned the ingenious sayings of an awakened master into a religion based on duality.  Yet though deep meditation and the grace of God we ourselves can re-awaken the original spirit of Christ-inanity by seeing the Christ not as a man who lived 2000 years ago, but as our own most intimate and fundamental Awareness present in this very moment.

Conclusion: The Second Coming of Christ is Fulfilled in our own Awakening 

The summer after my first year in high school I fortuitously found a book called, “The Second Coming of Christ Within You” by Paramanhansa Yogananda.  Yogananda, a meditation master and influential author in the 20th century, created an extensive commentary on the gospels from the Eastern perspective.  In the introduction he makes a clear distinction between Jesus the man and Jesus the Christ, a distinction which was mind blowing to me at the time.  Jesus the man realized the Christ-Consciousness and saw that he was one with God.  Jesus the man is dead and will not be returning.  Yogananda taught that the real meaning of the Second Coming is that Jesus’ mission on Earth is only fulfilled when we too become awakened Christs ourselves.

We are in the age of the Second Coming, and a growing number of Christians are dissatisfied with what traditional Christianity has to offer.  And in my opinion, viewing Jesus’ sayings as koans is the future of Christianity.  For the current form of Christianity that divides the world in two- into Christian and non-Christian- is simply not sustainable.  Any thinking person can look around and see that if God intended there to be one correct religion He didn’t do a very good job.  Yet the future of Christianity is not a discarding but a reinterpretation of the priceless teachings of the great spiritual master Jesus.  And the Zen koan tradition, in my opinion, provides an excellent framework for where to begin.

May the mission of Jesus be fulfilled when all humanity experiences the eternally blissful Christ-Consciousness right now pretending to be everyone!  Can I get an AMEN!  With Love,



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