by Roger Mock
From the beginning of December of last year through this past Sunday, May 20, we observed and celebrated in our own way the birth, teachings, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus the Christ, culminating in the outpouring of the Christ Spirit on his followers at Pentecost. At Unity we loosely follow this “greatest story ever told” that has been handed down to us in the Gospels. More traditional Christian churches such as Catholicism, Lutheranism and Episcopalianism follow a prescribed series of readings that lay out the whole story week by week for this five or six month period.
Well, the Buddhists do this too with the story of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, but there’s a not-so-slight difference: they do it all in one day. Vesak (also known as Buddha Day or sometimes Buddha’s Birthday, though that’s a bit of a misnomer) is the most important feast of the Buddhist year. It commemorates the birth, awakening, and passing away of the Buddha and is celebrated on the full moon of the month of vesākha in the Buddhist calendar which falls in the April-May period. This year Vesak falls on this coming Tuesday, May 29. Adherents try to observe the instructions of the Buddha himself who stressed that the way to pay homage to him was not merely by offering flowers, incense, and lights, but by truly and sincerely striving to follow his teachings, which are encompassed in the Four Noble Truths and the Eight Fold Path of right living.
In preparing our OneSong service for Sunday, May 27, I was struck by the similarities between a passage from the Buddhist scriptures, or sutras, and passages from the Gospels of John and Matthew.
From the Lotus Sutra 5:
“I am the Tathagata (one rooted in the Truth), the Buddha, the World-honored One. Those who have not yet been saved, I cause to be saved; those who have not yet been set free, to be set free; those who have not yet been comforted, to be comforted; those who have not yet obtained Nirvana, to obtain Nirvana. I know the present world and the world to come as they really are. I am the Knower of the Way, the Opener of the Way, Come to me.”
From John 14 and Matthew 11:
“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.”
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Both of these great Masters have opened a way for us to go where they have gone and have bid us to come to them, to follow their steps. In Buddhist terms, both are Bodhisattvas who have tasted of the Eternal and have returned to teach and lead the rest of humanity, knowing that there is no true completion until all have entered into that Realm. Is there a conflict, given Jesus’ statement, “No one come to the Father but through me?” For me there is not. Both have become the Way, the Truth and the Life in the experience that one faith calls enlightenment and the other calls Christhood. I know this viewpoint will never jive with those of a more dogmatic bent on either side, but for me Buddha Mind and Christ Mind are one and the same.
The Buddhists say that they “take refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha”—the enlightened Being, enlightened teachings and enlightened community. These they call the Three Jewels. In the same way I can say that I take refuge in Jesus and in his teachings, as well as in the community of those who gather to break open those teachings and who attempt to live them with each other’s help. As an interfaith minister, I also take refuge in that wider Sangha—the community of Wisdom carriers of many faiths and traditions.
The Divine Presence makes its home within every heart who invites it in. Well, really, it’s already present; a sacred altar within the soul that we must learn to approach and recognize as the seat of the Holy, our truest Home. We are invited in, yes, but to our own deepest Selves. Until we truly, wholeheartedly cross that threshold, the illusion of separation from the Divine holds sway to one degree or another. That is the burden that the Christ bids us to lay down at his feet, and that is the source of what the Buddha called dukkha, or the suffering of this world. Both Masters call us to cross that threshold.
Both also offer a Way to lead us there, both paths of right living and selfless service. And both promise a final outcome of great portent:
“Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” -John 11.26
“Those who have sufficient faith in me, sufficient love for me, are all headed for heaven or beyond.” -Majjhima Kikaya 22.47
It is for each of us to choose the path that works for us, but in the end there is only one path. A Course in Miracles says that it is but one version of “many thousands” of versions of a universal curriculum.
There is a song that we will sing for our observance of Vesak this Sunday that says it all for me. It’s a setting of a poem of the 15th century Indian mystic Kabir by Snatam Kaur. The refrain:
Oh my Soul, you come and you go
Through the paths of time and space.
In useless play you’ll not find the way
So set your course and go.
I’m doing my best, however faltering, to be on my path. I’m sure you are doing the same. And you know what? We need each other. We need the community of fellow journeyers. Thank you for being my Sangha.
Love and light,