Read this: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34
I want to tell you a story. But one that comes from outside my tradition. One that I have added on to, but a parable that began as a way to distinguish a difference between Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist perspectives on how to approach life. For us to consider Joseph and his brothers, I feel like we have to begin with a different journey through the desert.
Picture four figures making their way across a barren wasteland. I like to imagine it like Thunderclap, but that’s just me. The Sahara works as well. Picture them with sand-cut skin; lips cracked and bleeding from dehydration; the last twenty miles have been covered without a break because stopping means certain death. Then, on the horizon, appears a vast wall. A wall that even Donald Trump would admit is a better wall than he could build. Even their exhausted minds can comprehend that a wall means that there’s something to protect.
Something is being kept in so others will stay out.
The first of their number quickens the pace and arrives at the wall first. Energized by possibilities, they make their way up. Looking over, the solitary figure lets out a geshreeyeh and disappears from view. Two of the remaining three look at one and another and break into a run. Scaling the wall quickly, they let out their own
and jumped over. The final sojourner makes their way to the wall, slowly scales the face to the top, and looks over. There are lush, thick grasses for sleeping; trees bent with the weight of fruits; a cool pool of water fed by a bubbling creek; a hot spring on the other end with steam rising, all shaded by the canopy of lush trees. Smiling, the traveler removes the cloak, wads it up, and positions it under their head as they lie atop the wall.
The other three, their tattered rags already shed so that they could dive into the pool before liberating the trees of a few of their fruits, pause long enough to notice their comrade. One calls up, “Friend! Are you not going to come in? It is paradise at last!”
The fourth turns to face them, smiles, and says: “No, friends. I am going to stay up here to see if anyone else comes along. If they do, I can shout encouragement to them and assure them that paradise awaits.” Turning away, the lone scout look out into the distance, scanning the horizon for sojourners making their way across the wasteland.
The three who enter the oasis are Arhats. They are enlightened beings who, in this world, assist others. But when they encounter nirvana, they jump. The idea is that there are some things one can do only on one’s own. The fourth who stays on the wall is a Bodhisattva. Upon encountering nirvana, they willfully reincarnate so as to help others. They delay their own encounter with parinibbana, “final nirvana,” to be of service to others.*
I used to think that one was clearly superior to the other. For me, it is all about the Bodhisattva approach; I’m not claiming to be enlightened–certainly not in the Buddhist sense of the word–but I do have a life philosophy that is largely based upon a desire to serve others. But I have learned, sometimes through great pain, that there are some things we just cannot do for someone else. Or ask others to do for us. It’s like the Woody Guthrie song: “You’ve got walk that lonesome valley; you’ve gotta walk it by yourself; there ain’t nobody go there for you; you’ve got to walk it for yourself.” In truth, we really need to be both. Arhats and Bodhisattvas.
That’s the name of my Beastie Boys tribute band.
The parable, for how awesome it is, still does not account for everything that we must consider. Even if we unpack the metaphors, make allegorical the analogies, and plumb the subtext, we still don’t deal with a fundamental reality. The sun and wind and sand that rip upon our bodies might represents out expectations, childhood, and the force of culture, and the lack of water might signify the absence of worldly truth, but nothing in the parable lends itself to the greatest source of all pain.
Jean-Paul Sartre writes in No Exit that hell is other people. Perhaps, but there are people and then there’s family. Don’t get me wrong, I love my quirky little family. I have lucked out with the whole genetic lottery thing, at least in terms of quality relationships and people. But let’s be honest. No one can hurt us quite like family, right? My dearly departed brother Stephen, of blessed memory, could cut me to the quick faster than anyone else on the planet. And I could do the same thing to him.
Brothers throw each other into the cistern. It’s what we as humans do, especially when we’re young. Especially when we think that whole of life is made from being self-serving. Of having a twisted vision of what it means to be an Arhat. That we’re just in this for ourselves. So we act like Joseph’s brothers. We let our jealousy and misunderstanding and coveting fuel our behavior.
Before we bash the brothers, let’s be honest: Joseph is a bit of a snot. I mean, it is one thing to have a dream about ruling over your older siblings; most of us who are younger have had such fantasies. It is totally another thing to tell your brothers, “Y’all gonna be worshiping me like a king!” I know from experience, older brothers do not take kindly to such talk. Granted, planning to kill Joseph is a little over the top; luckily Reuben and Judah calm down a bit, but I think we all can agree that deciding to sell your brother into slavery should never really be a viable option. I mean, just as a family dynamic to have at play, I don’t think you’ll have really strong, trusting relationships result.
Let’s agree that there were mistakes made on all sides.
Honestly, though, I don’t have any interest in explicating the rest of the story. Because I don’t think as a society we have earned it. Not now. Not where we’re at with race relations, gun violence, policing issues, and notions of what it means to be patriotic. We don’t get to jump over the hard parts and get to the forgiveness. We’re not there because there are far too many Josephs still in the cistern. That’s where I want to stop and throw down some roots. We’ve gotta live here before we can even think about a beloved reunion.
The cistern is filled with far too many Josephs. Black and Brown and Queer and Native and poor Josephs. We throw our brothers, our sisters, our siblings into the cistern because we’re afraid that someone might throw us in there is we don’t act fast. And maybe our cisterns aren’t the same. But we’re there. Once in the cistern, though, we listen to what is yelled from above: “It’s the fault of those in there with you that you are there in the first place,” they convince us. So we fight amongst ourselves.
Have gun will travel is the call of a man.
There are too many American Arhats in the cistern. Too many who mistake money for wisdom, and societal success for an authentic life. Too many people clinging to their guns and their religion instead of to love and to community.
Too many who think that if they can just get out of the cistern that they will be happy.
We need more Bodhisattvas. More people willing to sacrifice in order to help others.
It’s like Arnold says in his poem. Take the damn knee. You know, in football, taking a knee resets the play clock, but the game clock keeps running. Across the NFL today massive numbers of players will be taking knees during the playing of the national anthem. The symbolism is potent. Palpable. As a nation, we need to take a knee. We need to say that we’re not going to keep playing the same game. We are not going to keep doing what we have been doing, not while there are people in the cistern. Not while there are people being shot and killed by the police; not while there is inadequate training and support for our police officers; not while firms like Halliburton continue to make millions, and 22 veterans a day commit suicide; not while thousands of First Nation persons try to protest their water and land; not while trans* persons continue to be targeted and victimized; not while there is the largest prisoner strike in American history not being covered by the media; not while Muslims are being attacked in the streets simply because of their faith tradition.
Take the damn knee.
*Please use the links provided to do your own research; I am greatly simplifying incredibly complex issues, and certainly do not want to misrepresent Buddhist beliefs and concepts by not pointing out the very loose definitions I am setting forth to make a larger point. I know that I took great, great liberties with the use of these terms, but I do so with this understanding: we may not all be Buddhists, but we all are potential Buddhas. The concepts of the Arhats and Bodhisattvas, better than anything in my own tradition, helped me to connect images and stories. Again, sincere apologies to anyone who might be offended or feel I am appropriating. Feel free to comment or send me an email: firstname.lastname@example.org