Dying Ego, Living Self


Christianity and Buddhism have many crossovers; Thich Nhat Hahn has explored them well in his twin books Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. A growing number of Christians find themselves incorporating Buddhist principles into their own Christian praxis. Purists will find this unacceptable; those on the outside might accuse us of cultural appropriation; but a larger number of people understand that both religious systems aim to orientatate the practitioner away from impermanent, constructed illusions and toward the true source of permanence. While this may not be the most nuanced explanation of both traditions, it holds true: Jesus and Siddhartha both saw the ways in which cultural forces can keep people in cycles of pain, suffering, and despair, whereas a dedicated change in perspective can help one see Truth. 

Both Christianity and Buddhism instruct us on how attachment to impermanence leads to desire that produces suffering. We want to change our circumstances (for a wide variety of reasons), and act without thinking of ramifications; we mistake the part for the whole; we assert a manufactured sense of self (likes, dislikes, desires, fears, hopes) as though it is permanent, and when we feel it is damaged, we lash out to avenge the hurt. The language used in both traditions may be different, but the underlying message is shared: you are not who you think you are, and that false you is the enemy.

This means that the dedicated religious life involves hours of reflection, meditation, study, and prayer. Who am I? The ideas in my head? The desires and aspirations I pursue? The feelings I have or relationships I establish? Why do my emotions arise in such a way that they trigger a desire to act in manners that might be destructive? Counterproductive. Painful. In pursuit of relationships and community, do I do so so that I can be praised? Am I asserting my will on others in ways that decrease their autonomy or impinge upon their personhood? Do I elevate myself, engaging in puffery? The work is real, yo. 

And it continues. Last night in discussing 2 Corinthians with the wonderful Bible study group I lead at the church, we were talking about what it means to be confident in Christ. Paul encourages the people in Corinth to understand that they can undertake any sufferings (for those sufferings connect us to the sufferings of Jesus) and be filled with confidence (not because of their own deeds but rather as a result of grace through faith) because they know that all things come from God. But Paul also understood that such wisdom is not achieved by simply declaring Jesus Christ as Savior. It is not magic. Paul wrote about the Christian life as requiring maturity; in order for us to grow up spiritually and to put away childish things, we have to think about what it means to be clothed in Christ. Jesus told us that we cannot serve God and Mammon; Paul tells us we cannot serve ourselves and Jesus. As Jesus declared himself a slave to humanity, so we must declare ourselves slaves for God. And what does God want us to do? To serve others. To love justice. To walk humbly on the path.

I find it hard to quell my ego sometimes. I’ll be specific: I think credentials matter. Education matters. There are reasons for why I underwent the training I did, and will continue to further my knowledge and skills. I find myself citing credentials with a startling regularity, and I often wonder if it arises from ego. I feel disrespected, especially when people with little to no formal training begin espousing opinions which are not based in any real understanding of the issues at hand, or act as though an unlearned opinion is equally valid simply because it is arrived upon earnestly. I feel pulled between a desire to affirm people where they are and a desire to stop the perpetuation of a culture that no longer recognizes expertise. It is especially tricky being a person responsible for spiritual life; disagreements that might occur in another context take on extra weight when spirituality and faith are involved. This is a real struggle for me.

Trying to eliminate ego does not mean that feelings are no longer hurt, or disappointment is no longer experienced. It means that the emotions can be experienced and understood differently, but the sting and discomfort remain. I have no desire to remove myself from human experience, but I do want to increase my patience and compassion, slow down my reactions, consider situations from different perspectives, and always to have compassion and love as motivators. Dying ego, living self. 

“‘What’s this? A new kind of teaching backed by authority?’: Mark 1:21-28”

The Purpose of Exorcism Stories

A central theme of Mark’s gospel is the question of Jesus’ authority. As we shall see, Jesus’ opponents—along with his own followers—frequently wonder from where he derives his power. The listener/reader of the gospel knows that it comes directly from God (this is the primary purpose of Mark 1:1-3). However, in the story world, many do not have this information and, as a result, Jesus comes into conflict with various groups of people.

It is important to note that Jesus’ power is demonstrated first by the content of his teaching. The people are amazed by his words (v. 22), then by his words and deeds (v. 27), in this case an exorcism. Exorcisms are a common element in Mark’s gospel (5:1-20; 7:24-30; 9:14-29), and generally follow a predictable pattern: Jesus encounters the afflicted person, who has been overtaken by a demon (v. 23); there is a verbal exchange between the two parties (vv.24-25). resulting in an exorcizing action by Jesus; and the demon departs, vanquished by Jesus’ divine authority, leaving the previously afflicted person healed (v. 26). While a simple story type, exorcisms allow the Markan author to explore and develop several central themes.

One, Jesus is locked in a spiritual battle with the forces of evil. The demons recognize Jesus primarily because of Jesus’ altercation with Satan (recounted in Mark 1:12-13). While Mark’s gospel does not go into great detail concerning the content of the original encounter with Satan, three primary details are developed: A) Jesus remains in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, recalling Israel’s wandering for forty years as a result of the people’s rebelling against God; here, Jesus stands as a new Israel, propelled into the wilderness so as to stun the forces of evil and allowing him to bring the message of God to an afflicted people; B) The wild beasts and angels minister to Jesus; in this way, the heavens and the natural world pay homage to Jesus, who has divine authority and has been anointed by God as both Son and Christ; Jesus stands as a new Adam (a point first developed by Paul in I Corinthians 15:45-49), a new form of humanity that represents salvation rather than alienation from God; and C) We know from the encounter in the wilderness that Satan—literally, “the adversary”—is stunned; while he is not defeated completely, he has lost the current fight; as a result, Satan’s minions—the demons and evil spirits—recognize him (v. 24).

Two, while Jesus has complete control over the evil spirits, he does not have control over human beings; therefore, turning to Jesus involves a choice, a volitional action. The people witness the power of Jesus’ words (v. 22) and deeds (v.27), and news about him begins to spread (v. 28). All the evil spirits know who Jesus is as a result of Satan’s momentary defeat, but the people do not. We will want to pay attention to how people respond to Jesus, all the while asking the same question to ourselves.

Three, Jesus does not appeal directly to the power of God. He does not invoke God’s name, an element we normally might expect in an exorcism story. Again, this shows that, for Mark, Jesus’ exorcisms are not merely performed for their own sake. The exorcisms highlight that Jesus has an authority not shared by others. How we are to understand this authority, though, remains to be seen. What should command our attention now is the setting in which the exorcism occurs: a Sabbath synagogue service in Capernaum. Biblically and historically, we know very little about Capernaum. It seems to be Jesus’ home turf, as it were, since he calls Simon and Andrew (1:16), as well as James and John (1:21) from in or around Capernaum, and in 2:1 Mark describes Jesus as being “at home” In Capernaum. The town itself—which archeologists maintain was populated by no more than 1500 people who mainly made their living from the fishing industry—lay between the territories of Philip the Tetrarch and Herod Antipas, two sons of the despotic Herod the Great.[1] That Jesus enters into a synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath day is not surprising; the distance between Capernaum and Jerusalem is around ninety miles as the crow flies, so weekly worship at the Temple would be impossible. Besides, it is symbolic that Jesus begins on the periphery of the empire. He starts on the outskirts, both in terms of geography and the nature of the people whom he calls (tax collectors, sinners, etc). Jesus violates the expected norms that are upheld in the synagogue and the Temple. He violates the strictures concerning clean and unclean, Jew and Gentile, male and female. And as we shall see, a good number of people question on what authority Jesus does these things.

In the end, what this pericope represents in a thematic prolepsis (flash-forward) to the whole of Mark’s gospel. What Jesus says and does represents a challenge to the status quo. Jesus will amaze people in both word and deed, but while he is understood by the demons, he will not be understood by most people, including his own disciples. Mark is able to reach out from the page and grab the reader by the metaphorical lapels, inquiring, Do you know who Jesus is, and will you follow him, even to the cross?

Siddhartha Goes to the Bodhi Tree

When we last left Siddhartha, he was abandoning the tutelage of Ālāra Kālāma. As we rejoin him, Siddhartha has his five followers in tow and joins another teacher, who is unable to satisfy the pressing questions that still gnaw away at him. Siddhartha begins to wonder if purely ascetic practice will lead to liberation from desire (tanha; thirst) and suffering (dukka). As many forest-dwelling monks believed that ascetic practices would burn off negative karma, Siddhartha dedicates himself to these pursuits. During this time he travels nude, sleeps on spikes, eats his own urine and feces, holds his breath until he almost suffers an aneurysm, and dwindles down to such a size that when he attempts to touch his stomach he feels his own spine. Yet, according to Siddhartha, he still feels the clamors of desire; his body still yearns for attention and he is more aware of himself than ever. Frustrated, he gives up ascetic practices as fruitless toward realizing the Ultimate Truth.

What if the Self that is so sacred to Hindus is part of the egotism that one must abolish in order to enter into Nothingness? Feeling that the traditional ways toward enlightenment have failed him, Siddhartha declares, “Surely, there must be another way!” What emerges is the Middle Way, a definitive aspect of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Siddhartha, acting on his own authority, changes the traditional methods used to pursue Enlightenment. The five prohibitions forbid “unhelpful” (akusala) activities: lying, stealing, violence, intoxication, and sex. However, Siddhartha believes that one must go further and cultivate the opposites; true Enlightenment cannot be achieved through simple avoidance; one must also engage in positive practice. He therefore transforms the yama(prohibitions) into kusala (wholesome states).

The Five yama:

  1. Do not lie
  2. Do not steal
  3. Practice ahimsā (harmlessness, nonviolence)
  4. Avoid intoxicants
  5. No sexual activity

 

Siddhartha’s wholesome (kusala) states:

  1. Engage in “right talk,” and be certain everything one says is “reasoned, accurate, clear and beneficial.”
  2. Receive alms, whatever they are, with gratitude and positivity.
  3. Cultivate thoughts of loving kindness to counter any violent inclinations
  4. Be vigilant about what one puts into the body
  5. Avoid lustful thoughts

 

 

Siddhartha realizes that exposing the body to extreme ascetic practices is fruitless, and that one should work with human nature rather than fight against it. Having lived a life of sensual pleasure in the palace, as well as a life of extreme denial, he knows that neither work. As a result, his “Middle Way” arises from experience, but flies in the face of traditional Hindu beliefs.

He asks two village women, Gamo and Gatopma, to bring him kummāsa, what the sacred text Majjhima Nikāya (part of the Theravadan Pitaka) describes as “a soothing milky junket” or rice pudding. According to some traditions, this is what his stepmother made for him when he was a child, and he had been craving it for some time. Upon taking solid food, Siddhartha is abandoned by his five companions, who fear that by eschewing the ascetic lifestyle, he has abandoned the pursuit of Enlightenment. After finishing the meal, Siddhartha throws the dish in the river saying, “If I am to become a buddha today, may this dish float upstream.”  The dish floats upstream and disappears into a whirlpool, “descending down to the palace of a serpent king, where it landed on top of the dishes used by the previous buddhas, making a clicking sound.”[2] Siddhartha then journeys to “an agreeable plot of land, a pleasant grove, a sparkling river with delightful and smooth banks, and, nearby, a village whose inhabitants would feed him.”[3]

He sits down under a bodhi  (enlightenment) tree, vowing not to move until he has attained nirvāna (Nibbana), extinction of the self that leads to Enlightenment.  The god of desire, Māra, attacks Siddhartha with nine storms and the forces of ignorance, anger, and lust. He remains unmoved. Māra then sends his three daughters, Lust, Thirst, and Discontent. The women take on a variety of forms to tempt Siddhartha, but to no avail. Finally, Māra, challenges Siddhartha’s right to occupy the space under the tree; Māra says that it belongs to him.

The prince, seated in the meditative posture, stretched out his right hand and touched the earth [known as the bhumi-akramana position], asking the goddess of the earth to confirm that a great gift that he had made as Prince Vessantara in his previous life had won him the right to sit beneath the tree. She assented with a tremor, and Māra withdrew.[4]

No longer facing temptation from the forces of evil, Siddhartha is able to begin his final path toward Enlightenment.

Commentary

There are some shared elements that command our attention. Both Siddhartha and Jesus face an opponent. For Jesus, it is Satan, the “adversary,” whose minions are spirits that possess people, taking over their lives. How easy is it for us to see that these spirits are all around? The spirits of addiction and selfishness, of violence and greed? The spirits of indolence and apathy, indifference and anger? These can possess us, can cause us to thrash about in our own lives, not seeing the ways in which we are thrown off balance. Just as Siddhartha is attacked by Māra’s nine storms and the forces of lust, thirst, and discontentment, Jesus enters into a world similarly ruled. Yet, these men were able to rise above these temptations, focused on the spiritual goals for which they were destined.

We should also see that both Siddhartha and Jesus face issues of authority. Siddhartha leaves two teachers; he has five of his own followers abandon him because they do not understand how he can forsake tradition. Jesus, too, encounters those who seem flummoxed by who he is, what he does, and the manner in which he teaches. He is misunderstood, seen as a threat.

Finally, Siddhartha and Jesus both are led to a tree, and in so doing change the course of human religious history. Siddhartha sits under the Bodhi Tree and brings into the world a new way of escaping the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara). Jesus goes to the cross for having spoken truth to power, and in so doing sets the stage for the radical transformation of God’s covenant with human beings. As we continue to walk with Siddhartha—who is soon to transform into the Buddha—and Jesus, we will pay close attention to the ways in which they act on their own authority, but in so doing extend compassion, love, and hope to all who are open to the call.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] For a full discussion of the Herodian family, see Mark 6:14-29.

[2] Lopez, 39.

[3] Majihima Nikāya 100

[4] Lopez, 40.

Christian-Buddhist Commentary on the Gospel of Mark

For Liturgical Year B, I will be attempting to write a commentary for each Markan text that appears in a given week. This, of course, is a gargantuan task and may be impossible (pronounces ala Ralphie’s Dad in A Christmas Story, im-po-see-blay). Yet, I intrepidly set out to bridge the gap between Christianity and Buddhism, and hope to identify cross currents between these two beautiful traditions. I write as a religious Christian and a philosophical Buddhist, a nebulous distinction that reflects a need to label myself, a most un-Buddhist endeavor. I invite all to read and comment, especially those who are practicing Buddhists. I readily admit that, while widely and deeply read in Buddhism–in fact, I teach Buddhism at the university level–I am not a practicing Buddhist. I am attempting to be a Christian Thich Nhat Hanh, in that I begin in my own tradition by identifying shared traditions, beliefs, and theologies that I see present in Buddhism.

In truth, this may be destined for failure as such a project has inherent limitations. I am treating Buddhism as a whole, drawing from a wide variety of traditions, while focusing exclusively on the Gospel of Mark. I do this not to be disrespectful–I want to value the varied, rich tradition of Buddhism–but I would argue that Hahn does the same thing in his works Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. He roots himself in Buddhism, for that is where his spirit lives, and treats Christianity as an overall whole. I find this approach beneficial in some regards, but limiting in others. However, if I were to wait to be equally knowledgeable about both traditions, this project would never launch.

I invite well-meaning criticism and input, especially if you see that I am not doing justice to Buddhist ideas and principles. Let’s challenge each other–respectfully, but earnestly–to go beyond labels and to seek the Truth that is out there.

Yeah. I just made an X-Files reference.

I am excited about this project, and I hope that you will come along with me.

Blessings,

Aaron

Jesus the Proclaimer, or Jesus the Proclaimed? (Mark 1:4 – 11)

Introduction

The Gospel of Mark opens with neither nativity nor noetic, but rather with a voice crying out to the world: “Here is my messenger, whom I send on ahead of you to prepare your way. A voice of someone shouting in the desert, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”[1] And so begins a primary conflict within Christianity: Is the gospel about Jesus the proclaimer, or Jesus the proclaimed? Is Christian truth to be found through the words of Jesus, who made the imminent Kingdom of God the center of his message, one that reaches deep into the vibrant salvation history of Israel; or is Christianity rather expressed by the experiences of the first generation of Christians, who saw Jesus raised and understood this to be evidence of a new covenant?

In the Gospel of Mark, we see evidence for both positions.

The first thing to establish is that the author of Mark makes an error. The passage quoted in 1:2b-3 (known as the “epigram” of Mark) combines language from both Malachi 3:1—“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming, says the Lord of hosts”—and Isaiah 40:3—“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”[2] Despite this error, we know that something spectacular is occurring, an event that is reminiscent of God’s sending Moses to proclaim the covenant to the newly-freed Hebrews: “’Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is him.’”[3] In the words of Bob Dylan, “Something is happening here/but you don’t know what it is/do you, Mr. Jones?”

The listener/reader[4]—and most importantly, the Markan Community—does know that something is going on, because we have been informed in v. 1 (known as the “title” of Mark) that there is good news (evangeliou) about Jesus the Anointed (Jesou Christou) contained in the story. It will be up to us to establish what these terms mean (i.e., what is the “gospel,” and what does it mean for Jesus to be an “Anointed One”?). Some manuscripts add the tag “Son of God” (uiou Theou) after “Anointed,” further complicating the investigation, but one thing is clear: This is no ordinary story, and listening to the details will have important and life-changing ramifications.

As we begin our journey, we should always keep in mind that, at the heart of Mark’s Gospel, there is a central question: Who is this Jesus?

Who is this Jesus?

As we shall see, throughout Mark’s gospel there are questions as to Jesus’ identity. In the main, there are three primary options: Jesus is John the Baptizer raised; Jesus is Elijah; or Jesus is one of the prophets (most likely, Moses). Clearly, Jesus cannot be John the Baptizer raised, for in the opening verses Jesus and John come into contact with one another. However, themes are established: John’s manner of dress—a mantle of camel hair and a leather belt around his waist—is the same as that of Elijah the Tishbite.[5]Yet, we cannot get off so easily, understanding only John to be Elijah, for the Tishbite, too, underwent a journey of forty days and forty nights without eating or drinking, so as to prepare himself for battle with the priests and priestesses of Baal and Ashterah, Canaanite fertility deities. Jesus has such an experience in 1:12-13. The author of Mark is using central theological symbols to signal the importance of both John the Baptizer and of Jesus. But what do these symbols mean?

Elijah the Tishbite

Elijah the Tishbite is a 9th century B.C.E. prophet who lived in Gilead, most likely an area that had retained a good deal of religious purity in the face of rampant syncretism, or integration of other traditions into cultic worship. At the time of his ministry, the throne of Israel is held by a man named Ahab, whose wife Jezebel is an adherent of Phoenician fertility deities. While Ahab seems to remain loyal to YHWH—for all of Ahab’s sons are named after the Jewish God—he is not only tolerant of other religions, but he also allows Jezebel to support her prophets out of the Temple treasury (1 Kings 18:19). This proves to be a bridge too far for Elijah. He storms into the court of the king and announces an impending drought, caused by God and meant to bring about the repentance of Ahab and larger Israel, who are engaged in apostasy. Elijah proclaims YHWH the God of All Things—specifically, the God of Life—and issues a direct challenge to the supposed purview of the Baal and Ashterah, that of fertility. As drought and pestilence spread across the land, Ahab becomes more desperate. Finally, he allows for a confrontation on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and Jezebel’s prophets, acting as surrogates for their respective deities. 1 Kings 18, in essence, records a divine playground fight. My God is better than your god, this narrative proclaims. The superior deity will be the one who will make it rain fire. Elijah, greatly outnumbered (450 to 1), mocks the prophets, who dance and wail, beseeching their deities to bring down fire. Elijah is highly entertained by this; he wonders if Baal has “gone aside,” a euphemism for taking a pee, and taunts the prophets until they fall to the ground in exhaustion. Then, Elijah arises, performs a sacrifice, confesses faith in God, and has some of those people present drench the altar with water. When it is flooded, Elijah asks God to bring about fire, which God does. Elijah then slaughters the prophets of Baal and Ashterah. Jezebel is enraged, and vows to kill Elijah, which sets up Elijah’s period of flight for forty days and forty nights, marking him as a new Moses (see below). Finally, God delivers Elijah from the wrath of Jezebel by sending a whirlwind—along with a chariot of fire and horses—and taking Elijah, still alive, into the heavens. According to Jewish belief (Malachi 4:5-6), Elijah is to appear before the Day of Yahweh, a time when God’s kingdom will be established and evil will be defeated definitively. Elijah’s role is to be one of reconciliation (Malachi 4:6) and, at least according to Sirach 48:10, to bring about the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. [6]

As we shall see, Elijah plays an important role in the Gospel of Mark; he even makes an appearance in Mark 9:2-13. Thematically, however, Elijah poses an interesting quandary. We can see him as a portent of promise, a prophet proclaiming the good work of God through Christ. Yet, we cannot ignore the troublesome aspects of the Elijah story: the ridicule, disdain, and destruction of non-Jewish prophets. As stated in the introduction, the purpose of the present commentary is to foster dialogue, to emphasize the commonalities between two of the world’s great Wisdom traditions. What then do we do with Elijah?

Moses

The secret to interpreting Elijah may come through the lens of Moses, the first and, arguably, greatest of all the prophets. The word prophet properly means “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson,” so Moses represents the ability of human beings to receive and communicate divine revelations. Under the leadership of Moses, the Hebrew people are liberated from the shackles of slavery and led into freedom; the Jewish story is one of deliverance from oppression. Indeed, each one of us experiences this (or the possibility of it) every moment of our lives. We can be delivered from the oppression of ignorance, sin, greed, hatred, selfishness, and into the promised land of community, fellowship, and commonality. With Moses, God starts again with the people, promising them an unbreakable covenant relationship.

Perhaps that is how we can see Elijah: a man who experiences God intimately, and despite forty days and nights of sustenance-free wandering, is never bereft of God. Elijah, who is rescued from the murderous rage of Jezebel, represents the freedom from fear and death we can experience when in relationship with God. When we have confidence in the Lord, we can prevail, even when greatly outnumbered.

In truth, Elijah is a difficult figure. For the Markan community, he most likely is used to symbol the coming of the eschaton (end times). As we will discuss later, the Markan community is wrong concerning the timing of the Parousia, or second coming, but we cannot dismiss the presence of Elijah in the narrative. It is also entirely possible that the figure of Elijah is used to highlight the denseness—even idiocy—of those around Jesus (and perhaps within the Markan community itself). Without question, Elijah is important to Mark’s gospel, so he must be important to responsible interpretations.

John the Baptizer

John is remembered for his act of baptism. The act of ritual cleansing was already a constituent part of Judaism by the time John began his ministry. God commanded that Moses bring his brother Aaron—considered the first High Priest—and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting for a ritual bath.[7] Other books in the Torah also contain proscriptions concerning ritual cleansing.[8]During the time of John the Baptizer, “ritual cleansing was instituted for the purification of gentile converts to Judaism.”[9]But the opening of Mark seems to indicate that John is baptizing Jews—people come from the Judean countryside and from the city of Jerusalem—and that he connects the act to a “change of heart that leads to the forgiveness of sins.” In Greek, the word metanao is translated as “repent” or “change of heart.” On a deeper level, “repent” means to “return,” much as the people of Israel return to God under the leadership of Moses. Here, we see John the Baptizer initiating a ceremony that will allow people to return to God. He baptizes them in the Jordan River, the very body of water the people cross under the leadership of Joshua in order to claim the land of Canaan, which had been given to them by God.[10]The return, symbolically, to the sight of deliverance for their ancestors, entering into the cleansing waters of covenantal redemption. They return to God in spirit, body, and mind.

There are other signs of covenant present as well. After Jesus is baptized by John, the spirit descends on him like a dove.[11]We are reminded how God creates in Genesis 1:1-5, sweeping over the waters and bringing order out of chaos; we are reminded, too, of God sending the bird to Noah as a sign of a new covenant in Genesis 8:8-12. Here, Jesus functions as a symbol of a new creation, a new model for humanity, a new paradigm for reconciliation. God says to Jesus: “You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you.” For the Markan listener/reader, there is a definitive answer to the question, “Who is this Jesus?”He is God’s son. But, again, we must ask: What does this mean?

The Significance of Baptism

Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Traditions, and Protestants disagree somewhat on the timing and purpose of baptism, but there is no doubting that it holds a central position in Christian faith life. In the main, we do it because Jesus did it. It marks the beginning of his ministry in the world, and for most of us baptism indicates the beginning of our walk with God through Christ. For Paul, baptism initiates us into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which allows us to assume new identities in the person of Jesus.[12] We die and are born again, as it were. As to whether this was John the Baptizer’s understanding, we can never know. It seems clear to me, however, that John saw the act as one of reconciling wholeness, an external symbol that the fracturing of the individual life has ended by inclusion into a larger human family, one that has God as the pater familias (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:4-6). Baptism shows us that there are no solitary Christians; Jesus undergoes baptism and then, after forty days and nights of battling the Adversary, he enters into the world to proclaim the coming kingdom. So, too, are we who undergo baptism called to enter into the world as disciples of God. We are connected to all those who have been baptized before us, to those who are still living, and to those who will be baptized in the future. In baptism one dies to selfishness, and is given the largest family possible: the entire human race (Galatians 3:28). At baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that descends at Pentecost (Acts 2); the same Paraclete that seals us (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14) to God. We are new creations, just as Jesus is the new Adam (Romans 5:18-21).[13]

Some might object that this is too broad and ecumenical an understanding of baptism, but in the coming posts I will show that Jesus, especially in Mark’s gospel, does not discriminate concerning whom he will serve: Lepers, sinners, hemorrhaging women, Gentiles, tax collectors: all make the cut. Why? Because Jesus stresses the commonalities of humanity as being divinely-mandated, whereas the differences so often stressed by mortals are manufactured by human beings.

The Dharma River

A foundational idea in Buddhism is that all life is dukkha, which often is translated as “suffering,” but better means that things are “awry” or “unsatisfactory.” We attach to impermanent things, such as a false sense of “self,” and, as a result, we suffer. Believing there to be a concretized “I,” we become prideful, lashing out in violence and ignorance when we perceive that the “I” has been insulted. In Buddhism, ignorance is mistaking the part for the whole. Imagine this: Man number one is speaking to a friend for 45 minutes; let’s call the friend man number two. A great deal of information is exchanged, and they bandy about a good number of ideas before a third friend sidles up to the pair just as man number one says, “Well, I guess my brother is just not a good sibling in that regard.” That third friend tells his wife about this statement, who then tells her sister, who just so happens to be the cousin of the first man’s hairdresser, who is the best friend of the first man’s brother. The brother, upon hearing the gossip, calls up his sibling and begins yelling, cursing, and denouncing him, believing that he has grasped the “reality” of the situation. Dukkha.

The second noble truth of is samudaya, that we continuously create our own suffering. We enter into a cycle of behavior in which we are attracted, disappointed, and then repulsed. We try to extricate ourselves from situations, most often through duplicity and selfishness. For example, imagine a party. A woman has gone out after a hard week of work. She is looking to unwind when, across the room, she sees the man of her dreams. He is physically attractive, and to her delight he is wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of her favorite band and is thumbing through a copy of her favorite novel. Their eyes meet, and the world stops. An introduction leads to conversation that leads to supper that leads to a goodnight kiss. The angels sing; the world stops, as if they are the only two inhabitants. Fast forward three months: after returning home from work, the woman finds that her paramour, who is unemployed, has slept all day, eaten her food, and has left the apartment strewn with beer cans and dirty underclothing. The same book he had been thumbing through months before lays unread on the side of the couch with a video-game controller on top of it. She wants out. They fight, call one another names, accuse each other of the most horrible moral lapses known to humanity. The relationship over, the woman decides to go out to relax. Upon entering a restaurant, she sees the man of her dreams…

This is what we do, according to the Buddha. We engage in a never-ending cycle that creates suffering because we are attached to that which is impermanent, that which is fleeting. The good news, however, is that there is a way out. This is the Third Noble Truth: nirodha. There is a cessation of dukkha, which can be achieved, in part, by following the Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth (magga). In the coming months, we will examine these beliefs in more detail as they pertain to the Gospel of Mark, but for now suffice it to say, this is the heart of Buddhism: One can end one’s suffering.

In Buddhism, the word dharma (dhamma) means “teaching.” Adherents enter into the dharma river, the river of teaching. While there are many interpretations regarding the river—it can be a metaphor for life, rather than teaching; it can represent tradition or community—one thing is clear; a person is fundamentally changed from the point of entry to the point of departure. In one interpretation of the dharma river, a person must build a raft to get from one shore to another. The shore of entry is that of dukkha; the shore of arrival is that of enlightenment, or nibbana. When on the other shore, a person does not place the raft on his or her back and then continue to walk. No. A person sets the raft aside, as it is no longer necessary for the journey. That raft is the Four Noble Truths. They can get one to the other side, but they are not enlightenment in and of themselves.

So what has this to do with Christianity and the Gospel of Mark? Jesus enters into the water, marking himself for his ministry. He is initiated into the divine plan, signaling his willingness to go where God directs him. He leaves behind that which he had done before, and embarks upon his divine mission. And, as we shall see, Jesus is driven into the wilderness before entering into the world. Baptism marks us, yes. But it is not the good news. We do not carry the river with us; we do not remain forever wet with the water of our baptism. We leave our old selves behind; we die to a life of selfishness, injustice, and lack of compassion. The dove descends upon us, propelling us forward to enter into relationship.

We go into the world to proclaim the good news.

The question then becomes, what does that mean? Both for Mark, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians? Such is the challenge that lies before us as we go with Jesus from the river to the cross.


[1] Scholar’s Version (SV) Translation

[2] Revised Standard Version (RSV) Translation

[3] Exodus 23;20-1.

[4] Please see “An Introduction to a Progressive Commentary; Assumptions Amidst Gumption.”

[5] 2 Kings 1:8.

[6] Readers are encouraged to reference the Elijah cycle (1 Kings 17-19, 21; 2 Kings 1:1-2:18).

[7] Exodus 29:4; more elaborate instructions are mentioned in Exodus 30:17-21.

[8] Leviticus 17:15-16; Deuteronomy 21:6.

[9] “Baptism.” Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.Ed. David Noel Freedman.

[10] Joshua 3:1

[11] It is important to note that the Markan Greek is very clear; an actual dove does not appear, but rather the spirit acting like a dove.

[12] Romans 6:1-11; Galatians 3:27-29

[13] For an outstanding yet encapsulated discussion of baptism, see Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 288-295.