If one were to ask for a list of the most influential and sacred scriptures regarding the Divine and its self-realization by mankind, I’m sure a number of different responses would be offered. But I am also sure that three sacred texts from three different world religions would be at the top of that list; the Gospel of John (Christian), the Bhagavad Gita (Hindu), and the Prajnaparamita-hrdaya (The Heart Sutra of Buddhism). All three texts are masterpieces of mystical philosophy and illuminate the core tenants of each religious system. For the serious disciple, all three are found to reveal the exact same spiritual message, one what Aldous Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy. However, each text also shares the characteristic of being very hard to understand by a untutored layperson. Yeshua used the phrase, “for those with ears to hear…” to draw attention to a particularly important, yet difficult, deep teaching.
The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh sums up this situation in his latest book, “The Other Shore” where he teaches and comments on The Heart Sutra.
“In the mountains of Vietnam, there are caves where many thousands of birds make their nests. In the early morning, the birds fly out to look for food to bring back for their young. Sometimes the mouth of the cave is obscured by a passing cloud and the birds cannot find their way home. Only when the bright light of the sun melts away the clouds can the birds see clearly the entrance to the cave and come home. In our lives there are things that seem to block our way, causing confusion and preventing us from finding our true home. Not only obstacles and suffering cause us to lose our way; sometimes the most profound teachings can mislead us if we do not understand them correctly. We know that words can be misleading, and that the deepest insights into the nature of reality are beyond the reach of language, and yet, out of compassion, teachers over many generations have done their best to make skillful use of words to guide us…”
“The older I get the more deeply I believe, but the less beliefs I have.”
“God is ultimate. Christianity is not.” — Bishop John Shelby Spong
So why does an Episcopalian Bishop make statements like those above? Because he understands the nature of the mystical experience to reveal a personal revelation of God. He is no longer a slave to the limiting and sometimes misleading dogma and creeds of organized religion. That being said, “What is a mystic?” This is a vital point for everyone to understand, so let me attempt to explain mysticism via a modern parable.
The Way Up the Mountain of God
Once there was a man who wanted to truly understand God and learn the nature of reality; the answers to important life questions such as, “Who am I?” and “What am I here for?” So he went to a great university where a holy monk told him that he had to climb The Mountain Of God. So the man studied all the sacred texts about the mountain, he memorized all the charts and maps of the mountain that were in the great library. When he finished his studies he prided himself on the extent of his acquired knowledge of the mountain, and yet his questions remained unanswered.
So he went back to the monk who sadly shakes his head and says, “The map is not the territory, go climb the mountain!” So the man abandons all his academic knowledge and joins a religious group whose leader promises him a vehicle that will climb the mountain, the church’s Volkswagen minibus complete with flower-power decals. The man is thrilled, he can climb the mountain with his many church friends in the minibus. On the way up the mountain they see many strange and wonderful sights. They talk about what they see, have heated theological discussions, sing songs together, and pray. But when they get to the mountain top, although they’ve had a meaningful and stimulating trip, there are still no answers to the great questions.
Finding the holy monk again, the man relates his disappoint and frustration. At which point the monk now smiles and says, “Walk barefoot!!” The man quickly starts out walking up the mountain only to discover that this is hard work and not much fun. He feels every stone and crack on the hot road. He is exposed to all the elements, he smells every scent, hears every sound, tastes the dust and grit of the road, and feels the rain and heat. He is sunburned, windburned, and grunts with exertion as he climbs the steep road. But when he gets to the top, lo, he is enlightened!! He understands the answers because of his walk up the mountain!! His journey illuminated the answers he was seeking.
On his way down he meets the church minibus with a new load of church pilgrims who beg him for the secret of his understanding. The man has no words to describe his revelation, so he smiles and says, “Be passerby!!”
A mystic is someone who personally and directly experiences the Divine. Few can help the mystic on his journey, it is an exercise of the self-realization of God. Yeshua relates this path of the disciple in the second logion of the Gospel of Thomas.
Yeshua said, Let the seeker keep on seeking until he finds, and when he finds, he will experience the awe of God, and in that consciousness he will ascend, and he will share Sovereignty with God over all things.
The journey of the mystic is an interior, singular endeavor and it requires a great deal of commitment on the part of the disciple. While spiritual teachers and friends can help, the path is a narrow one that is mostly walked alone.
There are mystics in all the worlds religions. Eastern religions tend to have more than Western religions. Mystics tend to not play well with others or be understood by them. Most Christian mystics were not well received by the organized church during their lifetimes. Some were made saints, but many were murdered as heretics. Ironically, almost all of these martyred mystics’ teachings were later re-discovered and venerated by the church.
Now to the message of the Gospel of John!! It was written by a Jewish mystic trying to relate the human/Divine union through the totally inadequate medium of words, myth, and dialogue.
The Gospel of John is a poetic guidebook for the spiritual union of God and man through the agency of the mystical Christ figure. It is profoundly Jewish to the point of being easily misunderstood by modern Christians. John IS NOT relating a historical narrative. The stories are deeply metaphorical and most likely never happened as described. The Gospel of John is like the musical Godspell. No one believes the literal narrative of the play actually happened or the words/songs actually were spoken/sung by Yeshua and the disciples. Yet people leave the play uplifted and with a better understanding of Yeshua’s teachings. Like John’s Gospel, Godspell’s author was Jewish! Lastly, John’s Gospel is neither linear in its presentation of ideas, nor can it be better understood by the use of logic or reason. Don’t even try to go there, you’ll be back with the people on the minibus!
So the first thing you need to do before you will understand the Gospel of John is to temporarily put aside all Christian doctrines and creeds. Every creed developed in church history appears to have been created primarily to minimize the Christ experience by forcing that experience into time-bound and time-warped human words. Creeds, by definition, are always divisive vehicles. By this I mean that creeds are ecclesiastical attempts to draw the theological lines so firmly in the sand that it becomes easy to determine who is in and who is out, who are the “orthodox” believers and who are the “heretics.”.
We need to retire the theistic definition of God and start moving away from an understanding of God as “a being” to an understanding of God as “Being itself,” Now the Christ of John’s gospel suddenly becomes, not a visitor from another realm, but a person in whom a new God consciousness had emerged. Now, seen from that new perspective, the claim of oneness with the Father is not incarnation language, but mystical language of union with the Godhead. Such Johannine statements as, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” as well as the “I AM” sayings by which John’s gospel has Christ claim the name of God for himself, all became provocative new doorways into what this gospel might actually mean. The Johannine concept of “God” comes remarkably close to the Jewish kabalistic concept of the Ein Sof, the pregnant creative “nothing that is everything”.
While John’s gospel is not linear in its narrative story, it does have has four basic sections thematically. Possibly written by different authors at different times.
- The Prologue (Chapter 1) – Christ as the Logos
- The Book of Signs (Chapters 2 -11)
- The Farewell Discourses (Chapters 12- 17)
- The Crucifixion and Resurrection (Chapters 18 – 21)
One cannot be mystical in one’s approach to God and still be literal about the symbols one uses for God. Indeed the very idea of the mystical means that words cannot capture it. Mysticism expands words beyond their normal limits and calls the mystic into the ultimate experience of wordlessness. The best that words can do is to point beyond themselves to a new reality that words can never contain or even describe. Most Christians, in my experience, are fundamentalists, but they draw the literal line at different places. John’s gospel, I believe, challenges literalism on every point and invites the reader into a radical, strictly non-literal encounter with the Christ. This gospel sees in Yeshua both an invitation into and a doorway through which we can walk into a new spiritual dimension of what it means to be in human/Divine union. Escaping the prison of literal thinking is a necessary step in that process.
John’s gospel is not about God becoming human, about God putting on flesh and masquerading as a human being; it is about the divine that is incarnate in all humanity and calling that humanity into a new understanding of what that divinity means. It is about bringing God out of the sky and redefining God as the ultimate dimension. It is about seeing the Christ as the doorway into a new consciousness, which is also a doorway into Godhead.
In John’s gospel Yeshua’s journey of Divine self-realization is portrayed not only as a journey beyond literalism, but also as a journey beyond scripture, beyond creed, beyond doctrine and beyond religion itself. It will be a journey into life at a higher level of consciousness, into a permeating reality for which we have traditionally used the word “God” as a symbol.
By Jeffrey L. Taylor