I suppose it’s only fitting that what I intended to be a 500 word exploration of path as metaphor has now become three parts (does reality imitate metaphor, or metaphor imitate reality?). Once you start walking down a path, you realize how many branches it has! The branches that I take might not necessarily be the ones that you would take; there are endless ways in which we can understood and interpreted paths.
And here, as with all metaphors, interpretation is key. If we don’t take the time to think things through and interpret them for ourselves, then somebody else will.
This is the situation that a majority of today’s so-called religious people are in. It takes more time and effort (not to mention education) to arrive at your own conclusions.
Recently, I’ve been reading a book called Beyond Belief, which explores the differences between gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. There were dozens of gospels (NB: gospel literally means “good news”) in circulation in the centuries following Jesus’ death. For reasons as much political as theological, certain gospels were deemed ‘orthodox’ (lit: straight thinking) while others were branded as heretical.
Relevant for the discussion of path is the fact that John’s gospel wasn’t put on the list of “naughty books.” In it, we find the very famous line ““I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6).
This image of Jesus as “The Way” has exerted great influence in Christian thinking. If you want to get to “the Father” then you’d better follow Jesus’ path (NB: father is a metaphor which I’ll explore in later weeks). It seems rather clear and unequivocal here that you really don’t have a choice. It’s not surprising that this is the line of choice for many exclusivist Christians seeking to prove that they have a monopoly on Truth.
For me, I find the exclusivist interpretations in John’s gospel to be off putting. I’m not comfortable with any human being (Christian or otherwise) insisting that there is only one true path that must be walked in a certain way.
I’m even more uncomfortable with the idea that the “way to the Father” requires one to believe certain assertions (ie. Jesus was the son of God). This leads to absurd conclusions: one could lead a life of completely contrary to Jesus’ teachings, and could be “saved” as long as s/he “believes” what they’re” supposed” to.
We see a very different emphasis in the Gospel of Thomas, a text that circulated with the other gospels, but was eventually banned (see here for more info on the gnostic gospels).
“The Kingdom is inside you, and outside you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will be known, and you will see that it is you who are the children of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty, and it is you who are that poverty.”
Notice here that Jesus does not categorize human beings into groups who believe and those who don’t. Like the Buddhist notion that all beings have Buddha nature, Jesus indicates that we all partake of the divine nature. He has already come to this realization, and is setting an example so that others may see it as well.
The Way is what leads you to discover what you already are.
Each individual must make his/her own journey to this divine/enlightened reality within themselves. Although there are certain core principles (avoid killing, lying, etc.), there is no one-size-fits-all path.
This is why in the gnostic gospels, Jesus does not offer specific instructions (a point which lead the philosopher Plotinus to exclaim, “they are always saying to us ‘Look to God!’ but they do not tell us where or how to look.”)
The important thing is that the path you’re walking gets you to a place of love and compassion (remember Hafiz’s line about the training wheels we must put on to teach us how “to live with veracity and love”).
If devotion to Jesus gets you there, great. If sitting in silence examining your mind gets you there, great. If being the best parent/spouse/child/friend gets you there, great.
The Buddha likens his teachings to a raft that one must leave behind once on the other shore (something the Jesus in the gnostic gospels would certainly agree with). Similarly, we use a path to get somewhere, but once there, we don’t cling to it and insist that others must follow our lead.
At the end of the day, no matter which path or raft you choose, there is only one destination.
In the Gospel of Philip (another gnostic text), we find the statement that walking the path ultimately makes one “no longer a Christian, but a Christ.” Similarly, we could say that the point of hearing the Buddha’s teachings is not to become a Buddhist, but to become a Buddha.