While writing and thinking about seeds last week, I mentioned Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed and the Kingdom of Heaven, and how the seed shows that “the Kingdom of Heaven cannot happen all at once or through force, but only as a result of cultivating patience and trust. This is why he states that the kingdom cannot come by expectation.”
I was recently on a walk with Gabriel where I began to ask myself, what did Jesus really mean by that? (he’s obviously wondering the same thing).
(Note: Remember that when we talk about “the Kingdom”, we’re using a metaphor that has its own socio-historic background. To say Kingdom implies a King, and to conceive of God as a cosmic monarch in the 21st century is problematic, to say the least. Nevertheless, the metaphor can help us to grasp a larger picture, like the proverbial Buddhist raft to get us to the other shore. But at some point, after we get the message, we’ve got to hang up the phone.)
The first thing that came to my mind was my own relation to expectation. I don’t know about you, but I always seem to be “ahead of myself.” Even right now, when Giulia, Gabriel, and I are living the most fantastic autumn in the countryside, I still find myself thinking about what we will do next.
As human beings, we seem hard-wired to be in a perpetual state of expectation, sitting on the edge of our seats anticipating all the coming attractions, never fully satisfied with the feature presentation (the Now!).
Then I remembered the ending of the line about expectation: the reason why Jesus says it will not come by expectation is because “the Kingdom is spread upon the earth and people do not have eyes to see it” (Gospel of Thomas). It is a living reality, right here and now, not off in a distant time.
The Kingdom will not come by expectation because the future never comes! It is always now. If you’re relating to the Kingdom as something external and in the future, then you will not see that It’s right in front of your eyes.
In Buddhist terminology, we could say that you postpone your own enlightenment as long as you think it is something awaiting you in a distant future or another lifetime.
So the Kingdom (or the Pure Land, if you prefer that metaphor) is already here. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t it seem like it? If it’s already here, then what role do we have to play?
I believe the beginning of an answer to both these questions is found in the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ statement (quoted from Richard Kearney) that “the Kingdom can only come when we renounce the Kingdom.”
What I think Levinas is saying here is that we have to give up any ideas or conceptions we have about It, in order to truly be open to the forms It takes. The Kingdom can come when we renounce the Kingdom; God can only manifest when we cease thinking we know who God is.
It may be tempting to think that we know what the Kingdom (or God) looks like. Perhaps some sort of reign of love and justice and happiness for all. But any of those ideas are just ideas. How are we to know what the Kingdom (or enlightenment) should look like?
Perhaps some of the things that we would dismiss out of hand as not belonging are actually, in some way, necessary. Perhaps the hatred, violence, and neurosis that we think we should eradicate are actually the fertilizer/compost for a higher level of consciousness to emerge. Or perhaps suffering helps evoke something essential that could not arise in any other way. From our human viewpoint, limited in time and space, how can we ever pass judgement on what we think should and should not be?
Of course, it’s easy to see the kingdom in the blessings (just look at how cute this one is!):
But the Kingdom might also be composed of some pretty far out places, or some unpleasant and repulsive experiences. Who ever said that It should be clean, neat and sanitized?
Perhaps for God to be fully God, then S/He must also be in the shit, the anger, the hatred, the screaming child. It’s perhaps in those things that offend our sensibilities, that challenge our preconceptions, that completely blast open our mind’s capacity to understand, that we can most clearly find the divine. Recall the Leonard Cohen line, “there is a crack in everything… that’s how the light gets in.”
I was recently listening to a fascinating conversation with Nadia Bolz Weber (which I highly recommend) where she discussed just this.
In his own death, Jesus shows us an example of how the Kingdom is present in the darkness. We can look to the example of Jesus for how this works: forgive them for they know not what they do.
Even though the human imagination can spawn some pretty perverse things, there’s nothing that we can do that would permanently spate us from God’s forgiveness, grace, and love.
This leads her to the conclusion that God does not create suffering; God bears suffering.
And thus both of above our questions are answered: if we can drop all ideas about the Kingdom, and see how It is present in moments of darkness, torture, and despair, then we unlock/uncover a new dimension of what It is.
Part of what ‘It’ is is awareness of Itself. This is the aspect of It that is locked up in a tiny seed. This is the point where teachers like Jesus and Buddha come in and blast open our minds so that we can learn to recognize It and work with It more skilfully.
And what joy it is when you realize you’re part of this unfolding consciousness, that we so clumsily refer to as God! When you begin to touch the vast mystery we are part of (fully complete in every moment and yet evolving more of what it is), then you really are a seed shedding its shell casings.
More on soil next week.