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Things are not as they seem.

Posted on: January 28, 2018

Category: Theology

Things are not as they seem.

Quest Thoughts: Things are Not as They Seem
By David Galston
"How does Jesus compare to other wisdom teachers?" is a question I am frequently asked. I am always hesitant to answer because all ancient teachers, from Socrates to Gautama the Buddha to Lao Tzu, lie deep in the mist of history. For all, it is hard to determine what they really said; for all, it is impossible to know what they were really like; for all, their fame attracted to them popular sayings that anyone could have said.

In the case of Jesus, no sayings in the Bible are exactly what he really said. There are some sayings in the Bible that bear an identifiable voiceprint of oral transmission. So, Jesus likely told the parable of the Good Samaritan, but that story, in oral form, had many renditions. What we have in the Bible is one author's written version. The parable accordingly is said to belong to the authentic Jesus tradition, but this does not mean Jesus said it as written.

The same scenario unfolds with the Buddha and other great figures in the world's religions. It is highly unlikely that we have records of the Buddha's real words, but some teaching suggests oral transmission and authenticity in relation to a real historical figure. Socrates was fortunate to have a disciple like Plato, so no one questions whether Socrates existed. Nevertheless, Plato used Socrates as a literary figure to write about his own thinking. The historical Socrates is an unknown figure buried behind the philosophy of Plato. Lao Tzu, the founding figure of Daoism, is likewise an unknown when it comes to history.

Despite all these troubles and hesitations, is there anything similar or different when comparing Jesus to other great teaching figures? The answer to this question tends to be subjective rather than definitive. Still, I will offer what I think.

There is one common theme to all teachers of wisdom, and that theme can be stated with the simple advice that things are not as they seem. Every ancient teacher or teaching that I have studied usually relays this simple advice in various metaphors and through various stories. The Jesus metaphor of the empire of God (kingdom of God) is an example of portraying an alternative reality to the daily reality of our lives. It is not easy to know what Jesus means by this alternative empire of God, but it is clear that access to its meaning is through parables and aphorisms, not facts and formulas. The lesson is, it is possible to live in the world that is according to the values of a world that is not. Those alternative values are often the reverse of our regular or default values. We normally do not love our enemies, for example, but in the empire of God, things are not as they seem. In that alternative reality, we do love our enemies.

We attach ourselves to our wants and desires. We feel happy when we get what we want - at least for a few minutes. In Buddhism, things are not as they seem. What we really want is not something we can possess but rather the ability to let go. What we really want is actually not a thing at all. What we want is a way to live a life of fullness and of peace. But if we say, I'd like to have that, we'll never get it. We won't get it because it is not a possession. It cannot be bought. There is no secret formula for instant gratification or fulfillment. In Buddhism, the first thing to do is to find peace with your own life, and this can take years or maybe your lifetime. In Buddhism too, things are not as they seem. What we want is not something we can have by wanting.

We can very quickly mention Daoism and the initially strange teaching of effortless effort. In this version of things not being as they seem, to stress your will or to seek control is a personal effort. But that effort, because it is individual, goes against the general, effortless flow of the Dao, which is the way the universe unfolds. The Daoist practice is to cooperate with the flow of the universe and to change things through cooperation rather than through control. In Daoism, things are not as they seem because to us personally it seems we need to control our situation in order to achieve our goals. In fact, cooperation with nature and with others achieves the only goal that the Dao (the way of the universe) can support. It's a tricky lesson because the right judgment in any situation is not easy to determine, but in the long term the effort invested in control, which seems to be true, is less effective than the effortless path of cooperation.

Though it seems obvious to say that things are not as they seem, it is amazing to think about and to see how this simple advice can be translated into deep forms of wisdom teaching shared, in various expressions, across cultures. There are, of course, always differences, too. I have always thought that the voice of Jesus is somewhat unique because it comes from a colonized person dispossessed of land and living in poverty. It is unusual to hear an ancient voice emerging from this set of circumstances. But since we do not really know the life story of the Buddha or someone like Lao Tzu, it is possible such uniqueness, that I think I see it, is not true. It might be that I need to make sure I hear the lesson about things not being as they seem.

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