Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Emptiness and Jesus

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

This striking utterance from Jesus left untranslated in Matthew 27:46 is a keystone passage that can bring one right up to engagement with the undesired, the unwanted, the things we usually try to avoid. My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me?

There has been an effort among some to reject even these very words as a false translation, arguing that σαβαχθανί (sabacthani) can mean "leave" in the sense of abandoning, or "leave" in the sense of sparing. And little wonder. This apparent despair expressed by Jesus, this questioning of God, raises challenging issues for those with certain fixed views about Jesus.

A more reasonable explanation of Jesus' words is that they reference Psalm 22, which opens with the very same phrase:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?

The psalm goes even further than that, mirroring occurances later retold in the New Testament passion story. The psalm speaks of being mocked, being insulted. "I am poured out like water," verse 14 begins, mirroring the New Testament story of a soldier piercing Jesus with a spear, and water pouring from the wound.

"They have pierced my hands and my feet," verse 16 reads. "They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing," verse 18 reads, mirroring again the New Testament description, in which those who attended the crucifixion cast lots for Jesus' clothes.

There are several possible conclusions from this. One could conclude that Psalm 22 was prophetic. One could conclude that the similarities are pure coincidence. Or one could conclude that the authors of the New Testament passion stories lifted details from Psalm 22 and inserted them into the narrative, without regard for whether those things actually occurred.

Another possible conclusion is that the story portrays Jesus bringing Psalm 22 to mind as he died, which would make sense, since the psalm is a hymn of praise. And here's a compelling idea: Why can't the words convey both despair and jubilation simultaneously? An expression of the death of self-identity, and an expresson of joy for that taste of nibbana?

The concept of emptiness is widely associated with Buddhism, and more specifically the notion of sunyata is associated with Mahayana schools. But this notion of the empty nature of all phenomena goes right back to classical Buddhism, with the core notions of anicca (impermanence) and anatta (not-self). These are not mere concepts, but visceral experiences. One experiences impermanence and knows it directly. One expriences the not-self nature of phenomena and knows it directly. Theories just don't cut it.

Fascinating to consider the Biblical story of Jesus' death on the cross in this light, as an illustration of the death of self-identity view, the extinguishing of sakkāya-diṭṭhi. As a sunyata moment. And its manner: for the benefit of all beings.

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