Reading holy texts
I wanted to say something about studying texts from the Yoga point of view and rather than use an oriental text which is not familiar to us I wanted to use a short passage from the New Testament. This makes most of us Christians, lay Christians, slightly uncomfortable. It says ‘sell all you have and give it to the poor.’ It’s a bit like ‘turn the other cheek.’ I may lead a good life but I have no intention of selling all I have and giving it to the poor or turning the other cheek.
If you meet Jewish people or Muslims, some of them have got a certain stance. You can be a good Jew or you can be a good Muslim. They will give a prescribed portion of their income to charity as well as following the other directions. They are not expected to impoverish themselves. (Editor’s note: The Muslim Zakat is a donation of 2.5% of surplus wealth that has been held for an entire year.)
A good Jew has a day of repentance every year. If you have committed sins then you fast that day in repentance for your sins. This story was told to me by a Jewish friend:
Two of them met and one said to the other ‘Are you going to fast tomorrow?’ and he said ‘No I don’t see why I should fast. I run my business honestly, we have had some good luck and I have given the staff a thumping bonus. I thought how they have stood by me in difficult times and I really surprised them. They have even voted me Boss of the Year. The boys have made a good start in business, and the girl she’s engaged to a really good fellow, my wife’s over the moon. I don’t see why I should fast.’ Then he said ‘Are you going to fast?’ And the other one said ‘Hmmm, better fast.’
It is possible to live as a good Jew or Muslim but when it comes to Christians we have got a guilty feeling. I am supposed to sell all I have and give it to the poor. The reason we feel guilty about this is because we don’t read the holy text.
Now I want to give for an example the Yogic method of reading a holy text which is quite different from ‘here endeth the second lesson,’ so as to speak. Here are the two versions of the story: ‘Sell all you have and give to the poor’ in the two versions:
This one is in Mark, chapter 10, verse 17:
As he was starting out on a journey a stranger ran up and kneeling before him asked, ‘Good master what must I do to win eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good. No-one is good except God alone. You know the commandments – do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false evidence, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.’ ‘But Master,’ he replied, ‘I have kept all these since I was a boy.’ Jesus looked straight at him, his heart warmed to him, and he said, ‘One thing you lack. Go sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have riches in heaven. And come follow me.’ At these words his face fell and he went away with a heavy heart for he was a man of great wealth.
And this is Matthew, chapter 19, verse 16:
Now a man came up and asked him, ‘Master, what good must I do to gain eternal life?’ ‘Good!’ said Jesus, ‘Why do you ask me about that? One alone is good, but if you wish to enter into life keep the commandments.’ ‘Which commandments?’ he asked. Jesus answered ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false evidence, honour your father and mother and love your neighbour as yourself.’ The young man answered ‘I have kept all of these. Where do I still fall short?’ Jesus said to him ‘If you wish to go the whole way go sell your possessions and give to the poor, and then you will have riches in heaven and come follow me.’ When the young man heard this he went away with a heavy heart because he was a man of great wealth.
If we read the story carefully it is very extraordinary: As Jesus is about to set out on a journey he is not sitting formally in the temple giving teachings. Suddenly a young man runs up to him and says, ‘Master what should I do to gain eternal life?’ and Jesus briefly says ‘Keep the commandments. You know them – don’t murder, don’t defraud, honour your father and mother. Do this and you will win life.’ Well now the man ought to say ‘Thank you Master. I will keep on, I have done all these since I was a boy and I’ll keep on doing them and you have promised me eternal life.’ But instead of saying that he says ‘But Master I have done all this since I was a boy.’ Why does he say that? It’s extraordinary. He asked Jesus a question ‘What should I do to get eternal life?’ and Jesus said ‘Keep the commandments,’ and he lists a few of them, and instead of the man saying ‘Well I have done these and I’ll go on doing them,’ he says ‘Where do I still fall short?’ and it’s then, and only then, that Jesus says ‘If you wish to be perfect sell all you have and give to the poor.’
This is the first riddle. Most commentaries hardly notice it. We have to think very carefully: why isn’t that young man satisfied with the answer which confirms his present way of life?
Jesus looked around at his disciples and said to them, ‘How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter into the kingdom of God.’ They were amazed that he should say this but Jesus insisted, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ They were more astonished than ever and said, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked them in the face and said, ‘For men it is impossible but not for God. To God everything is possible.’
And this is the second riddle: he looks after the man who was leaving and says ‘How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye.’ (The camel was the largest animal in the Middle East, but in India, the saying is it’s harder for an elephant to go through the eye of an needle.) The disciples are astounded, astonished, amazed. They say ‘Then who can be saved?’ What an extraordinary thing to say! They see the rich man sent off, then they hear how hard it is for the rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. They ought to be saying ‘Jolly good, we should get in’ but they are amazed and say ‘But who can be saved?’
In the Zen style these are riddles on which we have to meditate. We have to find the solution, not just think, ‘Oh I expect it means something … it’s all very holy … yawn … What’s on television?’
Jesus used parables, he was the first of the Jewish teachers to use them systematically. There are parables in the Old Testament but he used them systematically, and he reproached his disciples when they didn’t understand a parable. They asked him the meaning of the parable of the sower and he said, ‘If you don’t understand this parable, then how will you understand any parable?’
Now why were they astounded? Why did they say ‘Then who can be saved?’ One suggestion is that they felt that their own position was insecure. That they were rich though they had given everything up. How could this be? It is very difficult for us to appreciate the position of the disciples now in a sceptical atmosphere which has been deliberately cultivated by men who are not necessarily spiritual. Sceptics sneer at all the holy truths but refuse to make or encounter any experiments into consciousness itself. We think, you sell everything, give it to the poor and follow Him. He’s got nothing so you’ve got nothing. But that is not true. They were following a figure who multiplied the loaves and the fishes to feed four thousand and on another occasion five thousand. Even the scraps filled several baskets. They were following something which was far beyond material limitations. We think, ‘Oh miracles can’t happen’, but to them miracles could and did happen: they saw them as we can if we read the gospels properly.
The disciples felt insecure because they were counting on having thrones and glories in heaven. We can say they had nothing, they had renounced everything. Just imagine you have a bond which will mature in fifteen years and make you a millionaire. You don’t have a penny now. Are you a rich man? You haven’t got a penny so you are not rich. On the other hand this bond is going to mature and make you rich. So it could be said of Jesus that when he spoke of the rich man he wasn’t thinking only of the man with great material possessions on the earth but also of their own expectations of riches in heaven which they were gathering up for themselves.
If we read the gospels carefully we will see how the disciples disputed amongst each other who would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. James and John both wanted two thrones on the right hand of Jesus in heaven. They were not poor, they were rich in anticipation. This could be one possible solution but it is only a partial solution and it has to be lived through. We can be rich in material possessions but also rich in anticipations, desires and hopes – and we have to give these up to enter pure consciousness.
There are two more riddles in the same story and you might like to find them. The story is well known and you have probably read it as I have, yet these things are passed over. There is a tradition in Islam: when you read the Koran there is a surface meaning which is wonderful. But there are also certain places which are peculiar like, ‘die before you die’, you pass over that but then you find another, and another. When you begin to notice them and think about them you find they form a chain. For students of the Koran, there is a hidden meaning. Many of us have read the bible a few times but the next step is to take just one section. Read a whole section once or twice and then to go over it very, very carefully. As the study progresses we can get a hint.
© Trevor Leggett