In Christendom, the story of the Last Supper is a poignant and richly meaningful point in the narrative of Rav Yeshua’s last days, before his betrayal and death.
In the Sacramental Movement it is a time when the tabernacle is emptied, and the Presence Light extinguished, the altar stripped of its linens, and the entire sanctuary takes on the stark and lifeless appearance and feeling of a tomb. For me, this was always one of the most profoundly heart-wrenching of liturgies to perform, and would mark the beginning of the three days of contemplation upon impermanence, death and awakening.
For me, the Liturgy of Holy Thursday, the altar stripped of its linens, its candles extinguished and the tabernacle of the sacramental presence open and empty, has always been a powerful and emotional symbolism. I’ve always returned, as was the case of the elders (episkopi) in the early Jesus Movement, to sit in silent contemplation in that empty church… and turned my awareness to the profound experience of that Emptiness.
The consciousness of love releases the greatest power of all. It is that consciousness that can turn an ordinary meal into Communion with our own organic and indwelling capacity to emerge as the Sacred. Our True Nature is the pure consciousness of love, which is called the Buddhadhuta (Enlightened Nature) or Christ Consciousness.
This consciousness stems from following a spiritual path, which has nothing to do with religion or religious traditions. It arises from the practice of respect for life, dedication to non-violence, awareness of our essential unity, a feeling of equanimity and loving-kindness toward all beings, and the ocean of limitless compassion.
For those students of the Dharma of the Christ, this is the time when we progress further and deeper into the essence of Holy Week, and contemplate the narrative of that last celebration of the Paschal meal that Rav Yeshua shared with his disciples, commonly referred to as the Last Supper.
According to the mythos, the meal they shared would have been the traditional Passover Seder; but I am unconvinced. In fact, as a scripture scholar, I am wholly certain that particular Pesach meal was unlike any other. You see, there are a number of elements in the biblical narratives that give us clues to what I believe was intended to be seen as yet another aspect of the radically fresh, inclusive and dharma-oriented teaching of the Great Rabbi.
To begin with, scriptures tell us that Jesus instructed his disciples to go into the Holy City and look for the young man carrying water, telling him that the Master wants him to prepare things for the Pesach (Passover celebration). Many of us might think that those directions were vague. How would they know to which guy, carrying a pitcher of water their Teacher wanted them to speak.
It might surprise the Fundie McNuggets® to discover that this passage also tells us that Rav Yeshua (Jesus) was not a homophobe, like so many of them; for his instructions would have led the disciples to a particular gay man. That’s presumably why it was unnecessary to describe the guy any further, because you see, no heterosexual male in that ancient society, would have been carrying water (traditionally a woman’s role).
So Jesus has his disciples find the gay dude in town (we were the best waiters, even then!), and entrust that this particular gay guy would know him as “the Master” and ensure that everything was set up properly.
Then we jump ahead to the meal itself, when the English translation of the Aramaic texts also fails to provide a clear translation and insight into the meaning of that meal.
Here is a more accurate interpretation of the words of that Eucharistic Meal:
“Then the Teacher took bread and said the Barucha (Pesach blessing), broke the bread and gave it to the men and women with whom he shared that meal, saying, ‘Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my flesh sacrifice… a non-violent and perfect substitution for the violent ritual slaughter of our tradition. Such violence is unnecessary, for simply breaking bread and being grateful is enough!
“When supper ended, the Teacher took the cup, again saying the traditional blessing, and passing it to his disciples, said, ‘Take this and drink, for this is our blood sacrifice… representing a new and life-affirming covenant for all people. No more do we need to superstitiously rely on animal sacrifices to appease imaginary external gods.
“Do this in memory of me.”
And so it was that a new tradition supplanted the ancient Passover tradition, and this new community recognised that they could share a “thanksgiving meal” any time, simply by breaking bread and sharing a cup of wine. Their teacher opened the way for them to experience a “new covenant” – a non-violent, compassionate and equally shared covenant between all beings. No ritual slaughter of an innocent animal was required. This new covenant then also become one which could be offered in the spirit of ahimsa.
In the Satasáhasriká Prajñapáramitá, we learn that a true Bodhisattva shows his or her compassion by choosing to suffer the pains, torments and passions… even the agony of death, so that he or she might lead all beings to perfect Enlightenment. Such a person, we are told, becomes consumed with grief over the suffering he or she sees among others, and desires to take such suffering upon himself or herself, for the sake of freeing others… literally, saving them, from torment.
According to the biblical legend, both Rav Yeshua and his Mother (Miriam) willingly surrender themselves to great suffering — both physical and emotional — out of an overwhelming sense of longing to free the world of suffering and death for innumerable æons.
This is something not confined to the Buddhist tradition either, for in the Vedic texts we read that the Second Person of the Hindu Godhead, Sri Balarama, the Bhagavat Purana. the Supreme Teacher (Adiguru), likewise sacrifices himself as the cosmic Primeval Consciousness, responsible for the redemption of humankind. In that tradition, commemoration of the Bhagavat Purana’s sacrifice, ritual food offered in puja becomes “remnants of his consecrated body” or “prasadam” to be consumed by those who believe.
As Bhakti Ananda Goswami writes: “Thus the varnashrama dharma, sacramental ‘Mystical Social Body’ of Purusha, is the primal cause of theocentric human civilization and all sacramental social life,” adding, “Thus the sacramental social body of Christ in Catholicism is related to the mystical social body of Purusha Yupa Dhvaja or Yagya Purusha, and the Eucharist is Lord Jesus Purusha’s Maha Prasadam.”
For the Catholic-Buddhist, the story of Good Friday and Easter can be seen through the lens of the ancient mystery traditions, which recognise the stories as a ways to fill in the gaps science leaves with symbolism and myth, for the purpose of illustrating the importance of the gaps themselves — those empty spaces in which ultimate truth (Emptiness) exists.
The apostle wrote that his desire was “to decrease, so that the Christ Consciousness in him could increase”. This consciousness of which he speaks is the awareness or awakening that Buddhists call “Enlightenment”. It is an awareness of the ineffable, ungraspable, groundless reality, which the primitives called “God”, and which the mystics and Desert Fathers knew could never be named or quantified.
Holy Thursday is a particularly important day of contemplation for the Contemplative Monks of the Eightfold Path, because it is the retelling of an ancient myth… one which has been told about many characters before it was superimposed on the story of Rav Yeshua…
It is a story of transformative potential. The story of love. And that transformative love is manifest in the gathering of people to share an “intentional meal”. We can make every meal an intentional meal, by bringing mindfulness, gratitude and love to the experience. That is what Jesus wanted his disciples to understand.
The period of time from that Paschal meal that Rav Yeshua would have shared with his disciples and their families… during which his Mother must have been keenly aware that something was troubling Her beloved son… bring a mindfulness that there is a pain inherent in being alive. We read about the “agony in the garden”, and find the tremendous sadness and agony Christ experienced, when contemplating the suffering of others, and during which he seems to have resolved to identify solely with that sovereign value in the identification of one’s own suffering with the sufferings of all beings.
This ethic of sacrificial compassion is at the heart of the Bodhisattva ideal. And I find meaning in contemplating not only the staid story of Rav Yeshua and his passion and death, but the frequently overlooked, and equally courageous role of the co-redemptrix, Mary, his Mother… who becomes, by adoption, the Mother of Us All. For a mother to stand by and watch her child suffer must be a terrible thing. I know that when my late partner was dying, who for the last year of his life, was more like my child than my lover, it was one of the most emotionally heartbreaking experiences I had ever known. Yet to compound that experience of watching a loved one die with watching them die a savage and brutal death is even more extreme.
A Mother, barely older than Her Child, stands on the step, watching as Her Son is ridiculed, beaten by a crowd, tortured and hanged upon a tree. These words seem inconceivable, and we imagine that is because they are part of an ancient legend… a sacred myth… and that is why we cannot begin to understand. But those words were not a description of our Blessed Mother at Calvary… they were the words used to describe the experiences of a 23 year old Black woman, in Selma, Alabama, who watched her son being beaten and hanged by a mob of racist terrorists in 1962.
Suddenly, when the context changes, our hearts begin to feel the terror, the agony and the grief.
We reflect on the meanings of the story… on the meaning of Pilate, the representative of the “great civilisation”, which was threatened by the radical message of inclusion and equanimity being preached by this revolutionary Rabbi of Love. “What is truth,” Civilisation (in the person of Pilate) asks of the Anointed One. In the end, Civilisation washes its hands of the responsibility to uphold social justice.
Then there are the high priests… the ones charged with upholding truth and who became caught up in the literalist interpretation, the ritiualistic practice, and the lust for power and authority that comes in every institutionalisation of spirituality. In the end, they too were threatened by the suggestion that compassion calls us to erase the lines the priests had drawn in the sand, dividing “us” from “them”… “pure” from “ritually unclean”.
Afraid that doing the “right thing” might upset the status quo (Rome), the few priests with a conscience, retreated in silence, and let fear and manipulation win, just as we find those dedicated and compassionate priests in the Roman Church often doing, in the shadow of the oppression, injustice and intolerance their institutional dogma puts forward. They know that women, gay and lesbian persons, and people from other faiths are being dogmatically marginalised by their religion, and in their hearts, they do not embrace such intolerant ideas… but they do nothing about it… and like the Pharisees, stand by in silence, and watch the torture unfold.
THE MOST PROFOUND REALISATION OF THE DHARMA OF THE TRIDUUM
Perhaps the most profound of realisations for me, came when I was a young sixteen year old monastic, who was spending his first 30-day silent retreat contemplating the parallel teachings of the Enlightened and Anointed Ones. This silent retreat would end on the Solemnity of the Resurrection, but it was 26 days into the retreat, on Holy Thursday, that I realised something more profound than anything I’d read in my seminary books — Something I believe my refuge lama revealed to me from his heart, despite his having left his body some six years earlier. And it is something I will share with you now…
Now there was, at the time of Rav Yeshua, a tradition during Pesach (Passover), during which every observant Jew would bring a lamb or a goat to the Temple for ritual slaughter. The priests would first bleed out the lamb (poorer families would use a goat), and then offer the first portion sacrificially to their vengeful and punitive god, Yahweh. The families would not be permitted into the Holy of Holies, and would have to stand in a waiting area (actually only the men were even permitted to stand in this section). So a name tag was placed around the necks of the animals to be sacrificed.
As we read the story of the Passion, we find that the Jewish priests were horrified and appear angry, when they looked up at the Cross, and see the sign Pilate had inscribed in Latin, Hebrew and Greek.
Many are familiar with the inscription that is often seen on crucifixes today, with the Roman “INRI” appearing above the head of the Corpus.
This sign would have actually contained the entire message “IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM” — meaning “Jesus the Nazarene, and King of the Jews” (contrary to the misinterpretation of many later scriptural texts, which claim it said “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews”, since there was no such place as Nazareth at the time of Jesus’ birth and life. The Nazarenes were a sect of Jewish Dharma adherents, known as the Essenes, who were trained in the healing arts by the Therapeutae — Alexandrian monks, trained as disciples of the Tibetan Buddhists).
Back to the story…
The Pharisees subscribed to a metaphysical method of looking at all written words in Hebrew as containing a literal meaning, and then a numerological meaning, followed by a “hidden” Kabbalistic meaning, which was derived from taking the first initial of every word in a passage, and looking for symbolism or words therein.
We’ve all seen the crucifixes that bear the Roman letters INRI, but when the words they represent, “IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDAEORVM,” are translated into Hebrew, the first initials of the words would have been “YHVH”.
There, before the eyes of those who were charged with the responsibility to protect the truth, was a sacrificial lamb… above whose head was his “family name” the name of their mythical god, Yahweh, whose name in Hebrew is “YHVH”.
It is also worth noting that on a deeper level, there were other, more ancient assignations, dating back to the crucifixion myths that pre-date the plagiarised version found in the Bible, in which those letters INRI represent, “IGNE NATVRA RENOVATVR INTEGRA” — “By fire is restored purity.”
Thus we see in the story of Good Friday the Bodhisattva Path — which represents the inner fire of the spirit, regenerates and resurrects Love and Life… much like the sun regenerates the earth.
Regardless of your personal spiritual path, I invite you to consider and contemplate this exemplary story of the Bodhisattva Christ (Aviloketesvara) … and the Bodhisattva Mary (Kuan Yin).
Consider a love so great, that after becoming incarnate, was moved so deeply by the suffering of this world and others, that he gave his life in exchange (the Tibetan practice of tonglen) for the freedom of others. Each day, we too have an opportunity to take on the suffering of others, symbolically and in small ways, to alleviate the suffering they experience in some meaningful way.
We can let the desire for that pack of cigarettes die in us, so that the $5 can feed that homeless woman we pass on our way home from work. We can let the habit of Happy Hour with our friends die so that we can spend those couple hours visiting those in the country home or cancer ward.
We can allow the need to be right die, and simply say, “I’m sorry”, next time our wife or husband is bitching about something stupid.
And I’ll promise you this, my friends… three days later, you will discover that there has been something in you that is indeed “raised up”… restored to life… reinvigorated. And by the fires of daily life, may your hearts be made pure!
And of course, because I am a gay man, this profound message would not be complete, without a show tune…
May your nights be filled with silent contemplation, and may the fires of compassion restore you to the purity of your True Nature.