William Edelen: Ancient Texts Define A Zen Christianity

Toward The Mystery (1983)

In 1945 an Arab peasant in the upper Egyptian desert near Nag Hammadi made a spectacular discovery. Buried in earthenware were 52 Papyrus texts, some dating from the beginning of the Christian era and presenting a Jesus that said things that could have come out of the mouth of a Zen Master, or even the Buddha himself.

Professor Helmut Koester of Harvard University has made the observation that one of thesegospels in particular, the Gospel of Thomas includes traditions even older than the Gospels of The New Testament, earlier than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. They are known as the Gnostic gospels, from the Greek word gnosis — meaning ‘to know,’ to know oneself, to have an insight into oneself in an intuitive sense.

“To know oneself is to know God,” says Jesus in these gospels. The self and the divine are identical and one. The living Jesus in these gospels speaks of enlightenment, the same type that is taught by Zen Masters and Taoists. Jesus is never presented as Lord, but rather as a spiritual guide. The living Buddha could easily have said, and did, everything attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas and other of the texts.

These texts, with Jesus talking in this manner, were seen as a danger to the developing ecclesiastical structure because they encouraged insubordination to the authority of bishops, priests and deacons. Church father Ignatius warns the laity to “honor and obey the bishop as you would God.”

He continues, “For the Bishop presides in the place of God.” It is quite easy to see why the church councils did not choose these gospels for their Bible. It was purely political. Bishops and priests “can’t get no respect” from the common people, if the common people read that Jesus said they don’t need bishops and priests and that “the Kingdom is all within everyone, and all are sons of God.”

Jesus says in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you… for the lap of the body is the mind.” And again, “The mind is the guide, but reason is the teacher. Live according to your mind. Acquire strength for the mind is strong. Enlighten your mind… light the lamp within you.”

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus also ridicules those who think of the “Kingdom of God” in literal terms (as if it were a specific, actual place). Jesus says these words, “If those who lead you say to you, ‘Look, the Kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds will arrive there before you do. If they say to you, ‘Look, it is in the sea,’ then the fish will arrive before you. Instead… the Kingdom is a state of self discovery. The Kingdom is inside of you and outside of you. Instead… the kingdom is a state of self discovery. The Kingdom is inside of you and outside of you. When you come to know yourself, you will know that YOU are the Son of God, but if you do not learn this, you will live in poverty.”

His disciples said to Jesus, “When will the Kingdom come?” Jesus replied, “Do you not understand, what you look forward to has already come… but you do not recognize it. The Kingdom of Heaven is spread out upon the Earth… now… and men do not see it.” The kingdom is a state of transformed consciousness. The creation and God are one. Humans (Man) and God are one.

Jesus said in the Gospel of Thomas, “Split wood; I am there. Lift up the stone and you will find me there.” Jesus, in these gospels, insists again and again on the primacy of immediate experience as a guide to truth no one else can tell another which way to go, what to do, how to act or what path to follow. “When you become mature,” said Jesus, “you will no longer rely on outside human testimony.” This thought, expressed by Jesus in these gospels, is at the heart of Buddhism and Taoism.

There are many scholars and other clergy today within Christianity that are synthesizing the great themes found in the Eastern religions with the sayings of a Jesus that was, quite obviously, far more oriented toward their view of life and reality than we have been led to believe. Paul Tillich, the great Protestant Christian theologian at Harvard and the University of Chicago, wrote a number of brilliant books on this same subject.

And for those of you who want to pursue it further, a Roman Catholic Jesuit, William Johnson, in his book, Silent Music, writes of this subject. This Jesuit priest has been studying with Zen Masters for years in Japan, integrating these great themes. He writes of the time that truth broke through to him about the nature of reality, the reality of the oneness of everything, including the oneness of God and man.

When that jar was smashed at Nag Hammadi, that Arab peasant could not have dreamed what far reaching implications his discovery would have. As Dr. James Robinson of the Institute of Antiquity and Christianity put it: “The entire history of the origins of Christianity, including the life of Jesus, are going to have to be rewritten.” These 52 scrolls have unlocked a Zen Jesus and a Zen Christianity.

One Comment

Zen, or Chan in its Chinese spelling, did not appear until the 6th century in China and not until the 12th in Japan where it matured. Thus to talk about a Zen Jesus or a Zen Christianity in the Nag Hammadi scrolls is confusing. In the sense that the Gospel of Thomas emphasizes the spirit within that speaks to each of us rather than some teaching handed down from above, this is an realization emphasized by the early Japanese Zen Buddhists and can be loosely equated with the Thomist Gospel. The ascetic life of monks in desert monasteries in Western Egypt also leaned in this direction from a very early time.

We need to be careful of our teminology, It is true that Christianity, by the 4th Century had swerved far away from the ideas of Thomas, solidifying doctrine and eliminating all teachings that allowed a mindful follower to listen to the voices within.