Philippians 2 and the Heart Sūtra

Philippians 2 and the Heart Sūtra January 13, 2016


One of my favorite passages in the New Testament is the hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Saint Paul begins by encouraging us to allow the same mind to be in us that is in Christ. I think the language is important here. “Let the same mind…” —it’s an attitude of allowing, of receiving. We do not choose the mind of Christ, we receive it. It is pure grace, it is given to us. Our posture of prayer must be one of receptivity.

What is “the mind of Christ”? I believe it is the gift of metanoia — the Greek word often translated as “repentance” in English, which is unfortunate since repentance has come to mean something like remorse or contrition in popular English usage. If you say “Christianity calls us to repentance” most people will think you mean “Christianity wants you to feel guilty for your sins.” Religion as guilt-trip.

But that’s not what true repentance — metanoia — means at all.

Metanoia: The Transrational Mind

Metanoia literally means “beyond the mind.” Christianity calls us beyond the limitations of a strictly human consciousness, which is the consciousness that creates suffering and sin. So, yes, Christianity calls us out of sin. But that call is not a guilt-trip.

Christianity calls us to a new mind — beyond (“meta“) the normal limitations of human consciousness and rationality. This is why when atheists and agnostics tell me they think Christianity is irrational, I always say, “actually, it is trans-rational.”

 So the mind of Christ — the “noia” of metanoia — is shaped by love rather than fear, by mercy rather than condemnation, by compassion rather than indifference, generosity rather than parsimony.

It is a nondualistic mind, as hinted by Christ’s command to “do not judge” (Matthew 7:1). He is not saying we should abandon all discernment, for that would be foolish.

Rather, he is inviting us to a place where we see through the eyes of God, eyes that are in the business of loving everyone (Matthew 5:45). The nonduality of the mind of Christ is a mind untainted by prejudice or bigotry or us-vs.-them thinking.

Carrying on with Philippians 2, Saint Paul gives us insight into the mind of Christ by describing Christ’s own journey from form into emptiness: “though he was in the form of God,” he “emptied himself” — divesting himself of his divinity and “falling” (to use Julian of Norwich’s lovely image) into Mary’s womb, taking on human form. So we have a transition from the form of God, to emptiness to human form.

As I reflect on this, I am reminded of one of the Heart Sūtra, one of the greatest of Mahayana Buddhist sacred texts. Here is a snippet from the translation found in a book whimsically titled The Heart Attack Sūtra:

Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness.

 I make no claim to be able to interpret this or any other sūtra. But to my layman’s mind, “emptiness” and “form” refer to the basic impermanence of all things. Everything we see, we touch, we experience, even everything we know: it’s all impermanent, it will all change, and because of this the heart of all things — all “form” — is emptiness.

You might be thinking: isn’t God permanent? Sure — but God is not the same thing as our image of God, our thoughts about God, our concept of God. All of those are impermanent. So even the form of God (as we know it) is essentially empty.

This is not a negation of truth. Rather it is a recognition that the kenosis (emptiness) of Philippians 2 was not a one-off event. It is the way things eternally are.

It is the nature of Christ to empty himself of the form of God. Form is emptiness.

Out of that emptiness he takes human form. Emptiness is form.

And in doing so, he becomes obedient to death. Form is emptiness.

Through his death, he is exalted above all things. Emptiness is form.

This is the mind of Christ: the mind that eternally rejects the exploitation of form, and therefore is empty. And yet it is the same mind that not only lets go of form, it lets go of emptiness, and therefore is form-in-emptiness and emptiness-in-form.

I realize this is all rather heady, and some readers may be wondering, “Well, what does this have to do with me?” Here’s a thought: we are created in the image and likeness of God, and to the extent that we let the mind of Christ be in us, we remain non-attached to our very self. In doing this, our life is not about having or accumulating, but is about loving and relating. We become non-attached to all things — and that non-attachment enables us to relate to others through love, rather than through competition or grasping or hostility or defensiveness. Because I am empty, I have nothing to defend. Because I am undefended, I am available to receive, give, and literally be love. Because my life is a participation in love, I am in union with God.

Let the mind of Christ be in you. Let go of your small human mind, that grasps onto forms and things and then angrily or fearfully tries to defend what it is holding. Let go. Receive the mind of the One who embraces emptiness in form and form in emptiness. Be one with that One, for that means to be one with love. Let the mind of Love be in you. Be Love.

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