A FEAST FOR SAINTS BARLAAM & JOSAPHAT: A Meditation on Syncretisms of Several Varieties

A FEAST FOR SAINTS BARLAAM & JOSAPHAT: A Meditation on Syncretisms of Several Varieties November 27, 2022




A Meditation on Syncretisms of Several Varieties

James Ishmael Ford

There is a tradition. It tells us one of Jesus’ apostles, Thomas, who we know as the Doubter, carried the message of Jesus all the way to India. There he found responsive hearts on the Malabar coast, and a small community began to flourish. Another tradition says that a few centuries later the king of the area, Abenner was told by astrologers that his newborn son Josaphat would one day set aside kingship and become an exemplar of the Christian way.

The king decided this would be a terrible thing. So, he launched a persecution of the church, hoping there would be nothing for his son to convert to. In the meantime, the king had his young son kept isolated in a pleasure palace, where the boy would never hear the good news.

One day the now young man secretly left the palace to see the wider world. Almost immediately he met the Christian hermit Barlaam. Barlaam told him of the way of unfolding love, and the message touched Josephat’s heart. He returned and told his father, who saw it was over, made his peace with it, and stopped the persecutions.

He then shared his throne with Josaphat. Eventually, King Abenner found the way touch him, as well. He abdicated his share of the throne to become a Christian hermit. Josaphat continued to rule for a time, but eventually he too abandoned rulership as the astrologers foretold, embraced a monastic life and sought out his old teacher Barlaam. They lived in holy companionship for the rest of their lives. During those years people came from all over the world to hear his guidance into the intimate. After Barlaam and Josaphat’s deaths, people continued, right to this day, to make pilgrimages to their graves as healing shrines.

(sermon begins at 1:08:16)

This story was recorded in the Roman Martyrology. And the 27th of November in the West and the 26th of August in the East were set aside as a feast in honor of the saints Barlaam and Josaphat. Their celebration was woven into the great cycles of worship of the Christian churches.

Then, in the nineteenth century along with embracing a critical analysis of the scriptures, scholars began investigating many of the accumulated traditions of the church. Quickly they found the true source of this story about Barlaam and Josaphat. Following the sources through some interesting twists and turns, they found the story was really that of the Buddha. By the early twentieth century the mainstream liturgical churches had all quietly dropped the Christian celebration of this version of the life of the Buddha from their calendars.

The 27th of November. Today. Noticing this opened a floodgate of thoughts and feelings for me about, well, many things. But especially what might happen when we open our hearts to liminal spaces. You know, those spots where things meet and overlap, where contradictions congregate, where, well, where our hearts might open.

Me, the deep root of my spirituality is Zen Buddhism. It is rich and nourishing. I am eternally grateful for finding it early in my life. But, as Joanna Macy, one of my teachers described it, my natal tradition is Christianity. So, among other consequences to this fact, I’m particularly interested in those places where Buddhism and Christianity meet. Today I would like to share a little about those meetings, like the story of Barlaam and Josaphat, and then reflect briefly on what doors I find all that opening for me, and, who knows, maybe for you, as well.

You’ve probably heard stories of how Jesus traveled to India or perhaps Tibet. The idea has quite a sustained following, especially in India. The primary source for this, Nicolas Notovitch’s Life of St Issa, Best of the Sons of Men first published in 1894 and has never gone out of print. I love the idea. And I wish it were true. Sadly, Notovitch’s book has been exposed as a fraud numerous times. Not that that unpleasantness has caused any decline in its popularity. But for me wanting something to be true, isn’t enough.

That isn’t to say there hasn’t been a bucket full of contact between the traditions over the centuries. The Silk Road pretty much guaranteed that. But to the direct point of Jesus and Buddhism, there is absolutely no need for Jesus to have a Buddhist or any other non-Jewish influence. Everything we have of his teachings in the earliest strata documents, either reflect the normative Judaism of his time or are a wonderful extrapolation from those teachings and currents of that moment and place. To assert otherwise is to put oneself in the category of the people who figure the ancient Egyptians couldn’t have built the pyramids, so, well, flying saucers.

However, then there’s what happened after Jesus’ death. Several substantial scholars note possible connections between Buddhism and forming Christianity. Elaine Pagels, for instance, in her deep examination of the Gospel of Thomas, noncanonical but of considerable antiquity with roughly the same dating as the Gospel of John, writes, how “Some of it looks like Buddhism, and may have in fact been influenced by a well-established Buddhist tradition at the time these texts were first written.” “May have,” however is an important phrase not to be glossed over.

Many scholars see influences on Christianity through Gnosticism, which clearly has identifiable Buddhist connections. There are, nonetheless, some obvious stumbling blocks to anyone, say like me, who would love to see a Buddhist Christian synthesis from the beginning. But there is a gigantic problem in any such enterprise. The core elements of traditional Christian monotheism and the core Buddhist observation that attempting to establish anything not subject to change is at the heart of human suffering, becomes a circle very hard to square. These are wildly different traditions.

Still there was a substantial Buddhist presence in the Eastern reaches of Alexander’s empire. The Gandharan Buddhist community in present day Pakistan and Afghanistan definitely sent missions westward. And pretty much as soon as we start getting a Christian literature, Buddhism is noted. Clement of Alexandria who died in 215, alludes to Buddhism in his writings. And by the early third and fourth centuries there are numerous if garbled Buddhist references from Hippolytus, Epiphanius, Cyril of Jerusalem, and even the great Saint Jerome.

But here’s my favorite thing in the Buddhist Christian saga. Since the seventeenth century people have been aware of a long-lost Christian mission to China. At that time Chinese scholars found a stele, a monument, erected in the eighth century. The text on it written in Chinese and Syriac recounts the early seventh century mission of Bishop Alopen, and the establishment of the “Luminous Religion,” as a Chinese branch of the Church of the East, sometimes called the Nestorian Church. Incidentally it was in all likelihood a mission from the Malabar Coast, and the real Thomas Church where the mythical Josaphat lived. The religion flourished for about two hundred years before being swept away during a persecution of Buddhism. For years it was tantalizing, but everything known was limited to what was on that single stele.

However, when the Dunhuang library was uncovered in 1900, an East Asian version the Dead Sea Scroll find, arguably even more important for its breadth and depth, among the fifty thousand documents uncovered were a trove of Luminous Religion texts. What’s particularly interesting in reading them is how the Luminous Religion doesn’t quite line up with normative Christianity in some interesting ways. The trinity, for instance, is mentioned, as is the incarnation. But there’s no reference to a crucifixion, or a resurrection. In addition, the Luminous Religion had clearly synthesized Christianity with both Buddhism and most of all with Taoism.

The only substantive question is how much syncretism? The texts use lots of Taoist and Buddhist terminology. What we don’t know is how much those terms were bent to Christian usage and how much they were simply adopted with something like their original meaning. Honest scholarship is divided on the subject. All can be sure something rich and compelling birthed in that strange and dangerous moment. And flourished for a time. Me, I love the Taoist and Buddhist way of reading those texts, and dream of that church, and what could have been.

So, here we are today. Another strange and dangerous moment. Terms like “interfaith dialog,” “cultural appropriation” and “syncretism” are used to describe a lot of what is going on. For me they point to a range of things from how people thoughtlessly take someone’s sacred symbols as decorations to how our deepest quest for meaning and purpose, our individual quests and our mutating cultures, of which religion are always an aspect, are fragmenting and reforming.

As a Zen person, someone formed within Western and specifically American culture, but who early in life turned to an East Asian spiritual mission, I’m fascinated by the number of Jewish and Christian Zen practitioners there are here in the West. These are people who feel strongly they’re not leaving their natal tradition, but are embracing Zen’s practice, and most importantly, its core teachings. I’m not talking spiritual tourists. Some of our most important Zen teachers in the West identify as Jewish and Christian.

People watching this meeting of Buddhism and Christianity are increasingly speaking of a Nondual Christianity. It’s an emerging theological perspective. It takes a stance that arose in the Indian subcontinent and applies it to the Christian tradition. I won’t try to unpack nonduality here in any substantive way.

Actually, a precise definition is going to be elusive, anyway. Different religions approach nonduality, well, differently. But in essence nondual suggests an intimate relationship between the multiplicity of things, finding some kind of binding unity among those many things. Some see the many a dream of the one. Others that the one is a substratum to all phenomena. In Zen Buddhism, given our particular wrinkle on nonduality, we say, “not one, not two.” Or, as a kind of shorthand, simply, “Not two.”

This Not two is at the heart of Zen’s enlightenment experience. It is found where we open our hearts and minds, and in an eruption of perception, discover the world is more intimate than words can say. That’s another shorthand in Zen, by the bye. Intimate.

As it turns out pretty much all religions have some kind of analog to this perspective of a binding unity somewhere in their traditions. Usually this it’s found in the mystical aspect of that tradition. In Christianity we see all sorts of places for this starting with aspects of the Gospel of John (remember those possible Buddhist connections?). That’s where we find the line “I am the vine and you are the branches.”

This can all be seen within the mystical traditions of Christianity, particularly as found in the continuing thread from the Pseudo Dionysius, to the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, to John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, to Meister Eckhardt to a host of modern writers; all of whom can fairly be gathered together under the general rubric of “Nondual Christian.” And that, as they say, only begins a list.

So, what to do with this? I’ve actually written and discarded two different conclusions before writing what follows. So many ways to go from here. So many opportunities, invitations, and, well, warnings. Of course, all the religions have a lot that’s incompatible. A lot. First, how those basic truth claims among the religions are wildly different. Traditional Christianity’s peculiar version of monotheism. Buddhism’s claim of a wild and fruitful insubstantiality. Facts on the ground.

Next, a great deal of what religion is about is cultural cohesion. At its ugliest it is crowd control, defining who is in and who is out. This stuff about our intimate connections we find in mystical religion is anathema to that cultural cohesion aspect of religion. And so we see some pretty ugly pushback. In some parts of the world to speak of the oneness of us all can get you killed.

Religion is an expression of culture. And we, as I feel a need to keep repeating, are in a wild and dangerous time. Cultures are unraveling. People are afraid. But, at the same time, something new is emerging, a world perspective. A universalism rooted in that nondual perception. Now, I believe this universal is always going to have a local expression. Near as I can tell the universal is always only known in some particular.

At its best, in my view, when we see the syncretistic expressions of spirituality, like in these wonderful meetings of Buddhism and Christianity, at least some of these meetings, I believe we’re seeing the rise of a new cultural expression. What that is which is emerging is not yet clear. But something is happening. Did I mention dangerous? Did I note people are pushing back? Did I say in some places this sort of thing can get you killed?

So. And. To end this, a shift to the confessional. My place in this mess.

I’m not sure now, perhaps twenty years ago, certainly close to it. I found myself sitting in the sanctuary of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, a suburban Boston church I was serving at the time as their senior minister. Not a lot earlier I’d been made a senior Zen teacher in one of the Japanese koan lineages. The church is a lovely building, a little neo-Gothic cathedral. Something unusual for any Unitarian church. It even had seven steps leading up to an altar. And above the altar, which for those interested in mashing up traditions featured a Unitarian flaming chalice, there was a lovely stained-glass window of Jesus with the little children.

I can picture it to this day. I was sitting in the third pew from the front on the aisle on the lectern side. I stared up at that window. I’d long loved it, sort of the best of Christianity. Or at least my dream Christianity. When out of the blue I recalled that line from the renowned ninth century Chinese Zen master, Zhaozhou, as he was about to embark on pilgrimage after his teacher’s death. “If I see deeper than a hundred-year-old sage, I’ll teach him. If a seven-year-old has something to teach, I will listen humbly.”

And in a moment, all my sense of knowing, the years of practice, the confirmations, the acknowledgments, all my accumulated wisdom dropped from me like an unnecessary winter coat on a clear Spring morning.

In that moment there was only me sitting on that hard pew, the slight chill of the air, and the unique mix of smells in that old sanctuary. A perfume of forgotten days. And, of course, that window. Jesus. My lovely childhood Jesus. And the children. All the little children. Us. All of us. No high. No low. No exceptions. Intimates. Not really one. Not exactly two.

Intimate. Receptive. Open. A kind of not knowing. What I find within the not knowing, within this openness is this. I felt every prayer I’d ever prayed had been answered. Everything as it is whispering to me, “just this,” “just this.” The windows. Each of them, just this. The altar. Just this. The pulpit. Just this. The dust motes flying in the air. Just this. The faint mildew smell. Just this.

And. Jesus and the little children. I realized I didn’t need anything more. It really has always been present. The universal singing in every particular. Intimate. And in that moment, everything was complete, in all its brokenness, with all its distinctions. Everything was perfect just as it is, everything fitting together seamlessly, like that box and its lid.

And with that, I felt a call to be of use. A call to join in a healing of the many wounds. The call of the family. A dream out of the dream. But that’s for another reflection.

For now. For here. Just this. Intimate. Intimate.


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