A version of this article first appeared in the A to Zen column in the March/April 2013 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.
“Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise. Instead, seek what they sought.”
– Matsuo Basho
In a famous scene in the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus challenges his disciples with a pop quiz. “Compare me to something and tell me what I am like,” he said.
Simon Peter said to him, “You are like a just messenger.”
Matthew said to him, “You are like a wise philosopher.”
Thomas said to him, “Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like.”
“I am not your teacher,” said Jesus. “Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring I have tended.”
Then Jesus pulled Thomas aside and whispered three sayings to him in secret. When Thomas returned to the other disciples they asked him, “What did Jesus say to you?”
“If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and consume you.”
Not a pretty picture. But an important one.
With one simple question, Zen Master Jesus was able to discern something vitally important about his students. Simon Peter and Matthew were all too willing to label Jesus and reduce him to a definition. Only Thomas’s agnosticism articulated the deeper truth of Jesus’ ineffability.
We will never know the three sayings that Jesus spoke to his star pupil. But that’s not the point. The point is Thomas’s readiness to receive them. In fact, our hunger to know those three sayings plainly demonstrates our attachment to crude definitions and pat answers. We say we don’t like dogma, but we really do – when it’s our dogma.
To go one step further, is Jesus suggesting that our slavish attachment to concepts and doctrines, no matter how sacred, is a barrier to our experience of God? Although we risk the wrath of those who hold more traditional Christian notions of the unique divinity of Christ, our willingness to engage with this question is ultimately a sign of hope. Jesus himself, in no uncertain terms, openly ridicules his disciple’s devotional attachment to Jesus the person. Simon Peter and Matthew (and many among us) are suspended at the level of personality-worship and fail to see through the façade. As Joseph Campbell points out, every image of God is a mask. The masks of God serve a dual purpose. Initially they draw our attention toward God, but in the end they hide God from us. The final barrier between us and God is the mask that we have created. If you want to know God, you must forget everything you know about God. Our cherished idea of God is the last mask that must be ripped away.
By his own words, Jesus is not the source of the “bubbling spring”, he is simply tending it. We drink a little truth and like drunks we get loud and proud and want to tell everyone we know all of our beautiful theories. As usual, Jesus hits on just the right metaphor.
In psychotherapy this phenomenon is known as transference. As we experience increasing well-being under the expert guidance of a skilled therapist, we mistakenly transfer those good feelings onto the person helping us. Every therapist, guru, minister, mentor and teacher has had to thwart the loving but misguided devotions of grateful disciples. We fall in love with the messenger and miss the message. This mistake blinds us to the reality that the joy and freedom we feel is welling up from within us. The teacher is merely “tending the spring” of which each of us is a channel. In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s image, we are each a fountain in a beautiful garden, unaware that we are all drawing from the same well. In the cold, sober light of morning, in this beautiful garden, let us realize our oneness with the divine beyond the limitations of all teachings.