When Jesus opens his mouth in the Gospel of Thomas, there is a Buddha sitting on iUs tongue.



The Circle of the Way:

Reading the Gospel of Thomas as a ChristZen Text
The Christian Gospel of Thomas is a wisdom text, a collection of saytngs in which a fictive Jesus instructs his followers (and readers like us) in a new way ofliving, The sayings are a means for the transforrna lion of life, Thomas is part of a long tradition of such ollections thai includes Proverbs Ecclesiastes, the Wi.sdom of Solomon, Sirach, Pirke Ahoth ("Sayings of the Fathers' included in the Mishnah). and the later [fourth century) collections of sayings of the Christian desert fathers. These collections are generally readas straightforward guides for proper living. The goal of the studenL of Zen is to open ilia mind Losatori ( nlightenment or realization) in which one realizes oneself. This translocmation is the result of mind-to-mind transmission from the teacher [0 the student. The ego and the intellect get in the way of realization, and the teacher's role is to help orient the studen t toward OJ state of consciousness in which fundamental change is possible. One of the vehicles for such reorientation Is the koan. The Sayings Gospel of Thoma an be encountered. in the sam way one encounters a koan. The teachi ngs of Master [esus cannot b apprehended intellectually. Like k0811S, they need La be realized by what Zen
This paper was orlginnlly presented in a sligbl ly different form at the annual meeting of the Buddhist-Christian Studies Association in Tacoma, Washington. Augu.. :woo. ~L W.INTER 2002


This essay is an experimenl in read- ing Thomas or three or Ihe with Zen mind.yllOpOCS} a [esus 'who is a artist in the oral tradition. (Meyer..lL concludes Thomas sayings. ami nol outside OLlI' self. . In terms of its relationship Thomas borrowing combined dressed is probably with to the canonical New Testament best described materials as being part of a process lo create novel literary Meyer suggests Lo be more original and reworking traditional over time. WhiJe Ill. than a savior: more I ike a teacher Noib ing mediates the sci r for the [esus of llie Gospel of Thomas. The omphasis this Iesus is upon a pervasive opacity lhat prevents LIS from seeing anythlng that really matters . or [Bloom. a sayings collection the S. Everything we see.. Some ascribe the Cnoslic aspects of it 10 a. Gnostic. among tho Oxyrhynchus and 1904. Meyer's translation..7-B). in his "Afterword' Thomas marks. in which original contributions communities.. with some traditional Zen-style The Gospel of Thomas The text of the Gospel of Thornas version discovered exists in its entirety only In the Coptic as part ofthe NagHamrnadi library. is not simply a CnosHarold Bloom. In most versions. as a thoroughgoing For example.k is already in our presence. Meyer demurs. of creative were adforms geJlI'e' of collections as J mentioned He notes that Thomas clearly has other. 115) 460 CROSSCURRENTS . Creek fragmcnla iJ1 1897 were first found. Ignorance is the blocking agent. for is a cheerleader important tic Lext. AJ Ihough part of what is generally Thomas (as the Gospel will be referred 10 Marvin referred toherealler] La as a Gnosl:ic Library.. which was buried and unearthed in the fourth century in Egypt in 'J 945. You need but knock and enter . 112.. identifying or sayearlier Gospels. redactor. it consists or 114 sayings. In his introduction.would readings call the unthinking mind. Coptic version papyri and published dates to the early fourth century. some . What is most remarkable in those sayings is the repealed Insistence lhal everything is already open to ou. holars estimate that the original le t 1118 have been composed late in the first century c.. appear to specific Christian parallels LhaL[he forms than New (and the Q Gosa Jesus who is of some of the sayings Testament greal verbal in Thomas woven (Meyer. Bloom finds in Thomas through He has identified pel. equally it is part or the ancient ings and is ofa piece with Jewish Wisdom l ileralure. 1:1).s. probably in Syria.

The British 58ho181' of Buddhism.'.e disciple comes as a guide who opens access La spiritual attains enlightenment. not sin and repentance. 111. traditions of reality in Thomas The exercise although ion (koans do not emerge in Zen until the end similarities in koans and the Christian reality interand for reading lhe two traditions literary in. has suggested have influenced such writings up between exchange tact with the Thomas XJ(i). 461 . DOL or I am suggesting that this lnfluenoe.. Christians . SOUt11 India" [Conze. influence on Thomas The possibillly of there having been a Buddhist Elaine Pagels in The Gnostic Gospels notes that the living Gnostic texts speaks of illusion "Instead and enlightenBut when of coming to save us [rom si. BeGaLL~eyou have drunk. He who will drink from my mouth will become as [ am: 1 myself shall become he.. this identity for illusion and enlightenment. (Hence ill the early Syriac Judas Thomas.) the Crace-Roman in Alexandria. As Pagels points out. JeSLlS no longer serves as his spiritual identical" of [esus. . :35 ana 50l." [Thortl<16. revered master: the two have become equal-even the voice of Thomas is Didymus church as an apostle and twill brother Jesus said. apprehension presented textually. be understanding.. of the divine and human. Conze.iJ1 Christians who knew and used as the Ga. and for generaticus Buddhist had been proselytizing is provocative. not a savior sound more Eastern easily be lhe living Buddha. but I se" til represented as suggestive if indeed there was any. Trade between in Gnosticism. in Pagels. missionaries influence and world and the Far East was opening The possibility 80 and 200 C.E.n. look between the Buddhist lhe form of koan transrnis 01 the first millennium). Jesus of the Nag Hammadi ment. xx).This perspecti is not remote. "I am not your master.speio/Thomo. which I am engaged is primarily I think it has a bearing on recenttrends in reading scripture exemplified in scriptural or textual reasoning. Since all religious and inlerpretation reality. yCJII ha V(:) become drunk from the bubbling stream which r have measured oul. reading of texts in some form ways can texts in common engage in the reading interreligious or other in order to apprehend h lp further WINTER 2002 dialogue. Edward fact that Hindu or Buddhist tradition may well He points out that "Bu ldhists were ill con(that is. e sounds more Buddhist than Christian. and the things that are hidden will be revealed La him.) (Pagels. concern who is a spiritual guide The living Jesus could as and a founder than Western. imaginative.

[Foulk. as a new and meaningful. Essentially. lip for some sort at' specia I scrutiny. on a case. ..aning of a lext but [hen promulevolution ofthe primary as indeed . is ongoing in Buddhist of koan tradition in the oral Torah of Judaism. to treat a particular passage from the petriurchal records as a koan is precisely to single it out and problematiza il as something profound and difficult to penetrate. which is assumed to b an especially profound expression or encapsulation of the awakened mind of th patriarch La whom the wards are attributed . (the Buddha) speak but held up a Hower beCROSSCURRENTS . are suggestive for om reading outside Thomas. The koan may be thought in which Sakyarnuni 462 of as being "transmitted did 110l the scrip- tures. brier sayings. or koan is as good as any-and particularly useful They are Foulk s definition lor my purposes. a case before a court or the ten brief sitting on a magistrate's record of a judge's decision tice came Lo be regarded attainment. In Zen. 40).e. That is lo say. or anecdotes that have been excerpted from the biogra ph ies and disco urse records nl' Ch'an/Son/Zen patriarchs and he lei. all scripture shares this attribute when it is read on its OW11 terms. Revelation Two other aspects the m . lightenment." to use the phrase from case 13 of the Gaieless Barrier (Mumonkan). equates with.Ih former a primary and the latter a secondary collection. in whi h experts not only interpret gate their Interpretation text itself. The Christian texts la k this commentary tradition. There is an implicit demand for interprotatton in the very selection of a passage for usc as a koan. renders the koan a conundrum and frustrates the discursive intellect" (Foulk. it exists wi U'iOIJ L commentary by subsequent masters.. . fHl- The one sitting in iudgmentis To be found guilty Is 10 be judged deluded.Koans Speaking implicit of koans. in Heine and Wright. dialogues. That scru tiny always involves interPI' ting and commenting all the passage in question. 17) Kung-an (the Chinese word for koan) means public table case and derives from jurisprudence tnmedieval China. Griffith Foulk writes that the "tension demand lor interprelatinn between the that the root case presents and the ex- plicit rejection of interpreLationby the com mentary .it is of commentary. Lhe exemplary cases for pracas authoritative standards for judging spiritual not a magistrate innocence but the master. Two representatives of the major kinds of koan collections are the Gate] 5S Barrier and the Blue C]ifrRecord . it would be primary in this classification.. T. II" Thomas were a koan collection. Kung-an came to signify a writi..

[Hui-Neng.." In 13. WINTER. nOT for similar protectors of dogma In Zen. "One should use one's mind in such a way that iL will be free of any attachment. 85)..' Wh •. is found in The Sutra of Hui-Neng. and realized lhat all things in the universe are the ess DC' Mind itself . "The Way [oonsists In] one raying: 'Bodhidharma came from the West. I will stone yOLL. Jesus Lakes Thomas away [rom the other disciples and speaks three sayings to him that are not recorded. Ch'an (Zen) was a revolution that undermined III scholastic tradition ofsutra interpretation and rewrote the history of Buddhism in China according to new criteria.' you tell me. 73) or Jesus says in 62 of Thomas. 94). Using the robe a. When he came 10 the senleuce. HI disclose my mysteries ('0 those [who are worthy] of [my] mysteries.t is this special transmission of the Way'? Directly poinling to the human mind. The venerable Kashyapa smiled and received the dharma transmission . be responds: "If I Loll you one of the sayings he spoke to me. The form of transmission ofknowledge embodied in Thomas prevents effective control by a central aulhority. Secondly. If one were Lotreat this saying as a koan. seeing oue s nature and becoming a Buddha" (WelL r. In tlris reading. 1 will set you on fire. h expounded lhe Diamond Sutra to Ole. not via written texts. Do not let your Iell hand know what your right hand is doing. Ihe special transmission represented ill the koan might be thought of as a 'secret.. to the knov 1 dge of no one. If you donot tell me." 1 81 once became thoroughly Enltghtened. A 1 articularly vivid example of this trad itlon of direct transmission. There is a proces of transmitting Zen aul horily. [I]n the third watch of th _ night J went 10 his room. the initialed. esoteric enlightenrnent experience . 78. Thus.. 54}. When tho others ask him what Jesus said to him. That is one reason it was buried in the fourth century and Cl major reason that Gnosticism was condemned as heretical.. There is no place for bishops in Thomas. ilia teacher might ask th student: "What did Jesus say LaThomas? II. the dharma was transmitted to rue atmidnight.outside the teaching (Low. a screen so that none ould oe us. lransrnitled [rom mind Lo mind. and fire will come from the rocks and consume you.fore the assembly at Vulture Peak. are permitted to know the secret." Only the adepL. 2002 463 . where the Sixth Patriarch describes how the dharma lthe teachings) was passed to him by the Filth Patriarch Jung-jen. between master and disciple" (Welter. which evokes the Gnosticmode of S cret tran stnissi on." Thomas is a transmission outside the tradition of Christian script ure. a special transmission outside UJe teaching.. you will pick up rocks and stone me.

"All koans.' The 'circle of the way' is a translation of the [apanese word dokan. 87J. '" Satori has remained thoroughly impersonal." Suzuki also says. 22. in which one rneditares on l he lexl in order to reveal its m13<111ing to the spirit. The irlea hnrn i. employs the intellect to deny the intellect. which is also a "circle of the way. paradoxics Ily. oilers an opportunity numbers Third. xxviii]." Considering the Gospel in plot ion known J igll I (]f Ih is tradition as zazen) and enlightenment - through the consciousness Christian of the koan tradiliou. .." roprescntls] tho hear! of his leaching" (Tanahashi. tary. 'l'hornus. First.but the Iorm of teaching is the opposite of dogmatic. In lhis view. following the traditional Iorru of koan commena commentary." Second. a circle I'or Dogan. III Dogan's words. I record the saying or "case. iwh'c'hj. One does not read them in the lectio divisui trad ilion of the Benedictines. The great [apanase master Eihe: Dagen . Tho sayings invite noL ecstasy but insight and rolleotion. "Al the 1110 III en l you begin taking a step you have :11'rived. tho Book of Serenity. or rather highly intellectual" [Suzuki. 'You experience immeasurable hundreds of eons in one dav.jgiltenmenlth(1t Zen experience bas "no personal note in it as is observable ill Christian mystic experiences. but you let enlighlnnmenl unfold. The way is.t11I'01lgh reflection that. xxxviii]. Thomas exhibits this some tendency toward the intellectual rather than the emotional. and 42. Daiselz Teitaro Suzuki notes lu The Zen Koan us a Means afAttaining EllJ. lo reread provocatively In the remuin- del' of this essay.s to DUel' a different way of reading lhat utilizes the literary form of CROSSCURRENTS 464 . nud YOLI keep arriving each mornenl Iherealler. i'his horacterization can be applied La the experience of reading.whose Sbobogenzo is a particularly rich collection of koan commentaries and essays on Zen practice saw spiritual practice (particularly the Zen Iorm of conlernas inseparable. you don't journey Iowanl enlightenment. T offer commentaries on three of the Thomas I provide sayings- 2.. lor lhis would crowd out the learner [or the mental lhe very effort needed desired (Cleary. "axe the utterances of satorl wiLh no intellectual mediation" [Suzuki. 28).As·8 matter fralns (Tom exhaustive and undermine of practical principle [Zen] commentary lransformalion" reexplanation. I compose a "capping verse" for each lhat restates my take on lhe root case ill another form or using a slightly different melaphor. Zen li leralure as it developed in China was designed to engage 'the reader in m intal dialogue rather Ulan professing doctrines and dogmas . As the translator Thomas Cleary notes La his introduction to another koan collection. but rather one reads lhern [or enligb Lenment .

OIW will be troubled. l'lhen on. my need. al all. II i beyond me already even though I hold because I do not understand my the trout in my hands.id. " Commentaru: Some do slop seeking. what they like to eat at difteren l times of Ihe year. [ seek to catch a trout. koan commentary. 1 was in a stream every week. Tam troubled longing. "Let one who $(:eks not slop seeking until Dna JIM/S. U1eknowledge from previous tri ps to this same water. gorgeous living thing from the water. olle wil! mW'I'eJ anti will iule {weI'oil. I go lish ing to catch trout. IL was a miracle and yel wholly righl. it LS more beautiful than I could have imagined to do with me.(-)is troubled. Lwill not be as happy as I was whon the trout was throbbing. And it Fishing is like this. One fish was never enough. Commentaries on the Gospel of Thomas 2 !eiWS ~w. monofilament.e. One hour was never enough.a Rainbow that rose to my Mayfly as naturally as Je us from lhe dead." that also cr ali Jy rereads the Buddhist tradition. and 1 take wi lh me Lo the river everything in 00 I need-s-urtificial Mayflies. It has been more I han a year since I lasl went fishing. To seek is always Lo go somebetter lhan what we have.I also hope in this rereading of a Chri lian L . troubles water and lailwalked me because has nothing 011 my hook and. t 10 enter a "circle of the wa . They no longer listen. But if [ seek only to catch a lroutl will be disappointed. 'what of me WINTER . 1 caught my Ilrs! fish there . I wanted Lo be troubled by the fish lhat lay beside the rock at the head or the Bridge Pool. Not so long ago. one return? And if so. to want something. is never what we expect. that log yesterday polarized will prob- gla ses. When I pull the flipping. The slop looking mound. Vlfiuw one _finds. Is there only one resurrection. and one that was under ably be there again today. the tream spraying rod iu my hand was out f the and What 1 Find I will not be as happ across the as I was when the troutleapt rainbows. Trou t live pla . closed and then In time they remain inside wi 111the doors and windows usually forget what it was like Lo be anywhere where else. usually. BuL then I was troubled because there might not be another. You gel to know bow the trout behave.2002 465 .

I think of myself as the trout swaying In the current beside the rock. even now when there is a hook in rny mouth and I am gasping fOT life. and when you make the inner like tbe outer and the Dtlter like lire ilWB1. This is nourishment and so r rise to it. at: its intricate cons truction . em i. and I think that I know what I am about to eat. and what is found will be opened and the seeker will be inside . [wd when yew make mule and female into a singJe one. Commentary: When be talks to the disciples..Fb. But then. and.ng babies am like those who enter the (.and my future? How do these troublesome thoughts lead to my ruling over anything? I cannot rule over my own emotions. be weaned. The hook stings and I am suddenly airborne.'.. so that the male will nat be male nor the female be female:). a fish out of water. They said 10 him. He says ." They see babies nursing.:LU f his 0 tools because he wants me and cannot have me.. like a child in hiding from the other children W]lO feel the dark COOling on and their mothers ()11 the edge of the world. He said to his disciples. "Then sboll we emes the (J'vther's) kingdom as babies?" Jesus said 10 them. and then in sorneone's hands (which burn because they are so hot).mage in place (~f on image.file.eye. But Tam still and marvel. He speaks in poetry. . a jootin place ofofoot. behind screen doors.22 JeSlJS SOlIVsome babies nursing. my own thoughts. and he sees babies nursing." and they think he means "babies.l"sj kingdom .es in place of on .like the lower. [look up at this expectant creature and see only disappointment and grief. The seeker who has nothing to find will find it. and the upper . Q hand in place of a band. hanging back a moment to be sure."babies." But is this not the opposite of the direction in which we want to go? The baby wants to remain at the breast but has to separate.. I marvel at its presence. til en you will eniet [tbe kingdom). it is sometimes like two different species trying to communicate. When the Mayfly drifts over. Verse: Here r wait for myself to arrive. ]llI'hen YOll make ey. "Wilen you make the two into one. they answer in prose . then take it in my mouth. 1 marvel then becaus e in fact I rule over him and . to 466 CROSSCURRENTS . The poet Ephrem called Jesus "the living breast. about to step out and call them home. "These nursi. .

knows. Peter slaps the Master's face. nor foot. That is the essence of creation. One-cannct know or feel it. individual yet longing to return to origins.. to keep the sheep away from the goats. The inner is the euter. and he keeps talking to them like this.' think about death. but I am still L Such is the strong need to be separate . Division is a humancondttion. I want to be two. keep the pieces pure. as [esus. and thinks that he would like to be there. But for the one to be one Is the reality that forbids longing. When people are dying 01. He also knows that you cannot make "the two into one" or any of the necessary unions. 4. We need to chop things apart. their hands. That is the old impulse of religion. 'Toual'e very close to the kingdom. they come 'UDbidden. The one is only many when the eye is not the eye. We GaU it differentiation and psychological health. that the primordial ooze becomes uncountable creatures. nor the male like the female. who lives both here and in the kingdom. [esus knows how difficult this way of thinking is for his disciples." he whispers In Peter's ear. not one.Like death.. who sit at his feet scratching their body parts . He vaguel y desires this other reali ty Jesus speaks of but at the same time he desires nothing at all any more. but do not stop to gape. The one simply are . maybe herding sheep. It is late in the afternoon by the Sea of Galilee. Peter picks his nose and gazes serenely over the water at U18 distant hills. It feels natural.. Union is divine. "Be!' passersby" me Commenta·ry: Do not go around. each.their feet. Jesus sits beside him. the image only what it is. nor any other. Verse: The inner wrfolds accordingly. Do not pick up anything lying on the ground or pull down anything S115WINTER 2002 467 . their male and female body parts.as the word formed in the mouth COmes forth as breath and also sound and ear and understandirrg. Go through.grow. the eyes the eye. they try to imagine waking up somewhere else in the consciousness that bears their human name.2 Jesus said. Be in the middle. The sound is like that of a mosquito. Once I was Iiving but now I am dead. The foot is the foot. The inner is 110t like the outer. You cannot want it or even know wheteit Is.

If l 8. nor even want it. walking along. The way is what matters. The healing she wants is theological. So the point is knowtugthat 'there is no stopping. It Is not an easy thing. Wosre where we are.pended in the air. Allongethe way another woman. [esus is the seed that comes and blooms and goes withou l a moment's hesitation.lunch. even though he is on whal the rest of 'Us would see as a more urgent mission. Jesus is good at thisvHe is always 011 the go. That is why resurrection CaINS so easily for Jesus. the scripture says. Jesus is where he is neededaL the moment. older. nor even about its present. (She does nol want 10feel impure any more. but until lhey cry Qui he has no 1'8a50n to stop for them. Walking on the water toward the disciples who are struggling against the wind. Verse: Being an the way is 110. When you see someone who needs assistance.) He feels her need anrl stops.a passerby. He is Dot 1111concerned for their welfare. harder even lhan to love your enernies because we wantto stay exactly here. almost certainly) touches his robe [or healing. This is the hardest commandment. to be transparent-s-wholly presentand yet-en the way Lo someplace else. He knows the rhythm or lhe universe. 468 CROSSCURRENTS . he ge ts into th e boa l.(11. who has had a now of blood for twelve years (menstruation. When he is called to visit a young girl who is sick and maybe dying. not because it is more important than others but because his way is also lhe 'Way[or others. He did not think about it. not em act jon. Living in the world is not important. No seed thinks about Its future. He will even ride with them-and so when he is walking on the water and they cry on l. he intends to pass them by. help them but do not stay for . I am not . guarantee thai we have a place 1. Passing by is a state of being.0 go nor have come from someplace elsa.the street and see $0I1:1eon0 lying by the wall who is cold and hungry and 1 pass him by. and u is the only way. If you call out to rite and I stop. then J am a passerby. He brings them along ifthey waul to come. and even as we wish it have moved on. but when lhe time was ripe he rOSB. The 0118 who lies beside the road is passing by the ones 'who cannot stop but think that down the road is destlnatlou. always heading oulIhe door. he goes right away to see her. The trick is to be attached neither to the next place nor this one.

and J. Wright. New York: )xford University Press. trans. Tauahashi. COSPr!i8. . Basion. and Dale S. Harold. Heine." In Stephen HeiTI and Dale S. 2000. Marvin (New Translation. The KU(J1J:Texis and Context's in Zen Buddhism. \l\IoJLor. 7118 Gnostic. Book of S r nity: Boston: Slmmbhala. ruut Co. Interpretation by Harold Bloom. 1994. Cleary. Meyer. "Mahakasyapa's Smile: Silent Transmission and the Kung-an [Koan) Tradition. C. 2000. A." In MeJ'l~r.A1bert. Foreword by 'lalzan Iaezumi Roshi. WrighL. : TIm Essentiot 'J/:lachiI!gso( Zen Mastel'Dogen. eds.Inc . Enlightenment Unfold. F.. Sliambhala Publications.and 'd. Tbo018S. Suzuki. J g9a. The Diun10nri Sulfa and th« Sntra nf 1-1(11Neng. Boston: Charles E. ed. 1977. Sleven. New York: Vintage Books. trans. Charles 1~ 11IlLlc Co . Thomas. Cleary./\ Reading. Albert The Tl\fol'td: 11 Galm'HJY: Commentaries un LIm I'v1umrmknn. 1992.Sources Bloom... Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of/es1Is. San oI Francisco: HarperbarjFranciscn. New York: Routledge. Griffith. Low. Price. The: Zen KOQn cs a MeClIlS of Attoini112 RnligiltellllJull/. ew York: Oxford University Press.ublicanons. ew York: xlord University Press. 1992. . The Koan: Texts and COIl texts ill Zen Buddhism. 71w Gospel. 1979. 1995. 2000. Boston: Sharnhhala 1. Boston. San Francisco: l-jal'peJ:San.fl'llncisco. Elaine. "The Form and Function of Koan Literature: A Historical Overview. Kazuaki. The Blue Cliff Record.. VnlanLasis. Foulk. T. Richard. 19YO. WINTER 2002 469 . 1!:W7. The Gospd oi Tbomos. [no" 1£199. 13os10n: Shamhhala. The Koan: Texis and Contexts in Zlm Buddhl zn. CI CITY.. with Introduction and NOles). 71w Go~~po/Of'[YlOII'IQS: The Hidden Sayings a/Jesus. Daisctz 'Ieltaro. Pagels. anrl Wong Mou-Iam.." III Haine and VI/rigbt.

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