In Matthew 5, after the Beatitudes, we have a passage which cuts to the core of the Christian message. The text records a speech by Jesus. It may or may not be true that the speech actually captures a specific event - the so-called Sermon on the Mount - but let us imagine that it does.
Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Oral memory of that day, in a natural amphitheatre overlooking the Sea of Galilee (I have stood in the exact spot where the sermon is said to have taken place), eventually written down by Matthew many years after Jesus' death, suggests that He said,
"Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.."
This is the St. James rendition of those words. I prefer them to more modern translations.
The details and the truth of whether the Sermon on the Mount was a once-only occasion, or a dramatisation of what Jesus said many times, are ultimately irrelevant. At its depth, the teaching is what shines through, not the question of literal truth.
Loving our friends, our family, our lovers is easy. Loving our enemies, those that want to harm us, those who are not like us, those who reject our beliefs, those who would do violence to us because of our beliefs... how many of us have the depth of humanity for that kind of love? In quiet moments, we close our eyes, breathe and perhaps realise that we are not ready for it, yet.
Loving thine enemy is also at the core of Buddhism, and features in several stories of Guatama Siddhartha's life (itself, heavily fictionalised by the passage time and the countless generational waves of human longing and institutionalised codification).
The meditation called 'meta bhavana' (loving kindness) turns this passage from love of friends and of what constitutes 'the same' to love of the enemy and what constitutes 'the other' into a spiritual practice. Meta bhavana has five stages: projecting loving kindness onto oneself; projecting it onto the friend or loved one; projecting love onto the neutral person and then projecting loving kindness onto 'the enemy' - someone who threatens us or offers only conflict. Finally, the fifth stage involves projecting love onto all parties and ultimately, towards the universe and all living beings.
Meta bhavana is a powerful technique. It is capable of transfiguring experience and the framework of experience. If it sounds esoteric at first, we can quickly realise that it is based on the simple thought that Jesus had already uncovered and lived up until the moment of his death: that spiritual liberation comes through loving not only friends and family, but also those who constitute a threat and who are different.
At base, with thoughts like this pulled inside us and held close, differences between religions melt away, and we finally allow ourselves to confront human truths without imaginary distortion. We see the road less travelled ahead of us and we realise that Jesus and Guatama Siddhartha and countless others have walked along that path thousands of years ago. Even today, people are branching off and beginning their journey, leaving material possessiveness and the illusory world of desire behind.
And we realise how futile and self-destructive it is to continue 'hating the enemy'. As if we ever could have gleaned that truth without contortion from the teachings of the Gospels...