Samsara and Salvation

The Upanishads and the Book of John

“Early on Sunday morning, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the entrance. She went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

Then Peter and the other disciple went to the tomb. The two of them were running, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and saw the linen cloths, but he did not go in. Behind him came Simon Peter, and he went straight into the tomb. He saw the cloth which had been around Jesus’ head. It was not lying with the linen cloths but was rolled up by itself. Then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first, also went in; he saw and believed.

From the Gospel According to John, Holy Bible, 20:1-16 

“But all those we love, alive or departed, and all things we desire but do not have, are found when we enter that space within the heart.” 

From the Changdogya Upanishad, 3:2

Our word for Easter comes from the pagan festival Ostara, a celebration of rebirth and renewal at the coming of spring. This isn’t an etymology blog, though, as wonderful as that would be. This is a personal reflection on Easter’s themes.

The springtime ideas of resurrection, reincarnation, and rebirth are kin in my mind. The Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Dhammapada, and the Bible all heed the cosmic seasons of birth, death, and renewal. And all these philosophies speak of liberation from this cycle, either through moksha, enlightenment, or through salvation via Jesus Christ. 

Who is “the other disciple, the one who Jesus loves?” I remember being asked this at the start of many an Easter sermon. In all historical likelihood, John’s spiritual heirs were referring to John himself as “the other disciple” and the “disciple who Jesus loved.” But I prefer the way my grandad saw it— the other disciple is you and me. We come to the tomb of death and find it empty. Death is not a permanent condition, but a fundamental part of the process of reality. Yogic philosophy calls this the “Wheel of Samsara,” or reincarnation. 

I don’t take that to mean that my individual soul packs up and moves to a new apartment of atoms in each lifetime, but that I am but a part of the great I AM, and always will be, as it manifests in living beings throughout the ages. This makes death but the dissolving of the habitual boundaries between I am and you are, they are and it is. Indeed, death is a returning to the whole to be reborn, and this is as joyous the women and the disciples at seeing Jesus again.

There is more, of course, to the story of Jesus’ resurrection than just new life, spring, rebirth. Forgiveness is there also, a washing clean. The yogic principle of Karma, which predates Christ by millennia, stipulates that as we move through lifetimes we learn to address the seeds of cause and effect planted in our consciousness by previous actions. I understand Christ-consciousness as redemptive of that cycle, or in yogic terms, transcending the Wheel of Samsara. I see enlightenment as releasing attachment to only the birth and life parts of the birth-life-death cycle inherent in reality.

“Do not cling to me,” Jesus tells Mary Magdalene, “For I have not yet been to my father in heaven.”

The Gospel According to John 20:17

Personally, celebrating Easter beneath the shadow of the Covid-19 Pandemic is… weird. Dana and I drive up to the Adirondacks to hike to a comely view and scout out some summer climbing goals. On the way we listen wistfully to a church service, wishing we could be bored in the pews beside our families. I tear up at a fuzzy recording of a church choir singing a familiar off-key, too-slow-to-actually-sound-victorious rendition of “Christ the Lord is risen to-DAAY-HAAAY, Aha-AH-la-HA-lehe-YOOO-HOO-yaaaaaaa…” 

Because this Easter is weird.

It is the first Easter without my Grandad, who was a pastor. I sang him “Amazing Grace” as he lay dying in the hospital last July. I watched his last breath, watched his last heartbeat pulse through his veins. It was the first death I have witnessed, and it was a mercy after the pain he had endured. This is the first Easter that I have known even a little bit, really, about death.

And this Easter is weird because the world passes this day sheltering while death passes over, as though Passover has not yet ended in triumph. We cannot gather to worship, or eat too many deviled eggs, to hold our nieces on their first Easter, to watch them giggle at crocuses in the new light of spring. We hunker down to minimize death, a death that comes as it has always come, as an act of nature, an act of God. And we should, so that we preserve the lives of dear ones who need not go yet, otherwise.

I look out the window and think about the message of Jesus. I feel forgiven, and I feel forgiving. Forgiveness is salvation.

If I can forgive the universe for the cosmic cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth, I am free. Jesus dies upon the cross and rises again, to show that there is no final triumph of death, decay, winter, sin, call it what you will. The cycle goes on. I can be present with it.

Jesus’ message is one of forgiveness, but not just receiving forgiveness for my own faults. I also must forgive, not only other people, but a universe that kills. If I can forgive reality for the pain it causes and accept it, I can enter the salvation of living in the present. Which, as my teacher Sean Murphy Sensei says, is the only place that our lives (and death) actually happen.

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