“The Kingdom of God in a Bag of Donuts”

by Sam Buntz

There has been much debate about how to translate Jesus’ saying “The Kingdom of God is within you”.  Some versions of the Bible prefer to translate it as “The Kingdom of God is among you,” ensuring that any inner light the individual self may or may not have is thoroughly subjected to the interests of a more communal idea of Christianity.  I can’t read Greek, and hence cannot really comment in a scholarly fashion on the true meaning of the word entos, translated as “within” and “among” in each case—but the Canadian Sage, Northrop Frye (an ordained but only occasionally practicing Methodist minister, incidentally) could read Greek, and he informs us that the difference in translation has more to do with the translator’s attitude than with any inherent meaning that we can determine, one way or the other, in the word itself: “Those who feel that psychological metaphors express the profoundest truths will prefer ‘within’; those who want a more social gospel—and these translators clearly have a social conscience—will prefer ‘among.’”  Yet, in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says (in a version that Frye suggests might be original),  “The Kingdom of God is inside you and outside of you.”

This last formulation not only combines, in a strange way, the differing emphases of the two translations of the same saying—but it manages to provide further clarification. The Gospel of Thomas’s Jesus goes on to say, “When you know yourselves, then you will be known, and then you will understand that you are children of the living father.  But if you do not know yourselves then you dwell in poverty and you are poverty.”  In its mysterious advice to “know yourselves” but also to “be known”, this resembles St. Paul’s great passage, “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then, face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as I am known.”  But what, then, does it mean to “know as I am known”?  By seeing through a “glass”, the King James translators mean seeing in a mirror or reflective lens.  So, Paul is stating that, in this world, we are gaining knowledge of Reality at a remove, as in a reflection.  We are not seeing the Face of God itself, but are only seeing the Image of God as it exists in a corrupted form in human beings: we are perceiving only a dim distortion of God, as when Moses was only permitted to see the “back” of God.  To “know as I am known” is, hence, for the same being to see and be seen by itself at once, to see its own face without the aid of a mirror—to see, in other words, the “face you had before you were born” (as W.B. Yeats and a Zen meditation question, or koan, both put it, albeit in slightly different ways)—to see Adam before the Fall or, even, as the Buddhist philosopher D.T. Suzuki more radically put it, “To be with God before He said ‘Let there be Light’.”  Meister Eckhart expressed the same idea as Paul, stating “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me,” and St. Thomas Aquinas also depicts the condition of the Blessed in heaven as being one in which God within the soul knows God outside the soul.  Naturally, Jesus’ emphasis on self-knowledge in The Gospel of Thomas’ report raises the ire of socially-oriented (or just externally-oriented) Evangelicals, but the Gospel of Thomas probably means something closer to Aquinas’s condition of the Blessed.  It is not espousing some sort of far-out New Age egotism—doesn’t seem to be talking about the ego-self knowing itself—only about God in the self and God outside of the self knowing Himself all at once.  Not only is this somewhat complex, but it is also bafflingly simple—“a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything,” in T.S. Eliot’s words.

Now, this involves a form of mystical apprehension that has not always been looked upon with favor by some churches.  Frequently, it is misunderstood as being a kind of spiritual narcissism—turning away from God to become centered in a sort of perfect self-love.  But Jesus’ purported statement that the Kingdom of God is outside as well as inside, and St. Paul and Eckhart’s shared idea that the act of knowing and the act of being known can become the same thing, should put this interpretation to rest.  If it is orthodox for St. Teresa de Avila to ascend her “interior castle” towards God, I see no reason why Eckhart—whose works were initially condemned as heretical—or a Zen Monk or Hindu Vedantist, for that matter, is any less orthodox.  If this kind of mysticism were what some people accuse it of being—turning entirely away from the objects of perception to the subject, to the self that perceives, constituting self-knowledge without God-knowledge—it would, perhaps, be a kind of ascetic selfishness, an utter withdrawal from our shared experience of life.  But it isn’t that, and none of its most revered practitioners and explainers ever asserted that it was.

I believe that all of the authorities I’ve just cited—from Jesus to Eckhart—are talking about the same fundamental experience, which, in a not exactly smooth attempt at providing a definition, we can call “the elimination of the subject-object distinction” (a commonly used but by no means easy to understand expression, often found in literature on mysticism, be it Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or Sufi).  It can be expressed more simply this way: we usually consider ourselves to be separate and distinct beings perceiving a separate and distinct world.  But, in reality, it is impossible to divide the contents of our consciousness from consciousness itself—we can never wholly separate the object from the subject.  When we are actually conscious of seeing something—a chair or an apple or whatever—we can’t actually parse our consciousness of a chair from the chair being perceived.  In terms of our real experience, it is all part of the same basic awareness, which has not the slightest shade of dualism in it.  Zen meditation—or really any form of meditation that seeks to train the mind to attain a certain perfect-pitch of concentration, whether by focusing on a mantra or on any other object or non-object—seeks to more deeply realize the unreality of the subject-object distinction.

But what does this have to do with the Kingdom of God?  If one takes Jesus seriously when he says that the Kingdom is within you and outside of you, one is inevitably led to the conclusion that there is no difference between what is inside and what is outside—the Kingdom of God is a country not limited by any borders, this false subject-object distinction we continually draw up.  In a Buddhist metaphor, this experience is usually described as being like the shattering of an empty clay pot: the pure space within the pot becomes the same as the pure space outside the pot, with no distinction remaining between them.  It is not that the subject absorbs the object—which is basically C.S. Lewis’s idea of how Satan works in The Screwtape Letters (that is, Satan is a giant Ego seeking to suck all external egos into itself)—and it is not that the object absorbs the subject (which is, I’d imagine, in an extreme form, what being enchanted or terrified by hallucinations induced by a drug are like).  It simply eliminates this false duality.  We cannot say much more about it, except that the people who attain such a realization and do not fall from it become the real Saints of this world.

Christ Himself, as I understand Him, represents a Person in whom this falsely conceived duality had dissolved or never even existed—He is a Person who has realized and experienced “the sound of one hand clapping”, in the classic Zen phrase.  I believe this is why Christ is not described as a being-among-beings—although in His incarnation as Jesus this is, at least, the impression He gives to the people around him—but as The Word, and why the Holy Spirit is described as being “the wind that bloweth where it listeth.”  Word and Wind are both images that transcend the concepts of subject and object: The Word is not a thing or even a being, strictly speaking: it is a Power, the stream of endless creativity that is not only from God, but is God.  It also radically overcomes the difference between Being and Non-Being—as the great theologian, Paul Tillich, thought God must.  The Word and the Spirit are hence not beings-among-beings, but symbols of the “Ground of Being”, a Deity to be apprehended through life and contemplation, not through set formulas and definitions.  Jesus, as I understand Him, was a Man who transcended his status as a mere man—while also retaining it—by becoming at one with the Father, seeing Himself no longer in terms of the subject-object distinction, but living perpetually in and as the God that transcends this distinction.

Hopefully, this article has demonstrated that the idea that “the Kingdom of God is within you” does not imply a sort of quietism—a withdrawal from outer activity into a solitude that is basically autistic.  Far from it: the entire life of Jesus demonstrates how such a claim needs to be incorrect, but it also, in His realization that “Before Abraham was, I am” (i.e. “before any being came into existence, The Word or Power of Being already existed”), demonstrated that those who thought the Gospel was purely social, and that there was no room for a deeper mystical revelation, were gravely mistaken.  A Zen parable beautifully complements Jesus’ own Gospel narrative, showing that the life of contemplation and the life of action are, in reality, made one in the Kingdom of God:

There was a Zen Master named Ho Tei, who was, in fact, an Enlightened man. He used to hand out donuts to the neighborhood children, and was always jolly, earning the title “Laughing Buddha.”  (Many of the fat and joyous Buddhas, seen in Chinatown shops and Chinese restaurants today, depict Ho Tei, and not the original Siddhartha Gautama Buddha.)  Once, a student of Zen came to test the Laughing Buddha’s attainment, and asked him, “What is the realization of Zen?”  Ho Tei simply dropped his giant donut bag and stared at him—which was, itself, the answer to his question.  And, the student asked further, having gotten the point, “What is the actualization of Zen?” Again, answering the question, Ho Tei picked up the bag of donuts and went merrily on his way…

Thus is the Kingdom of God.


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