A Dhamma article by Ajahn Amaro – What Does ‘I Am the Way …’ Mean?

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Some Buddhist reflections on a familiar Christian theme given by Ajahn Amaro at Abhayagiri Monastery on 6 October 2006 – 

I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me. [John 14:6]

A number of years ago I was invited to join with Father Laurence Freeman OSB to co-lead an evening of reflections at Old St Mary’s Cathedral, San Francisco. This was something of a follow-up to the seminar entitled ‘The Good Heart’ which HH the Dalai Lama had led in London in 1994, when he was invited by the World Community for Christian Meditation to give commentaries on the Gospels. Father Laurence had hosted and chaired that event and I had also been honoured to take part in it.

Someone who had greatly appreciated the event and the richness of inter-religious dialogue that it had aroused was Janice Del Fiacco, a Bay Area resident. She was keen to encourage similar discussions in her hometown, so the gathering in San Francisco was arranged. Furthermore, just as HH the Dalai Lama had commented on the texts from the Gospels, she asked if I would do the same, and if Father Laurence would give reflections on something from the Buddhist scriptures.

I pointed out from the start that like HH the Dalai Lama, I was an amateur on Christianity and could not speak authoritatively from Latin or Greek sources. However, as Father Laurence pleaded the same ignorance of Pali and Sanskrit, and the spirit of the event was the reflections of contemplatives rather than textual analyses by scholars, we agreed that this lack of scholarship should not be an obstacle. We would just refer to received texts and offer reflections on that basis. Similarly, I can only refer here to derived sources and offer comments based on direct experience; readers are encouraged to bear that in mind as they proceed.

When we pondered what passages might be most interesting and useful for the group that would be gathering in the shadowy hallows of the cathedral, one quote from the Gospels immediately came to my mind. ‘How about: “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; nobody comes unto the Father except through me”?’ I suggested, a little brashly.

‘Really?’ queried Father Laurence, his face taking on an expression wrought of surprise, interest and a little anxiety. ‘Do you think that’s wise?’

‘ I think it’s ideal’, I responded, ‘it’s the verse of the Bible that’s most often quoted to us when someone is speaking from a triumphalist or exclusionist position, trying to assert that whatever we Buddhists believe (or those of any faith other than Christian), it must be wrong. However, when you look at that verse reflectively, it is a very powerful meditation teaching.’

Since we only had enough time for one piece each, and perhaps in response to my idea to use John 14:6, he chose for himself to recount the Kālāma Sutta. This is the teaching where the Buddha encourages his listeners not to believe in scripture, logic, parental tradition, common custom or even the words of a trusted teacher like himself, but rather to weigh the efficacy of any spiritual teaching or practice by the real wealth of goodness that it brings to one’s life. If it leads to welfare for yourself and others, take it and use it; if it leads to difficulty and division, leave it aside.

T hough my parents were not churchgoers, I was educated in Church of England schools, with a short service and Bible reading at the start of each day. From early childhood, the way that this verse from John came across to me was always somewhat off-putting. There was a harshness in the way it was always pronounced; Jesus was made to sound like an aggressive elder brother guarding the door to Dad’s study , or a bossy prefect proud of his privileged position. More to the point, it was used to say: ‘Christianity is right – everybody else is wrong!’

Generally  it doesn’t seem an exaggeration to say that this is most often how the words are used today, and almost certainly that was the reason for Father Laurence’s reticence at my commenting on it. In September 2006 it was on the placards of some ardent evangelists outside the Dalai Lama’s teachings in Pasadena, good-hearted folks eager to save us from the fiery pits.

From the earliest times when I began to think about such things, when I was six or seven years old, I wondered, ‘What makes them right? They say that, but can they prove it?’ So it was then that I  abandoned Christianity, mostly because of the requirement to believe what was not credible or provable to me. Only in later years did I realize that if the words are taken on a personal level, understood only to support tribalist  tendencies – ‘My team is better than yours!’ – we are missing a rich and liberating teaching.

My introduction to Buddhism, meditation and monastic life all occurred in Thailand. After living there for a couple of years I returned to England and to Cittaviveka, the monastery in West Sussex which had recently been opened by Ajahn Sumedho.

It was not so much that an interest in Christianity arose in me then; it was more that in a Buddhist monastery in England rather than Thailand, there was a steady trickle of visitors and encounters with Christians, some of whom were committed believers and others who were questioning or straight-out averse  to Christianity.

Suffice it to say that there was more talk of, and thus cause to reflect on, Christian teachings than I had been exposed to since leaving school some seven years previously.

I do not now recall what brought it to mind one day – perhaps a talk by Ajahn Sumedho or a chat with one of the monastery’s guests – but I have a clear memory of sitting in meditation one evening and remembering  the verse from John: ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life….’ It then occurred to me: ‘I have been meditating for a few years now and I have a clear understanding of both what “the Way” and “the Truth” are, but neither of these have anything whatsoever to do with Jesus… Hmmm.’

I was not agonizing over any doubts in my mind; I was simply using the faculties of wise reflection (yoniso manasikāra) and investigation of reality (dhammavicaya) in order to explore this interesting theme. The topic then proceeded to unfold further: ‘Well, if I know what the Way and the Truth are, and they are this current experience of Reality, then Jesus Christ was obviously using the words “I am” in a way very different from that put forth by the evangelical and triumphalist voices. Aha! Maybe that’s it.’

I then recollected that once when Ajahn Sumedho had been commenting on this passage he had said: ‘To me, that just means “Be mindful”.’ These words immediately brought to mind the famous verse from the Dhammapada:

Mindfulness is the path to the Deathless,

Heedlessness is the path to Death;

The mindful never die,

The heedless are as if dead already.’ [Dhp 21]

As these phrases formed in my memory, it became clear that mysteriously, these two passages from the Bible and the Buddhist scriptures seemed almost analogous, given a little flexibility with religious symbolism and terminology.

I am fully aware that it can be presumptuous, if not downright dangerous, to put words into the mouths of others, especially great seers and sages. However, it should be remembered that these reflections are offered here in the spirit of being for contemplation, rather than as categorical statements. In this way it is hoped that they will be a cause for fertile insights to arise and novel realizations to be sparked.

On one occasion a Catholic priest who had been staying at one of Ajahn Chah’s monasteries asked: ‘Do you think the goal of the spiritual life according to Christians and that according to Buddhists is the same goal?’ Ajahn Chah responded: ‘How could there be two Ultimate Realities? If there were, one of them wouldn’t be ultimate.’ If we assume that Ajahn Chah’s insight was correct, that means we are talking about a single Ultimate Reality which can be realized through many and various skilful means and symbolized in a variety of ways.

The term ‘the Father’  is used throughout the Gospels to refer to God as being the Ultimate Reality. Ajahn Buddhadāsa, a highly influential twentieth-century Buddhist master and one of Thailand’s great philosopher monks, who translated the Bible into Thai, said that Dhamma is the best translation in Thai for the word ‘God’, the two principles having many characteristics in common, such as immortality or deathlessness. The key difference is that ‘Dhamma’ cannot be personified in any way, i.e. it cannot be interpreted as some kind of separate being; rather, it is the transcendent Reality which is the source and fabric of all mental and physical realms. However, if we take the liberty of laying aside the personal element for the time being, the verse from John can be re-rendered: ‘…no one comes to the Deathless Reality except through me.’

By drawing these parallel passages together and equating their terms, if ‘the Father’ is equivalent to ‘the Deathless’, ‘I am’ has its counterpart in ‘mindfulness’. The Pali word which is translated  as ‘mindfulness’ here is appamāda, which can also be rendered as ‘heedfulness’ or ‘awakened awareness’; it means a fully attuned, wholehearted knowing of the present moment, free from any delusory bias and embedded in a profound and genuine wisdom. Thus the implication of Jesus’ statement: ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life’, when taken in this way, is that mindful awareness is the embodiment of his nature, what some have called the Christ consciousness.

The use of the words ‘the Life’ in the verse from John is also echoed in the Buddha’s words:’The mindful never die’. Interestingly, it is further borne out in other statements from the Gospel of John:

‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.’ [John 3:36]

‘Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live … And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’ [John 11:25-26]

As with these words of Jesus, the Buddha’s phrase can obviously be understood in various ways. If taken at a superficial level, it sounds as though the Buddha is saying: ‘If you play your cards right and are careful enough, your body will never die.’ Since his own body ceased to live after eighty years, that’s a big clue that he’s not talking about bodies here.

Rather, he is saying that when there is full awakened awareness, there is no identification with the body or with conditioned factors of mind. The realization of the Dhamma is so complete that the life or death of the body is of as little consequence as the turning of the earth is to the sun. As the Buddhist scriptures reiterate so often, the body and mind are not-self, so the heart remains serene through all life’s ups and downs, its many psychological births and deaths, triumphs and failures, as well as the ‘big death’ of the body’s ending. As St Teresa of Avila put it when expounding on this same theme: ‘We die before we die so that when we die, we won’t die.’

Though numerous Christian groups think in terms of the physical resurrection of all bodies of the faithful on Judgement Day , to the contemplative heart it seems highly likely that Jesus was intending his words to be understood in the same manner as the Buddha’s, and as St Teresa captures the essence of it in her succinct aphorism.

Another point to emphasize here is that in Buddhist philosophy, mindfulness, sati or appamāda, holds a uniquely significant position. It is the first of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment and as such was said by the Buddha to be ‘always useful’. The development of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness was said by the Buddha to be ekāyana magga, sometimes (also triumphalistically!) translated as ‘the only way [to deliverance] ‘, is more faithfully rendered as ‘the direct path [for the purification of beings]’ (M10.2); and sati is the pivotal member of the Five Spiritual Faculties.

Most importantly, this same quality of wakefulness is seen as being the very essence of the Buddha’s nature. Indeed, this is why the word ‘Buddha’, meaning ‘the one who is awakened’ or ‘the one who knows’, has come to be used as the primary epithet of the great teacher.

‘At one time the Blessed One was travelling by the road between Ukkattha and Setavya; and the brahmin Dona was travelling by that road too. He saw in the Blessed One’s footprints wheels with a thousand spokes, and with rims and hubs all complete. Then he thought: “It is wonderful, it is marvellous! Surely this can never be the footprint of a human being.”

‘Then the Blessed One left the road and sat down at the root of a tree, cross-legged, with his body held erect and mindfulness established before him. Then the brahmin Dona, who was following up the footprints, saw him sitting at the root of the tree. The Blessed One inspired trust and confidence, his faculties being stilled, his mind quiet and attained to supreme control and serenity: a royal tusker self-controlled and guarded by restraint of the sense faculties. The brahmin went up to him and asked:

“Sir, are you a god?”

‘“No, brahmin.”

‘“Sir, are you a heavenly angel?”

‘“No, brahmin.”

‘“Sir, are you a spirit?”

‘“No, brahmin.”

‘“Sir, are you a human being?”

‘“No, brahmin.”

‘“Then, sir, what indeed are you?”

‘“Brahmin, the defilements by means of which, through my not having abandoned them, I might be a god or a heavenly angel or a spirit or a human being have been abandoned by me, cut off at the root, made like a palm stump, done away with, and are no more subject to future arising. Just as a blue or red or white lotus is born in water, grows in water and stands up above the water untouched by it, so too I, who was born in the world and grew up in the world, have transcended the world, and I live untouched by the world.

Remember me as one who is awakened [buddha].”’ [A 4.36]

So mindful awareness is not just part of the Way, one prerequisite condition for realizing Ultimate Truth; it can also be said to be an embodiment of it.  Furthermore, just as Jesus Christ equates himself with truth in the verse from John, the Buddhist scriptures also on occasions equate the physical manifestation of spiritual awakenedness with the Ultimate Reality. For example, when the bhikkhu Vakkali falls gravely ill, the Buddha comes from his dwelling at the squirrels’ sanctuary in the Bamboo Grove near Rājagaha to pay him a visit. The Buddha asks Vakkali how he is, and after recounting to the Master that his sickness is worsening, Vakkali expresses the one regret remaining in his heart.

‘“For a long time, venerable sir, I have wanted to come and see the Blessed One, but I haven’t been fit enough to do so.”

‘“Enough, Vakkali; why do you want to see this filthy body? One who sees the Dhamma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma. For it is when one sees the Dhamma that they see me; and it is when they see me that they see the Dhamma.”‘ [S 22.87]

On another occasion one of the enlightened disciples, Ven.

Mahā-Kaccāna, extols the qualities of the Buddha’s nature:

For knowing, the Blessed One knows; seeing, he sees; he is vision, he is knowledge, he is the Dhamma; he is the holy one; he is the sayer, the proclaimer, the elucidator of meaning, the giver of the Deathless, the Lord of the Dhamma, the Tathāgata!’ [M 18.12]

However, all the instances where the Buddha is identified with the Truth by himself or his disciples,  should be considered in the light of the emphasis he gave to the fact that ‘the Tathāgata is only one who points the way’ (akkhataro Tathāgata). Merely staying close to him or clinging to his teachings can never be enough to liberate the heart; we have to make the effort ourselves to go in the direction to which he is pointing.

If we now refer back to the verse from John and re-read it in a non-personal  way, it too seems to encourage this same quality of self-reliance. If it is read as meaning: ‘Awakened awareness is the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one can realize the Deathless unless it is through this quality’, we are similarly thrown back onto our own resources. It’s up to us to rouse the energy, interest and resolve, and consider wisely how to let go of those attributes that obstruct the heart, and cultivate and maintain those that clarify it. It implies that there needs to be an effort from within, known in Japanese as jiriki, as well as assistance from without, which we can helpfully derive from those who point the way and can embody the Truth for us, who are known in Japanese as tariki.

In offering these reflections, I am aware that depersonalizing the Christian teachings might be illuminating to some but off-putting, distressing or confusing to others.  For many practising Christians the most important element of their faith is a personal relationship with God, and I have no intention of being dismissive towards that dimension of spiritual practice. It’s simply that from the Buddhist perspective there are many and various ways of exploring the mystery of experience and arriving at a unified quality of peace, freedom and fulfilment, total spiritual emancipation.

Often at about this point in discussions a Christian will ask: ‘What about love? Doesn’t that come into it for you? The sacred heart of Jesus is more than just mindfulness! Surely…’ Many Christians feel love coming from God the Father, Jesus or Mary as a tangible presence, like the love they extend to those beings  in return. In response to this, just as one can enquire on being quoted John 14:6: ‘What exactly do you mean by “I am?”‘,I often ask: ‘What exactly do you mean by “love”?’ Interestingly, both these kinds of questions are usually met with  silence.

When you come to its core, the experience of loving totally or being loved totally is an experience of wholeness; at that moment, self and other, lover and loved have been lost in the presence of completeness.

Having an external object or person who is the focus of devotion is one way of arriving at the experience of the wholeness of Reality, but it is by no means the only one.

In the Theravāda Buddhist tradition, though the Buddha is certainly described as embodying an all-encompassing love, substantial emphasis is also placed on the non-personalizing language of the scriptures. In Buddhist philosophy a phrase like ‘The Dhamma loves me’ is utterly meaningless, to be found in no Buddhist tradition whatsoever. More importantly, it is impossible to place the Dhamma outside yourself, even as some kind of non-personal element. Rather, it is seen as we see Nature, as something of which every aspect of ourselves is intrinsically a part.

To quote another famous passage from the Gospels which alludes somewhat to this same principle: ‘The kingdom of God is within you.’ [Luke 17:21]

The Northern Buddhist traditions have developed more in the way of devotional practices directed toward various deities and lofty spiritual beings, such as the recitation of the name of Amitabha Buddha or Kuan Yin Bodhisattva, or the various forms of deity yoga where a deliberate invocation of a divine ‘other’ is employed to open the heart to Reality. However, such practices are always seen in Buddhist tradition as merely skilful means (upāya) to help break through limited habits of vision. Thus there might be a profound, devoted relationship to Kuan Yin Bodhisattva in the heart of an aspirant; nevertheless, that devotion is recollected in the light of emptiness and the ‘not-self’ teachings. When asked whether Tara really existed, a Tibetan lama replied: ‘She knows that she’s not real.’

These two methodologies, deliberate self-reliance on the one hand, and conscious adherence to a revered being on the other, are both seen in Buddhist tradition as valid spiritual paths. However, the path of self-reliance, the jiriki track, is seen as the more direct and, understandably, the more demanding. It’s the path straight up the mountain, whereas the tariki practices, although seen as effective, are more circuitous and can be compared to the winding lanes that ascend the mountain at a more gentle gradient.

Interestingly, some Christian contemplatives have also recognized these complementary qualities as part of the spiritual life. In his Ascent of Mount Carmel, St John of the Cross describes various spiritual practices, using this same simile of a spiritual peak that needs to be climbed as his central image. The most demanding and direct of all the approaches he outlines is referred to as ‘the way of pure spirit’, and in his analysis of its nature he summarizes it as: ‘Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing and even on the Mountain, nothing.’  By the use of this expression he seems to be pointing to an equivalent complete non-identification with, and letting go of, all things, internal and external, as the Way.

This is the same radical quality of non-clinging which is exemplified in the nature of the Buddha and borne out in verse 21 of the Dhammapada. The pure heart neither has anything, nor does it lack anything; it is simply Ultimate Reality aware of its own nature. This quality is evinced both in Jesus’ words: ‘I and the Father are one’ [John 10.30] and the Buddha’s words to Vakkali: ‘One who sees the Dhamma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma.’

As already emphasized,  the reflections presented here are offered in the spirit of spiritual cross-fertilization and dialogue, just as similar themes were offered on that evening at Old St Mary’s Cathedral. It is hoped that as a result the sayings of these wonderful teachers  might be seen in a somewhat more universal way, which would only be a good thing.

Needless to say, if we want our team always to be seen as the best, and are clinging to our beliefs in a plaintive effort either to fill up the roaring vastness of the unknown, or because we are still carrying around our raft although we are already on the safe shore,  these reflections will not be of much use. However it may be, let the reader take what is useful and illuminating here, and the rest can be gently laid aside.