What Jesus Really Taught, and What It Means for Us as His Disciples

The young Jesus debates with the scholars. Etching by Filippo Severati after J.F. Overbeck, c. 1850.
The young Jesus debates with the scholars. Etching by Filippo Severati after J.F. Overbeck, c. 1850.

Having been raised Jewish, I only really began to study the New Testament after I came to the path of Self-realization.

It was the early 1970s, at a time when I was living as renunciate in a small trailer at the first Ananda community. I remember taking a couple of weeks of seclusion during which I spent most of the time reading Paramhansa Yogananda’s interpretations of the New Testament, which he had published in the 1940s and early ’50s in Self-Realization magazine.

Because I was raised Jewish, I had no relationship whatever to Jesus. And I remember what a profound revelation it was to sit with these teachings and realize that no one had ever told me anything about Christ that was true. From Paramhansa Yogananda I learned that what Jesus actually taught and what the churches are teaching today were two very different things.

A Self-realized master has a direct experience that cannot be transmitted on the level of the intellect. It’s a direct knowing which the master must make an effort to put into words. And he will put it in terms that people can understand, depending on the cultural context of the times.

In the Bible, for example, Jesus talks of sheaves of wheat and goatskins and wine presses. And, even so, when Yogananda came he talked about radio, and of this material creation being emitted from God like the beam of light streaming from a movie projector onto the movie screen.

I’m old enough to remember sitting in theaters where you could glance up and see the beam from the projection booth. But if you try to talk to people today about the beam and the projector, they very often won’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about.

A tremendous amount of confusion comes about in religion because the disciples of the first generation have a certain understanding of the teachings, and the second and third generation haven’t the foggiest idea, and all of the generations that follow try to interpret the teachings in their own way. And the problem is that, once you begin to accept a distorted version of the teachings, it can lead to all kinds of theological traps.

For example, if you start making dogmatic statements, such as, “If you do such-and-such, you’ll go to hell!” you’ll be setting yourself up for some unexpected consequences. The idea that we’ll to hell for our sins is a particularly unfortunately misunderstanding, because, as Swami said, if you believe that you’ll be going to hell or heaven after you die, you’ll be wondering, “Well, how bad can I be and still get into heaven?”

And then the church has to spell it out for you, and tell you how many sins you can safely commit of a particular type, and how those sins will be weighed against your chances of getting into heaven. And you wind up with what we see in Christianity today, which is a very intricate theology that bears hardly any resemblance to what Jesus actually taught. And this is why it was necessary for Paramhansa Yogananda to be born in India and to come to the West at this time to try to save Christianity from itself. Because India has a much more universal, objective and scientific understanding of the eternal truths that underlie all true religions.

For example, how are you going to deal with Jesus’ statement that he was the only son of God? Should we take his words literally, as the fundamentalist believers do, and believe that he was uniquely sent by God, and that all of the other avatars who’ve come as incarnations of God, including Buddha and Moses, were false prophets? How should we understand this strange claim?

It was only when I came to this path and began studying Jesus’ original teachings and the universal teachings of yoga that I was able to understand what Jesus was actually saying. And I found that it all came down to how we understand what he meant when he used the simple pronoun “I.”

When you and I say “I,” we mean the physical body that we are inhabiting, and with which we’ve become fairly thoroughly identified. I can remember the many things that happened to me as a child, and how my understanding evolved through my life’s experiences, and how I met Swami Kriyananda and moved to Ananda, and how I came to Palo Alto, and how I’m standing before you today. And the consistent, defining feature of all of these experiences is that I experienced them in this physical body which I’ve come to think of as “I.”

But Paramhansa Yogananda explained that when Jesus used the pronoun “I,” he was speaking from a very different level. He was completely identified with his infinite consciousness, and he was aware that only an infinitesimal part of his consciousness, a mere pin prick, really, was enclosed in that body. And it would have been ridiculous, from his point of view, to identify himself with that tiny body that would last for only thirty-three years.

How could that little body possibly encompass Jesus’ true “I”? When he exited that little body, he proved that he was still present with his disciples. And before he came into that body, he was already there, as he proclaimed in a wonderful Bible passage where he hints at the nature of his consciousness (John 8: 48-59):

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

“Before Abraham was, I am.” Jesus’ consciousness transcended not only the confines of the little body but the limitations of time. And because our experience is circumscribed by the body and the little events of our lives, we’re tempted to believe that he meant what we would mean when he spoke of “I.”

When it comes to understanding Jesus’ teachings correctly, this is the entire issue. Because once you pick up the Bible and understand “I” as the infinite consciousness of God that inhabited the little body of Jesus, his message begins to take on a completely different meaning. And this is the understanding that we are trying to share with those believers here in the West who have begun to question the absurd interpretations that have sprung up over the last two thousand years.

It’s interesting to contemplate that our own spiritual dilemma hinges on the same pronoun, because the essence of our search is that we are longing to know, “What am I, really?” Because what I believe that I am is going to set the stage for what I want to get out of this life, and what I believe will make me happy, and what I will define as pain, and how I will understand my fears and where they come from. And it all boils down to that simple pronoun, “I.” Because the whole of the spiritual path is a process of expanding our awareness and our sense of “I” until it can embrace the same infinite consciousness that Jesus knew.

Swami Kriyananda’s cousin was a tough little boy, and his mother was trying at one point to train him to be less aggressive. “You know,” she told him, “you should never hit back.”

“Oh, Mommy,” the boy replied indignantly, “I never hit back – I always hit first!”

He was so proud of being the one who would go straight for whatever he wanted. It doesn’t occur to little children to question the instinct that propels them to simply grab whatever they want. And this is why we need to teach them to share and not to fight, because these are the first steps they need to take to become aware of realities that are larger than their own self-interest.

You have a cookie and I’ll take it. I’ll eat the cookie and everything will be fine. And it’s very surprising to a little child when it doesn’t work out, because it doesn’t make them happy. And this is the fundamental level on which we are always being challenged to expand our awareness.

We are not so very different from children. And just as our parents tried to teach us, so the saints are continually trying to help us expand our happiness, each at our own level. Because our consciousness is in the same proportion to the saints as a child’s consciousness is to its parents.

We’ve drawn a tiny circle around ourselves, and we’re convinced that if we keep stuffing our little circle with all the things we want, this “I” will finally have happiness. And, just as small children need to be taught to share, so we need to learn to take a broader view. We are not doing our children a favor when we protect them from their opportunities to learn. And, even so, God would not be doing us a favor if He were to protect us from the results of our eagerness to contract our awareness and remain identified with this little body.

God takes care of us, but He doesn’t protect us from the lessons we need to learn. He gives us the freedom to test our theories about what will please this little “I.” And in the process, gradually our awareness grows.

If you should ever find yourself having to talk to people about the spiritual path in words that won’t confuse them, you can talk about “awareness.” It’s an extremely simple, comprehensive and true way to talk about spiritual things, whether you’re discussing business, relationships, or whatever the subject might be. The more our consciousness expands into a wider awareness of the reality in which we are living, the happier we become, until our awareness and our happiness are infinite.

Our biblical passage today is one that few of us would probably include among our favorites: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” (Luke 12:49-53)

It’s saying, “Don’t imagine that you will ever be at home in this world. If you follow me, know that you will have to leave the comforts of this world behind.”

I was twenty-two when I met Swami Kriyananda, and twenty-four when I moved to Ananda Village. And it was such a lark. It was all just so much fun. It was a time when an entire generation was going more or less berserk, in a way that, to my mind, was delightful: just turning over all the old rigid traditions and trying to find out what was true. And, of course, a great many of the directions that people chose to follow were a disaster, but a certain amount of it was good. There was a kind of anything-goes energy in the air, and I found myself, because I was very serious about the search for happiness, living in this very primitive community with this extraordinary man, Swami Kriyananda, who was forty-four years old. He was in the most powerful, expansive period of his life, and he was attracting a marvelous tribe, including many of us who are still dearest friends today.

Photo: Ananda Incense staff, 1972. L-R: Parvati, Bob Belleza, Nakula, Jyotish, Keshava, Binay, Jaya
Photo: Ananda Incense staff, 1972. Still around and best friends in 2019: Parvati, Nakula, Jyotish, Keshava, Sadhana Devi, Maitri, Binay, Jaya.

Most of us are still together, but in that long-ago time we were living in extremely primitive circumstances, doing this nutty thing with no money and no prospects, inspired by the incredible confidence that Swamiji radiated, because he knew where we were going, and we were all just paddling along in his wake. He had a very clear picture of where we were going, and what we were about, and I had tremendous faith in him.

But it was all just so much fun. And, also, there was a powerful feeling, which I’m sure we’ve all had, that somebody was finally telling us something that was true and that we cared very deeply about, which is how to transform our consciousness.

Before I found this path, people were telling me how to move the pieces around on the chessboard of this world. I thought there had to be some truth to the idea that if I would keep rearranging the pieces, I would have something I wanted. But I couldn’t figure out how it would happen. And when I came to Ananda and discovered that I could transform myself, and that it was the only way to make everything work, it felt as if I had been holding my breath, and I could finally breathe, because there was a reason to live.

It was so much fun, and there was such a great expectation. Paramhansa Yogananda said that in India, where people are familiar with the teachings of Self-realization, they are more aware of how difficult it is to become God-realized. So they tend to adopt a more leisurely, philosophical attitude toward the search.

“Well, all right, I’ll gain a little bit of good karma in this lifetime, and who knows? In some far-off future life, maybe I’ll be sufficiently advanced in my consciousness to find my freedom.”

But in America, where people aren’t as aware of the difficulties, when Master told tthem, “You can realize God,” they responded with the typical American can-do spirit and shouted confidently, “Sure – we can do that!” And although it might have been spiritually childish, Master said that he loved that American spirit, and that it was very refreshing, because it would, in fact, open doors for them to achieve tremendous results.

To a large extent, that was how I felt in my first ten years at Ananda. I was a little less naïve, because it doesn’t take us very long to begin to understand what we’re up against. And when the idea starts to dawn on you that you’re going to have to transcend all of your attachments and limitations and confusions and fears and desires, it can be a little daunting.

When I began to get an inkling of how long the journey really is, an image came into my mind, of a beautiful island far out in the ocean. It was an earthly paradise, and you would dive eagerly into the water and start swimming, only to find that it was much farther than you thought. And then you would find that you weren’t swimming quite as fast, and you weren’t quite as enthusiastic. And, in my mental picture, I imagined that you would stop and start treading water and think about it for awhile.

But then you would look back and see how far you’d come, and you would look ahead and see that the goal was still very far away. So you would tread water, thinking about it, and you’d begin to get tired, and maybe you wouldn’t be sure which way you wanted to go. But then you would realize that God had tricked you. He had lured you into this tremendous project without telling you what you were getting into.

And there you are, you’re committed, and there really is no turning back. And that was when I thought of a phrase: “the icky middle.” Because when the initial inspiration starts to fade, we find ourselves still a long way from the island paradise, yet unable to turn back because we’re too aware of what’s at stake.

And that’s what today’s Bible verse is telling us: that everything that has been a comfort to us – father, mother, mother-in-law, home, family, and all of the dear things that made us feel safe, will now have to be released. We’ve reached a point where we are too aware to feel safe in clinging to those things, but we haven’t yet transcended our desire for them. And this is where the real battle begins.

Now, we can take this passage in many ways, and the traditional Christian view is based on the crucifixion rather than the resurrection.

The theologians made a great mistake, when they cut the story off at the point where Jesus was dying on the cross.

Years ago, I visited a beautiful church in Vienna where I saw a crucifix that was the first one I really loved. They usually depict Jesus sort of drooping on the cross, hanging there and looking very sad and tragic, and it isn’t an attractive image. I remember being in Florence with Swamiji where we visited the Uffizi museum. We walked around, looking at the beautiful Christian art, with scene after scene of Jesus being tortured and crucified. And when we walked back out into the sunshine, Swami said casually, “I think it’s time for a new theme.”

He was saying, “Enough!” But the crucifix that I saw in Vienna was different – it showed Jesus standing powerfully in front of the cross. The cross was behind him, and he was definitely not hanging; he was standing triumphantly before the cross. And that is the true story.

The crucifixion is a fact, of course, and it’s not theologically wrong to talk about its spiritual meaning – that we must crucify the little self before we can be free. But the truth is that once you’ve crucified the little ego and transcended the consciousness of being confined in this little body, the “I” becomes infinite.

The story of Jesus gives us the answers to the most pressing questions of our lives: “Who am I? What am I? Where does my true happiness come from? What is real? Why am I still defining myself by these petty things that have never given me what I hoped for? Why am I still behaving like a child who imagines that if she grabs the cookie, she’ll have what she wants, and the little girl from whom she grabbed it will still be her friend?”

We move through this world thinking that we can shape it according to our desires and get what we want. And at a certain point we realize that it isn’t working, and that it never worked, and that it isn’t ever going to work, because we become aware that these things are not who we are.

I am one with the infinite, and I need to redefine and reinvent myself and go to war against untruth. “I come not to bring peace but a sword.”

But there is a part of us that is very insidious. A great many of our difficulties on the spiritual path come about because we are wanting to fight the wrong battles. We work so hard, but we aren’t fighting the right battles. It’s not enough to work hard, because you have to work smart. You have to work wise. And the problem is that we are always hoping to be done with it all. We imagine how wonderful it will feel when all of the effort is finished and we don’t have to struggle anymore. And, yes, while it’s definitely true that, as Yogananda put it, there will come a state where “all efforts end in ease,” that state will only ever come to us as the freedom of absolute fearless victory. It is definitely not a victory that we can achieve by imagining that we’ve won the battle, and that we can lay down our arms and stop fighting.

Our reading today concludes with a verse from the Bhagavad Gita. It says that to the man of wisdom, everything is the same: pleasure and pain, sorrow and happiness, gold and dirt. To the man of wisdom, these are the same substance, because there is no sense of me and not-me. There is no sense that this is what I want, and this is what I don’t want, this is the one I love, and this is the one I don’t love. These are the likes and dislikes that Jesus is telling us we must repudiate completely. We have to be able to say, “I am everything. I don’t need anything. I don’t need to have things my way in order to feel the way I want to feel.”

When I was nineteen, I was so excited when I came across some books by Swami Vivekananda. It was three years before I met Swamiji, but I was reading Vivekananda and starting to learn about Self-realization. And because I have a Gemini mind, and I’m very active and quick, and I like to do things fast, I’m always doing something other than what I’m doing, you might say, and I’m always anticipating. Because m my natural tendency is not to “Be Here Now.” And I remember washing the dishes one day, when I hadn’t been on the path very long, and trying to finish the dishes because there was something else I wanted to be doing, and as soon as I got that done there would be something else. And in that moment the voice of God spoke to me. It spoke in a New York Jewish accent – this was my first and still one of my most profound spiritual experiences, as stupid as it may seem. I was washing the dishes, feeling very mentally rushed and distracted, when the voice of God said, “What’s your hurry, honey? It’s just one damn thing after another!”

It was one of the most important things anyone has ever said to me, because I realized what a deep delusion it is to imagine that if we can just get rid of this one little thing, there will be a grand moment when it all resolves in perfect peace.

Jesus said, “I didn’t come to bring peace but a sword.” He’s urging us to continually raise our energy and face ever-greater levels of reality until there is only infinity, and there is no more us and them. And at that point, whatever comes, that’s what I will do.

That’s the nature of true freedom. True freedom is knowing, “This is what is, and I will with it.” And the relaxation of knowing that it’s just one damn thing after another is a great relief, once we can fully accept it.

Why am I spending so much energy wanting to get through my medical procedure so that I can get to the other side and earn my PhD and start my job, and meet my partner so I can have my baby? Always thinking that somewhere around the next corner, instead of where I’m standing, is where I will at last be fulfilled.

And that is the whole battle, to be here now, just like the title of that wonderful book by Ram Dass that changed my generation. To actually be Here in the Now. And it’s astonishing how seldom we are truly where we are.

Most of the time, we’re worrying about the past or anticipating the future, and imagining how it will all be better once this moment is over. But it’s always going to be Now, and that’s the annoying part. It’s always now, and this is where we have to go to battle. And what we have to go to battle against is not literally our father, mother, sister, friend, husband, and daughter-in-law and wife, but our own constant imagining that this alone is where my comfort lies. And all of those relatives represent our inner desires. That’s why Jesus used images of family, to signify that we need to get rid of our attachment to the comforts that are most intimately familiar to us and that we hold most dear.

Yes, sometimes you have to stand up to the world. Sometimes you have to go on alone. Sometimes you have to dare to be different. Sometimes you have no choice. But most of the time the battle is against your own desire to seek comfort by becoming smaller and lowering your energy. And there is no comfort in becoming smaller and having no energy, because the soul will not allow it.

Our fulfillment is within ourselves. There is a driving, pulsing knowing that keeps insistently reminding us that there is a state of perfect bliss right here and now, and that we haven’t reached it.

So we have to keep swimming toward that far-off island paradise. And when we feel tempted to hold onto this or that, we have to keep swimming past those temptations, because all of those things will have to be left behind. But the paradox, and the most glorious part is that when you meet people who’ve made it to that far island, and many of you have met Swami Kriyananda, or know about him, or you’ve heard Master, or you’ve read about the saints – but when you finally surrender all of the clinging, instead of making your life dry and small as you might have feared, it’s suddenly all equally blissful.

When Swamiji was in his late seventies, he had a cancerous tumor in his colon, and he had to go and have it taken out. He wrote a letter to us all at the time, in which he said, “I know this sounds a little funny, but I was equally happy to go to the hospital and have my guts ripped out, as I would be happy to go to a lovely restaurant and have a beautiful meal.” He said, “I know it sounds ridiculous, but the state of bliss is the same.”

Now, I can say this as an affirmation or a philosophical concept, but Swami was sharing his experience with us. He was saying, yes, there was pain, but a little pain never hurt anyone. That was a phrase he loved. He was saying, effectively, “I am moving through whatever has to be done in order to finish this incarnation. I am standing up in glory and devotion to God. And if God sends me to a beautiful restaurant for a wonderful meal, or if He sends me to the hospital to have a terrible operation, none of it is ‘I.’ Because I am the spark of divinity that is moving through this experience.”

Now, is that easy to embrace? Not at all. Is it restful and calm? No, not at all. That’s why Jesus said, “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” And when you think about it, what he wants to cut away is everything that is keeping us apart from what we really want.

For a long time, we must do it with faith in our vision of the goal. But then, bit by bit, we begin to realize, “Oh, that wasn’t pleasant, but look how much I gained. Oh, I used to be so small and limited in my options, and now I’m seeing things from a perspective that is so much wider and happier and free.”

And so we begin to swim toward our goal again, and pretty soon we’re swimming rapidly. And although we still might have a preference for going to a fine restaurant, in some dim part of us we can say, “What difference does it make in the end? Because, who am I? I am one with the infinite Spirit.”

Just take one small step at a time. That’s all the masters are ever asking of us. We imagine that it’s one giant step, but it is not. It’s moving forward an inch at a time. Just keep your eyes on the goal. Keep your feet on the ground. And whenever you can motivate yourself, take a step in the right direction. And then the light will draw you to itself and fill you, and in the end, as Swami said, “I don’t know why people say that life is a disappointment.” He said, “Life is nothing but blessed.” And he added so sweetly, “It’s nothing but bliss.”

And that’s what we have to hold on to. We may not see it, but some part of us knows it’s true. And if we will cultivate that vision and cling to it, it won’t be long before we are the ones who are saying, like Swami, “Can’t they see it’s all joy?”

God bless you.

(From Asha’s talk during Sunday service at Ananda Sangha in Palo Alto, California on October 14, 2018.)

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