The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts occupies the site of a former Catholic retreat center. The meditation hall was once a chapel, and although the founders of IMS removed most of the stained glass windows long ago, they left two of the windows in the vestibule (now used for walking meditation) intact. One of the windows depicts Christ in the wilderness, crying as if in desperation for the Lord. The other, directly across the room, depicts a scene from the Last Supper, with Christ distributing the bread of the meal, and, as every Catholic would know, initiating the first communion rite. One of the disciples, probably John, is looking on with rapt attention and a subtle smile on his face as he prepares to receive the flesh of God. There is love in his eyes, and he is resting on Jesus's shoulder. It is an exquisitely tender scene which can be appreciated by Christians, Buddhists, and, I hope, the rest of us alike.
Toward the end of a retreat I was sitting at IMS, someone stuck a yellow Post-It note next to John's face, with the words "Fresh Baked Bread" written on it, and a small drawing of a heart. It was funny, if a bit impudent, and it underscored the gap between the ornate mythology of Jesus and the clean, no-bullshit air of vipassana.
The bread, after all, was symbolically contentious: I thought of all those raging Christian debates about transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and the ultimate significance of communion; about whether soda crackers really did turn into meat (to use Kurt Vonnegut's paraphrase of the ritual) and whether, as a result, Christians were engaging in ritual cannibalism. Maybe it was a metaphor; maybe it was a figure of speech; or maybe it was magic. I remembered how Jesus was re-signifying the symbols of the Passover Seder, and how the Talmudic rabbis would attempt to steal them back. All these stories in the air, contrasted with the simple delight of fresh baked bread. I came to see the note less as a satire on the window than as a complement to it an alternative reading. To a Catholic, the significance of the scene is its mythic and theological context. But to a Buddhist, it's about fresh baked bread.
And not because bread is insignificant. On the contrary, I remember reading at some point a Buddhist-Christian reading of the Last Supper, which translated it in the same way as the Post-It joke, although in more reverent terms. The writer I can't remember who it was interpreted Jesus's words, "This bread is my body," as meaning, "I am God, just as you are, just as this bread is. Understand that there is only the One; only Being; only God. This bread, this bread is my body. This blood, this blood is my wine. If you can eat this bread with total attention to it, it will taste to you as the flesh of the Divine. And so it is there is no distinction, really, between it and Me."
If Christ were a fully enlightened being, then he knows that his separate self the small mind, the ego, the identity of Joshua son of Joseph is not separate at all. And then Jesus's God-language makes a lot of sense, because without the illusion of separation, who else are we, anyway? There's all this activity, all this knowing, but no separate self is really doing or knowing anything; we're just temporary agglomerations of the same atoms that once were inside a star. Our brains produce the useful illusion of separate consciousness, but we're not separate at all; we're just earth, air, fire, and water or subatomic particles, in more recent science soon to be re-scattered and re-formed.
Moreover, since the enlightenment of Christ is really a shedding of the separate identity of Jesus, it makes more sense to speak of Jesus as being an incarnation of God than to speak of God-consciousness as something Jesus "attained." Enlightenment is something that happens not something you get.
So maybe there is a convergence between the communion and the dharma. Communion is like a mindfulness practice, insofar as the attention is meant to be wholly focused on this moment. All the bells and whistles, all the ceremony, really makes it seem Important, and so the mind, if it takes the ritual seriously, is far more attentive than usual. And contemplation insofar as communion invites the consideration of an important theological idea: that every cracker, every drop of wine, is really the flesh and blood of God. Fresh baked bread is God, and communion makes that known experientially and intellectually.
That's all fine, but it's not really what Catholicism says the ritual is about. Nor is it the orientation of most Christianity, Judaism, Western Occultism, neo-Gnosticism, Kabbalah, Qabbalah, symbolism-oriented shamanism, and a lot of the systems of thought that make Reality Sandwich the Gnosis magazine of our times. (If you haven't read Gnosis, please, head over to a college library and browse. We're not the first ones to try this, you know!) In all of these systems, it's ideas about the bread, not the bread itself, that's important. The symbolic meaning of Christ's flesh. The blessings you are to make. The symbolism of the loves of Astarte. The amount of bread required for a meal under Jewish law. The mating of masculine and feminine in the Kabbalistic model. All of which frequently ignores how delightful fresh baked bread is, in favor of some theological, symbolic, or legal construct. This is the critical move of most Western religion, whether "spiritual" or not: away from the thing itself, and toward a web of significance.
In rare cases, this move is actually celebrated. The great rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, in Halakhic Man, describes the importance of a sunset inhering in its status as a legal signifier:
When halakhic man looks to the western horizon and sees the fading rays of the setting sun or to the eastern horizon and sees the fast light of dawn and the glowing rays of the rising sun, he knows that this sunset or sunrise imposes upon him anew obligations and commandments.
Here, too: ideas about the thing, not the thing itself.
In both the mystical and non-mystical models, in both exoteric and esoteric, there is a move away from concrete reality toward an alleged deeper reality, or a conceptual map. And to me, this pull away from the materiality of bread toward either the myth (Christian) or the law (Jewish) or the symbolism (Kabbalistic) of bread seems like a pull away from God Itself. If I wash my hands with the right amount of water, make that blessing, then silently return to the bread, and make the blessing then, and then eat the bread without much consciousness, I have, indeed, contextualized the bread into a system of holy, legal signification. But have I made proper use of the world which God has created? Have I appreciated the body, the bread, and the miracle of eating? Or have I, in the name of following a Divine precept, actually moved away from the Divinity inherent in the fresh baked bread?
I've heard the this-worldliness of Jewish law, at least, as a true nondual path. Like Tantra, it is a return to the world, an acceptance that the One exists, and a return to the Many as a manifestation of the One. Notice that there are at least three stages in this progression. First, there is holiness in nature this is the stage of paganism, which sees the sacred everywhere. Second, there is the holiness beyond nature, the one God which unifies all this is the stage of monotheism, of salvation, and of the attainment of Nirvana as an escape from the wheel of Samsara. But then there is the path of unification, of seeing the downward-pointing triangle of the Jewish star (i.e., this world) and the upward-pointing triangle (i.e., God) as being the same. Thus we return to the world neither denying the holiness of the manifest nor denying the sacredness of the hidden.
In practice, I have come to hold great doubts about the way symbolic religion relates to the appreciation, delight, awe, and wonder that is a precondition for an individual's authentic spiritual evolution. Indeed, in much traditional religious practice, there is a fear of enjoying the bread too much, lest we lose sight of its central significance, which is legal. (I'm reminded of the Church authorities who tried to stop Gregorian chant because its beauty was distracting people from the texts being sung.) And in the Kabbalistic model, there are all kinds of spooky suppositions that need to be accepted before the symbolic bread has any meaning deeper than a vague spiritual feeling. Sometimes the web of signification enhances the experience of eating bread, but sometimes it deadens it.
And of course this isn't just about bread. The more dangerous "breads" of art, music, sensual pleasure even beauty itself these are feared, banned, marginalized, and mythologized into cosmic forces of evil. Obviously, it's only the fundamentalists who reject beauty. But the pull is there even in the mainstream, away from the act of fasting to the "reason why we fast," away from the simple beauty of candlelight to the "reason why we light candles." It's like we're looking for a text to link this act to God, when God is right here in the beauty of the act itself.
Finally, religious signification can create attachments to a particular bread, land, and tribe. What's liberating about "Fresh Baked Bread" instead of "This is My Body" is that it doesn't depend on a particular myth. Any trigger will do and indeed, the point of meditation practice is gradually to expand the boundaries of what "will do," including times and places which may be very unpleasant, or even awful. Of course, it doesn't happen automatically; practice takes practice. But it can happen. That, for me, is the goal: to live so richly that every crumb of bread has the importance of communion.
It seems like every contemplative tradition eventually translates itself into a similar kind of religion. Buddhism as practiced in Asia has very little to do with paying attention to bread, and very much to do with fixed ritual, symbolic omens, offerings at shrines, praying to bodhisattvas, and acquiring merit through particularly defined acts. And the contemplative Judaism of a few elites whether it's Maimonides' philosophical ecstasy, the Kabbalists' pan-symbolization of the world, or the Hasidim's pantheism inevitably gets turned into dogma, magic, and code. Likewise in countless other traditions which begin with a mystic in the wilderness and end with fundamentalists enforcing dogma with violence. It's like we make the same mistake, over and over again, around the world, as we try to translate a disruptive and individualistic practice (transforming experience, grounding ethics in wonder, etc.) into a system which maintains the status quo, binds together a community of householders, and offers a little bit of God's mojo to people without the luxury, taste, or karma for mystical practice. Perhaps it's the necessary mistake of religion.
And, to be clear, those of us interested in angels, demons, chakras, significances, symbols, occult paths, synchromysticism, magick, qabalah, gnosis, and the thousand correspondences of latter-day syncretism are every bit as implicated in this move away from thing-ness as are our fundamentalist brothers and sisters. Perhaps we are less likely to be violent, but we are equally likely to be moving ever so slowly and steadily away from the redemptive quality of the present.
That's the kicker: that fresh baked bread, with no ornamentation, is simultaneously the deepest mystical path and the simplest material one. It's where the "here and now" of the contemplative meets the here and now of the Epicurian, leaving dogmatists and esotericists with their dusty books and stories. It's so simple if we can just clear the cobwebs out of the way and enjoy it.