The story of Abraham is by far one of the most important stories in the Bible. Three of the world’s major religions emerge from Abraham’s family, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From a spiritual point of view, he is the father of these three great civilizations. How he and his family responded to the challenges they faced set the pattern for how all the Abrahamic religions respond to the challenges they face. Given what all has evolved over the millenia from his original example, it is worthwhile to appreciate his story. As Kadampas, understanding his story will profoundly help us in understanding the spiritual edifice upon which Western and Islamic civilization was built. Understanding his story from a Kadampa point of view, therefore, will help us transform the life of somebody within Western and Islamic civilization into the Kadampa path. We do not do so to convert others to Kadampa Buddhism, but rather to help those Kadampas who have found themselves reborn in such civilizations to transform more thoroughly their new reality into the Kadampa path.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Abraham, here is a brief account of the main points (according to my understanding): Abraham lived about 4,000 years ago. He was supposedly a descendent of Noah. He lived at a time in which the people worshipped all sorts of worldly gods (gods which granted worldly favors, such as wealth and greater fertility). His wife was barren, which in those days was a big problem since everything you had passed to your first born son. Abraham himself was the first son of a modestly successful shepparding tribe. They were badly mistreated by the local king who demanded too much in taxes/tribute. None of the worldly gods “spoke” to him, and one day he smashed all of his brother’s statues of these worldly gods declaring them all false and lies. Later, a “new God”, one understood as “the God most high” spoke to him and told him to leave his family and he would be led to the promised land. This experience so marked Abraham that he left his family with his wife, personal servants and livestock and allowed himself to be guided by his new god. Abraham was the first to commune with this God and this marked the beginning of monotheism. This god led him to Canan, modern day Israel, and said this is his promised land to be held by his descendents forever. (This helps explain the importance of this area of the world for Chirstians, Jews and Muslims. All are children of Abraham, but they still struggle to learn how to share the land freely and harmoniously as his children.) But the Canans were already there, and while he could have waged war to seize the land he did not want to do things that way, so they left and were guided to Egypt. In Egypt, his wife was kidnapped by the Pharoh to be one of his wives. The Pharoh and the other Egyptians got some disease which they took to be a curse from Abraham’s God, and the Pharoh set the wife free on condition that Abraham leave Egypt. He did so, went back to Canan, and reached an agreement with the Canans on sharing the land and allying with one another. Then God said he would give Abraham “a son of his own flesh.” Abraham’s wife then proposed that an Egyptian servant girl bear the child, but be born on Abraham’s wife’s lap (which according to their customs made the child Abraham’s wife). After becoming pregnant, the servant girl felt herself to be the mother and started asserting more rights. These rights were denied per the customs of Abraham’s family, she then ran away while pregnant. One of God’s angels, who I presume to be Gabriel, came to her, told her to go back, submit to Abraham’s wife and that her son would be the father of a great nation and he should be named Ishmael. She then went back, had Ishmael, who then grew up to be a strong and natural leader. Later God told Abraham that he would have a son with his barren wife (which was biologically impossible becasue she was too old at the time) and that he would be the father of nations (plural). God said the son would be called Isaac. After Isaac was born, Abraham, who was getting older, invested all of his time in training Isaac to be able to take over the tribe. Ishmael’s biological mother grew jealous and Abraham’s wife feared she would plot to have Ishmael take over the tribe, so she encouraged Abraham to expel Ishmael from the family. Abraham felt that the reason why he had this problem was because he had not had sufficient faith in God when God said he would have a son of his own flesh and that was why he agreed to have a child with the servant girl. He decided to follow his wife’s advice, but prayed that God always be with Ishmael and Ishmael set off with his biological mother. Again, the Angel appeared and told Ishamel’s mother that Ishmael would be the founder of a great nation and led them on their way. Ishmael became understood as the father of Islamic civilization with the Prophet Mohammed being one of his descendents. Later, in a test of Abraham’s faith, God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son (normally, they sacrificed lambs). This was devastating for Abraham, but not wanting to repeat his mistake of a lack of faith in God he agreed and took Isaac up to the mountain to be sacrificed. Just as Abraham was about to do it, an Angel appeared and said it was basically a test, Abraham had passed and the Angel provided a lamb. This event was the culmination of the story of Abraham and what he is often most known for. It is by analogy with this story that we can understand why Jesus is sometimes called “the lamb of God,” his only son, who he sacrificed for the sake his people. Some say Jesus was himself a descendent of Isaac, and generally the Judeo-Christian world is understood to descend from Isaac. Throughout the story, there were also various points where God would lead other groups to join Abraham, usually just in time when Abraham needed it most. Abraham then lived out the rest of his days training Isaac and guiding his tribe as a humble shepparding tribe.
As a Kadampa how do I understand this story and what lessons do I take from it? How does this story reveal the truth of the Kadam Dharma to me?
- Monotheism. Abraham renounced reliance upon worldly gods for worldly purposes and instead came to rely upon the God most high, a single all-powerful God. As Kadampa’s, we too need to renounce our worldly gods (who we may not diefy, but we still follow – wealth, reputation, praise, worldly pleasures, etc.). While there are many different Tantric deities, we are to understand them all to be the same nature, the Dharmakaya, the eternal definitive Spiritual Guide. We view the different tantric deities as manifestations or facets of a single source. Sometimes Buddhists are understood to be polytheists, but we Kadampas understand ourselves as monotheists who understand their ultimate object of refuge to have the ability to assume many conventional forms according to the different needs of living beings. Some Buddhists fall into the extreme of thinking the Dharmakaya is just a state of nature and not a being so they de-deify the ultimate. As Kadampas, we understand the Dharmakaya to be being, whose omniscient mind of great bliss is at one with a realization of how things truly are (empty), and that this Dharmkaya assumes the aspect of infinite forms according to the needs and dispositions of living beings. These aspects or emanations are simply the shape the underlying Dharmakaya assumes, but are not separate from it (like waves are not separate from the ocean). As Kadampas, I believe we can understand Abraham’s God as how the Dharmakaya revealed itself to Abraham according to the karmic dispositions of the beings at that time and for all those who descended from him and the nations he spawned.
- Total faith and reliance. Abraham was considered one of the first prophets, namely somebody who had the ability to communicate directly with God. As Kadampas, this is also an ability we can and need to cultivate – the ability to receive perfectly reliable inner guidance from the ultimate, the definitive Spiritual Guide, the Dharmakaya. Venerable Geshe-la explains that to do so we need to first align our motivation perfectly with that of the definitive Spiritual Guide, then generate indestructible faith, and then on that basis make our ordinary mind completely silent and still. In this stillness, with a perfectly aligned motivation and faith, we then request guidance and hold our pure wish for such guidance with a still, well-motivated faithful mind. If we do so, gradually a vision, insight or plan will be revealed to us. This will be our message. The more we align our motivation, deepen our faith and make still our ordinary mind the more reliably and clearly we will receive guidance. We see this in the story of Abraham – he would receive visions and messages, follow them, they would seem crazy at first but later be revealed as reliable in unforseen ways, and then he would receive a new, deeper, more vast vision with even more demanding tests of his faith. This process culminated in the ultimate test of all, his willingness to sacrifice his only son and heir in the name of his faith. By no means is this to mean we should sacrifice our children for the Buddhas! But we can nonetheless be inspired by a mind that is willing to sacrifice that which is held most dear for the sake of their faith, and that by doing so, no matter how crazy it may seem, in the end ultimate sources of refuge are perfectly reliable and will never lead us astray. Venerable Tharchin said in his 30+ years with Venerable Geshe-la, there has almost never been a time when Venerable Geshe-la would propose some crazy course of action and Venerable Tharchin would not think Geshe-la is nuts! But he would follow and over time it became clear that Geshe-la was right all along but in ways unforseeable. When this happens to us again and again, our faith and reliance grows and we are gradually led along the path until we eventually complete it.
- “The Lord shall provide.” There were many points in the story where God would lead Abraham to do things that made no sense from a worldly point of view, requiring them to leave behind what was good from a worldly point of view for the sake of their faith. Each time they would do so things would get much worse and they would be at the point of total desperation, face doubts about whether they had done the right thing to follow, then just as things were at their darkest they would have some final test of faith where they would perservere with their faith and then something miraculous would happen where they were provided for. For Kadampas, this too happens all of the time. Disaster may strike our life, we may feel we have been abandoned, our faith gets tested, we perservere and eventually we come to realize how what we thought was a disaster was in fact the best thing that ever happened to us, always spiritually but sometimes even externally. The Dharma Protector, Dorje Shugden, accomplishes this function for us. By surrendering our karma completely to him, we can have total faith that no matter what happens to us it is what is best for us. By holding onto this faith, no matter how bleak and dark things may seem, we will eventually come to realize how this is so. It begins with small things and small tests of faith, but gradually grows into larger and larger things with more and more challenging tests of faith, but each time we take a leap of faith we are always caught and carried to a higher plane. Externally, we should not be extreme about this doing completely crazy things, but if we work gradually and comfortably within the karma that is ripening, we will eventually be led in similar ways. From this experience comes a fearlessness with which we follow the path – a mind of fearless spiritual adventure.
- There is nothing more important than passing on the lineage. Once Isaac was born, Abraham dropped almost everything and poured himself into training his son to carry on the lineage. It is not enough to have the lineage written down, it needs to be fully realized by subsequent generations to continue on. There is much that Kadampas do to serve the world, but no activity we do is more important than forming new teachers to carry on the lineage. If we have the karma to be a teacher, we should pour every ounce of our being into becoming a qualified one that has personal experience of the truth and reliability of the teachings. If we do not have the karma to be a teacher, we should use our karma to support those who do have such karma as our way of contributing to the carrying on of the lineage. Ultimately, Venerable Geshe-la said we are all lineage holders just in different ways. So really, we should all do both of these – become as personally qualified as we can and support others doing the same as much as we can. Just one last note, Abraham’s insistence of passing the lineage on to his biological son simply reflected how legitimacy was culturally bestowed at that time. Nowadays, legitimacy is bestowed through democratic legitimacy (peopel freely choosing to follow and rely) and individual merit (realizations and deeds). Different cultures will have different methods of bestowing legitimacy and these methods should not be confused as being spiritually written in stone – rather they are merely cultural. What matters is a legitimate passing of a qualified lineage.
There is much, much more to be said about this story. Feel free to include comments on your own contemplations and reflections of what Kadampa truths this story reveals to you.