Messianic Hopes

Thursday June 1, 2006


Some time ago, I reported on this site about the curious case of Ram Bomjon, the so-called Buddha Boy of Nepal (see the two posts here and here) who was meditating at the foot of a tree in the forests of Nepal and – according to the committee overseeing his meditation – had gone without food or water for months on end. If Bomjon is indeed, as some have claimed, the new Buddha, he’s turning out to be a very 21 st century kind of Buddha: his committee not only charged an entrance fee and dealt with press and public relations, but they also marketed books and CDs and solicited donations. Some sources have claimed – although there is no way of corroborating this – that proceeds from the sales were going to Nepal’s Maoist guerillas. Whatever the case, the story is a murky one.

And it became murkier still a few months ago with the disappearance of Ram Bomjon in March. In the aftermath of the boy’s disappearance, troops were called in to find him and the committee’s bank account was frozen by Nepali authorities. According to committee members, Bomjon reappeared several days later, spoke with members of the committee and then disappeared into the jungle again: whether this reappearance was sufficient to persuade the authorities to unfreeze the bank account, my research so far has not been able to establish. Since mid-March nothing more has been heard of Ram Bomjon. The boy has apparently said that he will reappear in six years’ time, so perhaps it would be unwise for those watching this story in fervent expectation of the coming Buddha to hold their breath (unless, that is, they have perfected some Ram Bomjon-style tricks and so can happily go without breathing for the next six years…).

In the responses to my previous two posts on the subject, I was struck by the intensity of what might be called messianic hope on the part of many of those who left comments. By messianic hope I mean the belief that the horrors of the world and of human existence might be brought to an end, preferably once and for all, by external forces, whether these be political forces (ah – how tired and unconvincing the Messianic language of New Labour seems these days, now that Cool Britannia and the Spice Girls are but a distant memory!), economic forces (the spurious idea that the free market economy will somehow bring about something close to paradise on earth), or religious forces. Behind such messianic hopes is the idea – an idea that comes via Christianity from Judaism – that history has some kind of preordained, or at least necessary, purpose and trajectory, and that it will therefore eventually reach some kind of end, whether apocalyptic or glorious or (in the most fervid of messianic imaginings) both. In some versions of the story this trajectory is divine in origin, in others – Marxism for example – it is purely material; but in both cases, messianic hope is founded upon a very specific view of history as linear and progressive.

Messianic hope seems to me, however, to be a far from ideal way of responding to the suffering of the world because it is based upon a gamble rather than a clear-sighted perception of the reality of suffering and the means of its alleviation here and how. On the one hand, it may be the case that our messiah will deliver the goods, despite so many having failed before; but on the other hand, and much more critically, there is suffering and there are things we can do, here and now, to tackle the causes of this suffering. In putting the response to present suffering in the care of a messiah – whether in a political party, in a New Buddha, or by appealing to some kind of ‘hidden hand’ of history or economics – we risk blinding ourselves to what can be done here and now. The messianic impulse, although it may be born out of a recognition of suffering, can be an impediment to finding a fitting response to this suffering.

To find a more fitting response, perhaps we need to turn to something more modest than messianic hope: simply to a deeper commitment to the cultivation of a reflective, actively compassionate and inquiring relationship with life, in this brief instant between birth and death.

When the Buddha was about to pass away, his followers were distraught. Perhaps already they had begun to see him as a kind of messiah figure and were telling themselves that, without their saviour, nothing could be done. But, in his final hours, the Buddha put them straight.

Now the Blessed One spoke to the Venerable Ananda, saying: “It may be, Ananda, that to some among you the thought will come: ‘Ended is the word of the Master; we have a Master no longer.’ But it should not, Ananda, be so considered. For that which I have proclaimed and made known as the Dhamma and the Discipline, that shall be your Master when I am gone.

# · Sir Francis

Just discovered you via the 9rules thingy, pleased to meet’cha.

Re the whole messiah thing, I like Jack Kornfield’s story from his days in a Thailand forest monastery where at one point he was unhappy because he felt his work duties didn’t leave him time enough to meditate. So carried away with the momentum of his frustration he ended up dumping on the master so:

“Besides that, the monks are too sloppy andeven you aren’t silent enough. You are inconsistent and contradictory. This doesn’t seem like what the Buddha taught to me.” Only a Westerner would say something like this, and it made him laugh. “It’s a good thing I don’t appear like the Buddha,” he answered. Somewhat annoyed I replied, “Oh yes, why is that?” “Because,” he said, “you would still be caught in looking at the Buddha outside of yourself. He isn’t out here!” (From “A Path with Heart”)

Same with Jesus, seems to me.

# · Will

You are not the same Sir Francis as the one who played bowls on Plymouth Hoe are you, Sir? Anyway, thanks for the story from Jack Kornfield. There’s nothing like a wily old monk (not even another wily old monk…)


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