The Cathar Perfecti needed great courage and determination to stand by what they believed in during the medieval crusades to eradicate all heretics. Religious persecution has always existed and probably always will, as it is during periods of great stress or antagonism that we humans appear to make our greatest commitments. Looking at it from a spiritual point of view, this kind of struggle attracts unparalleled merit, which can be accrued to propel us from human existence into other higher realms.
In epochs when faith was a natural condition and the divine walked among us, persecution was not required to test our faith. There were no choices to be made between the secular or the sacred, spiritually aspiring or refusing to aspire, as there are today. But later, when the intellectual mind accelerated out of control and human pride blazed, the power to become a god without divine qualifications was hotly pursued, and it was then that discrimination became commonplace.
This phenomenon, this switch made in the thinking of humans, lies outside the historical perspective, as the concepts of time and space are man made. Persecution is part of the dualist human personality which brings about the separation of humans from gods. It originates in the struggle between good and evil, between belief and no-belief, the validity of the resurrection of Christ or its denial, the clergy and the laity, between mind (samsara) and no mind (emptiness).
If we believe in something or someone without reserve or concern for our physical well-being, we are capable of generating the courage to stand up to established heavyweight groups and break away. In my lifetime, I have experienced both directly and vicariously, three striking examples of this degree of courage and breaking away: the Cathars, H.H. Shinjo Ito, and Geshe Kelsang Gyatso.
The Cathars were determined to stay fixed to their beliefs despite cruel persecution, which resulted in their eradication. My own present guru, H.H. Shinjo Ito, though ordained and awarded the highest rank of Great Achariya in the Japanese Shingon School of Esoteric Buddhism, refused to commit exclusively to the monastic community. He passionately believed that all sentient beings should have access to the teachings of great salvation, regardless of their spiritual rank. Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the leader of the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) based in Tibetan Buddhism, whose members are in a 5-10% minority because they refuse to remove the practice of their protector deity Dorje Shugden, outlawed by the Dalai Lama, from their doctrine. His precious life has been threatened as a result of this refusal.
In each case, the immovability of their faith has brought them close to destruction or annihilation. The last remaining Cathars were annihilated, burned at the stake, in the 13th century; Master Shinjo Ito was thrown into prison for 40 days, all his sacred documents and priestly implements confiscated, and his sangha disbanded in 1950; and Geshe-La Kelsang has been forced into retirement in exile, his location kept secret even from his ordained sangha members, in 2013. Religious persecution goes on, complacency often allowing us to be swept along in the rip tide of mediocrity and tradition if we are not sufficiently awake.
The Cathars were determined that their faith was pure, and that the Roman Catholic church was corrupt, referring to it always as the ‘Church of Wolves.’ As mentioned previously, the mainstay of Cathar faith was the simple idea that everything that manifests on the physical plane is the work of the devil. In other words, that gods and spiritual beings would never materialize in base human form. Thus, they did not focus on the birth and familial relationships of Jesus Christ, communion, baptism or confession, his crucifixion or resurrection, as the Church of Rome did. Instead, they believed God was entirely composed of spirit, an angel, and all humans also were angels wearing only a flimsy veil of death for their human incarnation.
The only sacrament in the Cathar faith was the Consolamentum, which the Perfecti administered to as many humans as possible. They were not at all afraid of death, in some ways longing to return to their spirit home. Their whole approach to life enabled them to live purely with few worldly needs, entirely focused upon liberating as many sentient beings as possible. They were both revered and despised, even though their purity was evident and their practices efficacious and authenticated according to the original teachings of Jesus Christ.
In fact, the Church of Rome was seemingly made to feel insecure by Cathar determination, as was Pontius Pilate, 5th Roman Prefect of Judaea AD 26-36, when he granted official approval for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ based on tenuous and spurious charges.
Recently, in research into Christianity in 21st century, a question about Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection has been posed. This question threatens to seriously undermine Christianity if the answer points to the idea that he did not actually die on the cross, and, more importantly, he did not rise again after three days. Most schools of Christianity recite the Credo in either spoken or sung form in which they avow that they believe wholly in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his ascent into heaven. In fact, It is perhaps deemed the most important event in the life of Jesus, representing the taking back by God of his only living son in this sensational and mysterious way. However, the earliest accounts of the crucifixion, which appear in the first recorded gospel of St Mark, state that Christ’s tomb remained empty and makes no mention of the ascension.
I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; He descended into hell; on the third day he arose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from there he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
Resurrection? Can people only believe in something if it is visible, provable? Will the whole Christian faith fall apart if they discover that history indicates that Jesus may not have died on the cross? If the magic is being dismantled, then what is there left to believe in – the torture, the violence of the crucifixion, the betrayal by Judas, etc? Perhaps such sensationalism and drama acted as a distraction from the practice of pure faith demonstrated by the Cathars?
It is now a possibility that the human pronounced as ‘Jesus Christ, son of God,’ did not die on the cross. That he was brought down and revived by medicinal herbs in a cave, and then escaped, leaving his tomb empty. That he fled to Kashmir in India, or southern France, where his relics have been apparently discovered. It is comforting to me to imagine that the prophet Jesus lived secretly in the mountains of the Pyrenees as I did, and that the Cathars worked closely with him, or his descendants. Or that he travelled to Kashmir, the land of the Buddha, and was embraced into Himalayan wisdom. Marvelous to think that a divine being walked among humans and at the moment of his physical death, like the Buddha, he shifted back to the spiritual source and bequeathed the body of his teachings to all beings for eternity.
In Buddhism, we do not need the drama of a resurrection to keep our faith strong. Perhaps the resurrection is another example of the separation required by the intellect: the physical and the spirit. The Dharmakaya or Dharma body, the ‘body’ of the teachings left by the Buddha at his Parinirvana, is part of each sentient being, whether they proclaim themselves Buddhist or not.
The historical sequence or location of the events leading to the making eternal of such a ministry is of no real import to us, because those are dimensions created by the intellectual mind. And we strive to erase all separations because all sentient beings are Buddhas in the making, not ruled by an omniscient conqueror or King, but only by their own hearts. The figure of the conqueror, the King, the victorious crusader, seems to have been a required image of Rome, and Christianity has clung to it to this day, thus rendering Christians passive slaves to the will of God.
Master Shinjo had the courage to step away from mainstream Buddhism to found a new lay order, Shinnyo-en. In the month of December, 78 years ago, he mysteriously came into possession of a Buddha image in the aspect of Achala, the strict wheel body of the Buddha. This led him to found a new third type of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism based on the final teachings of the Buddha as he lay dying.
After the Buddha Shyakyamuni’s physical end, his relics were divided amongst eight groups each of which set about disseminating the Buddhist teachings. Of course, there was great grief, but no fear because the Buddha had moved into the Dharmakaya, which consists of many Buddha emanations manifested to guide his disciples in any and every situation. In addition, the Buddha and the teachings could never be destroyed, and in this way, his ministry was perfected for all beings and all time.
To perfect the Shinnyo teachings, Master Shinjo had to bear the tragic loss of his two sons, aged 18 months and 15 years, as children, and his wife at the age of 55. There was no desire for resurrection of his beloved heirs and wife because they were to provide the spiritual foundation of the Shinnyo teaching. They are eternally working for and with us in the Shinnyo spiritual world alongside the various emanations of the Dharmakaya. They lived in human form, but their spiritual strength was needed to enable Master Shinjo to perfect the doctrine and spiritual wonders of Shinnyo Buddhism.
Finally, Geshe-La Kelsang, had the courage to found the New Kadampa Tradition in order to satisfy the spiritual needs of modern people in the west. He established this new movement in 1991 in England. Nowadays there are 200 centres, 900 study groups in 40 different global locations. It is an entirely independent Buddhist tradition with no political affiliations or ties with Tibet. This bold move to reposition Buddhism outside the complexities of Tibetan politics and to adapt Tibetan Buddhist wisdom for the modern world has brought much criticism, and especially so because the Dharma Protector Dorje Shugden has been retained as the authentic protector of the NKT.
This decision means that Ven.Geshe Kelsang is now at the top of a list of monks and scholars who are seen to betray Tibet and H.H. Dalai Lama. Despite placing himself in such a vulnerable position, he is determined that this practice will endure, while in Tibet those who continue to embrace Dorje Shugden are experiencing radical apartheid.
Shinjo Ito and Geshe Kelsang are courageous visionaries. They had the holy courage to stand up for what they believed was appropriate for modern practitioners. While I was without a sangha in the Pyrenees, in the land of the brave Cathars, I practiced NKT doctrine using Geshe-La’s detailed instructions which lead all sentient beings to enlightenment. At that time, I had not yet heard of Japanese Shingon Buddhism or Shinjo Ito, but I believe these dazzling examples of courage in beliefs, were part of my preparatory training for entering the Shinnyo Nirvana mandala.
I first encountered Geshe Kelsang Gyatso at Manjushri Meditation Centre in north-western Britain as he was laying the foundations for NKT. The connection continues as I have a strong friendship with the NKT as it establishes itself here in Osaka, Japan.
Courage is one of the pillars of building faith. We may think that such courage belongs to other eras and is the responsibility of other people. But there is no doubt that now and here we can each generate the courage to put our faith at the centre of our lives, and so become beacons of perennial light to show the way to countless other people.
Dedication: to Matthew Lucas for his constant support and interest in my research, and BBC video documentary ‘Jesus was a Buddhist Monk.’ – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAaW6BYhfNM
For further information about Shinnyo-en go to shinnyoen.org and NKT kadampa.org.