You may ask why a series of reflections on “What the Body Knows” would begin with wise men arriving at the court of Herod in Jerusalem. This is the body politic, of course, and it has a great deal to do with every other body, especially in the West, where power is more important than any other thing, where power is the prize of conflict, wrested from the hands of others. Whether by intrigue, rebellion or election, it is still a contest.
And Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. We rarely dwell on Herod’s terror amid all the glow of Christmas pageants and getting to the manger and dinner with our relatives who may or may not be difficult this year, but it is worth thinking about. The warrior – and Herod presided over a war court – is an important archetypal figure. My inner warrior fends off what threatens my health and wholeness. One of the most common images in visualization therapy is a knight in shining armor impaling cancer cells with his lance. In many cultures, including our own, military service is a way for a poor child to advance in life, to get an education and job training. Recognize the Western archetype of power again; social mobility happens within the context of violence. But note also, for we will take this up later, that spiritual warfare should not be confused with the literal variety.
And Herod was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him. Why should a man with the might of Rome behind him be afraid of some scholars from the East looking for a baby? A confident king would have roused his own son, whatever his age, and presented him. But Herod called the chief priests and the scribes and asked about a Messiah. To which they answered, “In Bethlehem of Judea shall arise a shepherd for my people.”
Again, Herod might have looked at this in a variety of ways. He might have dismissed it as nostalgia for King David who had, in fact been a shepherd in Bethlehem. He might have shrugged it off as more nutty religion, the sort of eschatological vision that always draws certain types out of the woodwork. He might have gone along with their imagery and told the wise men to go chat with the sheep people who abided out there in the hills. Or, conversely, he might have spiritualized the whole thing and treated the divine child as someone’s metaphor. But he did none of these things. His sight could extend no farther than the world of physical threat that had made him king.
In the mystical east, by contrast, divine children were a normal manifestation in the landscape. When Prince Siddhartha was born near Nepal, an old prophet turned up and told the king that this prince would either become a formidable leader of nations or a great spiritual teacher. This prompted his father, who, unlike Herod, really wanted a kingly child, since the divine one was clearly his own, to make sure that young Prince Siddhartha would never go religious on him, would never experience suffering of any kind, for, the king knew, suffering is the beginning of any spiritual quest. Still, the question remains: what frightened the father so much about religious leadership?
We do not know from where the wise men from the East hailed, but it is certainly plausible that one of them was a Buddhist. Buddhism was widely practiced on the western reaches of the Silk Road. Our wise Buddhist would have probably hailed from around the Hindu Kush, a place that had seen both Buddhism and Hellenism and therefore had some skill at weaving spiritual teaching with the Greeks’ unparalleled veneration of human genius and material beauty. Buddhists have a long history of stars, signs, rainbows and divine children. Their great teachers and Bodhisattvas are reborn countless times because the task of bringing all our ignorant and far-flung species to Enlightenment is a very long one and requires numberless lifetimes, just as the making of the earth itself took numberless years. Spirit is patient.
His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, is an incarnation of the very ancient Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. Rainbows attended his birth. His mother knew no pangs at her labor for when one bears a tulku or reborn one, the child comes easily. He was born in a humble house where yaks were kept, but rose to be a mighty prince of the Tibetans, and today, a spiritual light to the world.
Is it any surprise that wise men from the East should follow a star looking for one who was born?