Multifaith Mashup: Peace, Breath, and the Holy Spirit

by Vicki Garlock on April 25, 2014

Breath of Spring

Breath of Spring by Zou Fulei
14th century artist (Wikimedia Commons)

This weekend, the Sunday School kids at Jubilee! Community church in Asheville, NC will be exploring a short but powerful Bible passage that appears only in Gospel of John. It’s one of my favorite New Testament stories because it contains so many profound themes – peace, breath, the holy spirit, and forgiveness. We use it as part of our unit on Peace. Here it is:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:19-23)

These themes – peace, breath, and the holy spirit – are so powerful that they show up in all sorts of other sacred texts. (Forgiveness does, too, but I’ll have to save that for another time.) In Buddhism the relationship between peace and breath is both deeply profound and quite straight-forward: focusing on the breath is a way to achieve peace. Meditation is the path to Enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition, and one easy way to meditate is to focus on the breath. This is not an idea invented by modern-day gurus trying to market Buddhism in America. The Buddha explicitly taught it many times. Here is an excerpt from a sutra known as the Mindfulness of Breathing. It is long, but repetitive, a characteristic of many Buddhist teachings. You can skim it, but if you read the entire excerpt, you will find that it doesn’t take as long to read it as you feared. And, if you read it while breathing deeply, you can count it as your meditative practice for the day. 🙂

“Now how is mindfulness of in-&-out breathing developed & pursued so as to be of great fruit, of great benefit?

“There is the case where a monk, having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building, sits down folding his legs crosswise, holding his body erect, and setting mindfulness to the fore. Always mindful, he breathes in; mindful he breathes out.

“Breathing in long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in long’; or breathing out long, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out long.’ Or breathing in short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing in short’; or breathing out short, he discerns, ‘I am breathing out short.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the entire body.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming bodily fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming bodily fabrication.’

“He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to rapture.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to rapture.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to pleasure.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to pleasure.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to mental fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to mental fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in calming mental fabrication.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out calming mental fabrication.’

“He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in sensitive to the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out sensitive to the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in satisfying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out satisfying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in steadying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out steadying the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in releasing the mind.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out releasing the mind.’

“He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on inconstancy.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on inconstancy.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on dispassion [literally, fading].’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on dispassion.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on cessation.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on cessation.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe in focusing on relinquishment.’ He trains himself, ‘I will breathe out focusing on relinquishment.’

“This is how mindfulness of in-&-out breathing is developed & pursued so as to be of great fruit, of great benefit….”

You should feel more peaceful already!

There is no Creator-God entity in Buddhism, but Yahweh/God/Allah breathing life into humans during their creation is found both in the Biblical book of Genesis and in the Qur’an. Beyond that, however, the concept of the Spirit of God (Ruach Elohim, in Hebrew), as we see in the Gospel of John, is also found in all three Abrahamic traditions. Here are a few passages from the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

…as long as my breath is in me and the spirit of God is in my nostrils, my lips will not speak falsehood, and my tongue will not utter deceit. (Job 27:3-4)

The spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. (Job 33:4)

…take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. (Haggai 2:4b-5)

The Qur’an also talks about the Holy Spirit. The word for “spirit” in Arabic is al-ruh, but I don’t speak or read Arabic, so I’m stuck exploring the Qur’an in English. Almost every time the English phrase, “holy spirit” is used in the Qur’an, it is associated with Jesus (although this is not the case in the hadiths).  My Muslim friends, who lead the Qur’an study group I attend, taught me this: In the Islamic tradition, Abraham is the Friend of Allah, Moses is He to Whom Allah Spoke Directly, Jesus is the Word/Breath of Allah, and Muhammad is the Beloved of Allah. Here are a couple of those Jesus-as-the-Breath-of-Allah passages found in the Qur’an.

We gave Moses the Book and followed him up with a succession of messengers; We gave Jesus the son of Mary Clear (Signs) and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. (Surah 2:87a)

Those messengers We endowed with gifts, some above others: To one of them Allah spoke; others He raised to degrees (of honour); to Jesus the son of Mary We gave clear (Signs), and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. (Surah 2:253a)

And one that is not related to Jesus.

Say, the Holy Spirit has brought the revelation from thy Lord in Truth, in order to strengthen those who believe, and as a Guide and Glad Tidings to Muslims. (Surah 16:102)

Finally, with themes as profound as these, one would surely expect the mystics to wax poetic about them. And they do. Hildegard of Bingen, the great Christian mystic who lived in the 12th century, once wrote, “Thus am I, a feather on the breath of God.” Rumi, the Persian Sufi poet of the 13th century, wrote two poems, “In Every Breath” and “On Breath,” that are often mentioned in the context of “ruach.” But my favorite mystic poem about the breath of the spirit is “In Need of the Breath” by Hafez, a Persian Sufi poet who lived in the 14th century. Since I included a long passage from Buddha’s teachings, I will include only the 2nd half of this poem.

In Need of the Breath

…My heart is an unset jewel upon existence waiting for the Friend’s touch.

Tonight my heart is an unset ruby offered bowed and weeping to the Sky.

I am dying in these cold hours for the resplendent glance of God.

I am dying because of divine remembrance of who I really am.

Hafiz, tonight, your soul is a brilliant reed instrument in need of the breath of the Christ.

Like the disciples, we all find life frightful at times. Things feel complicated and unfair. We become disenchanted, disillusioned, or just plain tired. Living as a couch potato seems so much easier than putting ourselves out there socially, emotionally, and intellectually. But we have a choice. We can sit, locked up in our rooms, waiting to exhale. Or, we can take the advice of so many who have come before us and just breathe. Breathe the breath of life, the breath of peace, the breath of divine love, the breath of the spirit.

Sources

Bhikkhu, T. Majjhima Nikaya. Anapanasati Sutta: Mindfulness of Breathing. Trans. 2006. Web. 24 April, 2014. <http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.118.than.html>

Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.

Ladinsky, D. The Gift: Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master. Trans. New York: Penguin Compass, 1999. Print.

Yusuf Ali, A. The Qur’an. Trans. Istanbul, Turkey: ASIR MEDIA, 2002. Print.

[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]

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