The Story of Genesis: A Zen Interpretation

It is said that there are seven books of wisdom in the Bible — Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs. But what about the book of Genesis? I definitely think it should be included as one of the books of wisdom. To me, Genesis is a truly deep book, full of Zen wisdom. The fact that it is not included is a sign that this first book of the Bible is not well-understood.

We live in an age of atheism. In many ways, we have long left the Age of Faith. I have the impression that the only people who are seriously studying the Bible are the evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. Many of us feel that Bible study is incredibly boring. But is it necessarily so? A few days ago, I read a bold question from a Catholic website on the Internet:

What kind of father leaves his innocent children (Adam and Eve) in a place (Garden of Eden) with incredible dangers to them (tree of knowledge of good and evil, serpent, etc.) and only a warning to “protect” them? After the mistake (eating of the tree, disobeying God), they are cast out of the garden. A real father with real children knows they make mistakes even when forewarned. What kind of loving father throws away his children like that? It seems like we’ve been set up to fail from the beginning.

Good question! I am a Chinese who grew up in a Christian family in Hong Kong. But religiosity and piety are not in my blood. Among Chinese students who go abroad to study, a substantial percentage have become fundamentalist or evangelical Christians. I find that both odd and sad. It seems to me that for anyone who has studied the Bible in some detail, it would be very difficult to take things literally. I suspect that the reason why many Chinese students attending US colleges have become Christian fundamentalists is that they have poor literary skills. It is one thing to read the Bible through the lens of well-established Christian dogma, but it is quite another thing to read the Bible with fresh eyes, as original literature, without any preconceived theological notions.

I am one of those people who went to college without taking any literature course in high school. Under the British education system, students are asked to choose between the sciences and the humanities at a relatively early age. I chose to be a science major. As a result, I did not have to take any English literature courses. It was not until I was in my fifties that I took a formal college level literature course — it was required in order to get certified as a teacher. To my surprise, I enjoyed it immensely. I should have done this much earlier. I learned how to read, analyze and appreciate literature. Such literary skills also help me understand the world’s religious literature.

What I find most precious about having literary skills is that one learns to interpret the stories presented. There are usually multiple interpretations of the same story, although the religious authorities typically want us to believe that there is only one. Take, for example, Genesis. Christian dogma dictates that it is a story about human disobedience and the “original sin” which is passed down to all descendents of
Adam and Eve. This is the standard interpretation of the story — should we have listened to God’s command not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, then we would still be living in Eden, in a blissful state, without the need to worry about food or death. Yet, upon closer examination, this interpretation breaks down. Christian evangelists are quick to assert that God has given humans free will right from the start, but our common ancestors misused that gift. But is this what the text is saying?

Genesis is a book that I have read and re-read several times, just like what I have done to other classics. Every time I re-read the story, I come up with new insights. I re-read the first three chapters of Genesis just yesterday and something dawned on me. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat the fruits from a particular tree — the tree of the knowledge of goodness and evil. Before eating the fruits from that tree, Adam and Eve could not distinguish between what is good and what is bad. They were like immature children without moral sense. So, the argument that Adam and Eve were given the gift of free will from the very beginning is absurd! “Free will” is meaningful only if we know what is good and what is bad and we have the freedom to choose. Without the ability to tell apart good and bad, how could Adam and Eve choose? Could God really blame humans for choosing wrong when our first ancestors were in a state of moral blindness? When I was writing my book about Jesus’s teachings in the 90s, I was already aware of the discrepancy between what the text says and what the Christian theologians teach. Some thirty years later, I am discovering that such discrepancy is existent since the very beginning, in the book of Genesis.

Many preachers are quick to proclaim that the Bible represents God’s revelation to humankind. What I am seeing, however, is that the authors of various books in the Old Testament are not necessarily on the side of God. Sometimes, it appears as if they are the people’s spokesmen rather than God’s spokesmen. In addition, the “God” portrayed by these ancient authors is not necessarily good. Just like the Greek god, Zeus, is not perfect, the God of the Old Testament is neither perfect nor infallible. The authors of the Old Testament tell us that God is sometimes angry, sometimes cruel and sometimes jealous. God would even regret what he has done. Certainly God’s regrets contradict the theologians’ claim that God is omniscient.

According to Chapter 3 of Genesis, Eve ate the fruits from the tree of knowledge for three reasons — (a) They were good for food. (2) They were pleasing to the eye. (3) Eve desired to gain wisdom. The first two reasons are not enough to justify eating the fruits from this special tree. Yes, the need for food is a basic human need. But there were other fruit-bearing trees in Eden. The second reason has more to do with aesthetics — the fruits from that tree satisfied Eve’s need for visual delight and sensory pleasure. Were there other fruits in Eden which could also satisfy Eve’s need for visual delight and pleasure? It is difficult to tell. It is not obvious from the text. Out of the three reasons given for eating the fruits, the third one is the strongest. Eve’s need for wisdom could only be satisfied by the fruits from the tree of knowledge of goodness and evil. According to the story, no other tree offered fruits which would allow humans to gain wisdom. But what is wrong with the desire for wisdom? Didn’t God want Adam and Eve to be wise? Apparently not. It is clear from the text that God just wanted the first couple to follow His commands, without any questioning. People who can only follow orders are those who cannot think on their own. Small children are like this. Is it God’s original intention that we remain like little children? If so, why do Christian theologians bring in the notion of free will at all? Small children have no autonomy. Today, neither sensible parents nor our criminal justice system hold small children responsible for the mistakes these immature minds make.

Yet, the Genesis story says that Adam and Eve were cursed by God and chased out of the Garden of Eden for what they did. This just does not make sense, unless “the Fall” not real, but is an act in a divine drama that God directs. It would make much more sense that Eden was a set-up, that it was God’s original intention to have Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge so that their eyes would be opened and they could seek adventures in the outside world. What kind of father would want to have his children stay immature and stay home with him all the time? One might as well have idiot children for that purpose! It is clear to me that the author of Genesis did not have a complimentary image of God.

The position that the Eden scene is a set-up will resolve many pesky theological problems. After all, according to Christian theology, God is omniscient — he would have known what would happen when he placed a tree in the middle of a garden and forbid the child-like Adam and Eve from eating its fruits. It also makes sense psychologically. What make something seductive, or irresistible? This reminds me of a book I read decades ago about the erotic mind. What gives something an erotic kick? Nancy Friday published her controversial book, My Secret Garden in the 70s. In her book, she cataloged the variety of female sexual fantasies. Most of these fantasies are of a taboo nature. These sexual fantasies would not create any thrill if the practice were socially-acceptable and common. If we were to live in a nudist community and public nudity is a routine happening, then nudity can easily turn into something boring. It is a psychological fact that we get excited over doing things we are forbidden to do. This is what happened to Adam and Eve. The fact that they were forbidden to eat the fruits from the Tree of Knowledge essentially guaranteed that they would do exactly that.

At this point, we can draw several conclusions about the Genesis story: (1) It is not about free will or moral choice — Adam and Eve were not equipped with the capacity to choose. (2) The first couple was doomed to fail, since forbidden fruits are irresistible. (3) Eve was primarily motivated by her wish to gain wisdom. But how can we relate this story to Zen? It may help to reference a classic Zen text, the “Xinxin Ming.” The text opens with this statement:

The Ultimate Way is not difficult.

Just forego picking and choosing.

Once you stop loving and hating,

It will reveal itself.

It should not be a mystery that picky and choosy people would find it difficult to be happy. They are victims of their rigid preference system. In one of the Zen stories, a customer visits the butcher’s shop and asks the butcher for the best piece of meat. The butcher answers,” Which piece is not ‘the best’?” Surely, good and bad are often highly subjective. A Zen poem says that “if one’s mind is not filled with petty thoughts, then every day will be a good day.” It is the same principle. Sometimes, we create our own misery by refusing to enjoy what is right in front of us.

In the Genesis story, we are told that once Adam and Eve ate the fruits from the Tree of knowledge, their eyes were opened and could distinguish between good and bad. Immediately, they felt ashamed of their nakedness. The opening of the eyes is a good metaphor for the awakening of consciousness. Once our human consciousness is awakened, we will start to have preferences and become picky — we love what is “good” and we hate what is “bad.” Consciousness leads to discrimination. All of a sudden, Adam and Eve left the realm of primordial oneness (or unity) and entered the world of duality. In the world of duality, there arises all kinds of polarities — high and low, beauty and ugliness, glory and shame, gain and loss, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow. Consciousness is a double-edged sword. Yes, humans can now experience the thrills and adventures of the dualistic world. At the same time, suffering has entered the human experience due to our preferences. Happiness and suffering are dualities. One cannot exist without the other.

Once we gained consciousness and entered the world of duality, human civilization started to develop. The snake is right, Adam and Eve became “just like God” after gaining consciousness. But God is also right — the new world that was opened up also contains pain and suffering. And because everyone wants what is “good” and rejects what is “bad,” we compete for what is best for ourselves, either fairly or unfairly. The original society was affluent because people were not picky. But once people started to develop preference, there was not enough to go around. As a result, man has to struggle to survive and to make a living. There are both light and darkness in the dualistic world. Humans have to pay a price for consciousness. The “ascent of man” is also a descent from another perspective. It is a case of “no pain, no gain.” Yes, the ego has entered the picture too, opening the door to much competition, strive, fighting and scheming among the humans. Looking out for Number 1 leads to wars and atrocities. But would the humans achieve any greatness without a sense of ego? Perhaps ego too is a double-edged sword.

I conclude that the Christian theologians who invented the notions of “the Fall” and the “original sin” have been one-sided. They cherry-pick. This is neither fair nor holistic. Yes, the primordial innocence was lost. But there is also something gained. What is gained — consciousness — is what made the colorful human history possible.

The story of Genesis is an amazing Zen koan. It is full of paradox. The exit from Eden is both a blessing and a curse. The dualistic world can be seen as both heaven or hell. The spiritual task is to return to oneness while dwelling in a world of duality.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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