There is a verse in the New Testament that I have not been able to decipher for a long time. Here is the quote:
And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matthew 12: 31–32)
Jesus has always taught forgiveness. Even at the verge of his death as he was being crucified, he cried out to the Lord, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”(Luke 23: 34) Once, Peter asked Jesus how many times he should forgive his brother or sister. Peter wondered whether seven times is enough. Jesus said, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” So, how is it that Jesus said that there is an unforgivable sin? I have consulted a few Bible commentaries. But I have not been able to find a satisfactory explanation. It is only quite recently that a revelation dawned on me, thanks to the insights offered by some Zen texts.
We must note that Jesus is not referring to any ordinary sin. He is very specific. It is the sin of blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. If you don’t have a clear understanding of the Holy Spirit, this further detail will not be too helpful. Many people think of the Holy Spirit as some kind of external reality. There are various misconceptions about the Holy Spirit among the Christians. For example, many believe that the Holy Spirit lives only among Christians or believers. But that contradicts what is clearly stated in Genesis 2. There it is said, “Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”(Genesis 2: 7) That is the Holy Spirit right there! In addition, the Psalmist tells us that we cannot escape from the spirit of God. He asked, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?”(Psalm 139: 7) We cannot escape from the Holy Spirit because it is our inner reality. It does not require church membership either.
The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an unforgivable sin because it is an act of self-incrimination, self-defilement, and self-condemnation. There are occasions when we feel that we are evil, or that we are guilty of a certain offense. Many guilt feelings occur due to our shame and embarrassment over our human nature, especially our sexuality. Humans are a very species which denies its own animal self. As a result, society has certain sexual norms, often unrealistic, and it is quick to condemn us for even a minor infraction. We tend to internalize society’s judgment and condemnation, even though we have not done anything against our conscience. Lust, for example, is often frowned at, especially female lust. Certain sexual lifestyles are constantly being criticized. Promiscuity, for example, is regularly being condemned. Prostitution is both condemned and criminalized in many communities, even if it is a consensual transaction. Human needs and economic needs are routinely brushed aside. Society is so eager to define, rigidly, and categorically, what is right or wrong in moral and ethical matters. But real morality is a matter of our discourse with our own conscience. It is situational, not rigid. Guilt over human sexuality and sexual action is often baseless since nobody is really hurt. Other times, we do hurtful things out of fear, ignorance, or sheer mindlessness. In these instances, some real harm has been done. But even these hurtful actions are seldom done out of malice. Just as Jesus said, we often don’t know what we are doing. In our ignorance or mindlessness, we may have committed atrocities.
We are blaspheming against the Holy Spirit if we attribute malice or evil to something we have done out of our innocence or ignorance. If this is what is happening, then no one can help us but ourselves. We have to learn to forgive ourselves, see our own innocence and love ourselves. No external agent can do this for us. How can this be done? We have to first understand ourselves and our actions. We have to develop certain insights into why we do what we do. It is about self-knowledge. Why is it so important to do this inner work? The answer is simple. Unresolved guilt issues, be they conscious or unconscious, are not harmless. We tend to project our guilt towards others. Neither love nor hate is person-specific. If we learn to love ourselves, then we also learn to love others. On the other hand, if we subconsciously hate ourselves, then that hate will also be projected outward. If we can forgive ourselves, through a deep understanding of ourselves and our human nature, then we can also forgive others. It is insight and wisdom which allow us to stop blaspheming against our inner Holy Spirit.
There is an interesting story in the Platform Sutra which illustrates this point. Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch, invited his disciples to have a poetry contest to show their deep understanding of Zen. The senior disciple, Shenxiu, posted this poem:
The body is the bodhi tree.
The mind is like a bright mirror’s stand.
At all times we must strive to polish it
and must not let dust collect.
This reflects a common mindset of the spiritual practitioners. This is also the Pharisee mindset. There is a constant strife to get busy. Religious people have a tendency to see sin, impurities and defilements everywhere. As a result, there is always an urgency to clean and purify. But Hui Neng’s poem reflects a totally different mindset:
Bodhi originally has no tree.
The mirror has no stand.
The Buddha-nature is
always clear and pure.
Where is there room for dust?
We have an intrinsic purity. Our Buddha-nature is by nature spotless. Our Holy Spirit within is by nature immaculate. The sin and defilements are tricks our judgmental mind has played on us. Of course, we have to develop a habit of mindfulness so that we won’t harm other beings. But at the same time, we have to cultivate certain spiritual insights to see our own deep innocence. This is what it means to not blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. The forgiveness we need is an inner work that we have to do by ourselves.