Since ancient times, when people think of the word ‘cultivation’, they immediately think of the mysterious Orient with its various kinds of magic and mysticisms. In reality though, for thousands of years, the West has also owned a huge collection of depictions in literature and the arts about cultivation. More specifically the cultivation of returning to heaven.
Part 2 of the serie ‘Historical depictions in art’ will cover the topic – Test in cultivation.
During the first few years of his preaching, in order to save the lives of the masses, Jesus had to overcome numerous temptations set out by the Devil.
For example, after his 40 days of fasting in the desert, whilst facing extreme hunger, the Devil said to him, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
Jesus replied, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
Jesus threw down the stones in disregard and continued on his journey in the blazing hot and barren desert, without any food or water.
Eating and drinking are vital necessities for humans, but for a God, who descended from heaven to save mankind, eating, drinking and serving his own whims was not the goal of life. Lying in him was an innate need to save people; his own hunger and suffering couldn’t falter him.
Despite this, Satan refused to give up. He offered to Jesus a glorious world and said, “All these things I will give to you if only you will fall down and worship me.”
In response to the Devils relentless attempts at temptation, Jesus simply said, “You shall worship the Lord your God and only him shall you serve.”
The Lord required supreme trust in him, his followers had to learn to relinquish attachments to power and authority in the world. He wanted to show his people that humans did not come to the world purely to enjoy life, to indulge in luxury or to gain power. Those are just trivial matters. He required all humans to have faith in the Lord.
In the Devils third attempt, he took Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, saying that, “If You are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:
He shall give His angels charge over you,
In their hands, they shall bear you up,
Lest you dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus replied simply by saying, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.”
The Devil’s failed attempts at tempting Jesus are lessons for all humans. To his disciples at the time, the way that he overcame the devil’s temptations was the ultimate example.
Even when Jesus was arrested, oppressed, and tortured, his disciples still maintained their faith in what he had preached. Some weaker men denounced Jesus due to their fear and cowardice.
When Jesus was crucified he was alongside two thieves (which was an intentional slight on his character), one of the thieves asked Him, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us too.”
The other thief, in admiration of him, said, “Jesus, remember me when you return home to your kingdom.”
Jesus replied, “Amen I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
Being granted entrance to God’s paradise requires strict standards, not only in faith and perseverance but also in the courage to overcome the fear of death in the validation of God’s teachings. Not all disciples or practitioners could see the marvel of dharma or the genuine power of the Savior. The question was whether or not they could maintain their faith in times of persecution.
An Illustration of unwavering faith in Art
In the painting ‘The Incredulity of Saint Thomas’ by Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, Saint Thomas is shown to be in disbelief of the resurrection of Christ. Jesus comes to him, lets him check his wounds, and shames him by saying, “Seeing is believing”.
Caravaggio’s ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’ depicts a scene in which the Lord takes Abraham’s only child as a sacrifice. Sad though he is, Abraham still trusts the Lord’s guidance. At the key moment, just as Abraham’s knife touches his son’s skin, God sends an angel to interrupt. He proclaims, “Now I know that you fear God”.
To reach the realm of paradise, humans must be prepared to give up all, not only materials, status, and power, but also those that they love. Of course, God would not take their families lives, it is but a test.
The martyrs among God’s disciples are those who have shown their eternal faith, those who have stepped out of their own fear and cowardice in suffering.
Saint Stephen is the first martyred saint. After Jesus was crucified, Saint Stephen publicly denounced the Jewish authorities. He employed all of his wisdom, given by God, and his unwavering faith in the one true Lord. He stepped out to explain God’s teachings despite the inevitable persecution he would receive.
Just as expected, this enraged the Jewish authorities. They took him out of the city and stoned him to death. At that moment, Saint Stephen saw the door to heaven open and Jesus standing by the side of the Lord.
This opening of the doors to heaven demonstrates that Saint Stephen had reached sainthood and that he would live forever in paradise. He was a human of elevated faith, this was proven when he abandoned his fears and dared to stand up for the word of the Lord and support the righteous even when it meant giving up his life. Therefore, God showed up to welcome him home through the gates of heaven.
Before being stoned to death, Saint Stephen said, “Jesus, please take my soul! Please don’t accuse them.”
He didn’t detest them but instead felt sorry for them, even when they stoned him to death. In cultivation, he suffered from hardships to pay for his sins, to purify his soul, to return to God.
During the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians, Saint Erasmus was disemboweled. Poussin, in the painting, ‘Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus’ used bright colors to abate the severity of the barbaric torture. He also painted two angels holding wreaths and flowers to welcome Saint Erasmus to heaven. On Earth, though people are scared of death, it is through it and the genuine resurrection of a spirit in heaven, that creates the eternity of life.
In the painting ‘The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew’ by Caravaggio, an angel holds a palm leaf – a symbol of fullness – to give to the martyred saint.
In the painting ‘St. Sebastian’ by artist Il Sodoma, Saint Sebastian is seen, after advising the Roman Emperor not to persecute Christians, shot through with arrows. The painting depicts the moment when Saint Sebastian is persecuted, he raises his head and sees an angel bringing a crown to place on his head.
These paintings each show the contrast between Good and Evil.
Practitioners are compassionate, calm, and tolerant of humans sin. They represent authentic cultivators. Suffering and death do not falter them. No matter how cruel their persecutors may be, how severe the persecution endured is, they have the knowledge that all this creates is karma that must be paid forever.
History is cyclical. Thousands of years have passed since the martyrdom of the Saints and the same tragedies are being repeated. There are bloody and tearful historical periods where humans cruelly persecute great beings, who come to save them.
Compassion is reciprocated by painful torture. Noble faith and the desire to save human beings is disparaged. Everything has its own price tag. The universe is fair and evil will face its own karma.