From Darkness to Light

Stat arbor
Dum volvitur orbis

The Tree stands still
While the Earth spins

Almost ten years ago I came across the spiritual autobiography of Karen Armstrong, a respected scholar of religion and former Catholic nun, as well as British television commentator and one of the authors of the international Charter for Compassion. Through the course of her spiritual crisis in the convent and afterward as she tried to construct a life in the outside world, Armstrong was dogged by discouragement and feelings of failure which led to a period of severe depression. Many years later as she reflected on the path she had forged for herself, she realized that in her youth she looked at the spiritual life as unfolding along a straight line where we’re either going forward or retreating backward. Progress or failure. Now, in later life, she prefers the image of a spiral staircase: In any given present moment, it seems as though we’re stuck turning in circles, while in fact we’re very gradually ascending, growing or progressing in ways that are hidden or difficult to perceive. Only after much time, great effort, lots of failure, and a fair amount of luck can we perceive our true place.

Many people live in close contact with the frustration, desolation, discouragement, and despair that Karen Armstrong experienced. Some choose to abandon their spiritual endeavor altogether, but most do their best to continue despite the seeming uselessness of it all. It’s not unlike other great undertakings in life — marriage, vocation, friendship, education, or positive social transformation.

The way forward
Is the path of return

We all need some kind of help or encouragement or support or sage advice in time of desolation. Often we’re bitterly aware when others respond with silence to our own difficulties, though usually we pay no attention at all to the even greater struggles of those we love.

Fortunately, simple realties — understood for what they are — lead us back to the place of compassion. Something simple like a plucked flower, a fallen leaf, or a crushed sparrow’s egg has power to awaken us from the darkness. So does a kind word, a spontaneous smile, an outstretched hand, or the embrace of a family.

The moment of despair
Is the time of great hope

The history of our kind shows that once in a very great while some momentous event occurs that plunges all of us into the darkness together at once. In those past moments when we were tempted to think all was lost, our kind always found a source of power beyond imagining.

In our day, we do well to recall that we are not alone. Together, not abandoning even the smallest or most useless among us, we wait in darkness for the appearance of a bright shining light that has already begun to dawn.

~BT Waldbillig
April 24, 2017

At the Arising of a Spiritual Family

The causes of death are many,
Those of staying alive are few,
These too can become the causes of death,
Therefore always perform the practices.
~Nagarjuna, The Precious Garland (n. 278)

When I was young I did not understand how precarious and uncertain life truly is. Only now, mid-way through life’s journey, have I seen how easily the life of a man, or indeed his entire family, might disappear so completely that beings in some later time might think him only a fable. Somewhere I wrote about the urgent obligation for a family of blood to transcend useless attachment to the love of some and the hatred of many, and in so doing become a family of spirit, transcending common barriers of vain self-interest and outwitting the wise and powerful of this world.

A family of blood alone or flesh alone is easily exterminated, whether by chance or by the design of those who call themselves righteous, superior, and pure. But a family of spirit is indestructible, impassable, unfailing, capable of accomplishing even the most impossible of noble tasks. Such a family -embraces every son and daughter as a loving father does. It stretches back in time, to an age before beings of our kind looked up to the heavens for signs. It stretches forward through time to realities you and I cannot even imagine. And if there is some knowable reality that stands outside of time completely, this family reaches even to that place.

But the true marvel is this: you and I have the power to bring into being this family.  Now, in this very moment. If we choose to. Each and every one of us, in the way we are best able, has a part in the arising of the spiritual family.

For this reason, somewhere Nagarjuna says this:

You should always analyze well
Everything before you act,
And through seeing things correctly as they are
Do not put full reliance on others.

Here he’s not speaking of self-reliance in the modern American sense. The ancient Indian master refers to something more subtle and quite important: When power is concentrated in the hands of a few men, some (perhaps all) of those few men will use it to wicked purpose, making themselves like unto gods, determining who merits life and who deserves to die. Or perhaps they will be foolish, like the mindless farmer who is unable to recognize in the loss of a single ear of wheat an abundance of bread that might have fed the hungry.

Those who seem reliable and trustworthy often show themselves to be nothing of the sort. If only one man or only one privileged group possesses power to bring into being a spiritual family, then the family is doomed. For this reason providence has placed a generative, spiritual power within every member of the family.

The creative force that brings into being the spiritual family stands not outside us, but within each of us. Each and every one of us can bring forth from within this power to give life and create the spiritual family. Perhaps those beings whose compassionate love and dedication to life we fail to appreciate also have this power. Perhaps there is a secret hidden for us in the rocks, in the water, in the trees, beneath the flowers, beyond the stars, and in the heart of a dog sitting at a boy’s feet.

Now, our kind is capable of acting with wisdom and generosity but the cycles of history show that rarely do we manifest our more noble nature. The famous phrase of Pascal comes to mind (I’m paraphrasing): Those men who mistakenly regard themselves as beings higher than angels, such men are destined to become the most hellish of beasts. Let angels be angels. Let beings of flesh and blood be what they are.

For this reason, a spiritual family belongs to no one single manifestation of the universal spiritual path, for human language is not capable of fully and completely communicating any reality, let alone that which is altogether beyond words as we know them. Some members of this family follow one god, some many, others none at all or something altogether different, but all members of  this family are united by love of life and compassion for one another — despite the many irreconcilable and contrary beliefs that exist in this world. Within the spiritual family, some are poor, some rich, some kingly, some little more than mongrel dogs, some well known, others yet to be known — there is place for all. They hide themselves in every place of power and among the powerless, indistinguishable from those around them. The sons and daughters of the spiritual family do this to ensure that on the dread day of destruction, at least some of them will endure, and the family will live on in them. This sort of spiritual family cannot be wiped out or extinguished.  Such a family will endure.

And should some Mighty People War seek the end of our manifestation of life in this world, the Family of the Great Heart will vouchsafe the continuation of life and compassion by the many means they have long prepared in silent expectation.

One day I will no longer exist in this world — just like any other man. So far as we understand, any being who comes into existence in this world eventually passes out of existence in this world. The sad mystery of impermanence and mortality shines an invincible light on the greater mystery of life manifested in fathers and mothers, in children and grandchildren, in trees and flowers and dogs, in wind and water and rocks, in pain and love and loneliness. You and I have encountered all these realities through the course of our brief lives so far. Perhaps they have inspired you, as they have inspired me, just as they inspired others before us, and will continue to inspire beings in need of hope long after we are gone, never to return to this present world.

For so long as there is a present moment in which we are able to become friend to those who seek a friend and a family able to welcome those in need of family, that moment will be a time in which life can thrive and flourish and invite and inspire.

Lest I paint too fantastical an image, the secret is this:  All we have to do is love each other. It is that simple, yet most of us think it impossible entirely. As Cardinal Newman wrote somewhere: We begin by loving those who are nearest to us — ourselves, our family, our friends. From the sure love that exists within the spiritual family, we are able to expand our experience of compassionate-love until it grows as in an ever-widening circle and embraces even those regarded as unlovable.

Here, in the present moment and within the spiritual family, we find a place where life begins, a means by which life continues, and a shining beacon of hope for all who dwell in this world and in the worlds to come.

~BT Waldbillig
April 20, 2017
– – – – –
Hymn of the Spiritual Family

abbe gaud
albe gaud
nonce laud
ver bend
pae don
bend en harc

Rejoice, the Father comes
Rejoice, the Rising Sun brings dawn
Let all proclaim the praise
Truly we are sacred
To our Father and to His Master
We are blessed from the very beginning

By Means of a Mongrel Dog

Throughout human history, some few of our kind have claimed to encounter beings from beyond what is commonly understood as our world. Some of these men and women believe that strange beings come to them in their dreams and they call them visitors, angels, gods, messengers, demons, spirits, or even friends. Ancient cave art bears witness to this, as do many ancient spiritual texts, some of which are still read today and even regarded with honor by hundreds of millions of people around world.

I myself have no personal experience in such matters, but I am left to wonder. In their dreams and visions, humans always regard the visitor with awe or fear or reverence or astonishment or bewilderment. In some future time, when we communicate with or even encounter other beings like us from some distant part of the Universe, it’s likely that we will know the same feelings our ancestors felt when they reported their visions and dreams. But is it possible that such beings — if they are real and not merely dreams — might also regard us with awe or fear or astonishment or reverence or bewilderment? Might they feel small, just as we feel small before the vastness of the Universe? Would they marvel at the mystery of life manifested strangely and wondrously in alien beings, just as we would?

I think on my dog, Dante. He and I are made of the same stuff and inhabit the same world, yet at times he seems to me almost like a god. Without a word he communicates the wisdom of love more surely and powerfully than any human I’ve ever known. And when life itself seems useless, he leads me back to the joy of a world that’s full of meaning and purpose. When the mind is stuck in the past or lost in the future, Dante calls me home to the only home any of us has — the present moment. The mystery of life in the Universe is revealed to me every day not by great men or noble deeds or eloquent words — but by means of a mongrel dog.

If a creature so common and lowly as a dog has such power, imagine what you and I can bring to pass in the Universe!

Should we encounter, some day in some far off future, intelligent beings like us from a distant place in the Universe, imagine what good and wondrous things we might accomplish together — as friends and perhaps even as family.

~BT Waldbillig
April 13, 2017

The Red Bicycle

I must have been six or seven years old when my father bought me a bicycle and taught me how to ride it. Despite my expectations and my mother’s pleas, he refused to allow me training wheels, those additional, temporary small wheels that provide balance and stability. Instead, I tumbled over and fell down quite a bit at first. Only today, mid-way through life’s journey, do I understand how fortunate I was that my father had the vision and wisdom to allow me to learn well through difficulty.  Thanks to him and thanks to that red bicycle, to this day I carry within me a wellspring of strength and confidence for difficult moments. I still tumble and fall down at times, but I always rise up again and continue my journey.

It took only a couple of weeks to perfect the skill (riding) and master the tool (the bike), but it felt like ages until I could claim calm control of that extra-small red bicycle, specially ordered by my father for his very short son. (I’m still shorter than my dad!) Once I took my place on the bicycle and set forth on whatever my journey might be, I was fearless — to my parents’ dismay sometimes. But in that small Midwestern town, I was never afraid and never in danger. That place where neighbor looks out for neighbor — where neighbor loves neighbor — stayed in my heart across the years as I made my way through the world.

These days, Dante and I wander the world with that same spirit of purpose in our journey and with abiding love for those we encounter in Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Bronx. And I still think fondly on that extra-small red bike my father taught me to ride with confidence all those years ago.

~BT Waldbillig
April 12, 2017

Of Bait Dogs and Navy Cooks

Most of us choose to believe the prosperity, fortunate events, and pleasurable relationships that arise in our lives are more or less the result of our own merits. It’s as if we’ve earned the good things that are actually beyond meriting. Life itself — in its origin and in its continuation — is the supreme example.

When I look to my own life with clear judgment and compassion, I find a series of random and improbable turns of fate. I am a white male of European descent born in one the of world’s greatest nations (though its empire is waning). I was raised by parents who loved me and provided very well for me. My ancestral religion resides in the Catholic Church, a powerful spiritual institution with global political influence. While I’m far from genius, nature placed in me no obstacles of mind or body to hinder my education or work across the years. I spent my entire childhood in the State of Iowa, a land of fruitful abundance where honest people look out for each other and value matters of the spirit more than the trappings of worldly success, where the soil is more valuable than gold.

Now, one of the great virtues of my homeland, the United States, is liberty that makes possible good things that the entire world desires. At the same time, my nation has a deeply rooted and profoundly ugly fault: prosperity renders many citizens vain and lacking in compassion, and arrogance blinds them to the institutional injustices, societal inequities, and moral cruelties that make the same prosperity unattainable to others. In the secret place of the heart, many people regarded as virtuous actually disdain the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the weak, the sick, the blind, the lame, those with mental illness, people of despised religions, and those with the wrong skin color. Some of these people attend church faithfully and rule over others.

At the same time, I am not embarrassed for the lucky circumstances of my life. I owe no one an apology at being American, or white, or middle class, or well educated, etc. Rather, I believe that along with others who know good fortune, I am obligated to make of prosperity an instrument of social, political, economic, and spiritual transformation. This is the outward manifestation of compassionate love and compassionate love is the one thing that makes life worth living.  As it happens, compassionate love put into action brings together people of all circumstances and backgrounds as they transform for the better themselves, each other, the world, and the entire Universe.

Saint Basil the Great said somewhere ( I’m paraphrasing): If we have piles of fine coats or stacks of costly garments or rich food (or a sneaker collection, etc.) that we do not use and hide away in chests or closets, then we are stealing from the poor who have need of the leftover abundance we keep for ourselves. You and I who regard ourselves as just human beings can hardly understand how radical and demanding this teaching is. Saint Basil sits before the Church as bishop and successor to Christ’s apostles shouting: “Fuck you, arrogant and selfish men! You have understood nothing.” Today our Prosperity Gospel preachers and comfortable suburban bishops put higher value on perfect hair, gleaming teeth, tanned bodies, luxury cars, Club Med holidays, academic degrees from the right universities, eye-candy personal assistants, brand new McMansions, and fat bank accounts than they do on the poor.

As a son of Abraham inspired by Saint Basil, I would even say that the Crusader, the Zionist, and the Jihadi — in so far as all these titles have been corrupted — are one in the same. They have not understood the origin or expression of the compassionate love that their ancestors treasured. It is compassionate action that pleases the Compassionate One — not war, violence, hatred, rape, oppression, and injustice.

And let’s not start with the smartly dressed, over-educated, self-important trendy urban Buddhists (or others belonging to this or that spiritual movement) who are actually dedicated to numbing themselves to the horrible pain of impermanence and mortality, turning their backs to the suffering of others as much to their own suffering. The path of the Buddha was nothing so comfortable and it certainly was not socially respectable.

My thoughts turn to Dante the Little Man. Truly, there was no reason I should have encountered this quirky mongrel who inspires in me greater love than I’ve known for any other creature on the planet. Had I not wandered over to East 1st Street on that one particular day when I was able to sneak out of the office early, or had I waited just one more day and missed an adoption event on the Upper East Side, some hipster with a trust fund might have taken him home. (Peace be to hipsters with trust funds!) And without Dante the Little Man I might not have persevered through the saddest days of my mother’s mental illness. If a Memphis, Tennessee dog rescue with little space and no money hadn’t found him and passed him along to Social Tees Animal Rescue in New York City, Dante well might have met his end in the hell reserved to bait dogs at some gory dog fight organized in a filthy garage or dank basement or secluded backwoods property. What are the odds that Dante the Little Man should find his way from Memphis to the East Village and been in the office and not the kennel on that afternoon when I decided to look for a dog because I had a couple of hours free and nothing interesting to do?

And how much of life is precisely like this! If only we had eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, and hearts for loving. How different the world would be!

As gratitude arises in my heart for lucky twists of fate and providential encounters that changed my life, I think on poor Black and Latina women with serious mental illness in places like the Bronx. They start the day with three strikes against them in a country where “good” people instrumentalize religion and success to justify their selfishness and to oppress others.

I think on countries like North Korea, where suffering continues because of war and injustice; where its young men have been so much meat for worms and its women objects to serve the needs of the powerful; where even today mighty and so-called great nations — my own included — seek to possess the land and people for their own benefit and not out of compassion for the infants with empty bellies or homeless old women freezing to death on cold winter nights. (Obviously, this represents only one aspect of the complicated history and political reality of that part of the world.)

I also honor the sacrifices of my two uncles who honorably served in the Korean War for the sake of the country my family loves and cherishes. Both did what they could to mitigate their participation in unjust acts and in the taking of life. One uncle deliberately found his way to the duties of cook aboard a US Navy ship in order to avoid taking life in battle. The other was a beautiful man broken by the PTSD that was his continual companion when he came home from war. PTSD destroyed his marriage, made a career difficult at times, and alienated him from the people he loved most. How many men and women are like my uncles!

By all means we do well to take the project of life into our own hands, to be masters of our destinies, to take responsibility for ourselves. But let us not delude ourselves. In truth, we owe much to the unseen beneficial forces that make good things possible. Whether it’s luck, karma, providence, benevolent beings … or the love of a dog that makes life worth living.

~BT Waldbillig
April 8, 2017

At the Return of the Warrior Spirit

Not long ago my meditation teacher received his senior citizen Metro pass, entitling him to discount rate travel on the New York City bus and subway system. He joked that now he is “officially” old, though I know from our frequent conversations, regular study sessions, and occasional shared meal that he still sees himself as a young man inspired by his spiritual teacher to abandon everything and set out upon a spiritual path without reserve or hesitation. His teacher, Sangharakshita, is not without controversy but if you’re a modern Westerner, like me, there’s no better, more approachable, or less fetishized enunciation of the Buddhist spiritual tradition than Sangharakshita’s thoughtful and critical attempt at synthesis. I keep a copy of The Essential Sangharakshita close at hand — it’s as useful to a Buddha skeptic like myself as it is to hardcore meditators, snobbish intellectuals, devout atheists, sincere Children of Abraham, and slacker game-boys.

My teacher shared with me his concern that the consuming zeal and single-minded commitment he experienced in the early days of Sanghrakshita’s Triratna (Three Jewels) movement are waning, or at least giving way to new expressions. While it’s no consolation, this is only natural as the founding generation of a spiritual, humanitarian, or activist movement begins to disappear and younger or newer members lack the intimate bonds engendered by uncertainty, risk, and radicality. Those who participate in the events that bring a movement into being in the first place have a unique shared identity that newbies simply can’t understand fully. Instead of leaving careers, homes, families, and social respectability, the new generation tries to balance a normal life with their spiritual path, often remaining in awe of the sacrifice, excitement, creativity, and power of the founders. Call it compromise or practicality, depending on your perspective.

All of this has me thinking back to the first followers of spiritual teachers like Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth. It seems to me that far from planning out great institutions or impressive social movements, these two men first and foremost sought to be the heroic spiritual Friend to those who gathered around them. While we might not look on their followers in this way, both teachers attracted men and women with the spirit of ferocious warriors. What do I mean? The soldier or sailor or tribesman or mercenary sets for himself or herself a duty which is also a good and doesn’t hesitate to accomplish any task or challenge that arises in serving that duty. It might be crown or family or wealth or vengeance or something altogether different, but the uncompromising, seemingly fearless attitude is always the same. For such people, even death ceases to be an obstacle. These are no namby-pamby wimps. For example, some of the first followers of Jesus were fishermen and fishermen, like farmers, are tougher than iron and able to endure brutal, constantly changing conditions. There are also accounts of the Buddha stopping to rest in a mango grove with something like 1,200 followers at hand. I forget the precise number. We could almost say Jesus had a Navy Seal team and the Buddha had an entire army.

But just like my teacher’s community, those first Jesus and Buddha warriors eventually gave way to bankers and bakers and school teachers and old ladies and bus drivers and magazine editors and pharmaceutical reps and personal trainers and grocery clerks and IT nerds. This process, however, isn’t merely one of pure entropy since occasionally — very rarely — the garbage collector and farm wife and swimming instructor and auto mechanic and the rest of the whole damn mediocre gang find themselves faced with an unforeseen and even impossible mission that rekindles in them the spirit of the warrior. This has happened in the past and can happen even in our own day within the spiritual communities, humanitarian endeavors, and activist movements that give meaning to our lives and make the world a better place.

~BT Waldbillig
April 5, 2017

The Love of a Grandmother

My dad isn’t the touchy-feely type but when he speaks of his mother and says that she was one of the kindest and happiest people he’s ever met, you can tell he means it. Now, I didn’t know Grandma Katie all that well and I was only 14 years old when she died in 1988, but sometimes I still remember her smile and I can still smell the baked ham she would prepare every Easter. Grandma Katie, who was widowed longer than I was alive, sat at the head of the table but hardily ate at all. Instead, she made sure everyone else was taken care of and she herself would return to the kitchen periodically to bring out a new dish or start a new course for the abundant Easter dinner. Grandma Katie left an impression on my life less from my own interaction with her than from the intensity of my father’s regard for her.

As Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, we frequently pass mothers and grandmothers taking children to school in the morning or walking them home in the afternoon. In Harlem, they might be from Black families who have lived in the neighborhood for generations. In Washington Heights, it’s Dominican immigrants with extended families. In the Bronx, we see women in head scarves from Central Asia or Africa doing their best to ignore stares and murmurs. But all of these women, just like my own grandmother, are doing their best in challenging circumstances to raise their children to be decent people. They could be single moms, widows, women working two or three jobs for the sake of family — all of them sacrificing themselves for love of their children and grandchildren.

This morning in Highbridge Park, Dante and I saw a woman picking through the rubbish bin, pulling out glass bottles and aluminum cans to trade for a handful of coins. My other grandmother, Grandma Carol, used to collect aluminum cans and glass bottles. She was a factory worker and the extra money she pocketed throughout the year she spent on my sisters and me at Christmas. There was hardly enough room around the Christmas tree for all the presents we received. As children, we had no idea how lucky we were — not for the gifts but for the love of our grandmothers.

Perhaps the woman in the park this morning is saving so she can surprise a child with a rag doll or a racing car. Or maybe she was earning some extra money so that her family might enjoy an abundant Easter dinner in a couple of weeks. This morning in the park Dante and I greeted the woman. She smiled back at us as we continued our walk.

~BT Waldbillig
April 3, 2017