The Strange Case of the (Crucified!) Buddha-Dog

In the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City there is an easily overlooked 19th century Tibetan tapestry that recounts an odd tale from the life of Asanga, a fourth-century Buddhist monk born in the Gandhāran Kingdom. According to tradition, Asanga dedicated himself to a spiritual path, spending most of his life in a monastery until he decided in middle age that the monastery was, in fact, a hindrance to his spiritual progress. And so Asanga left the monastery and sought an encounter with the divine in a remote cave. After three years of life as a cave-dwelling hermit with no perceivable progress on his path, he ventured out into the world where he received insight into the spiritual life through his encounters with ordinary people dedicated to seemingly impossible tasks.

After exploring the world for some time, Asanga came upon a miserable, unwanted dog with only two legs and wounds infested with maggots. Asanga looked upon the dog and loved him, and so he could not help but try to ease the suffering of the discarded creature. He careful removed the maggots, attentive not harm them lest he add to the cycle of suffering revealed before him. So that both the dog and the maggots might live, Asanga cut from himself a piece of flesh and gently transfered the maggots from the dog’s body to the piece of his own body, alleviating the suffering of one creature and ensuring the continued life of others in an act of self-sacrifice.

When Asanga looked up from the maggots, he was no longer in the presence of a dog. Instead, he beheld a vision as bright as the Sun — it was Maitreya, whose presence he had sought in vain through many years outside the monastery. In that moment Asanga understood: Only when he ceased searching for the Great Buddha Maitreya and turned his attention to the needs of an unwanted, useless, suffering creature — only when he abandoned his grasping attachment to the goal of his spiritual path — was he able to see the One who was always present to him.

The story then takes an odd turn: The dog-buddha Maitreya tells Asanga that it was his compassion for an unwanted dog that removed the clouds of Karma that had blinded him. Maitreya, once again a dog, proposes a game: Put me on your shoulder and carry me about. Let’s see if anyone else understands what you now understand.

And so Maitreya wanders through a village with the miserable cur on his shoulder asking strangers: What do you see on my shoulders?

Nothing, one person responds.
A dead dog, says another.
You are carrying someone on your shoulders, yet another replies.

In reading the story and examining the tapestry, I couldn’t help but think on two striking elements:

Asanaga doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his own body in his mission to alleviative suffering. He gives his own flesh to creatures that no one else would bother to save. This is, essentially, a description of the Bodhisattva, which Christians honor in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and which they ritualize in the Eucharistic Liturgy (i.e., the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Liturgy, the Service of Holy Communion, etc.).

There is also a Roman chant that honors the flagellation (whipping) Jesus suffered during his Passion by quoting Psalm 21: Ego autem sum vermis et non homo. (“But I am a worm [maggot] and no man.”)

But there is another, more extraordinary connection between this episode from the life of Asanga and the primitive Christian community. The earliest images of Christ crucified are not carefully chiseled marble monuments or gleaming golden mosaics. They are graffiti showing a donkey or a dog on the Cross. It’s presumed that these images were meant to insult the faith of early Christians, though perhaps we take umbrage too easily. (Such ridiculous images would not be targeted by Iconoclasts trying to wipe out the memory of Jesus. Apparent mockery ensured that the testimony of faith made by the first followers of Jesus would survive across time.) The dog on the Cross, naturally, has two arms and two legs. These two legged dogs got around, it seems.

To my mind, it seem likely that elements of the Christan mythos filtered Eastward and met the Buddhist world within the context of the Gandhāran Kingdom.

There is one last detail to the Rubin tapestry that stands out to me: Just above the episode of the dog-buddha, there is a stag drinking from a stream, recalling Psalm 41/42 from the Psalter of David: Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus. (“As the deer longs for flowing waters, so does my soul long for you, O God.”) This is likely a nod to one of  the most primitive Christian liturgical chants by the 19th century Tibetan Buddhist monks who created the tapestry. Perhaps they also knew that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina wrote a motet around this text when he was charged with saving polyphony from the wrath of boorish, over-zealous Roman bureaucrats during the Counter Reformation.

No doubt there are many lessons to learn from the story of Asanga and Maitreya, as well as from the many other Tibetan Buddhist art works at the Rubin.


~BT Waldbillig
May 30, 2017

Finding a Teacher (a poem by W.S. Merwin)

FINDING A TEACHER
By W.S. Merwin

In the woods I came on an old friend fishing
and I asked him a question
and he said Wait

fish were rising in the deep stream
but his line was not stirring
but I waited
it was a question about the sun

about my two eyes
my ears my mouth
my heart the earth with its four seasons
my feet where I was standing
where I was going

it slipped through my hands
as though it were water
into the river
it flowed under the trees
it sank under hulls far away
and was gone without me
then where I stood night fell

I no longer knew what to ask
I could tell that his line had no hook
I understood that I was to stay and eat with him

http://www.merwinconservancy.org/2017/05/finding-a-teacher-by-w-s-merwin/

~BT Waldbillig
May 24, 2017

The Two Lessons

When we focus outside ourselves, ultimately we realize the equality of ourselves and all other beings. Everybody wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer. Our attachment to our own happiness expands to an attachment to the happiness of all.
~Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche

Many years ago as a seminary student I had occasion to know an elderly woman who confided in me that on several occasions she received visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary. These encounters always happened in the dead of night and so I assumed they were simply pious dreams, but the woman’s experience was of something unlike ordinary dreams. Now, I’m not one for visions or inspired dreams — I regard them as little more than distractions from the greater mysteries that surround us in every waking moment — but I felt unable to dismiss out of hand the woman’s accounts for this reason: her entire demeanor changed and she became almost radiant whenever she recounted to me her other-worldly spiritual experiences. She was, in some way and for at least some passing moment, transformed. Even transfigured. In addition to the positive emotional content of her experience, the rational, discursive content (the storyline) was simple, useful, helpful and entirely traditional.

Luckily I had been formed by spiritual teachers and personal confessors who honored the experience and respected the conscience of anyone who might seek spiritual counsel. So I simply encouraged the elderly woman to be thankful for her dream-visions and then to get on with life as best she could, carrying the positive mental states — joy, hope,  loving-kindness — into her difficult daily life. Naturally, I have no personal experience with extraordinary dreams or mystical visions, but I imagine that being thankful and then moving on would be the only way I myself would be able to deal with that sort of situation, as the weight of so intense an encounter with transcendent reality might be too much to bear. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. Truth be told, I think taking a walk with the dog or savoring a proper meal or spending time with family would be more useful and beneficial than a thousand visitations from gods or angels or saints.

Not so long ago I wrote a letter to one of the world’s most important Buddhist spiritual teachers to ask his thoughts on this sort of thing. Much to my surprise, he personally responded with a warm, direct, thoughtful opinion, even though he did not know me and surely already had too many people demanding his attention. This great spiritual teacher put it in Buddhist terms: While a madman might think himself sane, an enlightened person would not regard himself as mad, even though to the world he might seem mad — just as Jesus was called a madman in one Gospel account. The enlightened person would recognize that the true madness arises from the habitual, delusional ways we think, feel, and live. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the experience: either we are so overwhelmed by a clear vision of reality that we retreat to our comfortable delusions or else we accept the reality we encounter and when we share this with others who stand outside our place of experience we are regarded as foolish or mad or even wicked.

It is a shame and unfortunate that through our own fault we don’t understand ourselves or know who we are.
~Saint Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle

Somewhere I wrote of the lessons my parents taught me when our family dog died. My mother consoled me, wiped my boyish tears, and taught me not to run away from the pain of life. My father taught me to be strong enough to rise up from the place of tears and honor the suffering of the present moment by burying the dead dog. He told me that if I’m strong enough to do this as a boy, as a man I will be strong enough to triumph over any obstacle I might encounter. How lucky I was to have such wise parents!

Today, midway through life’s journey, it is clear to me: The Two Lessons — the lesson of the mother and the lesson of the father — are both necessary. We become more truly human, free from the madness of life, when we look at our experience of the world for what it really is, when we stop pretending that we can escape loss and pain and sadness. And once we dwell in the place of tears for as long as we need to, we have the ability to rise up and start our journey, offering a saving hand to those still lost in the place of darkness.

The journey begins with one person. If one human being can make the journey from darkness to light, pass from death to life, it means all of us can do it. No matter how unlikely or impossible it seems.

~BT Waldbillig
May 24, 2017

Honoring a Tree

The other day as a friend and I were walking Dante through the neighborhood, we paused in the corner of a nearby park to marvel at the trees. One tree in particular, low with wide-stretching branches and abundant shade, has stayed in my mind. I didn’t tell my friend, but I had to stop myself from climbing up into this particular tree to rest for a moment on the longest and sturdiest branch.

When I think on the Exodus encounter between Moses and God on Mount Horeb, I imagine the burning bush to be something like the tree in the park that Dante, my friend, and I couldn’t ignore. My friend spontaneously embraced the tree as if she were greeting a long lost family member. (I guess this means I have a friend who is, literally, a tree hugger!)

Just before passing by the tree we had been talking about difficulties in life but in that moment when she gently drew the tree to her breast as if it were an infant or a grandparent, thoughts of sadness, suffering, failings, and discontentment vanished from my mind and I couldn’t help but smile. Only a smile could express what I experienced in that moment thanks to my friend — words and thoughts were of no use to me or the tree.

For his part, Dante marked the tree as if he, too, were honoring it. No one will remember that I stood for a moment in awe before the Horeb-like tree, but the dogs, the squirrels, the birds, and the insects will know that Dante was there. I would have it no other way, truth be told, since it was a mongrel dog who gave me a reason to continue my journey when I wanted to give up on myself. He taught me that the true place of favor is wherever we find ourselves in the present moment, that the auspicious moment is always now. Hic et nunc — here and now — is all we have and all we need. Dogs understand this better than you and I do.

The trees, the insects, and the birds were here before our kind stood up tall to begin our journey and they will likely be around long after our kind has disappeared. How amazing that, for a brief moment, we walk among them accompanied by friends and dogs,  beings who love us always, who protect us in moments of trial, who teach us best with a smile or a nuzzle. The world would be a better place if each of us were more like the friend and the dog — strong and faithful, never abandoning those we love, united like a family that endures suffering and survives death.

Had I journeyed through the park yesterday without a friend and a dog, I might never have stopped before that one particular tree to behold something of the mystery that great spiritual teachers like Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus discovered long before I came into this world. What they experienced directly and personally, I experienced only faintly and at a distance, as if in a dream.

One day no one will remember that you and I passed through this world, but human beings will always remember the world’s great spiritual teachers and heroic spiritual friends. When, at last, we travel to distant corners of the Universe, we will carry the memory of our teachers and friends with us.

~BT Waldbillig
May 22, 2017

The Journey (a poem by David Whyte)

THE JOURNEY
By David Whyte

Above the mountains
the geese turn into
the light again

Painting their
black silhouettes
on an open sky.

Sometimes everything
has to be
inscribed across
the heavens

so you can find
the one line
already written
inside you.

Sometimes it takes
a great sky
to find that

first, bright
and indescribable
wedge of freedom
in your own heart.

Sometimes with
the bones of the black
sticks left when the fire
has gone out

someone has written
something new
in the ashes of your life.

You are not leaving.
Even as the light fades quickly now,
you are arriving.

~BT Waldbillig
May 15, 2017

Man’s Best Friend

This morning as the dog and I took our walk through nearby Highbridge Park, I noticed that Dante sometimes resembles a bull — snorting, shaking his head, and turning up the tall grass with repeated backward digs as if he were preparing to charge forward. Naturally, there’s nothing menacing when it’s just a goofy corgi half-breed acting this way. In fact, I can’t help but laugh that my dog should behave like this, as if he were some mighty bull or the great aurochs that dominated the spiritual consciousness of ancient humans. And yet, if I were a painter or shaman I would honor him in the vault of a great cave just as surely as our ancestors painted sacred bulls in those caves that were the first temples of humanity.

“All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind,
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon follows the hoof of the ox.”
~Dhammapada

It’s curious that the mystery of impermanence, mortality, and suffering commemorated in cave-painted bulls later found expression in the cult of the Friend (Mithras). It is also likely alluded to in the very first passage of the Buddhist Dhammapada, which should be no surprise as Buddhism was reshaped by its encounter with Gandharan civilization in the ancient birthplace of Zoroastrianism, which gave birth to Mithraism.

Greco-Roman civilization likewise came into contact with the warrior Gandharan people while the writings of the Christian New Testament were still being formulated. And so in the Gospel when Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”, and when he elsewhere references the slaughter of a calf in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I cannot help but think on the ancient cave paintings or on the depictions of Mithras and the Bull.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
~Gospel of John, Prologue

Re-reading the opening line of the Dhammapada — “all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind” — I am reminded of the Christian theology of logos as the creative, generative reality of God made incarnate in Jesus. Perhaps Buddhism hitched a ride to the West with the Gandharan warriors. Or maybe proto-Christian thought found its way back to the East and influenced that famous and quintessentially Buddhist line from the Pali canon.

Not coincidentally, in the Gandharan flourishing of Buddhism one of the central and most honored figures is the Future Buddha-Boddhisatva Maitreya. Both Maitreya and Mithras come from the word: Mitra, which means Friend.

And somehow Dante the Little Man, a mere mongrel dog, led me to think on all these things this morning. Proof that even a wordless dog can become a great spiritual teacher. If a dog can do this, just imagine what you and I might become one day!

~BT Waldbillig
May 15, 2017

Maitreya
Gandharan image of the Future Buddha, who is also the Friend

The Choice Is Always Ours

A plucked flower will wilt and die. A fallen leaf will turn brown and crumble to dust. But for a brief time both still hold on to life and beauty — and so does the world.

The story of the sainted children of Fatima, Portugal and their purported encounter with the Virgin Mary one hundred years ago today is bound to be as incomprehensible to non-believers as it is inspiring to fervent devotees. Controversy and saccharine piety aside, the message communicated by the children was essentially a meditation on impermanence and mortality — not just as they relate to any of us individually but as they relate to the very existence of our world. The mysterious “secrets” of Fatima were visions of suffering in the world on a scale previously unimaginable and of wars so destructive they might annihilate the planet. You don’t need to be a Rosary-rattling Catholic to see how the past century bore witness to this, and you don’t need to believe in other-worldly visions to know that we turned life into a nightmare for ourselves and for others.

But there is another side to the Fatima meditation on impermanence: as surely as we have power to destroy the world, we also have power to save the world. Undoubtedly the world as we know it will one day pass away, but for now it’s here, all around us. We needn’t be victims of fate or destiny, passively awaiting the end of all things. Rather, we can become ferocious warriors dedicated to an impossible mission, a mission to save this world — for the present moment, at least.

Our world nearly came to an end more than once across the past century — but it didn’t end. The next century will be no less dangerous and precarious. The message of Fatima still holds true: it’s up to us to decide what will happen. Together, as a spiritual family of fearless warriors, we have the power to save the world once again.

~BT Waldbillig
May 13, 2017

Sanitized Saints

It’s quite possible that the stories of all of the saints and bodhisattvas we know have been sanitized in order to maintain the status quo. Compassion means refusing to participate in insanity, and that is never going to be an entirely safe and popular choice in a world gone mad.
~Shastri Ethan Nichtern

It’s all too easy for us to misjudge the lives of the heroic spiritual figures we honor. After all, we look to them from a distance, standing outside the place of their spiritual experience. It’s not that we get them wrong entirely, but we inevitably force what we know of them into categories that make useful narrative sense to us. But life is not lived as a story — it is only remembered and honored as a story.

Naturally, these spiritually heroic men and women did not experience their lives in the way we imagine. To us they are heroes and victors from the beginning, whereas they knew the darkness, desolation, doubt, despair, and loneliness of the present moment. We admire their triumph over difficult or even impossible circumstances, while in the present moment of experience they couldn’t be sure they would emerge with mind or heart or faith or body intact.

There is an ancient saying:
Even the gods
Have need of heroes

So accustomed to honoring a conveniently fashioned image of past spiritual heroes, we forget that even now such beings dwell among us. They are friends, teachers, sisters, fathers, strangers, prostitutes, saints, soldiers, failures, nobodies, ordinary and extraordinary — the story of their lives is not yet finished. They do not yet know what they will become or whether they will survive the ordeal.

And so in this very moment, they need us.

In this very moment, they are us.

The power to experience profound, positive spiritual transformation permeates our minds and courses through our veins — each of us can become the heroic spiritual Friend that we honor in others.

~BT Waldbillig
May 11, 2017

The Cry of Jonah

The other day I read a news report detailing the arrest of a young woman accused of prostituting herself for $20 and a meal at a McDonald’s restaurant. Naturally, every headline emphasized that this person was prepared to trade her body for chicken nuggets. The beautiful, affluent, sanctimonious public figures who tell us what to think and how to live via newspapers, TV news shows, websites, radio programs, and polished pulpits no doubt delighted in the chance to deride and mock this woman. These are the same people Jesus encountered in a well-known Gospel passage.

The powerful of our nation turn their backs to those in need. They despise the poor and the weak. Their hearts are hardened against the plight of the hungry and homeless. Should our nation be utterly annihilated and its name perish from the face of the Earth, even that fate would be too merciful given the crimes we commit collectively and as individuals every single day. We have turned natural abundance and the favor of Providence into a curse. And still you and I delude ourselves that the United States of America is some fabled City Upon a Hill.

The voice of Jonah the Prophet echoes through the ages: Forty days and Nineveh will be no more!

~BT Waldbillig
May 3, 2017

Fearless Dedication

Just up the road from our local parish church in Chariton, Iowa there was a food bank where every now and again my father and I would drop off a few grocery bags filled with canned foods. The notion that a single human being in my hometown should go without food for even a day was absurd. After all, the soil in my homestate of Iowa is the most fertile earth on this planet and when I was young the Midwestern supermarket chain Hy-Vee was headquartered in Chariton, my hometown.

Both of my parents came from families of modest means. While my childhood was a carefree time of security and abundance, my parents grew up knowing how precarious life can be and, as a result, no one had to convince them that they should help people in difficulty. Neither of my parents ever lectured or exhorted me to be compassionate toward the poor, the hungry, the sick, the blind, the suffering, the outcast, the reject, the unwanted, the mentally ill, the dying, or the despised. They simply acted with kindness toward those in need of kindness — no words of explanation were needed. Those things that today I find in the teachings of the Buddha or Jesus, as a child I witnessed in the silent example of my own parents.

And so I find myself wondering why there isn’t outrage at the fact that US military families have to rely on food stamps and UK nurses have to depend on food banks. Why don’t we give a damn?

People like Basil of Caesarea and Dorothy Day — inspired by the radical path taught by the Buddha and Jesus — were disgusted by indifference toward the poor, but you and I barely even notice the poor. Though both Saint Basil and Dorothy Day are known for their fiery words, they taught most and best by lives fearlessly dedicated to compassion, love, and kindness. The world would be a better place if you and I followed their example.

~BT Waldbillig
May 1, 2017