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

Plucked Flowers and Fallen Leaves

“One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.”
~Dhammapada

When I was boy — I must have been four or five years old — a recurring dream frightened me so intensely that often I would wake up in the dead of night startled, calling out for my father. Still half asleep, he would wander down the hallway in the dark to comfort and calm me so that both of us could get some rest. In the dream I saw myself hovering above a green meadow dotted with yellow flowers and surrounded by a dense forest. All of a sudden I began to plummet, terrified as I was unable to halt the descent. This boyhood dream returned to me about ten years ago, though now with one curious difference — as I fell from the sky I experienced joy in place of fear. Now as I plummeted to Earth, I beheld a crowd of people below in the meadow waiting for me, smiling and laughing.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
~Gospel of Luke

There is a Zen story in which the Buddha stands silent before his disciples and simply holds up before them a plucked flower. Of all the many disciples present, only one, Mahākāśyapa, perceived the transformative spiritual teaching that all the Buddha’s words could never so directly or perfectly communicate. Mahākāśyapa could not suppress his smile and the Buddha knew that at least one of his followers understood the silent teaching. The story is almost a thousand years old and was probably formulated in China at about the time of the birth of Saint Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Carthusian Order and follower of the silent path.

You and I are surrounded by plucked flowers and fallen leaves, sparrow eggs safe in a mother’s nest and chicks passed too soon from this world. Like Mahākāśyapa and Saint Bruno,  we have the capacity to find in the precariousness and impermanence of this passing world a source of hope and joy to sustain us in moments of difficulty and darkness.

~BT Waldbillig
May 1, 2017

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