The Spiritual Family Endures

Together, we are light and life
Together, we are mightier than death

There is hidden within each of us a wellspring of wisdom born from experience. Sometimes we forget, however, that most of our history is hidden from us, as it occurred before there was anything that we, today, can recognize as written human communication. However, according to some paleobiologists and astrobiologists, it is quite possible that within our genome there are records of those ultimate origins and celestial events that made our planet and our species what they are today. But you and I are like infants, still at the beginning of those lessons that will one day lead us to wisdom.

What we do know is that from the very beginning our kind came to be within the context of family. That is our universal experience: family and death. Surely our extinct ancestors — like Nalendi, Australopithecus, Habilis, and many others that we do not even know of — understood something of family and mortality. It is our lot, as “intelligent” beings to understand that when any life arises in this world it is also destined to one day pass away from this world. The knowledge of this truth would seem to be universal for all intelligent, biological beings and so we might suppose that if, in fact, there are other beings like us elsewhere in the Universe, they understand, in some way, both family and impermanence.

Human history is marked by numberless futile attempts to deny the reality of death, mortality, and impermanence. But denial isn’t the full story. There is also family, from which every love first arises.

There have always been among us those who find meaning and purpose to their own lives by ensuring the continuation of family, protecting the vulnerable and innocent, even unto the shedding of their own blood. Even unto the shedding of the blood of other creatures, when necessary. For these warriors, the sadness of facing one’s own death prematurely and the unbearable burden of causing other creatures to know pain and death exist simultaneously with the joy and hope of knowing that the family will endure.

Though it seems impossible, some few our kind experience a love of life and family so intense and complete that they are willing to take upon themselves all the suffering, sadness, and death that will ever exist so that all other beings might be free from suffering and sadness. But such a thing is surely impossible. And yet that boundless spirit endures even today and  may yet come to dwell within you and me — as unlikely as it seems. If only we were brave enough to recognize who and what we really are, but of course we do not yet know because our story is not finished.

From the inspiration to alleviate the suffering all beings, from the desire to love perfectly all beings throughout the Universe, every spiritual community arises. And so long as our kind endures, there will be spiritual communities, like branches stretching out in every direction from the steadfast trunk of a great tree.

How noble the Tree
How wondrous the branches
How deep the roots
How beautiful the blossoms
Whether dead or alive
It has power to save the world

When a family of blood and flesh becomes a spiritual family, the entire Universe becomes one home. And within that one home there is room for every member of the one true spiritual family. There is space for countless generations. There is place for the righteous and the wicked alike.

That’s what love is — endless and excluding no one, not even the unlovable. And when one among us finds the power to know so great a love, all of us will find that power.

Each one of us is a hero, if only we could befriend ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are. Then, we could be friends to all beings and see them as friends. Then, we would recognize even in a little boy or a unwanted dog the mightiest of heroes.

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~BT Waldbillig
June 3, 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

Who Is the Bodhisattva?

I recently came across a text that quite vividly describes the sort of spiritual ideal toward which many aspire. With Christmas approaching, we could also envision this ideal as the motivation for the Incarnation.

– – – – –

Description of a Bodhisattva
(from the Ratnagotravibhaga)

He has gone beyond all that is worldly, yet he has not moved out of the world;

In the world he pursues his course for the world’s weal, unstained by worldly taints.

As a lotus flower, though it grows in water, is not polluted by the water,

So he, though born in the world, is not polluted by worldly dharmas.

Like a fire his mind constantly blazes up into good works for others;

At the same time he always remains merged in the calm of trances and formless attainments.

Through the power of his previous penetration (into reality), and because he has left all discrimination behind,

He again exerts no effort when he brings living things to maturity.

He knows exactly who is to be educated, how, and by what means,

Whether by his teaching, his physical appearance, his practices, or his bearing.

Without turning towards anything, always unobstructed in his wisdom,

He goes along, in the world of living beings, boundless as space, acting for the weal of beings.

[taken from Puja Readings and Other Texts as Used In the Triratna Buddhist Community]

~BT Waldbillig
December 19, 2016

On Compassion of the Dog

Today is Valentine’s Day (or the Feast of Saint Valentine, Bishop and Martyr, if you’re the traditional type) and the thoughts of many people turn toward those they love. While I don’t have a romantic partner, I do have a constant companion who brings me much joy and who daily gives me unexpected lessons in love: my dog Dante, whose birthday just happens to be tomorrow.

Not long ago I came across a story about a medieval Christian holy man, Saint Roch (whose name you might find spelled as Rocco, Rock, or Rollox). While we are rightly skeptical about the details found in medieval hagiography, the stories themselves often present useful ideas that have value quite apart from any connection to historical events. According to this particular tale, Roch was renowned for serving and aiding plague victims and, not surprisingly, he himself eventually contracted plague. Finding that no one would feed him or give him shelter, Roch retired to the forest where a nobleman’s dog would bring him food and lick his wounds clean.

Religions present us with many different attitudes toward animals generally and dogs in particular. Some of those attitudes have changed and developed over the centuries. In modern times there’s a fair bit of inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. Some prominent Christian thinkers, like Thomas Merton and Teilhard de Chardin, have accentuated Buddhist principles in their own Christian teaching and spiritual practice. Some well-known Buddhists, like Thich Nhat Hahn, have shown deep knowledge of and sympathy toward Christianity. While there was some interaction of Christians and Buddhists in the ancient world – we have only to think on the Indian merchant travelers to the Roman-Mediterranean world or the establishment of monasteries by Nestorian Christians traveling along the Silk Road as far east as China – it’s difficult to prove there was any kind of meaningful theological or philosophical cross-pollination. Yet monasticism has been key to the development of both religions and, for some reason, monasteries tend to be friendly places for dogs, who often receive abusive and even sadistic treatment from humans.

In the US, the monks of the New Skete community, an ecumenically minded Orthodox Christian monastery, live among dogs and raise them to be service and companion animals. They even have their own training program so that people outside the monastery can benefit from the monks’ years of canine experience. In Tibet and Thailand, monastic hospitality toward dogs is near-legendary. It’s not uncommon to see dogs lounging or milling about in the midst of the monks.

Now, I don’t know if dogs can be “saved” in a Christian sense or “enlightened” in a Buddhist sense. Frankly, it doesn’t much matter to me – let theological pedants and idle monks argue over that. I know that I’m a better human being because of the presence and companionship of my dog, Dante. Our relationship might not be friendship as defined by someone like Aristotle (peace be to Aristotle!) but it’s friendship to me, maybe one of my most beautiful friendships, in fact. There are days, too many of them, when life doesn’t have much meaning or purpose to me, days when I can dwell in the midst of people who love me yet remain unable to feel love at all. Then an absurd, slobbering, furry bundle of cosmic energies inconveniently interrupts everything, like a prophet or a thunderstorm, and something in me awakens. Animal behaviorists might admonish me for anthropomorphizing a dog, for imposing on him human-based psychological attributes, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that Dante understands me. That he shares in my joy and sorrow. That he wishes me well in his own particular dog way that might be different from our human way but nonetheless is every bit as real and valuable. Perhaps it’s just about the food and affection – most human interactions are about food or affection — though I can’t help but think there’s something more going on inside the mind and heart of my dog.

Some Buddhist traditions speak of bodhisattvas, beings who put off their own release from the cycle of suffering in order to dedicate themselves to the enlightenment and liberation of other beings. In fact, some of these bodhisattvas are symbolized by a dog or even take the earthly form of a dog. There’s no doubt to me that Dante would willingly and without complaint forgo his own release from suffering and endure endless aeons for the sake of my well-being. In a sense, he is probably much further along on his spiritual path than I am on mine. (If I practiced mindfulness meditation with even the tiniest fraction of the concentration he shows toward food, I would probably become spiritually enlightened instantly.)

In those dark times
When the Friend wounded my heart
Even as he wounded himself
I did the best I could
Looking away to hide
My own tears
Warming his cold body with
The warmth of my own
Licking away that blood
Shed in sadness
I did not abandon him
For my kind will
Never abandon
The ones we love
Never leave behind
The ones we love
Never forget
The ones we love
And we will love them
Even to the end of the world

Naturally, we could mention also the forest-dwelling Dog Buddhists in Thailand who believe that dogs are closest to humans in the cycle of rebirth; or the central role of the dog in the ancient Mithraic mystery religion; or the teaching of the modern Japanese Zen master, Joshu, regarding the spiritual enlightenment of dogs; or the recent compassionate fatwas of certain Muslim imams regarding dogs.

There is a traditional Tibetan saying that goes something like this: “Do not harm the monastery dogs for it will break the heart of the Living Buddha.” I’m not quite certain who or what the Living Buddha is, but I know that any heart moved by suffering and inspired to alleviate suffering is a noble, sacred heart. Whether it’s your heart or mine – or the heart of a dog that knows things you and I cannot even imagine.

~BT Waldbillig
February 14, 2016