Happiness of the Present Moment

Like a lot of people, as I get older I find it more and more difficult to simply be present to life. My mind is always elsewhere — making plans, obsessing over mistakes, longing for something different or better, thinking about tomorrow or remembering yesterday. And while my meditation practice is sketchy at best, it’s still a helpful remedy for ever-errant thoughts.

When I was actively engaged in the public ministry of Christian priest, I was never more present to life than when I stood before the altar or sat in the confessional box. In moments like those, there was nothing else in the universe other than the present. These days I sometimes have a similar experience when I sing the puja chants with my Buddhist friends gathered around a simple shrine.

I’ll bet all of us experience something approximating true presence when we see a stage play, cheer at a baseball game, or hear a live concert. Hopefully we can find ways to become more present every day to whatever life brings us. And perhaps once we’re really present to life — with its joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains, successes and failures — we’ll be happier and more authentically human.

~BT Waldbillig
March 5, 2017

Beyond Anger

Vain self-contentment is the great trap for people who engage spiritual practice seriously. It’s also quite challenging to recognize the attitude when you’re wallowing in it.

In our day when there are fierce societal conflicts around immigration, abortion, poverty, good government, refugees, guns, etc. religious and spiritual practitioners are no more exempt from rage, arrogance, closed-mindedness, and pusillanimity than the rest of the population.

In itself, anger can be a help or a hindrance; it can be virtuous or vicious. But it’s difficult, more difficult than we imagine, to bring good out of anger. It’s possible, but tough.

Those who stoke their own anger and the anger of others — if they’re sincere in pursuing whatever it is they think is good — should regard anger with reverence and care, not with the casual flippancy we see around us today.

It’s disappointing to witness a Catholic priest suggest that those who oppose the US president and his government might be better off dead; it’s unsettling to know that a prominent Buddhist teacher has suggested that anyone who supports the president is part of a public “sh*tshow”.

You may be familiar with the expression, “The exception proves the rule.” Exceptio regulam probat. Here, the meaning of “prove” is not justify, confirm, or support. Instead, probare means to test, to try, to challenge, to explore critically. Unusual and unforeseen circumstances are a test of one’s character and convictions. To a spiritual practitioner, the current crisis in American society is a test of good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action.

Too many “spiritual” people — wherever they stand on the political spectrum — are coming up wanting with regard to good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action. It’s quite likely that both you and I are among them.

This means our daunting task is to move from anger toward good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action. Hopefully we’ll accomplish this together.

~BT Waldbillig
January 31, 2017

On Tree-Nature

The tree has been at the fore of my consciousness of late. Of course, the tree is the primordial symbol-reality from which our spiritual impulse arose and around which many religious traditions focus. In both Buddhism and Christianity the tree features prominently and it connects those two religions in a way that is often overlooked.

The liminal event in both religions occurs in relation to a tree: In Buddhism, the Buddha is enlightened under the tree; in Christianity, Christ is killed upon a tree. But the Buddha does not remain under the tree and Christ does not stay upon the cross. Both figures must go forth from the tree, and in so doing bring the reality of their spiritual experience to others. What I mean to say is, the benefit of the mystery they embody is not meant to terminate with them; it is intended to bear fruit in the lives of others and bring about healing in the Universe.

Alas, the clerical and monastic “owners” of these religions, who call themselves leaders, cling selfishly to the advantages their position gives them and so construct systems of power and exclusion to ensure no one might take such privilege and position from them. This is done in the name of orthodoxy, purity, lineage, or succession though it makes utter mockery of those things.

If Buddhism speaks of Buddha-nature and Christianity speaks of Christ-nature (i.e., the potential of all beings to bring forth in themselves that which the Buddha or Christ experienced and the mystery they symbolize), perhaps we could also speak of Tree-nature.

~BT Waldbillig
January 26, 2017

Even Gods Need Heroes

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

Early humans left images of animals on the walls and vaults of the caves where they took refuge. One of the most common images is the bull (in one form or another). In all likelihood this image was a celebration of the successful hunt as well as the expression of hope in continued prosperity. But the animal image also acknowledges the precariousness of life, which depends on the sacrifice and death of some beings for the sake of others. Buddhists will later call this reality (i.e., the precariousness of life) impermanence, while Christians will adopt the mantra memento mori. Presumably, the inspiration for the pre-historic cave paintings is also the origin of the Mithras myth.

The American Christian theologian Richard John Neuhaus said somewhere that we are born to die. Naturally, he didn’t mean that death is our purpose. He simply stated an obvious truth: Each of us is born midway along a journey that will one day end. If we are born into this life, we will one day pass out of this life.

Not surprisingly, our participation in this reality of pain and mortality causes fear, despair, selfishness, hatred, regret, and suffering. Yet instead of resting in these experiences, we have, since the beginning, chosen to give meaning and purpose to what might otherwise be an empty, hopeless existence. This is the spiritual path.

An ever-widening circle
Our spiritual family grows

For us, as well as for beings similar to us, life arises within a community and is continued by means of a community. This is family, and within family rests hope.

I still recall a phrase I learned in seminary while studying philosophy: Bonum est diffusivum sui. The Good naturally and spontaneously tends toward growth, expansion, and continuation. Family is the incarnation of this principle, though at times it is difficult for us to appreciate this, as by its nature family embraces both sheep and goats, to use a Biblical expression. To put it another way: The mother of a family embraces all of her children. She loves each son as if he were her only child, loves each daughter as if she were her only child. The just and the wicked alike. How difficult it is to be a mother!

Take the example of the grove-keeper. She is careful which branches she prunes and which she allows to remain, which trees she brings down and when. She values the beautiful trees, the fruit-bearing trees, and those with fragrant blossoms, but also trees that appear to the foolish man as ugly and useless. Not all the branches nor all the trees survive the grove-keeper’s labor, but if she chooses wisely and carefully, the grove will survive and flourish.

Life continues by protecting and fostering the place where it arises. In this way, life is able to expand as in an ever-widening circle, stretching out to every corner of the universe.

~BT Waldbillig
January 17, 2017

Of Snakes and Dogs

This morning before Dante and I set out for our morning trek, we had to bundle up and prepare ourselves since NYC finally received its first proper snowfall of the season. This morning’s crisp wind, cold temperature, and rising snowbanks were a far cry from our experience along the same route one year ago at this time, right around Epiphany. I remember this only because of an odd incident that still lingers in my consciousness.

Last year as the dog and I took our walk on a balmy Epiphany morning, we came upon a garter snake who had wandered out and onto the paved foot path leading to the pedestrian bridge on the Washington Heights side of Highbridge Park. While I’m not an ophidiophobe, my lack of familiarity with snakes usually causes me hesitation when I encounter them. Still, I find them beautiful and fascinating creatures.

Many of us know snakes in the unfavorable symbolic form they take within the Judeo-Christian cultural context, but of course in ancient times snakes held the sign of healing and medicine. Then there’s the famous story of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment: As the tale goes, on the eve of his spiritual transformation a giant, primordial lake serpent protected the Buddha from the danger of wild predators and from the harsh natural elements while he meditated.

The snake has a role, also, in what is arguably the world’s oldest global religion, Mithraism. Since this defunct cult was primarily ritual and visual, as opposed to written, we know with certainty very little about it. Yet in virtually every known intact and semi-intact place of worship we find Mithras, the Friend, depicted with several animals, including a dog and a snake.

Incidentally, Mithras is normally shown wearing a Phrygian cap, essentially a hipster hat, which covers his knotted hair — think today’s man-bun. How funny the cycle of history can be!

So last year I was keen for my dog to see and meet this snake, which was a first experience for him so far as I could tell. I made Dante stop and sit about a foot away from the garter snake and I brought his attention to the little guy sunning on the pavement, sure that he didn’t try to play with the snake or eat him. Once that was done, I broke off a twig off from a nearby tree branch and used it to move the snake to the side of the path, lest he be trampled by walkers, joggers, bicyclists, or careless dogs.

Later that same day Dante presented me with a stick he had cleaned and whittled a bit at one end. I assured him I’d keep it for the next time I encounter a snake in need of help.

~BT Waldbillig
January 8, 2017

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 4) … First of Two Posts

[revised 1/6/17]
Commentary on
The Practice of the Presence of God
(Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, d. 1691)
Fourth Conversation, 1667

Our dear Brother Lawrence communicated his spiritual experience within the conceptual framework available to him as a 17th-century white European Roman Catholic Christian French male Carmelite monk. Naturally those elements of his identity leave a mark on his spiritual teaching, but we do well to recall that spiritual realities are neither defined nor bound by the particular limitations that we bring to them. However, our communication regarding spiritual realities is very much bound and defined by our limitations.

A Buddhist reading Brother Lawrence might think this Christian monk has nothing to offer. But if a Buddhist comes to Brother Lawrence with something of an understanding of the epistemology, anthropology, cosmology, etc. that shaped the mind of Brother Lawrence, he or she might recognize embedded within the monk’s teaching ideas that quite closely resemble bodichitta and the bodhisattva ideal.

Now, I’m not trying to reduce the differences between the Christian and Buddhist theological and mystical traditions so far as to say there are no real, consequential, meaningful differences. Still, to my estimation the differences are quite easy to perceive while the points of connection require greater intellectual acuity and benefit from personal acquaintance with lived spiritual practice.

We should be mindful that great historical spiritual figures like Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad the Prophet did not subscribe to the philosophical systems you and I take for granted. Likewise, our experience is quite alien and far removed from the lived reality embodied in such teachers.

Meditation and Synthesis to follow.

~BT Waldbillig
January 3, 2017

A New Way of Thinking

“These mountains that you are carrying,
You were only supposed to climb”
~Najwa Zebian

We tend to live our lives in a habitual way. We have a certain understanding of who we are and how the world works. Our habitual manner of living our habitual lives gets us through most of whatever we encounter, but sometimes we realize that we need to engage life in a new, different, fresh manner. We need, in the words of Pope Paul VI, a novus habitus mentis — a new way of thinking.

I was raised with a certain respect for military service and for those who dedicate themselves to the public good in the military and law enforcement. When I was young I gave myself to service in the Church, but my father served honorably in the US Marine Corps, three of my uncles as well as several cousins all performed military service, and my brother-in-law is a former police officer. Over the past few years I’ve also had the good fortune to meet a number of former military personnel through nonprofit work.

Something that has always impressed me about, say, a Marine or a cop, is the ferocious focus on the mission at hand, whatever it may be, with little or no thought as to the personal cost or risk. There’s essentially no room or time for considerations such as, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘How will I be rewarded?’ or ‘What are the chances of success?’ or ‘Will my work be appreciated by my commanding officer?’ The cop or the Marine simply executes his or her role in the mission, attentive to the well-being of the other members of the team or platoon, etc. Anything else is distraction.

For someone journeying along a spiritual path, a similar attitude is useful.

Most of us learn religion or faith or spiritual practice in this way: If we adhere to certain tenets (faith), perform good acts (virtue) and avoid wicked deeds (sin) we’ll be rewarded (heaven or some such thing). It’s the sort of mentality an exhausted parent employs to get misbehaving children in line. Now, I’m not saying this approach to the spiritual life is bad or wrong or useless; however, it’s not the only way of understanding and living one’s spiritual path.

That’s precisely why I’ve returned to a little book I first read when I entered seminary back in 1993 and haven’t touched since then. Somehow, despite changing continents and moving home several times, this tiny tome has stayed with me. The book, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, was written in the second half of the 17th century and provides a surprisingly refreshing antidote to the transactional religion of our day. You can read my commentaries here, here, and here.

As Brother Lawrence reminds us, it’s entirely healthy and traditional to live one’s spiritual life and follow one’s spiritual path without worries for the rewards and punishments of some world-to-come. Belief that the spiritual life is in itself good and useful, as well as beneficial to others, inspires many people far more than Heaven-and-Hell discourses.

Each of us could be a little more like a US Marine or a Carmelite monk. The world would be a better place for it.

~BT Waldbillig
January 1, 2017

Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT III

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 3

SCENE 1: A SACRED GROVE

On that day a single tree
Will sanctify the entire grove

Not long ago, the dog and I were wandering among the dusty streets of Manhattan’s East Village when we ducked into a small community garden. It was an odd space, situated mid-block and occupying the footprint of a demolished tenement house. There was nothing formal about the garden but it was clear that someone cared for this space quite attentively.

There were plots of flowers scattered about, luscious vines entwined in the chain fence and crawling up the walls of buildings on either side, a couple of small, humble trees, and nary a weed in sight. We sat in the shade of a tree for a few moments and shared a bottle of water before we went on our way.

It was odd to find such a lovely and delightful – albeit simple – garden in so rough a part of that neighborhood, close to the dilapidated housing projects and nowhere near the so-called gentrified areas where the smartly dressed, neatly coiffed schöne leute sip their lattes and stroll with languid detachment from the life-or-death concerns of the panhandlers, drug addicts, homeless veterans, and prostitutes around them.

Though the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

The mind travels back to my seminary days in Rome. There you won’t find lots of ramshackle neighborhood gardens, though you might lose yourself in one of those formal public spaces that started out as Edens for the Roman elite of long ago. In the Eternal City you find chapels and shrines honoring saints you’ve never heard of and servicing obscure, antiquated guilds. Some are simple, others intricately decorated. Some are easily accessible, some open only a few times a year. Just like Manhattan’s community gardens, they are all places of refuge, stop-offs for weary travelers. You might even say the garden and chapel – both home to the sacred tree – serve the same noble purpose.

Our Tree is a tree of suffering
It is a tree of life and hope

It’s not surprising that trees loom large in our collective consciousness. After all, we came from the tree:
whether it’s a mythic tree in an ancient garden,
a cosmic tree that spans the universe,
or a mighty tree on the edge of a savanna that dares our primordial ancestors to climb down and explore.

We find the tree featured prominently in many spiritual traditions: The ancient Hebrews who wandered desperately carried with them the essence of their deity in a wooden box. Whether you’re a fan of Gilgamesh or a devotee of Noah, it was a giant wooden ark that saved ancient humanity from that flood-of-all-floods. Jesus the carpenter died on a dead tree to bring life to a hopeless people. The Buddha was freed from the endless cycle of suffering while meditating in the cool shade of the kind Bodhi tree. The tree possesses such power that, whether alive or dead, it can save humanity.

The infinite expanse of the human heart
Will endure forever

As it happens, my family name is an Old German word that signifies a place of trees, a grove of sorts, or perhaps a forest. As a boy I dreamed of becoming the greatest tree in the grove, the wisest tree of the forest. And while a man must put aside the things of his childhood, the dreams of a boy are holy. I may never become great or wise, but wisdom and greatness exist in abundance everywhere around me. As boy I wanted to be the sacred tree, but only now, midway through life’s journey, have I understood that the entire grove is sacred.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF MARS ULTOR

Behold, Dante the Little Man and I took rest in the dark corner of an ancient temple. From upon his throne a mighty and fearless god let out a roar that shook the very walls and pillars of the sacred place. I began to tremble and turned away my gaze but Dante looked on.

The many warriors of the mighty and fearless god at once appeared, clothed in battle apparel with swords drawn. They began growling and roaring and crying out with shouts more fearsome than any I had ever heard.

With raised hand the mighty and fearless god silenced the terrifying warriors. Quiet and stillness filled the temple. Then the mighty and fearless god uttered a single word that echoed like thunder throughout the universe.

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

Suddenly the warriors were gone and the doors to the temple were sealed from within. The mighty and fearless god began to weep and the rivers of tears brought life to every corner of the universe.

– – – – –

SCENE 3: DOPO LA PIOGGIA

At the end of this desolate path
She waits in silence

Like a Camorra assassin
Or a Carthusian monk

Her arms outstretched
Reaching to the heavens

Her feet planted deep
Like roots of an ancient tree

But how should I meet her
I who am a tired traveler

Dust covered, heart weary
As I turn away in shame

See the rain is coming
She calls out

It will cleanse us both
And refresh this orchard

Our home
Our family

The oranges will return
With lemons and apples

And cherries
The dirt you bear on your flesh

Will be washed clean
And nourish the soil

Of this sacred place

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
December 30, 2016

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 3)

The Practice of the Presence of God is, to most readers, a little-known Catholic spiritual classic from the late 17th century. It is brief and somewhat unusual, insofar as the model it presents for the spiritual life is quite simple and direct, devoting little attention to the sorts of the concerns that tend to dominate most Christian (and not only Christian) spiritual literature.

This tiny gem was written by a French Carmelite lay brother. As it would happen, one of the first religious communities I seriously considered joining in my youth — I was still in high school at the time — was a small group of strict-observance Carmelites in rural Minnesota. Perhaps this was because of my superficial acquaintance with those great Carmelite mystics John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. Perhaps it was the attractiveness of a life so completely and unreservedly dedicated to a spiritual ideal that inspired me. Life took me along other paths, but I still regard those mystic-saints highly. Perhaps one day soon I’ll return to their writings, engaging them not as the boy of certainties that I was in my youth but as a man who has had the grace to experience something of life, who has known doubt and uncertainty intimately and at length, who understands from the inside what failure, difficulty, and despair are.

Not surprisingly, The Practice of the Presence of God (PPG) is cloaked in the language and theological scaffolding of a particular moment in the history of the Catholic Church. To many this will be an obstacle. For my part, I am attempting to give a fresh read to the text, exploring points of commonality with the Buddhist spiritual tradition, and proposing a synthesis that is useful and sensible to me. I leave it to others to judge the actual value of what I write. The work I offer here is an initial, provisional attempt — it will need thoughtful revision at some stage in the future.

You can find a link to a translation of the complete original text here.

– – – – –

Commentary on
The Practice of the Presence of God
(Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, d. 1691)
Third Conversation, 1666

The impulse for this spiritual endeavor arises from the conviction that it is a most noble and beneficial pursuit.

Distractions and failures of mindfulness are not important and need not cause bother, for once recognized they help us return to our spiritual focus with renewed confidence and fresh insight.

Trust in the One who inspires the spiritual journey is the greatest honor we can offer and is a source of grace and strength.

Let us have trust and confidence that the path is not futile, even when we cannot see a way out of the darkness we might experience.

We perceive and experience the reality of our spiritual journey in detached moments, not in its totality; therefore our judgment is limited in usefulness at times and always provisional.

As we develop spiritually, we may begin to experience the present moment more fully and in ways we don’t always understand; the past and the future take on a different significance.

When our minds wander, as they will, through our own effort and by some special grace they will return to the present moment or to our object of concentration.

As we cultivate attitudes of love/loving kindness and compassion, they will assist us in our attempt to dwell more fully in the present.

Sometimes, this dwelling in the present takes curious forms: crying out, spontaneous singing, and strange, impulsive dancing. (Confer Buddhist mudra.)

Ordinary, daily activities are often of more use than explicitly spiritual activities.

Periods of dryness, confusion, self-doubt, and even despair will occur to anyone on a spiritual path for any length of time; confidence in our innate capacity for spiritual transformation and letting go of worries and anxieties, though not easy, will benefit us in difficult moments.

It may be the case that at the beginning of our spiritual path we need to devote ourselves to certain disciplines, teachings, and practices; however, those are merely tools: love is the one thing that is truly necessary.

We do well to recognize that some spiritual practices and disciplines may be harmful or hinder us, above all if they impede the expression and development of loving kindness and compassion.

Neither skill nor knowledge are absolutely necessary; rather, a devoted heart is the one needful thing. (Confer Sayings of Eihei Dogen: “The study of the Way does not rely on knowledge and genius and cleverness and brilliance.”)

~BT Waldbillig
December 27, 2016

Sol Invictus and the Christmas Celebration

If the Gospels reliably communicate any historical information, in all likelihood Jesus was born in spring, not winter. Details such as shepherds keeping watch all night in the fields with their flocks tell us there was no December birth. The temperature would be too cold to spend the night outdoors.

It turns out that the Christian celebration of Christmas is a synthesis of winter festivals from the ancient world: the Solstice, the Roman Saturnalia, the Dies Natalis of Sol Invictus, and the Jewish festival of light recounted in the Books of the Maccabees. One of the reasons that the Christian religion survived at all was precisely its ability to communicate its message while adapting itself to external circumstances. Christmas is the perfect illustration of this principle.

December 25 was, in ancient times, honored as the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti — the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun. It’s worth noting that Jesus is referred to in solar terms: the Sun of Justice, the Sun that Never Sets, etc. To honor Sol Invictus, there was a special feast in his honor on this day.

Something Jesus would have heartily approved was the reversal of roles that masters and servants observed today. Servants and slaves would partake of great feasts at the expense of their masters and owners. In some cases, though probably not too frequently as the Roman world was very rigidly divided between the free and the enslaved, the Master of the House would serve the meal himself.

Apparently, Sol Invictus was honored most when the mighty and powerful humbled themselves to take care of the poor, the hungry, the enslaved, the sick, and the marginalized. A nice thought for those who recall the birth of Jesus — who himself preached a very similar Gospel.

~BT Waldbillig
December 25, 2016