From Friend to Family

The life of every great spiritual hero is a story of struggle and discovery that transforms for the better not only the individual in question but also countless others. It is the story of a human being who becomes a Friend to those in need of friendship and a Father (or Mother) to those in need of family.

Such a Friend and Father dedicates his life completely to those he loves, so that they, in turn, might dedicate themselves to one another like fearless warriors who never abandon one of their own. Those who once were strangers come together as a spiritual family and meaningless lives give way to purpose and mission.

Before such a family enemies flee. Before such a family mountains bow and oceans cower. Before such a family the heavens themselves offer homage.

Canticle of the Family
Our Tree is a tree of suffering
It is a tree of life and hope

Under the shade of its kind boughs
We take refuge

From the scorching sun
And from the torrents of rain

Whether alone in silence
Or surrounded by the many peoples

Its roots are watered with tears
Its roots are nourished by blood

Though we are tired and weak
Its noble trunk holds us aright

And its many mighty branches
Reach out to the infinite multitude of stars

To proclaim: WE ARE HERE

~BT Waldbillig
June 6, 2017

The Love of a Mother

Not long ago after a late dinner with a friend I was walking across 125th Street in Harlem to catch the A train. It was probably around midnight and the streets were deserted but I felt quite safe and even paused every now and again to look up at the moon and stars, as they were particularly beautiful in the sky above Harlem that evening. Just as I neared the train station, a prostitute approached me and quite directly propositioned me. I was neither offended nor frightened, nor was I interested in sex. I simply nodded to her, wished her well, and smiled as I walked on.

As I sat alone in the subway car that would take me home to Washington Heights, I wondered why I felt tenderness — and not shame or disgust — toward that desperate, haggard Black woman who had no choice but to walk the merciless Harlem streets at night offering her own flesh to strangers.

My thoughts turned to the mothers of Jesus and the Buddha. While I reverence both of these women through whom two of the greatest spiritual teachers our planet has known came into this world, I recalled that both women became pregnant in highly unusual circumstances.

To me, this was their sure sign of favor. I have no trouble believing that their great sons had a divine origin.

But surely the Virgin Mary and Māyādevī were doubted by many. Surely in their day they endured condescending insults, disapproving whispers, and looks of disgust by those who did not believe the accounts of how they came to bear those sons who would change our world. The Christian and Buddhist traditions and sacred writings cast no doubt upon these women, but surely those with darkened minds could think nothing but ill of them.

I thought on that Harlem prostitute. She must endure disdain and rejection ceaselessly. Just as the holy mothers of Jesus and the Buddha did. And while the Harlem woman would make no claim as to other-worldly origins for own children and would think herself utterly unlike those two ancient holy women, she knows something of what they experienced in a way that you and I will never understand.

A mother is the first teacher of love to her children. The mother of the Buddha loved him unto death when she died not long after giving birth and the mother of Jesus loved him unto death as she stood by in silence during his torturous execution ritual and burial. They never abandoned their children, never regretted suffering for the sake of their sons. They taught their sons how love through hopelessness, loss, and  unspeakable suffering.

And their sons, in turn, taught the entire world.

To my mind love is so powerful, that even a Harlem prostitute could teach you and me something about love. You and I love so little but think so much of ourselves. How many women are regarded by the world as unworthy or unwanted or useless or disgusting — and yet they understand love better than you and me.

It is those who regard themselves as righteous and pure and good who are the unworthy ones. Not the prostitute who walks those merciless Harlem streets. She bears more of the image of the Virgin Mary and Māyādevī than you and I ever will.

Qui potest capere capiat.

~BT Waldbillig
June 3, 2017

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

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

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

When Dogs Attack

A few weeks ago as Dante and I were walking in the Bronx section of Highbridge Park, we were attacked by two pitbulls, one juvenile, the other adult. A woman had released her dogs in an open part of the park and once they saw us, they ran straight for us. From her appearance and manner of speech, she was likely from a rough part of the neighborhood, and parts of the Bronx can be rough indeed. The woman did what lots of people who lack proper training or who have no experience with responsible, dog-positive culture do: she let her dogs off leash in a public space so they could defecate without any need for her to clean up after them.

The dogs tried to provoke Dante, though he wouldn’t move from his place between them and me. Had he tried to bite back or run, the results would have been ugly, perhaps even fatal. As the pitbulls pushed and growled and nipped, I pulled Dante up by his collar and put him on my shoulder. It didn’t occur to me to abandon him in order to save myself. After all, when someone you love is in danger, you don’t turn your back. Even when that someone is just a dog.

The woman didn’t have control of her dogs, but she did manage to distract them long enough for me to calmly and slowly walk away with Dante on my shoulder. Once we got ourselves to a safe spot, I realized my right forearm was bruised and I had been bitten on the right thigh. Luckily I’m okay, though I did consult a nurse right away. Dante somehow managed to come out of the conflict with barely a scratch.

Good instincts and a calm response saved us both from a dangerous situation. I always imagined that Dante would willingly put himself in harm’s way for the sake of my well-being. Now I know that I was right.

After the shock of the situation subsided, I was quite angry with the woman who, whether from ignorance or irresponsibility, put Dante and me in danger. Then I recalled the problems a good friend of mine had with his dog, a sweet but large and powerful animal who spontaneously and seemingly without provocation attacked another dog. Recalling my friend’s difficulties became an opening for compassion toward the lady in the park. I will likely never encounter her again, but each time Dante nuzzles me, each time we play catch I’m thankful that all of us — Dante, me, the woman, her dogs — emerged from that difficult situation safe.

~BT Waldbillig
February 13, 2017

‘You Do Not Have to Be Good’

American poet Mary Oliver offers a reminder that there is room within a spiritual family for all of its members, whoever and whatever they may be. A parent doesn’t stop loving a child because of the child’s wicked deeds or hateful words. A son of today doesn’t reject the life he has received nor does a daughter of today hate the blood that courses through her veins because of some wicked ancestor. Even the mistakes of the past and the errors of the present bear witness to the possibility of beneficial spiritual transformation. Too often our fixed ideas and habitual patterns of thought and perception distract us from the change that is already taking place in this very moment.

~BT Waldbillig
February 10, 2017
– – – – –
Wild Geese
Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Click here to hear the author read this poem.

How Great the Tree

It is a simple fact of the world, as we know it, that some creatures must take the lives of other creatures in order to live. This usually entails physical pain and emotional suffering in those who are killed, but there is a burden that those who take life must carry with them, also.

In human beings, we see this acknowledged in the ancient ritual cave paintings of Lascaux, Alta Mira, Chauvet, etc. and also in the traditional practice of hunting only out of necessity and in wasting no part of the animal whose life is taken.

The taking of life — for any reason whatsoever — wounds both the individual killed and the individual who kills. This is as true of animals as it is of men. Yet some beings take life in order to ensure the continuation of life. Other beings give life in order to ensure that the gift they experience might continue.

In truth, anyone who participates in violence and death, in the taking of life, participates in this mystery. Whether aggressor, victim, or spectator; whether voluntary or involuntary; whether alone or in community; whether wicked or blameless; whether man or woman or child.

Those who dedicate themselves to a spiritual path learn to love and honor all beings, though this is no easy task. We might even call it a foolish, impossible mission, since that is how it seems at times. However, no matter where we stand within our experience of the mystery of suffering, we possess the capacity for positive spiritual transformation.

Look to the Tree:

When we behold the acorn or walnut we cannot believe the power it possesses to transform itself and very place it inhabits. From a small seed, mighty, unseen roots descend, turning useless soil into a place of life, breaking apart even stones.

Like a Titan, its body rises heavenward and stretches out its arms, providing rest and shade for the weary and a home to the birds of the sky.

The Tree creates the air that sustains man and beast. It offers itself as a sacrifice, becoming home and ark. It is the servant of the bringer of fire — fire that destroys, fire that sustains, fire that warms, fire that purifies.

How great is this Tree, like unto a god, stooping down to worship us who should worship it, silent and steadfast, wise beyond human understanding. And how marvelous that we, who deserve so little, are the branches and shoots and leaves and blossoms of this noble Tree. How noble are we, also!

~BT Waldbillig
January 29, 2017

From Anger to Compassion

“People often use their anger at social injustice as a basis for action, but that is unwise. When you are angry you are not lucid, and you can do many harmful things.”
~Thich Nhat Hanh

Resting in anger is ultimately self-defeating. However, just (“righteous” in Biblical terms) anger can motivate us to transform our own lives for the better through clear mind and compassionate action. Transformed by clear mind and compassionate action, we are better prepared to face the problems and injustices of the world.

Unfortunately, most of us choose to stay with anger rather than changing for the better our own attitudes, actions, and relationships.

As the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh points out, anger clouds judgment. It inhibits us in our perception of those we disagree with, and it inhibits us in our self-perception. Anger is the perfect emotion for bubble dwellers — people who have no interest in understanding the world beyond their own noses.

That’s not to say that we can’t do anything useful with anger. I still recall what Sister Colleen McGinnity, a nun from my childhood parish, used to say, “The reason you begin an undertaking is often less important than the reason you persevere.”

And so, the chief — and most difficult — task of today’s social activist is to transform anger into compassionate action.

~BT Waldbillig
January 28, 2017

You Who Seemed a Fable

After the rain
There is silence

As on the first morning
Of that first spring day

When the world was fresh
And full of hope

We climbed from the pit
You and I laughing

You turned to me and smiled
The first smile of creation

So I chased you up the hill
Through the fields of yellow flowers

Beyond the tall grass
Through the great forest

When I caught you at last
(You let me catch you!)

We sat on a rock by a tree
At the top of the world

And the first leaf fell
From the first tree of creation

So I held you in my arms
Like my child, my only child

I rocked you to sleep
Watching you dream your last dream

You closed your eyes
For the last time, the first time

You breathed your last breath
And your breath became the wind

I opened my eyes for the first time
For all time when you woke the world

I shed the first tear of creation
For you and it filled the world with water

Even today when the wind stirs the flowers
And shakes the leaves from the trees

You are remembered
You who seemed a fable

The silent wind unnoticed
Moves even the mighty oceans

Bearing men aloft like dreams
To new worlds and new hopes

So did you move my heart
Without even a single word

And now the silent ones
Remember you and call you back

Though I am gone
Never to see you again

You are father and mother
You are brother and friend

You are love and family
You found me and saved me

So long as there is light
So long as there is life

So long as the gentle breeze
Plucks leaves from the trees

So long as there are yellow flowers
And tall grass in the meadow

Until the last mountain disappears
Beneath the waters my tears

This will be our temple
The sparrows our priests

Just like that first day
When you pulled me from the pit

When we danced and laughed
And thought the world would never end

~BT Waldbillig
January 18, 2017