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

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

By Means of a Mongrel Dog

Throughout human history, some few of our kind have claimed to encounter beings from beyond what is commonly understood as our world. Some of these men and women believe that strange beings come to them in their dreams and they call them visitors, angels, gods, messengers, demons, spirits, or even friends. Ancient cave art bears witness to this, as do many ancient spiritual texts, some of which are still read today and even regarded with honor by hundreds of millions of people around world.

I myself have no personal experience in such matters, but I am left to wonder. In their dreams and visions, humans always regard the visitor with awe or fear or reverence or astonishment or bewilderment. In some future time, when we communicate with or even encounter other beings like us from some distant part of the Universe, it’s likely that we will know the same feelings our ancestors felt when they reported their visions and dreams. But is it possible that such beings — if they are real and not merely dreams — might also regard us with awe or fear or astonishment or reverence or bewilderment? Might they feel small, just as we feel small before the vastness of the Universe? Would they marvel at the mystery of life manifested strangely and wondrously in alien beings, just as we would?

I think on my dog, Dante. He and I are made of the same stuff and inhabit the same world, yet at times he seems to me almost like a god. Without a word he communicates the wisdom of love more surely and powerfully than any human I’ve ever known. And when life itself seems useless, he leads me back to the joy of a world that’s full of meaning and purpose. When the mind is stuck in the past or lost in the future, Dante calls me home to the only home any of us has — the present moment. The mystery of life in the Universe is revealed to me every day not by great men or noble deeds or eloquent words — but by means of a mongrel dog.

If a creature so common and lowly as a dog has such power, imagine what you and I can bring to pass in the Universe!

Should we encounter, some day in some far off future, intelligent beings like us from a distant place in the Universe, imagine what good and wondrous things we might accomplish together — as friends and perhaps even as family.

~BT Waldbillig
April 13, 2017

The Red Bicycle

I must have been six or seven years old when my father bought me a bicycle and taught me how to ride it. Despite my expectations and my mother’s pleas, he refused to allow me training wheels, those additional, temporary small wheels that provide balance and stability. Instead, I tumbled over and fell down quite a bit at first. Only today, mid-way through life’s journey, do I understand how fortunate I was that my father had the vision and wisdom to allow me to learn well through difficulty.  Thanks to him and thanks to that red bicycle, to this day I carry within me a wellspring of strength and confidence for difficult moments. I still tumble and fall down at times, but I always rise up again and continue my journey.

It took only a couple of weeks to perfect the skill (riding) and master the tool (the bike), but it felt like ages until I could claim calm control of that extra-small red bicycle, specially ordered by my father for his very short son. (I’m still shorter than my dad!) Once I took my place on the bicycle and set forth on whatever my journey might be, I was fearless — to my parents’ dismay sometimes. But in that small Midwestern town, I was never afraid and never in danger. That place where neighbor looks out for neighbor — where neighbor loves neighbor — stayed in my heart across the years as I made my way through the world.

These days, Dante and I wander the world with that same spirit of purpose in our journey and with abiding love for those we encounter in Harlem, Washington Heights, and the Bronx. And I still think fondly on that extra-small red bike my father taught me to ride with confidence all those years ago.

~BT Waldbillig
April 12, 2017

Of Bait Dogs and Navy Cooks

Most of us choose to believe the prosperity, fortunate events, and pleasurable relationships that arise in our lives are more or less the result of our own merits. It’s as if we’ve earned the good things that are actually beyond meriting. Life itself — in its origin and in its continuation — is the supreme example.

When I look to my own life with clear judgment and compassion, I find a series of random and improbable turns of fate. I am a white male of European descent born in one the of world’s greatest nations (though its empire is waning). I was raised by parents who loved me and provided very well for me. My ancestral religion resides in the Catholic Church, a powerful spiritual institution with global political influence. While I’m far from genius, nature placed in me no obstacles of mind or body to hinder my education or work across the years. I spent my entire childhood in the State of Iowa, a land of fruitful abundance where honest people look out for each other and value matters of the spirit more than the trappings of worldly success, where the soil is more valuable than gold.

Now, one of the great virtues of my homeland, the United States, is liberty that makes possible good things that the entire world desires. At the same time, my nation has a deeply rooted and profoundly ugly fault: prosperity renders many citizens vain and lacking in compassion, and arrogance blinds them to the institutional injustices, societal inequities, and moral cruelties that make the same prosperity unattainable to others. In the secret place of the heart, many people regarded as virtuous actually disdain the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the weak, the sick, the blind, the lame, those with mental illness, people of despised religions, and those with the wrong skin color. Some of these people attend church faithfully and rule over others.

At the same time, I am not embarrassed for the lucky circumstances of my life. I owe no one an apology at being American, or white, or middle class, or well educated, etc. Rather, I believe that along with others who know good fortune, I am obligated to make of prosperity an instrument of social, political, economic, and spiritual transformation. This is the outward manifestation of compassionate love and compassionate love is the one thing that makes life worth living.  As it happens, compassionate love put into action brings together people of all circumstances and backgrounds as they transform for the better themselves, each other, the world, and the entire Universe.

Saint Basil the Great said somewhere ( I’m paraphrasing): If we have piles of fine coats or stacks of costly garments or rich food (or a sneaker collection, etc.) that we do not use and hide away in chests or closets, then we are stealing from the poor who have need of the leftover abundance we keep for ourselves. You and I who regard ourselves as just human beings can hardly understand how radical and demanding this teaching is. Saint Basil sits before the Church as bishop and successor to Christ’s apostles shouting: “Fuck you, arrogant and selfish men! You have understood nothing.” Today our Prosperity Gospel preachers and comfortable suburban bishops put higher value on perfect hair, gleaming teeth, tanned bodies, luxury cars, Club Med holidays, academic degrees from the right universities, eye-candy personal assistants, brand new McMansions, and fat bank accounts than they do on the poor.

As a son of Abraham inspired by Saint Basil, I would even say that the Crusader, the Zionist, and the Jihadi — in so far as all these titles have been corrupted — are one in the same. They have not understood the origin or expression of the compassionate love that their ancestors treasured. It is compassionate action that pleases the Compassionate One — not war, violence, hatred, rape, oppression, and injustice.

And let’s not start with the smartly dressed, over-educated, self-important trendy urban Buddhists (or others belonging to this or that spiritual movement) who are actually dedicated to numbing themselves to the horrible pain of impermanence and mortality, turning their backs to the suffering of others as much to their own suffering. The path of the Buddha was nothing so comfortable and it certainly was not socially respectable.

My thoughts turn to Dante the Little Man. Truly, there was no reason I should have encountered this quirky mongrel who inspires in me greater love than I’ve known for any other creature on the planet. Had I not wandered over to East 1st Street on that one particular day when I was able to sneak out of the office early, or had I waited just one more day and missed an adoption event on the Upper East Side, some hipster with a trust fund might have taken him home. (Peace be to hipsters with trust funds!) And without Dante the Little Man I might not have persevered through the saddest days of my mother’s mental illness. If a Memphis, Tennessee dog rescue with little space and no money hadn’t found him and passed him along to Social Tees Animal Rescue in New York City, Dante well might have met his end in the hell reserved to bait dogs at some gory dog fight organized in a filthy garage or dank basement or secluded backwoods property. What are the odds that Dante the Little Man should find his way from Memphis to the East Village and been in the office and not the kennel on that afternoon when I decided to look for a dog because I had a couple of hours free and nothing interesting to do?

And how much of life is precisely like this! If only we had eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, and hearts for loving. How different the world would be!

As gratitude arises in my heart for lucky twists of fate and providential encounters that changed my life, I think on poor Black and Latina women with serious mental illness in places like the Bronx. They start the day with three strikes against them in a country where “good” people instrumentalize religion and success to justify their selfishness and to oppress others.

I think on countries like North Korea, where suffering continues because of war and injustice; where its young men have been so much meat for worms and its women objects to serve the needs of the powerful; where even today mighty and so-called great nations — my own included — seek to possess the land and people for their own benefit and not out of compassion for the infants with empty bellies or homeless old women freezing to death on cold winter nights. (Obviously, this represents only one aspect of the complicated history and political reality of that part of the world.)

I also honor the sacrifices of my two uncles who honorably served in the Korean War for the sake of the country my family loves and cherishes. Both did what they could to mitigate their participation in unjust acts and in the taking of life. One uncle deliberately found his way to the duties of cook aboard a US Navy ship in order to avoid taking life in battle. The other was a beautiful man broken by the PTSD that was his continual companion when he came home from war. PTSD destroyed his marriage, made a career difficult at times, and alienated him from the people he loved most. How many men and women are like my uncles!

By all means we do well to take the project of life into our own hands, to be masters of our destinies, to take responsibility for ourselves. But let us not delude ourselves. In truth, we owe much to the unseen beneficial forces that make good things possible. Whether it’s luck, karma, providence, benevolent beings … or the love of a dog that makes life worth living.

~BT Waldbillig
April 8, 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 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

Life (and Death) Lessons

I must have been six or seven years old when our family dog, Buff (named for the yellow-brown color of his coat), was hit by a truck on the busy street to the side of our house. He died immediately. This was my very first encounter with death and my parents taught me two important, and complementary, lessons.

My mother, who I’m quite sure didn’t care much for the dog, broke the news to my little sister and me. My sister began to cry uncontrollably. The three of us sat on the couch in our home’s solarium embracing each other, and pretty soon all three of us were weeping. There was no shame, no injunctions to stifle our emotions, no lectures that tears are a sign of weakness. My mother let me grieve.

But soon my father called me outside and took me to the back yard. He told me that now we needed to give the dog a proper burial, so he and I — mostly him, actually — began to dig a grave for our family dog. We buried him directly in front of the yellow dog house, yellow just like the family house, where Buff used to sit and watch the world. My father taught me that no matter what happens, life has to go on and we have to take care of tasks at hand, whatever they may be.

So this morning as I fed my dog breakfast, I was mindful that one day, hopefully many years from now, I’ll repeat that same cycle just as my parents so skillfully instructed me when I was a boy.

Today after breakfast Dante and I took an extra-long walk in the park. We played in the snow and watched the birds — both of us happy just to be together.

~BT Waldbillig
January 9, 2017

We Are Nineveh

By now we have understood that we are not alone in the universe. In a moment such as this it behooves us to leave aside the old, habitual ways of thinking, of relating to one another, of communicating, of projecting our place in the universe, of holding vendetta against our brothers and sisters and their descendants.

Let me share with you a dream I had not long ago:

I found myself on a terrifying field of war standing before the temple of Mars Ultor. As I attempted to offer sacrifice at the temple, a vicious war dog suddenly appeared and charged at me, knocking me to the ground. As I regained my wits, I saw the war dog next to the sacrifice, turned away from me. The war dog urinated on the sacrifice. Unable to control myself at the sight, I began to laugh. At the sound of my laughter, the war dog turned toward me, no longer hostile and bellicose. I approached the majestic creature and, climbing on his back, set off on a long journey.

It is not clear to me that our kind will endure in the universe. Certainly if we continue in our old ways of being and doing, there is no hope at all. Let me repeat that: No hope at all.

We have heard the Prophet Jonah cry out: “Forty days and Nineveh will be no more!” You will recall that the people of Nineveh changed their ways and reformed their lives, sparing their magnificent city a most terrible fate.

Today I say to you: “Forty days and Nineveh will be no more!” The choice is ours. Either we change our ways or our kind will perish from the universe.

Lest all this seem too grim, I should say that when I asked Dante the Little Man what he thought would happen to the humans of Earth, he laughed and kissed my face.

I, too, am hopeful and confident that our tree will endure unto endless ages. May it be so.

~BT Waldbillig
December 7, 2016

Avian Insight and Canine Wisdom

I’ve long struggled with insomnia. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve resorted to herbal remedies, prescription tablets, breathing exercises, diet changes, and the like with little success. These days I occasionally take a melatonin supplement but mostly just take the advice of a good doctor I had some years back who encouraged me to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation. When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and read or do some writing, take a walk, or play with the dog. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I lazily watch TV; that was the one thing my doctor counseled against! What can I say, I’m far from perfect.)

Lately, in the full throes of summer, I’ve been waking up quite early, often before 5:00 a.m. This morning Dante and I went for a long pre-dawn walk and ended up strolling down Saint Nicholas Avenue and over to my favorite street in the neighborhood, Convent Avenue, where I always gawk at the incredibly beautiful old townhouses. We passed a few older individuals with push carts hunting for glass bottles and aluminum cans, and on a side street I noticed a sign at the entrance to a community garden. ‘Cooling Center, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.’ — the garden is transformed into a refuge for people with no access to a cool space during these brutally hot summer days.

This reminded me just how easy it is to be out of touch with the day-to-day, practical challenges many people face. Sometimes these problems are quite serious and can become matters of life and death. For a low-income, elderly person with no family or friends, a couple of days of intensely hot summer weather can be a death sentence. That’s something you and I probably don’t think much about. We don’t have to.

Not long ago I read about a sort of theological war being waged among the cardinals of the Catholic Church over a recent document by Pope Francis. I recognized some of the names on both sides — some are men I once knew, some are thinkers I once admired. It struck me that while the cardinals are bickering over a theological document, the refugee crisis in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond continues to rage. Every day children become orphans, women are raped, entire families are slaughtered, and human beings slowly die of hunger and thirst.

I can’t help but think of the Melkite, Maronite, and Chaldean friends from my seminary days. Some of them grew up in the Middle East; almost all have family there. For them, there’s nothing abstract or distant about the horrors of war.

Somehow papal documents and cardinalatial quarrels seem far less urgent in light of such unspeakable suffering.

Truth be told, over the past few years I’ve learned more from my mongrel dog and from the birds in the nearby park than I ever learned from a cardinal, theologian, saint, or guru.

Maybe that’s how it should be.

~BT Waldbillig
July 21, 2016