We Are Here

The heart is sacred
Just as you and I are sacred

Two years ago at about this time of year I made my way to a weekly meditation class and paused beneath the cloudy New York City sky to marvel at the sight that appeared above me. In that moment it seemed as though I had never before seen a cloud in the sky, so strange were the shapes, depth, textures, colors, delicateness, layers, and vastness of the clouds. After class as I walked with my teacher to the subway station, I recounted to him my experience with the clouds, still amazed and troubled at the intensity of the experience. He listened in silence and then encouraged me to continue “seeing” the clouds for as long as I could, mindful that the experience was likely to fade. The confusion of the experience passed but the wonder remained with me, and to this day every time I step outside to walk my dog the first thing I do is look to the sky and then to Dante before we begin our journey together.

Just like the stray dog
Just like the wrinkles of an old woman’s face
Just like the sweet refuge of calm waters
Just like the branches of an ancient tree
Just like each and every breath

Wonders exist all around us, if only we could see them. The life we know as we pass through this world is greater than any dream or fable, and yet most of us are unable to see it that way until we have a child. Once a mother or a father looks into the eyes of their child, they behold the miracle of an entire family made present in that one beautiful, helpless being. In the eyes of that one insignificant being already destined to die one day, the mystery of every life that will ever exist anywhere is revealed. They find a family worth dying for — and more importantly, a family worth living for.

On the tree of every family, of every people
There are many branches
Some are foolish men, others wise women
Some are hopeful children, some cynical elders

If there are beings like us elsewhere in the Universe on planets or moons orbiting stars, it seems likely that they share our experience of family, even if their biology dictates forms of mating and reproduction that differ from ours. Life as we know it arises within a community, continues by means of community, grows by means of a community, and endures by means of a community. That’s the entire purpose of family. In certain circumstances we even look beyond our own flesh and blood to others and regard them as part of our family. If we encounter beings like us from some distant place in the Universe, they, too, might wish to become part of our family and we might wish to become part of theirs. And if for reasons of physics or biology we are never able to be directly and physically present to each other, by the very fact of communication and shared experience of the nature of life we still might call each other family.

There are farmers and beggars
There are peoples of the forest
There are peoples of the sea
There are peoples of hate and war
Some are deaf and blind
While others are oracles of an impossible future

Once we thought we were alone in the Universe. Today it seems unlikely that we’re alone. We have yet to understand what it means for us if there are other beings like us somewhere in the Universe. We will need a novus habitus mentis, a new way of thinking and relating, if we wish to befriend such beings. The task of developing a useful novus habitus mentis will take time, patience, and love — rare commodities for any of us individually but practically infinite when we come together for a great purpose.

The embrace of a grandmother
The compassion of a tree
The infinite expanse of the human heart
These will endure forever

There’s no reason our species should have survived on this planet, since the vast majority of species that ever existed on Earth are all extinct. Our survival was not inevitable and yet we are here. We ourselves are more amazing than dreams or fables, and if we ever encounter beings from some distant place in the Universe, surely they will recognize that.

Even if we don’t.

~BT Waldbillig
June 15, 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

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

From Darkness to Light

Stat arbor
Dum volvitur orbis

The Tree stands still
While the Earth spins

Almost ten years ago I came across the spiritual autobiography of Karen Armstrong, a respected scholar of religion and former Catholic nun, as well as British television commentator and one of the authors of the international Charter for Compassion. Through the course of her spiritual crisis in the convent and afterward as she tried to construct a life in the outside world, Armstrong was dogged by discouragement and feelings of failure which led to a period of severe depression. Many years later as she reflected on the path she had forged for herself, she realized that in her youth she looked at the spiritual life as unfolding along a straight line where we’re either going forward or retreating backward. Progress or failure. Now, in later life, she prefers the image of a spiral staircase: In any given present moment, it seems as though we’re stuck turning in circles, while in fact we’re very gradually ascending, growing or progressing in ways that are hidden or difficult to perceive. Only after much time, great effort, lots of failure, and a fair amount of luck can we perceive our true place.

Many people live in close contact with the frustration, desolation, discouragement, and despair that Karen Armstrong experienced. Some choose to abandon their spiritual endeavor altogether, but most do their best to continue despite the seeming uselessness of it all. It’s not unlike other great undertakings in life — marriage, vocation, friendship, education, or positive social transformation.

The way forward
Is the path of return

We all need some kind of help or encouragement or support or sage advice in time of desolation. Often we’re bitterly aware when others respond with silence to our own difficulties, though usually we pay no attention at all to the even greater struggles of those we love.

Fortunately, simple realties — understood for what they are — lead us back to the place of compassion. Something simple like a plucked flower, a fallen leaf, or a crushed sparrow’s egg has power to awaken us from the darkness. So does a kind word, a spontaneous smile, an outstretched hand, or the embrace of a family.

The moment of despair
Is the time of great hope

The history of our kind shows that once in a very great while some momentous event occurs that plunges all of us into the darkness together at once. In those past moments when we were tempted to think all was lost, our kind always found a source of power beyond imagining.

In our day, we do well to recall that we are not alone. Together, not abandoning even the smallest or most useless among us, we wait in darkness for the appearance of a bright shining light that has already begun to dawn.

~BT Waldbillig
April 24, 2017

At the Arising of a Spiritual Family

The causes of death are many,
Those of staying alive are few,
These too can become the causes of death,
Therefore always perform the practices.
~Nagarjuna, The Precious Garland (n. 278)

When I was young I did not understand how precarious and uncertain life truly is. Only now, mid-way through life’s journey, have I seen how easily the life of a man, or indeed his entire family, might disappear so completely that beings in some later time might think him only a fable. Somewhere I wrote about the urgent obligation for a family of blood to transcend useless attachment to the love of some and the hatred of many, and in so doing become a family of spirit, transcending common barriers of vain self-interest and outwitting the wise and powerful of this world.

A family of blood alone or flesh alone is easily exterminated, whether by chance or by the design of those who call themselves righteous, superior, and pure. But a family of spirit is indestructible, impassable, unfailing, capable of accomplishing even the most impossible of noble tasks. Such a family -embraces every son and daughter as a loving father does. It stretches back in time, to an age before beings of our kind looked up to the heavens for signs. It stretches forward through time to realities you and I cannot even imagine. And if there is some knowable reality that stands outside of time completely, this family reaches even to that place.

But the true marvel is this: you and I have the power to bring into being this family.  Now, in this very moment. If we choose to. Each and every one of us, in the way we are best able, has a part in the arising of the spiritual family.

For this reason, somewhere Nagarjuna says this:

You should always analyze well
Everything before you act,
And through seeing things correctly as they are
Do not put full reliance on others.

Here he’s not speaking of self-reliance in the modern American sense. The ancient Indian master refers to something more subtle and quite important: When power is concentrated in the hands of a few men, some (perhaps all) of those few men will use it to wicked purpose, making themselves like unto gods, determining who merits life and who deserves to die. Or perhaps they will be foolish, like the mindless farmer who is unable to recognize in the loss of a single ear of wheat an abundance of bread that might have fed the hungry.

Those who seem reliable and trustworthy often show themselves to be nothing of the sort. If only one man or only one privileged group possesses power to bring into being a spiritual family, then the family is doomed. For this reason providence has placed a generative, spiritual power within every member of the family.

The creative force that brings into being the spiritual family stands not outside us, but within each of us. Each and every one of us can bring forth from within this power to give life and create the spiritual family. Perhaps those beings whose compassionate love and dedication to life we fail to appreciate also have this power. Perhaps there is a secret hidden for us in the rocks, in the water, in the trees, beneath the flowers, beyond the stars, and in the heart of a dog sitting at a boy’s feet.

Now, our kind is capable of acting with wisdom and generosity but the cycles of history show that rarely do we manifest our more noble nature. The famous phrase of Pascal comes to mind (I’m paraphrasing): Those men who mistakenly regard themselves as beings higher than angels, such men are destined to become the most hellish of beasts. Let angels be angels. Let beings of flesh and blood be what they are.

For this reason, a spiritual family belongs to no one single manifestation of the universal spiritual path, for human language is not capable of fully and completely communicating any reality, let alone that which is altogether beyond words as we know them. Some members of this family follow one god, some many, others none at all or something altogether different, but all members of  this family are united by love of life and compassion for one another — despite the many irreconcilable and contrary beliefs that exist in this world. Within the spiritual family, some are poor, some rich, some kingly, some little more than mongrel dogs, some well known, others yet to be known — there is place for all. They hide themselves in every place of power and among the powerless, indistinguishable from those around them. The sons and daughters of the spiritual family do this to ensure that on the dread day of destruction, at least some of them will endure, and the family will live on in them. This sort of spiritual family cannot be wiped out or extinguished.  Such a family will endure.

And should some Mighty People War seek the end of our manifestation of life in this world, the Family of the Great Heart will vouchsafe the continuation of life and compassion by the many means they have long prepared in silent expectation.

One day I will no longer exist in this world — just like any other man. So far as we understand, any being who comes into existence in this world eventually passes out of existence in this world. The sad mystery of impermanence and mortality shines an invincible light on the greater mystery of life manifested in fathers and mothers, in children and grandchildren, in trees and flowers and dogs, in wind and water and rocks, in pain and love and loneliness. You and I have encountered all these realities through the course of our brief lives so far. Perhaps they have inspired you, as they have inspired me, just as they inspired others before us, and will continue to inspire beings in need of hope long after we are gone, never to return to this present world.

For so long as there is a present moment in which we are able to become friend to those who seek a friend and a family able to welcome those in need of family, that moment will be a time in which life can thrive and flourish and invite and inspire.

Lest I paint too fantastical an image, the secret is this:  All we have to do is love each other. It is that simple, yet most of us think it impossible entirely. As Cardinal Newman wrote somewhere: We begin by loving those who are nearest to us — ourselves, our family, our friends. From the sure love that exists within the spiritual family, we are able to expand our experience of compassionate-love until it grows as in an ever-widening circle and embraces even those regarded as unlovable.

Here, in the present moment and within the spiritual family, we find a place where life begins, a means by which life continues, and a shining beacon of hope for all who dwell in this world and in the worlds to come.

~BT Waldbillig
April 20, 2017
– – – – –
Hymn of the Spiritual Family

abbe gaud
albe gaud
nonce laud
ver bend
pae don
bend en harc

Rejoice, the Father comes
Rejoice, the Rising Sun brings dawn
Let all proclaim the praise
Truly we are sacred
To our Father and to His Master
We are blessed from the very beginning

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

The Love of a Grandmother

My dad isn’t the touchy-feely type but when he speaks of his mother and says that she was one of the kindest and happiest people he’s ever met, you can tell he means it. Now, I didn’t know Grandma Katie all that well and I was only 14 years old when she died in 1988, but sometimes I still remember her smile and I can still smell the baked ham she would prepare every Easter. Grandma Katie, who was widowed longer than I was alive, sat at the head of the table but hardily ate at all. Instead, she made sure everyone else was taken care of and she herself would return to the kitchen periodically to bring out a new dish or start a new course for the abundant Easter dinner. Grandma Katie left an impression on my life less from my own interaction with her than from the intensity of my father’s regard for her.

As Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx, we frequently pass mothers and grandmothers taking children to school in the morning or walking them home in the afternoon. In Harlem, they might be from Black families who have lived in the neighborhood for generations. In Washington Heights, it’s Dominican immigrants with extended families. In the Bronx, we see women in head scarves from Central Asia or Africa doing their best to ignore stares and murmurs. But all of these women, just like my own grandmother, are doing their best in challenging circumstances to raise their children to be decent people. They could be single moms, widows, women working two or three jobs for the sake of family — all of them sacrificing themselves for love of their children and grandchildren.

This morning in Highbridge Park, Dante and I saw a woman picking through the rubbish bin, pulling out glass bottles and aluminum cans to trade for a handful of coins. My other grandmother, Grandma Carol, used to collect aluminum cans and glass bottles. She was a factory worker and the extra money she pocketed throughout the year she spent on my sisters and me at Christmas. There was hardly enough room around the Christmas tree for all the presents we received. As children, we had no idea how lucky we were — not for the gifts but for the love of our grandmothers.

Perhaps the woman in the park this morning is saving so she can surprise a child with a rag doll or a racing car. Or maybe she was earning some extra money so that her family might enjoy an abundant Easter dinner in a couple of weeks. This morning in the park Dante and I greeted the woman. She smiled back at us as we continued our walk.

~BT Waldbillig
April 3, 2017

The Unconquered Sun Rises Anew

According to Christian tradition, a Roman soldier named Longinus was the person who killed Jesus, thrusting his lance through Jesus’ ribs and into his heart. What’s curious about this is that the Gospel accounts attributed to Mark and Matthew are silent about the act that took the life of their spiritual leader. They simply observe that a centurion who stood guard at the execution relayed to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, that Jesus was dead. The Roman soldiers, who were undoubtedly from various and likely distant parts of the Roman Empire, had mocked Jesus during the execution ritual, performing their duty to Rome with arrogance, cruelty, and utter confidence in the machine of Empire. But then things get weird: something in the final moment of Jesus’ short life — we don’t know what exactly — changed the soldiers’ attitude toward the troublesome Palestinian rebel. Surely this was a son of god, they declare. I have my own opinion about what happened but history is silent and so are the soldiers, so I have no business with idle chatter.

The story of Longinus shows us that from the darkest and most obscene moments of our lives, the personal transformation we once regarded as impossible arises. Longinus, as a good Roman soldier, was surely guilty of many things far worse than showboating at a public execution. In the Christian story, Jesus is the innocent victim and the Roman soldier is the wicked aggressor. But here’s the thing: both men experienced the suffering of the event. Both were touched by an experience of death. They were strangers until that final moment when they were intimately united by the terrible reality that touches all beings who come into this world. Death, suffering, mortality, impermanence — this is our lot. Instead of turning away from each other, something brought them together, opened them to the experience of an enemy who was really nothing other than a brother. It changed Longinus and it changed the world.

Much of the Christian world — including all of the ancient apostolic communities — venerates the Roman centurion from the Gospel story as a holy man. Perhaps on another occasion I will explore how this very same mystery was manifested by the Tibetan mystic Milarepa and by the prophet Dorothy Day who not so long ago walked the very same city streets that Dante and I venerate.

~BT Waldbillig
March 26, 2017

Across the Universe

Life, as we experience it, arises within a community and continues by means of a community. This community is family. To family, there can be nothing more important than life.

The purpose of family is to foster conditions that favor, protect, and propagate life. Members of a family are bound to one another by the life they receive, share, and pass on.

The arising of life is not inevitable, nor is the indefinite continuation of life. Both require great energy, care, and attention.

Any creature that comes into being in this world will eventually pass out of being from this world. This truth inspires urgent attention to life as we experience it in the present moment.

So far as we understand it, biological life is not, of itself, eternal or immortal; hence biological beings are bound together by their mortality. From the understanding of mortality arise both the basest and most noble qualities of human beings.

Beings from some distant place in the Universe, to my estimation, might likewise understand themselves as sharing our condition.

Human beings, grasping the inevitability of their own mortality, transform sadness, despair, and suffering by many different means: religion, spiritual endeavors, music, art, magic, dance, storytelling, the search for wisdom, love, etc.

The sybil, the prophet, the priest, and the astrophysicist all use the means at hand to endow their experience of the world with meaning, purpose, beauty, majesty, and hope.

Even today, when human beings leave this world and its atmosphere by technological means, they describe their experience in terms not unfamiliar to ancient shamans or medieval mystics.

Hope is the virtue of a community that values life and knows how precarious it truly is.

A mother would rather suffer harm herself than see her child harmed; a father willingly and without hesitation places himself in harm’s way in order to protect his children.

Children honor those who gave them life by valuing their own lives, by passing on the gift of life they receive, and by imitating the good and noble example of those who gave them life.

Members of a family do what they are able to do in the manner they judge best, each member possessing something valuable and useful in the family’s mission.

Should we encounter beings from some distant place in the Universe, it is entirely likely that they, too, will understand something of what we call family.

Somewhere I wrote about family born of blood and family born of spirit. Just as we embrace others and call them family even when we do not share blood with them, so might we embrace beings from elsewhere in the Universe.

In this way, a spiritual family arises and grows, expanding as in an ever-widening circle and binding together those who once were strangers.

~BT Waldbillig
March 15, 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.