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

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

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

A Matter of Perspective

Spending time with my dog, Dante, brings me immense joy. In fact, I consider our time together – above all our walks – as sacred. Even though I live in Manhattan, I’m lucky enough to be in a neighborhood with plenty of trees and very few high-rise buildings. For our evening walk, sometimes Dante and I stroll through Highbridge Park and stop in the meadow to gaze up at the heavens. Unfortunately I don’t remember well my astronomy lessons from school, but I can always spot the constellation of Orion the Hunter in the sky. Sometimes, if I think about it hard and squint harder, I can pick out the stars Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Bellatrix, which form part of the constellation.

Not surprisingly, Dante and I aren’t the first creatures to contemplate Orion. There’s a 40,000-year-old ivory carving from Germany that depicts Orion, and long before Horace and Homer mention him, the Egyptians and Babylonians were talking about Orion. He even appears in the Bible three times.

During my eight years in Rome, I made over 180 visits to the Sistine Chapel and every single time I was mesmerized by the figure of Christ the Judge. It’s believed that Orion served as inspiration to Michelangelo for the figure of Christ above the high altar of the Sistine Chapel. Orion really got around!

Now, for just a moment think on Orion’s belt. From where we stand in the universe, these three stars – whose names I always forget – align in a nice, neat row. Notice I say, “from where we stand in the universe”. From other places in the universe, these stars align differently. In fact, there is a place in the universe where Orion’s imperfectly straight belt appears as a perfect equilateral triangle. If there are other intelligent, physical beings elsewhere in the universe, perhaps they gaze on these same stars and see an altogether different formation.

(It’s curious that to the ancients who followed the cult of Sol Invictus, Orion’s belt and shoulders were seen as the blade of Mithras and the bull’s horns from the depiction of the Tauroctony.)

The same reality is often perceived and experienced in vastly different ways by different beings, and that’s true of more than just stars. This is something for each of us to contemplate the next time we gaze on Orion the Hunter in the night sky.

~BT Waldbillig
March 24, 2016