Plucked Flowers and Fallen Leaves

“One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.”
~Dhammapada

When I was boy — I must have been four or five years old — a recurring dream frightened me so intensely that often I would wake up in the dead of night startled, calling out for my father. Still half asleep, he would wander down the hallway in the dark to comfort and calm me so that both of us could get some rest. In the dream I saw myself hovering above a green meadow dotted with yellow flowers and surrounded by a dense forest. All of a sudden I began to plummet, terrified as I was unable to halt the descent. This boyhood dream returned to me about ten years ago, though now with one curious difference — as I fell from the sky I experienced joy in place of fear. Now as I plummeted to Earth, I beheld a crowd of people below in the meadow waiting for me, smiling and laughing.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
~Gospel of Luke

There is a Zen story in which the Buddha stands silent before his disciples and simply holds up before them a plucked flower. Of all the many disciples present, only one, Mahākāśyapa, perceived the transformative spiritual teaching that all the Buddha’s words could never so directly or perfectly communicate. Mahākāśyapa could not suppress his smile and the Buddha knew that at least one of his followers understood the silent teaching. The story is almost a thousand years old and was probably formulated in China at about the time of the birth of Saint Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Carthusian Order and follower of the silent path.

You and I are surrounded by plucked flowers and fallen leaves, sparrow eggs safe in a mother’s nest and chicks passed too soon from this world. Like Mahākāśyapa and Saint Bruno,  we have the capacity to find in the precariousness and impermanence of this passing world a source of hope and joy to sustain us in moments of difficulty and darkness.

~BT Waldbillig
May 1, 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

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

Even Gods Need Heroes

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

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

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

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

An ever-widening circle
Our spiritual family grows

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

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

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

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

~BT Waldbillig
January 17, 2017

On the Enduring Power of the Human Heart

Life is full of difficulties, some more bearable than others. As for me, the fact that religious faith, which once came so easily, seems practically impossible at times now causes no little pain. I’m not alone in this difficulty with faith: in fact, it seems that almost everyone I know in the generation following my own is in a similar situation, if they haven’t already jettisoned religious faith altogether. I won’t delve into the possible reasons behind this, other than to say the pious have no reason to feel smug about their own faith and religious practice. When people of good will and positive intention reject faith, the keepers of the faith do well to examine themselves very carefully. As often as not, religious practitioners are a primary stumbling block to faith in others.

If there’s any consolation for those of us who wander in the darkness of doubt and uncertainty, it is this: faith, like hope, was never meant to be permanent. By their very nature, faith and hope are aides along the spiritual path. By the end of the journey, there is no need for faith or hope; they point to something beyond themselves. Many of the great mystics – John of the Cross comes to mind – suffered through doubt and difficulties with faith for much of their spiritual journey.

If faith and hope are temporary, we should direct our attention to love. Love is the one thing that is possible no matter our place in life, no matter our condition. If anything in this life gives us a glimpse of how great and noble our existence can be, it is love. Love is also the place where those of little faith and those whose faith moves mountains can dwell together even now.

~BT Waldbillig
February 26, 2016

The Wisdom of Avenue D

A few evenings ago, Dante and I were in Manhattan’s East Village to share a pizza with a good friend, and after our meal the dog and I took a stroll down Avenue D.

Now, once upon a time that might not have been a wise choice since that end of Alphabet City was regarded as especially dangerous. My friend, a native New Yorker, shared with me a saying he learned as a youngster:

If you go to Avenue A, you’re adventurous.
If you go to Avenue B, you’re bold.
If you go to Avenue C, you’re courageous.
But if you go to Avenue D, you’re dead.

These days the situation is not nearly so dramatic, though many people still avoid the area altogether. It’s true Avenue D can be sketchy, particularly at night, and there’s likely a certain degree of local gang activity, but I’ve never felt threatened despite the odd looks I sometimes receive. Dante and I will continue to visit Avenue D whenever occasion arises for a simple reason: it is a holy place, consecrated by the hope and kindness that endure in the midst of poverty, violence, marginalization, and suffering.

Only in the last year or so have I come to appreciate that fact, thanks to a number of ordinary events that touched me in a meaningful way: the reading of a meditation on impermanence by the Japanese spiritual teacher Dogen; the particular beauty of the moon and stars in the night sky on several occasions; the unexpected passing by of an asteroid on the birthday of my late grandmother; the grace to perceive simple things, like clouds and trees and birds, with fresh sight. I have shared these things with Dante, who has in turn imparted his own wisdom during our walking meditations down Avenue D, and at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, and along the High Bridge into the Bronx.

The night sky, a compassionate tree, a loved one’s birthday, the friendship of a dog – these simple things contain all the wisdom one could ever need.

~BT Waldbillig
February 4, 2016