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 Spiritual Family Endures

Together, we are light and life
Together, we are mightier than death

There is hidden within each of us a wellspring of wisdom born from experience. Sometimes we forget, however, that most of our history is hidden from us, as it occurred before there was anything that we, today, can recognize as written human communication. However, according to some paleobiologists and astrobiologists, it is quite possible that within our genome there are records of those ultimate origins and celestial events that made our planet and our species what they are today. But you and I are like infants, still at the beginning of those lessons that will one day lead us to wisdom.

What we do know is that from the very beginning our kind came to be within the context of family. That is our universal experience: family and death. Surely our extinct ancestors — like Nalendi, Australopithecus, Habilis, and many others that we do not even know of — understood something of family and mortality. It is our lot, as “intelligent” beings to understand that when any life arises in this world it is also destined to one day pass away from this world. The knowledge of this truth would seem to be universal for all intelligent, biological beings and so we might suppose that if, in fact, there are other beings like us elsewhere in the Universe, they understand, in some way, both family and impermanence.

Human history is marked by numberless futile attempts to deny the reality of death, mortality, and impermanence. But denial isn’t the full story. There is also family, from which every love first arises.

There have always been among us those who find meaning and purpose to their own lives by ensuring the continuation of family, protecting the vulnerable and innocent, even unto the shedding of their own blood. Even unto the shedding of the blood of other creatures, when necessary. For these warriors, the sadness of facing one’s own death prematurely and the unbearable burden of causing other creatures to know pain and death exist simultaneously with the joy and hope of knowing that the family will endure.

Though it seems impossible, some few our kind experience a love of life and family so intense and complete that they are willing to take upon themselves all the suffering, sadness, and death that will ever exist so that all other beings might be free from suffering and sadness. But such a thing is surely impossible. And yet that boundless spirit endures even today and  may yet come to dwell within you and me — as unlikely as it seems. If only we were brave enough to recognize who and what we really are, but of course we do not yet know because our story is not finished.

From the inspiration to alleviate the suffering all beings, from the desire to love perfectly all beings throughout the Universe, every spiritual community arises. And so long as our kind endures, there will be spiritual communities, like branches stretching out in every direction from the steadfast trunk of a great tree.

How noble the Tree
How wondrous the branches
How deep the roots
How beautiful the blossoms
Whether dead or alive
It has power to save the world

When a family of blood and flesh becomes a spiritual family, the entire Universe becomes one home. And within that one home there is room for every member of the one true spiritual family. There is space for countless generations. There is place for the righteous and the wicked alike.

That’s what love is — endless and excluding no one, not even the unlovable. And when one among us finds the power to know so great a love, all of us will find that power.

Each one of us is a hero, if only we could befriend ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are. Then, we could be friends to all beings and see them as friends. Then, we would recognize even in a little boy or a unwanted dog the mightiest of heroes.

tauroctonia_esqulino_050

~BT Waldbillig
June 3, 2017

United by Bonds of Love

It seems to me that the spiritual impulse, as I call it, arises in human beings, and presumably in beings similar to us, as a response to the experience of life’s precariousness, difficulty, injustice, suffering, and brevity. The life without meaning or purpose is, to misuse Hobbes’ famous phrase, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. The burden of a meaningless existence is simply too much for creatures with minds like ours. In that sense, the mind is as much a hindrance as a help.

Some of our most primitive ancestors found solace in the bonds of love, kindness, affection, family, and friendship. These realities — and they are real — might not make life less arduous and temporary but for most of us they give reason to at least try and make life better, they give us reason to go on with life even in our worst moments.

Committing oneself to love, kindness, affection, family, and friendship is, to my estimation, a sort of universal spiritual path. From this commitment religion arises as the inspired response of particular men and women in the particular circumstances of time and place.

Long before human beings had words and concepts for what we call religion, we were already engaged in a spiritual endeavor to bring light into the darkness of life.

Love, then, becomes meaning and purpose. Love shouldn’t have the power it has, but there is nothing more powerful than love. If there are other beings like us in the universe, I’m quite sure they experience this also. Should we meet such beings, it won’t be mathematics or science or technology or desire for power that binds us together. It will be love.

~BT Waldbillig
March 12, 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.

On the Origin of a Spiritual Family

1
Brother follows brother to the end of the world
The beloved leading her first love to the bedchamber

2
Sister leads sister back to the beginning of all things
A dog faithful to the source of a hidden path

3
A spiritual family is known in perfect silence
A single precious jewel adorning the crown

4
A spiritual family’s love is known in the moment of trial
Neither seeking reward nor casting punishment

5
Thus the many children know they are of one family
Dwelling together in the place of the empty heart

6
The place of nothing is the dwelling of all things
It is no cup filled to overflowing

7
A spiritual family’s love issues forth for all
As a mother loves each child as her only

8
Here father and son rejoice together equally
At the return of a lost brother

9
Passing beyond their own love and hate
They become infinite and eternal

10
The love of a spiritual family knows no bounds
It is the matriarch of many children

11
A spiritual family’s love is unfailing
It is the friend who dwells in equanimity

12
The first father and the final daughter are incomplete
Until they pass beyond last and first

13
Thus the spiritual family arises
Now in this very moment

14
The empty heart knows unbounded joy
The empty heart knows pain beyond words

15
Let us dwell together as a family
For the way forward is also the path of return

~BT Waldbillig
February 6, 2017

Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT II

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 2

SCENE 1: A CINDER PATH

Though the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

Every human life is an unexplainable mystery that takes form and flesh within a story. As fate would have it, my story begins in a place of favor.

I mean this quite literally. My hometown of Chariton, Iowa is named for a river discovered by a French trader who was named for an early Christian hermit who bore the name of an ancient Greek playwright. The etymological root of Chariton is the Greek word for grace or favor, “charis”. So my hometown is, literally, a place of favor. To those of the Mormon faith, it is even a place of miracles.

It would have made the perfect starting point for a hero of yore. Instead of a hero, I turned out to be a smalltown boy who got lost on his wanderings through a world that was much bigger than he ever dreamed.

After the rain
There is silence

At the edge of town was the trackbed of a disused railway that had been transformed into a recreational trail and rather unimaginatively named the Cinder Path. Today it would be trendy; in my childhood, it was simply practical. As a boy, I would sometimes jog with my father along the path, or walk with my mother and sisters, or ride my bicycle with friends.

I spent a great deal of time at the Cinder Path with my mother once those storms of the mind began to visit her. As we wandered the path together, sometimes we spoke – about our lives, hopes, memories, and dreams; or about the trees and flowers and covered bridges. But often we walked together in uncomplicated silence, simply content to find in our love for one another some brief respite from the turmoil and sadness.

I’ve carried the sadness with me across the years and around the world, and as my mother descended into a Hell where no one dared follow, the sadness and pain grew. But never – in the midst of the delusions, rage, and terrible, unbearable words – did she abandon her love for me. It is this realization that has, in these later years, turned pain and sadness into tenderness.

We learn too late that it is only when we continue to love in the midst of suffering that our small, small hearts can become something quite magnificent. We who are bound by our bodies and our brief time on Earth, somehow we partake of the infinite and the eternal. We become infinite and eternal through the love we bear and the love we receive.

In this very moment
Our world is passing away

The day comes for each of us when we must be no longer a daughter or son of anyone, but father and mother to ourselves and therefore to the world. This day inspires both hope and fear!

I myself am yet to be born. Will I be the child who springs forth from the womb with a battle cry, ready to take on any foe? Or will I be the stillborn son, whose life is shrouded from the very beginning in sorrow?

I do not know. Let me say it again: I do not know.

In this very moment, all I know is that my story is not yet finished. And this gives me hope.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF THE LOST MAIDEN

Behold, there was a beautiful young maiden – gentle, innocent, a mere child – lost in a deep ravine, abandoned in a dark forest. It was the dead of night and no light shone from the moon or stars. As she began to weep, a wolf pup appeared to her and bid her to climb on his back.

At once the wolf pup transformed himself into a fearsome war dog and charged through forest, carrying the maiden to safety.

And as they passed through the forest, a hidden legion of warriors appeared with torches to light the way – and their torches became the stars.

And atop a hill appeared a man wearing a hooded cloak, all white. He lifted his torch – and his torch became the moon.

As I awoke from my dream,
I understood that
the war dog is also brother,
the warrior is also family,
and the Father is also Mother.

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

– – – – –

SCENE 3: CANTICLE OF THE LIVING DOG
[vel IN TAUROCTANIA]

In those dark times
When the Friend wounded my heart

Even as he wounded himself
I did the best I could

Looking away to hide
My own tears

Warming his cold body with
The warmth of my own

Licking away that blood
Shed in sadness

I did not abandon him
For my kind will

Never abandon
The ones we love

Never leave behind
The ones we love

Never forget
The ones we love

And we will love them
Even to the end of the world

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
December 29, 2016

Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT I

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 1

SCENE 1: COMPASSION OF THE TREE

Just outside the dining room bay window of my childhood home in Iowa stood a tall tree. To be honest, I don’t even know what sort of tree it was. Was it oak or elm? The tree was old, at least to the little mind of a little man. It was just a tree. And yet, more than most elements of my childhood, the tree still dwells in my consciousness. For all its plainness, I can recall no other tree that was so grand and kind in that little town. Never was there so sweet a tree with such gentle leaves. Perhaps it is the mere nostalgia of a man midway through his journey in this life, a man who could not love a tree when he was a child and now deludes himself with wishful memories. Perhaps it is something else: a wooly intuition that there is something noble and valuable in every experience. That tree is no longer there and I am no longer a little child but, in some way, the tree lives on in me.

The tree is so common an aspect of our human experience that most of us cannot grasp its beauty, significance, or compassion. Perhaps only on a long journey in the desert or across the sea or through the infinite expanse of outer space – those places where the tree seems but fantasy – can our kind laugh with joy or weep in sorrow for something so ordinary as a tree.

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

Not long ago I discovered in my own DNA remnants of a past I never knew. From far away places like Northern India and the Caucasus Mountains there are hints of ancient migrations, of survival in unlikely circumstances, of love in the midst of suffering. In the DNA of every human – in your DNA and in mine – there is courage to embark upon impossible journeys, to survive and evolve in hopeless situations. There is ancient wisdom we never knew we possessed.

The human heart is a mystery worth contemplating. Fragile is the heart, bruised and pierced quite easily. It is the very essence of human weakness. And yet, because of that heart our kind is capable of near-infinite love, compassion, and healing. We can forgive anything, even the unforgivable. We can love anyone, even the unlovable.

The heart is sacred, just as you and I are sacred
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

When I was young nothing seemed so vain, so unnecessary, so terrifying as having children. Now, midway through life’s journey, I wonder differently.

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
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

Should my branch never produce even a single shoot, the tree will continue. My tree will continue. Your tree will continue. OUR tree will endure and the fragile human heart will make many marvelous, unimaginable, glorious journeys.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF AMBER LIGHT

Behold, a man found himself alone in the great darkness
The great darkness opened beneath him
And the man began to plummet
Into an abyss of amber light
In that moment when the man feared that all was lost
A saving hand reached out to him
And pulled him through the abyss of amber light
And the man passed through the abyss of amber light at great speed
Before the man passed a vision of the whole of existence as in a brief flash
Here he beheld a man with a torch painting mysteries
On the walls of a dark cave
There he saw another constructing an earthen dugout
Hidden among verdant hills and great rivers
Here he beheld a man building a magnificent temple in the desert
There he saw another erecting a mighty vault in the midst of a city
He saw these and many other marvelous things
Too numerous and amazing to recount
And as he passed out of the amber light he beheld one last vision

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

– – – – –

SCENE 3: CANTICLE OF THE TREE
[vel SONG OF THE MOTHER]

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
December 28, 2016

Who Is the Bodhisattva?

I recently came across a text that quite vividly describes the sort of spiritual ideal toward which many aspire. With Christmas approaching, we could also envision this ideal as the motivation for the Incarnation.

– – – – –

Description of a Bodhisattva
(from the Ratnagotravibhaga)

He has gone beyond all that is worldly, yet he has not moved out of the world;

In the world he pursues his course for the world’s weal, unstained by worldly taints.

As a lotus flower, though it grows in water, is not polluted by the water,

So he, though born in the world, is not polluted by worldly dharmas.

Like a fire his mind constantly blazes up into good works for others;

At the same time he always remains merged in the calm of trances and formless attainments.

Through the power of his previous penetration (into reality), and because he has left all discrimination behind,

He again exerts no effort when he brings living things to maturity.

He knows exactly who is to be educated, how, and by what means,

Whether by his teaching, his physical appearance, his practices, or his bearing.

Without turning towards anything, always unobstructed in his wisdom,

He goes along, in the world of living beings, boundless as space, acting for the weal of beings.

[taken from Puja Readings and Other Texts as Used In the Triratna Buddhist Community]

~BT Waldbillig
December 19, 2016