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

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

Sanitized Saints

It’s quite possible that the stories of all of the saints and bodhisattvas we know have been sanitized in order to maintain the status quo. Compassion means refusing to participate in insanity, and that is never going to be an entirely safe and popular choice in a world gone mad.
~Shastri Ethan Nichtern

It’s all too easy for us to misjudge the lives of the heroic spiritual figures we honor. After all, we look to them from a distance, standing outside the place of their spiritual experience. It’s not that we get them wrong entirely, but we inevitably force what we know of them into categories that make useful narrative sense to us. But life is not lived as a story — it is only remembered and honored as a story.

Naturally, these spiritually heroic men and women did not experience their lives in the way we imagine. To us they are heroes and victors from the beginning, whereas they knew the darkness, desolation, doubt, despair, and loneliness of the present moment. We admire their triumph over difficult or even impossible circumstances, while in the present moment of experience they couldn’t be sure they would emerge with mind or heart or faith or body intact.

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

So accustomed to honoring a conveniently fashioned image of past spiritual heroes, we forget that even now such beings dwell among us. They are friends, teachers, sisters, fathers, strangers, prostitutes, saints, soldiers, failures, nobodies, ordinary and extraordinary — the story of their lives is not yet finished. They do not yet know what they will become or whether they will survive the ordeal.

And so in this very moment, they need us.

In this very moment, they are us.

The power to experience profound, positive spiritual transformation permeates our minds and courses through our veins — each of us can become the heroic spiritual Friend that we honor in others.

~BT Waldbillig
May 11, 2017

At the Return of the Warrior Spirit

Not long ago my meditation teacher received his senior citizen Metro pass, entitling him to discount rate travel on the New York City bus and subway system. He joked that now he is “officially” old, though I know from our frequent conversations, regular study sessions, and occasional shared meal that he still sees himself as a young man inspired by his spiritual teacher to abandon everything and set out upon a spiritual path without reserve or hesitation. His teacher, Sangharakshita, is not without controversy but if you’re a modern Westerner, like me, there’s no better, more approachable, or less fetishized enunciation of the Buddhist spiritual tradition than Sangharakshita’s thoughtful and critical attempt at synthesis. I keep a copy of The Essential Sangharakshita close at hand — it’s as useful to a Buddha skeptic like myself as it is to hardcore meditators, snobbish intellectuals, devout atheists, sincere Children of Abraham, and slacker game-boys.

My teacher shared with me his concern that the consuming zeal and single-minded commitment he experienced in the early days of Sanghrakshita’s Triratna (Three Jewels) movement are waning, or at least giving way to new expressions. While it’s no consolation, this is only natural as the founding generation of a spiritual, humanitarian, or activist movement begins to disappear and younger or newer members lack the intimate bonds engendered by uncertainty, risk, and radicality. Those who participate in the events that bring a movement into being in the first place have a unique shared identity that newbies simply can’t understand fully. Instead of leaving careers, homes, families, and social respectability, the new generation tries to balance a normal life with their spiritual path, often remaining in awe of the sacrifice, excitement, creativity, and power of the founders. Call it compromise or practicality, depending on your perspective.

All of this has me thinking back to the first followers of spiritual teachers like Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth. It seems to me that far from planning out great institutions or impressive social movements, these two men first and foremost sought to be the heroic spiritual Friend to those who gathered around them. While we might not look on their followers in this way, both teachers attracted men and women with the spirit of ferocious warriors. What do I mean? The soldier or sailor or tribesman or mercenary sets for himself or herself a duty which is also a good and doesn’t hesitate to accomplish any task or challenge that arises in serving that duty. It might be crown or family or wealth or vengeance or something altogether different, but the uncompromising, seemingly fearless attitude is always the same. For such people, even death ceases to be an obstacle. These are no namby-pamby wimps. For example, some of the first followers of Jesus were fishermen and fishermen, like farmers, are tougher than iron and able to endure brutal, constantly changing conditions. There are also accounts of the Buddha stopping to rest in a mango grove with something like 1,200 followers at hand. I forget the precise number. We could almost say Jesus had a Navy Seal team and the Buddha had an entire army.

But just like my teacher’s community, those first Jesus and Buddha warriors eventually gave way to bankers and bakers and school teachers and old ladies and bus drivers and magazine editors and pharmaceutical reps and personal trainers and grocery clerks and IT nerds. This process, however, isn’t merely one of pure entropy since occasionally — very rarely — the garbage collector and farm wife and swimming instructor and auto mechanic and the rest of the whole damn mediocre gang find themselves faced with an unforeseen and even impossible mission that rekindles in them the spirit of the warrior. This has happened in the past and can happen even in our own day within the spiritual communities, humanitarian endeavors, and activist movements that give meaning to our lives and make the world a better place.

~BT Waldbillig
April 5, 2017

Shantideva and Easter

Though the Christian and Buddhist spiritual traditions came into being from radically different cultural and philosophical places at different historical moments, this Bodhisattva’s Wish by the 8th-century writer Shantideva seems relevant at the approach to Easter. Clearly, the intention behind the Christian paschal mystery expressed in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is — from a certain vantage — not so different from the motivation behind the Buddha’s pursuit of enlightenment and the desire of the Bodhisattvas to forgo their own release from suffering until all beings attain liberation. In both spiritual traditions there is an awareness that such a journey of transformative discovery entails sacrifice and mystery.

While the title Bodhisattva is never used in the Christian scriptures, it conveys something of the mystery Christians honor in Jesus. Likewise, the Christian title of Soter (σωτήρ) describes something of the mystery of those Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who offer their own lives for the spiritual benefit of others. Soter, Buddha, and Bodhisattva could all be described as a heroic spiritual Friend (Mithras).

While each title-role has its own context-specific significance and therefore is not, sensu strticto, interchangeable with a title-role of another spiritual tradition, Soter, Bodhisattva, and Mithras are all considered heroic beings who freely assume an urgent salvific spiritual task for the sake of others; consequently they are celebrated, remembered, and imitated by the communities that honor them. Or to put it another way: they dedicate and sacrifice their lives for the benefit of others who, in turn, dedicate and sacrifice their lives for the benefit of one another.

It’s useful to recall the many points of commonalty among our planet’s various spiritual, religious, social activist, philosophical, and humanitarian traditions. We needn’t be surprised that these traditions are interrelated, since all human beings, across time and place, experience the same fundamental conditions of impermanence, dissatisfaction, suffering, and mortality, as well as the desire to overcome or pass beyond those realities.

~BT Waldbillig
March 29, 2017

– – – – –
The Bodhisattva’s Wish
Shantideva

May all beings everywhere plagued with sufferings of body and mind, obtain an ocean of happiness and joy

For as long as they remain in cyclic existence, may their mundane happiness never decline, and may all of them uninterruptedly receive waves of joy

May those feeble with cold find warmth, and may those oppressed with heat be cooled by the boundless waters that pour forth from the great clouds

May all animals be free from fear of being eaten by one another

May the hungry ghosts be as happy as the people of the northern continent

May the blind see forms, may the deaf hear sounds, may pregnant women give birth without any pain

May the naked find clothing, the hungry find food: may the forlorn find new hope, constant happiness and prosperity

May all who are sick and ill quickly be freed from their illnesses, and may every disease in the world never occur again

May the frightened cease to be afraid and may those bound be free; may the powerless find power, and may people think of befriending one another

May all travelers find happiness everywhere they go, and without any effort may they accomplish whatever they set out to do

May those who sail in ships and boats obtain whatever they wish for, and having safely returned to the shore may they joyfully reunite with their relatives

May the troubled wanderers who have lost their way meet with fellow travelers, and without any fear of thieves and tigers, may their going be easy without any fatigue

May those who find themselves in trackless, fearful wildernesses, the children, the aged, the unprotected, those stupefied and insane, be guarded by beneficent celestials

May pregnant women give birth without any pain, just like the treasury of space, and without it being the source of dispute or harm, may they always enjoy it as they wish

May all embodied creatures uninterruptedly hear the sound of Dharma issuing from birds and trees, beams of light, and even space itself

May celestials bring timely rains so that harvests may be bountiful

May kings act in accordance with Dharma and the people of the world always prosper

May no living creature ever suffer, commit evil or fall ill: may no one be afraid or belittled or their minds ever be depressed

May beings not experience the misery of lower realms, and may they never know any hardships.

With a physical form superior to the gods, may they swiftly attain Buddhahood

For as long as space endures and for as long as living beings remain, until then may I too abide to dispel the misery of the world

May all the pains of living creatures ripen solely upon myself, and through the might of the Bodhisattva Sangha, may all beings experience happiness

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

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