The Two Lessons

When we focus outside ourselves, ultimately we realize the equality of ourselves and all other beings. Everybody wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer. Our attachment to our own happiness expands to an attachment to the happiness of all.
~Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche

Many years ago as a seminary student I had occasion to know an elderly woman who confided in me that on several occasions she received visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary. These encounters always happened in the dead of night and so I assumed they were simply pious dreams, but the woman’s experience was of something unlike ordinary dreams. Now, I’m not one for visions or inspired dreams — I regard them as little more than distractions from the greater mysteries that surround us in every waking moment — but I felt unable to dismiss out of hand the woman’s accounts for this reason: her entire demeanor changed and she became almost radiant whenever she recounted to me her other-worldly spiritual experiences. She was, in some way and for at least some passing moment, transformed. Even transfigured. In addition to the positive emotional content of her experience, the rational, discursive content (the storyline) was simple, useful, helpful and entirely traditional.

Luckily I had been formed by spiritual teachers and personal confessors who honored the experience and respected the conscience of anyone who might seek spiritual counsel. So I simply encouraged the elderly woman to be thankful for her dream-visions and then to get on with life as best she could, carrying the positive mental states — joy, hope,  loving-kindness — into her difficult daily life. Naturally, I have no personal experience with extraordinary dreams or mystical visions, but I imagine that being thankful and then moving on would be the only way I myself would be able to deal with that sort of situation, as the weight of so intense an encounter with transcendent reality might be too much to bear. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. Truth be told, I think taking a walk with the dog or savoring a proper meal or spending time with family would be more useful and beneficial than a thousand visitations from gods or angels or saints.

Not so long ago I wrote a letter to one of the world’s most important Buddhist spiritual teachers to ask his thoughts on this sort of thing. Much to my surprise, he personally responded with a warm, direct, thoughtful opinion, even though he did not know me and surely already had too many people demanding his attention. This great spiritual teacher put it in Buddhist terms: While a madman might think himself sane, an enlightened person would not regard himself as mad, even though to the world he might seem mad — just as Jesus was called a madman in one Gospel account. The enlightened person would recognize that the true madness arises from the habitual, delusional ways we think, feel, and live. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the experience: either we are so overwhelmed by a clear vision of reality that we retreat to our comfortable delusions or else we accept the reality we encounter and when we share this with others who stand outside our place of experience we are regarded as foolish or mad or even wicked.

It is a shame and unfortunate that through our own fault we don’t understand ourselves or know who we are.
~Saint Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle

Somewhere I wrote of the lessons my parents taught me when our family dog died. My mother consoled me, wiped my boyish tears, and taught me not to run away from the pain of life. My father taught me to be strong enough to rise up from the place of tears and honor the suffering of the present moment by burying the dead dog. He told me that if I’m strong enough to do this as a boy, as a man I will be strong enough to triumph over any obstacle I might encounter. How lucky I was to have such wise parents!

Today, midway through life’s journey, it is clear to me: The Two Lessons — the lesson of the mother and the lesson of the father — are both necessary. We become more truly human, free from the madness of life, when we look at our experience of the world for what it really is, when we stop pretending that we can escape loss and pain and sadness. And once we dwell in the place of tears for as long as we need to, we have the ability to rise up and start our journey, offering a saving hand to those still lost in the place of darkness.

The journey begins with one person. If one human being can make the journey from darkness to light, pass from death to life, it means all of us can do it. No matter how unlikely or impossible it seems.

~BT Waldbillig
May 24, 2017

The Choice Is Always Ours

A plucked flower will wilt and die. A fallen leaf will turn brown and crumble to dust. But for a brief time both still hold on to life and beauty — and so does the world.

The story of the sainted children of Fatima, Portugal and their purported encounter with the Virgin Mary one hundred years ago today is bound to be as incomprehensible to non-believers as it is inspiring to fervent devotees. Controversy and saccharine piety aside, the message communicated by the children was essentially a meditation on impermanence and mortality — not just as they relate to any of us individually but as they relate to the very existence of our world. The mysterious “secrets” of Fatima were visions of suffering in the world on a scale previously unimaginable and of wars so destructive they might annihilate the planet. You don’t need to be a Rosary-rattling Catholic to see how the past century bore witness to this, and you don’t need to believe in other-worldly visions to know that we turned life into a nightmare for ourselves and for others.

But there is another side to the Fatima meditation on impermanence: as surely as we have power to destroy the world, we also have power to save the world. Undoubtedly the world as we know it will one day pass away, but for now it’s here, all around us. We needn’t be victims of fate or destiny, passively awaiting the end of all things. Rather, we can become ferocious warriors dedicated to an impossible mission, a mission to save this world — for the present moment, at least.

Our world nearly came to an end more than once across the past century — but it didn’t end. The next century will be no less dangerous and precarious. The message of Fatima still holds true: it’s up to us to decide what will happen. Together, as a spiritual family of fearless warriors, we have the power to save the world once again.

~BT Waldbillig
May 13, 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

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