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

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The Bodhisattva’s Wish

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

Useful Tools and Beneficial Communication

This article on the Vatican Observatory Foundation blog site caught my eye this morning. It’s written by a Catholic priest of the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, which is where I was ordained in 2001. While I have no training in science and I am, by any measure, a theological light-weight, I have written about the topic of human beings interacting with alien beings on my blog and elsewhere, drawing from my own education in theology and humanities, my interaction with creative people and animals, and my personal life experience.

It will seem strange when I say that the world needs the Holy See (the political designation for the Church in Rome) when the day of Contact finally arrives. However, the Holy See has:
1. unparalleled and unique intellectual and human capital at its disposal
2. absolute commitment to the ultimate good of all intelligent, sentient beings
3. principled aversion to injustice and war

Unlike the UN, which is at the mercy of the powerful of this world and straitjacketed by bureaucracy, the Holy See is politically independent and intellectually free in how it will think and act when the situation arises. I’m not dismissing or denigrating the UN, nor am I saying that the Church is without its flaws, some of which are serious.  However, the Holy See is the freest and least untrustworthy global political actor.

As a spiritual institution that is also the most ancient political entity in the world, the Church has an obligation to start reflecting on those things unique to its tradition that will benefit the experience of Contact. Instead of asking silly questions like, Should aliens be baptized?(*), it should invest some of its unparalleled institutional intellectual capital on issues around communication and peaceful, compassionate engagement. Theology of logos (beneficial spiritual action that brings into being the good it communicates by the very act of communication) and theology of liturgy (mindful communication that transcends time and place by means of ritual) will play important roles in the reflection.

If the Catholic Church is still here when human beings interact with alien beings, it will be poised to ensure that the interaction is peaceful and mutually beneficial. Simply put, the world will need the Church in that moment.

~BT Waldbillig
March 28, 2017

(*) From a theological perspective, divine revelation was communicated by people of this world to people of this world for the benefit of people in this world. Anything beyond that is speculation. Once Contact between human beings and alien beings takes place, the Church will benefit from first engaging the alien beings as members of a spiritual family in which all generations have something useful to teach each other. The arrogance and disrespect that the Church brought to its missionary work in recent centuries will have no place. Aliens as Friends and family members — not heathen or pagans — should be the attitude. For a Christian it is not impossible that God communicated revelation to alien beings that, while not necessary for our salvation, is nonetheless beneficial and useful. The Church will need to act in its own name and the name of all human beings — something it has never done before. The novus habitus mentis advocated by Pope Paul VI will be indispensable.

An Island for Those Seeking Refuge

Recently I came across a short spiritual aspiration known as Shantideva’s Parting Words taken from his famous work, The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhisattvacharyavatara). Some months ago I wrote about one of Shantideva’s descriptions of the Bodhisattva and observed that to a Christian the qualities of the Bodhisattva fit quite nicely with the theology of the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas.

It’s true that Shantideva lived some 1300 years ago but the desires of his heart well might belong to a contemporary social worker in Brooklyn, a political activist in San Francisco, or a monk in Minnesota:

To the Buddhas residing in all directions
With my palms pressed together I make this request
Please continue to shine the lamp of Dharma
For living beings lost and suffering in the darkness of ignorance

May I become an island for those seeking dry land
A lamp for those needing light,
A place of rest for those who desire one,
And a servant for those needing service

Another way of putting Shantideva’s sentiment might be the well-known injunction of Mohandas Gandhi: Be the change that you wish to see in the world.

We take much for granted in life, above all those fortunate and beneficial realities we experience, but every once in a while we are forced to confront the uncomfortable truth that if we wish for the world to be a place of goodness and life we have our work cut out. It’s not enough to desire, or wish, or hope for, or pray for the well-being of our family and friends who pass through this world. We must do something.

I think of Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement. During her life Day had no patience with the empty words respectable people toss about in an attempt to seem sincere and admirable in the eyes of others. For Day’s community, words are not nearly so important as deeds. Feeding the poor, finding a bed for the homeless, stretching out a hand to the mentally ill — these things are urgent. Words around taking care of the poor or helping the sick or visiting the imprisoned, as good as they may seem, are of no value without concrete, radical, compassionate action. In fact, words without action are worse than total silence — we might as well not give a damn about the plight of the poor, the sick, the suffering, the outcast, the refugee, the single mother, the veteran with PTSD.

If we want the hungry to eat something, if we want the homeless to be safe while they sleep, if we want those affected by mental illness to feel a little less alone, we ourselves must act in this very moment.

Shantideva doesn’t simply voice his desire for the well-being of all sentient beings. He commits himself to the task of making compassion real, of bearing unconditional love in his own flesh. You and I are more likely to hide behind beautiful words than to transform ourselves and the world through compassionate action. If we were more like Shantideva and Dorothy Day the entire world would be a better place on account of the mystery of compassion and love revealed in our lives.

~BT Waldbillig
March 27, 2017

The Unconquered Sun Rises Anew

According to Christian tradition, a Roman soldier named Longinus was the person who killed Jesus, thrusting his lance through Jesus’ ribs and into his heart. What’s curious about this is that the Gospel accounts attributed to Mark and Matthew are silent about the act that took the life of their spiritual leader. They simply observe that a centurion who stood guard at the execution relayed to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, that Jesus was dead. The Roman soldiers, who were undoubtedly from various and likely distant parts of the Roman Empire, had mocked Jesus during the execution ritual, performing their duty to Rome with arrogance, cruelty, and utter confidence in the machine of Empire. But then things get weird: something in the final moment of Jesus’ short life — we don’t know what exactly — changed the soldiers’ attitude toward the troublesome Palestinian rebel. Surely this was a son of god, they declare. I have my own opinion about what happened but history is silent and so are the soldiers, so I have no business with idle chatter.

The story of Longinus shows us that from the darkest and most obscene moments of our lives, the personal transformation we once regarded as impossible arises. Longinus, as a good Roman soldier, was surely guilty of many things far worse than showboating at a public execution. In the Christian story, Jesus is the innocent victim and the Roman soldier is the wicked aggressor. But here’s the thing: both men experienced the suffering of the event. Both were touched by an experience of death. They were strangers until that final moment when they were intimately united by the terrible reality that touches all beings who come into this world. Death, suffering, mortality, impermanence — this is our lot. Instead of turning away from each other, something brought them together, opened them to the experience of an enemy who was really nothing other than a brother. It changed Longinus and it changed the world.

Much of the Christian world — including all of the ancient apostolic communities — venerates the Roman centurion from the Gospel story as a holy man. Perhaps on another occasion I will explore how this very same mystery was manifested by the Tibetan mystic Milarepa and by the prophet Dorothy Day who not so long ago walked the very same city streets that Dante and I venerate.

~BT Waldbillig
March 26, 2017

Upon Glimpsing a Plaster-Cracked Virgin

I recently discovered a handful of poems I wrote many years ago in Rome. When I was in need of a place to stay for a few months, my friends Miriam and Chris let me crash in their guest room. Every morning I would walk in a nearby park and write a few verses as a sort of spiritual exercise. Some of the poems are stiff and mannered but a few, like Roman Market, aren’t entirely terrible. In that spirit, I dedicate this poem to Lilli, my friends’ departed canine companion who brought joy to everyone she encountered. Well, almost everyone, since there’s a waiter at a restaurant near the Lungotevere in Rome who might disagree. Much like the Zen master slamming his pupil’s foot with a door again and again until the pupil attains enlightenment,  Lilli used her canine chompers to awaken the careless waiter with big feet. To my experience dogs, like rain drops, are far more effective spiritual teachers than even the most learned and eloquent of men.

~BT Waldbillig
March 26, 2017
– – – – –
Roman Market

March 2003

I turn my wine-heavy head
and hurry past an ancient
tribal matron
settling into a forgotten corner
of the abandoned market
still littered with rotting abundance

settling under a faded Madonna
she hopes perhaps for shelter
from the delirious clouds
swiftly drifting across the muddy sky
and whistling hot-cold gusts
over the asphalt desert

thunder-crackle deafens me
to her mumbled request
as I lift my eyes to glimpse
the tempest’s first droplets alight
the plaster-cracked Virgin

and marvel at how
they resemble tears

To Honor London

I’m reposting this reflection on last year’s terror attack in Brussels to commemorate the attack in London that took place a couple of days ago — one year to the day after Brussels.

~BT Waldbillig
March 25, 2017

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Just after Christmas in 1999, I flew from Rome to Brussels. When I got off the plane I was met by a monk from Chevetogne Abbey (also known as the Monastery of the Holy Cross). The community was founded in 1925 by Dom Lambert Beauduin and moved to its current location about an hour outside of Brussels in 1938.

I had a couple of purposes in visiting this obscure monastic community in rural Belgium. At the time, it seemed likely that I would pursue a doctorate within a few years, and I thought Dom Beauduin, who was a respected thinker as well as founder of a very unusual monastery, would be the perfect subject. I had already come across some of his writings and was well on my way to becoming a devotee.  As it turns out, I never did the doctorate.

I was also at Chevetogne because in about six months time I was to be ordained deacon on the path to the priesthood in the Catholic Church. It’s considered a major step and consequently Church law imposes a formal retreat before undertaking such an ordination. So I made my retreat under the auspices and in the company of a group of serious and dedicated but joyful Belgian monks.

As I mentioned, the abbey is rather unusual, as it brings together two different groups of monks under the roof of one community. It’s a bi-ritual monastery, which means some of the monks follow the Western, Roman liturgy and some follow the Eastern, Greek liturgy.

My visit fell during the New Year period, which was inspiring fear that year as we were passing into the year 2000. While my father was back at home on-call in his office in case there were computer or technology problems, I was among the monks chanting in Latin and Greek their usual prayers. At 10 pm on December 31, 1999 we sang the traditional hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, then each of us went to his respective cell (bedroom) and went to sleep. There was no hoopla, no fireworks, no champagne. While the rest of Europe was either hunkered down in fear or in the streets wildly partying, we went on with life as normal. That’s what monks do. If it were the end of the world, they would still keep their usual schedule.

Today as I awoke and saw news of the deaths and terror in Brussels, I thought of those monks. Naturally, they will mourn the dead and console the living, but as all of us are lost in fear, the monks will continue on with their normal schedule because their community, their lives, and their example exist, in part, to help the rest of us gain perspective that we altogether lack in moments such as this.

~BT Waldbillig
March 22, 2016

Broken Bowls and Shattered Cups

My friend Sarah has moved house and consolidated households a few times in recent years. As a consequence, she has a box of broken items. Just recently she told me that she’s decided to try her hand at kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing broken items in such a way as both to recall the brokenness of the item and honor its beauty. Usually this is done with bowls and cups, but you can do it with just about anything that’s broken.

The practice of kintsugi is inspired by the philosophical aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which acknowledges that all things in the world are impermanent and imperfect, including beautiful things. Far from denigrating beauty, wabi-sabi finds beauty in places that many of us would overlook. Even in broken bowls and shattered cups.

Wabi-sabi has a special significance to people like Sarah and me. You see, my friend and I have both experienced the brokenness of serious mental illness among close friends and even family members. In my case, it’s a mother with schizoaffective disorder.

Serious mental illness is brutal. It’s ugly. It’s painful. Yet behind the outward displays of the illness, there is always a human being, someone’s child or parent or spouse or sibling or neighbor or friend. To a child, a mother is always beautiful; to a parent, a child is beautiful; and there’s nothing in the world more beautiful than a beloved friend. Even a friend with mental illness.

I often express pride in my home state of Iowa, but lately something unsettling has happened. Over the past couple of years, a number of important mental health facilities have closed down. Most recently it happened in Oskaloosa, though not long ago it was Mount Pleasant and Independence. My mother was absent from my high school graduation because ten days prior to the event she had been admitted, against her will, to the mental health facility at Independence, Iowa. I was sad at the time, but my mother got the help and care she needed in that moment and that’s something to be thankful for, maybe even something to celebrate.

Surely fiscal responsibility is important and necessary but every budget that’s slashed and every mental health facility that’s closed will bear consequence in the lives of actual, living human beings. There’s nothing theoretical, abstract, or impersonal about it.

The poor, the sick, the suffering, the rejected, the useless, the unloved, the aged, the mentally ill — these people are every bit as important as you and me. And they’re beautiful, too. If only we could see that.

~BT Waldbillig
March 23, 2017

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

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