Our Story Isn’t Over

Life is difficult for everyone. The Wall Street hotshot is suffering and the homeless prostitute is suffering and the White Supremacist is suffering and the Antifa protester is suffering. When I lament my lot in life, Dante tells me “It’s time to take a walk.”

And then I look at my neighbors in Washington Heights. I see in them the suffering like usual, but they make me stop and look at the rest of the story. They don’t mope around and weep like a child. They make love, they play basketball, they heckle the cops, they hang out with the cops, and they just get on with life.

As the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “Life is the story of suffering and of the overcoming of suffering.”

I always forget to be vigilant and watchful for the part that is yet to come. I suppose I’m as guilty as the next Christian for making the Cross seem like a miserable curse instead of a transformative blessing. No wonder people turn their noses up at religion. There are plenty of reasons not to believe in God and most of them are at the front of the church preaching every Sunday doing their best to make the Word a dead letter.

But the Word isn’t dead and we’re not done. Not me, not the cops at the 33rd, not the drug dealers and hookers and bodega guys and old ladies picking up aluminum cans. And not my dog, Dante, and my friends who drag me out to see a movie or to share a bottle of wine over dinner when I would just as well mope and weep and lament.

What kind of Christian am I? Not a very good one, but then most of us aren’t. And even the otherworldly Buddhists, it turns out, aren’t very good at being what they’re suppose to be. I don’t suppose that’s much consolation to Muslims, like my friend down at West 145th Street or like the kid behind the counter at the bodega who makes sure that I don’t overpay and that my egg and cheese on a roll is exactly what it’s supposed to be.

The Muslims I know — in truth they are few — are awesome, happy, positive, kind people. They always make me smile and laugh, as if they know that I won’t smile and laugh if left to myself. Joy. My Muslim friends keep joy in my life. Would that Christians and Buddhists valued such human, earthy, real things.

But naturally, they do! Like every Muslim and every Jew, each Christian and each Buddhist is not really good at being what they’re supposed to be. In effect, we’re all in the same absurd situation.

If it were to happen that one day there were no more Christians, that would be okay. But it would make me sad that no one else would find the love that the religion of my birth and ancestors helped me experience. It almost happened that my elder brothers in faith, the Jewish people, were annihilated and removed from the face of the Earth. Thank goodness that some of my Christian monastic brothers — those fearless Benedictine and Carthusian monks come to mind — refused to sit by and let it happen. They didn’t save many, let alone everyone, but even one person matters.

What kind of Christian would lead Jews to the slaughter, like cattle? What kind of Buddhist dares to become indignant before the world when someone simply points out the truth: Buddhists in Burma are complicit in genocide. Just as Christians not so long ago did the same to Jews. What the fuck do they think the Buddha would do if he were walking in their land today?

No need to worry about Christian sanctimony. My people are not innocent either.

What kind of HUMANS would we be if we just sat down and waited for everything to slowly come to an end? I’m not going to let the Apocalypse happen so long as I’m able to do something. I still believe that God meant what he said to Noah. It’s the same thing every father wants for his son — that he might go on living and making life and giving life for as long as possible.

It’s not just the story of us, you and me on this rocky planet in the middle of nowhere. Everyone needs a reason to live and to go on living.

And when there’s nothing worth living for, then you just have to make something the reason. Create a reason. Be a reason.

We live as though we will never die. But everything we love will pass away. It’s true for you. And it’s true for me.

But we will not let the story end. Let harbingers of the End Times get what they’re looking for. The rest of us have life to live and life to make.

I had a dream not long ago, that once in the Universe there were tens of millions of civilizations but no one did anything when one disappeared. Or when thousands vanished forever. And when it was almost too late, those few 16 remaining civilizations woke up to the beauty and preciousness and passing reality that everyone is in the end.

And they said: WE WILL NOT LET LIFE VANISH!

They found a reason. But that was just a dream. We don’t need to look to the stars to find a reason. We just need to look at each other.

I WILL NOT GIVE UP. I WILL NOT LET LIFE VANISH!

~BT Waldbillig
December 1, 2017

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Happiness of the Present Moment

Like a lot of people, as I get older I find it more and more difficult to simply be present to life. My mind is always elsewhere — making plans, obsessing over mistakes, longing for something different or better, thinking about tomorrow or remembering yesterday. And while my meditation practice is sketchy at best, it’s still a helpful remedy for ever-errant thoughts.

When I was actively engaged in the public ministry of Christian priest, I was never more present to life than when I stood before the altar or sat in the confessional box. In moments like those, there was nothing else in the universe other than the present. These days I sometimes have a similar experience when I sing the puja chants with my Buddhist friends gathered around a simple shrine.

I’ll bet all of us experience something approximating true presence when we see a stage play, cheer at a baseball game, or hear a live concert. Hopefully we can find ways to become more present every day to whatever life brings us. And perhaps once we’re really present to life — with its joys and sorrows, pleasures and pains, successes and failures — we’ll be happier and more authentically human.

~BT Waldbillig
March 5, 2017

Beyond Anger

Vain self-contentment is the great trap for people who engage spiritual practice seriously. It’s also quite challenging to recognize the attitude when you’re wallowing in it.

In our day when there are fierce societal conflicts around immigration, abortion, poverty, good government, refugees, guns, etc. religious and spiritual practitioners are no more exempt from rage, arrogance, closed-mindedness, and pusillanimity than the rest of the population.

In itself, anger can be a help or a hindrance; it can be virtuous or vicious. But it’s difficult, more difficult than we imagine, to bring good out of anger. It’s possible, but tough.

Those who stoke their own anger and the anger of others — if they’re sincere in pursuing whatever it is they think is good — should regard anger with reverence and care, not with the casual flippancy we see around us today.

It’s disappointing to witness a Catholic priest suggest that those who oppose the US president and his government might be better off dead; it’s unsettling to know that a prominent Buddhist teacher has suggested that anyone who supports the president is part of a public “sh*tshow”.

You may be familiar with the expression, “The exception proves the rule.” Exceptio regulam probat. Here, the meaning of “prove” is not justify, confirm, or support. Instead, probare means to test, to try, to challenge, to explore critically. Unusual and unforeseen circumstances are a test of one’s character and convictions. To a spiritual practitioner, the current crisis in American society is a test of good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action.

Too many “spiritual” people — wherever they stand on the political spectrum — are coming up wanting with regard to good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action. It’s quite likely that both you and I are among them.

This means our daunting task is to move from anger toward good will, positive intention, clear understanding, and compassionate action. Hopefully we’ll accomplish this together.

~BT Waldbillig
January 31, 2017

On Tree-Nature

The tree has been at the fore of my consciousness of late. Of course, the tree is the primordial symbol-reality from which our spiritual impulse arose and around which many religious traditions focus. In both Buddhism and Christianity the tree features prominently and it connects those two religions in a way that is often overlooked.

The liminal event in both religions occurs in relation to a tree: In Buddhism, the Buddha is enlightened under the tree; in Christianity, Christ is killed upon a tree. But the Buddha does not remain under the tree and Christ does not stay upon the cross. Both figures must go forth from the tree, and in so doing bring the reality of their spiritual experience to others. What I mean to say is, the benefit of the mystery they embody is not meant to terminate with them; it is intended to bear fruit in the lives of others and bring about healing in the Universe.

Alas, the clerical and monastic “owners” of these religions, who call themselves leaders, cling selfishly to the advantages their position gives them and so construct systems of power and exclusion to ensure no one might take such privilege and position from them. This is done in the name of orthodoxy, purity, lineage, or succession though it makes utter mockery of those things.

If Buddhism speaks of Buddha-nature and Christianity speaks of Christ-nature (i.e., the potential of all beings to bring forth in themselves that which the Buddha or Christ experienced and the mystery they symbolize), perhaps we could also speak of Tree-nature.

~BT Waldbillig
January 26, 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

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 4) … First of Two Posts

[revised 1/6/17]
Commentary on
The Practice of the Presence of God
(Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, d. 1691)
Fourth Conversation, 1667

Our dear Brother Lawrence communicated his spiritual experience within the conceptual framework available to him as a 17th-century white European Roman Catholic Christian French male Carmelite monk. Naturally those elements of his identity leave a mark on his spiritual teaching, but we do well to recall that spiritual realities are neither defined nor bound by the particular limitations that we bring to them. However, our communication regarding spiritual realities is very much bound and defined by our limitations.

A Buddhist reading Brother Lawrence might think this Christian monk has nothing to offer. But if a Buddhist comes to Brother Lawrence with something of an understanding of the epistemology, anthropology, cosmology, etc. that shaped the mind of Brother Lawrence, he or she might recognize embedded within the monk’s teaching ideas that quite closely resemble bodichitta and the bodhisattva ideal.

Now, I’m not trying to reduce the differences between the Christian and Buddhist theological and mystical traditions so far as to say there are no real, consequential, meaningful differences. Still, to my estimation the differences are quite easy to perceive while the points of connection require greater intellectual acuity and benefit from personal acquaintance with lived spiritual practice.

We should be mindful that great historical spiritual figures like Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad the Prophet did not subscribe to the philosophical systems you and I take for granted. Likewise, our experience is quite alien and far removed from the lived reality embodied in such teachers.

Meditation and Synthesis to follow.

~BT Waldbillig
January 3, 2017

A New Way of Thinking

“These mountains that you are carrying,
You were only supposed to climb”
~Najwa Zebian

We tend to live our lives in a habitual way. We have a certain understanding of who we are and how the world works. Our habitual manner of living our habitual lives gets us through most of whatever we encounter, but sometimes we realize that we need to engage life in a new, different, fresh manner. We need, in the words of Pope Paul VI, a novus habitus mentis — a new way of thinking.

I was raised with a certain respect for military service and for those who dedicate themselves to the public good in the military and law enforcement. When I was young I gave myself to service in the Church, but my father served honorably in the US Marine Corps, three of my uncles as well as several cousins all performed military service, and my brother-in-law is a former police officer. Over the past few years I’ve also had the good fortune to meet a number of former military personnel through nonprofit work.

Something that has always impressed me about, say, a Marine or a cop, is the ferocious focus on the mission at hand, whatever it may be, with little or no thought as to the personal cost or risk. There’s essentially no room or time for considerations such as, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘How will I be rewarded?’ or ‘What are the chances of success?’ or ‘Will my work be appreciated by my commanding officer?’ The cop or the Marine simply executes his or her role in the mission, attentive to the well-being of the other members of the team or platoon, etc. Anything else is distraction.

For someone journeying along a spiritual path, a similar attitude is useful.

Most of us learn religion or faith or spiritual practice in this way: If we adhere to certain tenets (faith), perform good acts (virtue) and avoid wicked deeds (sin) we’ll be rewarded (heaven or some such thing). It’s the sort of mentality an exhausted parent employs to get misbehaving children in line. Now, I’m not saying this approach to the spiritual life is bad or wrong or useless; however, it’s not the only way of understanding and living one’s spiritual path.

That’s precisely why I’ve returned to a little book I first read when I entered seminary back in 1993 and haven’t touched since then. Somehow, despite changing continents and moving home several times, this tiny tome has stayed with me. The book, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, was written in the second half of the 17th century and provides a surprisingly refreshing antidote to the transactional religion of our day. You can read my commentaries here, here, and here.

As Brother Lawrence reminds us, it’s entirely healthy and traditional to live one’s spiritual life and follow one’s spiritual path without worries for the rewards and punishments of some world-to-come. Belief that the spiritual life is in itself good and useful, as well as beneficial to others, inspires many people far more than Heaven-and-Hell discourses.

Each of us could be a little more like a US Marine or a Carmelite monk. The world would be a better place for it.

~BT Waldbillig
January 1, 2017