Plucked Flowers and Fallen Leaves

“One should pay no heed to the faults of others, what they have done and not done. Rather should one consider the things that one has oneself done and not done.”
~Dhammapada

When I was boy — I must have been four or five years old — a recurring dream frightened me so intensely that often I would wake up in the dead of night startled, calling out for my father. Still half asleep, he would wander down the hallway in the dark to comfort and calm me so that both of us could get some rest. In the dream I saw myself hovering above a green meadow dotted with yellow flowers and surrounded by a dense forest. All of a sudden I began to plummet, terrified as I was unable to halt the descent. This boyhood dream returned to me about ten years ago, though now with one curious difference — as I fell from the sky I experienced joy in place of fear. Now as I plummeted to Earth, I beheld a crowd of people below in the meadow waiting for me, smiling and laughing.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”
~Gospel of Luke

There is a Zen story in which the Buddha stands silent before his disciples and simply holds up before them a plucked flower. Of all the many disciples present, only one, Mahākāśyapa, perceived the transformative spiritual teaching that all the Buddha’s words could never so directly or perfectly communicate. Mahākāśyapa could not suppress his smile and the Buddha knew that at least one of his followers understood the silent teaching. The story is almost a thousand years old and was probably formulated in China at about the time of the birth of Saint Bruno of Cologne, founder of the Carthusian Order and follower of the silent path.

You and I are surrounded by plucked flowers and fallen leaves, sparrow eggs safe in a mother’s nest and chicks passed too soon from this world. Like Mahākāśyapa and Saint Bruno,  we have the capacity to find in the precariousness and impermanence of this passing world a source of hope and joy to sustain us in moments of difficulty and darkness.

~BT Waldbillig
May 1, 2017

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Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT III

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.

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ACT 3

SCENE 1: A SACRED GROVE

On that day a single tree
Will sanctify the entire grove

Not long ago, the dog and I were wandering among the dusty streets of Manhattan’s East Village when we ducked into a small community garden. It was an odd space, situated mid-block and occupying the footprint of a demolished tenement house. There was nothing formal about the garden but it was clear that someone cared for this space quite attentively.

There were plots of flowers scattered about, luscious vines entwined in the chain fence and crawling up the walls of buildings on either side, a couple of small, humble trees, and nary a weed in sight. We sat in the shade of a tree for a few moments and shared a bottle of water before we went on our way.

It was odd to find such a lovely and delightful – albeit simple – garden in so rough a part of that neighborhood, close to the dilapidated housing projects and nowhere near the so-called gentrified areas where the smartly dressed, neatly coiffed schöne leute sip their lattes and stroll with languid detachment from the life-or-death concerns of the panhandlers, drug addicts, homeless veterans, and prostitutes around them.

Though the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

The mind travels back to my seminary days in Rome. There you won’t find lots of ramshackle neighborhood gardens, though you might lose yourself in one of those formal public spaces that started out as Edens for the Roman elite of long ago. In the Eternal City you find chapels and shrines honoring saints you’ve never heard of and servicing obscure, antiquated guilds. Some are simple, others intricately decorated. Some are easily accessible, some open only a few times a year. Just like Manhattan’s community gardens, they are all places of refuge, stop-offs for weary travelers. You might even say the garden and chapel – both home to the sacred tree – serve the same noble purpose.

Our Tree is a tree of suffering
It is a tree of life and hope

It’s not surprising that trees loom large in our collective consciousness. After all, we came from the tree:
whether it’s a mythic tree in an ancient garden,
a cosmic tree that spans the universe,
or a mighty tree on the edge of a savanna that dares our primordial ancestors to climb down and explore.

We find the tree featured prominently in many spiritual traditions: The ancient Hebrews who wandered desperately carried with them the essence of their deity in a wooden box. Whether you’re a fan of Gilgamesh or a devotee of Noah, it was a giant wooden ark that saved ancient humanity from that flood-of-all-floods. Jesus the carpenter died on a dead tree to bring life to a hopeless people. The Buddha was freed from the endless cycle of suffering while meditating in the cool shade of the kind Bodhi tree. The tree possesses such power that, whether alive or dead, it can save humanity.

The infinite expanse of the human heart
Will endure forever

As it happens, my family name is an Old German word that signifies a place of trees, a grove of sorts, or perhaps a forest. As a boy I dreamed of becoming the greatest tree in the grove, the wisest tree of the forest. And while a man must put aside the things of his childhood, the dreams of a boy are holy. I may never become great or wise, but wisdom and greatness exist in abundance everywhere around me. As boy I wanted to be the sacred tree, but only now, midway through life’s journey, have I understood that the entire grove is sacred.

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SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF MARS ULTOR

Behold, Dante the Little Man and I took rest in the dark corner of an ancient temple. From upon his throne a mighty and fearless god let out a roar that shook the very walls and pillars of the sacred place. I began to tremble and turned away my gaze but Dante looked on.

The many warriors of the mighty and fearless god at once appeared, clothed in battle apparel with swords drawn. They began growling and roaring and crying out with shouts more fearsome than any I had ever heard.

With raised hand the mighty and fearless god silenced the terrifying warriors. Quiet and stillness filled the temple. Then the mighty and fearless god uttered a single word that echoed like thunder throughout the universe.

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

Suddenly the warriors were gone and the doors to the temple were sealed from within. The mighty and fearless god began to weep and the rivers of tears brought life to every corner of the universe.

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SCENE 3: DOPO LA PIOGGIA

At the end of this desolate path
She waits in silence

Like a Camorra assassin
Or a Carthusian monk

Her arms outstretched
Reaching to the heavens

Her feet planted deep
Like roots of an ancient tree

But how should I meet her
I who am a tired traveler

Dust covered, heart weary
As I turn away in shame

See the rain is coming
She calls out

It will cleanse us both
And refresh this orchard

Our home
Our family

The oranges will return
With lemons and apples

And cherries
The dirt you bear on your flesh

Will be washed clean
And nourish the soil

Of this sacred place

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~BT Waldbillig
December 30, 2016

Into the Desert

Just the other day I shared a meal with one of my spiritual teachers who is also a beloved friend. He was preparing to embark upon a solitary spiritual retreat during which he will have no direct contact with other human beings, living in isolation without the distraction – or luxury – of easily accessible internet or telephone connections, without television or YouTube, without a pile of magazines or a stack of books to shuffle through. To those who overestimate their spiritual development or who lack a certain kind of experience in the world, it doesn’t sound all that bad. We complain that our telefonini dominate us. Oh, how we’d jump at the chance to get away from all the demands people make of us! Hell, we’d probably pay a handsome sum to have this kind of experience. Well, if we could have our lattes in the morning. And only the proper kind of all-natural, cruelty-free, vegan items from WholeFoods. And maybe a small stash of designer weed. And hot showers followed by fresh, fluffy towels whenever we want. That’s how serious most of us are about our spiritual and human experience – and we’re the ones who prance about smug and satisfied at how “spiritual” we are, how much “progress” we’ve made. Such is the nonsense of our delusions. (Don’t get me wrong, those of us who are spiritually deluded needn’t abandon all hope, but that’s a topic of another day.)

My friend will have none of these conveniences. He’ll be in the mountains in winter, receiving food provisions left for him every couple of days over a period of about four weeks. He has chosen to freely and temporarily enter into the lifestyle of a Carthusian or Camaldolese monk, a Zen hermit, or a convict behind bars. It is an experience that changes a person, destroys the human spirit, or endows insight that you and I cannot begin to understand. Far from a life of escape from the world, it is an encounter with all that we cannot bear to know in ourselves, all those aspects of life that we ignore and block out.

In the primitive Christian community, many men and women received the inspiration to set out for the desert, with this caveat: “You do not take refuge in the desert to escape the devil. You go forth to the desert to find him.”

We honor and celebrate those among us who choose to leave the comfort and safety of the home they know for the homelessness of a spiritual path. We even call them “saints”. Let us not forget those others who are also “saints” – the ones lost in prison compounds, held out of sight, treated as less than dogs. The Carthusian monk and the Zen hermit regard them as brother, sister, friend, and teacher. You and I do well to regard them with as much affection and respect as we might any [would-be] saint or [so-called] enlightened person. In fact, on the day of judgment, I’d much rather cast my lot with a death-row inmate than a sappy saint. (Peace be to sappy saints! They gave me much inspiration in my youth, and that was no small task.)

~BT Waldbillig
December 13, 2016