To Greet the Long-Awaited Daybreak

-An ever-widening circle
~Our Family grows

One morning in early February two years ago as Dante the Little Man and I were taking a walk through Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, we came upon a small snake who had wandered out from his place of hibernation and onto the paved foot path. It seemed rather odd to encounter a snake wandering about in the cold of winter, so I took the opportunity to introduce Dante to the snake; afterward I used a small fallen tree branch to gently move the snake from harm’s way and back onto the grass lawn next to the path. Though it couldn’t possibly be case, it almost seemed as though the snake had come to greet us. I have sometimes wondered about that snake since Dante and I first encountered him. I don’t know where he is now or if he is still alive but I still wish him well.

Some of those we call friends and some of those we know as family did not survive to see this day. Some of us now passing through the reality we call the world will not see the trees of the grove and the crops of the fields which we have so carefully cultivated, guarded, and nourished bear that rarest and sweetest of fruits. Some of us will never touch the infant flesh begotten of their own and bearing the likeness thereof. So also, of the many branches of the human family on this planet, only ours — so far as we know in this moment — has survived to greet the long-awaited daybreak.

And so,

Let us give thanks for the great dawn
For the tree and its many branches
For our children
For a grove well-tended and protected
For the field laborers who disappeared too soon
Let there be no anger or hatred, ill-will
Or rancor within our sacred family
Instead let us honor those who
Performed their duties without hesitation
And let us look with compassion
Upon the shortcomings of
Our fathers and mothers
Our brothers and sisters
Our ancestors and children

-May our Tree endure
~For the sake of the Tree

~BT Waldbillig
November 23, 2017

Dog Dreaming (a poem by WS Merwin)

Dog Dreaming
WS Merwin

The paws twitch in a place of chasing
Where the whimper of this seeming-gentle creature
Rings out terrible, chasing tigers. The fields
Are licking like torches, full of running,
Laced odors, bones stalking, tushed leaps.
So little that is tamed, yet so much
That you would find deeply familiar there.
You are there often, your very eyes,
The unfathomable knowledge behind your face,
The mystery of your will, appraising.
Such carnage and triumph; standing there
Strange even to yourself, and loved, and only
A sleeping beast knows who you are.

– – – – –
~BT Waldbillig
October 27, 2017

Dreams of Dogs and Sparrows

Let me share with you a dream I had not long ago:

Beset by woes, I made to escape the travails of the world. As I crept from my dwelling in the dead of night, a sparrow set himself in my path and asked, “Would you abandon us?”

I turned away, only to find a dog who asked, “Am I an orphan now?”

Understanding the mystery before me, I returned to my dwelling and took rest in the silence that lingers between dream and dawn.

[Regarding dreams: I’ve found that the meaning I extract from my dreams changes and evolves, especially in the case of recurring dreams. Sometimes the benefit of experience or reflection sheds light on aspects that were obscured previously. His dictis, dreams are just dreams. They are entirely and only what we make of them.]

~BT Waldbillig
October 23, 2017

A Sacred Place

One of the great things about a dog park is that it’s always full of friends.

There are the dogs, of course; many of them actually seem to prefer humans over other dogs. Then there are all the humans: Everyone in the dog park has at least one common interest they don’t mind talking about with strangers. In this canine domain you find an amazing slice of humanity.

There are married people, some with spouse or child in tow, others stealing a bit of time for themselves. There are plenty of single people of all stripes, which is why the dog park is the site of happy first encounter for many a couple.

This is a place where you can mingle with people of any age group, social class, or economic status with ease and camaraderie. A penniless writer like me can have an enjoyable chat with a first-year school teacher, a retired firefighter, and a Wall Street hot shot. We may not know each other, but we can pass a few moments in relaxed, friendly conversation without concern for the social and political constraints that usually separate us.

There aren’t many places where this sort of thing still happens. That’s why the dog park is one of those few remaining sacred public places our society needs more of.

~BT Waldbillig
October 17, 2017

Indeed the Reapers

For most human beings, life without some purpose and meaning is a burden too great to bear. That’s why most of us either choose some form of religion or spiritual belief, or else we spend every waking moment of each day distracting ourselves from the reality of our own mortality and the impermanence of everything and everyone we experience in this world.

To my estimation, the simplest, surest, and most primitive way to discover meaning and purpose to life is to look at the source of life: the Family. Life, as we know it, originates in a community, endures by means of a community, prospers by means of a community, and increases by means of a community. We call that community the Family.

While it seems likely that the conditions that support life as we know it exist abundantly across the Universe, it seems just as likely that it endures only with great difficulty, not unlike a candle that quickly lights but also quickly goes out if not protected from wind or water or dirt.

As it happens, I come from a place where people understand how precious life is and also how precarious life can be. My ancestors who left Luxembourg and settled on a farm in Iowa were intimately acquainted with the precariousness of life. I imagine that when they attended Sunday Mass and heard the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares they must have seen themselves as characters within the story. Perhaps you remember the it:  A wicked enemy, seeking to destroy the good seed of the righteous farmer, entered his fields under cover of darkness and sowed weeds among the wheat. When the farmhands realized this had happened they didn’t know what to do and feared that the entire harvest would be lost. The righteous farmer, on the other hand, did not let the deeds of wicked men lead him to despair.

Now, there’s something missing from the Gospel account: Jesus tells us that the farmer instructed the farmhands to let the good and bad seed continue to grow in the field together until harvest, at which time the reapers would sort out the good from the bad. This implies that the wicked men who sought to destroy the harvest were unaware that this could be done, otherwise they would have been little more than hoodlums. But more strangely, the farmhands don’t know how to handle the situation. The farmer, however, knows precisely the best course of action to take. Perhaps this is not surprising, as he is familiar every inch of his land. He knows how to survive in times of clement weather and also through drought and plague. He has seen many harvests and plenty of weeds.  The farmer’s patient endurance in caring for the land across the years gives him greater wisdom than both his enemies and his helpers.

I can’t help but wonder if the righteous farmer, by telling his farmhands to do nothing, was also biding his time, letting the wicked men think they held the place of power and advantage. Perhaps they would reveal themselves in order to taunt and mock the farmer, the farmhands, and even their women and children. And when they reveal themselves, they will become the cause of their own perdition. In this context the mention of reapers takes on a darker significance. Indeed, the reapers will sort the wheat from the weeds!

Now, as anyone from my hometown can tell you,  there’s nothing romantic or picturesque about life on a farm. It is relentless and exhausting, merciless and back-breaking. Farmers perform an essential and difficult task for the community, and yet their recompense is meager and every harvest is precarious. Few of us recognize just how impressive farmers are. I can attest that many an Iowa farmboy can stare down a bear or a coyote without breaking a sweat, and I know farmgirls who can drag an escaped bull back into his pen and still make it to the homecoming dance on time. Though I didn’t understand it in my youth, I was incredibly fortunate to grow up around farms and farm families.

It all goes back to family. What I’ve learned from my experience in spiritual communities is that people who seem different, with nothing in common and no reason to want to know and love each other, can create a Spiritual Family that’s stronger and more certain to endure than any blood line.

I’ve even learned this truth from my dog. The love I have for Dante and the bond I experience with him is more powerful than anything I’ve ever known. Even though we seem entirely different sorts of beings, he has become family to me. Surely if a man and a dog can discover something like family in each other, then you and I could experience that also with beings from some distant place in the Universe.

I’ve always been a sci-fi fan but something odd strikes me about the ways we envision the future and an encounter with alien beings. For some reason we usually depict ourselves as either passive and insignificant, just sitting around waiting for someone to find us, or else anyone who’s not like us is an enemy or a danger. I think that only now are we discovering that we need a shared purpose to make something like First Contact both possible and desirable.

But what if we’re alone in Universe? Why hasn’t it occurred to anyone that we should vouchsafe the continuation of life? For my part, I am convinced that this place and our form of life are worthwhile, but even now, in this moment, our world is passing away. This should be motive enough for us to spread life wherever it can take hold. However it was that we got here, we are meant exist and we are meant to spread the life we have received. In this context, the Biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply takes on a new and more urgent meaning.

If the farmer doesn’t sow seed and labor tirelessly there’s no harvest and when there’s no harvest the living soon become the dead. The wicked men in the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares thought they had power to destroy the harvest of the righteous farmer. But the power was always with the farmer. It was up to him to decide if the harvest was worth saving.

You and I are the righteous farmer.

~BT Waldbillig
September 7, 2017

The Dream of a Father

On that day the Family of Blood
Will become a Family of Spirit

Once a people of war
They will no longer bow

To the Avenging God
Never again will they tremble

As they stand before the temple
They will sing and laugh and dance

Like sparrows in the meadow
Who seem easy prey to the hawk

But the hawk has no brothers
And the sparrows are a band

Of fearless warriors
Alone the sparrow is weak

But gathered together
The sparrows are mighty

Even so the spiritual family
Is bound together by the love

Shown to them by their father
Who never abandons his children

Steadfast like the true Friend
In this family father strikes not son

And both rejoice at the return
Of those who once were lost

Whether righteous or wicked
Whether king or poor man

Whether unclean woman or virgin
All are honored

All are loved
Just as Sol sends his gift

From highest heaven
Down upon all equally

Just as a dog lays down his life
For the master he adores

This father remains unconquered
So that his family might endure

Even though worlds pass away
The children of Sol

Live on in the firmament
Bright shining lights

The stuff of stars
Like their father

So long as their light
Fills the dark places

There will be life
There will be hope

And when the light of Sol
Goes out, another will rise

And another and another
Unto endless ages

Their enemies thought them
Creatures of dirt and mud

When they were always
As gods walking among men

Their enemies are no more
But the spiritual family endures

They were as sleepers
Lost in sad dreams

Who awake at cockcrow
To a world filling with light

And shot through with joy
Rising they go forth

To wander the world
As sparrows do

Taking for themselves
The Bread of Sorrow

And the Wine of Bitterness
Not knowing that of such

Is the food of gods
And as gods who wander the world

Leave behind many children
So these wanderers will bring forth

Many sons and daughters
On many worlds across the Universe

They shall become even greater
Than the one who first brought them forth

For that is how a father is honored
When his children become greater

Than their father’s greatest dreams
And love each other

With a love too great
For one Father’s heart to hold

~BT Waldbillig
July 13, 2017

The Strange Case of the (Crucified!) Buddha-Dog

In the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City there is an easily overlooked 19th century Tibetan tapestry that recounts an odd tale from the life of Asanga, a fourth-century Buddhist monk born in the Gandhāran Kingdom. According to tradition, Asanga dedicated himself to a spiritual path, spending most of his life in a monastery until he decided in middle age that the monastery was, in fact, a hindrance to his spiritual progress. And so Asanga left the monastery and sought an encounter with the divine in a remote cave. After three years of life as a cave-dwelling hermit with no perceivable progress on his path, he ventured out into the world where he received insight into the spiritual life through his encounters with ordinary people dedicated to seemingly impossible tasks.

After exploring the world for some time, Asanga came upon a miserable, unwanted dog with only two legs and wounds infested with maggots. Asanga looked upon the dog and loved him, and so he could not help but try to ease the suffering of the discarded creature. He careful removed the maggots, attentive not harm them lest he add to the cycle of suffering revealed before him. So that both the dog and the maggots might live, Asanga cut from himself a piece of flesh and gently transfered the maggots from the dog’s body to the piece of his own body, alleviating the suffering of one creature and ensuring the continued life of others in an act of self-sacrifice.

When Asanga looked up from the maggots, he was no longer in the presence of a dog. Instead, he beheld a vision as bright as the Sun — it was Maitreya, whose presence he had sought in vain through many years outside the monastery. In that moment Asanga understood: Only when he ceased searching for the Great Buddha Maitreya and turned his attention to the needs of an unwanted, useless, suffering creature — only when he abandoned his grasping attachment to the goal of his spiritual path — was he able to see the One who was always present to him.

The story then takes an odd turn: The dog-buddha Maitreya tells Asanga that it was his compassion for an unwanted dog that removed the clouds of Karma that had blinded him. Maitreya, once again a dog, proposes a game: Put me on your shoulder and carry me about. Let’s see if anyone else understands what you now understand.

And so Maitreya wanders through a village with the miserable cur on his shoulder asking strangers: What do you see on my shoulders?

Nothing, one person responds.
A dead dog, says another.
You are carrying someone on your shoulders, yet another replies.

In reading the story and examining the tapestry, I couldn’t help but think on two striking elements:

Asanaga doesn’t hesitate to sacrifice his own body in his mission to alleviative suffering. He gives his own flesh to creatures that no one else would bother to save. This is, essentially, a description of the Bodhisattva, which Christians honor in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and which they ritualize in the Eucharistic Liturgy (i.e., the Sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Liturgy, the Service of Holy Communion, etc.).

There is also a Roman chant that honors the flagellation (whipping) Jesus suffered during his Passion by quoting Psalm 21: Ego autem sum vermis et non homo. (“But I am a worm [maggot] and no man.”)

But there is another, more extraordinary connection between this episode from the life of Asanga and the primitive Christian community. The earliest images of Christ crucified are not carefully chiseled marble monuments or gleaming golden mosaics. They are graffiti showing a donkey or a dog on the Cross. It’s presumed that these images were meant to insult the faith of early Christians, though perhaps we take umbrage too easily. (Such ridiculous images would not be targeted by Iconoclasts trying to wipe out the memory of Jesus. Apparent mockery ensured that the testimony of faith made by the first followers of Jesus would survive across time.) The dog on the Cross, naturally, has two arms and two legs. These two legged dogs got around, it seems.

To my mind, it seem likely that elements of the Christan mythos filtered Eastward and met the Buddhist world within the context of the Gandhāran Kingdom.

There is one last detail to the Rubin tapestry that stands out to me: Just above the episode of the dog-buddha, there is a stag drinking from a stream, recalling Psalm 41/42 from the Psalter of David: Sicut cervus desiderat ad fontes aquarum, ita desiderat anima mea ad te Deus. (“As the deer longs for flowing waters, so does my soul long for you, O God.”) This is likely a nod to one of  the most primitive Christian liturgical chants by the 19th century Tibetan Buddhist monks who created the tapestry. Perhaps they also knew that Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina wrote a motet around this text when he was charged with saving polyphony from the wrath of boorish, over-zealous Roman bureaucrats during the Counter Reformation.

No doubt there are many lessons to learn from the story of Asanga and Maitreya, as well as from the many other Tibetan Buddhist art works at the Rubin.


~BT Waldbillig
May 30, 2017