The Love of a Mother

Not long ago after a late dinner with a friend I was walking across 125th Street in Harlem to catch the A train. It was probably around midnight and the streets were deserted but I felt quite safe and even paused every now and again to look up at the moon and stars, as they were particularly beautiful in the sky above Harlem that evening. Just as I neared the train station, a prostitute approached me and quite directly propositioned me. I was neither offended nor frightened, nor was I interested in sex. I simply nodded to her, wished her well, and smiled as I walked on.

As I sat alone in the subway car that would take me home to Washington Heights, I wondered why I felt tenderness — and not shame or disgust — toward that desperate, haggard Black woman who had no choice but to walk the merciless Harlem streets at night offering her own flesh to strangers.

My thoughts turned to the mothers of Jesus and the Buddha. While I reverence both of these women through whom two of the greatest spiritual teachers our planet has known came into this world, I recalled that both women became pregnant in highly unusual circumstances.

To me, this was their sure sign of favor. I have no trouble believing that their great sons had a divine origin.

But surely the Virgin Mary and Māyādevī were doubted by many. Surely in their day they endured condescending insults, disapproving whispers, and looks of disgust by those who did not believe the accounts of how they came to bear those sons who would change our world. The Christian and Buddhist traditions and sacred writings cast no doubt upon these women, but surely those with darkened minds could think nothing but ill of them.

I thought on that Harlem prostitute. She must endure disdain and rejection ceaselessly. Just as the holy mothers of Jesus and the Buddha did. And while the Harlem woman would make no claim as to other-worldly origins for own children and would think herself utterly unlike those two ancient holy women, she knows something of what they experienced in a way that you and I will never understand.

A mother is the first teacher of love to her children. The mother of the Buddha loved him unto death when she died not long after giving birth and the mother of Jesus loved him unto death as she stood by in silence during his torturous execution ritual and burial. They never abandoned their children, never regretted suffering for the sake of their sons. They taught their sons how love through hopelessness, loss, and  unspeakable suffering.

And their sons, in turn, taught the entire world.

To my mind love is so powerful, that even a Harlem prostitute could teach you and me something about love. You and I love so little but think so much of ourselves. How many women are regarded by the world as unworthy or unwanted or useless or disgusting — and yet they understand love better than you and me.

It is those who regard themselves as righteous and pure and good who are the unworthy ones. Not the prostitute who walks those merciless Harlem streets. She bears more of the image of the Virgin Mary and Māyādevī than you and I ever will.

Qui potest capere capiat.

~BT Waldbillig
June 3, 2017

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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

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

– – – – –
The Bodhisattva’s Wish
Shantideva

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

Umbra Mortis

While I was a seminary student in Rome, I made a number of visits to Naples. Now, Naples is not for the faint of heart: its reputation as a rough-and-tumble city is, at least in part, deserved. For some people it’s too filthy, for others it’s too dangerous. Frankly, I always felt quite safe there, though perhaps that was just my small-town Midwestern naivety. I’ve always been a bit too casual about marching into situations that a wiser man might have avoided. During one trip with a group of seminary classmates, I lost my backpack. I retraced my steps to the McDonald’s where we had taken our morning break and as I glanced about for my bag, a man sitting at a crowded table waved at me from across the restaurant. He held up my trusty blue JanSport backpack and pulled out my book of hours, handing it to me carefully as if to assure me that nothing had happened to my possessions. In that moment I felt watched over, looked out for – not the sort of thing I expected but something for which I was most grateful. As wandered back to meet my classmates, I ducked into San Domenico Maggiore and offered the afternoon prayer for my kind protectors and new-found friends.

You can’t help but have a sense that there’s something special about people in Naples. When they fight, the streets run with blood. When they love, their hearts are bigger than you can imagine. When they feast, they feast like gods of yore. Their passion and devotion are singular — for good and for ill. They live in a city of faded glory, where things feel used and trashy but you know that once upon a time there was no more spectacular place on earth. Whether rich or poor, everyone has the bearing of some descendant of a great, long-forgotten noble family.

They also live in the shadow of Vesuvius. You could almost say the shadow of death, because this titan has more than once mercilessly pummeled proud Naples into submission. I’m quite convinced that each and every Neapolitan understands that any day can be the end of the world, and this is something most of us never really grasp. It is, to my estimation, the seed and beginning of true spiritual transformation.

~BT Waldbillig
March 10, 2017

On Compassion of the Dog

Today is Valentine’s Day (or the Feast of Saint Valentine, Bishop and Martyr, if you’re the traditional type) and the thoughts of many people turn toward those they love. While I don’t have a romantic partner, I do have a constant companion who brings me much joy and who daily gives me unexpected lessons in love: my dog Dante, whose birthday just happens to be tomorrow.

Not long ago I came across a story about a medieval Christian holy man, Saint Roch (whose name you might find spelled as Rocco, Rock, or Rollox). While we are rightly skeptical about the details found in medieval hagiography, the stories themselves often present useful ideas that have value quite apart from any connection to historical events. According to this particular tale, Roch was renowned for serving and aiding plague victims and, not surprisingly, he himself eventually contracted plague. Finding that no one would feed him or give him shelter, Roch retired to the forest where a nobleman’s dog would bring him food and lick his wounds clean.

Religions present us with many different attitudes toward animals generally and dogs in particular. Some of those attitudes have changed and developed over the centuries. In modern times there’s a fair bit of inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Buddhists. Some prominent Christian thinkers, like Thomas Merton and Teilhard de Chardin, have accentuated Buddhist principles in their own Christian teaching and spiritual practice. Some well-known Buddhists, like Thich Nhat Hahn, have shown deep knowledge of and sympathy toward Christianity. While there was some interaction of Christians and Buddhists in the ancient world – we have only to think on the Indian merchant travelers to the Roman-Mediterranean world or the establishment of monasteries by Nestorian Christians traveling along the Silk Road as far east as China – it’s difficult to prove there was any kind of meaningful theological or philosophical cross-pollination. Yet monasticism has been key to the development of both religions and, for some reason, monasteries tend to be friendly places for dogs, who often receive abusive and even sadistic treatment from humans.

In the US, the monks of the New Skete community, an ecumenically minded Orthodox Christian monastery, live among dogs and raise them to be service and companion animals. They even have their own training program so that people outside the monastery can benefit from the monks’ years of canine experience. In Tibet and Thailand, monastic hospitality toward dogs is near-legendary. It’s not uncommon to see dogs lounging or milling about in the midst of the monks.

Now, I don’t know if dogs can be “saved” in a Christian sense or “enlightened” in a Buddhist sense. Frankly, it doesn’t much matter to me – let theological pedants and idle monks argue over that. I know that I’m a better human being because of the presence and companionship of my dog, Dante. Our relationship might not be friendship as defined by someone like Aristotle (peace be to Aristotle!) but it’s friendship to me, maybe one of my most beautiful friendships, in fact. There are days, too many of them, when life doesn’t have much meaning or purpose to me, days when I can dwell in the midst of people who love me yet remain unable to feel love at all. Then an absurd, slobbering, furry bundle of cosmic energies inconveniently interrupts everything, like a prophet or a thunderstorm, and something in me awakens. Animal behaviorists might admonish me for anthropomorphizing a dog, for imposing on him human-based psychological attributes, but it’s tough to shake the feeling that Dante understands me. That he shares in my joy and sorrow. That he wishes me well in his own particular dog way that might be different from our human way but nonetheless is every bit as real and valuable. Perhaps it’s just about the food and affection – most human interactions are about food or affection — though I can’t help but think there’s something more going on inside the mind and heart of my dog.

Some Buddhist traditions speak of bodhisattvas, beings who put off their own release from the cycle of suffering in order to dedicate themselves to the enlightenment and liberation of other beings. In fact, some of these bodhisattvas are symbolized by a dog or even take the earthly form of a dog. There’s no doubt to me that Dante would willingly and without complaint forgo his own release from suffering and endure endless aeons for the sake of my well-being. In a sense, he is probably much further along on his spiritual path than I am on mine. (If I practiced mindfulness meditation with even the tiniest fraction of the concentration he shows toward food, I would probably become spiritually enlightened instantly.)

In those dark times
When the Friend wounded my heart
Even as he wounded himself
I did the best I could
Looking away to hide
My own tears
Warming his cold body with
The warmth of my own
Licking away that blood
Shed in sadness
I did not abandon him
For my kind will
Never abandon
The ones we love
Never leave behind
The ones we love
Never forget
The ones we love
And we will love them
Even to the end of the world

Naturally, we could mention also the forest-dwelling Dog Buddhists in Thailand who believe that dogs are closest to humans in the cycle of rebirth; or the central role of the dog in the ancient Mithraic mystery religion; or the teaching of the modern Japanese Zen master, Joshu, regarding the spiritual enlightenment of dogs; or the recent compassionate fatwas of certain Muslim imams regarding dogs.

There is a traditional Tibetan saying that goes something like this: “Do not harm the monastery dogs for it will break the heart of the Living Buddha.” I’m not quite certain who or what the Living Buddha is, but I know that any heart moved by suffering and inspired to alleviate suffering is a noble, sacred heart. Whether it’s your heart or mine – or the heart of a dog that knows things you and I cannot even imagine.

~BT Waldbillig
February 14, 2016