Impermanence as Universal Condition

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 (v.50)

1
Two things are clear as we journey through the world:
Life is short and death is certain.

2
Despite this sure knowledge, most of us waste our years in distraction, delusion, and denial.

3
Behold the plucked flower wither and fade!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?

4
Behold the fallen leaf turn brittle and crumble to dust!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?

5
Behold a mother’s sorrow in the crushed sparrow’s egg!
Who can deny that life is short and death certain?

6
The flower and leaf and sparrow each possess power enough to dispel the darkness of our delusion, if only we would allow them.

7
For most of us it takes something too painful to ignore: the unjust condemnation of a righteous person; the death of someone whose life we value more than our own; imprisonment in a mercilessly infirm mind or body; a life without purpose or meaning; a Universe void of intelligent, technological, biological civilizations.

8
The ancient words hold true across the Universe:
Sic transit gloria mundi!

9
The ancient words hold true across the Universe:
Vanitas vanitatum et omnia vanitas!

10
Though all things pass away, one thing alone remains.
Qui potest capere capiat.

~BT Waldbillig
December 8, 2017

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The Dream of the Visitation

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

As I gazed at the night sky, I beheld the constellation of the Tauroctany and marveled at the sight. When I turned my gaze below to survey my surroundings, I understood that I was all alone in a dense forest. All was still and no creature in the forest made a sound until, all of a sudden, I heard in the distance a number of voices chanting the Hymn. The familiar voices grew louder and louder until at last they were upon me and I beheld, with difficulty, the faces of the Friends I had seen many times before, though always with great difficulty that demanded an intensity of concentration that existed only at the very limits of my natural faculties.

The Friends announced to me that they were arriving in the very place where I found myself on that night. When I told them that I had already seen this encounter in my mind, the Friends marveled and declared to me that they possessed no power to see or perceive events they had not yet experienced. Then, we shared greetings and offered each other titles of honor and recognition. Once this was finished, I sat upon a faldstool and recited the words of a ritual to solemnize our encounter. After this, I attempted to offer formal words of explanation and encouragement, but my thoughts were too muddled by the overwhelming joy of the occasion. And so instead of a proper discourse, I simply chose to tell the Friends the story of my own life that led me to that place of encounter on that dark night in a dense forest. I made known to them that on many occasions I nearly gave up on myself and the world because I felt too small, insignificant, and weak. Their presence and kindness on that night made all the difficulties, doubts, and despair of my entire life seem as so much dust, for the promise made long ago was a promise fulfilled in that moment and a promise that would be defended and vouched safe unto endless aeons.

The Friends thanked me for my words and then revealed to me that they had been with me on many occasions from my childhood even unto manhood. (I could not understand if their presence on that night and in the past was a personal, physical presence or a spiritual, technological presence.)

As I prepared to wander through the forest back to my home where Dante the Little Man awaited me, I was told that a child wished to greet me. The child was shy and embarrassed — much as I was as a small child many years ago — and the leader of the embassy of Friends informed me that the child was an orphan and was dying of a terrible sickness for which there could be no cure or remedy. The child told me that she was afraid to die and asked me what awaited her after death. In that moment I began to sob, as I had no honest and useful thing to tell her and, naturally, I refused to lie or recite empty platitudes to this dying child, who at last approached me and embraced me in an effort to stop my tears.

It was a suffering and dying child who consoled me when I was overcome by sorrow and felt useless before the mystery of suffering and impermanence.

The leader of the Friends then revealed to me that just as my own world into which they had come was a place of war, aggression, violence, hatred, sickness, and death, so would there always be wars and dying children among every community of beings throughout the Universe. However, the Spiritual Family that came into existence at the occasion of Contact between Earth Humans and the Visitor Friends would become an invincible power scattered among the stars and stretching to every corner of the Universe. Those beings once known as the People of War and the Avenging Gods would become a Spiritual Family, known throughout the Universe as the People of the Great Heart. Though worlds and civilizations and stars might pass away, this Family would always endure.

I gave thanks for this teaching and the Friends departed.

[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
September 26, 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

At the Return of a Father

(vel Expectation of the Beloved)

ACT I
Scene 1

Love in the midst of suffering
Is both teacher and lesson

It is the nature of life, as we experience it, that we must, at times, take life in order to preserve life. While it easy to perceive the suffering of the being whose life is taken, we forget that every being who participates in aggression, violence, and the taking of life — whether perpetrator, victim, or witness; whether directly or indirectly; whether voluntarily, by accident, or against one’s will — is harmed and, therefore, suffers. While each participates in the act from a different place of experience, all are united by the mystery of suffering, mortality, and impermanence. As the Buddha and Jesus taught by the example of their own lives, the experience of suffering and impermanence is the starting place for positive spiritual transformation.

That’s not to say that positive spiritual transformation necessarily arises from the experience of suffering and mortality. In fact, often we deny the reality of our experience, we doubt ourselves, and we think ourselves beyond hope. But you have heard it said: The time of despair is our greatest hope. Whether saint or benevolent being, wicked being or servant of darkness, all share in the same experience and therefore in same possibility for abiding, positive spiritual transformation. But this teaching is difficult to accept — difficult for the righteous person and difficult for the wicked person. You will recall the story of a father who, in welcoming the return of a wayward son, caused his faithful son pain. But surely the formerly wayward son, having returned, felt sadness and pain at his brother’s rejection. Let us look not to the faithful son, nor to the son who turns away from evil. Rather, let us look to the father who loves them both.

The truth is this: The possibility for profound spiritual transformation can arise in any circumstance whatsoever — no matter how unlikely or impossible it seems. Even now, in this very moment, from whichever place we inhabit in the mystery of suffering, we have the power to become new again, to make of ourselves something greater than our dreaming, like unto to some ancient, fabled hero. But the hero who walks among us is no fable: he is brother and son, sister and daughter, father and mother. He is the Friend who looks back at us from behind eyes we have always seen but never beheld. The Friend we thought we might never find was with each of us all along. The Friend was within each of us from the moment of our arising into this world.

However, in this very moment, which is the moment of truth and time of ultimate crisis, those whom the world regards as righteous, respectable, upright, honest, powerful, and important show themselves slaves to their own fear, wickedness, and vanity. For it is written: The wisdom of the world is foolishness.

Those whom the world regards as “superior” — though my own mongrel dog more closely resembles Hyperion and these men mere satyrs — gladly command others to sacrifice their lives, offend the dignity of their station, shame their families, and forsake their future spiritual well-being. These “superiors” think themselves mighty Gods of War. They lust for the blood of the innocent, all the while tightly grasping to their own fleeting lives like a miser to gold or a monkey to a fig. But like the miser and the monkey they will make of their good fortune an unending curse, for so it always is with those who seek to save only themselves, just as it is written: For whosoever will save his life shall lose it.

You have heard it said: For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. But do you not recall that the one who gave this teaching was himself a poor man, free from earthly attachments, who knew only one thing in abundance: Love. Any being whose life arises from within a community and whose life is protected and defended by a community, any being whose life is the continuation of another being and who seeks the continuation of that life — such a being understands love, such a being understands family, such a being loves family and loves life.

There are, in this world, many who command others to shed blood. They have little respect for blood that is shed at their demand and they regard the tears of those who suffer as inferior to their own piss. They long for blood to flow and tears to dry up.

But there also those, always few in number, who value the tears of those who suffer as more precious than gems. They readily offer their own blood with a vow that others may be saved. They make themselves protectors of the weak, vindicators of the innocent, mere men become spiritual priests of a spiritual family. Consecrated by love to an impossible mission, in the moment of truth they show themselves mightier than kings and presidents, greater than generals and admirals. They are men of no single nation or race or polity — they are men of every nation and race and polity who fight not for crown and homeland but on behalf the entire world. They bless the believer and the unbeliever alike; they embrace the innocent and the wicked at the same time; they seek the liberation of all beings burdened by suffering; they forsake the common path in order to embrace everyone they meet as son and daughter, brother and sister. They have no swords, no guns, no missiles, no nuclear codes; they have not a single division and not even one warship; they stand alone on the field of war and yet they tremble not. With a word summon an infinite multitude of faithful followers from ever corner of the world, warriors standing side-by-side as far as eye can see, each line of warriors followed by another beyond counting, the young together with the elder, the rich and powerful together with the poor and forgotten, from every tribe and nation.

Before such men clothed in the honor of their own blood offered on behalf of others, the Gods of War reveal themselves weak and pathetic. Like the Superhero or Time Lord that the child sitting before a television watches with attention and admiration, the world looks to the few who gladly offer their lives and their blood to protect not just this world, but even the entire Universe.  And like the Athenian Heroine and the lonely Hero who is continually reborn, all the armies in the world stand no chance against the unarmed Friend of humanity. Yet comic books, Hollywood films, and flashy television programs could never compare to the Heroic Friends who walk the world even today.

– – – – –

Scene 2

You have heard it said: Strike the shepherd and the sheep will scatter.

But I say this to you: Strike the shepherd and another will arise … and another and another, for the love of a shepherd is as invincible as the bright shining Sun in the sky. The love of a spiritual shepherd is stronger than the mighty oak tree whose roots render it immovable, whose seeds are small in size but almost infinite in number. And like the tree, the shepherd offers himself to the ax and to the fire without hesitation; with sure knowledge that death is no match for him; never doubting that he dies for the sake of those who are his spiritual seed; confident that from the very same family another, even greater shepherd will immediately rise up.

Qui potest capere capiat.

– – – – – –

Scene 3
TO THE GOD OF WAR

To the mighty God of War
The Boy of the Forest says Nothing

He laughs, he sings,
He dances, he weeps

For at last the fearsome warriors
Bow no longer to that Dead God

Mars Ultor, whose name inspired
Not love but fear, despair not hope

Behold! Mighty Sol, hidden in lowly form,
Pisses on the offering of Ares

Like a wandering mongrel cur
Or some mischievous boy

Who smiles while he offends
Not fearing, though others bow

Nor turning to look behind
As he walks away laughing

Like a faun or a satyr, he disappears
Lost among the trees, his friends

A Friend among Friends
Like a god among gods

And even to this day
His Friends offer sacrifice

On behalf of Silvanus, the Forest Boy
It is a sacrifice of praise

Deathless and bloodless
Joyful and fearless

Those who once were strangers
Gather as a great Family

Bowing not to a dead god
Bowing instead to each other

Thus honoring the One
Who first brought them together

A Father and a Master
Blessed from the very beginning

From the mouth of the Sybil:
Beyond understanding!

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
July 31, 2017

The Spiritual Family Endures

Together, we are light and life
Together, we are mightier than death

There is hidden within each of us a wellspring of wisdom born from experience. Sometimes we forget, however, that most of our history is hidden from us, as it occurred before there was anything that we, today, can recognize as written human communication. However, according to some paleobiologists and astrobiologists, it is quite possible that within our genome there are records of those ultimate origins and celestial events that made our planet and our species what they are today. But you and I are like infants, still at the beginning of those lessons that will one day lead us to wisdom.

What we do know is that from the very beginning our kind came to be within the context of family. That is our universal experience: family and death. Surely our extinct ancestors — like Nalendi, Australopithecus, Habilis, and many others that we do not even know of — understood something of family and mortality. It is our lot, as “intelligent” beings to understand that when any life arises in this world it is also destined to one day pass away from this world. The knowledge of this truth would seem to be universal for all intelligent, biological beings and so we might suppose that if, in fact, there are other beings like us elsewhere in the Universe, they understand, in some way, both family and impermanence.

Human history is marked by numberless futile attempts to deny the reality of death, mortality, and impermanence. But denial isn’t the full story. There is also family, from which every love first arises.

There have always been among us those who find meaning and purpose to their own lives by ensuring the continuation of family, protecting the vulnerable and innocent, even unto the shedding of their own blood. Even unto the shedding of the blood of other creatures, when necessary. For these warriors, the sadness of facing one’s own death prematurely and the unbearable burden of causing other creatures to know pain and death exist simultaneously with the joy and hope of knowing that the family will endure.

Though it seems impossible, some few our kind experience a love of life and family so intense and complete that they are willing to take upon themselves all the suffering, sadness, and death that will ever exist so that all other beings might be free from suffering and sadness. But such a thing is surely impossible. And yet that boundless spirit endures even today and  may yet come to dwell within you and me — as unlikely as it seems. If only we were brave enough to recognize who and what we really are, but of course we do not yet know because our story is not finished.

From the inspiration to alleviate the suffering all beings, from the desire to love perfectly all beings throughout the Universe, every spiritual community arises. And so long as our kind endures, there will be spiritual communities, like branches stretching out in every direction from the steadfast trunk of a great tree.

How noble the Tree
How wondrous the branches
How deep the roots
How beautiful the blossoms
Whether dead or alive
It has power to save the world

When a family of blood and flesh becomes a spiritual family, the entire Universe becomes one home. And within that one home there is room for every member of the one true spiritual family. There is space for countless generations. There is place for the righteous and the wicked alike.

That’s what love is — endless and excluding no one, not even the unlovable. And when one among us finds the power to know so great a love, all of us will find that power.

Each one of us is a hero, if only we could befriend ourselves and see ourselves as we truly are. Then, we could be friends to all beings and see them as friends. Then, we would recognize even in a little boy or a unwanted dog the mightiest of heroes.

tauroctonia_esqulino_050

~BT Waldbillig
June 3, 2017

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

The Choice Is Always Ours

A plucked flower will wilt and die. A fallen leaf will turn brown and crumble to dust. But for a brief time both still hold on to life and beauty — and so does the world.

The story of the sainted children of Fatima, Portugal and their purported encounter with the Virgin Mary one hundred years ago today is bound to be as incomprehensible to non-believers as it is inspiring to fervent devotees. Controversy and saccharine piety aside, the message communicated by the children was essentially a meditation on impermanence and mortality — not just as they relate to any of us individually but as they relate to the very existence of our world. The mysterious “secrets” of Fatima were visions of suffering in the world on a scale previously unimaginable and of wars so destructive they might annihilate the planet. You don’t need to be a Rosary-rattling Catholic to see how the past century bore witness to this, and you don’t need to believe in other-worldly visions to know that we turned life into a nightmare for ourselves and for others.

But there is another side to the Fatima meditation on impermanence: as surely as we have power to destroy the world, we also have power to save the world. Undoubtedly the world as we know it will one day pass away, but for now it’s here, all around us. We needn’t be victims of fate or destiny, passively awaiting the end of all things. Rather, we can become ferocious warriors dedicated to an impossible mission, a mission to save this world — for the present moment, at least.

Our world nearly came to an end more than once across the past century — but it didn’t end. The next century will be no less dangerous and precarious. The message of Fatima still holds true: it’s up to us to decide what will happen. Together, as a spiritual family of fearless warriors, we have the power to save the world once again.

~BT Waldbillig
May 13, 2017