Beyond Palace Walls

Bear ye one another’s burdens
~Galatians 6:2

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s the sort of throwaway line we use when we’re confronted with the suffering of another human being and think they need us to show them some purpose behind their misfortune or else reassure them that everything will somehow be well in the end.

Naturally, it’s nonsense. And the truth is, we usually say things like this to make ourselves feel better when the ugliness of reality imposes itself on the carefully curated and altogether fragile charade that we mistake for a happy life. Whereas compassion draws us close to the person who suffers, pity separates us and creates distance between us and the person who suffers.

Perhaps you recall that the Buddha was a prince and his father carefully shielded him from anything that might cause him sadness or suffering or discomfort. The young prince lived his life behind physical and spiritual walls until, against his father’s wishes, he ventured forth into the world and encountered the reality of life when he observed pain, illness, old age, and death. Instead of retreating from the trauma and returning to the delusion he had known at his father’s palace, he began a spiritual path that even today inspires many of us. The Buddha found a way to transform suffering through compassion.

Some time ago as I chatted with a Buddhist friend, he observed that the primary symbol of Christianity — a dead man on a dead tree — seemed brutal and vulgar next to the image cherished by Buddhists — a man at peace resting in the shade of a verdant tree. Now, there is something disturbing and even fucked up about the tortured image of Christ on the Cross. But what my friend failed to understand is that the Buddha sitting self-contentedly all alone under a shade tree is likewise an obscene and offensive image, as the world is filled with suffering and misery and people who need help. In truth, the primary images of both Christianity and Buddhism are easily misunderstood and both fail to communicate the full story of the men in whose names these religions were founded. To my mind, the point is this: Both Jesus and the Buddha were transformed by their encounter with the Tree; once transformed, both of them arose and went forth from the Tree. As I wrote somewhere, their transformative spiritual experience was not meant to end with them — it was meant to transform the Universe.

Congressman John Lewis, one of the great Americans of our time, speaks of redemptive suffering, using language that he and I both learned in seminary when we were young men. This expression doesn’t mean that suffering necessarily brings us positive transformation. Like any human experience, suffering can be a help or a hindrance. Though we cannot control much of what happens to us in life — those things that we suffer — each of us has the capacity to choose our response. We can anchor ourselves in anger, bitterness, hatred, selfishness, or resentment. In Biblical language, this is called hardening our hearts, and when we harden our hearts we end up progressively alone and alienated from others. Some theologians describe Hell as the state of absolute, unending alienation and loneliness, while the Buddhist teacher Sangharakshita notes that suffering is compounded by isolation and loneliness.

On the other hand, since all of us suffer, suffering can be a place of encounter with other beings who seem different, unconnected, even unintelligible to us. We become aware of our shared experience of life that is precarious, difficult, confusing, fearful, uncertain, unjust, and all too short. We may not actually feel each other’s pain (ahem!) but we understand something of each other’s pain because we have experienced pain in our own lives.

For example, I don’t know what it’s like for you to lose your grandmother, but I lost my grandmother and losing her brought me sadness and pain that I feel still today, decades later. And while I can’t take away your suffering, I can help ease the loneliness and alienation that accompany your suffering. I think that’s something of what John Lewis is getting at when he talks about redemptive suffering. His own traumatic experiences during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s might have made him a bitter, nasty, resentful man. But they didn’t. Instead, they inspired him to help those who need help and to love those who need love. His commitment to compassionate nonviolence has inspired millions of people — myself included.

~BT Waldbillig
October 19, 2017

 

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Beholding Him, He Loved Him

Then Jesus beholding him, loved him.
~Mark 10:21

In our time of protest and counterprotest, in which we lionize those who “speak truth to power” and idolize those who defend the authority of public institutions, we forget entirely the lesson of great spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha. We mistakenly believe that people followed them and listened to their teachings because they were wise.

Indeed, they were wise. But countless wise spiritual teachers have walked the Earth. What set Jesus and the Buddha apart is that they truly loved the men and women they taught. Most importantly, they loved the people no one else would.

So I ask myself, if Jesus or the Buddha were walking among us today, who would they “behold and love”? Who is it that no one loves, that no one dedicates their life to, that no one would die for the sake of?

To my mind, it’s the men and women of the Mafia, gangs like the Trinitarios (who operate in my neighborhood), and the people of North Korea. Were Jesus or the Buddha walking among us today, they would look upon these people and love them. And motivated by that love, they would endeavor to teach them a beneficial, transformative spiritual path. Their purpose wouldn’t be to damn and condemn, but to heal and save — and their words, full of love and truth, would show that.

Today, our social and political protests are so useless and our preaching and spiritual teaching so ineffective for a simple reason. We lack the compassionate love of great spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha.

Cardinal James Harvey cut to the heart of the matter when he observed, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

You and I know a great many things. But knowledge and wisdom alone will not transform the world.

Only love will.

~BT Waldbillig
October 18, 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

To Walk as Lazarus Among the Living

Somewhere I wrote about the Lazarus Moment. You will recall the Gospel story of the friend of Jesus who died and was put to rest in a tomb. When Jesus beheld the unbearable burden of grief that the two sisters of Lazarus had to bear, he was moved by compassion to raise the dead man back to life. Naturally, we think of this as a blessing but I’m not so sure that’s how Lazarus experienced it. After all, there is a certain order and sense to life and there is a certain order and sense to death. But what is a man to do, what is he to say, where does he belong if the life he lives has no order or sense anymore?

Dying is easy. Living, that’s the hard part. Raised from the dead, Lazarus was forced to again trod the path that inexorably leads to sorrow, loss, and death. The blessing was also a curse. Or if not a curse, certainly  a burden.

And then there were the gawkers and miracle hounds, people of much religion and little faith who prefer circus sideshows to life as it really is. Surely Lazarus must have asked himself, “Why me? Why wasn’t the widow who left behind a brood of orphans restored to life? Or the warrior hero who offered himself in battle to protect family and homeland?  Must I now wander through life a saint and no longer just a man like other men?”

Perhaps in the evening when dinner was finished and his sisters had retired for the night, a wine-heavy Lazarus looked at his friend and saw how much he was loved. And when he asked his friend, “Why me? Why did you save me?”, surely Jesus replied, “Why NOT you?”

When I lived in Rome I had a close friend who lost both of his parents early in life. Neither of them lived beyond 40 years and my friend couldn’t imagine a life for himself beyond that young age. He’s close to 55 by now and life is no longer a burden or a curse. He learned to honor the dead by living fearlessly, savoring life, and working as though the world depends on him. Whether or not it actually does depend on him, the world is a better place because of my friend.

My own life hasn’t turned out at all as I once imagined. Letting go of boyhood dreams was more painful than I could bear at times and for a while life seemed to have no direction or purpose. Only now can I see how fortunate I was to have failed in my plans. Only now do I understand that my dreams were too small. Back then my plans, my dreams, my hopes — they weren’t really even mine. They were like a suit of clothes belonging to a dead man. But I am like Lazarus and must yet walk among the living.

“Why me?” has finally become “Why NOT me?”

~BT Waldbillig
June 30, 2017

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

Honoring a Tree

The other day as a friend and I were walking Dante through the neighborhood, we paused in the corner of a nearby park to marvel at the trees. One tree in particular, low with wide-stretching branches and abundant shade, has stayed in my mind. I didn’t tell my friend, but I had to stop myself from climbing up into this particular tree to rest for a moment on the longest and sturdiest branch.

When I think on the Exodus encounter between Moses and God on Mount Horeb, I imagine the burning bush to be something like the tree in the park that Dante, my friend, and I couldn’t ignore. My friend spontaneously embraced the tree as if she were greeting a long lost family member. (I guess this means I have a friend who is, literally, a tree hugger!)

Just before passing by the tree we had been talking about difficulties in life but in that moment when she gently drew the tree to her breast as if it were an infant or a grandparent, thoughts of sadness, suffering, failings, and discontentment vanished from my mind and I couldn’t help but smile. Only a smile could express what I experienced in that moment thanks to my friend — words and thoughts were of no use to me or the tree.

For his part, Dante marked the tree as if he, too, were honoring it. No one will remember that I stood for a moment in awe before the Horeb-like tree, but the dogs, the squirrels, the birds, and the insects will know that Dante was there. I would have it no other way, truth be told, since it was a mongrel dog who gave me a reason to continue my journey when I wanted to give up on myself. He taught me that the true place of favor is wherever we find ourselves in the present moment, that the auspicious moment is always now. Hic et nunc — here and now — is all we have and all we need. Dogs understand this better than you and I do.

The trees, the insects, and the birds were here before our kind stood up tall to begin our journey and they will likely be around long after our kind has disappeared. How amazing that, for a brief moment, we walk among them accompanied by friends and dogs,  beings who love us always, who protect us in moments of trial, who teach us best with a smile or a nuzzle. The world would be a better place if each of us were more like the friend and the dog — strong and faithful, never abandoning those we love, united like a family that endures suffering and survives death.

Had I journeyed through the park yesterday without a friend and a dog, I might never have stopped before that one particular tree to behold something of the mystery that great spiritual teachers like Moses, the Buddha, and Jesus discovered long before I came into this world. What they experienced directly and personally, I experienced only faintly and at a distance, as if in a dream.

One day no one will remember that you and I passed through this world, but human beings will always remember the world’s great spiritual teachers and heroic spiritual friends. When, at last, we travel to distant corners of the Universe, we will carry the memory of our teachers and friends with us.

~BT Waldbillig
May 22, 2017

Man’s Best Friend

This morning as the dog and I took our walk through nearby Highbridge Park, I noticed that Dante sometimes resembles a bull — snorting, shaking his head, and turning up the tall grass with repeated backward digs as if he were preparing to charge forward. Naturally, there’s nothing menacing when it’s just a goofy corgi half-breed acting this way. In fact, I can’t help but laugh that my dog should behave like this, as if he were some mighty bull or the great aurochs that dominated the spiritual consciousness of ancient humans. And yet, if I were a painter or shaman I would honor him in the vault of a great cave just as surely as our ancestors painted sacred bulls in those caves that were the first temples of humanity.

“All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind,
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon follows the hoof of the ox.”
~Dhammapada

It’s curious that the mystery of impermanence, mortality, and suffering commemorated in cave-painted bulls later found expression in the cult of the Friend (Mithras). It is also likely alluded to in the very first passage of the Buddhist Dhammapada, which should be no surprise as Buddhism was reshaped by its encounter with Gandharan civilization in the ancient birthplace of Zoroastrianism, which gave birth to Mithraism.

Greco-Roman civilization likewise came into contact with the warrior Gandharan people while the writings of the Christian New Testament were still being formulated. And so in the Gospel when Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”, and when he elsewhere references the slaughter of a calf in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, I cannot help but think on the ancient cave paintings or on the depictions of Mithras and the Bull.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
~Gospel of John, Prologue

Re-reading the opening line of the Dhammapada — “all experience is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind” — I am reminded of the Christian theology of logos as the creative, generative reality of God made incarnate in Jesus. Perhaps Buddhism hitched a ride to the West with the Gandharan warriors. Or maybe proto-Christian thought found its way back to the East and influenced that famous and quintessentially Buddhist line from the Pali canon.

Not coincidentally, in the Gandharan flourishing of Buddhism one of the central and most honored figures is the Future Buddha-Boddhisatva Maitreya. Both Maitreya and Mithras come from the word: Mitra, which means Friend.

And somehow Dante the Little Man, a mere mongrel dog, led me to think on all these things this morning. Proof that even a wordless dog can become a great spiritual teacher. If a dog can do this, just imagine what you and I might become one day!

~BT Waldbillig
May 15, 2017

Maitreya
Gandharan image of the Future Buddha, who is also the Friend