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

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Of Bait Dogs and Navy Cooks

Most of us choose to believe the prosperity, fortunate events, and pleasurable relationships that arise in our lives are more or less the result of our own merits. It’s as if we’ve earned the good things that are actually beyond meriting. Life itself — in its origin and in its continuation — is the supreme example.

When I look to my own life with clear judgment and compassion, I find a series of random and improbable turns of fate. I am a white male of European descent born in one the of world’s greatest nations (though its empire is waning). I was raised by parents who loved me and provided very well for me. My ancestral religion resides in the Catholic Church, a powerful spiritual institution with global political influence. While I’m far from genius, nature placed in me no obstacles of mind or body to hinder my education or work across the years. I spent my entire childhood in the State of Iowa, a land of fruitful abundance where honest people look out for each other and value matters of the spirit more than the trappings of worldly success, where the soil is more valuable than gold.

Now, one of the great virtues of my homeland, the United States, is liberty that makes possible good things that the entire world desires. At the same time, my nation has a deeply rooted and profoundly ugly fault: prosperity renders many citizens vain and lacking in compassion, and arrogance blinds them to the institutional injustices, societal inequities, and moral cruelties that make the same prosperity unattainable to others. In the secret place of the heart, many people regarded as virtuous actually disdain the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the weak, the sick, the blind, the lame, those with mental illness, people of despised religions, and those with the wrong skin color. Some of these people attend church faithfully and rule over others.

At the same time, I am not embarrassed for the lucky circumstances of my life. I owe no one an apology at being American, or white, or middle class, or well educated, etc. Rather, I believe that along with others who know good fortune, I am obligated to make of prosperity an instrument of social, political, economic, and spiritual transformation. This is the outward manifestation of compassionate love and compassionate love is the one thing that makes life worth living.  As it happens, compassionate love put into action brings together people of all circumstances and backgrounds as they transform for the better themselves, each other, the world, and the entire Universe.

Saint Basil the Great said somewhere ( I’m paraphrasing): If we have piles of fine coats or stacks of costly garments or rich food (or a sneaker collection, etc.) that we do not use and hide away in chests or closets, then we are stealing from the poor who have need of the leftover abundance we keep for ourselves. You and I who regard ourselves as just human beings can hardly understand how radical and demanding this teaching is. Saint Basil sits before the Church as bishop and successor to Christ’s apostles shouting: “Fuck you, arrogant and selfish men! You have understood nothing.” Today our Prosperity Gospel preachers and comfortable suburban bishops put higher value on perfect hair, gleaming teeth, tanned bodies, luxury cars, Club Med holidays, academic degrees from the right universities, eye-candy personal assistants, brand new McMansions, and fat bank accounts than they do on the poor.

As a son of Abraham inspired by Saint Basil, I would even say that the Crusader, the Zionist, and the Jihadi — in so far as all these titles have been corrupted — are one in the same. They have not understood the origin or expression of the compassionate love that their ancestors treasured. It is compassionate action that pleases the Compassionate One — not war, violence, hatred, rape, oppression, and injustice.

And let’s not start with the smartly dressed, over-educated, self-important trendy urban Buddhists (or others belonging to this or that spiritual movement) who are actually dedicated to numbing themselves to the horrible pain of impermanence and mortality, turning their backs to the suffering of others as much to their own suffering. The path of the Buddha was nothing so comfortable and it certainly was not socially respectable.

My thoughts turn to Dante the Little Man. Truly, there was no reason I should have encountered this quirky mongrel who inspires in me greater love than I’ve known for any other creature on the planet. Had I not wandered over to East 1st Street on that one particular day when I was able to sneak out of the office early, or had I waited just one more day and missed an adoption event on the Upper East Side, some hipster with a trust fund might have taken him home. (Peace be to hipsters with trust funds!) And without Dante the Little Man I might not have persevered through the saddest days of my mother’s mental illness. If a Memphis, Tennessee dog rescue with little space and no money hadn’t found him and passed him along to Social Tees Animal Rescue in New York City, Dante well might have met his end in the hell reserved to bait dogs at some gory dog fight organized in a filthy garage or dank basement or secluded backwoods property. What are the odds that Dante the Little Man should find his way from Memphis to the East Village and been in the office and not the kennel on that afternoon when I decided to look for a dog because I had a couple of hours free and nothing interesting to do?

And how much of life is precisely like this! If only we had eyes for seeing, ears for hearing, and hearts for loving. How different the world would be!

As gratitude arises in my heart for lucky twists of fate and providential encounters that changed my life, I think on poor Black and Latina women with serious mental illness in places like the Bronx. They start the day with three strikes against them in a country where “good” people instrumentalize religion and success to justify their selfishness and to oppress others.

I think on countries like North Korea, where suffering continues because of war and injustice; where its young men have been so much meat for worms and its women objects to serve the needs of the powerful; where even today mighty and so-called great nations — my own included — seek to possess the land and people for their own benefit and not out of compassion for the infants with empty bellies or homeless old women freezing to death on cold winter nights. (Obviously, this represents only one aspect of the complicated history and political reality of that part of the world.)

I also honor the sacrifices of my two uncles who honorably served in the Korean War for the sake of the country my family loves and cherishes. Both did what they could to mitigate their participation in unjust acts and in the taking of life. One uncle deliberately found his way to the duties of cook aboard a US Navy ship in order to avoid taking life in battle. The other was a beautiful man broken by the PTSD that was his continual companion when he came home from war. PTSD destroyed his marriage, made a career difficult at times, and alienated him from the people he loved most. How many men and women are like my uncles!

By all means we do well to take the project of life into our own hands, to be masters of our destinies, to take responsibility for ourselves. But let us not delude ourselves. In truth, we owe much to the unseen beneficial forces that make good things possible. Whether it’s luck, karma, providence, benevolent beings … or the love of a dog that makes life worth living.

~BT Waldbillig
April 8, 2017

A New Way of Thinking

“These mountains that you are carrying,
You were only supposed to climb”
~Najwa Zebian

We tend to live our lives in a habitual way. We have a certain understanding of who we are and how the world works. Our habitual manner of living our habitual lives gets us through most of whatever we encounter, but sometimes we realize that we need to engage life in a new, different, fresh manner. We need, in the words of Pope Paul VI, a novus habitus mentis — a new way of thinking.

I was raised with a certain respect for military service and for those who dedicate themselves to the public good in the military and law enforcement. When I was young I gave myself to service in the Church, but my father served honorably in the US Marine Corps, three of my uncles as well as several cousins all performed military service, and my brother-in-law is a former police officer. Over the past few years I’ve also had the good fortune to meet a number of former military personnel through nonprofit work.

Something that has always impressed me about, say, a Marine or a cop, is the ferocious focus on the mission at hand, whatever it may be, with little or no thought as to the personal cost or risk. There’s essentially no room or time for considerations such as, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘How will I be rewarded?’ or ‘What are the chances of success?’ or ‘Will my work be appreciated by my commanding officer?’ The cop or the Marine simply executes his or her role in the mission, attentive to the well-being of the other members of the team or platoon, etc. Anything else is distraction.

For someone journeying along a spiritual path, a similar attitude is useful.

Most of us learn religion or faith or spiritual practice in this way: If we adhere to certain tenets (faith), perform good acts (virtue) and avoid wicked deeds (sin) we’ll be rewarded (heaven or some such thing). It’s the sort of mentality an exhausted parent employs to get misbehaving children in line. Now, I’m not saying this approach to the spiritual life is bad or wrong or useless; however, it’s not the only way of understanding and living one’s spiritual path.

That’s precisely why I’ve returned to a little book I first read when I entered seminary back in 1993 and haven’t touched since then. Somehow, despite changing continents and moving home several times, this tiny tome has stayed with me. The book, The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, was written in the second half of the 17th century and provides a surprisingly refreshing antidote to the transactional religion of our day. You can read my commentaries here, here, and here.

As Brother Lawrence reminds us, it’s entirely healthy and traditional to live one’s spiritual life and follow one’s spiritual path without worries for the rewards and punishments of some world-to-come. Belief that the spiritual life is in itself good and useful, as well as beneficial to others, inspires many people far more than Heaven-and-Hell discourses.

Each of us could be a little more like a US Marine or a Carmelite monk. The world would be a better place for it.

~BT Waldbillig
January 1, 2017

Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT II

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 2

SCENE 1: A CINDER PATH

Though the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

Every human life is an unexplainable mystery that takes form and flesh within a story. As fate would have it, my story begins in a place of favor.

I mean this quite literally. My hometown of Chariton, Iowa is named for a river discovered by a French trader who was named for an early Christian hermit who bore the name of an ancient Greek playwright. The etymological root of Chariton is the Greek word for grace or favor, “charis”. So my hometown is, literally, a place of favor. To those of the Mormon faith, it is even a place of miracles.

It would have made the perfect starting point for a hero of yore. Instead of a hero, I turned out to be a smalltown boy who got lost on his wanderings through a world that was much bigger than he ever dreamed.

After the rain
There is silence

At the edge of town was the trackbed of a disused railway that had been transformed into a recreational trail and rather unimaginatively named the Cinder Path. Today it would be trendy; in my childhood, it was simply practical. As a boy, I would sometimes jog with my father along the path, or walk with my mother and sisters, or ride my bicycle with friends.

I spent a great deal of time at the Cinder Path with my mother once those storms of the mind began to visit her. As we wandered the path together, sometimes we spoke – about our lives, hopes, memories, and dreams; or about the trees and flowers and covered bridges. But often we walked together in uncomplicated silence, simply content to find in our love for one another some brief respite from the turmoil and sadness.

I’ve carried the sadness with me across the years and around the world, and as my mother descended into a Hell where no one dared follow, the sadness and pain grew. But never – in the midst of the delusions, rage, and terrible, unbearable words – did she abandon her love for me. It is this realization that has, in these later years, turned pain and sadness into tenderness.

We learn too late that it is only when we continue to love in the midst of suffering that our small, small hearts can become something quite magnificent. We who are bound by our bodies and our brief time on Earth, somehow we partake of the infinite and the eternal. We become infinite and eternal through the love we bear and the love we receive.

In this very moment
Our world is passing away

The day comes for each of us when we must be no longer a daughter or son of anyone, but father and mother to ourselves and therefore to the world. This day inspires both hope and fear!

I myself am yet to be born. Will I be the child who springs forth from the womb with a battle cry, ready to take on any foe? Or will I be the stillborn son, whose life is shrouded from the very beginning in sorrow?

I do not know. Let me say it again: I do not know.

In this very moment, all I know is that my story is not yet finished. And this gives me hope.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF THE LOST MAIDEN

Behold, there was a beautiful young maiden – gentle, innocent, a mere child – lost in a deep ravine, abandoned in a dark forest. It was the dead of night and no light shone from the moon or stars. As she began to weep, a wolf pup appeared to her and bid her to climb on his back.

At once the wolf pup transformed himself into a fearsome war dog and charged through forest, carrying the maiden to safety.

And as they passed through the forest, a hidden legion of warriors appeared with torches to light the way – and their torches became the stars.

And atop a hill appeared a man wearing a hooded cloak, all white. He lifted his torch – and his torch became the moon.

As I awoke from my dream,
I understood that
the war dog is also brother,
the warrior is also family,
and the Father is also Mother.

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

– – – – –

SCENE 3: CANTICLE OF THE LIVING DOG
[vel IN TAUROCTANIA]

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

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
December 29, 2016

Who Is the Bodhisattva?

I recently came across a text that quite vividly describes the sort of spiritual ideal toward which many aspire. With Christmas approaching, we could also envision this ideal as the motivation for the Incarnation.

– – – – –

Description of a Bodhisattva
(from the Ratnagotravibhaga)

He has gone beyond all that is worldly, yet he has not moved out of the world;

In the world he pursues his course for the world’s weal, unstained by worldly taints.

As a lotus flower, though it grows in water, is not polluted by the water,

So he, though born in the world, is not polluted by worldly dharmas.

Like a fire his mind constantly blazes up into good works for others;

At the same time he always remains merged in the calm of trances and formless attainments.

Through the power of his previous penetration (into reality), and because he has left all discrimination behind,

He again exerts no effort when he brings living things to maturity.

He knows exactly who is to be educated, how, and by what means,

Whether by his teaching, his physical appearance, his practices, or his bearing.

Without turning towards anything, always unobstructed in his wisdom,

He goes along, in the world of living beings, boundless as space, acting for the weal of beings.

[taken from Puja Readings and Other Texts as Used In the Triratna Buddhist Community]

~BT Waldbillig
December 19, 2016

Commentary on The Practice of the Presence of God (part 1)

Using a Roman Catholic spiritual classic from the 17th century, I’ll explore possible common strands in Christian and Buddhist mysticism, and offer my own particular synthesis. It’s all very much an experiment for me, so we’ll see what becomes of it.

You can find a link to a translation of the complete original text here.

– – – – –

Commentary on
The Practice of the Presence of God
(Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, d. 1691)
First Conversation, 1666

Each of us has the capacity, the potential, and the ability to awaken.

For some this happens in youth when the mind is less attached to a fixed perception of reality.

For others it occurs later in life as a fruit of experience, both positive and negative.

Spiritual awakening inserts a moment of discontinuity into our experience of life; this is frightening and disorienting.

Our expectations will always be upset; both positive and negative elements of life are transformational; even insignificant things, or moral evil, or failure, or deliberate pursuit of what we hold as antithetical to awakening.

Christian concept of providence and Buddhist concept of karma are similar and overlapping; both providence and karma can bring about spiritual advancement and awakening in circumstances we regard as unlikely or impossible.

The Middle Path and the Practice of Virtue (in medio stat virtus) — neither of which necessarily bring about awakening — provide the [only] helpful framework of spiritual teaching to describe a process-reality which is not — to the experience of an individual — consistent, predictable, or logical.

Useful tools are also obstacles; hindrances are also beneficial instruments.

We are neither purely passive nor purely active in the process of awakening.

The nature of human intellect is both helpful in the process and our greatest obstacle: it leads us toward but then blocks our experience of the simplicity, directness, and absence of mediation that mark awakening; this is why so-called lower animals might experience awakening more readily than us (i.e., dog); perhaps other beings [creatures] we regard as lacking in intellect and will (i.e., tree) are capable of awakening.

It may well be that in an experience of awakening the only sensible course of action is to continue on for some time in what we would regard as our pre-awakened way of life if there is no clear and spontaneous insight into that which are becoming; an awakened person might resemble precisely what we regard as unawakened, spiritually dead, damned, hopeless, or lost.

Faith and confidence are useful in the process: in ourselves, the process, the experience, the cause of awakening (for Christians, God).

This is not to say that change and transformation do not or will not occur; we simply don’t know what they actually look like; this is why there is no one model or ideal to imitate or accommodate.

Tension, contradiction, and irreconcilability are therefore also part of the process-experience: between our goals, ideals, and purpose and that which we perceive and experience.

Therefore, even those we consider as unawakened or spiritually dead are our teachers, alongside those who have entered into higher spiritually transformational states

~BT Waldbillig
December 15, 2016