Our Story Isn’t Over

Life is difficult for everyone. The Wall Street hotshot is suffering and the homeless prostitute is suffering and the White Supremacist is suffering and the Antifa protester is suffering. When I lament my lot in life, Dante tells me “It’s time to take a walk.”

And then I look at my neighbors in Washington Heights. I see in them the suffering like usual, but they make me stop and look at the rest of the story. They don’t mope around and weep like a child. They make love, they play basketball, they heckle the cops, they hang out with the cops, and they just get on with life.

As the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön says, “Life is the story of suffering and of the overcoming of suffering.”

I always forget to be vigilant and watchful for the part that is yet to come. I suppose I’m as guilty as the next Christian for making the Cross seem like a miserable curse instead of a transformative blessing. No wonder people turn their noses up at religion. There are plenty of reasons not to believe in God and most of them are at the front of the church preaching every Sunday doing their best to make the Word a dead letter.

But the Word isn’t dead and we’re not done. Not me, not the cops at the 33rd, not the drug dealers and hookers and bodega guys and old ladies picking up aluminum cans. And not my dog, Dante, and my friends who drag me out to see a movie or to share a bottle of wine over dinner when I would just as well mope and weep and lament.

What kind of Christian am I? Not a very good one, but then most of us aren’t. And even the otherworldly Buddhists, it turns out, aren’t very good at being what they’re suppose to be. I don’t suppose that’s much consolation to Muslims, like my friend down at West 145th Street or like the kid behind the counter at the bodega who makes sure that I don’t overpay and that my egg and cheese on a roll is exactly what it’s supposed to be.

The Muslims I know — in truth they are few — are awesome, happy, positive, kind people. They always make me smile and laugh, as if they know that I won’t smile and laugh if left to myself. Joy. My Muslim friends keep joy in my life. Would that Christians and Buddhists valued such human, earthy, real things.

But naturally, they do! Like every Muslim and every Jew, each Christian and each Buddhist is not really good at being what they’re supposed to be. In effect, we’re all in the same absurd situation.

If it were to happen that one day there were no more Christians, that would be okay. But it would make me sad that no one else would find the love that the religion of my birth and ancestors helped me experience. It almost happened that my elder brothers in faith, the Jewish people, were annihilated and removed from the face of the Earth. Thank goodness that some of my Christian monastic brothers — those fearless Benedictine and Carthusian monks come to mind — refused to sit by and let it happen. They didn’t save many, let alone everyone, but even one person matters.

What kind of Christian would lead Jews to the slaughter, like cattle? What kind of Buddhist dares to become indignant before the world when someone simply points out the truth: Buddhists in Burma are complicit in genocide. Just as Christians not so long ago did the same to Jews. What the fuck do they think the Buddha would do if he were walking in their land today?

No need to worry about Christian sanctimony. My people are not innocent either.

What kind of HUMANS would we be if we just sat down and waited for everything to slowly come to an end? I’m not going to let the Apocalypse happen so long as I’m able to do something. I still believe that God meant what he said to Noah. It’s the same thing every father wants for his son — that he might go on living and making life and giving life for as long as possible.

It’s not just the story of us, you and me on this rocky planet in the middle of nowhere. Everyone needs a reason to live and to go on living.

And when there’s nothing worth living for, then you just have to make something the reason. Create a reason. Be a reason.

We live as though we will never die. But everything we love will pass away. It’s true for you. And it’s true for me.

But we will not let the story end. Let harbingers of the End Times get what they’re looking for. The rest of us have life to live and life to make.

I had a dream not long ago, that once in the Universe there were tens of millions of civilizations but no one did anything when one disappeared. Or when thousands vanished forever. And when it was almost too late, those few 16 remaining civilizations woke up to the beauty and preciousness and passing reality that everyone is in the end.

And they said: WE WILL NOT LET LIFE VANISH!

They found a reason. But that was just a dream. We don’t need to look to the stars to find a reason. We just need to look at each other.

I WILL NOT GIVE UP. I WILL NOT LET LIFE VANISH!

~BT Waldbillig
December 1, 2017

The Madness of the World

Since I spend a good deal of time outdoors with my dog, I created a music playlist so I’d have something to listen to while Dante and I take our walks through Washington Heights, Harlem, and the Bronx. Each song possesses something of spiritual value to me: it might be a title, some particular lyric, the refrain, an idea, a feeling, a harmonization, or the specific beat. Now, there’s scarcely a song that would qualify as “religious” in a conventional sense, yet the songs all express something of the experience of the human beings who created them and, therefore, each song has some spiritual content that renders it beautiful.

I’m not talking about aesthetics in a superficial sense — not that there’s anything wrong with aesthetics. Rather, it seems to me that, had we eyes to see and ears to hear, we would find meaning and value everywhere, not just in grand cathedrals or carefully groomed public gardens or the hushed hallways of museums. We’d also find something of the transcendent (the divine!) in every person — and that includes the junkie, the prostitute, the convict, the mobster, the murderer, the unwanted child, the mentally ill, the handicapped, the immigrant, the old person, the ugly person … and even ourselves.

As I wrote somewhere: The human heart is so powerful that it gives us the ability to forgive the unforgivable and to love the unlovable.

If only our hearts were bigger! Then you and I could accomplish anything. We could save the world and transform the Universe if we wanted to.

Buddhists sometimes refer to human delusion and the madness of the world, while Christians speak of original sin and the fallen state of creation. In essence, both traditions recognize that the world is fucked up and so are we. There’s just something about the way we live and the way we relate to the world, to each other, and to ourselves that isn’t what it should be. We all experience this but usually we prefer to distract ourselves rather than dwell in the discomfort. We pretend that cheeriness is happiness. We avoid tears at all cost. We live as though we will never die.

But we know it doesn’t have to be that way. In this very moment we can choose to live differently. We can make this world a little less fucked up if we want to.

~BT Waldbillig
July 19, 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

The Cry of Jonah

The other day I read a news report detailing the arrest of a young woman accused of prostituting herself for $20 and a meal at a McDonald’s restaurant. Naturally, every headline emphasized that this person was prepared to trade her body for chicken nuggets. The beautiful, affluent, sanctimonious public figures who tell us what to think and how to live via newspapers, TV news shows, websites, radio programs, and polished pulpits no doubt delighted in the chance to deride and mock this woman. These are the same people Jesus encountered in a well-known Gospel passage.

The powerful of our nation turn their backs to those in need. They despise the poor and the weak. Their hearts are hardened against the plight of the hungry and homeless. Should our nation be utterly annihilated and its name perish from the face of the Earth, even that fate would be too merciful given the crimes we commit collectively and as individuals every single day. We have turned natural abundance and the favor of Providence into a curse. And still you and I delude ourselves that the United States of America is some fabled City Upon a Hill.

The voice of Jonah the Prophet echoes through the ages: Forty days and Nineveh will be no more!

~BT Waldbillig
May 3, 2017

Disposable Humans

To the eyes of a miser a guinea is more beautiful than the sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes.
~William Blake

Let’s be clear: we regard the homeless, the poor, the mentally ill, prostitutes, drug addicts, prison inmates, and the like with disgust and disregard. They frighten us. They burst the comfortable, sanitized bubbles we build around ourselves in order to feel safe and superior, reminding us that each person contains within himself or herself the entirety of humanity, not just the clean, happy bits. You and I are far more unclean than the grubby homeless man in Brazil who recently sacrificed his life to save a woman he didn’t even know. He died on the steps of a church, like so many homeless men and women who freeze to death on cold winter nights while their priests and bishops, bellies full of rich food, sleep comfortably without a thought to those without a bed or even a blanket.

Despite the soaring rhetoric of politicians and religious leaders who talk about human dignity and the value of life, we live in a society where certain groups of people are considered disposable. Whether you know it or not, you and I are complicit in this in a thousand small ways every day.

“Criminals” are one such group. No one really cares about the violence and rape that occur routinely in prisons. “Those people” deserve any wickedness that might befall them (we think to ourselves). Even when offenders serve their time, we often continue to punish them in freedom by denying them voting rights or restricting their employment opportunities.

The truth is this: As a nation we don’t so much desire justice as lust for vengeance.

We all would do well to examine our consciences honestly. And this applies in a particular way to those among us who wax eloquent on issues like abortion or persecuted Christian county clerks, yet remain smugly silent in the face of our collective abuse of men and women behind bars.

~BT Waldbillig
September 9, 2015