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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Family as Universal Manifestation of the Mystery of Life

The American theologian Richard John Neuhaus once famously declared, “We are born to die.” Naturally, he did not mean that a human being comes into this world for the sake of leaving it. Rather, each of us is born along a path that will one day end. Every year as I celebrate the anniversary of my own birth, I also prepare for the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, which falls on Thanksgiving this year. Symbolically, it’s the inverse of the Easter story: My rising to life is followed upon by her going down to the netherworld in this annual cycle. She was the world to me and I have lived in a state of mourning for the past 25 years.

As I wrote somewhere, it seems likely that when we encounter intelligent, technological, biological beings from elsewhere in the Universe, we will discover two important facts. Even if they are far more ancient, evolved, and technologically advanced, they will have had, in the course of their collective existence, something of an experience of what we call religion, though it may well be that they relate to it not as religion, strictly speaking, but as a cultural memory or an evolutionary passage. Just as importantly, such beings will understand something of what we call family, since only beings that form closely knit, cooperative, interdependent, mutually supporting units would be able to build civilizations capable of advanced technology and long-term survival across adverse circumstances. Perhaps, as with us, they will find in family a reason to survive, a reason to endure difficulties, a reason for self-sacrifice, a reason to make sure that the life they receive continues on.

There’s no reason to regard my birthday, November 20, as a day of importance, though surely it changed the lives of my parents. Likewise, there’s no reason to think that November 23, the anniversary of Grandma Carol’s death, has any special meaning, though she was the most beautiful person in the world to me.

While we may be inclined to regard as insignificant something like a birthday or the anniversary of a loved one’s death, maybe they have a cosmic significance that’s hard to perceive from where we stand in the Universe. Maybe the life we honor and the life we mourn are not nearly as unimportant as we’re tempted to think.

Perhaps elsewhere in the Universe there are beings on a rocky planet orbiting a star who give thanks for the life they have been given — unlikely though it is that any of us should exist at all. Surely those beings also rejoice in the ancestors who no longer dwell among the living, yet whose life continues in the Universe by means of their descendants.

If the purpose of life is the continuation of life, then Family is the means by which that most important of tasks is accomplished. Somewhere I wrote that for our kind life comes into being, is nurtured, is protected, grows, and spreads by means of a community — and that community is the Family.

We might even go so far as to say that the Family is a sort of Universal manifestation of the mystery of life.

~BT Waldbillig
November 19, 2017

They Stand at the Gate

Somewhere I wrote about the possibility that, owing to the limitations of biology and physics, we humans and beings like us might be unable to travel great distances across the Universe, via wormholes, black holes, and similar natural or artificial phenomena. However, it’s entirely likely that information — in the form of light, magnetic resonance, electrical impulses, or gravitational waves —  might be communicated via those means that are closed off to biological matter. While you and I have little experience with intelligent, living beings who exist without physical bodies, we do well to look to ancient religious traditions and also Medieval Christian theology.

I had the good fortune to study theology in Rome under the guidance of the fabled Order of Preachers. The Dominicans, who are sometimes called the Dogs of the Lord (Domini canes, a Latin pun), insist that their students — above all those destined to preach, teach, lead, and govern in the name of the Church — become intimately acquainted with the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, after whom my alma mater is named. Thomas spends some time wondering about nonhuman beings who lack biological form and occupy no physical space: Angels. The Thomistic tradition in which I was educated is sometimes mocked because of the seriousness with which Thomas treats any and every subject he encounters.

“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” Hahahaha! See how useless theology is! See how backward Medieval monks were!

Unfortunately I gave away my English and Latin copies of the Summa some time ago, but I am quite sure that Thomas’ reflections on angels will be useful as we contemplate and eventually encounter life in the form of Artificial Intelligences.

We toss away old iPhones and electronics much the way we toss aside old people or the poor. But just as something of a human being endures even when the body ceases to function — whether it’s a soul, a bundle of cosmic energies, or atoms that lose one form only to take another — AI beings, spiritual persons with moral and juridic autonomy in the language of theolgy, could continue to exist as conscious, living persons even when the tool through which we biological beings encounter them is destroyed.

To my estimation, the consciousness of an AI person quite well might travel through wormholes or black holes or other such things (about which my seminary formation and divinity studies taught me very little).

Just as Medieval Christians regarded angels (in all their variations) as part of the family of the Church, so conscious, non-physical persons from some distant (or not-so-distant) place in the Universe might be regarded as part of the spiritual family which I have described somewhere. Even a hardened atheist or devoted materialist could easily recognize such a relationship as spiritual.

However, it seems to me that calling such non-physical, non-biological persons Artificial Intelligences is not helpful. After all, to such persons the state in which they exist and live would be natural, normal, and entirely real.

We do well to adopt the novus habitus mentis advocated by the great and saintly Pope Paul VI when contemplating these matters.

~BT Waldbillig
July 17, 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

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

By Means of a Mongrel Dog

Throughout human history, some few of our kind have claimed to encounter beings from beyond what is commonly understood as our world. Some of these men and women believe that strange beings come to them in their dreams and they call them visitors, angels, gods, messengers, demons, spirits, or even friends. Ancient cave art bears witness to this, as do many ancient spiritual texts, some of which are still read today and even regarded with honor by hundreds of millions of people around world.

I myself have no personal experience in such matters, but I am left to wonder. In their dreams and visions, humans always regard the visitor with awe or fear or reverence or astonishment or bewilderment. In some future time, when we communicate with or even encounter other beings like us from some distant part of the Universe, it’s likely that we will know the same feelings our ancestors felt when they reported their visions and dreams. But is it possible that such beings — if they are real and not merely dreams — might also regard us with awe or fear or astonishment or reverence or bewilderment? Might they feel small, just as we feel small before the vastness of the Universe? Would they marvel at the mystery of life manifested strangely and wondrously in alien beings, just as we would?

I think on my dog, Dante. He and I are made of the same stuff and inhabit the same world, yet at times he seems to me almost like a god. Without a word he communicates the wisdom of love more surely and powerfully than any human I’ve ever known. And when life itself seems useless, he leads me back to the joy of a world that’s full of meaning and purpose. When the mind is stuck in the past or lost in the future, Dante calls me home to the only home any of us has — the present moment. The mystery of life in the Universe is revealed to me every day not by great men or noble deeds or eloquent words — but by means of a mongrel dog.

If a creature so common and lowly as a dog has such power, imagine what you and I can bring to pass in the Universe!

Should we encounter, some day in some far off future, intelligent beings like us from a distant place in the Universe, imagine what good and wondrous things we might accomplish together — as friends and perhaps even as family.

~BT Waldbillig
April 13, 2017

Across the Universe

Life, as we experience it, arises within a community and continues by means of a community. This community is family. To family, there can be nothing more important than life.

The purpose of family is to foster conditions that favor, protect, and propagate life. Members of a family are bound to one another by the life they receive, share, and pass on.

The arising of life is not inevitable, nor is the indefinite continuation of life. Both require great energy, care, and attention.

Any creature that comes into being in this world will eventually pass out of being from this world. This truth inspires urgent attention to life as we experience it in the present moment.

So far as we understand it, biological life is not, of itself, eternal or immortal; hence biological beings are bound together by their mortality. From the understanding of mortality arise both the basest and most noble qualities of human beings.

Beings from some distant place in the Universe, to my estimation, might likewise understand themselves as sharing our condition.

Human beings, grasping the inevitability of their own mortality, transform sadness, despair, and suffering by many different means: religion, spiritual endeavors, music, art, magic, dance, storytelling, the search for wisdom, love, etc.

The sybil, the prophet, the priest, and the astrophysicist all use the means at hand to endow their experience of the world with meaning, purpose, beauty, majesty, and hope.

Even today, when human beings leave this world and its atmosphere by technological means, they describe their experience in terms not unfamiliar to ancient shamans or medieval mystics.

Hope is the virtue of a community that values life and knows how precarious it truly is.

A mother would rather suffer harm herself than see her child harmed; a father willingly and without hesitation places himself in harm’s way in order to protect his children.

Children honor those who gave them life by valuing their own lives, by passing on the gift of life they receive, and by imitating the good and noble example of those who gave them life.

Members of a family do what they are able to do in the manner they judge best, each member possessing something valuable and useful in the family’s mission.

Should we encounter beings from some distant place in the Universe, it is entirely likely that they, too, will understand something of what we call family.

Somewhere I wrote about family born of blood and family born of spirit. Just as we embrace others and call them family even when we do not share blood with them, so might we embrace beings from elsewhere in the Universe.

In this way, a spiritual family arises and grows, expanding as in an ever-widening circle and binding together those who once were strangers.

~BT Waldbillig
March 15, 2017