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.

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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 2)

Written in the second half of the 17th century by a French Carmelite lay brother, The Practice of the Presence of God is divided into three sections: Section One, comprising accounts of four personal conversations; Section Two, comprising 16 letters to various individuals; and Section Three, comprising six “maxims”, or brief reflections.

To begin, I plan on commenting upon each of the conversations individually. I may group together several letters or several maxims when I reach those sections. We’ll see what works best.

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

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

Lex suprema amor: Love is the inspiration, path, and goal of our spiritual endeavor.

As most of us cannot fully and perfectly love all beings, we do well to love those who are closest to us: ourselves and our family.

This practice (love of self and family) is more important and useful than imitation of those the world regards as virtuous, holy, wise, etc.

Let others worry about reward and punishment, heaven and hell, and the like, for our endeavor is too important, difficult, necessary, and universal for such considerations.

Let us commit ourselves completely and with[out] hesitation to whatever part we might have in our common endeavor, even if it entails the loss of whatever it is that we most cherish or hope for.

The One who set us upon our path is the Silent One: as few of us can penetrate the silence, we must content ourselves with words.

As the Psalmist tell us: Those the world regards as little are not lesser beings than those than those the world regards as great.

We do well to remember that few of us will see the good fruit of our shared mission.

That which we have received [from those who came before], we must hand on [to those who are yet to come].

Bonum est diffusivum sui: A single tree possesses power sufficient to sanctify an entire grove.

~BT Waldbillig
December 18, 2016

The Vow of the Little Man

May I be:

Light in the darkness
Life in the place of death
Hope to those who despair
Courage to the fearful
Freedom to the enslaved
Strength to the weak
Mutual affection to all sentient beings
Enduring compassion of the Tree

(Based on the Vow of Shantideva)

~BT Waldbillig
December 18, 2016

Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

In the course of seminary studies I had occasion to read ancient Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. Naturally, the Book of Revelation from the Christian Bible falls into this category. One thing that has always given me pause is the relative inability of our forefathers to envision an end of this world cycle and the beginning of a new one that does not entail destruction, vengeance, and suffering. Like anything we read in sacred writings, this vision reveals far more about the people who wrote the scriptures than it does about the One who inspired the scriptures.

After many years of intense struggle and doubt around faith, I still find the story of Jesus beautiful, moving, and life-changing. But I ask myself: If Jesus were willing to dwell among us, to teach us a path of love and compassion, to suffer on our behalf, what business would he have with this pornographic blood-lust sort of apocalypse? We seem to think that God has no choice but to punish and destroy;  this is a problematic way of thinking with troublesome implications. However, I’m no great theologian or biblical scholar, so I’ll leave the answer to those who are better educated and more competent in such matters.

For my part, I say this: We do well to regard with caution and suspicion those who appear to us holy, righteous, and just. These are precisely the people who long for the world to burn, who ardently desire the destruction and damnation of their brothers and sisters. All in the name of God.

Were I to encounter the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, I would send them to the stables and then offer them a stiff drink. Death, vengeance, and destruction can wait. There’s too much life yet to enjoy and share in this world and in the worlds to come.

~BT Waldbillig
December 17, 2016

Whether Seen or Unseen

Many of us spend a great deal of time obsessing, worrying, blaming, and feeling shame about the hindrances to our spiritual journey. We feel unworthy to engage transcendent sacred mysteries and incapable of experiencing positive transformation. (A discussion of the root causes of this phenomenon will have to wait for another day.)

We forget — much to our detriment — that there is something good and useful in every human experience, though it may not be easily or readily manifested. At the same time, let’s not put on the mask of false happiness and say that everything works out for the best or everything is a gift from God, or such nonsense. The mystery of providence is nothing so stupid. Still, from any circumstance can arise transformation and spiritual awakening.

When I was in high school, I chose as my confessor and spiritual advisor Father James Grubb, then stationed in Ottumwa, Iowa. As it happened, my high school literature teacher in Chariton, Iowa had been a student in a parochial school where Father Grubb was the religion teacher many years before. Mrs. Altenhofen was amused that I, too, had occasion to encounter Father Grubb, who in earlier days was strict, authoritarian, and rigid about the observance of rules, as he had become the Hippie Priest in the 1970s. (There’s no purpose in sharing the details of that story here; I’m sure the curious can Google it or Bing it.) By the time I encountered him, he had gone through a hellish personal spiritual crisis with his faith and confidence renewed. He’s the priest who handed on to me the traditional rituals that had been discarded by the Church. However, there’s one important thing that set him apart from other priests who had clung to the old ways: Father Grubb engaged the old rites with a new attitude; he wasn’t a nostalgic restorationist. He had understood Pope Paul VI’s call for a novus habitus mentis. My appreciation for ritual movement, chant as a form of mindful communication, and useful formality that’s expressive, not suffocating, began with Father Grubb.

The first time I asked him to hear my confession, we paused before the confessional box. On one side there was a sign that read: Seen. This meant there was no screen between penitent and confessor. On the other side: Unseen. In that part of the box there was an opaque screen to assure anonymity. When Father Grubb pointed out the center door behind which the priest sits, he said “Here the sign should read: Obscene.” We both laughed out loud, much to the dismay of the blue-haired church ladies reciting the rosary very, very slowly.

Of course, what he meant is that he couldn’t pretend to have been an unsullied lily of the valley (gack!) through the course of his life. He taught me to see sin and failing as development along the spiritual path. And never, never to worry about it, as the story of grace unfolds in our lives through both progress and failing, that God manifests goodness and love in ways we don’t understand.

You and I tend to forget that even those things we regard as hindrances and failings can transform us for the better. Naturally, I’m not saying there’s no use in pursuing virtue or spiritual ideals, but it has taken me most of my life to understand that when we close ourselves off to a fuller experience of the realities around us, when we try to kill off elements of our humanity, we accomplish no good thing and we set ourselves apart from our brothers and sisters who — whether we know it or not — are every bit as much as us on a spiritual journey.

Seen. Unseen. Obscene.

A throwaway comment that contained the most important bit of insight I would ever come across.

~BT Waldbillig
December 16, 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

The Blind Man of Bethsaida

I will seem simple to some when I say that, in my experience, spiritual movements that endure and attract people of positive intention and good will offer something worthwhile – a way of life, a supportive community, a common purpose, mystical insight, refuge in times of danger, meaningful shared work. Most of the spiritual traditions that I’ve encountered, experienced, or studied remind me of a Gospel story you may recall:

“And he [Jesus] cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town.”

You and I forget that “we see through a glass, darkly” in our present condition. This is true across religions and spiritual traditions. So long as we lack clear vision and penetrating mind, we have no choice but to use those elements of our experience that seem to fit with our provisional understanding of the sacred mysteries and that those we encounter have some possibility of understanding. The scholastic dictum comes to mind: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur. That which is received is received in the way that the recipient is able to receive it. We could almost substitute “perceive” for “receive”.

(As an aside, the story of Jesus healing the blind man reminds me very much of what Buddhists call enlightenment, expressed in a Semitic, Near-Eastern framework. Perhaps that’s a reflection for another day.)

Somewhere I wrote of the problems that arise when we are unable to look through and beyond the particular veils that cloak the sacred mysteries honored by whichever particular spiritual tradition one might follow. That’s not to say that there are no real, meaningful differences or conflicts among our various religious and spiritual traditions. I would be dishonest and disrespectful if I regarded other traditions in such a dismissive manner. Still, we do well to harken back to those first longings that inspired our shared spiritual journey.

To my estimation, the spiritual impulse was there in the heart and mind of the Neanderthal who gained some sort of insight in a handful of seashells or river-polished pebbles left beneath a tree that bore up the mortal remains of a friend or child or mate or leader. That same longing for the numinous and transcendent inspired whoever it was that carefully collected the remains of a Nalendi family and hid them away in the Chamber of Stars discovered in South Africa just a few years ago.

~BT Waldbillig
December 13, 2016

Into the Desert

Just the other day I shared a meal with one of my spiritual teachers who is also a beloved friend. He was preparing to embark upon a solitary spiritual retreat during which he will have no direct contact with other human beings, living in isolation without the distraction – or luxury – of easily accessible internet or telephone connections, without television or YouTube, without a pile of magazines or a stack of books to shuffle through. To those who overestimate their spiritual development or who lack a certain kind of experience in the world, it doesn’t sound all that bad. We complain that our telefonini dominate us. Oh, how we’d jump at the chance to get away from all the demands people make of us! Hell, we’d probably pay a handsome sum to have this kind of experience. Well, if we could have our lattes in the morning. And only the proper kind of all-natural, cruelty-free, vegan items from WholeFoods. And maybe a small stash of designer weed. And hot showers followed by fresh, fluffy towels whenever we want. That’s how serious most of us are about our spiritual and human experience – and we’re the ones who prance about smug and satisfied at how “spiritual” we are, how much “progress” we’ve made. Such is the nonsense of our delusions. (Don’t get me wrong, those of us who are spiritually deluded needn’t abandon all hope, but that’s a topic of another day.)

My friend will have none of these conveniences. He’ll be in the mountains in winter, receiving food provisions left for him every couple of days over a period of about four weeks. He has chosen to freely and temporarily enter into the lifestyle of a Carthusian or Camaldolese monk, a Zen hermit, or a convict behind bars. It is an experience that changes a person, destroys the human spirit, or endows insight that you and I cannot begin to understand. Far from a life of escape from the world, it is an encounter with all that we cannot bear to know in ourselves, all those aspects of life that we ignore and block out.

In the primitive Christian community, many men and women received the inspiration to set out for the desert, with this caveat: “You do not take refuge in the desert to escape the devil. You go forth to the desert to find him.”

We honor and celebrate those among us who choose to leave the comfort and safety of the home they know for the homelessness of a spiritual path. We even call them “saints”. Let us not forget those others who are also “saints” – the ones lost in prison compounds, held out of sight, treated as less than dogs. The Carthusian monk and the Zen hermit regard them as brother, sister, friend, and teacher. You and I do well to regard them with as much affection and respect as we might any [would-be] saint or [so-called] enlightened person. In fact, on the day of judgment, I’d much rather cast my lot with a death-row inmate than a sappy saint. (Peace be to sappy saints! They gave me much inspiration in my youth, and that was no small task.)

~BT Waldbillig
December 13, 2016

The Brief Rule of Saint Romuald

I recently came across the Brief Rule of Saint Romuald, an 11th-century European Christian monastic reformer. Now, I’m quite sure I read this Rule, which is only a few paragraphs long, many years ago in seminary and gave it no consideration, but returning to it today I found it quite interesting, unusual, and potentially useful.

Since moving to New York City from Rome in 2005, I’ve had the good fortune of finding a Buddhist sagnha (spiritual community) to study and practice meditation in, and the sangha members are truly good friends, almost like family at times. Yet lately, I find myself impelled by my own interior promptings to return to the spiritual roots that nourished my youth and inspired the first flourishing of my humanity. This return is not without difficulties, but that’s topic for another day.

I was struck and amazed at this little passage from Romuald’s rule:

Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.

I’ve never come across anything that so clearly, succinctly, and helpfully places the commonalities of Buddhist spirituality and the Christian mysticism into such a useful and (rather) easily intelligible Christian context.

Perhaps there are many more useful discoveries to be made in other spiritual traditions, also.

~BT Waldbillig
December 12, 2016

By the Sign of Hermes

As Dante the Little Man and I take our daily walks through New York City, typically in Washington Heights and the Bronx, every once in a while we come across the Sign of Hermes: a pair of shoes (or construction boots, go-go heels, football cleats, etc.) tied together and dangling from a light pole or telephone wire or tree limb. Hermes, you recall, was the ancient Greek messenger god known for his winged sandals. He was the patron of dreams and divination, transitions and journeys; he was also a bringer of fire, not unlike Prometheus.

People give their sneakers a toss for a variety of reasons, but most often they do it to commemorate some sort of passage. It might be a graduation, moving on from an unhelpful relationship, bringing a child into the world, an important sports victory. Many people also make the Sign of Hermes to mark a moment of spiritual significance, like a bat mitzvah, conversion of life, some flash of insight, or commitment to a path that will forever change the course of life.

Whether we realize it or not, we all stand at a threshold, a place of passage from the world we once knew to a new reality that we do not yet understand. However, there is no need to feel small or weak or inadequate, as no one crosses this threshold alone. We make this passage together, as a family.

If, at times, we experience fear or hesitation, let us not worry, for together we have strength, wisdom, and courage sufficient to face whatever may arise. Together we will make the journey from darkness to light. Together we will pass from death to life.

~BT Waldbillig
December 11, 2016