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

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

 

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

The Two Lessons

When we focus outside ourselves, ultimately we realize the equality of ourselves and all other beings. Everybody wants happiness; nobody wants to suffer. Our attachment to our own happiness expands to an attachment to the happiness of all.
~Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche

Many years ago as a seminary student I had occasion to know an elderly woman who confided in me that on several occasions she received visions of Christ and the Virgin Mary. These encounters always happened in the dead of night and so I assumed they were simply pious dreams, but the woman’s experience was of something unlike ordinary dreams. Now, I’m not one for visions or inspired dreams — I regard them as little more than distractions from the greater mysteries that surround us in every waking moment — but I felt unable to dismiss out of hand the woman’s accounts for this reason: her entire demeanor changed and she became almost radiant whenever she recounted to me her other-worldly spiritual experiences. She was, in some way and for at least some passing moment, transformed. Even transfigured. In addition to the positive emotional content of her experience, the rational, discursive content (the storyline) was simple, useful, helpful and entirely traditional.

Luckily I had been formed by spiritual teachers and personal confessors who honored the experience and respected the conscience of anyone who might seek spiritual counsel. So I simply encouraged the elderly woman to be thankful for her dream-visions and then to get on with life as best she could, carrying the positive mental states — joy, hope,  loving-kindness — into her difficult daily life. Naturally, I have no personal experience with extraordinary dreams or mystical visions, but I imagine that being thankful and then moving on would be the only way I myself would be able to deal with that sort of situation, as the weight of so intense an encounter with transcendent reality might be too much to bear. Or at least that’s what I thought at the time. Truth be told, I think taking a walk with the dog or savoring a proper meal or spending time with family would be more useful and beneficial than a thousand visitations from gods or angels or saints.

Not so long ago I wrote a letter to one of the world’s most important Buddhist spiritual teachers to ask his thoughts on this sort of thing. Much to my surprise, he personally responded with a warm, direct, thoughtful opinion, even though he did not know me and surely already had too many people demanding his attention. This great spiritual teacher put it in Buddhist terms: While a madman might think himself sane, an enlightened person would not regard himself as mad, even though to the world he might seem mad — just as Jesus was called a madman in one Gospel account. The enlightened person would recognize that the true madness arises from the habitual, delusional ways we think, feel, and live. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave describes the experience: either we are so overwhelmed by a clear vision of reality that we retreat to our comfortable delusions or else we accept the reality we encounter and when we share this with others who stand outside our place of experience we are regarded as foolish or mad or even wicked.

It is a shame and unfortunate that through our own fault we don’t understand ourselves or know who we are.
~Saint Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle

Somewhere I wrote of the lessons my parents taught me when our family dog died. My mother consoled me, wiped my boyish tears, and taught me not to run away from the pain of life. My father taught me to be strong enough to rise up from the place of tears and honor the suffering of the present moment by burying the dead dog. He told me that if I’m strong enough to do this as a boy, as a man I will be strong enough to triumph over any obstacle I might encounter. How lucky I was to have such wise parents!

Today, midway through life’s journey, it is clear to me: The Two Lessons — the lesson of the mother and the lesson of the father — are both necessary. We become more truly human, free from the madness of life, when we look at our experience of the world for what it really is, when we stop pretending that we can escape loss and pain and sadness. And once we dwell in the place of tears for as long as we need to, we have the ability to rise up and start our journey, offering a saving hand to those still lost in the place of darkness.

The journey begins with one person. If one human being can make the journey from darkness to light, pass from death to life, it means all of us can do it. No matter how unlikely or impossible it seems.

~BT Waldbillig
May 24, 2017

The Choice Is Always Ours

A plucked flower will wilt and die. A fallen leaf will turn brown and crumble to dust. But for a brief time both still hold on to life and beauty — and so does the world.

The story of the sainted children of Fatima, Portugal and their purported encounter with the Virgin Mary one hundred years ago today is bound to be as incomprehensible to non-believers as it is inspiring to fervent devotees. Controversy and saccharine piety aside, the message communicated by the children was essentially a meditation on impermanence and mortality — not just as they relate to any of us individually but as they relate to the very existence of our world. The mysterious “secrets” of Fatima were visions of suffering in the world on a scale previously unimaginable and of wars so destructive they might annihilate the planet. You don’t need to be a Rosary-rattling Catholic to see how the past century bore witness to this, and you don’t need to believe in other-worldly visions to know that we turned life into a nightmare for ourselves and for others.

But there is another side to the Fatima meditation on impermanence: as surely as we have power to destroy the world, we also have power to save the world. Undoubtedly the world as we know it will one day pass away, but for now it’s here, all around us. We needn’t be victims of fate or destiny, passively awaiting the end of all things. Rather, we can become ferocious warriors dedicated to an impossible mission, a mission to save this world — for the present moment, at least.

Our world nearly came to an end more than once across the past century — but it didn’t end. The next century will be no less dangerous and precarious. The message of Fatima still holds true: it’s up to us to decide what will happen. Together, as a spiritual family of fearless warriors, we have the power to save the world once again.

~BT Waldbillig
May 13, 2017

Even Gods Need Heroes

There is an ancient saying:
Even the gods
Have need of heroes

Early humans left images of animals on the walls and vaults of the caves where they took refuge. One of the most common images is the bull (in one form or another). In all likelihood this image was a celebration of the successful hunt as well as the expression of hope in continued prosperity. But the animal image also acknowledges the precariousness of life, which depends on the sacrifice and death of some beings for the sake of others. Buddhists will later call this reality (i.e., the precariousness of life) impermanence, while Christians will adopt the mantra memento mori. Presumably, the inspiration for the pre-historic cave paintings is also the origin of the Mithras myth.

The American Christian theologian Richard John Neuhaus said somewhere that we are born to die. Naturally, he didn’t mean that death is our purpose. He simply stated an obvious truth: Each of us is born midway along a journey that will one day end. If we are born into this life, we will one day pass out of this life.

Not surprisingly, our participation in this reality of pain and mortality causes fear, despair, selfishness, hatred, regret, and suffering. Yet instead of resting in these experiences, we have, since the beginning, chosen to give meaning and purpose to what might otherwise be an empty, hopeless existence. This is the spiritual path.

An ever-widening circle
Our spiritual family grows

For us, as well as for beings similar to us, life arises within a community and is continued by means of a community. This is family, and within family rests hope.

I still recall a phrase I learned in seminary while studying philosophy: Bonum est diffusivum sui. The Good naturally and spontaneously tends toward growth, expansion, and continuation. Family is the incarnation of this principle, though at times it is difficult for us to appreciate this, as by its nature family embraces both sheep and goats, to use a Biblical expression. To put it another way: The mother of a family embraces all of her children. She loves each son as if he were her only child, loves each daughter as if she were her only child. The just and the wicked alike. How difficult it is to be a mother!

Take the example of the grove-keeper. She is careful which branches she prunes and which she allows to remain, which trees she brings down and when. She values the beautiful trees, the fruit-bearing trees, and those with fragrant blossoms, but also trees that appear to the foolish man as ugly and useless. Not all the branches nor all the trees survive the grove-keeper’s labor, but if she chooses wisely and carefully, the grove will survive and flourish.

Life continues by protecting and fostering the place where it arises. In this way, life is able to expand as in an ever-widening circle, stretching out to every corner of the universe.

~BT Waldbillig
January 17, 2017

The Wisdom of Avenue D

A few evenings ago, Dante and I were in Manhattan’s East Village to share a pizza with a good friend, and after our meal the dog and I took a stroll down Avenue D.

Now, once upon a time that might not have been a wise choice since that end of Alphabet City was regarded as especially dangerous. My friend, a native New Yorker, shared with me a saying he learned as a youngster:

If you go to Avenue A, you’re adventurous.
If you go to Avenue B, you’re bold.
If you go to Avenue C, you’re courageous.
But if you go to Avenue D, you’re dead.

These days the situation is not nearly so dramatic, though many people still avoid the area altogether. It’s true Avenue D can be sketchy, particularly at night, and there’s likely a certain degree of local gang activity, but I’ve never felt threatened despite the odd looks I sometimes receive. Dante and I will continue to visit Avenue D whenever occasion arises for a simple reason: it is a holy place, consecrated by the hope and kindness that endure in the midst of poverty, violence, marginalization, and suffering.

Only in the last year or so have I come to appreciate that fact, thanks to a number of ordinary events that touched me in a meaningful way: the reading of a meditation on impermanence by the Japanese spiritual teacher Dogen; the particular beauty of the moon and stars in the night sky on several occasions; the unexpected passing by of an asteroid on the birthday of my late grandmother; the grace to perceive simple things, like clouds and trees and birds, with fresh sight. I have shared these things with Dante, who has in turn imparted his own wisdom during our walking meditations down Avenue D, and at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, and along the High Bridge into the Bronx.

The night sky, a compassionate tree, a loved one’s birthday, the friendship of a dog – these simple things contain all the wisdom one could ever need.

~BT Waldbillig
February 4, 2016