To Greet the Long-Awaited Daybreak

-An ever-widening circle
~Our Family grows

One morning in early February two years ago as Dante the Little Man and I were taking a walk through Highbridge Park in Washington Heights, we came upon a small snake who had wandered out from his place of hibernation and onto the paved foot path. It seemed rather odd to encounter a snake wandering about in the cold of winter, so I took the opportunity to introduce Dante to the snake; afterward I used a small fallen tree branch to gently move the snake from harm’s way and back onto the grass lawn next to the path. Though it couldn’t possibly be case, it almost seemed as though the snake had come to greet us. I have sometimes wondered about that snake since Dante and I first encountered him. I don’t know where he is now or if he is still alive but I still wish him well.

Some of those we call friends and some of those we know as family did not survive to see this day. Some of us now passing through the reality we call the world will not see the trees of the grove and the crops of the fields which we have so carefully cultivated, guarded, and nourished bear that rarest and sweetest of fruits. Some of us will never touch the infant flesh begotten of their own and bearing the likeness thereof. So also, of the many branches of the human family on this planet, only ours — so far as we know in this moment — has survived to greet the long-awaited daybreak.

And so,

Let us give thanks for the great dawn
For the tree and its many branches
For our children
For a grove well-tended and protected
For the field laborers who disappeared too soon
Let there be no anger or hatred, ill-will
Or rancor within our sacred family
Instead let us honor those who
Performed their duties without hesitation
And let us look with compassion
Upon the shortcomings of
Our fathers and mothers
Our brothers and sisters
Our ancestors and children

-May our Tree endure
~For the sake of the Tree

~BT Waldbillig
November 23, 2017

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Take the Lesson of the Tree

While the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

We live in a world replete with wisdom — a world in which the very trees themselves and birds and mountains and dogs have something to teach us — yet few of us are ever wise.

As Dante the Little Man and I took our walk through a nearby park this morning, one of the trees spoke to us and said:

Yesterday’s story is today’s story — some rejoice at this prince or that, while others lament; fortunes are made and lost; the children of one man prosper while those of another become orphans. Yesterday, did you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, extend your hand to the fallen? No — and you won’t today either. You prefer to wander desperately like madmen, the buzz of the world echoing in your mind. If only you would take the lesson of the Tree, then would you change your world.

~BT Waldbillig
November 10, 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

 

Place (a poem by W.S. Merwin)

PLACE
By W.S. Merwin

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

https://www.merwinconservancy.org/2015/04/poem-of-the-week-place/

~BT Waldbillig
June 8, 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

From Darkness to Light

Stat arbor
Dum volvitur orbis

The Tree stands still
While the Earth spins

Almost ten years ago I came across the spiritual autobiography of Karen Armstrong, a respected scholar of religion and former Catholic nun, as well as British television commentator and one of the authors of the international Charter for Compassion. Through the course of her spiritual crisis in the convent and afterward as she tried to construct a life in the outside world, Armstrong was dogged by discouragement and feelings of failure which led to a period of severe depression. Many years later as she reflected on the path she had forged for herself, she realized that in her youth she looked at the spiritual life as unfolding along a straight line where we’re either going forward or retreating backward. Progress or failure. Now, in later life, she prefers the image of a spiral staircase: In any given present moment, it seems as though we’re stuck turning in circles, while in fact we’re very gradually ascending, growing or progressing in ways that are hidden or difficult to perceive. Only after much time, great effort, lots of failure, and a fair amount of luck can we perceive our true place.

Many people live in close contact with the frustration, desolation, discouragement, and despair that Karen Armstrong experienced. Some choose to abandon their spiritual endeavor altogether, but most do their best to continue despite the seeming uselessness of it all. It’s not unlike other great undertakings in life — marriage, vocation, friendship, education, or positive social transformation.

The way forward
Is the path of return

We all need some kind of help or encouragement or support or sage advice in time of desolation. Often we’re bitterly aware when others respond with silence to our own difficulties, though usually we pay no attention at all to the even greater struggles of those we love.

Fortunately, simple realties — understood for what they are — lead us back to the place of compassion. Something simple like a plucked flower, a fallen leaf, or a crushed sparrow’s egg has power to awaken us from the darkness. So does a kind word, a spontaneous smile, an outstretched hand, or the embrace of a family.

The moment of despair
Is the time of great hope

The history of our kind shows that once in a very great while some momentous event occurs that plunges all of us into the darkness together at once. In those past moments when we were tempted to think all was lost, our kind always found a source of power beyond imagining.

In our day, we do well to recall that we are not alone. Together, not abandoning even the smallest or most useless among us, we wait in darkness for the appearance of a bright shining light that has already begun to dawn.

~BT Waldbillig
April 24, 2017

At the Arising of a Spiritual Family

The causes of death are many,
Those of staying alive are few,
These too can become the causes of death,
Therefore always perform the practices.
~Nagarjuna, The Precious Garland (n. 278)

When I was young I did not understand how precarious and uncertain life truly is. Only now, mid-way through life’s journey, have I seen how easily the life of a man, or indeed his entire family, might disappear so completely that beings in some later time might think him only a fable. Somewhere I wrote about the urgent obligation for a family of blood to transcend useless attachment to the love of some and the hatred of many, and in so doing become a family of spirit, transcending common barriers of vain self-interest and outwitting the wise and powerful of this world.

A family of blood alone or flesh alone is easily exterminated, whether by chance or by the design of those who call themselves righteous, superior, and pure. But a family of spirit is indestructible, impassable, unfailing, capable of accomplishing even the most impossible of noble tasks. Such a family -embraces every son and daughter as a loving father does. It stretches back in time, to an age before beings of our kind looked up to the heavens for signs. It stretches forward through time to realities you and I cannot even imagine. And if there is some knowable reality that stands outside of time completely, this family reaches even to that place.

But the true marvel is this: you and I have the power to bring into being this family.  Now, in this very moment. If we choose to. Each and every one of us, in the way we are best able, has a part in the arising of the spiritual family.

For this reason, somewhere Nagarjuna says this:

You should always analyze well
Everything before you act,
And through seeing things correctly as they are
Do not put full reliance on others.

Here he’s not speaking of self-reliance in the modern American sense. The ancient Indian master refers to something more subtle and quite important: When power is concentrated in the hands of a few men, some (perhaps all) of those few men will use it to wicked purpose, making themselves like unto gods, determining who merits life and who deserves to die. Or perhaps they will be foolish, like the mindless farmer who is unable to recognize in the loss of a single ear of wheat an abundance of bread that might have fed the hungry.

Those who seem reliable and trustworthy often show themselves to be nothing of the sort. If only one man or only one privileged group possesses power to bring into being a spiritual family, then the family is doomed. For this reason providence has placed a generative, spiritual power within every member of the family.

The creative force that brings into being the spiritual family stands not outside us, but within each of us. Each and every one of us can bring forth from within this power to give life and create the spiritual family. Perhaps those beings whose compassionate love and dedication to life we fail to appreciate also have this power. Perhaps there is a secret hidden for us in the rocks, in the water, in the trees, beneath the flowers, beyond the stars, and in the heart of a dog sitting at a boy’s feet.

Now, our kind is capable of acting with wisdom and generosity but the cycles of history show that rarely do we manifest our more noble nature. The famous phrase of Pascal comes to mind (I’m paraphrasing): Those men who mistakenly regard themselves as beings higher than angels, such men are destined to become the most hellish of beasts. Let angels be angels. Let beings of flesh and blood be what they are.

For this reason, a spiritual family belongs to no one single manifestation of the universal spiritual path, for human language is not capable of fully and completely communicating any reality, let alone that which is altogether beyond words as we know them. Some members of this family follow one god, some many, others none at all or something altogether different, but all members of  this family are united by love of life and compassion for one another — despite the many irreconcilable and contrary beliefs that exist in this world. Within the spiritual family, some are poor, some rich, some kingly, some little more than mongrel dogs, some well known, others yet to be known — there is place for all. They hide themselves in every place of power and among the powerless, indistinguishable from those around them. The sons and daughters of the spiritual family do this to ensure that on the dread day of destruction, at least some of them will endure, and the family will live on in them. This sort of spiritual family cannot be wiped out or extinguished.  Such a family will endure.

And should some Mighty People War seek the end of our manifestation of life in this world, the Family of the Great Heart will vouchsafe the continuation of life and compassion by the many means they have long prepared in silent expectation.

One day I will no longer exist in this world — just like any other man. So far as we understand, any being who comes into existence in this world eventually passes out of existence in this world. The sad mystery of impermanence and mortality shines an invincible light on the greater mystery of life manifested in fathers and mothers, in children and grandchildren, in trees and flowers and dogs, in wind and water and rocks, in pain and love and loneliness. You and I have encountered all these realities through the course of our brief lives so far. Perhaps they have inspired you, as they have inspired me, just as they inspired others before us, and will continue to inspire beings in need of hope long after we are gone, never to return to this present world.

For so long as there is a present moment in which we are able to become friend to those who seek a friend and a family able to welcome those in need of family, that moment will be a time in which life can thrive and flourish and invite and inspire.

Lest I paint too fantastical an image, the secret is this:  All we have to do is love each other. It is that simple, yet most of us think it impossible entirely. As Cardinal Newman wrote somewhere: We begin by loving those who are nearest to us — ourselves, our family, our friends. From the sure love that exists within the spiritual family, we are able to expand our experience of compassionate-love until it grows as in an ever-widening circle and embraces even those regarded as unlovable.

Here, in the present moment and within the spiritual family, we find a place where life begins, a means by which life continues, and a shining beacon of hope for all who dwell in this world and in the worlds to come.

~BT Waldbillig
April 20, 2017
– – – – –
Hymn of the Spiritual Family

abbe gaud
albe gaud
nonce laud
ver bend
pae don
bend en harc

Rejoice, the Father comes
Rejoice, the Rising Sun brings dawn
Let all proclaim the praise
Truly we are sacred
To our Father and to His Master
We are blessed from the very beginning