How Great the Tree

It is a simple fact of the world, as we know it, that some creatures must take the lives of other creatures in order to live. This usually entails physical pain and emotional suffering in those who are killed, but there is a burden that those who take life must carry with them, also.

In human beings, we see this acknowledged in the ancient ritual cave paintings of Lascaux, Alta Mira, Chauvet, etc. and also in the traditional practice of hunting only out of necessity and in wasting no part of the animal whose life is taken.

The taking of life — for any reason whatsoever — wounds both the individual killed and the individual who kills. This is as true of animals as it is of men. Yet some beings take life in order to ensure the continuation of life. Other beings give life in order to ensure that the gift they experience might continue.

In truth, anyone who participates in violence and death, in the taking of life, participates in this mystery. Whether aggressor, victim, or spectator; whether voluntary or involuntary; whether alone or in community; whether wicked or blameless; whether man or woman or child.

Those who dedicate themselves to a spiritual path learn to love and honor all beings, though this is no easy task. We might even call it a foolish, impossible mission, since that is how it seems at times. However, no matter where we stand within our experience of the mystery of suffering, we possess the capacity for positive spiritual transformation.

Look to the Tree:

When we behold the acorn or walnut we cannot believe the power it possesses to transform itself and very place it inhabits. From a small seed, mighty, unseen roots descend, turning useless soil into a place of life, breaking apart even stones.

Like a Titan, its body rises heavenward and stretches out its arms, providing rest and shade for the weary and a home to the birds of the sky.

The Tree creates the air that sustains man and beast. It offers itself as a sacrifice, becoming home and ark. It is the servant of the bringer of fire — fire that destroys, fire that sustains, fire that warms, fire that purifies.

How great is this Tree, like unto a god, stooping down to worship us who should worship it, silent and steadfast, wise beyond human understanding. And how marvelous that we, who deserve so little, are the branches and shoots and leaves and blossoms of this noble Tree. How noble are we, also!

~BT Waldbillig
January 29, 2017

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On Tree-Nature

The tree has been at the fore of my consciousness of late. Of course, the tree is the primordial symbol-reality from which our spiritual impulse arose and around which many religious traditions focus. In both Buddhism and Christianity the tree features prominently and it connects those two religions in a way that is often overlooked.

The liminal event in both religions occurs in relation to a tree: In Buddhism, the Buddha is enlightened under the tree; in Christianity, Christ is killed upon a tree. But the Buddha does not remain under the tree and Christ does not stay upon the cross. Both figures must go forth from the tree, and in so doing bring the reality of their spiritual experience to others. What I mean to say is, the benefit of the mystery they embody is not meant to terminate with them; it is intended to bear fruit in the lives of others and bring about healing in the Universe.

Alas, the clerical and monastic “owners” of these religions, who call themselves leaders, cling selfishly to the advantages their position gives them and so construct systems of power and exclusion to ensure no one might take such privilege and position from them. This is done in the name of orthodoxy, purity, lineage, or succession though it makes utter mockery of those things.

If Buddhism speaks of Buddha-nature and Christianity speaks of Christ-nature (i.e., the potential of all beings to bring forth in themselves that which the Buddha or Christ experienced and the mystery they symbolize), perhaps we could also speak of Tree-nature.

~BT Waldbillig
January 26, 2017

Of Snakes and Dogs

This morning before Dante and I set out for our morning trek, we had to bundle up and prepare ourselves since NYC finally received its first proper snowfall of the season. This morning’s crisp wind, cold temperature, and rising snowbanks were a far cry from our experience along the same route one year ago at this time, right around Epiphany. I remember this only because of an odd incident that still lingers in my consciousness.

Last year as the dog and I took our walk on a balmy Epiphany morning, we came upon a garter snake who had wandered out and onto the paved foot path leading to the pedestrian bridge on the Washington Heights side of Highbridge Park. While I’m not an ophidiophobe, my lack of familiarity with snakes usually causes me hesitation when I encounter them. Still, I find them beautiful and fascinating creatures.

Many of us know snakes in the unfavorable symbolic form they take within the Judeo-Christian cultural context, but of course in ancient times snakes held the sign of healing and medicine. Then there’s the famous story of the historical Buddha’s enlightenment: As the tale goes, on the eve of his spiritual transformation a giant, primordial lake serpent protected the Buddha from the danger of wild predators and from the harsh natural elements while he meditated.

The snake has a role, also, in what is arguably the world’s oldest global religion, Mithraism. Since this defunct cult was primarily ritual and visual, as opposed to written, we know with certainty very little about it. Yet in virtually every known intact and semi-intact place of worship we find Mithras, the Friend, depicted with several animals, including a dog and a snake.

Incidentally, Mithras is normally shown wearing a Phrygian cap, essentially a hipster hat, which covers his knotted hair — think today’s man-bun. How funny the cycle of history can be!

So last year I was keen for my dog to see and meet this snake, which was a first experience for him so far as I could tell. I made Dante stop and sit about a foot away from the garter snake and I brought his attention to the little guy sunning on the pavement, sure that he didn’t try to play with the snake or eat him. Once that was done, I broke off a twig off from a nearby tree branch and used it to move the snake to the side of the path, lest he be trampled by walkers, joggers, bicyclists, or careless dogs.

Later that same day Dante presented me with a stick he had cleaned and whittled a bit at one end. I assured him I’d keep it for the next time I encounter a snake in need of help.

~BT Waldbillig
January 8, 2017

Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT III

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 3

SCENE 1: A SACRED GROVE

On that day a single tree
Will sanctify the entire grove

Not long ago, the dog and I were wandering among the dusty streets of Manhattan’s East Village when we ducked into a small community garden. It was an odd space, situated mid-block and occupying the footprint of a demolished tenement house. There was nothing formal about the garden but it was clear that someone cared for this space quite attentively.

There were plots of flowers scattered about, luscious vines entwined in the chain fence and crawling up the walls of buildings on either side, a couple of small, humble trees, and nary a weed in sight. We sat in the shade of a tree for a few moments and shared a bottle of water before we went on our way.

It was odd to find such a lovely and delightful – albeit simple – garden in so rough a part of that neighborhood, close to the dilapidated housing projects and nowhere near the so-called gentrified areas where the smartly dressed, neatly coiffed schöne leute sip their lattes and stroll with languid detachment from the life-or-death concerns of the panhandlers, drug addicts, homeless veterans, and prostitutes around them.

Though the Earth spins
The Tree stands still

The mind travels back to my seminary days in Rome. There you won’t find lots of ramshackle neighborhood gardens, though you might lose yourself in one of those formal public spaces that started out as Edens for the Roman elite of long ago. In the Eternal City you find chapels and shrines honoring saints you’ve never heard of and servicing obscure, antiquated guilds. Some are simple, others intricately decorated. Some are easily accessible, some open only a few times a year. Just like Manhattan’s community gardens, they are all places of refuge, stop-offs for weary travelers. You might even say the garden and chapel – both home to the sacred tree – serve the same noble purpose.

Our Tree is a tree of suffering
It is a tree of life and hope

It’s not surprising that trees loom large in our collective consciousness. After all, we came from the tree:
whether it’s a mythic tree in an ancient garden,
a cosmic tree that spans the universe,
or a mighty tree on the edge of a savanna that dares our primordial ancestors to climb down and explore.

We find the tree featured prominently in many spiritual traditions: The ancient Hebrews who wandered desperately carried with them the essence of their deity in a wooden box. Whether you’re a fan of Gilgamesh or a devotee of Noah, it was a giant wooden ark that saved ancient humanity from that flood-of-all-floods. Jesus the carpenter died on a dead tree to bring life to a hopeless people. The Buddha was freed from the endless cycle of suffering while meditating in the cool shade of the kind Bodhi tree. The tree possesses such power that, whether alive or dead, it can save humanity.

The infinite expanse of the human heart
Will endure forever

As it happens, my family name is an Old German word that signifies a place of trees, a grove of sorts, or perhaps a forest. As a boy I dreamed of becoming the greatest tree in the grove, the wisest tree of the forest. And while a man must put aside the things of his childhood, the dreams of a boy are holy. I may never become great or wise, but wisdom and greatness exist in abundance everywhere around me. As boy I wanted to be the sacred tree, but only now, midway through life’s journey, have I understood that the entire grove is sacred.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF MARS ULTOR

Behold, Dante the Little Man and I took rest in the dark corner of an ancient temple. From upon his throne a mighty and fearless god let out a roar that shook the very walls and pillars of the sacred place. I began to tremble and turned away my gaze but Dante looked on.

The many warriors of the mighty and fearless god at once appeared, clothed in battle apparel with swords drawn. They began growling and roaring and crying out with shouts more fearsome than any I had ever heard.

With raised hand the mighty and fearless god silenced the terrifying warriors. Quiet and stillness filled the temple. Then the mighty and fearless god uttered a single word that echoed like thunder throughout the universe.

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

Suddenly the warriors were gone and the doors to the temple were sealed from within. The mighty and fearless god began to weep and the rivers of tears brought life to every corner of the universe.

– – – – –

SCENE 3: DOPO LA PIOGGIA

At the end of this desolate path
She waits in silence

Like a Camorra assassin
Or a Carthusian monk

Her arms outstretched
Reaching to the heavens

Her feet planted deep
Like roots of an ancient tree

But how should I meet her
I who am a tired traveler

Dust covered, heart weary
As I turn away in shame

See the rain is coming
She calls out

It will cleanse us both
And refresh this orchard

Our home
Our family

The oranges will return
With lemons and apples

And cherries
The dirt you bear on your flesh

Will be washed clean
And nourish the soil

Of this sacred place

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
December 30, 2016

Liturgy of a World That Passes Away, ACT I

LITURGY OF A
WORLD THAT
PASSES AWAY
by Brian T. Waldbillig

A cosmic meditation in Three Acts.

Dedicated to MGB, WSM, SK, JK, and DLM.

– – – – –
– – – – –

ACT 1

SCENE 1: COMPASSION OF THE TREE

Just outside the dining room bay window of my childhood home in Iowa stood a tall tree. To be honest, I don’t even know what sort of tree it was. Was it oak or elm? The tree was old, at least to the little mind of a little man. It was just a tree. And yet, more than most elements of my childhood, the tree still dwells in my consciousness. For all its plainness, I can recall no other tree that was so grand and kind in that little town. Never was there so sweet a tree with such gentle leaves. Perhaps it is the mere nostalgia of a man midway through his journey in this life, a man who could not love a tree when he was a child and now deludes himself with wishful memories. Perhaps it is something else: a wooly intuition that there is something noble and valuable in every experience. That tree is no longer there and I am no longer a little child but, in some way, the tree lives on in me.

The tree is so common an aspect of our human experience that most of us cannot grasp its beauty, significance, or compassion. Perhaps only on a long journey in the desert or across the sea or through the infinite expanse of outer space – those places where the tree seems but fantasy – can our kind laugh with joy or weep in sorrow for something so ordinary as a tree.

The embrace of a grandmother
The compassion of a tree
The infinite expanse of the human heart
These will endure forever

Not long ago I discovered in my own DNA remnants of a past I never knew. From far away places like Northern India and the Caucasus Mountains there are hints of ancient migrations, of survival in unlikely circumstances, of love in the midst of suffering. In the DNA of every human – in your DNA and in mine – there is courage to embark upon impossible journeys, to survive and evolve in hopeless situations. There is ancient wisdom we never knew we possessed.

The human heart is a mystery worth contemplating. Fragile is the heart, bruised and pierced quite easily. It is the very essence of human weakness. And yet, because of that heart our kind is capable of near-infinite love, compassion, and healing. We can forgive anything, even the unforgivable. We can love anyone, even the unlovable.

The heart is sacred, just as you and I are sacred
Just like the stray dog
Just like the wrinkles of an old woman’s face
Just like the sweet refuge of calm waters
Just like the branches of an ancient tree
Just like each and every breath

When I was young nothing seemed so vain, so unnecessary, so terrifying as having children. Now, midway through life’s journey, I wonder differently.

On the tree of every family, of every people
There are many branches
Some are foolish men, others wise women
Some are hopeful children, some cynical elders
There are farmers and beggars
There are peoples of the forest
There are peoples of the sea
There are peoples of hate and war
Some are deaf and blind
While others are oracles of an impossible future

Should my branch never produce even a single shoot, the tree will continue. My tree will continue. Your tree will continue. OUR tree will endure and the fragile human heart will make many marvelous, unimaginable, glorious journeys.

– – – – –

SCENE 2: THE DREAM OF AMBER LIGHT

Behold, a man found himself alone in the great darkness
The great darkness opened beneath him
And the man began to plummet
Into an abyss of amber light
In that moment when the man feared that all was lost
A saving hand reached out to him
And pulled him through the abyss of amber light
And the man passed through the abyss of amber light at great speed
Before the man passed a vision of the whole of existence as in a brief flash
Here he beheld a man with a torch painting mysteries
On the walls of a dark cave
There he saw another constructing an earthen dugout
Hidden among verdant hills and great rivers
Here he beheld a man building a magnificent temple in the desert
There he saw another erecting a mighty vault in the midst of a city
He saw these and many other marvelous things
Too numerous and amazing to recount
And as he passed out of the amber light he beheld one last vision

From the lips of the Sybil: Beyond human words!

– – – – –

SCENE 3: CANTICLE OF THE TREE
[vel SONG OF THE MOTHER]

Our Tree is a tree of suffering
It is a tree of life and hope

Under the shade of its kind boughs
We take refuge

From the scorching sun
And from the torrents of rain

Whether alone in silence
Or surrounded by the many peoples

Its roots are watered with tears
Its roots are nourished by blood

Though we are tired and weak
Its noble trunk holds us aright

And its many mighty branches
Reach out to the infinite multitude of stars

To proclaim: WE ARE HERE

– – – – –
– – – – –

~BT Waldbillig
December 28, 2016

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

Possibility in the Present Moment

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

Let me tell you of a dream I once had:
I awoke in my childhood home. I was alone and it was night. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again it was day but in place of the sun’s rays the sky was filled with gray light. I arose from my place of rest and went forth to care for the plants that surrounded my childhood home — the grass, the trees, the hedgerows, and the flowers. The world was still and silent. I was alone but this filled me with neither joy nor dread.

We are, none of us, completely free. We experience the limitations of the physical world we inhabit. The social and political realities of family, community, and nation bind us throughout life; some of these obligations begin before we are even born.

We live our lives at the threshold of a new reality, but instead of crossing the threshold we look continually behind, like Lot’s wife or like Orpheus. We cannot change the past in our present state, but to deny the past is to give it greater power over the present.

After the rain
There is silence

When I was young I thought I more or less understood the world and myself. At a certain moment I became aware that this was not, in fact, the case and I was overcome with fear and despair. Today I am no more enlightened than I was before and this fills me with neither joy nor dread.

In the spaciousness of this present moment possibility exists.

~BT Waldbillig
December 14, 2015