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

Beholding Him, He Loved Him

Then Jesus beholding him, loved him.
~Mark 10:21

In our time of protest and counterprotest, in which we lionize those who “speak truth to power” and idolize those who defend the authority of public institutions, we forget entirely the lesson of great spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha. We mistakenly believe that people followed them and listened to their teachings because they were wise.

Indeed, they were wise. But countless wise spiritual teachers have walked the Earth. What set Jesus and the Buddha apart is that they truly loved the men and women they taught. Most importantly, they loved the people no one else would.

So I ask myself, if Jesus or the Buddha were walking among us today, who would they “behold and love”? Who is it that no one loves, that no one dedicates their life to, that no one would die for the sake of?

To my mind, it’s the men and women of the Mafia, gangs like the Trinitarios (who operate in my neighborhood), and the people of North Korea. Were Jesus or the Buddha walking among us today, they would look upon these people and love them. And motivated by that love, they would endeavor to teach them a beneficial, transformative spiritual path. Their purpose wouldn’t be to damn and condemn, but to heal and save — and their words, full of love and truth, would show that.

Today, our social and political protests are so useless and our preaching and spiritual teaching so ineffective for a simple reason. We lack the compassionate love of great spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha.

Cardinal James Harvey cut to the heart of the matter when he observed, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”

You and I know a great many things. But knowledge and wisdom alone will not transform the world.

Only love will.

~BT Waldbillig
October 18, 2017


On the Origin of a Spiritual Family

Brother follows brother to the end of the world
The beloved leading her first love to the bedchamber

Sister leads sister back to the beginning of all things
A dog faithful to the source of a hidden path

A spiritual family is known in perfect silence
A single precious jewel adorning the crown

A spiritual family’s love is known in the moment of trial
Neither seeking reward nor casting punishment

Thus the many children know they are of one family
Dwelling together in the place of the empty heart

The place of nothing is the dwelling of all things
It is no cup filled to overflowing

A spiritual family’s love issues forth for all
As a mother loves each child as her only

Here father and son rejoice together equally
At the return of a lost brother

Passing beyond their own love and hate
They become infinite and eternal

The love of a spiritual family knows no bounds
It is the matriarch of many children

A spiritual family’s love is unfailing
It is the friend who dwells in equanimity

The first father and the final daughter are incomplete
Until they pass beyond last and first

Thus the spiritual family arises
Now in this very moment

The empty heart knows unbounded joy
The empty heart knows pain beyond words

Let us dwell together as a family
For the way forward is also the path of return

~BT Waldbillig
February 6, 2017

Cowboy Wisdom

My grandfather loved cowboy movies and Louis L’Amour novels. He also faithfully read The National Inquirer, but we’ll save that for another day.

When I would spend time with my grandparents at Christmas or Easter and over summer holidays, I’d see L’Amour books scattered around the house. Naturally, I couldn’t help but think on my grandparents — who were so important to my childhood — when I came across this nugget:

“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.” (Louis L’Amour)

A useful bit of cowboy wisdom for those times when we face difficulty or discouragement.

~BT Waldbillig
January 7, 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

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

Matters of Matrimony

Even if you support same-sex marriage, there’s still a lot of value in traditional Christian notions around marriage. Now, I’m not talking about specific prohibitions or particular dogmas. Rather, if we look at the principles behind Christian teachings on marriage, we’re likely to find insights that are useful. Most of us probably don’t give enough thought to things like trust and fidelity, the dignity of the human body, the need to protect the vulnerable party in unequal power relationships, and so on.

People rightly disparage the behavior of Mike Huckabee, Rob Dreher, and the scores of Catholic bishops whose discourse did little to inspire genuine dialogue or promote mutual understanding during the recent debates on marriage, but let’s not toss out the wisdom that religious communities possess. Engage them critically, but don’t dismiss them.

And then there’s the importance of history. For example, you’re likely to look at Catholic marriage teachings differently once you understand that prior to the advent of hygiene and medicine in the 19th century, very few married couples were together for 50 or 60 years because people didn’t live as long and were far more susceptible to death by disease or injury. It wasn’t so odd for someone to have two or three marriages in the course of their life. Also, couples didn’t have 15 or 20 children because of the enormously high rates of child mortality and maternal death. We forget how dangerous pregnancy and childbirth used to be. For most of the Church’s existence the practical realities of married life were radically different from life today. What was always biologically possible was almost never what people experienced. In a sense, the Church still hasn’t figured out how to come to terms with that. The intersection of the Church’s theology and the lived experience of Christians is often a complicated matter.

~BT Waldbillig
June 27, 2015