Saturday, July 23, 2011

Life without Hope

This morning, I was watching clips from a 1936 Russian film called "The Girlfriends" (Podrugi) with a score by Shostakovich. The film, a typical propaganda piece, features three young girls and a boy who get caught up in the chaos of World War I and the revolution. At the beginning, however, they are working at an American-owned rubber factory, when the oppressed workers call a strike. The children, desperate for any income at all, make an unsuccessful attempt to sing at a beer hall frequented by the workers and are booted out, but later, aided by a quirky old guy who befriends them, work their way back in, where they sing a beautiful and touching revolutionary anthem called "Tormented by a Lack of Freedom," when they are joined by all the men at the tavern. I looked up a translation to the lyrics to this anthem, which are filled with hope and defiance as they sing of a martyred leader:

"Like you, we may simply become
The soil for the new people,
Or a terrifying prophecy of the new,
Imminent and heroic days..."

Later, Shostakovich ironically incorporates this anthem, as a kind of dirge, in his Eighth Quartet, where it is both surrounded and interrupted by a terrifying, percussive three-chord sequence that immediately would recall, for the audience, the feared "knock on the door" during the Stalinist Terror.

Watching this clip, and thinking about these children in that dark time, and the hope and defiance they manifested for a better future, coupled with Shostakovich's later, bitterly ironic reflection on this early hope in the Eighth Quartet, I was also reminded of a comment made by one of my students at Hampton University several years ago, who remarked, about her enslaved ancestors, that "We are living our ancestors' dreams today."

And so we are--most of us in the middle classes and in the affluent North, anyway--who live in a globally interconnected world where we take computers, the Internet, cellphones, fast food, mobility, freedom, security, and general affluence for granted in ways that none of our ancestors could have dreamed.

And yet...we are also teetering on the brink of an incremental global apocalypse that will eclipse all previous catastrophes by a large margin--one where there is no escape at all--driven by three huge, interrelated terminal crises:
  • our collapsing, debt-ridden global market economy, which is only the most visible symptom of...
  • the inexorable peak and decline of the fossil-fuel based net energy upon which that global market economy is entirely dependent.
  • a simultaneous global ecological collapse, driven above all by irreversible climate change from global heating, coupled with overpopulation, pollution, collapsing fisheries worldwide, depleted groundwater, the collapse of bee populations for pollination, deforestation, desertification, etc.
Anyone who takes a hard look at these current realities has little reason to harbor any hope for the future at all. Especially since our political systems, both here and throughout the world, have been hopelessly hijacked and corrupted--bought and sold--by large multinational corporations and their front groups like the Koch Brothers-funded "Tea Party" movement in the US, who, through the strident, hate-filled demagogues they sponsor on Fox News and Clear Channel radio, have stirred the TV-addled lumpen-proletariat into a frenzy of hatred and "patriotic" paranoia, thereby electing a fanatical congress who will destroy our government altogether before they allow it to raise the taxes of the super-rich or enact legislation protecting the environment or serving the public interest. The only branch of government they will leave untouched is, of course, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Military-Industrial complex, who will go about their business as usual, committing mass murder, torturing suspects in secret prisons, and sending drones out to terrorize Afghan villages that refuse to bow to the Karzai puppet-regime they have set up.

Where is all this headed? Nowhere, fast: a corporate-dominated mass media that maintains the illusion of democracy, by creating bread-and-circus elections and creating a consensual "reality" that bears little relation to anything real; meanwhile, well below the artificially generated, corporate-sponsored radar screen of public awareness, a corporate feeding frenzy on resources worldwide will wipe out any and all environmental protection. The Arctic ocean, Atlantic and Pacific will be open to offshore drilling, while oil shale fields, commercial fishing, hydrofracking for natural gas, mountaintop removal mining, and deforestation proceed without constraint; meanwhile, unemployment, foreclosures, homelessness, and general desperation will proliferate, along with crime, drugs, and random violence, while the middle and upper classes barricade themselves within gated communities--all prey, however, to rapidly rising fuel and food prices, layoffs, and more foreclosures...and anyone who attempts to mobilize the poor and destitute against the rich and well-protected will be ferreted out by internet surveillance and cellphone tapping, and be quietly spirited away and eliminated by paramilitary goon squads. Finally, we will face, worldwide, the grim specter of shrinking islands of fiercely defended affluence in the midst of a turbulent sea of random violence, despair, madness, starvation, disease, and chaos, while the climate gets steadily hotter, drier, and more turbulent, going into a self-accelerating feedback loop.

This is a future I would not wish on my worst enemy, yet it is the future we have created for our own children and grandchildren. And while I used to harbor a residual optimism that somehow a rapidly proliferating Gaia movement could somehow turn all this around before it is too late, that optimism has now vanished, particularly in light of this toxic, corporate-funded, neofascist "Tea Party" phenomenon, that is bringing out the worst in everyone: greed, willful ignorance, hatred, denial, and despair.

All of which, as always, begs the question: while our planet is going to hell, what is a Gaian Buddhist to do? My short answer is the same as it ever was:

Breathe, Observe, Let Go.
Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch.
Learn, Teach, Heal, and Create.

The slightly longer answer is this:

"Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form. The same goes for feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness..."

Breathing in, I take on my own, and everyone else's vast suffering, both now and in the future (and the past as well.)

Breathing out, I send forth friendliness, compassion, joy, and equanimity to myself and to all other living beings: my family, friends, students, total strangers, those who annoy me, those I despise, and every living, breathing being on the planet and throughout the universe.

(Repeat as often as necessary)

And let us remember--the Present is all there is--ever. The future is a mental formation only, and everything, including our body, our society, and our planet, is impermanent. The important thing, always, is to cultivate wisdom and compassion in the present moment, and then to take care of everyone and everything, and abandon no one and nothing...

As the English poet and Anglican divine George Herbert, a true Bodhisattva, once put it:

Sweet day, so cool, so calm, so bright,
The bridal of the earth and sky;
The dew shall weep thy fall to-night,
For thou must die.

Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave
Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye;
Thy root is ever in its grave,
And thou must die.

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses,
A box where sweets compacted lie;
My music shows ye have your closes,
And all must die.

Only a sweet and virtuous soul,
Like season'd timber, never gives;
But though the whole world turn to coal,
Then chiefly lives.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Two Homilies

A number of years ago, I wrote a piece for my Humanities students, which I still use, called "The Four Paths to the Sacred." In it I made the case that all the religious and spiritual traditions on the planet could be classified according to the four directions:

  1. SOUTH--The Path of Learning (Ancient and Indigenous religious traditions, involving their own culturally specific mythologies and traditions)
  2. EAST--The Path of Teaching (Far Eastern religious traditions, involving ramifying lineages of teachers and students of the Dharma).
  3. WEST--The Path of Healing (The Abrahamic religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--all positing one Creator God, and involving themes of redemption and healing played out through their sacred history).
  4. NORTH--The Path of Creating (The modern, secular traditions that emphasize human reason, freedom, and creativity--from the European Renaissance to the present).
I concluded with the view that our best bet, in this time of global crisis and the need for global healing, would be simultaneously to nurture our own chosen spiritual orientation, while remaining open to, and learning from, the wisdom available from all four paths, worldwide. The Buddha speaks of 84,000 Dharma doors--and of course "84,000" is simply a metaphor for an infinite number. The point is, of course, that good Dharma teachings can be found in all four of these paths--in every spiritual tradition on the planet. (This view has also been embraced and promoted by many modern-day Bodhisattvas, such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.)

Pursuant to this, I would like to share two short Dharma teachings from the Western Path of Healing and the Northern Path of Creating. The first is from a Seventh Century English nun, St. Hilda, a talented, spiritually accomplished woman who founded the magnificent Whitby Abbey in north Yorkshire as a joint monastery for both monks and nuns. While on a walk through the Yorkshire countryside several years ago, my wife and I came upon a tiny village, almost a ghost town, called Ellerburn, and there we found an ancient roadside chapel, smelling of mildew, which was dedicated to St. Hilda. At the front was a slate tablet inscribed with a short homily from St Hilda, which provides some basic instruction to novice monks and nuns. Here it is:

A Homily of St. Hilda

Trade with the gifts God has given you.

Bend your minds to holy learning

that you may escape the fretting moths of littleness of mind

that would wear out your souls.

Brace your wills to actions

that they may not be the spoils of weak desires.

Train your hearts and lips to song

which gives courage to the soul

Being buffeted by trials,

learn to laugh.

Being reproved,

give thanks.

Having failed,

determine to succeed.

This is pure, 200 proof Dharma--aside from the obligatory Western reference to God, it could as easily have been written by Pema Chodron as by St. Hilda.

The other piece is from Walt Whitman's introduction to the 1855 version of Leaves of Grass--a wonderful, visionary example of the Path of Creating--the Sacred as the autonomous self--which characterized the Romantic movement in both Europe and America:

This is what you shall do

by Walt Whitman

"This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."

Amen to both Hilda and Walt!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Edgar's "Mustardseed" sermon.

In recent years, I have been mulling over an idea for a novel, which, given my habitual inability to stay focused on a long-term project, may never come to pass. The idea features a protagonist by the name of Edgar Markham, who is my alter-ego, (named after the character Edgar in King Lear), a Buddhist practitioner who--as fossil fuels become exhausted and our industrial society collapses into chaos, fanaticism, predatory violence, and resource wars--creates a grassroots mass spiritual movement, known as Dharma Gaia, based on the propagation of his (and my own) Dharma Gaia mantra:
Breathe, Observe, Let Go
Be well, Do good work, Keep in touch
Learn, Teach, Heal, Create.

Soon enough, however, Edgar realizes that if he promotes himself as yet another Buddhist teacher, he will reach only Buddhists and others, such as yoga and tai chi practitioners, who are already well-educated "cultural creatives," sympathetic to Far Eastern wisdom traditions, and that these, at least in America, are a vast minority, while most ordinary people continue to be seduced, especially in times of growing stress, by huge megachurches promoting a toxic, hateful brand of narrow-minded, intolerant right-wing fundamentalist Christianity. Unless Edgar can break through to such people, his movement will remain a fringe phenomenon, invisible to the media and hence incapable of creating any kind of healing cultural shift toward Gaian consciousness--that is, awareness of ourselves as part of a planetary community of life, in which "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

Edgar therefore undertakes a radical solution. Knowing that no fundamentalist Christians would ever pay any attention to a self-proclaimed Buddhist, and embracing the line from his namesake in King Lear, "Edgar I Nothing Am,"--a radical realization of emptiness--Edgar abandons his outward identity altogether, leaves his few remaining possessions behind, and becomes "Tom the Preacher," a Christian missionary wandering from one church to another, preaching the Gospel. At the megachurch of one Brother Randolph Masterson, Edgar (i.e. Tom) gains permission to address the congregation, giving them a sermon on the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mark 4:30-32; Matt 13:31-32; Lk 18-19). Here is what he says:

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Our text for today is from Mark, but it also has versions in Matthew and Luke. It is the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and it goes as follows:

Whereunto shall we liken the Kingdom of God?...It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth:
But when it is sown, it groweth up and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches, so that the fowls of the air may lodge under it.

Now then, most of you who are gardeners know quite well that mustard seeds do not grow into large plants or trees which shelter birds. Mustard is a weed, which grows quickly, goes to seed, and proliferates in bright sunlight, close to the ground. So why did Jesus choose this particular simile for the Kingdom of God? Nothing, after all, could be more humble and commonplace than mustard plants. Was Jesus ignorant of basic botany? Not likely, since He lived in an agricultural society, where most farmers were familiar with mustard plants, and most likely regarded them as weeds to be removed, rather than anything of value.

Some will say that mustard greens, when cooked, add a nice, tangy flavor to foods, and that mustard seeds, when ground or spread, add the same tangy flavor, in more concentrated form, to other dishes. So maybe Jesus is referring to the Kingdom of God as adding a certain zest to our food?

In which case, what about the birds of the air? Where do they come in? Many theologians have come up with dramatically different interpretations of this parable, all struggling with the obvious contradiction between what Jesus says about mustard seeds, and what anyone who has a garden already knows. Others claim that Jesus was doing a parody of the conventional, lofty Cedar of Lebanon metaphor for the divinity, so show his readers that the Kingdom of God is ubiquitous, all around them, if they would open their eyes.

So here is one more attempt at interpreting this parable, from yet another gardener.

Mustard is a weed, which means that it quickly colonizes disturbed ground, and needs a lot of sunlight in order to grow. It is frequently used as a green manure, because it is a legume, meaning that it fixes nitrogen from the air, in symbiosis with rhizomes on the roots, and its roots also draw up valuable minerals, such a phosphorus, from beneath the topsoil. And of course, it can be eaten and provide good nutrition, as well as that tangy flavor. For all these reasons, mustard is a good example of the manifold blessings that God provides us, that we generally don't even notice or take for granted.

So while mustard cannot, of itself, provide shelter for birds, it nevertheless creates the ecological linkages between air, topsoil, and mineral substrate, that heals and rebuilds damaged topsoil, and creates the preconditions for larger plants and trees to flourish in succession. So in his short parable, Jesus is giving us all a lesson in ecology: Mustard seeds, which we are likely to regard as weeds, have an integral role in God's Kingdom, which is right here around us on Earth, as well as in Heaven, for the action of the mustard plant quite literally unites Heaven (the air) with Earth (the topsoil and minerals). And these larger plants, in turn, provide shelter for birds, who in turn disperse their seeds. In the natural world, as in the Kingdom of God, everything works for the benefit of itself and for everything else as well--whether they know it or not.

For this reason, from a deep reading of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, we may deduce a principle, a precept, and a practice:

The Principle was well articulated by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a devout Baptist preacher, when he said, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

--Just as the Mustard Seed creates the conditions, indirectly, for the shelter that the larger plants that grow in the topsoil it creates provide for the birds (who in turn disseminate their seeds).

And it also, of course, reinforces the Precept--the Great Commandment--which Jesus derived from this basic principle of interconnectedness: "Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and that which is like unto it: Love your neighbor as yourself."

So I am going to conclude today by sharing with you all a Practice, by which you, like a mustard seed, can help heal our land and bring to fruition the Kingdom of God, right here on Earth.

Please pay close attention.

  1. BREATHE. As you draw breath and focus on it, reflect on the Holy Spirit that God breathed into Adam when He created him. Feel that same Holy Spirit within you, connecting you to all of God's creation.
  2. OBSERVE. Open your eyes, and see, as Jesus taught us, that the Kingdom of God is everywhere around us, for those with eyes to see.
  3. LET GO. Let go of your fears, your anxieties, and your hatreds--even of your own self-preoccupied thoughts, and rest within the Peace of God that passeth all understanding.
  4. BE WELL. Take good care of your own body, for it is the Tabernacle of the Lord.
  5. DO GOOD WORK. To get over any reluctance to do what you know you should do, simply say "Thy Will be Done." Then do your own part in realizing the Kingdom of God.
  6. KEEP IN TOUCH. Just as the mustard seed grows into a plant that draws nutrients from both Earth and Heaven, and makes them available to other plants, be ready at all times to reach out to all others--to express your love of God in your love of your neighbor.
  7. LEARN. Read the Scriptures prayerfully every day, and regard everyone you meet as a potential teacher, that you may "till" your own mistakes into the ground of your experience, as fertilizer for growing closer to God.
  8. TEACH. Do not put your candle under a bushel. What you have learned, share with others, just as the Mustard Seed creates topsoil for the benefit of all other life.
  9. HEAL. Our mission as Christians is to follow in the steps of Jesus of healing the sick, and healing as well the sickness of our society--just as the Mustard Seed restores damaged topsoil.
  10. CREATE. Just as God created us all, let us use our own creative gifts, whatever they may be, to create the Kingdom of God, just as the mustard seed creates the conditions within large plants and trees can flourish, offering shelter to the birds.
May the Peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and mind through Jesus Christ Our Lord.


--After delivering this sermon, Edgar plants Mustardseed Fellowships within each church he visits, to plant their own gardens, teach gardening skills to their faith community, reach out to the poor and needy, and practice (what they call) the Mustardseed Injunctions to stay on track.

Wouldn't it be nice??