A Season of Cooperation: The Good Interfaith News

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For the religious world, the last year has been a battle scarred one. The rise of ISIS has spelt the near-extinction of several Middle Eastern Christian communities as well as a severe threat to lesser known religious groups such as the Yazidis and the Shabak. Ahmaddiyas and the Bah’ai continue to suffer persecution in the Middle East, and Buddhist Myanmar continues it’s genocidal policies against Rohingya Muslims, even under new government of Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile in the US and elsewhere there have been violent attacks against Muslims in response to terrorism in the US and Europe. Some Christian leaders in the West have responded with a recourse to militarism, such as Jerry Falwell Jr., who urged his seminary students at Liberty University to arm themselves. The 2016 Republican candidates have combined public avowals of Christianity with an embrace of militarism, xenophobia, and anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Yet the picture as a whole is not bleak. Taking the above example of pistol packing theologians for one, Falwell’s statements sparked massive criticism throughout the US Christian community, including from the leading  Evangelical pastor John Piper in the Washington Post.  Despite the fearful shutting of doors against Syrian refugees in many US states, the inspiring stories of nations and communities welcoming them far outshadow that show of inhumanity. In the US, leading centrist and right of centre Christian pastors and Academics (aside from the expected denunciations from the Christian left) like David Gushee, Max Lucado, Russel Moore and others have come out against Drumpf and the behaviour of the GOP.

In Canada there were several examples of inspiring interfaith cooperation in the last months. In BC synagogues raised tens of thousands of dollars to sponsor refugee families. Across Canada many congregations stepped up to sponsor refugee families as well. Jewish communities are also  working with the Blended Visa Office-Referred Program which matches private sponsors with people fleeing war that the UN Refugee Agency has “identified for resettlement.” This program matches support from donors (who agree to sponsor the refugee for six months) with a government pledge of an additional six months of support.

In Montreal, Jews and Muslims joined hands to help Syrian refugees together, and Pope Francis called for every Catholic diocese to house one refugee family. One of the season’s most inspiring stories came from Peterborough, where a Synagogue donated the use of its space to members of a Mosque destroyed by arson. In addition many cold Facebook feeds were warmed recently by the Israeli restaurant that gave a 50% discount on any meal shared by Arabs and Jews during the recent surge of Palestinian terror attacks.

There were also heartening stories from within the Muslim community. In Kenya, Muslims on a bus refused to separate from the Christian passengers, preventing their execution by Jihadis, recalling the protective ring formed around a Jewish synagogue by 1,000 Muslims in Norway earlier in the year. In New Jersey, Muslims for Peace organized a Christmas Party for youth at risk, and in Montreal Muslims, Jews and Sikhs joined hands on Christmas to serve food to the homeless at the Old Brewery Mission.In Vancouver students from RJDS joined with students from Al-Zahraa Islamic Academy to feed the homeless, continuing a tradition the two communities have developed.

Meanwhile in Jewish-Christian relations the 50th anniversary of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II document which radically changed the Jewish-Catholic relationship arrived. Two important documents were released to coincide with it, one by a colloquiam of Orthodox Jews and one by the Vatican. The Jewish statement used the boldest language yet in a document of this kind, asserting that Christianity is “not an error” and is an intentional part of God’s plan to redeem the world. The Vatican document discouraged institutional evangelization of Jews and affirmed that Jews are saved by their own covenant with God outside of accepting the historical Jesus as saviour.

Reason for hope exists on all fronts. The real religious war is not between the religious and the irreligious, or between one religion and another. The real “holy war” is between those who live their religion as a way to love God and human beings, walking in humility, love and the a quest for ever growing understanding and those who pervert their traditions to serve the causes of nationalism, war, fear and hatred. Religion becomes a weapon when the human passions are idolized above the wisdom of God, of whom “all Her paths are pleasant and all Her ways peace (Proverbs 3:17)”. May we have the wisdom and courage to listen to the “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) urging nonviolence, justice and humility.

 

The Tower of Babel: Bad Religion?

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I was recently listening to the punk band Bad Religion’s album Recipe for Hate. The song Skyscraper, whose passion and composition I’ve always enjoyed, centers around the metaphor of the tower of Babel (you can listen to it here: https://youtu.be/37Jlj0_FsZU). I can’t claim to understand the lyrics to the song in toto, but it does seem to be criticizing the destroyer of the tower (God), not the builders. In Greg Gaffin’s midrash, the tower builders are trying to reach God and God is afraid that if they find him they will abandon him (presumably because he doesn’t exist). Gaffin sings: I know why you tore it down that day, you thought that if you got caught we’d all go away, like a spoiled little baby who can’t come out to play, you had your revenge.  Gaffin sees the destruction as a bad thing: Well madness reigned and paradise drowned when Babel’s walls came crashing down. The song also seems to contain an implied criticism of the story of the tower itself- the last verse of the song characterizes the story as hardly understood and never any good.

Leaving aside Gaffin’s somewhat bizarre atheist fantasy midrash, this got me thinking about the story. How good of a story is it?

This question resonated in my mind more because of some reading I was doing lately, in a book called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and The Old Testament by John Walton. This book, which I recommend, strives to let people know what more than a century of intense archaeological investigation has uncovered about the cultures surrounding ancient Israel. It puts the Torah into context. Walton says, as many have before him, that the story of the tower of Bavel takes its central image from the Babylonian ziggurat.

In Genesis 11:1-9 a group of early humans settles in Shinar, probably Sumer, an area in southern Mesapotamia associated in the Torah with Babylon. The Mesapotamian building materials are foreign to Israelites, so the Torah describes them for us. The “city and tower” being built (see below), if true to history, would have been an urban area housing public buildings. In this case it was a temple complex. These structures, which began being built at the end of the 4th milennium BCE, were still visible in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. The tower in the story is almost certainly based on the ziggurat temple complexes of Sumer, which are frequently described in Mesapotamian literature as”with head touching heaven”, as in the Torah as quoted below.

The story in the Torah is as follows:

The whole earth was of one language and of one speech.  It came to pass as they journeyed from the east that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and they dwelt there,  and they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick and burn them thoroughly.’  They had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar, and they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in heaven and let us make us a name lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ And YHWH came down to see the city and the tower which the children of men built. And YHWH said: ‘Behold they are one people and they have one language and this is what they begin to do.  Now nothing will be withheld from them which they aim to do. Come, let us go down and confound their language that they may not understand one another’s speech.’  So YHWH scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off  building the city. Therefore was the name of it called Bavel; because YHWH did there confound the language of all the earth; and from there did YHWH scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

This enigmatic story seems to warn human beings about the hubris of using technology to storm the heights of heaven and make themselves secure from any danger. Sound familiar? Far from being a story that should irk Bad Religion, a band which continuously snarls warnings about human arrogance and self-deception, I would think this story might make it on to their “acceptable biblical stories list”. I suspect that such a list does not exist. In any case let’s look a little more at the story itself and its ancient context.

In the story YHWH confounds people’s languages and spreads them out over the world. The story then explains the existence of multiple languages: they are there to prevent the creation of a mega-mono-culture and the attendant human hubris and blindness, one in which people make themselves God and depend on their own technology and might.

The fact that the story appears based on ancient Israelite perceptions of Babylon is also interesting. Babylon was a sophisticated, expanding empire with technology beyond Israel’s. Israel, a society of farmers and shepherds, looked up at the urban megalopolis of Babylon and its temple towers and saw nothing but a symbol of human arrogance and, it seems, a force that threatened to destroy smaller cultures and impose it’s own hegemony on everyone. Babylon was an imperialist state whose leaders glorified themselves and exalted in their technology and military strength. The story criticizes what Israel perceived as Babylon’s dream of a monocultural, invincible empire.

One interesting thing about this story, though, is that the Israelite perception of the nature of ziggurats- temples reaching upwards to heaven- is wrong. As Walton points out, ziggurats had a different nature and purpose. Humans did not use them, did not live in them or climb up them. Ziggurats existed as stairways upon which the gods descended to bring blessing to the earth, and to receive offerings. The ziggurats were not for the use of human beings, but for the use of gods!

We can thus see that the Israelite story is not an accurate depiction of Sumerian or Babylonian religion but rather takes up an image from the civilization of their neighbours and riffs on it to make a point- a point that is both a shot at perceived Babylonian arrogance and a broader statement. Anyone familiar with the sourcing of the story of Noah and the flood in older Akkadian and Mesapotamian stories knows that this is not a singular occurence in Israelite literature. It appears that the crafters of Israelite literature took up motifs from the literatures and civilisations of their neighbours and ran with them in a completely different direction. The religious sensibilities of Israel were truly an anamoly in the ancient near east (see Created Equal by Joshua Berman or the excellent discussion in Fight by Preston Sprinkle, ch.3-5). 

To answer my own question: is the the tower of Bavel a good story? I think it’s a very good story.  The story’s lesson seems to me to be that cultural diversity is a divinely willed protection against human hubris. Think of this-when there is only one human culture, from where does diversity, criticism, and challenge come from? Israel seemed to intuit that an unchallenged culture possesses an unlimited potential for evil.

Technology tends to empower empire and its accompanying arrogance. The technical-industrial explosion of the last 300 years has not only allowed us to touch the heavens. We have also exterminated more than 50% of the cultures and languages of the world, reducing ethnodiversity as well as biodiversity. We have pierced the atom and the gene and are quickly approaching the doleful day when “there is nothing they cannot do”.

I am reminded of a verse from the Daodejing, the ancient classic of Daoism by the Old Master (Laozi) which describes the ideal civilization (translation by Red Pine):

Imagine a small state with a small population

let there be labor-saving tools

that aren’t used

let people consider death

and not move far

let there be boats and carts

but no reason to ride them

let there be armor and weapons

but no reason to employ them

let people return to the use of knots

and be satisfied with their food

and pleased with their clothing

and content with their homes

and happy with their customs

let there be another state so near

people hear its dogs and chickens

and live out their lives

without making a visit.

 

What Is The Human Way? A Report From Martin Buber

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The following is a lecture I wrote and gave at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Vancouver last Shabbat (Sabbath). In it I attempt to hit some of the main points of Buber’s classic work “The Human Way (Der Weg Des Meschen)”. This work was based on six lectures Buber gave where he attempted to present Hasidic insights on the human way to an audience of Dutch Quakers.

At a time when Hasidic life is dominated by legalism, insularity, outward religious observances, and a thick layer of customs it is increasingly difficult to recover what it has to contribute to humanity. Buber’s lectures, which were given in the late 40’s, are a window into the rich inward life and deep insights of this tradition at it’s best.

Martin Buber was an Austrian-born Israeli Jewish philosopher best known for his works in existentialism and his popularisation of the inward aspects of Hasidic spiritual practice. He was also an important figure in the early Zionist movement; translated the Bible into German, and played an important role in the transmission and development of Jewish culture both in Europe and in modern Israel.

Buber came from a family of observant, if liberal, Jews. Buber joined many Jews from Observant families in pursuing secular studies- in his case philosophy In 1923, Buber wrote his famous essay on existence, Ich und Du (later translated into English as I and Thou), and in 1925, he began translating the Hebrew Bible into German.

In 1930, Buber became an honorary professor at the University of Frankfurt Am Main, but resigned from his professorship in protest after the Nazis came to power in 1933. He then founded the Central Office for Jewish Adult Education, which became important after the Nazis forbade Jews access to public education. In 1938, Buber left Germany and settled in Jerusalem, receiving a professorship at Hebrew University. Buber died at his home in Jerusalem in 1965, where there is now a street named after him. 

Perhaps the most condensed and potent of Buber’s spiritual writings is the small book “The Human Way According to the Teaching of Hasidism”. This book originally consisted of six lectures given to a group of Dutch religious socialists in Holland in 1947. The Woodbrookers were a Christian group who has been persecuted by the Nazis during WW2 and had ties to English Quakers. Their leader had known Buber for some time and had been influenced by Buber’s philosophy. Buber delivered the popular lectures as requested, and a German edition called Der Weg Des Menschen was published in 1950.

Each of the six lectures is based on a Hasidic story, though Buber in fact touches on many Hasidic sayings and tales in each lecture. Time constraints will not allow us to ponder insights from all six lectures here. What I will do is share the essential lesson of each lecture, giving particular attention to the first two.

Heart Searching

The first talk opens with the following tale: Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, was jailed in Petersburg because the mitnagdim had denounced him to the Russian government. He was awaiting trial when the chief of the gendarmes entered his cell. Impressed by the Rav’s demeanour, the man entered into conversation with him and brought up a number of questions he had about the Bible. Finally he asked him, “how are we to understand that the omniscient God asked Adam in the garden, “Where are you?”

“Do you believe”, answered the Rav, “that the scriptures are eternal and address us all?”

“ I do”, the man said.

“Well then”, said the zaddik, “in every generation God calls to every man, ‘where are you?’ God says something like this, ‘You have lived 46 years. How far along are you on your way?’’

When the man heard his age mentioned he pulled himself together and said to the Rav, “Bravo!” but his heart trembled.

What happens in this story? asks Buber. He points out that it is similar to some Talmudic tales where a Roman challenges Jewish doctrine by pointing out a seeming contradiction and has his point refuted or resolved by a Rabbi. The difference here, points out Buber, is that true to Hasidic discourse in general the answer is given on a different plane than the question is asked on.

 Buber says, “‘Where are you?’, whether the question be addressed to Adam or some other man- in so asking God does not learn something he does not know; what he wants is to produce an effect in man which can only be produced by just such a question, provided that it reaches man’s heart- that man allows it to reach his heart.”

 Why does every person run from this question?

 “Adam hides himself to avoid rendering accounts, to escape responsibility for his way of living. Every man hides for this purpose, for every man is Adam…..To escape responsibility for his life, he turns existence into a series of hideouts.’”

 There is always a Voice seeking us, asking us, “Where are you?” But we spend much of our days in hiding, whether we are outwardly religious or not.

As Buber points out, however, “Man cannot escape the eye of God, but in trying to hide from Him, he is hiding from himself. ’” We cannot, of course, hide from God. Who are we hiding from them? We hide from ourselves. Yet in hiding from ourselves, we do not face where we are, and so we are lost.

Buber writes, “….the Voice…is a ‘still small voice’, and easy to drown. So long as this is done, man’s life will not become a way. Whatever success and enjoyment he may achieve, whatever power he may attain and whatever deeds he may do, his life will remain way-less, so long as he does not face the Voice.”

Buber points out, however, that the Gerrer Rebbe teaches that Esau also asks questions. Esau asks Jacob, “Where are you going?” Buber writes, “There is a demonic question…which apes God’s question, the question of truth….it does not stop at ‘Where are you?’ but continues, ‘From where you have got to, there is no way out.’ There is a Voice that offers a liberating confrontation, and there is a voice that accuses and interrogates so as to kill. In Jewish tradition that voice is, of course, the voice of Hasatan, Satan, whose name literally means “the accuser”. Our problem is that we are confused about what voices are from God and which from Satan. To quote another Hasidic teaching: the devil clothes his demands as mitzvot. Some of God’s commands to us we mistake as satanic. How ironic that sometimes, in trying to escape the accusing voice of Hasatan we unwittingly run from the liberating voice of God. That must be one of the Devil’s most diabolical tricks. How then are we to find our way?

The Particular Way

Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz once said to his teacher, the ‘Seer’ of Lublin: ‘Show me one general way to the service of God.’ The Zaddik told him that it was impossible to tell men what way they should take…Everyone should carefully observe what way his heart draws him to, and then choose that way with all his strength.” The way to find our way is to know what we love. We should do that, yet pursue it not as an end in itself, but as a way to God.

We are to revere the sages of the past, but not to imitate them. “God’s all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one man. When some disciples of a zaddik visited the Seer of Lublin and expressed surprise that his customs differed from those of his teacher, the Seer replied, “What sort of a God would that be who has only one way in which he can be served!” God says, whatever you do may be a way to me, provided you do it in a manner that leads you to me.”

A zaddik once said, at the end of Ecclesiastes we read: “At the end of the matter, the whole is heard: “Fear God.” Whatever matter you follow to its end , there, at the end, you will hear one thing: “Fear God”. The point, says Buber, is that “Any natural act, if hallowed, leads to God, and nature needs man for what no angel can perform on it, namely, its hallowing.”  The word “hallowing” here, refers to sanctification. Any way if taken in order to reach God, is a way that reaches Him. In following that desire, that natural inclination of the heart, but seeking to do so in a way which leads to God and answers God’s call, that desire and the heart which desires are both sanctified.

Resolution

In the third talk Buber clarifies that in all of this heart searching and seeking one should not become a creature blown around by internal winds, irresolute and conflicted, obsessed with introspection. Rabbi Nahum, the son of the Rabbi of Rishyn, entered the house of study at the wrong time and found his disciples playing checkers. “Do you know the rules of checkers?”, the Rabbi asked his embarassed disciples. “ The first is that one must not make two moves at once. The second is that one must go forward and never back. The third is that when one gets to the other side one may make any move one likes.”

As the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “We learn the way by walking.” In seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow our own particular way we must not be paralyzed by introspection but must act resolutely and keep moving forward.

Begin With Oneself

The primary answer to the conflicts of our lives is found in knowing ourselves and bringing our own selves into harmony. Buber here quotes a Hasidic saying that “if a man makes peace in himself he can make peace in the world.” Satirizing the way that we get lost in externals, trying fruitlessly to put other people in order,  to control our lives, and to amass cherished things while losing the one thing most essential, Buber tells a fable of Rabbi Hanokh: “There was once a foolish man. When he went to bed at night he was afraid that he would not remember where he had put his clothing. So making a great effort he took a paper and pencil and noted down where he put everything as he undressed. When awoke in the morning he took the slip of paper in hand and read “cap”- there it was; “shirt”- there it was; and so on until he was fully dressed. “That’s all very well”, he exclaimed, “but now where am I myself?” He looked and looked but it was in vain, he could not find himself. “And that is how it is with us”, concluded the Rabbi.

 Not To Be Pre-occupied With Oneself

Rabbi Hayyim of Zans married his son to the daughter of Rabbi Eliezer. The day after the wedding he visited the father of the bride and said to him, “Now that we are relatives I feel that I can confide in you.” My hair and beard have grown white, and I have not yet atoned!”

“O my friend”, replied Rabbi Eliezer, “you are thinking only of yourself. How about forgetting yourself and thinking of the world?”

At first glance, points out Buber, this seems to contradict everything he has just said. He has just said that everyone should search his own heart, find his particular way, unite his being in action, and begin with himself, and now we are told a man should forget himself. This is not a contradiction, however. Buber says, “One must simply ask, what for? Why am I to search my heart? What is my particular way for?”.  Not for my own sake. You begin with yourself, yes, but you do not end with yourself. We put ourselves in order so that we can turn outwards toward the world.

That is not yet the final point though. Why do we search our hearts, find our way, unite our beings, put ourselves in order and turn toward the world?

Here Where One Stands

For this final lecture I won’t offer any commentary, but let Buber’s lyrical voice speak for itself.

“Most of us achieve only at rare moments a clear realization of the fact that they have never tasted the fulfillment of existence, that their life does not participate in true, fulfilled existence, that, as it were, it passess true existence by….in some measure we strive to find-somewhere- what we are seeking. Somewhere, in some province of the world or the mind, except where we stand, where we have been set- but it is there and nowehere else that the treasure can be found…..It is said of a certain Talmudic master that the paths of heaven were as bright to him as his hometown. Hasidism inverts the order: It is a greater thing if the streets of a man’s hometown are as bright to him as the paths of heaven. For it is here, where we stand, that we should try to make shine the light of hidden divine life.”

 “Once they told Rabbi Pinhas of Koretz of the great misery among the needy. He listened, sunk in grief. Then he raise his head. ‘Let us draw God into the world,’ he cried, ‘and all need will be extinguished.’

Buber tells a final story:

 “Where is the dwelling of God?” This is the question with which the Rabbi of Kotzk surprised a number of learned men who happened to be visiting him. They laughed at him: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world filled with his glory?”

Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever man lets him in.”

“This is the ultimate purpose”, says Buber, “to let God in. But we can let him in only where we really stand, where we live, where we live a true life. If we maintain holy intercourse with this little world entrusted to us, if we help the holy spiritual substance to accomplish itself in that section in which we are living, then we are establishing, in this place, a dwelling for the divine presence.”

 

 

Chatral Rinpoche Passes Away (with some thoughts on Thomas Merton)

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On Jan 5 the Himalayan sage Chatral Rinpoche passed away at the age of 102. Rinpoche was a long time ascetic, practitioner of dzogchen (a Nyingma meditation tradition), and spiritual teacher. He studied with many of the masters considered “greats” within the 20th century Vajrayana Buddhist world, and taught many of the leading teachers of today at some point in their lives. He was a man of enormous spiritual “weight”, an old elephant, a true sage. With his passing there is a feeling the earth just got dangerously lighter.

Here are some words from Harold Talbott, who travelled with Thomas Merton in Asia. From a Nyingmapa website:

“In Asian Journal, Merton refers to the Dzogchen Nyingmapa lama Chatral Rinpoche as the person he would choose as his teacher.

Talbott: He was Merton’s man. Chatral Rinpoche really gives the flavor of the Tibetans. I wouldn’t dream of studying with him, or anybody remotely like him, because he is totally and completely unpredictable. He is savage about ego and he will put you on the spot and I am not prepared to up the ante to that degree.

Tricycle: Why did you choose to introduce Merton to him?

Talbott: I wanted to make sure that Merton met all the outstanding lamas that I could dig up. In Dharmasala he met Avalokiteshvara-the Bodhisattva of Compassion-in the person of the Dalai Lama and I think okay, I’m doing my job, I’m getting him the whole spectrum of the force field. But of course that will an opportunity for me to hide behind Merton’s skirts and also meet Chatral Rinpoche who I’m terrified of.

He could throw stones at you- as he does do-and so I will use Merton as the front. We caught up with Chatral Rinpoche down the road from Ghoom in Darjeeling. He was painting the nuns’ house and he put some planks on some bricks and we sat and talked with the help of an interpreter. Chatral Rinpoche started by saying “Ah Jesus lama; you know I have never been able for the life of me to get a handle on Christianity so I’m real glad you came this morning.”

Tricycle: Did he know who Merton was?

Talbott: No. But he explained his perplexity about Christianity. He said, “The center of your religion is a man who comes back to life after death and in Tibetan Buddhism when you have one of those people, a rolog, or a walking corpse, we call our lama to put him down.

So I want to know what kind of a religion is Christianity which has at its center a dead man coming back to life.” So Merton explained the Resurrection in tantric terms about the overcoming of fear and the utter and complete power of liberation which is the center of Christianity. And this satisfied Chatral Rinpoche.

Tricycle: Freedom from fear?

Talbott: Freedom from all kinds of constraints and restraints. A man has died and he has come back in a glorious body and he has freed us from fear of death and fear of life. That’s freedom.

Tricycle: Because it’s eternal.

Talbott: No. If the universe is a place where a man can live again in a glorified body and teach the truth, then the world is a free place. And Chatral Rinpoche says, “At last I understand Christianity.Thank you very much.” And Merton says, “I would like to study with you.” And Chatral says “Right, we can work together. And so you’ve got to do your own ngondro (the preliminary practice of Dzogchen, which usually takes a Tibetan about a year).

We’ll get you a hermitage in Bhutan and that is where you should do your retreat. And I challenge you: see, I’m not enlightened yet, so let’s work

together and see which one of us can get enlightened first.” And so Merton said, “it’s a deal.” And so then we split and Merton says, “That’s the greatest man I ever met. That’s my teacher.” But they weren’t his exact words.

Tricycle: In Asian Journal he says if he took a teacher, that’s who it would be.

Talbott: Yes, but he would never have left the Church.”

Merton is a truly inspiring man: a devout Christian capable of revering and learning from the sages of other religions. My reading of the above meeting is that Chatral Rinpoche may have been testing Merton when he referred to Jesus as a “rolog”, a kind of Tibetan zombie, to see where Merton was coming from. If Merton has gotten offended or launched into a hyper-intellectual explanation he would have been revealed as coming from a place of ego or intellect, not heart practice. Instead Merton was unoffended and met Rinpoche skillfully, explaining the resurrection in a way which held true to the Christian view of it yet presented it in a way a man like Rinpoche could understand and value. Bravo, I would say. Having practiced the ngondro myself I have doubts that an orthodox Christian could practice them (they involved worshipping gurus and spirits) but I think Merton and Rinpoche would have worked out some way to work together if only they had had more time together. As it stands Merton was electrocuted in an accident in Thailand shortly after their meeting.

Rinpoche was a vegetarian and an advocate for animal rights. He was also concerned about nuclear weapons, and wrote the following prayer. It might be fitting to post it today, given the recent activities in Iran and North Korea. Here is an excerpt from the prayer (omitting a lengthy intro addressing the buddhas and spirit beings Rinpoche revered):

  

 We are beings born at the sorry end of time;  

 An ocean of ill-effects overflow from our universally bad actions.  

 The forces of light flicker,  

 The forces of darkness, a demon army, inflames great and powerful men.  

 And they rise in conflict, armed with nuclear weapons  

 That will disintegrate the earth.  

 The weapon of perverse and errant intentions  

 Has unleashed the hurricane.  

 Soon, in an instant, it will reduce the world  

 And all those in it to atoms of dust.  

 Through this ill-omened devils’ tool  

 It is easy to see, to hear and think about  

 Ignorant people, caught in a net of confusion and doubt,  

 Are obstinate and still refuse to understand.  

 It terrifies us just to hear about or to remember  

 This unprecedented thing.  

  

 The world is filled with uncertainty,  

 But there is no means of stopping it, nor place of hope,  

 Other than you, undeceiving Three Jewels and Three Roots,  

 (Buddhas, Teaching and Spiritual Community, Lama, Deity and  

 Dakini)  

 If we cry to you like children calling their mother and father,  

 If we implore you with this prayer,  

 Do not falter in your ancient vows!  

 Stretch out the lightning hand of compassion!  

 Protect and shelter us defenseless beings, and free us from fear!  

 When the mighty barbarians sit in council of war  

 – barbarians who rob the earth of pleasure and happiness  

 – barbarians who have wrong, rough, poisonous thoughts.  

 Bend their chiefs and lieutenants  

 To the side of peace and happiness!  

 Pacify on the spot, the armed struggle that blocks us!  

 Turn away and defeat the atomic weapons  

 Of the demons’ messengers,  

 And by that power, make long the life of the righteous,  

 And spread the theory and practice of the doctrine  

 To the four corners of this great world!  

 Eliminate root, branch and leaf – even the names  

 Of those dark forces, human and non-human,  

 Who hate others and the teaching!  

 Spread vast happiness and goodness  

 Over this fragile planet!  

 Elevate it truly with the four kinds of glory!  

 And as in the golden age, with all strife gone,  

 Let us be busy only with the dance of pleasure, the dance of joy!  

 We pray with pure thoughts-  

 By the compassion of that ocean the three supreme refuges  

 And the power of the Realm of Truth;  

 The complete sublime truth,  

 Achieve the goal of this, our prayer  

 Magically, just as we have hoped and dreamed!

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Father Louis (Thomas Merton) and Chatral Rinpoche

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the well known postmodern Lama and film maker (eg. the Cup) had this to say about Chatral Rinpoche (here):

“…make no mistake: Many lamas like myself, who make the loudest noises, display the most jarring images, and travel every inch and corner of the world, have achieved next to nothing compared to this man who appears never to have done anything except for keeping his meditation mat from ever getting cold. And if he did manifest in action, this is the man who spent 99.99% of what he had rescuing the lives of animals. So for ignorant beings like us to try and express the great qualities of this enlightened being is like trying to measure the depth and width of the sky.”

“In my limited life I have seen very few anti-hypocritical beings, and he was one of them. He meant business, there was no negotiation, and of course he never traded one single word of the dharma for money. Time and again, he refused to bow down to the mighty.

He made a lot of us hypocritical beings shudder. Just knowing he was alive and breathing somewhere between Siliguri and Pharping made our hearts quake. Even though we never got to see him, especially towards the end of his life – and I myself was refused an audience 20 times or more – his mere presence on this earth shattered hypocrisy.”

 

Learning To Love Donald Trump

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Donald Trump. A few years ago  many of us had heard little of him, and he was easy to avoid (a desire even scant acquaintance inspired). When I visited my grandparents in North Miami Beach, a hell of over-development and rampant consumerism against a backdrop of magical beaches, I would grimace at the Trump Towers. They are an opulent and wasteful cancer on the coastline (one of many, admittedly), pumping ocean water 24 hours a day into elaborate fountains ornamenting massive driveways leading to a kind of hyper-real excess of the obscene, grandiose cartoon towers jutting preposterously into an innocent sky.

Recently Trump has become hard to ignore. His hate speech, pompous posturing, and fascist, fear-mongering rhetoric are by now well known. His popularity makes him terrifying to increasing numbers of people throughout the world, a living, breathing, billionaire obstacle to the progress, even the continued survival, of human civilisation.  Which brings me to my question. Can we learn to love Donald Trump?

Why do I ask? Not because I think he is inevitable, or that he will win the presidential race. I don’t think that is the case. For the record, I think the miraculous is in the offing and Bernie Sanders will win. I am curious about loving Trump because many of the beloved teachers of humanity tell me too. The Buddha advised us not to harbour hatred or animosity for any human being. If you think that does not apply to Trump, consider the following quote:

“Even if bandits were sawing you limb from limb with a two-handled saw, if you entertain any hatred in your heart on that account you are not my disciple.” (Kakucadapamma Sutta)

Then there’s Jesus. He’s also pretty clear: “Love your enemies…..anyone who harbours anger in his heart is a murderer….anyone who calls his brother “Fool!” is liable to judgement….judge not lest you be judged.” (Matthew)

The Rabbinic Jewish tradition states, “Anyone who gives into anger is an idolater….every thought of anger generates a thousand demons, even if the anger is over an ethical matter.”

So…..how do we love Donald Trump? Are we supposed to find something loveable in him? Are we supposed to rationalize away his ignorance,  malice, and self-indulgent opportunism? Are we supposed to accept him as he is?

I think not.

I think the key may lie in understanding better the nature of love. What is love, and what does it do? George Macdonald, a favorite mystic and theologian, offers some help.

Macdonald explains that 1) love is not acceptance. Love wishes to make more lovable what it loves. In other words, love wishes the loved well- not to be as he or she is. 2) Love does not abandon. Love never gives up, never closes it’s heart.

Thinking this over I was reminded of the amazing story of the conversion of Larry Trapp. Trapp was a “grand dragon” of the Klu Klux Klan who became badly disabled. When a Jewish family, the Weisslers, moved into his neighbourhood he threatened and harassed them. The Weisslers responded by reaching out to him and challenging his views, though not hatefully. They  then pursued him with kindness. They offered to bring him groceries and treated him with love. One night they visited him at his house and he begged them to take away all of his Swastika rings, telling them he wanted out of the Klan. The Weisslers took the rings and gave him one they had bought by chance earlier as a gift. Weissler left the Klan, became an informant for the police, and eventually- in a truly stunning move- converted to Judaism in a synagogue he had once planned to blow up. He died two months later holding the hands of the Weisslers, may he rest in peace.

The Weisslers demonstrated true love. They did not accept Trapp as he was, but they did love him with an ultimately redeeming love. I don’t personally know Trump, of course. Yet I am considered about the condition of my own heart, that cavernous mansion of which many rooms are unknown, and even more in disrepair. Trump is, of course, not the only issue there. In fact he’s a bit player compared to some others: ISIS, for one. Human traffickers. There’s no need to multiply the list. Yet what’s true for Trump is true for others: to love them is to hold on to their humanity even when they seem to have let go of it. It is to love them, which means to pray for them. To pray that they awaken to love, that they fill themselves with humility and wisdom, that they repent. That they go from villains to teachers.

Whether this seems true and important to us or not depends on the value we place on the cleanliness of our own hearts, and whether or not we recognize the danger of letting strange and dangerous beasts breed there. To do this is not just (or shouldn’t just be) “virtue signalling”, a technique by which we signal our superiority to others by claiming to be free of hatred and anger. I for one am not free of either: my natural propensity is to have disdain, hatred and anger for people of the moral quality of Trump or Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. To work to let go of these emotions and replace them with love, as defined above, is an act of protest in the days of the “outrage machine” known as the Internet. It is to protest common humanity and the priority of love in the face of hatred, dehumanisation and polarisation. I think it is an internal move which is essential to both our future and the wellness of our souls.

So will you join me in prayer for Donald Trump?

If prayer is not your practice, try metta bhavana. You might just find that some part of you feels inexplicably better afterwards.   

 

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Trump Towers, North Miami Beach.

New Article on George Macdonald at Wisdom Pills and Works of Macdonald

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The following was published at Wisdom Pills (http://www.wisdompills.com/2015/11/24/12607/) and reblogged at Works of Macdonald: (http://www.worksofmacdonald.com/musing-on-macdonald/2015/11/29/10-spiritual-gems)

What could be cooler than having mentored Lewis Carrol? How about C.S. Lewis calling you his “master”? Being friends with Mark Twain and Walt Whitman? Being the major inspiration of J.R.R Tolkien? All of this is true of a little known Scottish mystic, poet and writer named George Macdonald (1824-1905). Macdonald wrote dozens of novels and was a pioneer in the creation of modern fantasy literature. He was also a pastor who was kicked out of his own Church for controversial preaching. Macdonald was a brilliant spiritual writer and something even more rare– a sage. C.S. Lewis said of him, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.” Below are a few gems from the writings of this remarkable man:

1) “A man is in bondage to whatever he cannot part with that is less than himself.”

The question that jumps out here is: what things are ‘less than oneself’? God is not less, but more. Other people are not less, but equal. A cause or a principle might be more, but not less. Wealth, though, is less. Pleasure is less. Esteem, reputation, what others think– less. An emotion– less. An emotion that someone else has– less. Any part of yourself, or anything you value that is only a part of human happiness, one should be able to live without. It’s interesting to think that while this doesn’t mean not loving others, there is nevertheless no emotional state or state of affairs which is not “less than oneself”.

2) “To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.”

This is an important insight. There are many reasons why someone might love you– because of what you do for them, because of a hope they have in you, because some quality of yours delights them. That quality might be physical, or might be a random quirk of your personality. Trusting you, however, is dependent on only one thing: their perception that you are trustworthy. What greater virtue is there than being worthy of trust?

3) “Low-sunk life imagines itself weary of life, but it is death, not life, it is weary of.”

As Macdonald writes elsewhere, when a person thinks that they want less of life they are mistaken. They do not want less, but more.

4) “The fire of God, which is His essential being, His love, His creative power, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns–that the further from Him, it burns the worse.”

This is one of Macdonald’s most brilliant images. The Bible says that God is a “consuming fire” and Macdonald dwells on this image in several of his writings. For Macdonald the fire of God is a “purifying fire” which consumes impurities and whose essential nature is love. It is a love which does not just warm or comfort (though it does that) but more importantly, transforms.

Like a refiner’s fire the fire of God’s love removes impurities– it “makes us more lovely, more worthy of love, as it loves us”. Macdonald here says that love is not truly love by wishing the loved one simply to remain as they are. This modern, romantic conception of love is shallow and incomplete. Love wishes to see growth and increase in the beauty of what it loves. Love wishes to see the beloved become ever more what they essentially are, ever more freely and in strength. According to MacDonald, only God knows us fully as we really are, only God knows our true potential, which makes his/her love, in a sense, relentless. God does not love us into stagnation or self-indulgence, but into change and growth, which can often be painful.

Macdonald here points out that the “fire” of God’s love is of a unique character– it does not burn you the closer you get, but rather burns the further you away go. The closer you get to the fire of God the less it burns, and the more you discover it’s nature as love.

5) “It is by loving and not by being loved that one can come nearest to the soul of another.”

Macdonald was not only, or even principally, concerned about the love of God in distinction to the love of people. In fact these two were the same to him. Here he points out that the way to draw closer to another person is not to win their love, and not to try to manipulate them into loving you more, but rather to learn how to love them.

6) “Otherness is the essential ground of affection. The love that enlarges not its borders, that is not ever-spreading and including, and deepening, will contract, shrivel, decay and die.”

Difference is not a challenge to true love but its pre-condition. The more difference, the more potential for love. Macdonald points out here that a love which does not keep growing to include more and more difference, more types of people, more situations, more challenges, will tend to stagnate and then retreat.

7) “I repent me of the ignorance wherein I ever said that God made humans out of nothing: there is no nothing out of which to make anything; God is all in all, and Divinity made us out of Divinity.”

Macdonald is riffing here off of the traditional Theistic doctrine “creation ex nihilo” which affirms that God is not just a kind of super-being who crafts the universe but the creator of everything, the ultimate cause of all forms of existence. Macdonald here points out that when God created humans s/he did not make something out of nothing, but rather must formed them of the only resource there was to work with: God itself.

8) “The whole system of the universe works upon this law– the driving of things upward toward the center, an ongoing process that has no end.”

Macdonald believed that God willed the salvation and perfection of all creatures and would ultimately succeed in rescuing every soul to bring it to him/herself. The process of understanding and delighting in an infinite God would go on infinitely. It was not a question of attaining a static, boring “heaven” but a never ending process of deepening beauty and divine adventure.

9) “Each person for whom we can do anything is our neighbour. We must not choose our neighbours; we must take the neighbour that God sends.”

Macdonald here builds on the parable of the good samaritan (Luke). This one doesn’t need any commentary. In the era of the international refugee this quote takes on an urgent resonance.

10)”A healthy child’s heart holds within it the secret of creation.”

What is that secret? I will leave this last quote for you to ponder yourself. If you’ve never read Macdonald, try the “Collected Fairy Tales” to start, and happy reading.