Bob Schwartz

Category: Spirituality

Merton on the desert: We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated.

From Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude:

The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.

The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical dwelling place for the man who seeks to be nothing but himself—that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between himself and his Creator.

This is, at least, the theory. But there is another factor that enters in. First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil, thrown out into the “wilderness of upper Egypt” to “wander in dry places.” Thirst drives man mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has immured himself in it and closed out everything else.

So the man who wanders into the desert to be himself must take care that he does not go mad and become the servant of the one who dwells there in a sterile paradise of emptiness and rage….

The desert is the home of despair. And despair, now, is everywhere. Let us not think that our interior solitude consists in the acceptance of defeat. We cannot escape anything by consenting tacitly to be defeated. Despair is an abyss without bottom. Do not think to close it by consenting to it and trying to forget you have consented.

 

 

Yaqui: The last piece in a spiritual puzzle?

Saying that something is “the last piece in a spiritual puzzle” is misleading in so many ways.

It is not a spiritual puzzle, there are no pieces, and they do not appear and are not apprehended in sequence. It is a mystery of mysteries, at best they are clues, which fly in and out of the seen and unseen sky like birds, some of which you recognize, but many of which you will not identify until much later, if ever at all.

I am not a fan of spiritual syncretism and I am not not a fan of spiritual syncretism. Those who go from birth to death in a single tradition have much. Those who like bees or hummingbirds go from flower to flower have much. So it goes.

As for me, continuing a metaphorical mix, I’ve looked at plans and kept to some, picked up building materials along the way, and constructed what I could from what I found or what was delivered. It doesn’t look quite like anything else, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the structure even if I could, but I might suggest it is not a terrible process. Or place to work and rest in.

Here is something about the Yaqui of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mexico and something from the most extraordinary of Buddhist scriptures.


Sea Aniya: The Flower World

In the spiritual heart of the “enchanted” natural world is the dream-like presence of this “blossoming” world. This realm is difficult to define in words. It is part of a ritualized symbolic language of spirit that is understood by not solely by the mind, but also by the heart. What can be said is that the Sea Aniya is the integral part of a very ancient belief that is also a part of most Mexican Indian peoples’ mythology: the idea of flowers “expressing” a spiritual message, flowers symbolizing growth (germination, budding, flowering) of spiritual awareness. Flowers are the harmony, fertility, and beauty of this world. Yaquis believe in a manifested reality so that we know this is a very real world that is located east of the sun and in a place below the dawn. It is an ideally perfected world that mirrors the grace and beauty of the desert territory.

Deer Dancer: Yaqui Legends & Myths by Stan Padilla

The Flower Ornament Scripture

The Flower Ornament Scripture, called Avatamsaka in Sanskrit and Huayan in Chinese, is one of the major texts of Buddhism. Also referred to as the major Scripture of Inconceivable Liberation, it is perhaps the richest and most grandiose of all Buddhist scriptures, held in high esteem by all schools of Buddhism that are concerned with universal liberation. Its incredible wealth of sensual imagery staggers the imagination and exercises an almost mesmeric effect on the mind as it conveys a wide range of teachings through its complex structure, its colorful symbolism, and its mnemonic concentration formulae….

[Book One] “THUS HAVE I HEARD. At one time the Buddha was in the land of Magadha, in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just realized true awareness. The ground was solid and firm, made of diamond, adorned with exquisite jewel discs and myriad precious flowers, with pure clear crystals. The ocean of characteristics of the various colors appeared over an infinite extent. There were banners of precious stones, constantly emitting shining light and producing beautiful sounds. Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the earth.”

The Flower Ornament Scripture, translated by Thomas Cleary

Ex Nihilo

Ex Nihilo

When once was nothing
Was something?
Where once was nothing
Was nowhere?
Know everything
Believe in what you know
And nothing else?
Believe everything
And know nothing?
Aleph to tav
Alpha to omega
Awwal to akkir.
Is this the emet
The truth?

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Pantry (Morning Explorer)

Pantry (Morning Explorer)

In the beginning is
The same breakfast
Or so it starts.
But the pantry shelves
Are so full of wholesome ingredients
It seems impossible to ignore.
It isn’t the prospect of a new tasty dish
It is the possibility the morning sun offers
Who am I
Creative cook and diner
To ignore it?

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Note: Yes, it is the last morning of Passover, and yes, it has been a week since breakfast was pancakes, and yes, this should be a picture of matzo brei. But this poem containing a breakfast metaphor arose spontaneously today, and Passover or not, pancakes are a beautiful breakfast sight. Tomorrow.

Heschel for Passover (or Any Time)

A reader reminds me that a year ago, I posted about including readings from Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Passover seder (A Heschel Haggadah).

You will find the readings I included in last year’s seder below. As regular readers know, I’ve mentioned Heschel a few times in this blog, and more frequently in my conversations and discussions. He may be the greatest of modern masters of Judaism or of any spiritual traditions. He is not always easy, but he is accessible, inspirational, mind-and-soul-stirring at a depth that lasts. His is not fast food; it is a long, rich, delicious meal that nourishes you for a lifetime and that you never forget—kind of like a seder. In addition to Elijah, who we expect at every seder, Heschel would be so welcome any time.

Along with the readings below, I urge you to take a look at some of the collections of readings available and then, if you like what you find, check out some of the many books (I am particularly fond of The Sabbath, but there are so many worthy ones).

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

The Wisdom of Heschel

I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology  (“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”)


THE MEANING OF EXISTENCE is experienced in moments of exaltation. Man must strive for the summit in order to survive on the ground. His norms must be higher than his behavior, his ends must surpass his needs. The security of existence lies in the exaltation of existence.

This is one of the rewards of being human: quiet exaltation, capability for celebration. It is expressed in a phrase which Rabbi Akiba offered to his disciples:

A song every day,
A song every day

 

THE TABLETS ARE BROKEN whenever the Golden Calf is called into being. We believe that every hour is endowed with the power to lend meaning to or withhold meaning from all other hours. No moment is as a moment able to bestow ultimate meaning upon all other moments. No moment is the absolute center of history. Time is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere.

 

THE WORLD COULD NOT EXIST at all except as one; deprived of unity, it would not be a cosmos but chaos, an agglomeration of countless possibilities … Life is tangled, fierce, fickle. We cannot remain in agreement with all goals. We are constantly compelled to make a choice, and the choice of one goal means the forsaking of another.

 

THE PROPHETS PROCLAIMED that justice is omnipotent, that right and wrong are dimensions of world history, not merely modes of conduct. The existence of the world is contingent upon right and wrong … The validity of justice and the motivation for its exercise lie in the blessings it brings to man … Justice exists in relation to a person … An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt.

 

THE HEART IS OFTEN A LONELY VOICE in the marketplace of living. Man may entertain lofty ideals and behave like the ass that, as the saying goes, “carries gold and eats thistles.” The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.

 

HUMAN LIFE IS HOLY, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah … Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.

 

TO PRAY is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

To escape from the mean and penurious, from calculating and scheming, is at times the parching desire of man … Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification … It teaches us what to aspire to, implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish.

 

THE MOST MAGNIFICENT EDIFICES, most beautiful temples and monuments of worldly glory, are repulsive to the man of piety when they are built by the sweat and tears of suffering slaves, or erected through injustice and fraud. Hypocrisy and pretense of devoutness are more distasteful to him than open iniquity. But in the roughened, soiled hands of devoted parents, or in the maimed bodies and bruised faces of those who have been persecuted but have kept faith with God, he may detect the last great light on earth.

 

WHAT WOULD ART HAVE BEEN without the religious sense of mystery and sovereignty, and how dreary would religion have been without the incessant venture of the artist to embody the invisible in visible forms, to bring his vision out of the darkness of the heart, and to fill the immense absence of the Deity with the light of human genius? The right hand of the artist withers when he forgets the sovereignty of God, and the heart of the religious man has often become dreary without the daring skill of the artist. Art seemed to be the only revelation in the face of the Deity’s vast silence.

Ben Zoma Inside Out

The person in the hut lives here calmly,
not stuck to inside, outside, or in-between.
Song of the Grass Hut

Gone
Gone Beyond
Gone Completely Beyond
Heart Sutra

Ben Zoma Inside Out

Ben Zoma in the grass hut
Waters above
Waters below.
What does Rabbi Joshua know?
Sekito knows
Ben Zoma is outside
Inside and in-between.
Gone completely beyond.

Note: Creating, whatever your material, can be like the proverbial dog with a bone. There is sometimes spontaneity, done and gone, and then there is the idea that won’t go away. In that case, the idea is actually the dog and you are the bone. A previous version of this poem can be found here. Who knows what the next version, if any, will look like? Not me.

The Pope and the Dalai Lama: How Did We Get So Lucky?

In a newly published interview with Die Zeit, Pope Francis talks about many matters. Including his own faith. Asked about whether he ever doubts the existence of God, he said:

“I too know moments of emptiness.”

The current Pope shows us the honesty, humility, humor, wisdom and spirit we would like to see in all our traditions and in all our leaders—and in ourselves. The same can be said about the current Dalai Lama.

You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic or a Tibetan Buddhist to be inspired by these people. And just people they are, according to them, as the Pope reminds us in the same interview:

“I am a sinner and I am fallible. When I am idealized, I feel attacked.”

Pope Francis is 80. The Dalai Lama is 81. They will not live and serve forever, as much as we would be benefited by that gift. It is possible that both will be succeeded by their equal, but we can’t know that.

So let’s enjoy them and be inspired by them while they are here, wondering what we did to deserve this.

Music: Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space

If the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) had lived into the late 20th century and completed his cosmic epic Mysterium as pop music, it might have sounded like Spiritualized’s Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space, the title track and the album (1997). (Note: the brilliant and adventurous explorer Scriabin thought that when Mysterium was finished and played, it would bring about the end of the world.)

Spiritualized is descended from a group called Spacemen 3 (Taking Drugs To Make Music to Take Drugs To). Do not be misled either by album titles or by a sense that Spiritualized is either psychedelic music or some sort of New Age/space music. This is something you have never heard before. When you hear it, efforts to fit it into an aesthetic or artistic pigeonhole fail. Something is going on, and if you listen without prejudice (as you always should), you may find it an expansive and transporting experience.

 

Ben Zoma Still Outside

waters-above

Ben Zoma Still Outside

Lost and found
Between the waters of creation
Ben Zoma
Is outside
Is still outside

And God said, “Let there be a space within the water, and let it separate between water and water.” And God made the space, and it separated between the water that was under the space and the water that was above the space. And it was so. (Gen 1:6-7)

Ben Zoma sat at the Temple Mount, lost in thought. His rebbe Yehoshua ben Chananya came by, but Ben Zoma did not notice or rise in respect. R. Yehoshua roused him from his reverie and asked what he was doing. Gazing at the space between the upper and lower waters, he replied. R.  Yehoshua explained to his disciples:

Ben Zoma is still outside.

What If We Took on the Character of the Places Our Clothes Are Made?

pyramids

I try to buy clothing made in America, but as a practical matter that’s very hard. Most of the basic, reasonably-priced items are made globally. Maybe that will change sometime, but it has been the trend for decades.

One thing I do, however, is look at the labels of the global clothes I wear. As I looked today I wondered: what if, in some of kind of magic, the clothes imparted the wearer with some of the character of the places they began?

Here is today’s lineup:

Shirt: Egypt
Jeans: Mexico
Briefs: Nicaragua

That itinerary does change from day to day, and includes Vietnam, Bangladesh, China, Honduras and other ports of call.

Is the spirit of Egypt in my shirt, and does it pass through my skin? How about my Mexican jeans? And what about Nicaragua, so very close to my very important parts?

Something to think about as we wrestle with the impact of globalism.