Bob Schwartz

Category: Spirituality

Table-Clearing Religion

A splendidly set and provisioned table can be lovely and satisfying, especially when you’re hungry and there is a great cook at work.

But there is also a simple table, before anything has been laid on it, before the bowls and platters have been brought from the kitchen. Or the same table after it has been cleared.

Which why we might appreciate those religious movements that set a simple table, or try to clear one that has been cluttered, even if the clutter seems beneficial.

Table clearing is a phenomenon among many traditions. Jesus proposed something like it, as did the Baal Shem Tov. Some Christian sects are grounded in it, such as the Shakers. That sort of table clearing is also an essence of Zen. The value of various complex Buddhist movements may not be denied, but in the beginning the Buddha himself tried all that was being offered, and ended up just sitting.

Sit at whichever table suits you, and eat whatever you like from it. But maybe consider the elegant simplicity of the table before it is set, or after it is cleared.

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Candle for the Least

Candle for the Least

The first will be last.

Too many candles
Too many in need
To choose.
The last one
In the last row.
Outside
Barge through
A cloud of butterflies.

© Bob Schwartz

Selichot, Angels and Heschel

I lit a candle
For the care of those
In the storm’s way
The light answered:
It is up to you.

The Jewish High Holy Days—the Days of Awe—begin with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, on Wednesday evening, September 20. In preparation for that, on Saturday night, September 16, are the prayers and contemplation of Selichot.

I’ve written before about a controversial Selichot prayer, Machnisei Rachamim (Conveyers of Compassion):

Conveyers of compassions, obtain our mercy before the Master of compassion,
Makers of prayer, make our prayer heard before the Hearer of prayer.
Makers of wailing, make our wail heard, before the Hearer of wailing.
Conveyers of tears, convey our tears before the King who yields to tears.
Strive to raise up supplication, raise up supplication and plea,
Before the King, high and exalted. The King, high and exalted.

The controversy is theological and has gone on for centuries, with the prayer being redacted and even deleted among some Jewish communities and traditions. Machnisei Rachamim asks angels to serve as intermediaries for prayer, and some claim that this is wholly inconsistent with the Jewish theology of an unintermediated and direct line between Jews and God. One contemporary rabbi who opposes it claims that its continued recitation is a symptom of Judaism becoming “too spiritual.”

Rather than weighing in on this dispute, and being a Jew who is probably “too spiritual” for some (that is, whether it is angels, saints or bodhisattvas, humankind needs all the spiritual help it can get), I turned to the greatest of modern Jewish theologians, Abraham Joshua Heschel, for some thoughts on angels. I found this story he told, which is not only about angels, but about the Torah portion read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah—the akeda, the binding of Isaac.

At a Vietnam War protest in 1967, Heschel talked about being a child in Poland, learning about the akeda from his rabbi. Heschel said:

“Isaac was on the way to Mt. Moriah with his father. There he lay on the altar, bound, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat very fast. I actually sobbed with pity for Isaac. Behold, Abraham now lifted the knife and how my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard, ‘Abraham, lay not thine hand upon the lad for now I know that thou fearest God.’ And here I broke into tears and wept aloud. ‘Why are you crying?’ asked my rabbi. ‘You know that Isaac was not killed.’ I said to him, still weeping, ‘But rabbi, suppose the angel had come a second too late!’ The rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot ever come too late.”

And then Heschel said: “An angel cannot come too late, my friends, but we, made of flesh and blood, we may come too late”

Buddhist Anarchism

Celebrated poet Gary Snyder has been a master swimmer in the cultural and spiritual currents of our times. His biography from the Poetry Foundation notes:

Gary Snyder began his career in the 1950s as a noted member of the “Beat Generation,” though he has since explored a wide range of social and spiritual matters in both poetry and prose. Snyder’s work blends physical reality and precise observations of nature with inner insight received primarily through the practice of Zen Buddhism. While Snyder has gained attention as a spokesman for the preservation of the natural world and its earth-conscious cultures, he is not simply a “back-to-nature” poet with a facile message….

Snyder’s emphasis on metaphysics and his celebration of the natural order remove his work from the general tenor of Beat writing—and in fact Snyder is also identified as a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance along with Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser. Snyder has looked to the Orient and to the beliefs of American Indians for positive responses to the world, and he has tempered his studies with stints of hard physical labor as a logger and trail builder. Altieri believed that Snyder’s “articulation of a possible religious faith” independent of Western culture has greatly enhanced his popularity. In his study of the poet, Bob Steuding described how Snyder’s accessible style, drawn from the examples of Japanese haiku and Chinese verse, “has created a new kind of poetry that is direct, concrete, non-Romantic, and ecological. . . . Snyder’s work will be remembered in its own right as the example of a new direction taken in American literature.” Nation contributor Richard Tillinghast wrote: “In Snyder the stuff of the world ‘content’—has always shone with a wonderful sense of earthiness and health. He has always had things to tell us, experiences to relate, a set of values to expound. . . . He has influenced a generation.”

In 1961, Snyder published an essay entitled Buddhist Anarchism. Anarchism is a slippery term, though a call to turn things upside down, or an observation of our heading there, probably qualifies. The Buddhist part is definite here. Yes, it is radical, and pragmatic history may seem to demonstrate that the vision is idealistic, impractical and impossible. Even quaint in the face of the 21st century real world and real life. But without the idealistic, impractical and impossible, where is the fun and the future?

Buddhist Anarchism

Buddhism holds that the universe and all creatures in it are intrinsically in a state of complete wisdom, love and compassion; acting in natural response and mutual interdependence. The personal realization of this from-the-beginning state cannot be had for and by one-“self” — because it is not fully realized unless one has given the self up; and away.

In the Buddhist view, that which obstructs the effortless manifestation of this is Ignorance, which projects into fear and needless craving. Historically, Buddhist philosophers have failed to analyze out the degree to which ignorance and suffering are caused or encouraged by social factors, considering fear-and-desire to be given facts of the human condition. Consequently the major concern of Buddhist philosophy is epistemology and “psychology” with no attention paid to historical or sociological problems. Although Mahayana Buddhism has a grand vision of universal salvation, the actual achievement of Buddhism has been the development of practical systems of meditation toward the end of liberating a few dedicated individuals from psychological hangups and cultural conditionings. Institutional Buddhism has been conspicuously ready to accept or ignore the inequalities and tyrannies of whatever political system it found itself under. This can be death to Buddhism, because it is death to any meaningful function of compassion. Wisdom without compassion feels no pain.

No one today can afford to be innocent, or indulge himself in ignorance of the nature of contemporary governments, politics and social orders. The national polities of the modern world maintain their existence by deliberately fostered craving and fear: monstrous protection rackets. The “free world” has become economically dependent on a fantastic system of stimulation of greed which cannot be fulfilled, sexual desire which cannot be satiated and hatred which has no outlet except against oneself, the persons one is supposed to love, or the revolutionary aspirations of pitiful, poverty-stricken marginal societies like Cuba or Vietnam. The conditions of the Cold War have turned all modern societies — Communist included — into vicious distorters of man’s true potential. They create populations of “preta” — hungry ghosts, with giant appetites and throats no bigger than needles. The soil, the forests and all animal life are being consumed by these cancerous collectivities; the air and water of the planet is being fouled by them.

There is nothing in human nature or the requirements of human social organization which intrinsically requires that a culture be contradictory, repressive and productive of violent and frustrated personalities. Recent findings in anthropology and psychology make this more and more evident. One can prove it for himself by taking a good look at his own nature through meditation. Once a person has this much faith and insight, he must be led to a deep concern with the need for radical social change through a variety of hopefully non-violent means.

The joyous and voluntary poverty of Buddhism becomes a positive force. The traditional harmlessness and refusal to take life in any form has nation-shaking implications. The practice of meditation, for which one needs only “the ground beneath one’s feet,” wipes out mountains of junk being pumped into the mind by the mass media and supermarket universities. The belief in a serene and generous fulfillment of natural loving desires destroys ideologies which blind, maim and repress — and points the way to a kind of community which would amaze “moralists” and transform armies of men who are fighters because they cannot be lovers.

Avatamsaka (Kegon) Buddhist philosophy sees the world as a vast interrelated network in which all objects and creatures are necessary and illuminated. From one standpoint, governments, wars, or all that we consider “evil” are uncompromisingly contained in this totalistic realm. The hawk, the swoop and the hare are one. From the “human” standpoint we cannot live in those terms unless all beings see with the same enlightened eye. The Bodhisattva lives by the sufferer’s standard, and he must be effective in aiding those who suffer.

The mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void. We need both. They are both contained in the traditional three aspects of the Dharma path: wisdom (prajna), meditation (dhyana), and morality (sila). Wisdom is intuitive knowledge of the mind of love and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and aggressions. Meditation is going into the mind to see this for yourself — over and over again, until it becomes the mind you live in. Morality is bringing it back out in the way you live, through personal example and responsible action, ultimately toward the true community (sangha) of “all beings.”

This last aspect means, for me, supporting any cultural and economic revolution that moves clearly toward a free, international, classless world. It means using such means as civil disobedience, outspoken criticism, protest, pacifism, voluntary poverty and even gentle violence if it comes to a matter of restraining some impetuous redneck. It means affirming the widest possible spectrum of non-harmful individual behavior — defending the right of individuals to smoke hemp, eat peyote, be polygynous, polyandrous or homosexual. Worlds of behavior and custom long banned by the Judaeo-Capitalist-Christian-Marxist West. It means respecting intelligence and learning, but not as greed or means to personal power. Working on one’s own responsibility, but willing to work with a group. “Forming the new society within the shell of the old” — the IWW slogan of fifty years ago.

The traditional cultures are in any case doomed, and rather than cling to their good aspects hopelessly it should be remembered that whatever is or ever was in any other culture can be reconstructed from the unconscious, through meditation. In fact, it is my own view that the coming revolution will close the circle and link us in many ways with the most creative aspects of our archaic past. If we are lucky we may eventually arrive at a totally integrated world culture with matrilineal descent, free-form marriage, natural-credit communist economy, less industry, far less population and lots more national parks.

GARY SNYDER
1961

Houses of Worship as Reminders on the Street

We often see houses of worship on our streets, from modest buildings to grand cathedrals. Some people have mixed feelings when they do.

A growing number think that organized religion is a negative or even destructive force. Some people are happy to see their own brand of churches, synagogues and mosques on display, but are not so sure about other kinds. Some are irked by the costly beauty and splendor, no matter how pleasant the view, when other needs are so great.

These are all legitimate concerns. Yet walking past houses of worship is also a reminder, no matter how sectarian those buildings, of something greater and deeper—a reminder that may be missing from everyday lives. You don’t have to believe or participate in a particular tradition, or in any tradition, to know that things are out of balance. You may think that some expressions of faith actually contribute to that imbalance, and some assuredly do. But seeing the best of spirit embodied in our streetscape can also be a good reminder of who we can be.

From Thomas Merton, The Street Is for Celebration in Love and Living:

A city is something you do with space.

A street is a space. A building is an enclosed space. A room is a small enclosed space.

A city is made up of rooms, buildings, streets. It is a crowd of occupied spaces. Occupied or inhabited? Filled or lived in?

The quality of a city depends on whether these spaces are “inhabited” or just “occupied.” The character of the city is set by the way the rooms are lived in. The way the buildings are lived in. And what goes on in the streets.

Pictured above: Benedictine Monastery, Tucson, Arizona.

St. Anthony of Padua

You don’t have to be religious, Christian or Catholic to appreciate saints. Every tradition recognizes those whose lives, thoughts, or actions are worthy of attention. The particulars may not suit your sense or sensibilities, but these people represent the possibilities of being human—possibilities to which we may not personally aspire, but possibilities that still may inspire.

Today is the feast day of St. Anthony of Padua. The reasons for his sainthood involve his devotion and his preaching of the faith (he is often pictured with the baby Jesus and a book). His preaching was reportedly not limited to people:

Once, when St. Anthony of Padua attempted to preach the true Gospel of the Catholic Church to heretics who would not listen to him, he went out and preached his message to the fish. This was not, as liberals and naturalists have tried to say, for the instruction of the fish, but rather for the glory of God, the delight of the angels, and the easing of his own heart. When critics saw the fish begin to gather, they realized they should also listen to what Anthony had to say. (Catholic Online: Saints & Angels)

St. Anthony is the patron saint of the poor and of travelers, but is best known in popular Catholic culture as the patron saint of lost things. Though some have invoked him—successfully and unsuccessfully—with a simple childlike verse (“Dear St. Anthony look around/Something’s lost that can’t be found”), the story and meaning is explained more fully by others:

Since the seventeenth century Anthony has been frequently invoked as the finder of lost articles. When a novice took his Psalter without permission, Anthony prayed for its return. After a frightening apparition, the novice rushed to restore the book to its rightful owner. (Lives of the Saints: From Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa)

In 1224, Francis entrusted his friars’ pursuits of studies to Anthony. Anthony had a book of psalms that contained notes and comments to help when teaching students and, in a time when a printing press was not yet invented, he greatly valued it. When a novice decided to leave the hermitage, he stole Anthony’s valuable book. When Anthony discovered it was missing, he prayed it would be found or returned to him. The thief did return the book and in an extra step returned to the Order as well. (Catholic Online: Saints & Angels)

Anthony should be the patron of those who find their lives completely uprooted and set in a new and unexpected direction….God did with Anthony as God pleased—and what God pleased was a life of spiritual power and brilliance that still attracts admiration today. He whom popular devotion has nominated as finder of lost objects found himself by losing himself totally to the providence of God. (Franciscan Media)

From the National Shrine of St. Anthony:

Prayer to Find What Is Lost

St. Anthony, when you prayed, your stolen book of prayers was given back to you. Pray now for all of us who have lost things precious and dear. Pray for all who have lost faith, hope or the friendship of God. Pray for us who have lost friends or relatives by death. Pray for all who have lost peace of mind or spirit. Pray that we may be given new hope, new faith, new love. Pray that lost things, needful and helpful to us, may be returned to our keeping.

Feeding the poor. Preaching to fishes. Finding lost things. Sounds like a full feast day.

Wisdom House

Wisdom House

I see those
Who visited the house
Some knocked
Stopped for a chat or meal
Stayed for a weekend or season
Or never left.
There is no guest book
But some signed it anyway.
One left a note:
You know
This isn’t your house.

 

Fire

The same story about the Desert Fathers, told two ways. Why not fire?

Lot went to Joseph and said, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?’ Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’
The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks by Benedicta Ward 

Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

Naked Religion

All religious traditions dress you up so that you can go naked.

Take Zen, which contains the most stripped down of all practices. No concentration on a word or phrase or image or thought. Just sitting and breathing, and not even concentrating on that breathing. But even Zen has developed other aspects, including work on koans—stories to be considered and answered or not answered—along with other approaches. Not to mention other Buddhist traditions, which have plenty of added colorful elements, practical and textual, aimed at cultivating the individual.

The same goes for other traditions: Judaism, Christianity, etc., in various forms and versions. Lots of things to do, read, think and look at, some it very complex or spectacular. There can be confusion engendered by the complexity and spectacle, as if those are the point and the object.

The point and the object is none of that, as a careful listen and glimpse will tell you. Naked you come and naked you go is more than an apt description of your life on earth. It is the mission of the religions, though even the traditions themselves can get lost. Whatever your tradition, whatever you behold and hold dear and essential, that is not it. You were never meant to be dressed in the particular costume, though it may seem fitting and attractive. You were meant for the humble simplicity of spiritual nakedness. Just the way you came.

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.