Suffering

My wife is a special educator.  She tells me stories about kids who are and will be, no matter how hard they work, miles and miles short of successful functioning in our society.  I hear about the amazing ways that she confronts them and engages them to draw out even the most basic responses to external stimuli – things like pointing to or grabbing a particular picture that indicates something they want or need, communication in its most elemental forms.  My mind spins off into the future for these little lives and I ache.  Something in me inclines toward discouragement.

According to Wikipedia, 230,000 people died, in 2004, in the Indian Ocean Tsunami (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2004_Indian_Ocean_earthquake_and_tsunami), triggered by an undersea megathrust off the west coast of Sumatra.  The millions that survived carry the soul etching memory of terror, and the loss of loved ones, places and ways of life that were wrenched irrevocably out of their being.  Even from a distance, the collective soul of the earth feels and bears the rip, the wound and the scar.

The Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University (see http://costsofwar.org/article/afghan-civilians) estimated, in February 2013, that between 16,700 and 19,000 civilians have died in Afghanistan as direct or indirect casualties of Operation Enduring Freedom.  iCasualties counts 3383 deaths of coalition troops since the war started in 2001 (http://icasualties.org/oef/), not to mention the traumatic head injuries, loss of limbs and suffering of families of the injured.

Life as we observe it and experience it is full of suffering, whether natural, psychological or of our own making.  And it is so for the observer and survivor just as it is for the victim. 

The Sanskrit term dukkha captures this completely.  The Wikipedia article on dukkha (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dukkha) explains it in three categories:

  • The obvious physical and mental suffering associated with birthgrowing oldillness and dying.
  • The anxiety or stress of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing.
  • A basic unsatisfactoriness pervading all forms of existence, due to the fact that all forms of life are changing, impermanent and without any inner core or substance. On this level, the term indicates a lack of satisfaction, a sense that things never measure up to our expectations or standards.

When we choose to stay stuck under the metaphorical Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, life is indeed dukkha.  We see everything through a lens of a battle to eliminate the pain of our current existence, even to the point of killing others and increasing pain because we think somehow our own security will be enhanced and our dukkha decreased.  In reality, we just pile it higher and deeper.

I have a friend, Vern Rempel, who postscripts his emails with these words of his:  “The code of the universe is written in beauty.” The Buddha said:  “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.”  Somehow I think these two assertions are headed in the same direction.

We cannot judge the pain of temporal existence any more than we can judge – as good, bad or indifferent – the unfolding of our universe and the emergence of life itself.  It is.  It is, it is, it is.  To say “it is” is not indifference, but rather acceptance of and wonder at the mysterious whole and trajectory of creation.

The cessation of dukkha is no more nor less than the choice to live under the Tree of Life.  It is, I believe, a more complete nirvana, and the essence of the Greek term metanoia, translated in the Christian Bible as repentance.  That word has become heavy laden with the trappings of a religion of judgment.  More accurately, it simply means to change, or to turn away from.

When we turn away from our judging and fearful view of life under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we find ourselves, simply, under the Tree of Life.  We repent of dukkha.  We let go of, we turn way from our limited and temporal view of suffering and we engage fully in the ongoing act, the revelation/evolution of creation.

We, in our evolutionary state, have been given at least the level of awareness that comes with observation.  And we have been gifted as well with the ability to judge what we observe.  We also have the ability to choose our response.

We can willfully try to manipulate life and the world around us, desperately seeking to avoid what we perceive as dukkha.  When we do this, we only create more.

Or we can willingly accept and participate in the beautiful and staggeringly powerful onslaught of creation, sharing compassion, soaking in the beauty and mystery, acting in the creative initiative of God/Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source.

There is a tremendous ache, the ache of birth, in the act of creation.  We are part of it.  The birth, the code of that ache, is the handwriting of the universe.  The child of it all, the child of us all when we participate in and do not fight the unfolding, is beauty beyond words and saying.

Come, turn, breathe, care, steward and create.  Live under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share as you please.  Mention the source.

Environmentalism and the Two Trees

In some big way, the Earth is the tree in our garden.  Going back to the C.S. Lewis view of the garden of creation in the Narnia books (Two Trees in the Garden, “The Fruit of Our Heart’s Desire”, July 26, 2013), our two trees – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life – are really the same tree.  The difference is in how we approach the tree and our use of the fruit we take away.

The Earth is the giving tree of creation.  It is full of fruit.  We choose, each day of our lives, which tree we will make it.

When we view the Earth from our perspective under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we view it through a lens of scarcity.  Whatever the Earth might provide us, there is never enough.  The natural response is to grab, to grasp, to hoard and to engage in glutinous consumption.  The consequences of that view are apparent.  There is a rapidly increasing gap between the haves and the have-nots in the United States, the wealthiest nation on Earth. (A recent president referred, with some chilling sarcasm, to “the haves and the have-mores”, blatantly celebrating the disparity.)  Resources are gathered and consumed without regard to the social or environmental cost.  And, ultimately, this gathering and hoarding is protected with violence and the cost of life.  War after war has been waged in the name of some lofty principle or other that masks the underlying defense of access to natural resources and the associated wealth.

We can swing our environmentalist, social justice and peacenik bats as fast and furiously as we like.  Certainly we must take positions of clarity on this issue.  Ultimately, this is a spiritual problem and needs to be addressed at that level.  We should be neither blind to nor distracted by the possible consequences.

Jesus, Gandhi and King are exemplary here.  Certainly there are others, but these we know in the West, the United States in particular.  In our objection to greed and abuse of power, we should never overlook the obligation and compassion of call to the one lost under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Jesus’s call to Zacchaeus, whose greed and fear were expressed in the abuses available to the tax collector, is a clear and simple picture.  There was some spark for Zacchaeus, at least enough curiosity to cause him to climb the tree so that he could see Jesus.  Jesus called him out.  He confronted him with compassion.  Zacchaeus changed his behavior.

Under the Tree of Life, our response to greed and fear must be the call of compassion, a call that cares for the perpetrator lost in self-centered fear and greed while at the same time fending for, protecting and improving the lot for the victims of the perpetrator.

We should never delude ourselves about the grip of power and wealth.  The human heart lost in that grip will resort to killing and devastation of anything to avoid freedom from and relinquishment of those false protections.  But neither should we be deterred or dismayed.

If we save the world from devastation through violence, we have saved nothing.  We have only lost ourselves to our own isolation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

There are no guarantees of success in the short-term.  We could lose the Earth to the violence and environmental degradation caused by those who are themselves lost in the grip of plunder, convinced that comfort and ease in this particular life will somehow protect them from bodily demise.  And we could easily die, as so many others have, standing in the way and making the compassionate call to view the Earth as our shared Tree of Life, with enough for all, and with a vision that is longer, broader and deeper than our current incarnation in the here and now.

In fact, there are no guarantees of success in the long-term, either.  There is only a choice of faith:

  • faith that the choice to live under the Tree of Life is the ultimate path of spiritual progress
  • faith that sets aside both hatred and fear
  • faith that expresses compassion and stewardship in ways that transcend our necessarily limited physical view and understanding of the world around us

I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist about the future of our planet.  It is a beautiful gift, one that calls for nurture, restoration and compassionate stewardship that seeks the good of all.  We choose what tree it will be – a nourishing Tree of Life or a depleted and exhausted Tree of the Know ledge of Good and Evil.

What I am convinced of, deeply, is the challenge and importance of our choices, personally and collectively.  My spirit rises to the call of the Tree of Life:

  • the call to steward, to stand, to confront and to call with compassion and welcome
  • the call to take the bullet or to be nailed to the tree when a frozen heart is convinced that our death will clear the path for the temporary safety of wealth and power
  • the call to rise up again – and again and again – to rise up again and to live in the home of love under the Tree of Life.

There is no end.  There is nothing to fear.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Take what is useful.  Share it.  Mention where you found it.

Spiritual but not Religious

In the past few years I have heard people describe themselves, and have sometimes described myself, as spiritual but not religious.  The label begs definition.  I guess, on a very simple and literal level, it means having a sense of larger connection to something we might call spirit that envigorates, guides and, in truth, is us, but having checked out of, or never been part of, institutional religious expression of a particular faith.

I have admired that position, at least insofar as it represents a bravery about rejecting or not being actively concerned with blind dogma and positions that separate rather than unite humanity – demands that people say this or that and assurances that if you follow the particular company line, heaven is just around the corner.

But there is, at least for me, something significant lost in that position, as well.  What is lost is the sense of belonging, of being part of a close-knit community of commitment.

Every fall, just after Labor Day, the community of Estes Park hosts the Long’s Peak Scottish Irish Festival.  There are bands and dance competitions, jousting, and real cannon firing bowling balls to try to sink an inflatable plastic dragon in Lake Estes.

And there is a parade.  It features, I think, just about the biggest collection of pipe and drum corps in the nation.  And it features clan after clan marching in alphabetical order, families in their tartans and kilts, marching proudly and happily together behind their particular plaid.  I have to admit there is something that grabs me at the root and brings tears to my eyes as I see them march by – little children, old men and women, their little Scottish terriers all decked out, heading to no war, setting aside their own squabbles and differences for a day of being part of something that reaches way back and commits to going forward, reveling in pure belonging.  I can’t help it.  Tears just run down my face.

I don’t know how long it has been true, but it is true now that something very special has happened in those ranks.  Yes, there are tall lordly Scotsmen – some kind of purebred marked by a particular demeanor and full white moustache – and strong women capable of cutting down forests with only a few strokes of the axe.  But there are also, in the clans, marching with all the same pride, people of Asian or African descent, fully Scottish just because they have married into the clan and everybody says so.

There is nothing inherently bad about religions.  They are just the tools we make them.  And there is value and meaning in belonging – in a commitment to community that says, come hell or high water (or, as we have in Estes this week, the hell of high water), and regardless of our petty differences, we are one.  We will stick together and care for one another and we will take pride in and celebrate our values and commitments.

There is nothing inherently bad in this, so long as there is a significant grain of salt in all our sacraments.  Strength comes in offering and welcoming, in serving and caring.  The stories we tell and the lessons we teach are nothing if they don’t result in true humility and compassion.  We may display our colors with pride, so long as the door is open and says come in if you like.  And so long as we know our door is just one of many on the street.

At the end of the day, we may take off our clothing, grateful that it has protected us and provided a vehicle and context for our service.  But that is all it is, a bit of pretty decoration for a body that is no different, or better or worse than the one inhabited by each of our global and religious – or not – neighbors.

And our religious families are wasted and nothing if they are not chiefly a magnification of service and welcome at the level of community, rather than just the individual.

Spiritual but not religious is, I believe, a wonderful position that sheds, appropriately, the strictures when community has lost its way, more concerned about the clothing than the body, wrapped up in pomp, power and appearances.  It is a sign of prophetic rejection of all that is hollow and false.

But it is also lonely.  Grant us community, a family that makes us part of something broader and stronger, that accomplishes so much more than we are able on our own.  And gift us, Great Spirit, Breath of Life, the vision that whatever our community, we are always part of a larger family still, a family that flourishes on strong humility and confident sharing, founded on a bedrock of compassionate service.

Make us one, be us one, under the Tree of Life.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  If you like it, share it.  Kindly note the source

A Good Read Under the Tree of Life

Under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we abuse scripture.  We bind it up in leather, with gilt pages and we worship it.  We thump it on the pulpit, we display it on the brass stand or podium, and when we do open it to read it, we shop for – and find – the bullets, knives and bombs we need to protect our separate selves and our separate religions.  The tree always gives us the fruit for which we ask.

Scripture is the place where the stirrings of Creator/Spirit/Mind/Source (C/S/M/S) meet the mind of humanity for distillation into concepts and words.  Bodies of scripture, combined with years of interpretation, become the normative structure and formative tradition for religions and even whole societies.  That is, perhaps, a useful social function.  But it also, when scripture is adopted as uniquely and exclusively authoritative, becomes the blinders of division that keep us from open interaction and rich cross-fertilization between traditions.  At its worst, it becomes the justification for oppression, violence against individuals, sexes and classes, used most abusively to support terrorism and war.

Types of scripture lend themselves to particular forms of abuse.  Historical narrative – the bulk of the Bible being the prime example – can, for instance, lead us to believe that the struggles and understandings of one culture are more than that.  We allow them to become the defining history of C/S/M/S to the exclusion of all others.  We miss the richness of interaction and learning when we idolize the characters and stories rather than seeing them as a useful record of human experience, much like our own.  When we close the canon, we in essence deny and shut down our own direct and vital connection to C/S/M/S.

Revealed scripture – the Koran, the Book of Mormon and more recently, A Course in Miracles – lends itself most easily to manipulation.  Followers may be tempted to grant it an air of particular exclusivity.  Again, the learning of the content is ignored in the sacralization of the whole.  We may find ourselves using it to define in-groups and out-groups, or to idolize the founder who received this intense spiritual download.

Myth – like we find in the Bhagavad Gita, the biblical creation narrative or the many stories of the Buddha – is sometimes written off as not being real.  We think, “How can something that is not real be as authoritative as something that is real?”  Or equally as risky, we make it authoritative, clinging to and slinging around a literal interpretation of a good teaching story.

I personally find most easily accessible the experiential writings – the Psalms, the Upanishads, the struggles of the prophets.  Somehow it is easier to place myself side-by-side with another human who relates their experience of wrestling with or finding unity on their spiritual path.  But the same risks apply.  I might be tempted to grant sacred status to the experience of another while denying the reality of my own interaction and relationship with C/S/M/S.  Or I might ignore the truth that is there because I grant higher status to another source.

We get all messed up with judgment under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good Evil.  We make this sacred and that secular.  We assign qualities and attributes to make things more or less than what they are.  And we do the same to ourselves.

In general, we have adopted a low view of ourselves in relation to all that we choose to label sacred.  We insist that we are stuck in our separation from C/S/M/S and that “believing in” this set of writings or the tenets of that religion will save us from our assumed natural state of doom.

I believe scripture.  I don’t believe in it.  What am I saying when I say that?  Under the Tree of Life, everything – absolutely everything – is available to us for learning and for growth.  The written experience of all cultures and interactors with C/S/M/S is useful.  We have tools to use, not objects to worship.

We don’t need to grant authority to one book or another.  C/S/M/S is our author, and we are the breath of that creation.  We have the same dynamic relationship as the prophets and writers of any past.  And we share the same temptations to isolation and to ego.

We have the opportunity to rest and to revel in the word, in all the words that we encounter in each day of our life.  They are the expression of our human discovery of connection and unity with C/S/M/S.

When we sacralize and canonize scripture, we profane our own lives.  The fruit is ours, to pick, to eat and to live.  It was never intended to be worshipped or to be thrown as a weapon at someone else.

Here we are, under the Tree of Life.  Let’s settle down with a good book.

© Two Trees in the Garden.  Share what is useful.  Let folks know where you found it.