Editorial: Welcome to the Big Tent (November 2013)
Shambhala Sun | November 2013
Welcome to the Big Tent
“Spiritual but not religious”? What does that mean exactly? It sounds so light... so non-committal.
Light? Maybe, depending on the person. Noncommittal? Well, yes. And that’s precisely the point.
People today want spiritual nourishment. But many aren’t wild about how it’s been served to them. They’re not going to commit to a church, a leader, a fixed set of beliefs. Mind you: It’s not that they’re not ready or able to commit. It’s that they’re not moved to. There’s discernment at play: they want to be free to explore, inquire within, and see what works for them.
That openness and spirit of inquiry has real confluence with Buddhist thought. We Buddhists have been told by teachers like the Dalai Lama — and by the Buddha himself — that if we sincerely test and apply teachings but find them to be untrue, we should discard them.
Likewise, we should take any great spiritual lesson to heart, no matter its source. Buddhists strive to see wisdom wherever it manifests — among scientists, atheists, and artists; among practitioners and teachers of the great world religions; among activists, seekers, and ordinary people. As Joan Sutherland puts it in her piece on page 57, “The religious, the agnostic, and the completely irreligious, as well as those inclined psychologically, mystically, shamanically, or socio-politically, can all find a home in the very big tent of Buddhism.”
That’s no accident. The Buddha geared his teachings to his audience, knowing that what works for some people might not work for others, but that all of us can be turned toward awakening with the right skillful means. Likewise, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who founded the Shambhala Sun, put a premium on inclusivity. As he wrote in the opening of his classic book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, “There is basic human wisdom that can solve the world’s problems. This wisdom does not belong to any one culture or religion, nor does it come only from the West or the East.”
Yet, even among those who call themselves Buddhists, there are some who don’t or won’t recognize this. Think, for example, of those in Burma, Sri Lanka, and Thailand who would like to do away with their Muslim countrymen and who fan the fires of Islamophobia. They may even be ordained and wearing robes, but let’s face it: they’re fanatics who’ve lost the point of the spiritual path. People like that are surely one reason why so many of us these days say Yes to spirituality but No to religion.
It’s not that they don’t deserve our compassion. Indeed, compassion could be the key to turning them back toward civility and inclusivity. But we should let the world know that what they’re doing isn’t representative of what Buddhists value — robes or no.
I have to wonder: If I were coming up today, seeing the charlatans and religious chauvinists in the news, where would I be? When I was young, I had spiritual leanings, but I wasn’t merely “not religious”; I was anti-religion, and anti-social. It was my exposure to Buddhist thought, and the practical and profound practice of meditation, that changed that. I became more tolerant, less at odds with the world, and when my teacher spoke of the wisdom in the world’s religions, I was open and intrigued. I’ve found some real peace there.
I’d hate for anyone to miss out on that.
So is Buddhism a religion? We’ve gathered three panelists to explore this question and they have their own unique answers. That gets right to the heart of the Buddha’s idea of skillful means: the answer that matters, in the end, is the answer that works for you — and you’ll need to figure it out for yourself. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, be skeptical.
So welcome to the Big Tent. Make yourself at home, and come and go as you please.
—ROD MEADE SPERRY, Associate Editor
Photo by Megumi Yoshida
About a Poem (November 2013)
Shambhala Sun | November 2013
About a Poem: Christopher Martin on
Byron Herbert Reece's "Mountain Fiddler"
I took my fiddle
That sings and cries
To a hill in the middle
I sat at the base
Of a golden stone
In that holy place
To play alone.
I tuned the strings
And began to play,
And a crowd of wings
Were bent my way.
A voice said
Amid the stir:
“We that were dead,
“With purest gold
Are robed and shod,
And we behold
The face of God.
“Our halls can show
No thing so rude
As your horsehair bow,
Or your fiddlewood;
“And yet can they
So well entrance
If you but play
Then we must dance!”
Byron Herbert Reece (1917–1958) was a poet of moderate success in his lifetime, though today he is nearly forgotten, especially outside his homeland of the north Georgia mountains. His work emerged as an expression of the natural world around him — what he called a “speechless kingdom” to which he “pledged his tongue.” Once, after his publisher urged him to leave north Georgia for New York in order to be at the center of the literary world, Reece replied that the slopes and valleys around Blood Mountain were just as good a place for wrestling angels as any other. Though at times he left home for writing residencies and teaching positions across the country, he never stayed away for long. His family’s farm on Wolf Creek and the mountains around it always held the poet close.
Reece was bound to his home by necessity as much as anything else. Both his parents contracted tuberculosis in the 1930s, so he assumed full responsibility for the farm at the height of his literary career. Because he never found financial success through his writing, he always depended on farming for income as well as sustenance.
But Reece’s connection to his homeland ran much deeper than necessity. He belonged to the north Georgia countryside physically and also spiritually, as “Mountain Fiddler” and many of his other poems suggest. Yet in Reece’s work, the spiritual and the physical are not as dualistic as Western traditions often render them.
In “Mountain Fiddler,” Reece takes us to a clichéd vision of heaven, a place where everything is made of gold. He carries a homemade fiddle with him, though, and the homemade — that which arises from its locality — can never be cliché. It is commonplace to paint heaven in terms of mythological extravagance and duality, but good poets remind us that heaven abides in that which surrounds us. And so it is the angels, though they initially greet the fiddler by scoffing at his lowly “horsehair bow” and “fiddlewood,”who end up dancing to the earthly music. The heavenly harp holds no sway.
Christopher Martin is the author of the poetry chapbook A Conference of Birds and founding editor of the online literary magazine Flycatcher.
Books in Brief (November 2013)
Shambhala Sun | November 2013
Books in Brief
By ANDREA MILLER
TRAINING THE WISDOM BODY
Buddhist Yogic Exercises
By Rose Taylor Goldfield
Shambhala Publications 2013; 186 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Lujong, which means “body training” in Tibetan, is one of many systems of physical practice in Vajrayana Buddhism. In Training the Wisdom Body, Rose Taylor Goldfield teaches us the form of lujong she learned from her teacher, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, enhanced by her own studies of martial arts, sacred dance, and Indian, Chinese, and Japanese yogic forms. The book begins by exploring the foundational view of Buddhist yoga, including an excellent explanation of the subtle body. Then it explores seated meditation, which Goldfield reminds us is not just a practice for the mind. The body is important, too — the exact curve of the spine, the position of the head, chin, soft palate, and hands. Next the book covers ways in which we can extend our practice beyond the physical body, such as the use of sound. Finally Goldfield presents the lujong exercises. Her instructions are clear, but the accompanying photos are helpful for verifying that you’re on the right track.
BEYOND THE ROBE
Science for Monks and All It Reveals about Tibetan Monks and Nuns
By Bobby Sager
PowerHouse Books 2013; 312 pp., $60 (cloth)
FACE TO FACE
Portraits of the Human Spirit
By Alison Wright
Schiffer Publishing 2013; 208 pp., $75 (cloth)
In May 2000, entrepreneur Bobby Sager met with the Dalai Lama in an L.A. hotel room — the Dalai Lama sitting next to the minibar. Sager explained that he wanted to work on a project with His Holiness and that he was open to virtually any idea. To Sager’s surprise, the Dalai Lama knew immediately what he wanted to propose: a program teaching Western science in the monasteries. Beyond the Robe explores the development of Science for Monks, which has introduced science to more than 200 monastics. The book’s stunning photos are by Bobby Sager and the essays are by a variety of contributors, including Matthieu Ricard.
Another new and notable coffee-table book is Face to Face by Alison Wright, a contributor to the Shambhala Sun. It is a collection of evocative portraits that Wright has taken around the world, from Cuba and Mexico to Tibet and Japan. In the introduction she writes, “I have learned during my years of global travel… that no matter how unique we may look in appearance, from the exotic to the mundane, we basically have the same universal desires and concerns.”
Mindfulness for Everyday Use
By Annabelle Zinser
Parallax Press 2013; 170 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Small Bites is a collection of thirty-two meditations grounded in Annabelle Zinser’s many years of study with Vipassana teacher Ruth Denison and Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh. The first chapter gives instructions for basic sitting meditation. Then Zinser offers meditations for a wide range of situations, including recognizing our ancestors, opening up to physical pain, dealing with sexual feelings, and enjoying a cup of tea. Readers are invited to practice the meditations alone or with a group, and there’s no need to work through them chronologically. Small Bites is designed to be nibbled; simply dip into it and find the meditation that suits this very moment. Zinser is one of Germany’s most prominent Zen teachers, and in 2007 she was the recipient of the United Nations’ Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award.
By Norman Fischer
Singing Horse Press 2013; 116 pp., $15 (paper)
IN THAILAND IT IS NIGHT
By Ira Sukrungruang
University of Tampa Press 2013; 78 pp., $14 (paper)
By Thich Giac Thanh
Parallax Press 2013; 144 pp., $14.95 (paper)
The Strugglers and In Thailand It Is Night are two noteworthy poetry volumes by Shambhala Sun authors. In his poems, Zen priest Norman Fischer rarely touches Buddhism head-on, but between the lines Buddhist sensibilities shine through. I particularly enjoy his lyrical cracks at consumerism. He draws our attention to the “hopeful purchasing mood” of shoppers “who sip syrup-laced coffee at Starbuck’s.” He takes us to Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and “further still—this once green valley/Paved now with glitter in the shadow of its mountain/For the Seasonal Sales.”
Using clear language that packs a powerful punch, Ira Sukrungruang is particularly gifted at using his poems to tell a story. He begins In Thailand It Is Night with a section called “Guruda,” a bird creature of Buddhist mythology. “Start with meditating hands because the hands hold/suffering,” he writes in the poem “Drawing Buddhas.” “Be sure to curve the fingers/and palms, and be sure the curve cups karma,/or a splashing sparrow, or a sleeping cat.”
Another new book of poetry, Scattered Memories, is by Thich Giac Thanh, the late Vietnamese monk who served as the first abbot of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Deer Park Monastery in California. He wrote his poems over a thirty-year period, many of them when he was in dire straits, such as preparing to escape his homeland by boat. Nonetheless, there is a thread of joy that runs through his work — an appreciation for everything from sunshine to plum blossoms to drifting mist.
CLAIRE DEWITT AND THE BOHEMIAN HIGHWAY
By Sara Gran
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2013; 280 pp., $20 (cloth)
Private investigator Claire Dewitt is the type of person who rifles through acquaintances’ medicine cabinets and steals whatever numbing prescription pills she happens to find. She also likes fat lines of coke and casual sex — or maybe it’s not so much that she likes these things as much as they help her keep a lid on her troubling emotions. Beyond being haunted by memories of killing two men and having her best friend mysteriously disappear, Claire is also way too involved in her current whodunit: her ex-boyfriend, Paul, was murdered in his home and the suspects are many, including his gorgeous wife and her punk-rock lover. Spoiler alert: there are a few things that keep this hard-boiled detective novel from having a sad, sordid ending. One is that Claire finds Paul’s killer. Another is that she does a stint at a Buddhist temple. Years ago, her mentor sent her there to study with a lama, but she got caught in the toolshed having sex with a monk-in-training and was kicked out. This time she discovers that the temple is a place of healing.
WALK LIKE A BUDDHA
Even If Your Boss Sucks, Your Ex Is Torturing You & You’re Hungover Again
By Lodro Rinzler
Shambhala Publications 2013; 224 pp., $14.95 (paper)
“I should mention that I’m sort of a mess and also okay,” Lodro Rinzler writes. “Sometimes I’m sad or angry, and yet I’m also confident that at my core I am a buddha.” What this Gen-Y dharma teacher means is that even when he’s confused, he’s inherently awake. Rinzler offers Walk Like a Buddha as a guidebook to developing an unconditional faith in our wakefulness. It began with a blog called What Would Sid Do?, in which Rinzler explored how Siddhartha might have navigated the modern world, with its speed dating, climate change, designer drugs, and office politics. Walk Like a Buddha retains little of the actual material from the blog, yet it is likewise unflinching in its exploration of Buddhist practice today. Let me put it this way: in the section entitled “Getting It on Like a Buddha,” one of the topics addressed is whether having an open relationship can be in harmony with the Buddhist path.
Review: How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick (November 2013)
Review: When a Friend's in Need
When someone we care about is seriously ill, we often feel
uncomfortable and don’t know what to do. TONI BERNHARD says there’s good
advice in How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick.
How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick
By Letty Cottin Pogrebin
PublicAffairs 2013; 304 pp., $24.99 (cloth)
When I became chronically ill in 2001, I thought it was my fault. I blamed myself for not recovering from what appeared to be an acute viral infection, as if not regaining my health was due to a failure of will. I’d been a practicing Buddhist for many years, but in my confusion and fear, I’d forgotten a teaching from the Buddha that I’d learned early on: the five remembrances. These are five facts that he said “ought to be often contemplated upon by everyone—whether man or woman, householder or monk”:
• I cannot avoid aging.
• I cannot avoid illness.
• I cannot avoid death.
• I cannot avoid being separated and parted from all that is
dear and beloved to me.
• The only thing I control is my actions.
Illness is a natural consequence of being in a body. And yet, in the chronic-illness community (which numbers over 130 million people in the United States alone), it’s a commonly held conviction that illness is the fault of the person who is sick. Indeed, the belief that illness is unnatural — literally, going against nature — is shared by many in the population as a whole.
This deluded thinking about illness is due in large part to cultural conditioning. We live in a society that bombards us with messages that fly in the face of the Buddha’s second remembrance. We’re repeatedly told that bodies can indeed avoid illness: Eat right and you won’t get sick. Exercise and you won’t get sick. Minimize stress and you won’t get sick. Think positively and you won’t get sick. And if you do happen to get sick, a pill can make you not sick soon enough.
One of the consequences of living in a culture that distorts the truth about inhabiting a body is that many of us feel uneasy and even fearful when a friend is ill; we don’t know what to say or what to do. In her new book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, Letty Cottin Pogrebin undertakes to teach us this skill.
During treatment for breast cancer, Pogrebin discovered a “disconnect between how people treat sick people and how sick people wish to be treated.” She began gathering information from other patients and from veterans of chronic illness, asking them how they wanted their friends to talk to them, comfort them, and help them.
Drawing on their stories and her own experience, Pogrebin has written a candid, practical, and user-friendly guide that’s equal doses reportage and memoir. The book is an encyclopedia of helpful advice, mostly in the form of tips and lists of dos and don’ts. For example, here are a few of her tips for talking to friends who are sick:
• Avoid hackneyed platitudes and feel-good clichés.
• Listen to how they are; don’t tell them how they should be.
• Respond to what they say; don’t just move right along or talk about yourself.
And here are a few of her tips for visiting with a sick friend who’s housebound:
• Bring an item of interest to help get the conversation started — a newspaper clipping, a CD, a new app.
• Bring a few games or a DVD to watch together and talk about afterward.
• Arrive with a chore or two in mind you can do — cooking a meal, watering the plants, taking the dog for a walk, making some needed phone calls.
Although the book focuses on being a friend to a friend who’s sick, it can also help you be a friend to a friend who’s facing any of the first four of the Buddha’s five remembrances: aging, illness, death, or loss of a loved one. How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick has breadth and depth. For this reason, I would recommend it to everyone.
I do have one reservation about this otherwise valuable book. From a Buddhist perspective, I would caution you not to set a behavioral standard for yourself. This can trigger negative self-judgment if you decide you didn’t say or do just the “right” thing.
The book contains so many “do” and “don’t” commandments that at times it feels as if the bar for being a good friend may be set too high to clear.
For example, Pogrebin relates how a simple “How are you?” can be terribly upsetting to a sick person if it’s not spoken in just the right tone of voice. In another section, she lists nine variables for a friend to take into account when deciding how long to stay when visiting someone in the hospital. And in the chapter titled “The Perfect Present,” she sets out a host of criteria that a friend should consider before gift giving.
The book’s many “do’s” and “don’ts” reflect Pogrebin’s view that good intentions are not enough. She writes: “Thin and permeable is the membrane between good intentions and bad behavior.” From my perspective as a Buddhist practitioner, behavior that is born of truly good intentions cannot fairly be characterized as “bad.”
So, what are good intentions? The Buddha identified three of them: kindness, compassion, and generosity. They are beneficial because speech and action that stem from them are likely to ease suffering and enhance well-being in others as well as ourselves. Speaking as a person who is sick, my friends’ intentions are more important to me than their behavior. When I consider what they’ve said or done, I ask myself, “Did they intend to be kind and compassionate? Did they intend to be generous?” If the answer is yes, then even if their words weren’t on the mark, or if they didn’t pick up a cue that they were staying too long, or if they brought me a gift I have no interest in, that’s okay with me. I’m grateful for their efforts.
If your friend is sick, being a good friend is not about using just the right words or bringing the perfect gift. It’s about speaking or acting in a way that you believe in your heart will ease your friend’s suffering and help him or her feel more at peace with life as it is. For example, in twelve years of illness, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said to me, “But you don’t look sick!” I used to bristle at the comment and had to restrain myself from saying something rude in return. Now I recognize that their intention is to be kind and compassionate — they’re just trying to make me feel good. So I let it go.
Instead of setting a behavioral standard for being a friend to someone who is sick, try taking your cue from Pema Chödrön’s powerful teaching “Start where you are.” Don’t be surprised if that starting point is one of aversion to the whole notion of illness. That’s your cultural conditioning coming into play. If this happens, begin by acknowledging your aversion, without judgment. Recognize that due to past conditioning, you’ve never developed the skill of treating illness as a natural and normal part of life. Be aware, also, that the Buddha offered encouraging words about conditioning. He said that the mind is as soft and pliant as the balsam tree (something that modern neuroscientists are now confirming). This means that mental habits are not set in stone. The mind can be, in effect, reconditioned.
The most effective way to begin loosening the grip of conditioning is to cultivate compassion for your unease and apprehension. I recommend crafting phrases that speak directly to your suffering, then repeating them silently or softly to yourself. You might say, “It’s painful to feel uncomfortable about visiting a friend I care about so deeply” or “Sickness scares me but it’s not my fault.”
With self-compassion at your side, now set your intention to be kind, compassionate, and generous and contact your friend. You might settle ahead of time on a sentence with which to open the conversation. This can ease any suffering that might arise from stressful thoughts such as “I have no idea what to say.” Pogrebin’s book can help you decide on a good first sentence: “It’s nice to see you,” or “I’m so sorry this has happened to you,” or “Tell me how I can help.” Having broken the ice with your rehearsed greeting, simply be present for your friend and let the interaction unfold.
The Buddha suggested that the more you practice something, the easier it becomes. He said, “Whatever a person frequently thinks and ponders upon, that becomes the inclination of his mind.” I understand this to mean that every time your speech or action is motivated by a kind, compassionate, or generous intention, your inclination to behave that way is strengthened. You’re planting a behavioral seed of kindness that with mindful attention to your intentions and diligent practice can grow into a habit.
Yet keep in mind that in the fifth remembrance, the Buddha said that the only thing you control is your actions; he didn’t say you control the results of those actions. You may speak or act with the best of intentions and still not be well received. What should you do then? I recommend cultivating the evenness of temper and calmness of mind that characterize equanimity.
To do this, recognize that you can’t control how a friend might react no matter how well intentioned you are. Life is a mixed bag; sometimes you’ll succeed in your efforts and sometimes you won’t. It’s that way for everyone. Then, with forgiveness and compassion in your heart for both you and your friend, try again.
Shunryu Suzuki said that we can find perfect existence through imperfect existence. Look upon yourself as a perfectly imperfect “friend to a friend who is sick” and dive on in with a kind, compassionate, and generous intention — and with Pogrebin’s book as a guide. Then you can rest in the peace of knowing you’ve done the best you can.
Stillness in Action: Reflections on Dag Hammarskjöld (November 2013)
Stillness in Action:
Reflections on Dag Hammarskjold
The late Dag Hammarskjöld, Secretary-General of the United Nations, was both a deeply spiritual person and a highly effective diplomat. His biographer ROGER LIPSEY tells us why we need more leaders like him.
Dag Hammarskjöld, secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961, had a keen sense of above and below. For example, in the fall of 1958 the Swedish diplomat wrote in his private journal:
Lord, Thine the day,
And I the day’s.
Despite its few words, it is a provocative and memorable poem. In our troubled era, don’t we need political leaders who would understand this poem: its implicit promise of selfless service, its uneasiness and willingness, its scope? Don’t we need inspiring examples of men and women who have led public lives by the light of deep spirituality?
Hammarskjöld united two lives in one. He was both a spiritual seeker and the leading diplomat of his era. Somewhat forgotten today but admired nearly worldwide in his time, Hammarskjöld created important peacemaking methods such as shuttle diplomacy and UN peacekeeping forces. More than that, he endowed the United Nations with a heightened sense of its mission through his clarity of mind, breadth of vision, unshakeable integrity, and quiet eloquence.
When Hammarskjöld died in central Africa in 1961 in a still-troubling plane crash, he was mourned by millions. Two years later his private journal, Markings, was published. It revealed that he had been a spiritual seeker throughout his life, never more intently and wisely than during the UN years. The book remains a classic in the literature of the spirit. Hammarskjöld was Christian by faith; his teachers were Meister Eckhart and other medieval mystics. But much that he set down in Markings could have been written from within Asian traditions — Buddhist, Taoist, or Vedantist. “The ultimate experience is the same for all,” he once wrote.
Hammarskjöld’s friends, responsible for publishing his journal after his untimely death, were upset with the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden, who had taken on the English translation of Markings. His draft introduction, circulated for comment before publication, struck them in part as offensive. To no avail, they did what they could to persuade Auden to revise it. Auden had made the smug posthumous suggestion that Hammarskjöld would have been better off if he had attended church more regularly—like Auden. “Our views on DH’s religion differ from yours,” they wrote to him. “While keeping his roots in the Christian faith, we think that DH may have ‘out-winged’ what is usually described as religion, reaching a point where it does not matter anymore what label you give it. That needs, we think, just as much, and perhaps even more, discipline than any ecclesiastical routine may be able to give.”
What his friends said was true: Hammarskjöld was a lifelong disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. The remarkable prayers he recorded in Markings address God directly, as Thou, in a mode that owes something to the Book of Psalms and something to the modern poetry he read with passionate interest as a rest from his obligations. But Hammarskjöld was a practitioner, and practice has a blessed way of leading past boundaries. He followed what he called — without pride or show — “a spiritual discipline,” and his reports on inner experience varied in character from brief memos to himself to jewel-like renderings of authentic mystical perceptions.
His brief memos were often self-critical: he had independently discovered mindfulness, which he called “conscious self-scrutiny,” and its reports back to him were rarely flattering. “You listen badly,” he told himself, “and you read even worse. Except when the talk or the book is about yourself. Then you pay careful attention. Are you so observant of yourself?” It was through such collisions with himself that he constructed and preserved his integrity, and the rigorous attention with which he scanned his own person penetrated deeply. “To be governed by that which comes alive when ‘we’ have ceased to live — as interested parties or know-it-alls,” he wrote. “To be able to see, hear, and attend to that within us which is there in the darkness. And the silence.”
You see now what was in motion in this great life. As he went from crisis to crisis at the height of the Cold War, he became emptier inside in precisely the Buddhist sense — but also Eckhart’s sense. “Each day the first day. Each day a life. Each morning we must hold out the chalice of our being to receive, to carry, and give back. It must be held out empty — for the past must only be reﬂected in its polish, its shape, its capacity.” This he recorded at a time when he was engaged in winding down the Suez Crisis of 1956, a grave threat to world peace.
Hammarskjöld’s critique of the selfish self mirrors his intense longing for selfless service — for the bodhisattva way. The critique can easily be understood as Buddhist in flavor. For several years he wrote haiku, among them this one:
Meeting of possibilities
Calls itself I.
Buddhist also in flavor — and Eckhart-like as well — are his powerfully stated insights into the nature, cost, and unique joy of freedom in the midst of action. He wrote:
The “mystical experience.” Always here and now—in that freedom which is one with distance, in that stillness which is born of silence. But—this is a freedom in the midst of action, a stillness in the midst of other human beings. The mystery is a constant reality to him who, in this world, is free from self-concern, a reality that grows peaceful and mature before the receptive attention of assent. In our era the road to holiness often passes through the world of action.
Visitors to United Nations headquarters today are shown the Room of Quiet on the ground floor. It is a meditation space inaugurated by and designed by Hammarskjöld in cooperation with an architect and a fresco painter. Visitors are welcome to take home a printed copy of the message he wrote for its inauguration:
We all have within us a center of stillness surrounded by silence. This house, dedicated to work and debate in the service of peace, should have one room dedicated to silence in the outward sense and stillness in the inner sense. It has been the aim to create in this small room a place where the doors may be open to the infinite lands of thought and prayer.
At the end of this brief statement — unmistakably his own credo — he wrote: “There is an ancient saying that the sense of a vessel is not in its shell but in the void. So it is with this room. It is for those who come here to fill the void with what they find in their center of stillness.”
What did Hammarskjöld know of love, of that part of the bodhisattva way? He was famously reticent when the occasion called for reticence, a diplomat through and through, but in a late entry in Markings he wrote: “You wake from dreams of doom and — for a moment — you know : beyond all the noise and gestures, the only real thing, love’s calm unwavering flame in the half light of an early dawn.” In his worldly role, he had grasped how to embody compassionate concern without being thrown off balance by it. He said, “You can only hope to find a lasting solution to a conflict if you have learned to see the other objectively, but, at the same time, to experience his difficulties subjectively.”
Such wisdom is the fruit of worldly experience grounded in religious tradition. But for those drawn by Hammarskjöld’s example, there won’t be any easy wins. The relations between spirituality and political life are intrinsically difficult. Each domain, fully lived, requires long apprenticeship and dedication, and they tend to expel each other. Men and women on rigorous spiritual paths have their own work and challenges. Participants in political life know that it is a hard-knocks world of competition, compromise, periodic humiliation, and frequent disappointment.
“I don’t think it will surprise you,” Hammarskjöld once wrote to a fellow diplomat, “to hear that we all manage to remain in good health and in good heart, catching as they pass those bricks which can be built into the structure and dodging, if we can, those we fail to catch.” Realistically, how can spiritual practice — whatever that is — help? One tries to do a little good between elections. Isn’t that enough?
All the more reason to care about Hammarskjöld’s example and thought. For him it wasn’t enough. For him politics was an exercise in awareness, empathy, and objectivity. It was grounded in a life of prayer and aerated by what he discovered in stillness and silence. Mind for him was a work in progress, an incredible instrument for discerning the way to the secret ground of experience no less than the way forward in international life. Engagement in political life at the highest level of responsibility and risk became, perhaps to his surprise, an integral element of the way he followed.
“Blood, grime, sweat, earth,” he once asked, “where are these in your world of will?”
“Everywhere,” he answered. “The ground from which the flame ascends straight upward.”
Bodhisattvas wear disguises. They must. Hammarskjöld had, in effect, thought this through. “While performing the part which is truly ours,” he wrote, “how exhausting it is to be obliged to play a role which is not ours: the person you must really be in order to fulfill your task, you must not appear to others to be, in order to be allowed by them to fulfill it. How exhausting — but unavoidable, since mankind has laid down once and for all the organized rules for social behavior.” The best will look like everyone else. There will be no obvious wings, no crowns of light. But look in their eyes.
There is no settled path toward spiritual grandeur and effectiveness set against the immense difficulties and conflicts of our time. Hammarskjöld lived it in his way, unique in background, character, and opportunity for service. Others will live it in their own ways, entirely different yet under the surface the same. It isn’t something one explicitly prepares for. One trains as much as possible to be real and awake. One digs out one’s talents, some familiar, some unexpected. How all that fits with the world remains to be seen.
“Forward!” Hammarskjöld wrote in Markings. “Thy orders are given in secret. May I always hear them — and obey.” This also is a hierarchy. The high orders secretly spoken, the uncertainty of one’s listening, the uncertainty of one’s willingness to obey. And the immense promise that, after all, we can know what to do and have courage.
Photo courtesy of UN Photo / AF
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