Thursday, August 09, 2007

The sanctuary?

The sanctuary, Köln Cathedral, Köln, Germany, October 2001, Sony Cybershot, Exposure 1/30 sec @ f5.6, ISO 400, no flash © Steven Crisp [Click on the photo to enlarge]

The concept of a sanctuary is comforting. A place one can go to avoid having to do battle, whether physical, legal, or emotional. But of course, like any other concept, it is only in our minds (singularly, or collectively). And it is true only as long as we (the royal we, or all of us) choose to believe it.

In a story that I recently read, traditional places of sanctuary actually became the nice convenient collection points for brutal killings, and the actual sanctuary for the story teller, turned out to be a tiny bathroom in a pastor's house. But that is not my point -- I just needed to explain the title and photo for this post.

So ... What have you been reading on your summer vacation?

I just finished an interesting, if somewhat unlikely, choice for some spare-time page turning. It is entitled “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” by Immaculee Ilibagiza with Steve Erwin.

OK, so that might sound like a bit of a downer, and a rather poor choice. Especially with the 7th Harry Potter book recently released and all. (And, I didn't have to worry about some loudspoken fellow traveler giving away the ending ;-) But I must tell you, I really enjoyed it. I found it quite moving — both emotional and inspirational. And I would highly recommend it.

Here are a few quotes from it that caught my mind:
The world had seen the same thing happen many times before. After it happened in Nazi Germany, all the big, powerful countries swore, “Never again!” But here we were, six harmless females huddled in darkness, marked for execution because we were born Tutsi. How had history managed to repeat itself? How had this evil managed to surface once again? Why had the devil been allowed to walk among us unchalleneged, poisoning hearts and minds until it was too late?
I prayed for God to receive the child’s innocent soul, and then asked Him, How can I forgive people who would do such a thing to an infant?
I heard His answer as clearly as if we’d been sitting in the same room chatting: You are all my children ... and the baby is with Me now.
It was such a simple sentence, but it was the answer to the prayers I’d been lost in for days.
The pastor told his children to take a good look at us. “There, but for the grace of God, go any one of you,” he reminded them. “If you have the chance to help unfortunates like these ladies in times of trouble, make sure you do it — even if it means putting your own life at risk. This is how God wants us to live.”
He grabbled Felicien [Hutu gang leader that killed Immaculee’s family] by the shirt collar and hauled him to his feet. “What do you have to say to her? What do you have to say to Immaculee?”
Felicien was sobbing. I could feel his shame. He looked up at me for only a moment, but our eyes met. I reached out, touched his hands lightly, and quietly said what I’d come to say. “I forgive you.”
Now, some might be put off by the subject matter. Others might be put off by the explicit references to God and Christianity. But I urge you to look past those, if they concern you. I see a story that transcends any particular religion. Indeed, I see a story that both defines and transcends faith itself.

And this is not simply a story about man’s inhumanity toward man. Nor is it a story about mankind’s innate goodness. It is a reminder to us all. All of us caught up in our petty concerns, our busy-ness, our happiness or our sadness. The reality of our world is a complex thing. Our day-to-day lives could be turned upside down rather quickly. Things which are truly unimaginable really can happen. And that might be for good or for bad.

And to me it is a reminder of the only antidote we have to such pain, such loss, such tragedy: Compassion, forgiveness, and loving-kindness. Revenge will not work. Even justice can be misguided. We must consider the eternal wisdom from all religions and all traditions: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” It is the only principle that scales.

Beyond that, I think this book is remarkable in its ability to remind us what evils can prevail from a “tribal” mentality. That is, anything that causes an “us versus them” mentality. Whether we are talking about race, ethnicity, religion, or even politics. If you find yourself siding with “your kind” against “those idiots,” well then, somewhere your train has left the track, and you had best put it right again.

If you see yourself listening to extreme positions, put forth by the media talking heads, religious evangelicals, or political leaders, be suspect. Their job is usually to convince you of their position, rather than inform you to let you make up your own mind. And mass hysteria can lead a group of otherwise rational individuals to act like a pack of wild dogs. It is a fascinating and dangerous trait of human nature.
I come from the East, most of you are Westerners. If I look at you superficially, we are different, and if I put my emphasis on that level, we grow more distant. If I look on you as my own kind, as human beings like myself, with one nose, two eyes, and so forth, then automatically that distance is gone. We are the same human flesh. I want happiness; you also want happiness. From that mutual recognition, we can build respect and real trust of each other. From that can come cooperation and harmony.
-- His Holiness the Dalai Lama
But once again, I come back to compassion, forgiveness, and loving-kindness. Or just Unconditional Love for short. Regardless of your spiritual background or your religious persuasion. Consider its power, and its salvation for humanity, and that most complex, and at times, disconcerting thing called "the human condition". And then smile at your insight, for you have found the path to peace and bliss.
Someone asked me, “Aren’t you worried about the state of the world?” I allowed myself to breathe and then I said, “What is most important is not to allow your anxiety about what happens in the world to fill your heart. If your heart is filled with anxiety, you will get sick, and you will not be able to help.” There are wars  big and small  in many places, and that can cause us to lose our peace. Anxiety is the illness of our age. We worry about ourselves, our family, our friends, our work, and the state of the world. If we allow worry to fill our hearts, sooner or later we will get sick.

Yes, there is tremendous suffering all over the world, but knowing this need not paralyze us. If we practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful sitting, and working in mindfulness, we try our best to help, and we can have peace in our heart. Worrying does not accomplish anything. Even if you worry twenty times more, it will not change the situation of the world. In fact, your anxiety will only make things worse. Even though things are not as we would like, we can still be content, knowing we are trying our best and will continue to do so. If we don’t know how to breathe, smile, and live every moment of our life deeply, we will never be able to help anyone. I am happy in the present moment. I do not ask for anything else. I do not expect any additional happiness or conditions that will bring about more happiness. The most important practice is aimlessness, not running after things, not grasping.

-- Thich Nhat Hanh, from the “Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching”

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Heavenly Light

Heavenly Light, Inyo Mountains, CA, August 2007, Nikon D40 with 18-200mm VR lens, Focal length 26mm, Exposure 1/30 sec @ f22, ISO 500, no flash, circular polarizing filter © Steven Crisp [Click on the photo to enlarge]

We completed our summer vacation this week. We visited my brother-in-law in Los Angeles, who took us camping up in the Ancient Bristle Cone Pine forest located in the White Mountains of California. It was a great trip, with many, many photos taken, and some great hiking to some very remote areas. After I go through them all, I’m sure more will show up here.

In the meantime, while driving back to LA, I noticed this pillar of light out the window and snapped a photo from his moving truck. And it made me think of this inspirational poem by the 12th century Sufi mystic, Rumi. I hope you enjoy his words along with this photo. Namaste.

Looking For Your Face, by Jelauddin Rumi

From the beginning of my life
I have been looking for your face
but today I have seen it.

Today I have seen
the charm, the beauty,
the unfathomable grace
of the face
that I was looking for.

Today I have found you
and those that laughed
and scorned me yesterday
are sorry that they were not looking
as I did.

I am bewildered by the magnificence
of your beauty
and wish to see you with a hundred eyes.

My heart has burned with passion
and has searched forever
for this wondrous beauty
that I now behold.

I am ashamed
to call this love human
and afraid of God
to call it divine.

Your fragrant breath
like the morning breeze
has come to the stillness of the garden
You have breathed new life into me
I have become your sunshine
and also your shadow.

My soul is screaming in ecstasy
Every fiber of my being
is in love with you

Your effulgence
has lit a fire in my heart
and you have made radiant
for me
the earth and sky.

My arrow of love
has arrived at the target
I am in the house of mercy
and my heart
is a place of prayer.