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”


Anonymous said...

I like the meditation at the end about being worried about the state of the world and all of its suffering. And the practice of aimlessness is a charming idea, no doubt a great many people would gain by that practice.

During an interesting exchange between Richard Rose at a university he says (in response to others who are telling him that the correct way of life is for each of us to strive to improve the world, alleviate suffering, etc.):
He says, "No one who has seen the Truth would want to change anything but his own erroneous view of things. Forget about changing the world. There's something much greater and more important to be done. Each person must be concerned with saving his own soul."

This point of view stated by Richard is interesting because it is basically saying that we should not focus on changing the world or improving it, but instead focus on seeing the Truth. The paradox is that by doing this, we have found what may be the only thing we can do that will affect the world in a positive way, and help to improve it.

In other words, if we focus on saving the world (instead of focusing on the truth we are encountering here and now, every day) then we just add to the noise and the confusion and end up by not helping anything at all. Why? Because we lack the basic knowledge we must have before we can do anything that is counterproductive, something that really helps.

Steven Crisp said...


I love the quote by Richard Rose. It resonates deeply within me, and I intuit that it is the correct perspective. It runs so counter to our "fix it and control it" mentality, that it seems almost to require an epiphany to shock us out of our social and cultural context. And of course that also means being present for the suffering that we see throughout the world. Rather than turning away, or just as common, affixing a label to the "problem" and decrying someone for "not fixing it."

Thanks for the visit and comment.

Anonymous said...

Oh no..I think Richard Rose's statement is paradoxical.If the one who had seen the truth and would not want to change anything, then why one had to save the soul.Just leave the soul of being as it IS. If one ACCELERATE through life and decided once in awhile to cruise at a constant velocity to catch a glimpse of the world, the world of BEING actually accelerate pass the cruising soul.Just let the soul be as it IS, whether cruising or accelerating, as the world will accelerate pass anyway.

kerrdeLune (cate) said...

This is JUST what I needed to see and read today, and thank you for it! Tashi, Cate

Steven Crisp said...


I'm glad this discussion made an imprint. You deserve extra points for getting through it all ;-)


Astrea said...

I read an autobiography about the Holocaust (the WWII one) recently -

So I agree with what you said.

I think there's always a bigger picture that people miss because they're too concerned with their own problems and their own life. If people took more notice of the pain and sufferings of others which are so much worse than their own problems, they'd actually appreciate their own life much more.

And I agree that this is the most important: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”

Steven Crisp said...


Thanks for the visit and comment. I agree with your observations. And I see two key points wrapped together: awakening and gratitude.

To be able to see -- really see -- the world as it is requires an awakening of your own consciousness. It's a very large topic, and I've made a few references throughout this blog to what that means to me. I'll just make the point that without awakening, we tend to see the world solely through the eyes of our ego, and the perspective of our individual self. And while that seems pretty convincing, it's not reality. Everything is interconnected and interdependent. Once you recognize this as reality, there is no longer the concept of "other". We truly are all one.

Gratitude is also a very powerful attitude. Once one realizes just how much there is to be grateful for, the world takes on a new level of beauty. Of course, the world is the same -- it's just your perspective on it that's changed. I find it makes me smile.

I also enjoyed your post. Thanks for the pointer.

Astrea said...

Exactly, it's all about perspective!!!