Wei Ying-wu was an outstanding Chinese poet during the great Tang period. But he came at the end of it and experienced its collapse into chaos and destruction. A collection of his poems is entitled In Such Hard Times. I think we are entering our own “hard times,” not that our past has been a “walk in the park.” I am not a poet, so I can’t offer any consoling poems, but I will share some quotes from some friends “off the beaten path.”
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” Henry David Thoreau
Comment: We pretty much have a sense of how this works on a spiritual and individual level, even a psychological level such as you only come to grips with your addiction when you hit rock bottom. But how would this work on a collective scale, like a whole country, like the U.S.? It has always amazed me how Americans by and large are blind to the dark and sinful (and I use that word deliberately) nature of the roots of their country. Perhaps we are entering an era when this will no longer be “hidden” but unmasked; the furies unleashed, the hounds of chaos ripping at our social fabric. We might find ourselves truly “lost” as a nation. Then what?
“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.” John Muir
Comment: I don’t think Muir foresaw an era that wanted to abolish all wilderness. Make it all into a park here; totally destroy it through the extraction craze and pollution there; and everywhere it is simply another commodity for our use. Lots of people will even quote the Bible on that one.
“Know, O beloved, that man was not created in jest or at random, but marvelously made and for some great end.” Al-Ghazzali
Comment: To borrow from the ancient Chinese poet, “In such times as these,” we better hang on to this notion no matter what.
“When human beings lose their connection to nature, to heaven and earth, then they do not know how to nurture their environment or how to rule their world – which is saying the same thing. Human beings destroy their ecology at the same time that they destroy one another. From that perspective, healing our society goes hand in hand with healing our personal, elemental connection with the phenomenal world.”
Comment: Not a bad insight for a deeply mixed up Tibetan lama. But “in such times as these” you got to find your wisdom wherever you can.
Alexander Sozhenitsyn wrote this piece of advice to all his fellow refuseniks in Stalinist Russia:
“Do not pursue what is illusory—property and position; all is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life—don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn after happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, and if both ears can hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart—and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it might be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted in their memory!”
Comment: Only someone who has suffered much, who has stared into the deep dark pit of history can write like this. Perhaps we are approaching our own time of being “refuseniks” at great cost to ourselves. But I would add another note: the Dalai Lama and my friends the Desert Fathers would say that you should cherish the most those who hate you and want to do harm to you; it is these who will most test your heart and tell you who you really are.
From a book review by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a famous basketball player and a devout Muslim:
“In 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s friend Senator Richard Henry Lee expressed both of their opinions when he asserted in Congress, referring to Muslims and Hindus, that “true freedom embraces the Mahometan and the Gentoo as well as the Christian religion.” In 1777, the Muslim kingdom of Morocco became the first country in the world to formally accept the United States as a sovereign nation. In 1786, when the United States needed protection from North African pirates who were stealing ships and enslaving crews, it signed the Treaty of Tripoli, which stated that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion, as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquillity of Musselmen.” In 1785, George Washington declared that he would welcome Muslim workers at Mount Vernon. In 1786, Jefferson triumphed in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, by persuading the Legislature to overwhelmingly reject attempts to include Jesus Christ as the religious authority in the bill. Jefferson later declared that this was one of his three greatest accomplishments.”
Comment: Interesting how this undermines how fundamentalists and other narrow-minded Christians portray the beginnings of the United States. We are not a theocracy which is ruled by a particular religious view but a secular community, and so every religious person should find a space of free expression within this undefined secular space. But lest we get carried away with a romantic view of this early era, it is also very evident that NOT ALL people were welcome or tolerated, such as the many Native Americans. Here’s a few quotes pertaining to that:
From The Spanish Requerimiento: “But if you do not submit…we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you…. We shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them.”
“The only true method of treating the savages is to keep them in proper subjection and punish, without exception, the transgressors.”
Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces
When Columbus came in 1492 to Hispaniola there were several million Native Americans there–an estimate, a very large number. By 1520 there were only 20,000; by 1535, 0. Why? Partly because of the diseases the Spaniards brought; partly because of the policy of genocide. Here is an excerpt from Bartolome de las Casas, a Dominican Friar who documented what the Spaniards did:
“It was a general rule among the Spaniards to be cruel; not just cruel, but extraordinarily cruel so that harsh and bitter treatment would prevent Indians from daring to think of themselves as human beings or having a minute to think at all. So they would cut an Indian’s hands and leave them dangling by a shred of skin and they would send him on saying, ‘Go now, spread the news to your Chiefs.’ They would test their swords and their manly strength on captured Indians and place bets on the slicing off of heads or the cutting of bodies in half with one blow. They burned or hanged captured chiefs.”
Comments: Important to note that the Church only stepped in to stop this kind of activity when de las Casas presented the full story to the Pope and the king and queen of Spain. But you have to realize that the religious powers of Europe were fully behind the movement into the New World. The Church enabled and empowered these people through its language and its teachings.
Shifting gears, here’s a few quotes from one of my favorites, Edward Abbey:
“Benedicto: May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.”
“You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light.”
Comment: Spiritually this is so true. Deep, deep spiritual experience first comes (most often) as an incredible darkness (see John of the Cross for this, and also Merton). The temptation is to try and deal with it in terms of words and concepts we are familiar with. Bad! Abide in the darkness, rather, until it transforms into a knowledge beyond knowledge. Now with regard to a social situation, “darkness” is a lot trickier to deal with. Yes, a lot of words trying to explain our darkness can only get more confusing. Look at all the analysis after the election!! But total silence is not right either. A real wisdom is called for, “to study this darkness.”
“There are some good things to be said about walking. Not many, but some. Walking takes longer, for example, than any other known form of locomotion except crawling. Thus it stretches time and prolongs life. Life is already too short to waste on speed. I have a friend who’s always in a hurry; he never gets anywhere. Walking makes the world much bigger and thus more interesting. You have time to observe the details. The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.”
Comment: Our electronic wizardry and infrastructure is an attempt “to be everywhere at once.” This hurried, instantaneous mode of life infects everything we do and are.
“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only paradise we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need, if only we had the eyes to see.”
“Whenever I see a photograph of some sportsman grinning over his kill, I am always impressed by the striking moral and esthetic superiority of the dead animal to the live one.”
Comment: I have always wondered why do people enjoy killing animals for trophies. It’s one thing if you need food; but so much of hunting is simply killing animals for the enjoyment of killing.
“The ugliest thing in America is greed, the lust for power and domination, the lunatic ideology of perpetual Growth – with a capital G. ‘Progress’ in our nation has for too long been confused with ‘Growth’; I see the two as different, almost incompatible, since progress means, or should mean, change for the better – toward social justice, a livable and open world, equal opportunity and affirmative action for all forms of life. And I mean all forms, not merely the human. The grizzly, the wolf, the rattlesnake, the condor, the coyote, the crocodile, whatever, each and every species has as much right to be here as we do.”