Monday, September 24, 2007

god is in the details

"Indifferent things can go either direction
depending on the desire, will and character of the user:
wealth, power, honor, bodily strength,
health, beauty, life itself and death,
poverty, bodily sickness, insults.
Nothing should be called bad
other than sin alone."
John Cassian Conf. 6.III.2

Today’s Gospel (Luke 16:1-13) presents us with a kind of a two-edged sword. It’s easy to remember the famous one-liner that closes it––“You cannot serve both God and mammon.” This word “mammon” is interesting: it doesn’t just mean money; it signifies wealth when it is an evil influence or, perhaps more important for our purposes, a false object of worship or devotion, in other words, an idol. And yet the whole Gospel story has been about a dishonest servant who has acted prudently with money, and Jesus explains it’s because children of the world are more prudent in dealing with their own than children of the light. That’s us, by the way: let’s assume that we are, or are meant to be, children of the light, those who are in some way supposed to be as good as what we do as others are at what they do, perhaps to say as good at our spiritual duties as others are at their worldly duties.

At the beginning of the spiritual life there is a common tendency to think in terms of black and white––this is good and that is all bad; the soul is good, the body is bad; everything supposedly sacred––church activities, church music, church organizations––are good and everything secular is bad; being holy is good, money is bad. And yet we find ourselves trying to live and survive and raise children in the world that demands that we know how to act responsibly. Maturity brings with it a certain nuance about these things and actually makes us walk an even finer line, a higher road, through a narrower gate. We learn that there is a progression from our duties in this world to our spiritual duties, almost as if how we fulfill our duties in this world is going to affect how we fulfill our spiritual duties. God is in the details! The person who is trustworthy in small matters is also trustworthy in great ones.

This reminds me of the four stages of life in India, how one moves from being a student, to being a householder––with the mandate to make lots of money and raise and care for children and parents––before one moves into the more contemplative phases of life. None of these stages are bad, and holiness is to be found everywhere in whatever stage or station in life we find ourselves.

The nuance that we learn is that all these beautiful created things that surround us have an importance, but they have a relative importance, that’s all. My favorite example these days has been the ego. Sometimes people in the spiritual life think that they have to destroy the ego. But I think that is very dangerous language. The Sufi teacher Kabir Helminski writes, “The ego is a fundamentally positive energy with many positive qualities: aspiration, diligence, responsibility, self-respect, discipline, integrity.” These are the positive qualities that Jesus seems to be alluding to in the Gospel, don’t they? Well, that’s because these positive qualities belong to and come from the divine Source, and then they get reflected in us. And as we develop the positive aspects of ego, we find that the ego can be undergirded and supported by spiritual intelligence and wisdom, and then it can act as an instrument of this greater intelligence and wisdom rather than merely as a proponent of its own self-interest. What is needed is “to establish a subtle balance––the ego in co-creatorship with the Spirit.” Co-creatorship: that is what we are about.

I love this essentially optimistic approach: Whatever exists is essentially good. If there were not some good in it, it would not exist at all. So the ego is not to be destroyed but to recognized for what it is and/or can be: a friend, a servant, an instrument, and not a master, or an object of worship. And the same applies to all our wealth, our material wealth, our talents, our sexuality, music and the arts––they are all our friends! If they were not good they would not exist. And we need to keep them in perspective as friends, servants and instruments, and not let them become gods and monsters.

And part of the function of the talents is that they are to be put at the disposal of the world, so that we too become servants, friends and instruments, instruments of God’s peace for the world. That’s why we also hear from the prophet Amos railing against those who trample on the needy and destroy the poor. All of this wealth we are given––our wealth, our material wealth, our talents, our sexuality, music and the arts––are meant as gifts for the world. We are meant to be co-creators, pro-creative in our world, laying our lives, our wealth, and our talents down for the sake of the world as friends, servants and instruments of God’s peace. That’s why the Eucharistic bread gets broken and passed out, and the Eucharistic cup gets poured out and shared. So do we get broken open, passed out shared; poured out and passed around for the sake of the world. When we know who we are, we know what we are meant to be and do in the world, for the sake of the world.

So let’s pay attention to the little things in our life, recognizing that all these little things are gifts for our use, never letting them become masters and god and objects of worship, but seeing them as instruments, servants, and friends, so that we in turn may be friends, servants and instruments of God’s peace in our world.

Monday, September 10, 2007

praying and playing for peace

This will be our reply to violence:
to make music more intensely,
more beautifully,
more devotedly than ever before.
Leonard Bernstein

I wasn't sure when I started this blog if I was going to be able to keep up with this... It seems as if it is much easier when I am on the road sitting in an earthy internet café than when I am home sitting comfortably in the woods. But I am forcing myself to get a few more things on right now, due to the upcoming anniversary, tomorrow, of the terrorist attacks in 2001 (I have some resistance to softening the event into a slogan by referring to it simply as "9/11").

Two friends of mine and I are doing three concerts this week. It comprises mostly music from the east, songs that I am slowly working on and recording for my "dream album," and also songs that have an unabashed hope that we can actually change the world and influence world peace just in their singing. Hence, "Lead Me from Death Into Life," the mantra from the Bridharanyaka Upaishad that was adapted by the World Council of Churches as the World Peace Prayer––our version of the refrain is "Lead me from death into life, / lead me from falsehood to truth, / lead me to hope from despair, / lead me from hatred to love, / lead me from war into peace, / lead me from death into life!"; hence, my friend John Marheineke and my version of Jack Johnson's version of Ben Harper's "(I can Change the World) With My Own Hands,"; and our version of Rev. Heng Sure's setting of the Metta Sutta, "(May All Become) Compassionate and Wise." I am performing with the aforementioned John singing and playing guitar with me (I think the first time that I have worked with another singer guitarist since I was in high school!), and a brilliant (in both senses of the word) local percussionist named Steve Robertson playing mostly tabla and a bit of udu, that is, a clay pot, the African version of a similar instrument from India called a gattam (forgive my spelling if I got it wrong). I am having all kinds of flashbacks of Tiruvanamalai, performing with Theophilus at the foot of Mount Arunachala, the first time working with tabla and guitar, and the the next day performing "My Own Two Hands," complete with hand gestures, with the 3000 Indian school children at the Danish Lutheran Mission School, not to mention two other new pieces that we are doing––"Vedahametam," which began as an instrumental inspired while at Sriramana Ashram and ended up as a setting of the beautiful passages from the Svetasvatara Upanishad and Sri Guru Gita, and "Spirit in the Cave of the Heart," inspired by a bhajan at Shantivanam and performed for the first time also that night in Tiru. Mother India gave me new music during the last trip.

We played our first gig yesterday on an outdoor stage for a parish festival for Our Lady Star of the Sea in Santa Cruz. We went up after a classic rock band and the "La Chicitita" contest, little girls lip-synching, singing and dancing, (Was it George Burns or Jimmy Durante who said that you should never follow child or animal acts?) and right before a Mexican band called T'quila. It was a nice stage and a very competent sound engineer and system, and I thought we played very well, even considering the fact that it is the first time that the three of us had performed together. But the audience was totally underwhelmed by our performance. Only a handful of people even listened, and even fewer applauded. We were definitely out of our proper milieu. It somehow didn't bother me one bit. I believe so much in this music, and I luckily had the two others on stage with me, both of whom seemed to be having a good holy time singing and playing. John and I made up for a bit by stopping on a bench on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz and singing a couple of songs on our way to eat lunch afterwards.

Tomorrow, September 11th itself, we will be in front of a more sympathetic crowd, I firmly believe. Our friend Shannon for the third year now has organized an inter-religious concert in a very fine space in Aptos. We are only doing two numbers, but we are closing the event. I have been encouraging all my friends to be there and to encourage their friends to be there. Then on Saturday we are going to Berekeley where Rev. Heng Sure and his friends are sponsoring an inter-religious festival of the arts at Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. There we will do the whole set.

This is what music is for, at least for this monk-musician: singing hope, encouraging others to continue believing that peace can prevail, building bridges between peoples and traditions, and, most foundationally, fostering an experience of Spirit in the cave of the heart, because, "when your soul is in peace then you are in peace and your soul is in God." I found a surprising and beautiful verse in the Quran that I am going to quote (I checked with me Muslim sources first to make sure that it was no offense for a non-Muslim to read from the Quran), where the Prophet (Peace be upon him!) addresses the other "People of the Book"––that is, Jews and Christians––saying: "Let us concentrate on the things we have in common, belief in the one God." I hope that it will also be of no offense if I broaden that to include all good people of good will who are seeking God in the multitudinous names and forms––let us concentrate first of all on the things we have in common.

I "composed" a little prayer for us to use to begin these performances:

"O Lord of Love revealed in the Scriptures,
may the song on our lips be the song of our hearts,
and may the song in our hearts be the sound of your voice.
May our lives proclaim your goodness
and our voices sing your praise."

Anyway, in case you have never seen it, I am including here below the Assisi Decalogue for Peace. After Pope John Paul II's monumental inter-religious gathering in Assisi in 1986, he reconvened the gathering in 2002, in direct response to the catastrophic events of the previous Fall. This was drafted and passed by delegates of 12 world religions, and 31 Christian communities, at the conclusion of the inter-religious peace summit held on 24 January 2002 in Assisi.
1. We commit ourselves to proclaiming our firm conviction that violence and terrorism are incompatible with the authentic spirit of religion, and, as we condemn every recourse to violence and war in the name of God or of religion, we commit ourselves to doing everything possible to eliminate the root causes of terrorism.

2. We commit ourselves to educating people to mutual respect and esteem, in order to help bring about a peaceful and fraternal coexistence between people of different ethnic groups, cultures and religions.

3. We commit ourselves to fostering the culture of dialogue, so that there will be an increase of understanding and mutual trust between individuals and among peoples, for these are the premise of authentic peace.

4. We commit ourselves to defending the right of everyone to live a decent life in accordance with their own cultural identity, and to form freely a family of his own.

5. We commit ourselves to frank and patient dialogue, refusing to consider our differences as an insurmountable barrier, but recognizing instead that to encounter the diversity of others can become an opportunity for greater reciprocal understanding.

6. We commit ourselves to forgiving one another for past and present errors and prejudices, and to supporting one another in a common effort both to overcome selfishness and arrogance, hatred and violence, and to learn from the past that peace without justice is no true peace.

7. We commit ourselves to taking the side of the poor and the helpless, to speaking out for those who have no voice and to working effectively to change these situations, out of the conviction that no one can be happy alone.

8. We commit ourselves to taking up the cry of those who refuse to be resigned to violence and evil, and we are desire to make every effort possible to offer the men and women of our time real hope for justice and peace.

9. We commit ourselves to encouraging all efforts to promote friendship between peoples, for we are convinced that, in the absence of solidarity and understanding between peoples, technological progress exposes the world to a growing risk of destruction and death.

10. We commit ourselves to urging leaders of nations to make every effort to create and consolidate, on the national and international levels, a world of solidarity and peace based on justice.

Let us concentrate on what we have in common!