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Lifestyles: Nourish the Spirit

Most Reverend Antonio Hernández, O.M.D., U.B.

'a Hawaiian sage wrote that the West was not ready for serious social improvement, because it had no spiritual tradition '

This year will see the release of two long awaited films: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. These are very good film series- I admit I'm hooked on them. They show a rich tapestry, a hard to describe representation of our longings, a pseudo-nostalgia. In thinking about these and other works of literature and art, we should ask ourselves: What is it we long for, what is this strange pseudo-nostalgia?

In simple terms the reason is spiritual poverty. In less simple terms it is a lack of tradition and culture. J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was written in a desperate attempt to "create" a "mythology" proper to England. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series was designed to assuage the loneliness and emptiness of people's lives. This is not meant as an insult to the integrity of these fine artists, and I mean no impunity by these remarks- as you shall see. Yet the sentiment tells us something about ourselves, and it is not a pleasant thing to tell.

We in the West are bereft of any cohesive feeling, sensibility or sentiment of spiritual tradition, history, even proper myth. Several years ago, a Hawaiian sage wrote that the West was not ready for serious social improvement, because it had no spiritual tradition to nourish it. I tend to agree: people crying and moaning on the steps of a federal building, over the removal of a Ten Commandments monument, is not what I call spiritual tradition. Anti-Semitism is not what I call noble culture. Right-wing knee-jerk Fundamentalist Christian ranting is not what I call an admirable history.

My grandmother, may she rest in peace, was a Mexican Sephardic Jew who had to raise her three surviving children all alone. She had a small business, a street vending eatery of the type common in early 20th century Mexico and America. At the end of her workday, she would go to the beggars of the neighborhood with all the unsold food. Approaching the homeless, old, disabled, the lepers and the amputees, my grandmother took to her knees so as not to tower over the homeless as she offered them the food. That is a spiritual and cultural tradition.

When we go out these days, what do we see? Rude people with hearts of stone, children screaming at their parents because the brats were raised without challenges, without discipline and without having to earn anything. We see the healthy, pushing aside the old and infirm. We see the weak, trampled by the strong. The meek shall not inherit the earth- because there will be none left that can be called meek. Because of our lack of true spirituality, we will destroy any trace of civilization.

During World War II, a man named Varian Fry succeeded in saving about 1,000 Jewish intellectuals, by smuggling them into Spain via France. Another man, Raoul Wallenberg, ran along the tops of the trains bound for the concentration camps, dropping passports in to the poor victims' hands through the cracks in the boxcars. These papers saved the victims from the camps at the 11th hour. Even before the war, a solitary little group of American Quakers actually had an audience with Hitler, to beg him to refrain from his activities. All these people had true spirituality- not religious fervor, not zealotry, but spirituality.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that even the most crass brute could become a true gentleman- the prescription was for the brute to imitate a true gentleman until it became second nature. Then, Jefferson reasoned, the brute in him would cease to exist. Perhaps our obsessions with wizards and nonexistent historical periods are reflections of that struggle, the struggle to find something good to absorb. At least, I like to think so. We are trying to find something within ourselves, some spirituality, some strength, some cultural heritage that none can rob from us. Like Tolkien's Hobbits, we find that we really are as good as can be. It just takes quite a bit to get us to realize this fact. In the Buddhist tradition, the realization of this is called Nirvana. We are good just as we are, but to realize it, we must be willing to sacrifice the veneer in order to see the true grain. The grain runs through all of us; why do we hide it and then act like it's gone missing?
Actually Tolkien and Rowling wanted enlightenment, too. They wanted to set us on the right path with their work. Tolkien's story is the story of great hidden strengths that are revealed through weaknesses; Rowling's story is the story of an impoverished, abused boy who discovers his true heritage and then thrives, never uttering a word against his abusers. Are they such bad examples to follow?
Not if we follow them with our own true spirituality.

© Most Rev. Antonio Hernandez, O.M.D., UB November 2003
Bishop and founder of the Order of Uniphysite Buddhist Fathers.
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