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Sanai (on pearls, swine, and patience)

Jesus Christ, when he made the famous statement Cast not pearls before swine, must have meant something like “Hey buddy, don’t waste your breath. No sense talkin’ if there’s nobody listenin’.” Something like, “Speak not until ye obtain a hearing”. Something like, Don’t let a precious thing be plopped down into the porking feedlot of distraction.

Sanai, I read recently, put it this elegant way:

“If to the fool my love you’d bring,

Or think my secret can be told

To him who is not wise —

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‘Abdu’l-Baha (on truth and national limitations)

His father called him "the Master". He preferred to be known as a servant.

His father called him “the Master”. He preferred to be known as a servant.

He was a big story in 1912, but aside from the Baha’i community and its friends, few remember ‘Abdu’l-Baha Abbas. For 239 days, he travelled about North America to considerable acclaim: he was heralded in newspapers from Montreal to San Francisco, New York to Chicago as an “Oriental Seer”, the “Baha’i Prophet”, as a “Wonderful Persian Mystic” and “Apostle of Peace”. He gave hundreds of talks in synagogues, churches, universities, public auditoriums and private homes. His topics were many, but the central core of his message was one of spiritual awakening, the hard but necessary road to global peace, and the essential oneness of all faiths, races and peoples. Imagine: 1912.

On May 3, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (it means something like “servant of the Glory”) spoke at the Hotel Plaza in Chicago. He analyzed what factors led to the advancement of civilization and the living of an ethical, productive life. He pointed towards what he called “universal educators”, those historical sources of spiritual, intellectual and material guidance around whom whole systems of belief and practice have arisen. Given where he was, Jesus Christ was his main example.

The quote below almost seemed a throwaway line given at the end of the talk.

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Abdu’l-Baha (on the Tao of Jesus)

Sigh. I could blame the exams, the final projects, the nutbars that I live with or another knock to my already addled head, but I’m late, as usual.

Of course, we don’t actually know the precise date of the birth of Jesus, so I could also plead historical vagueness as a virtue, but that’s not why I missed, either. Let’s just say it’s the season. Let’s just say that it has taken me some time before I could really think much about The Reason for the Season, as Christian friends back home like to remind themselves and their fellow crazed consumizens. (In China these days, it is even more bluntly obvious than it is among comfort-craving North Americans: avid consumption is the best-understood expression of citizenship. “Consumizens.” Not bad.) In fact, it was the thoughtful questions about Christianity from a young Chinese friend that got me thinking more deeply about why this time of year still stirs my blood and brain.

Anyway, I ran across this statement

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Nelson Mandela (on the prison of hate)

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead me to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison…. Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013) quotes are flying around in mad electronic flurries, and call me guilty: I haven’t been able to find the source for either of these (possibly connected?) excerpts. I have read them in reputable outlets, but I’d be happy if anyone could inform me about their provenance.

An elder for the world, though he never claimed to be a saint.

For all that, these are worthy, challenging, and even rather witty thoughts. They could have come from many a sainted mouth, though Mandela refused that term “unless by ‘saint’ you mean a sinner who keeps on trying”. The above quotation is deeply Christian, profoundly Buddhist, fundamentally Baha’i.

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Abdu’l-Baha (on peace, happiness & everything)

“The body of the human world is sick. Its remedy and healing will be the oneness of the kingdom of humanity. Its life is ‘The Most Great Peace.’ Its illumination and quickening is love. Its happiness is the attainment of spiritual perfections.”

‘Abdu’l-Baha (1844-1921) was the son of Baha’u’llah, the source of the Baha’i system of knowledge and practice.

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Thinking of Yourself, Less

Time to plant.

I remember when humility was a virtue, a quality that most people felt was praiseworthy and useful. We had no trouble distinguishing it from humiliation, which was a shameful condition visited upon us by others. Oh, we liked it when the braggart was forced to “eat humble pie” (sometimes, even, when it was us who had to eat that bitter confection), but mainly we felt that baking that pie and nibbling at it regularly was not just good medicine but often a sweet and sustaining way to eat.

Here’s today’s question: does a humble writer try to increase his page views by shamelessly flogging his ‘brand’? (“Duh, of course!”) Or to put it another, less JH.comAllTheTimeHeyEnoughAboutMeWhatDoYOUThinkOfMyWebsite?- centric way, how can we use the incredible connectivity and expressive potential of social media without becoming insufferably dull and incurably self-absorbed? I don’t know, and mainly err on the side of Luddism and avoidance.

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Take the Red Pill! Rainn Wilson & The Matrix II

This is the second part of my recollection of actor Rainn Wilson’s talk at the recent Association for Baha’i Studies conference in Irvine, California. Part One is here.

Rainn Wilson related, with wonder and amusement, how excited many people became in  connecting the “man was embryonic in the world of the matrix” quote of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to the  mind-blowing Matrix trilogy. He said that there were groups of people who embrace “Matrixism” as religion, and regard ‘Abdu’l-Baha as its early prophetic voice, and as its link to the entire history of revealed religion. This was news to me, but I found them in a most curious and bemusing on-line presence. One of their four basic tenets is the use of hallucinogenics as a sacrament; another is “adherence to the principles of one or more of the world’s religions until such time as the One [Neo doesn’t count] returns”. This tiny group does elaborate a few more funky laws, my favourite of which is that “all forms of professional athletic competition have now been abrogated”. (The revenge of the picked-on against the surly jocks!) That’s funny stuff, I guess, unless it’s pathetic. However, it points out again, if we needed more evidence, how hungry human beings are for a sense of meaning in life.

Wilson showed another clip from Matrix the first. Neo faces off with the baddies who are trying to prevent him from penetrating and exposing the mass hallucination that intelligent machines have created. Their programming illusion is intended to convince the humans that life is as it always was – meanwhile, their actual bodies are imprisoned in pods and used as robot fuel. This is where many of the oh cool! effects of the movie are featured. Neo bends

“Bullets, be still and know that I am Neo!” Who hasn’t done this?

space and time. A hail of bullets slows at his silent command and clatters to the floor. He leans at impossible angles, and leaps with impossible speed. He artfully decomposes a bad dude by flying right into his holographic gut and exploding him from the inside. (Nice!) Neo has wondrous powers in the supercomputer-generated matrix because he understands that it is only a projection, an unreal construction. (Well, and because he is The Chosen One, which obviously helps.) By knowing the reality of life in that world, he becomes the master of it. 

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Rainn Wilson Explores The Matrix

The Association for Baha’i Studies is knocking the “stuffy” out of the notion that academia and intellectual pursuits are narrow, competitive, elitist and pretty darned dull. The concept of scholarship is being remade out of its old “ivory tower” paradigm into something more closely resembling a noble, shared adventure in learning. This, among many other things — the new friends I meet, the musicians I add to my playlist, the books I lust over, the writing ideas I hatch — has made the Association’s annual conference one of my greatest treats. So many smart and good-hearted people! Such outstanding, mind-altering presentations! So many confirmations of my careening efforts to “walk the spiritual path with practical feet”! 

Anyway. What follows is Part One of a report on one of the highlights of the recent conference of the ABS in Irvine, California, which is (kind of) on the way from Ottawa to Dalian…

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“So I went to the fights the other night and a hockey game broke out!” Rodney Dangerfield

It’s an old gag, but it’s still a goodie. In the same spirit, I went to the 37th annual conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies and a pop-culture laugh riot ensued. Not only did I feel happy and a little smarter at the end of that comic lecture, but nobody tried to sell me anything except ideas. This is the second time, so far as I know, that actor Rainn Wilson has spoken at one of these spirited, brainy conclaves. He brings a healthy kind of irreverence and the humour one would expect from a certified Comedy Star, but also a serious commitment to his faith community, a sharp mind and a blazing conviction that soul matters. (And no, he doesn’t speak or behave like Dwight Schrute from The Office.)

The iconic poster: trenchcoats and coolness and guns, oh my!

Mr. Schrute’s Wilson’s talk was designed to show that the 1999 blockbuster film The Matrix had more to it than awesome special effects and a cool visual style. He wasn’t joking, but he was hilarious.  Just in case we’d forgotten, or had missed Keanu Reeves (as Neo) and Laurence Fishburne (Morpheus) and the gang when The Matrix came out, Wilson went to the video screen for a reminder.

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Abdu’l-Baha (on greatness and wealth)

At age 31, the exiled Abdu’l-Baha — son of the Founder of the Baha’i Faith and one of its central figures — wrote an anonymous plea to his homeland. He wanted Persia (Iran) to rise from its lethargy and backwardness; this sternly affectionate letter to a nation that had persecuted his community and rejected its call to progress was later called The Secret of Divine Civilization. The following describes the characteristics of the truly great, those who better their own countries or the whole world:

“The happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems….

It should not be imagined that the writer’s earlier remarks constitute a denunciation of wealth or a commendation of poverty. Wealth is praiseworthy in the highest degree, if it is acquired by an individual’s own efforts…and if it be expended for philanthropic purposes….If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor…”

John Wooden (on failure)

“Success is never final; failure is never fatal. It’s courage that counts.”

John Wooden (191o-2010) was not only the greatest basketball coach of all time, but a wise teacher for 20th and 21st century America. I quoted his wisdom in a recent article here. He was my hero, perhaps even Number 2 among the greatest men I can imagine, and I can’t believe he’s been gone three years already. He was a writer and an educator, though, and his words live on, as does his example. His advice runs through my mind nearly as often as that of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In the immediate calm-down after an incredible NBA finals, where I loved the Spurs and admired the heck out of LeBron and the Heatles, I miss basketball and coaching. I miss John Wooden.

A Hall of Fame player, tough and fiery, with a degree in English literature and teaching as a day job.

Humble victor, though he won again and again and again and again. A great man with feet of granite.