My brother passed away 4 or 5 years ago. He was also a Buddhist Bishop, and guided much of my way along this path. This is the spiritual message I gave at his funeral. Names have been changed (to protect me of course!).
Gospel Message –Carl Isaacson’s Funeral
At the death of a loved one we are wont to examine the purpose of our lives even as we examine a life well lived such as Carl’s. Why are we here, where did we come from, and where do we go after this life are the classic questions asked in one form or another by almost every culture.
The great Plan of Salvation teaches us that there is an eternal continuity to our existence, that in this life we are merely at one of several stages on a path to reunification with the divine, to our true home with our heavenly parents, with our heavenly Father. Carl is now one very large step closer to that great reunification, and at his present stage at least, we believe, reunited with loved ones who have passed on before.
This mortal life, the stage that we are yet part of, is of course what occupies us now. While we have some good notions of where we came from and where we are going, our knowledge of what precedes this life and what follows is necessarily incomplete, but one thing we know for sure, and that is that this life has a purpose. In spite of trials and tribulations—no, through trials and tribulations – we learn essential truths and we become changed beings through these experiences.
These experiences will happen to all. Sorrow, pain, disappointment, etc. The main issue is whether or not our eyes are open enough to see things as they really are, and thus be able to learn all that we can. Far too often, our vision is clouded by biases, by resentments, and by grudges, and our learning thus limited. When our vision is clear, on the other hand, our trials slowly bring out the divine within us.
The principal question then becomes: What is it that clouds our vision, and what is it that helps us to see more clearly? This was very much the quest that occupied Carl for much of his life, and in a more intense way the last few years of his life, and I want to focus my remarks on some of the issues that occupied Carl in his quest for understanding life’s purposes.
More than anything else it is a question of attitude and outlook that determines the clarity of our vision, and therefore of our ability to learn. Are we full of resentment for the cards life has dealt us, or do we play the hand we are given, gratefully, for all its worth? Carl was certainly dealt a bum hand or two in terms of his body. But perhaps those bad legs of his led him to a more contemplative life that blessed many lives,
The restored gospel teaches us that our Father in Heaven would have us become “even as he is.” Jesus uses these very words at two places in the New Testament, but each one with a little bit of a different twist. The difference could be due simply to translational issues down through the centuries, but the differences as they stand now lead to some potentially quite different approaches. And how we emphasize one over the other may be quite telling about our perspective.
The first and most famous is Matthew 5:48-Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect. We are all intimately familiar with this verse. We are all trying to be perfect, but of course we all fall miserably short. It is a very long checklist indeed that makes up being perfect. It is natural to feel inadequate with such a standard.
It was Carl who pointed out to me the “alternative version” in Luke 6:36—Be ye therefore merciful (or compassionate Carl would like to say), even as your Father in Heaven is merciful. The verse in Matthew has been so familiar or ingrained in me, that at first I thought Carl might be making this up, perhaps to give more credence to whatever point he was making at the time. But there it is in black and white. This kind of “be ye therefore” perhaps seems less comprehensive than that in Mathew, but Carl believed that a stronger focus on this “be ye therefore” had the power to be more transformative, because even though we will still fall miserably short of this quality, no matter what we do, any amount of mercy or compassion that we are able to muster will change us. Any compassion we show others changes both us and the receiver of our compassion. We could also say that a little compassion goes a long way—it covers a multitude of sins as another scripture puts it. Another way to put it is to think about compassion is as a more comprehensive or universal indicator of one’s spiritual state.
In fact, this characteristic of compassion, or of charity as it is referred to in the scriptures, or Loving Kindness as Carl liked to call it, is the central quality of a Christ-like or a Christ-centered life. It is in fact the sine qua non of a Christian life, or in other words that without which there is not a Christian life, or in fact a life in terms of any of the other great religious traditions of the world. It always comes down to LOVE. It is the quality that most allows us to see clearly, in fact, to see others as they really are.
Now Carl, as for all of us in our generation in this family, was profoundly influenced by our Father, especially in his teachings in this regard. It was our father’s gift to be able to interpret for a broad audience that most profound and transcendent of all Christian events, the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Aside from the reality that we give this event, and we subscribe strongly to its reality as a church, its most potent interpretation for our lives here and now is as an allegory, an allegory of love and sacrifice. Our father clearly pointed out the relationship between apprehending or understanding the Atonement, and this fundamental characteristic of charity or lovingkindness.
The most powerful metaphor in our scriptures that shines a light on this relationship is the metaphor of the Tree of Life in the Book of Mormon, in 1 Nephi 8 and 11. This is a rich metaphor well known to members of our church, with many different layers of interpretation. The metaphor of the tree of life was given to the prophet Lehi in a dream (found in 1 Nephi 8), with an interpretation (in 1 Nephi 11) given to his son Nephi, also a Book of Mormon prophet. The central part of this dream or metaphor is the Tree, with its fruit, which was “desirable above all other fruit.” Getting to the Tree and its fruit required negotiating an arduous path of strict religious observance avoiding the material distractions of the world
Nephi is shown the tree and the rest of the dream in a vision (in 1st Nephi 11). He is asked by an angel of God if he understands the “condescension of God,” meaning the Atonement, replying in effect that he does not. He then sees in the vision the Virgin Mary, the Savior as a baby in her arms, and then is asked if he now knows the meaning of the tree. Having seen the condescension of God—in his descent to serve humankind because of love, he now answers without hesitation the angel’s question:
23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul.
Nephi experiences this moment of compassionate realization as he is able to comprehend the magnitude of the Savior’s gift at the same time that he sees the significance of the quest for the fruit of the Tree of Life. He also comprehends the special nature of this love that “sheds itself abroad.” This kind of love can never be a solitary virtue. It is a love that is born not only of a realization of the divine sacrifice accomplished for all of humanity, but it also springs from any act of compassionate service, and thus spreads or sheds itself abroad by simple and even random acts of kindness.
The particular mechanics of how this love could be shed abroad is what occupied much of Carl’s study in the last years of his life. His extensive study of our own scriptural traditions, broader Christian writings, as well as the treatises of certain Buddhist masters, and other practitioners and therapists involved with nonviolent or loving communication, led him to develop a fairly cohesive, albeit as of yet an incompletely articulated, framework for a hands-on, practical approach to the art and science of charity or lovingkindness as he liked to call it.
In fact, he shifted much of his professional work in this direction, developing and teaching a course entitled “The Spiritual and Moral Dimensions of Leadership”. This course obviously had a secular focus, but Carl found that many of the principles he studied could be profitably applied in professional contexts. What Carl taught in this professional setting was that loving kindness, what we know as charity, afforded a clearer vision of the reality around us. What most often obscures our vision in life are grudges, unforgiven offenses, real or imagined. Resentment –re feeling over and over again slights or hurts, very often lead us to develop stories that justify our victimhood, but that impede us from seeing our own responsibility for our condition.
In this course, Carl had his students experimentally apply some of the techniques he gathered on the art and science of loving kindness. We don’t have the time to cover these here, but they basically center around forgiveness. I found in some of Carl’s papers reports that his students wrote of the outcomes of their “experiments with the truth”, as many of them called it. It is interesting to see how necessary this idea of forgiveness is in apprehending the truth of our own lives and that of those around us.
Let me share with you just one such experience. One of his students was a Bosnian, a war-scarred immigrant who carried grievous remembrances of unspeakable horrors associated with atrocities committed in the early 1990s. Now if we were to examine her wartime experiences, we could only conclude that her anger and her resentment toward the Serbs was only “natural”, exactly what we would expect of anyone who suffered as she did, and we would likely have sympathy for her feelings. But reality, of course, was a little more complex than that. The problem was that she could no longer see the humanity of her enemies, including those who had no part in the atrocities. And the anger that she felt colored her outlook on life in almost every way. She had developed her own story of her own victimhood. But this was a story that weighed her down.
She describes how she had been carrying lifelong grudges for years, refusing ever to forgive; nursing, even cherishing, resentment, because for her, everything depended on the others being shown to be wrong, so that she could be shown to be right. Through a process of self examination, of turning around resentments to recognize that her own feelings were causing her more grief than anything the Serbs had done, she describes how the truth that she was so attached to no longer seemed to her to be so true. “I was so self-absorbed”, she says, “that I was not able to see others –they were not real to me. I was so attached to the role of a victim that accusing others was absolutely acceptable to me”. She reported that the teachings examined in Carl’s course brought her to her innermost self, liberating her from the bonds of anguish. That is a very real and profound example, I think, of how shining the light of love on our unexamined stories gives us both clearer vision and a much less stress-filled life. That clearer vision allows us to see even more love in those around us, and so the love sheds itself abroad. This was no easy task to analyze unexamined assumptions about how we view those around us, especially those that we perceive to have caused us grief.
Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come (D&C 93:24). When our vision is obscured, when we are not looking through the eyes of love, we cannot see people for who they really are. Very often this occurs even with the people closest to us, perhaps even members of our own families. Carl liked to use the metaphor of a “trance”, for frameworks that limit our vision. For example we might be caught up in a trance of political correctness, of one side or the other, the trance metaphor suggesting a spell-like fixation on who or what is acceptable and what is not. Not that there aren’t very real and significant differences that result in some very serious disagreements. The problem is allowing that trance to obscure our vision of the completeness of that person, such that our love is diminished.
In his own life, Carl struggled to outgrow what he called the trance of unworthiness, of not seeing the full reality of those who might not conform to the norms of our church. Not that he would reject these standards , which after all are only intended to bring us happiness, but the tendency was to see people who were not fully worthy, in terms of church standards, as less than they could be, and not that they wouldn’t be loved, but just that they are seen as outside the pale, as not quite fully acceptable of all of our approbation.
Many of the trances, stories of victimhood and resentments that we latch onto, are the result of fear: fear of rejection, of not measuring up, etc. In 1 John 4:18 we read: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casteth out fear, because fear hath torment. Fear hath torment. Think about that in terms of the troubled life of the Bosnian immigrant before her turnaround. She was a tormented soul. Examining her torments in the light of loving kindness cast that fear from her. Perfect love—charity or loving kindness –allows us to let go of fears, to not worry about acceptance or rejection, about where the next meal (or career promotion etc.) is coming from. Perfect love allows us to live in this very moment, right now, with all the love that is around us. We just need to see it. Carl once said recently he had only moments to live—and so have we all. They are the moments that we need to make the most of—right now! No matter how many are left to us.
For now –we see through a glass darkly. Now we know only in part, but through the miracle of love, we shall know in full. We shall know in full as we suffer long, and are kind. As we neither envy nor vaunt ourselves nor puff ourselves up. We shall see clearly in the light of love as we cease from behaving unseemingly, as we seek not our own, nor are easily provoked, nor think we any evil. Rejoicing not in iniquity but in truth, in the truth about ourselves and others, will allow the light of love to shine through our lives. We will be able to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. Love will not fail us.
Perhaps Carl would have us, as a final tribute to his life, consider someone who upsets us—could be a co-worker, a colleague, even a spouse sometimes (!). Carl often told me—this person that upsets you is your guru, your teacher! That has been and still is hard for me to fathom sometimes.
Is it really that person that causes me grief? What if I shone the light of loving-kindness on that assumption? What role do my own perceptions and assumptions play here? What if I just let go of that thought? Is there something I should be learning from this relationship? How would the master healer, our Savior, react in this case?
Now Carl was no master of loving-kindness. He struggled with it as we all do. But he certainly knew what that fruit of the tree of life tasted like, and he wanted more than anything else to taste it again. We could do no better than committing ourselves to this quest.
Some of the works Carl used in his class:
Warner, C. Terry. 2001. Bonds That Make Us Free: Healing Our Relationships, Coming to Ourselves. Shadow Mountain.
Katie, Byron. 2003. Loving What Is: Four Questions that can Change Your Life. Three Rivers Press.
Brach, Tara. 2004. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. Bantam.
Rosenburg, M.B. 2003. Nonviolent Communication: A language of compassion. Puddledancer Press.