Mussorgsky: Dawn on the Moscow River

Some days, you just want to burn the whole thing down. As a former classical music professional, I spent 12 years working in an industry that gave me a connection to something bigger and deeper than my own existence (especially as a fairly lonely small-town New England kid). Opera struck me as an act of revolution, just as it struck me as a sense of returning to something basic and primal.

In this sense, as someone whose primary meditation practice was until recently rooted in Shambhala Buddhism, I had my feet in two lineages whose spiritual leaders led problematic personal lives, both of which were spoken about in whispers. The narratives of the inner lives of James Levine and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche were taken over by institutions that, as recent allegations both new and revisited suggest, manipulated the pain of others as either an audacious fallacy or the side effects of enlightenment. Powers beyond our comprehension. Buddhist Project Sunshine added Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the current Shambhala lineage holder (and Chögyam Trungpa’s son) to that growing list.

Valery Gergiev conducts the Prelude to Mussorgsky’s Khovanshchina, Mariinsky Theatre, 1991

And now, here we are, reckoning with these accusations with the house lights on, as it were. No obfuscation, no special effects to make us believe that some plaster and particle board is Valhalla, no hiding behind “Crazy Wisdom.” We’re asking now what to do with the art of problematic men. What remains of the teachings if a spiritual leader is shown to be human above all else. How do we even meditate on art when there’s so much baggage attached to both sides of that coin? The way forward is unclear. So you take time to pause. To breathe. To figure out what the first step should be. You stop teaching in New York’s meditation studio circle when you learn that the head of one studio, and the person who was primarily responsible for your teacher training, was also accused of misconduct.

But at a certain point, you begin again. Having grown up Episcopalian, I love this time of year. “Advent, we are told, is a time of waiting, and, as such, is countercultural: in our society of instant gratification (many a homilist has explained) it invites us to enter a different order of being, involving patience, anticipation, expectation,” wrote Paul Elie for On Being in December of 2016. “It’s a lovely idea, but my experience is otherwise. As a parent, a city dweller, and a Catholic of persistent faith and fitful observance, I find that Advent is more like a soft opening, a wayfinding.”

So let’s take this time as a soft opening. A moment to find our way. To start, a piece by Mussorgsky (led in this video by a questionable artist). The overture to Khovanshchina, also titled “Dawn on the Moscow River,” isn’t a sunburst. It’s a moment of gentle, tender wayfinding that spins and weaves itself gradually into something fully realized.

May we follow in its wake.