This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.
Sunday, April 19, 2015
Words of my Perfect Teacher
Fresh from His Holiness the Karmapa, speaking in Kingston, NY: Religion is a set of beliefs and traditions handed down, whereas spirituality is personal exploration and experience. The problems begin when spirituality becomes a religion ... and becomes "mere conformance with tradition and custom" and loses its ability to transform us.
Out of the mouth of my beloved Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche:
Devotion is the same as confidence, if you have one hundred percent confidence in Mahamudra, you will have one hundred percent diligence. If you have fifty percent confidence, you will have fifty percent diligence. Here, we are talking about Mahamudra, but this function of devotion is actually common to all endeavors, whether spiritual or mundane. The more confidence you have in something, the more you will put into it and the more you will get out of it.
On his current American tour, His Holiness the Karmapa has been speaking at the most elite universities and high tech campuses, preaching his gospel of compassion for each other, for all sentient beings and for the Earth our mother. Most recently, at Harvard, he called out apathy: "The most dangerous thing in the world is apathy... I urge you to feel a love that is courageous --not like a heavy burden, but a joyous acknowledgement of interdependence." Well, I urge you to start where it's easy to find love: the kitchen, hotbed of apathy yet seedbed of joy (think yummy meal shared with friends or family). We have to start there because eating comes so naturally, so instinctively, we take it for granted. Maybe we've learned to be mindful of the words coming out of our mouth, but what about the stuff going into it? Yes we're waking to seasonal, local and independent farmers but that's only the tip. We are totally blind when it comes to seeing the bigger picture.
So the kitchen is a great place to open eyes and minds--and mouths, to create positive change: in our health, our attitude, our world. Food love doesn't even require that much courage. The only ingredient we need is focus--and it doesn't cost money.
Let's start with the fact that nobody can solo in the kitchen or be alone at the table. The whole world is in the act. Recipes come down from grandmothers or theirs. Yogurt came from nomads who lived more than 3,000 years ago. Carrots came from farmers in Afghanistan, potatoes from the Incas of Peru and ketchup was cloned from a Cantonese sauce. How about the dairy farmer who milked which cow to create that carton of yogurt? How about whoever scooped up the olives that made the oil or who offloaded it at a U.S. port? They are all part of the entree going into you. Ramped up awareness of the back and forth of the food we personally process is the fast track to seeing how interdependent we all are. Venerable Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a whole book about just this, starting with the sun ray that hits the soil that someone tilled. Wake-up alarms now ring faster and louder than ever. Just read last week's headlines. Burmese workers kept as slaves in Indonesia's export fish industry. Mexicans denied even beds and toilets while harvesting all those cheap fruits and vegetables in your supermarket. One fifth of California's dangerously disappearing water supply still going to raise alfalfa to feed beef cattle for your burger. Amy's Kitchen, a supposedly organic processed food purveyor now owned by giant General Mills, recalled thousands of its products fearing listeria has contaminated them. And finally, scientists not on Monsanto's payroll link Roundup to cancer and fertility issues. Earlier an MIT scientist linked it to all the trouble people seem to be having with wheat gluten because the entire industrial US wheat crop is doused with Roundup two weeks before it is harvested, so you're getting a whopping dose of glysophate when you eat commercially baked bread. So it comes to this: cheap, convenient, carefree or conscious, compassionate and, ok, to use today's favorite term, frictionless or efficient. Everything we eat comes from somewhere starting with soil and solar energy, ending with human hands running on food fuel and combustion engines running on fuel that comes out of the Earth. So diet choices change everything. We vote every time we open our mouth to eat, every time we toss something into our shopping cart or garbage can, every time we pay at the chosen checkout, every time we willingly go to a farmers' market and pay extra pennies to know who actually gave us our daily bread, every time we decide to skip the beef and order polenta. Buying out of season imported fruits and fish just because you feel like having summer cheap peaches in January is support for the most abominable slavery of others. Constantly eating meat supports ripping down the last forests, ripping out the oxygen supply and ripping up the great rivers.
We change the world every time we eat. We can choose not to feed on out of season imports, but rather to wait for tomatoes and blueberries until locally in season, to eat spaghetti with tomato sauce and roasted vegetables instead of steak, to buy in bulk instead of chemically toxic cans, to choose hearty lentil soup and grilled cheese sandwiches over chicken salad. We can have the courage to stop being apathetic and acquiesce to our convenience addiction by making our own meals instead of letting some mega corporation feed us to its bottom line. And when we stop letting our egos be fed by all those enticements on bottled water, a profit stream sucking real streams dry.
It's not that hard to wake up to what's going into our mouth instead of sleep walking through meals as though they don't matter. We just need the courage to think focusing on our eating habits as worth our time as, say, Game of Thrones or March madness or malling or other trumped up diversions.
I suppose it also means coming to grips with the suspicion that we just can't have it all--all the time. That's a pretty big deal. Being limited really takes courage. Are you okay with that? His Holiness is. He prescribed limits for himself when he became a committed vegetarian.
I recently met a middle aged couple trying to meet their daughter's challenge to live trash free. It's not that hard, they said, when you make the effort to think about what you're doing. They buy in bulk or fresh from a farm. They get milk in returnable glass bottles instead of waxed cartons and buy nothing in clamshell packaging. They were quite pleased with this accomplishment.
Of course I'd like to tell you I've got this down pat; His Holiness would be proud of me. But that's a ha ha, in my dreams. I am so the Kleenex queen that when I die, people are going to find half used tissues in every pocket and purse I own. Also, I am not about to give up toilet paper any time soon. But I am trying in my way. I do not buy imported out of season produce, imported or farmed fish, packaged eats except for an occasional can of soup to open at midnight when I return from a trip. I am a 30 year farmers' market veteran. I struggle to be creative enough not to generate garbage from vegetables and fruits, not to waste food in any way, and even though I still do a bit, it's less than before. This is en-couraging.
I don't patronize restaurants that present food as entertainment or status. I don't go to burger joints or steakhouses anymore. I came from a family that ate meat twice a day, but I don't eat much now. I didn't go cold turkey. I just stopped eating slabs I have to "butcher at the table", as Asian people say of Americans. A few meals a week, I throw snippets in to flavor a dish. Yes, it is harder to think up a meal when I can't just "throw a burger on the fire" or eat a roast chicken for three days. Frankly sometimes it's a real pain. I get tempted. You have no idea of the tug of war in my mind in markets some days when I cruise the meat counter and feel longing. But I can make a clean get away. Thanks to the world's plethora of tasty traditions of vegetarian cooking, I manage (pasta e fagioli, anyone?). According to all the latest tests, my health is perfect. His Holiness' idea of compassion is no meat eating, littering or environmental degradation. It's awareness over apathy, consciousness of where things come from and where they go and how we direct that traffic because, as he says, everything is interconnected. The kitchen is a great place to understand that just as a meal is a joyful way to acknowledge it. If no longer eating a rib-eye with my Caesar is a burden, I am learning to grin and bear it. I think this is what His Holiness means.
If you let her, Mother Nature can table train you. She’ll
teach you that the wisdom of being in
the moment is as vital for your body as it is for your mind. So forget
the calorie count and nutrition percentages. Ignore what some diet guru and the
Federal Government say every other week, and put down those fruits from Chili
and Ecuador. What matters most
when you eat or plan a meal is GPS: where you are right now. The food that fuels your body should
sync it to your time and place on Earth. Otherwise it gets off kilter, which
Tablecloths, TV shows and touts can cover up but cannot
change the true meaning of food. Eating is the act of fueling your body to
produce energy. Being table trained—or intelligent, means every time you “fill
‘er up”, you calibrate that fuel to produce clean energy: qi or chi that flows
through you unimpeded by dams, deluges or deficits.It’s not rocket science. It’s just acclimation:
letting your body “friend” its surroundings by eating local, seasonal foods
that match it to the air, water, soil and bacteria that pervade it.
Feng shui, the Chinese science of positioning, literally means wind/water. The motion of those two elements
controls all energy on Earth, including what creates the climate and the
resulting food supply which controls the qi
of human beings. Feng Shui is
supposed to create a friction-free intersection of the physical with the
invisible all around it, breaking barriers to harmonious energy. Its mantra, location location location, is typically applied to design, but Feng Shui applies to eating habits as
well because food is the energy exchange from the outer world to your inner
one. Eating is its intersection, which is frictionless when your body blends
with its environment by ingesting edibles from it.That’s the secret behind eating
local yogurt to protect your gut in foreign lands, and why ingesting farmers’
market food produced by local soil, water and air actually strengthens you.
Like feng shui,
Chinese medicine comes from Taoism, particularly its insistence that intuitive
wisdom, the invisible voice that prompts us to do the right thing, rises from
where we digest things: the stomach. It’s hard to argue against this when you
instinctively reach for coffee to wake up and hot chicken soup to fight a cold,
when you reflexively counter summer heat by eating lots of cold food and react
to the chill of winter by turning on the oven to make slow-cooked, rich and
We just know these things. And Mother Nature is forever
clueing us to change our diet as the seasons change. Right now when sunlight has lengthened and the air warmed, she delivers
asparagus, dandelion greens, fiddleheads, green garlic, mushrooms, nettles, pea
shoots, ramps, rhubarb, and scallions for us to indulge in. These first
responders to the reboot of solar power transfer the go-go energy that propels
them to burst through thawing soil to you just when you need it most: to spring
out of the cold, dark lethargy of winter. That’s why we speak of “spring
tonic”, foods that fill our body with sunshine so their force is with us. This
is science not poetry: their green color comes from chlorophyll, a medicinal
marvel molecule that soaks up, stores then releases solar energy.
When we get too much of it, when summer’s heat bakes the
body and sweating dries it up, Earth delivers watery foods: berries, melons,
cucumbers and tomatoes to rehydrate the body. But even that cornucopia is not
enough. Our sun-roasted joints and muscles need a lube job, so Nature increases
enrollment in her schools of oily fish like salmon, bass, bluefish, mackerel
and sardines. Don’t you somehow find you prefer fish to roast beef in August?
What’s more, almost every country on the sun-baked
Mediterranean beats the searing heat with a tasty repertoire of what Turks call
zeytinağlı, "olive oil food": summer vegetables steeped in oil
and served hot or cold as a side dish, appetizer, snack, even meal. The best
known is probably the Turkish imam
bayildi, the eggplant dish famed for that name: “the priest fainted”,
because, it’s said, he was overwhelmed by how costly all its olive oil must’ve
been. Stuffed grape leaves (dolmades), ratatouille, bean plaki, that oily “salad” of green beans with tomatoes and dill
known as fasolakia, even hummus, these are all deliberately intended for summer
The chill of winter requires food that warms the heart.
Yearning for heavy meats and their fat that heats the body as it metabolizes,
we keep the fire going to slow cook by braising or roasting. We absorb the
Earth’s minerals stored in all those root vegetables that grew slowly as they
soaked them up. We help others keep their body heat by offering cookies and
cakes made with spices known to warm the stomach: cinnamon, ginger, clove.We indulge in foods that have been fermented,
which miraculously adds vitamins they didn’t inherently possess: relishes,
pickles, sauerkraut, aged cheeses, and the cacao bean turned into chocolate,
the gift of choice to fire up the heart on mid-winter Valentine’s day.
Because historically dis-ease indicates a body alienated
from its surround, Ayurvedic, Chinese and Greek medical systems consider time,
place and age crucial to accurate diagnosis. Their pharmacy is ordinary food
prescribed or prohibited according to yin/yang, “humors” (hot, wet, cold, dry) or
body (small/cold, muscular/fiery, big-boned/phlegmatic)—all principles of
balance, inside with out. Before the famous part of his oath, “Do No Harm”, Hippocrates said: “I will apply dietetic measures for the
benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment… .” Mother Nature tries to train us to apply
beneficial dietetic measures too, by providing lots of option for local
seasonal eating—if only we’d notice.
(This is an unusual entry for me but I want to spread awareness and raise consciousness. Feel free to share, copy and reprint.)
The removal of human toll collectors from the picturesque
Golden Gate Bridge has now provided a stunning view of how dystopia
happens. In less than two years, the handover of responsibility for a public
necessity from a public authority to the private sector shoved bridge crossers
from simple and predictable traffic backups into a nasty, Orwellian world of
lawsuits, impounded cars and petty extortion. In 2014 alone,
nearly a quarter million drivers had to pay penalties for supposed toll evasion,
five times higher than the last year drivers paid a human. Another 16,000
drivers were “accidentally” mailed violation notices with late payment
penalties already attached.
Users of the bridge, aka consumers, had no say in the
switch from the outstretched hand of human beings to the faceless arm of what now
turns out to be Xerox Corporation. The loudly touted reason was the same as it
has been for turning over prisons, schools, parks and other public property to
the private sector: saving money. Going electronic was going to save the Golden
Gate Bridge Authority $1 million a year in employee salaries and benefits—not
those of its executives of course, just those who have face time with the
The implied message to the public was: at least your tolls
won’t rise. Never mentioned was the cost of going electronic: $117.5 million
paid to Xerox to operate toll collection, the unspoken cost of demolishing the
toll gates, severance packages, and now, it turns out, additional money for a
consultant to “help Xerox fix its problems.” No explanation why taxpayers are
obliged to fund the incompetence of Xerox. Or why tolls went up another dollar
The lollapalooza of the deal for Xerox was getting to outsource the
real dirty work of toll collection to drivers. People who simply crossed the
bridge suddenly became its unpaid workers. We couldn’t just hand
over the money and move on. We were now solely responsible for making sure the
crossing fee got paid to wherever and whomever it was supposed to go whenever some
Orwellian machine spit out the bill, traced our whereabouts and sent it.
DIY toll collection has proved horrifyingly Kafkaesque for visitors,
tourists and out of the area residents--anyone without a local transponder. Sometime
their whereabouts turn out to be dead wrong, saddling them with penalties for a
bill they never got. The third week, I crossed in a rental car, unable to use
my transponder because each must be registered to a specific license plate. Driving
nonstop through the gate caused a moment of stomach churning bewilderment, but I
was just following orders. When I returned the car, I handed the clerk an
additional $6 for the toll. She pushed it back, saying: “Oh no. We don’t deal
with tolls. That’s your responsibility.” Well, I thought, twiceI was ready to pay. It’s no longer my problem.
What did I know? More
than a month later the bill came to Enterprise Rent-a-car. That company then
spent its time going through records to identify the renter at that particular
moment and sent that info on. By the time I finally got the bill, it had late
fees, penalties and threats. Not worth more of my time for a fight; I sighed
for le temps perdu and sent a check.
Xerox Corporation counts on padding its bottom line with people
like me making these unwarranted petty payments rather than protesting them. Its
contract allows collecting fees from every violation, which any idiot can see
gives Xeroxendless incentive to gin
them up. Their highway robbery has already taken such a toll, a local attorney had
to file a class action lawsuit. A local news investigator specializing in
consumer complaints had more than enough to air a chilling segment in February documenting
thousands of drivers who got unwarranted toll evasion notices even before they
got the original bill notice. They got huge, ongoing impossible-to-resolve penalties,
partly because there is no person to resolve them, and partly because Xerox
profits by letting penalties pile on.
The poster child of the TV segment had spent 16 months,
sometimes as long as an hour at a time on phone hold, trying to clear accumulating
charges for a one time trip from the north bay to the south bay, $6. He could
not afford to give up his fight because it turns out that Xerox reports toll
evasion to California’s DMV, and the state does not question this private
company. Nor does it not allow any citizen to re-register a car unless all
“fines” are fully paid.
Despite the fact that he actually paid was acknowledged, no telephone
clerk at the private company claimed the “power” to expunge his public record
of its mounting penalties. After 16 months, someone did dismiss the false penalties--
except the charges mysteriously re-appeared the following year on his DMV file,
forcing him to launch a whole new fight to clear his name again. Fairness,
hearing, due process have all gone the way of human toll collectors. And the DMV has become a revenue agent for Xerox.
We are stuck with no escape from this nightmare. Those of us
who lack the swimming skills of a Navy Seal do not consider crossing the Golden
Gate Bridge optional or a lifestyle choice, even some kind of take or leave it offer
like the Triboro Bridge for which there are alternatives at 59th St
and 34th St. As the only direct public highway over the huge bay
that cuts into this section of the California coast, it is painstakingly hard
to avoid. The Golden Gate Bridge is a public utility.
For that reason, frequent commuters who cross with a
transponder thought the organization whose name is emblazoned on
it, FasTrak, was public. After all, it is the
only option. The TV Investigation revealed seemingly public FasTrak is private
capital corporation Xerox. Whichever
so called public servant made the decision to do away with human toll collectors evidently has since been so embarrassed, particularly
by those 16,000 “accidental” violation notices, the Bridge Authority fined
FasTrak $330,000 for failing to provide any semblance of customer service. That,
the TV reporter said, “merely scratches the surface of what we’ve uncovered.”
I got one of those notices. Twice I had to wait on hold 20
minutes to find out why, since my car is equipped with a working transponder, I
suddenly got a toll evasion notice for one out of several bridge crossings
within two weeks. FasTrak had no explanation or apology for how that or the
double 20-minute hold time could’ve happened.That's 40 minutes of my time totally wasted.
These revelations have filled me with a chilling,
nightmarish dread about a DIY $4.30 toll for a very short stretch of highway connecting
freeways in the Denver area. There, flashing signs warn of a toll but tell you
to keep driving: your license plate is somehow being photographed. It was
spooky and it turned out to be scary. About six weeks after taking that short stretch of road, I got a
bill, its due date past. I paid the day it arrived. Two weeks later I got
another bill with extended late fees and evasion penalties. The following week
I saw my toll payment check had been cashed. A month later I got yet another
ominous toll evasion notice with even higher penalties. I sent back a copy of
the cashed check with its tracing number…
What’s most shocking about all this is how quickly the
handover of the Golden Gate Bridge brought what some call Republican dystopia
to a most Democratic place. And how the abuse has been ignored although it has been, as the TV reporter said,
“staggering.” People who feel smugly elite enough to think themselves insulated from well-publicized
depredations and indecency in privately run prisons, schools, parks and student
loan programs can no longer avoid them if they need to drive on America’s
highways or bridges. “To save money”, more and more have been turned over to
the vaunted faceless private sector. Yet nobody has asked the obvious questions: who
exactly is saving money? What is the toll?
P.S. Last night, in March, TV news showed pictures of cars, trailers and
trucks being smashed —32 in a year—trying to keep up the nonstop
pace going through those old booths for tolls.
PPS: Yet another penalty bill has come again for that Denver road for the toll I already paid. $4.00 that just won't quit.
Last Friday was Losar. That kept me very busy. Tibetan New Year requires heavy cleaning: your house, your shrine, your body, your clothes and your mind. You don't want to dirty the freshness of a new year--at least not right away.
The days leading up to Friday required lots of loud drum banging and praying to the remover of obstacles to banish leftover negativity lest it infect the bright, shiny year ahead. On the eve, I had to take down my entire shrine: change the seven rice bowl offerings, polish up the glowing statues (I squeezed lemon juice on them to get a sheen), dust photos and thangkas, and change brocades. I piled fruits and a cookie for sweetness. When I saw a glow radiate from my effort, I felt the jubilation of accomplishment. A huge tide of joyful wishes flooded my wi-fi. From around the globe, the year of the wood sheep rolled in on Facebook, WeChat, text message, telephone and email. Everybody's reaching out beyond arm's length felt like a huge embrace. In its warmth, I busily beamed around the world best wishes for a happy new year. Germany...Mongolia...Nepal...Canada...for a moment, the planet seemed to be a cozy neighborhood.
Friday was also Tet for the Vietnamese and the nominal Chinese lunar New Year that technically started about ten days before. It will be officially celebrated two weeks later with a glamorous parade staged by San Francisco's enormous Chinese community. Friday was for showing the love in stuffed red envelopes, red fruits piled on the shrine, and wearing something new that's red, color of good luck. It was the time for bananas--color of gold, those impossibly long clear noodles--symbols of long life or at least enough for the new year, and celebrating fish by ingesting their energy (i.e. eating some) because they only move forward. Those who retain traditional Buddhist devotion purify themselves by eating a decidedly vegetarian meal, to show their care for life. It's also a way of asking for more life themselves.
The rest of the world went on like none of this hullabaloo was happening. School, stock trades, mail--it was not a holiday. The Jews celebrate their New Year in autumn on a date that varies with the harvest moon. Roman Catholics and their Protestant cousins claim New Year in midwinter, always on the same day: January 1-- a relatively recent designation by the way. Ancient Greeks began their new year with the first new moon after the summer solstice, June 21. Before Julius Caesar, Romans started their year March
1, then during the Middle Ages most European countries acted like the year began on
March 25, day of the Feast of the Annunciation.
No one really knows where a year begins. Bengalis have a New Year different from the rest of Hindu India which uses the spring equinox as start. Persians use that day too. Nowraz always falls on March 21. Everyone eats sprouts. Thais celebrate Songkran mid April as a water festival that purifies, washing away the dirt of the old. Nepalis, Punjabis and the Assamese celebrate mid April as well. Sometimes Tibetan New Year and Chinese New Year are weeks apart; sometimes Tibetans have two designated days, one known as Tsurphu Losar, designated by the monastery of His Holiness Karmapa. It's a mess.
When you think about it, you realize we all mark several beginnings of a year: a school year that
starts in September, a government fiscal year that can begin in July, a
calendar year that begins in January. Jewish New Year Rosh Hashonah actually falls on the first day of the seventh calendar month because the calendar count itself begins on the first new moon of spring. Yet years are tabulated from it. The dichotomy is said to be the compromise of early rabbis unable to unanimously agree on the
most appropriate moment: when life sprang up anew or after the harvest
when life was laid to rest, opening time for reflection and planning for
You can see we just make this stuff up. There is no real New Year. We may cling to a calendar as very solid and secure-- so dependable, we can count on it, but a year is just a man-made invention. Just a thought. Like us, the ancients saw day folding into night, then breaking out again. They saw bodies born, change and disintegrate. Looking for something dependable as an anchor, they counted sunrises. Some measured by counting the changes of the moon. Others trusted to the varying angles of the sun. With everything seemingly circular, nobody found an absolute. Where to begin counting in the circle is one issue on which everyone agrees to disagree-- so politely no one gets hurt!
New Year is a perfect example of what the Buddha meant by the impermanence and insubstantiality of everything, most of all our thoughts. Depending on your perspective, this is the year of the goat or the sheep or the ram. It is 2015 or 5775 or 4713. Does it matter? When you find yourself celebrating January 1 and February 19 and in late September and July 1 when your property tax year starts, you see how vested we are in a virtual reality, living in the realm of imagination.
As it happens, Losar is a time for trying to foresee reality with a little fortune telling. Asian calculations combine 12 earthly beings with 5 heavenly elements to create a 60 year life cycle. So I looked up the prognosis for the year of a wood sheep. It is calm, cool and collected. Time to catch our breath from the galloping pace of events that came with the year of the horse. Time for courtesy and charity and community. Somebody who was as tuned into vibes from the real world as we are to Twitter feeds realized that what animates and energizes us ebbs after it flows. The Chinese system attempts to translate how the invisible affects us: the full speed ahead charge of the horse followed by low battery small focus of the lamb, which gives rise to the brazen creativity of the monkey... I have grown more fond of Asia's New Year than of other ones. The timing just feels a lot more significant to the bones and heart than that ball falling through the snow in Times Square on New Year's Eve and all the other trumped up drunken revelry of Saturnalia. Winter's grip seems to be loosening right now: light lasts longer, leaves are trying to peek out. There is a letting go. Life is starting to feel brighter, new possibilities popping up like bulbs. Spring is always an official, new beginning, a second chance. I find the peace of inner balance comes from being in sync with reality like that. And the peace of inner balance makes one very happy for a new year.
I have started referring to every new year of age as a new place I've never been before. As a tourist learning my way around, I have no idea what to expect, no inkling whether what's happening is normal or peculiarly me. And by the time I figure it out, I'll have crossed the border into an entirely new place. We are all nomads crossing through life.
Last month I passed a milestone into the home stretch. In this uncharted territory where I am now tenting, I am seeing everything distorted by the wide angle perspective of experience, aka age. It's quite the fun house view. complete with the realization that I'm going to step outside soon. So what the hell. I laugh a lot more at life's ironies and peoples foibles, especially my own. It's hilarious how I've been trying to kid myself all these years with the same habitual come-ons and cons.
The world has been trying to kid me too, the man made world that is. But I am beginning to get wise enough to see through the cons and come-ons and comedy. The real world underneath is getting clearer so I'm seeing things differently.
Finally, a major miracle: my thighs look thinner. Alas, it's because my waist has disappeared. Uncle! I give up. I can't change the world. It is even messier and nastier than it was in my youth--maybe even more so and without those shoulder pads sewn into everything. But I could change myself. And that did change the world around me-- into a more accommodating space. The world around me actually became peaceful only after I did. Adjectives--like better and worse, good and bad, even up and down--are really judgment calls. Who am I to judge? What was horrific for the people of Tibet has been splendid for me; when the country was cracked open, I got their well hidden Dharma. From it I learned, if I put my pinkie and ring finger up, I'm going to swear the ring finger is "big". But when I put up my middle finger, I have to admit it's now small. I can't even be sure of a word like "green." Everyone sees color so differently, look how many colors we use just to describe ocean water: the Red Sea, the Black Sea, the White Sea, the brown Sargasso Sea, emerald waters, blue lagoon... . Last week I bought a cotton tunic whose stripes I thought were varying shades of gray but in the bright light of my apartment window, I discovered those stripes were shades of blue. When I tell someone the restaurant was good, I am making a judgment call, not speaking truth. Adjectives will get you if you don't watch out. You may lose your mother but if you kept your first friends, those who liked you before there was any ulterior motive, you'll still have the feeling of being nurtured, guided, bonded and loved. Shared history makes family.
We all live in time zones not on the map. When I see the cost of medical treatment, theater tickets and restaurant meals these days, I feel like I've crossed a border into a zone my internal mechanism is not set for. I remember my grandmother screaming at me for being profligate when I told her a can of tuna cost me 27 cents; in her mind it was still .15. Now it's more than $2. I think we all get stuck in the values, culture and prices of our formative years, which become the time zone we continue operate in. I now feel jet lagged crossing so frequently from one zone to another. I want my warm, cozy familiarity back. Sacre bleu! Charles deGaulle was right: cemeteries are full of supposedly irreplaceable people. By now, even those who were away on Mars and missed Celine Dion's song know the world does go on. It will without me too.
At least, I understand the only way I can live on when my body dies is to be missed enough to become an attractive example of how to live in this world, a memory so fond someone fiercely guards it in their heart and brings the example to life. I didn't invent this idea. It's actually in the ancient Kaddish prayer: "The good live on in the acts of goodness they perform and the hearts of those who hold them dear." If somebody misses me enough to cry, that will be the real tribute, the award for my performance in this world.
I would like my epitaph to say: Here lies Sandy who never lied before.
Printing may be passé but imprinting is still huge. In so many hidden ways, we do become our mothers or our fathers, or else we marry them to keep the familiarity going. Science has now confirmed that human beings require a lot of touching. Not touchiness. Just plain old hands on touching. Most people are starving. It's really funny to watch everyone thinking they're gonna be hugged by titles, awards, corner offices, nanosecond trades, lucrative contracts and twitter feeds. So much for the value of virtual reality.
Most little kids want to grow up to be firemen or fairy princesses. Why some kids dream of growing up to be total jerks beats me, but that is definitely what many do become. Someone recently went viral saying there are no grownups. Yes there are. There are people who understand the entire world does not revolve around them, or end at the tips of their fingers and toes. There are people who can acknowledge their behavior affects others, that when someone doesn't respond the way you prefer, your own behavior may have something to do with that. In other words, adults are people who control their behavior because they realize it has consequences. In the inimitable worlds of the late Trungpa Rinpoche, they are mentally toilet trained. Whoever said people don't want truth, they just want to be re-assured what they think is true was absolutely right. We all live inside a tent of our own thoughts. Our minds and actions get shaped by the beliefs we choose to grab and hang onto as we surf the waves of life. Truth is a cluster bomb that blows up our cozy home and the surfboard we store there, forcing us to flee as a displaced person into the lonely unfamiliar. You can see why most people don't want to go there. Everybody is supposedly hunting for the meaning of life. It's the quest of quests: what is the meaning of life? Well, I have no idea...except maybe this new suspicion: taking some of that mean out of it.
A while back, in answer to an audience question, His Holiness the Dalai Lama solved one of the greater mysteries of our times: road rage. Asked why even perfectly patient, generous, compassionate Buddhist practitioners are apt to go ballistic behind the wheel, His Holiness said traffic messes with our most primal instinct: pacing. Our sense of pace, tightly tied to our primal sense of space, is the mark of our evolution to two legged walking, upright running, flight
or fight responders. It is is lodged in our limbic brain, embedded in
our sense of well-being, expressed as instinct. We all run on our own individual rhythm, a beat keyed to our personal energy level, at a velocity between Speedy Gonzalez and lazy boy. So on a freeway, anyone programmed to go 65 mph who suddenly gets brought up short by someone moseying along at 45 is destined to go ape in the true sense of that word. Their primal sense of forward motion has, His Holiness said,been thwarted.
I know that feeling well. I am a speed queen constantly cut off at the pass. An unending stream of dawdling drivers unwilling to acknowledge the exclusive privilege of the left lane-- even as they pass signs that say: Slower Traffic Keep Right, thwart an instinctual sense of movement honed keeping up with a grandmother who trotted even when she was 95. I have to work very hard to keep calm when I have to keep my foot on the brake going forward. Since I can't get past their car, I have to work extremely hard to get past other driver's selfishness to forgive them.
Part of the reason I have a problem with forgiveness is that I understand it's these pokes who cause the mysterious sudden clogs that make you slam on the brakes and pray the car behind you does quickly too. Dawdlers cause others to slalom dangerously across lanes, putting other drivers in jeopardy, just to get around them. Crawlers cause accidents. California and New York highways are especially nerve-wracking, constipated as they are by sashaying egomaniacs hogging the left lane. As much as I love that lane, I have no problem yielding its privilege to a car roaring toward my tailgate. It's not just that I want to steer clear of a fender bender. In my dreams slowpokes yield for me, so why not set an example and try to make dreams come true? More crucially, why torture someone trying to get ahead? Especially when I have no idea why. Maybe the passenger is about to have a baby? Maybe the plane is 15 minutes from leaving the runway? Maybe the driver is desperate to pee? Who am I to judge? I was once literally racing a potentially dying dog to the vet when I was abruptly brought up short by some gray-haired dick smooth talking a sweetie in his expensive two-seater top down. He was doing 15 miles per hour. Every time I flashed my lights or tapped my horn for him to pull over, he stepped on his brake to dead stop as though he owned the road. And while he was playing his dangerous game, my dog got closer to death. Who wants to grow up to be a jerk like that? When you watch your mind while you are behind the wheel, you eventually understand driving requires your Bodhisattva best. A foot on the gas pedal means your survival actually depends on being mindful of others. You absolutely must take them into account and deal with them...how should I put it....head on. On highways shared by Chinese who drive like they are on a two-wheel bicycle and Latino teens whizzing by with macho v...v...vroom to spare, you must give full attention to the moment if you want to get to the next one. You must give these offensives the best defensive driving. When you live among armies of the elderly, you have to realize they have nowhere to go and all day to get there. You could give them a heart attack making them rush, and anyway most of the time they really are so focused on staying at the wheel, they become oblivious to others. I sometimes think in a car on the road everybody thinks they are the only body. Countless drivers sit in the cocoon of their vehicle, chatting away or contemplating their next move, completely oblivious to the cars around them. My particular favorites are those who, like the left lane loungers, never notice or just don't care there is someone else behind them. They slow to crawl while finishing a phone conversation or searching for something in the glove box or rummaging in the paper pile on the passenger seat. Never occurs to them to pull over.
Some people leave two full car lengths empty between themselves and the car in front. So what that they've prevented the car behind from, say in San Francisco, pulling into the special and very short left turn lane, thus clogging up lanes of traffic behind. So what that they've thwarted others from making the light and not having to wait as long as three minutes for the next green at the five road intersection because, hey, they made it. Who else is there?
My real super favorites are drivers who suddenly see a parking space or a turn they forgot about and slam on their brakes as though nobody else is anywhere around. It's all about them. Just like my superduper favorites, the 20somethings whose sense of entitlement is so strong, they will--without blinker of course-- pull into a lane without even bothering to check if someone else is already right there in it. Twice now I've come close to collision. The more I watch my mind, the more I see how the selfishness of other drivers makes me lose my mind behind the wheel. I want to scream: Hey! You are not the only person in the universe. But the Buddhist in me says to swallow the road rage and digest the insult. These people on the roadways of Samsara are not under the influence of Dharma, trying to get to Nirvana.
Driving is great practice in confronting the foibles of others and surviving them. It's the hard work of accepting that there are others. It's the challenge of understanding their speeds, sharing the road, and having the generosity to get out of their way. An automobile is truly a vehicle/yana for a Bodhisattva.
Author of How To Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market, new edition published May 2011; and Veggiyana: the Dharma of Cooking, published September 2011 by Wisdom Publications. Founder and president of Veggiyana, a charitable effort to feed Buddhist monastics and schoolchildren in India, Nepal and Tibet. On Facebook as Prima Dharma Cook.
This is a blog of essays from the Buddhist perspective of Sandy Garson.
Visit my web site Yours In The Dharma, where I try to make sense of the bewilderment in daily life. I meditate aloud on how the teachings of my guru Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the golden rosary of his Tibetan Kagyu lineage and the Buddha himself come alive in the headlines and heartaches to rescue us all from suffering.