Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

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 so we get at what's truly happening.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On Balance

My nephew the extreme athlete just passed through and when I confided how I feel I'm losing balance-- at least I think I am, he immediately took me to a sporting goods store to find what's called a Stability Disk. This turned out to be a black rubber pancake you don't fully inflate in order to make it squishy when you stand on it, so squishy you have to struggle to keep balanced. One foot or two, the same frustrating effort to hold yourself straight up as the rubber bobbles below.

The disk packaging is covered in ecstatic claims about strengthening your "core", toughening your abs, and as my nephew suggested, stretching your hamstrings. Frankly, when I whipped out my credit card, I didn't care squat about achieving any of that. Nobody will ever accuse me of fitness. No, I just wanted to get rid of this new feeling I'm slip-sliding away, this troubling sense that I am living on a banana peel. When I climb into a kayak or walk on waterfront rocks or even go down the flight of stairs from bedroom to kitchen to get my morning coffee, I feel like I'm teetering enough to topple. Since I really need to get to that coffee, this is seriously distressing.

It seems agility is another crucial skill you lose when you gain in age, a birthday present nobody tells you back when you were pinning the tail on the donkey you're don't get to keep. It comes on loan like eyesight that also diminishes more rapidly than you'd like. It's part of the impermanence plan we all signed up for at birth. It promises we get to keep absolutely nothing. 

This still shocks me even though Dharma harps on impermanence and I can tell you all about it. I can even encourage you to embrace the idea as I have: throw out those clothes, beliefs and friends that don't fit. Pack up and move on, mentally or physically because we go through life as nomads anyway. Yet I now find myself very unhappily suffering the indignities of Father Time's takeaway. Unhappy because he's got no give back, so there's no escape. The onset of cataracts, thickening of waist, change in sleep pattern and loss of short term memory are already more I can manage... as gracefully as I'd like to think I am, so I wasn't prepared to lose stability. I guess there is the good riddance thank God impermanence (getting rid of the bad boyfriend) and the bad news hang on a sec dear God impermanence I am now suffering.

I am trying to liberate myself. I so much do not to be super klutz, I religiously do what my nephew suggested: step on and off and back on that squishy rubber pancake a few minutes every morning to try to get my agility back. I do this right after I offer tea to Mahakala remover of obstacles, say prayers for blessings and recite mantras to benefit others. I didn't plan it that way, but for space reasons, I had to put the pancake on the floor beside my shrine. So I've now got a mind/body balancing ritual going.

I think this inadvertent juxtaposition of mind/body balancing just gave me a new Aha! My struggle to stand on that slippery black, shape shifting rubber disk trying to be somebody in control of herself on wobblies takes place right next to my altar, which reminds me I am not the only one who wants this happiness of holding my own. Everybody does.  In our own ways, each of us is struggling to get stability on this bobbling disk called life.

I thought about my 95-year-old uncle who visited me two weeks ago, a month after my aunt passed away. After 72 years of married togetherness, he was suddenly on his own, an amputee feeling the phantom pain. He seemed to be filling the void by getting everyone he was visiting and telephoning to tell him stories about their adventures with his wife. He told me he was going to compile them into a book about her. I suppose this is how he is keeping her alive and staying married, the core strengthening needed to keep balance.

I thought about my friend who abruptly abandoned me in May, because three weeks ago in a burst of tears, she said she couldn't stand (get that word: stand) not having me in her life. As she went through the days and had to deal with death, family and other disturbances, she kept missing me, talking to me about what was going on. She felt strangely empty without my advice. She wanted me to be her best friend again.  She wanted me to stretch and make things "right."

I thought about other friends whose house and lives had been vacated by grown kids or deceased pets. I thought about how they dealt with the impermanence, the sudden imbalance in their routine, by going right out to get more pets or taking in foster kids. I thought about people I've known who came from dysfunctional families and feel so wobbly when they find themselves in a stable situation, they upend it, trading momentary joy for good old familiarity.

I recalled the headlines about the brutal aftermath of the messy divorce between Russia and Ukraine. The physical shrinking of Russia makes Vladimir Putin too wobbly for comfort, so he's having a big case of the Nastees. Determined to deny impermanence and not move into the future, he's pushing toward the past, destabilizing Ukraine until it tips over into his arms. 

I have started standing on that shifty black rubber pancake to really get it: what life feels like when you are willing to admit it's a struggle for agility. I  step on and off not only to regain balance, but to teach myself compassion for everyone of us trying to gain it as well, everyone of us taking strange and sometimes desperate measures to stand firm on our own invisible squishy disk.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Monday, August 18, 2014

A Huffing Post Buzz Heed: How I turned Nirvana into Samsara

 Once a week now, on Sunday morning, words from my perfect teacher are posted via email to those of us who want to hear them. They are bracing. Here are Rinpoche's chosen words on July 27: "I would like to stress that increasing one’s presence of mind and cultivating the stability of shamatha should not be confined to the meditation session.  We should try to be more mindful in all situations and at all times in our lives." 

Here was a special favorite on July 6: "Presently it seems to us that the first bodhisattva level is miles away, is completely out of our reach and that it is impossible to get there.  But, because time passes and things happen quickly, before you know it, one day you will be there and suddenly you will be a bodhisattva on the first level.  Because things always change and continue happening, then one day before you know it, you will be a Buddha too.  So impermanence is very good."

And the week after that: "Everything stands or falls with this point.  Do we know the very identity of momentary thoughts to be the empty and luminously cognizant mind, or not?  That is what makes the entire difference.  If we know that the nature of any momentary thought or emotion is empty cognizance, we are no longer fooled by it."

I should truly like to say Amen to these mini sermons and sometimes I actually do. Most of the times, I cringe because my concerted effort to be more mindful of myself in all situations has now made me dishearteningly aware how foolish I am, and that just knocks the Buddhist right out of me. I am never going to be in the running for a Bodhisattva. How can I be when I finally had the precious chance to be in the same room with my aged teacher who so kindly came for a brief shining moment to America, and I spent the weekend pained by the chance I had sacrificed to be having a plain old fashioned good time back home. Yes there I was in Denver smiling among sangha mates and listening keenly to the teachings while regretting how on a sunny August weekend I was trapped in the dull flat tar and concrete sprawl of Denver when I could've been on the gorgeously vivid coast of Maine swimming and kayaking. I was with a dozen Sangha mates I hadn't seen for months, regretting how I was missing the opportunity to see 2 long lost friends who were suddenly appearing only that weekend. 

Of course being me, I regretted aloud not being able to eat my own good cooking or local food, stuck as I was with a gang that gravitated to the franchised vegan restaurant and franchised salad bar for every meal. I actually got into a dispute over tofu imitation food (tofu chicken, soy burgers) with my normally stoic motel roommate who lives on what I deplore. And of course, having been involved for decades in the world of food, I thought I was right. And I definitely wanted to be right about resenting something.

I got Rinpoche's blessing, twice, and his precious teaching for two full days, knowing all the while, given his age--83--and his frail condition, it might well be the last time. That's why I chose to go. And still I hated having to get on an airplane, hated more that it was both ways delayed by weather when I could've stayed home and enjoyed the only summer weekend that had real summer weather. There's actually no better teacher of impermanence than Maine weather.

Of course while I was hating and resenting and regretting, I was aware enough of my idiocy to try to counter it. I made the effort to remind myself at least once each day how my teacher and other Rinpoches remind us of the great troubles the ancient masters put themselves through to acquire the Dharma teachings we now benefit from. They trekked on foot from mid India over the Himalayas to Tibet or vice versa. They beggared their way and their stay, never knowing if they'd have food or lodging. They slogged through hells for this gold and all I had to do was eat vegan food and hang around airports to board Jetblue. 

I have been trying so hard to get over myself, for days I couldn't figure out what to write on this blog. I did of course re-read those words about Bodhisattvas and the value of time passing impermanence, hoping they'd sink in like marinade. Then this morning, one of the monks closest to Rinpoche posted these comforting words of his on Facebook:  "Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always."

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, August 03, 2014

Do You Know Where Your Awareness Is?

I've just spent three overly hectic days hosting my childhood friend and her family, down to the six-year-old granddaughter. They turned on a lot of lights even though it was sunny bright, kept the little television going and never turned anything off until they went to bed. They did not notice the gardens they walked through or the moonrise off the porch they were sitting on. The six-year-old dismissed the very large horseshoe crab shell I found for her as something she'd seen before and preferred spending time watching Netflix shows on her mother's iPad. 

There was a lot of going shopping, and back at the house a lot of time spent fussing over distributing fairly to unseen family children at an overnight camp the tons of cheap candy they brought with them. My dining table was completely covered by bags of licorice sticks, jelly beans, peanut clusters and I don't know what because I've never seen such stuff before. To them this was very important as was getting the right looking clothes from a nearby Ralph Lauren store.

They went there in the gas guzzling car they think makes a status statement without the slightest inkling what it costs the world to get the gas into it. They just know they can afford the gas. They have no idea where from or how the electricity comes that keeps all the lights and TV burning; they have no interest in knowing about dams or wind power, coal pollution or oil wars. They just want their lights to be on. They have no idea where the water in the sink, the toilet and washing machine comes from or what it takes for me to keep it pure and flowing. They just expect it to be there when they want it. They have no interest in knowing the real toll of the electricity or water or stove gas or TV.

I have known my friend since childhood and I love her, so I cooked two four-course dinners with local farm ingredients for her family and left them on their own with the refrigerator for breakfast. Because I am proud of what the people around me produce and because I take care of my aging body by eating as local and seasonal as I can, I had filled it for them with farm fresh jumbo eggs, local artisan cheeses, freshly picked raspberries and blueberries, homemade jam and farm butter. They buried it all in bottles of drinks that came in shocking colors from some supermarket or convenience store. That is where they exclusively food shop, which is why my friend also put in my fridge three Granny Smith apples, making me wonder how anyone could buy in July, the heyday of berries and melons and stone fruits, a winter fruit imported from South America to convince people to eat the same thing all the time. It amazed me that her husband felt compelled to go to a nearby supermarket to buy a plastic container of Del Monte grapefruit sections because that's what he likes to eat at home all the time. 

It was extra super painful to watch my friend make a second breakfast for her husband one of the mornings. Since there were three jumbo eggs left in the carton, she took the what the hell route toward all three for his omelet. Then she took my $17 a lb artisan local cheese and peeled off half the block as though it were Velveeta to put on top. It wasn't the money but the cholesterol pileup and total disregard for the handcrafted specialness of that cheese and the fact that she served the dish with ice water (they don't drink anything not iced) that made me have to leave the kitchen for a moment. 

I've now spent about two dozen years studying and sharing the world's accumulated wisdom of eating. I know we're not created to eat the same thing everyday, even every month because the body can't process the same chemicals over and over without them becoming a toxic buildup that leads to disease like cancer. The universe prompts us to eat for the moment by providing a huge panoply of ever changing fruits, vegetables, greens and animal life. I know we can't eat too much of anything without negative blowback like diabetes, high blood pressure and liver failure. I know we need to eat salty oily foods in the times we sweat and need moisture. I know we need to eat fatty, warming foods in times of frost. I know we need the tonic of greens to get us tuned up in Spring. Yet even though my friends know I've written two books and taught all this, they never ask me about it. They don't bring up what I do at all, even when I'm serving them a four-course dinner.

To be fair to that omelet, my friend loves cheese. She always says she does and always digs in to eat lots of it, even though she has a serious cholesterol problem. In fact at this point, she has so many physical problems, she comes with one of those long white plastic pill containers with a section for everyday. I know she has at least 8 different color and shapes pills in each of those seven sections because I watch her dump them out and sort. Her husband comes with an entire dopp kit of pills that he always leaves on the living room coffee table for quick access.  

I have no idea whether or not my friend has ever noticed I don't take any daily pill at all. Nada. I just know she's never asked me why, never connected the fresh unpackaged, unprocessed seasonally pertinent food in my fridge and at my table with my strong health. Years of meditation practice and focus on what's happening around me let me see just how oblivious humans can be. I totally get what the Buddha meant when he said we are all clueless, existing inside a bubble of imagination, day dream walking, reaching out for unreal things we think we need to make us happy, wreaking real harm we never notice. I saw these dear old friends as perfect images from a thangka painting, perhaps of the 12 nidanas: the wheel of Samsara shown as the interdependent causes of suffering- the Buddhist if this, then that. 

In Mahamudra, we do the Jungne Drolsum or Three Questions practice to become more aware of the relationship between us and our thoughts: where do they come from or originate, where do they stay while we recognize them and where do they go afterward when we move on to think about something else? I think we can fathom the same connection to everything else in life too: where did it come from, what is it doing here and where will it go when we're over it. Yes, where did you come from to slip in utero? Where did the you of the past go? Can you actually pinpoint where you are and where you will go when your heart stops beating? I mean, there's more to life than headline news and shopper's specials. It's 10 AM: Do you know where your awareness is?

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Monday, July 14, 2014

Shocking thoughts

According to the news on Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me!, last week brought a headline about a study that revealed 80% of us would rather receive electric shocks than be left alone with our thoughts. Apparently stuck in a room with no diversion, the subjects rather quickly pressed the relief button, which gave them a mild electric shock.The button, of course, gave them something to do. It was an escape from themselves.  Finally a distraction! So they did the equivalent--or worse-- of banging their head against a wall-- again and again--without thinking anything of it because of course they didn't want to have to think.

Apparently we humans are so anxious--and quick-- to run away from being, we just love love love doing --something, even if it's banging our head against a wall or getting electrically shocked. I know this not just because of that study, but also because I just read that someone else did a study to learn why all the labor-saving devices now glutting the marketplace haven't given anybody the leisure they were supposed to. How did that advertising promise get so broken that nobody nowadays in the heyday of gadgets has time?  The warm and fuzzy  answer is that we want to keep buying newer and costlier devices to keep up with all the innovation, so we need to keep working for the money to do that. The chilling answer is we prefer to go to work because having something outside ourselves to focus on and do defines us, gives us meaning, and distracts us from ourselves. Everyone of us is the very bogeyman we are afraid of. How's that for a selfie.

I totally get this because I have a lifelong friend who went into utter agony about having to retire from her government law position; as she put it, who would she be, what she do? And I have another friend who lost her job from age discrimination and could have retired but was so upset about how she would keep busy, she fought her way into another job.

I also confess brief not shining moments in my retreat cabins when I desperately wanted a distraction. I felt so sorry for myself without anything to reach for, so willfully deprived I questioned my sanity. Then I slogged on with just myself for company, days on end just me and the imagined deities and a tea kettle.  And I am still here. At least I know the enemy you don't befriend sneaks back again and again to torment you. I really liked so much that the immensely popular Pema Chodron's first book was called: The Wisdom Of No Escape, I gifted at least a dozen copies.

About a week ago, one of the opinion curators of the New York Times finally got around to noticing how overhyped, overused and overly misinterpreted the Buddhist concept of mindfulness has become. It's now therapy for keeping focus on the job or goal. It's about not being distracted when you are doing something. Of course nothing could be further from the truth of mindfulness, but I suppose this new version is all a piece with the pharmacology race for emotional painkillers, a way to blot out thoughts.

Genuine Dharma is of course about  not doing but being, not out there but in here. Meditation is about burrowing inside yourself with a metaphorical miner's headlamp, being alone with your thoughts, watching them like a movie or TV show. It's the struggle to become intimately familiar with the inner workings that power you, so you can mine them for your own gold by making them your vbf. 

That's why my immediate reaction to hearing about that 80% who preferred shock treatment to the shock of their own mental jibberish was to wonder if 20% of Americans are actually Buddhists.  I'd have gone for being the .01%. Now I want to know who those other brave people are? Did those researchers study painters, actors, writers, songwriters who have to harness their own thoughts like a mill dam that powers output? Are creative types the 20%?

Since the program went off when I got out of the car, I've had an ongoing reaction: no wonder people are scared of their thoughts. What complex and contradictory creatures we are, doing one thing while saying another, loving and hating at the same time, multitasking in the worst possible ways. I mean here I am vowing to protect all sentient beings, begging forgiveness through confession for eating meat and  every couple hours turning myself into a vicious death squad. I keep running out the house with a squirt bottle of poison to exterminate all the Japanese beetles munching on my rose bushes. It only takes a dozen of them about an hour to turn one large bush to lace. A rose can't open without them already inside eating it up. It's so disgusting I have my own surge: double extra squirts of poison just to be sure they're really dead. I tell myself I'm killing them to save the bees that come because bees are in such decline they need all the help they can get. And they do good work. I rationalize how I'm fighting for the shiny little red ladybugs I sometimes spot on the lily stems. As I grab the handy squirt bottle and morph into a merciless serial killer, I tell myself I'm protecting beauty and shade, bird habitat and decency, and of course my investment in all the plants. What a hypocritical hoot I am.

Then too, I am undependably wishywashy.  My mind is controlled by whether systems that bring cloudiness and storm just as inexplicably as sunshine and breeze. Three weeks ago I was in gloom, circling the sometimes fatal abyss of depression. I wrote about being sideswiped by changes. Then literally, the sun came out, the air warmed and softened, friends called, friends came and bingo! the vacuum was filled, storm damage cleared. I was buoyant, thrilled by how rich and beautiful my life can be. So I saw and I see. Like other human beings, I am a mood see-saw, buffeted by the slightest wind of change.  Like other human beings, I definitely prefer the brighter times and don't want to have to think about bad things. I just want to be comfortable.

That's the ticket! Nobody wants to be unhappy, especially in a country that so happily supports the mega billion dollar mood enhancing business. We are a society that speaks only and always, early and often of happiness: be happy! What me worry? Just be happy all the time: we can help you with that. Who wants to be unhappy? That's the source of shame and condemnation. What's wrong with you? Pick a smiley. Buy something. Have it your way.

Of course the Buddha knew how much we hate being unhappy That's how much none of us have changed over the last 2600 years. All beings want happiness; or if you prefer, all beings want is happiness. We can all agree on that; we just can't agree on what exactly happiness is. Maybe for you it's tofu. What makes me insanely ecstatic today, I may hate tomorrow. The bombardment of blasting rap music that makes the teenage male happy infuriates me when it pounds out the car windows and rocks my car.  Just take a look at the news headlines if you don't believe me that someone's joyful pursuit is someone else's death rattle. Or just take a look at all the media stories of the 1% who have it all whining unhappily they don't have as much as the .01%. They want more. Want, want, want...

The Buddha knew that as long as happiness was based on wanting things, based only on external getting and having, it would be this insane. I'm sure he would not be surprised a bit that it would drive 21st Century people to the seemingly insane pursuit of preferring the simple clarity and certainty of having an electric shock--ah! something to brag about having-- to nonstop juggling the sometimes disturbing contradictions, humiliating ups and downs, and worried thoughts we are all made of. Is that shocking or what?

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Mission not accomplished

My oh my. For 27 years and 5 months, I have been trying to be a Buddhist and the last six weeks show what a miserable failure I am. I suppose in retrospect I got into Dharma the way America got into Iraq: thinking I could smartly and quickly clean up a mess and make everything sparklingly perfect with a surge of effort here and there. Ha ha ha ha ha.

I just got to see how I'm doing with the most basic point of the Buddha's teaching: his First Noble Truth, suffering. That's the ABCs of Dharma right there and it's what I wanted to deal with when I started all those years ago. The Buddha diagnosed how we are all continually suffering in three profound ways: we suffer from suffering pain, fear and stress; we suffer from inevitable change-- when joy disappears, when we get what we don't want, sickness sets in, aging occurs, death happens; and we suffer from the very deep malaise of being isolated in our bodies so that no connection is ever complete and satisfactory. Right on.

I suppose the best known of these sufferings is the truth of suffering from change, famous perhaps because it is so intimately related to the buzzword impermanence. So many wannabe and non-Buddhists have heard Dharma is about impermanence, dealing with the inescapable transitory quality of everything. (I would have said "absolutely everything" if I hadn't been looking at the fat on my thighs.)  The Buddha--unaware of hormones and high school and high tech innovations-- pointed out the major changes everyone of us will all have to deal with: birth, sickness, old age and death, hinting they were not fun things to tweet about.

I know this, at least at some level. I know the sun will set on a beautiful day and the night bring a killer storm; I know money made in the stock market will inevitably be lost; I know a cute kitten will become an obnoxiously whining cat, someone I have a crush on will turn out to be a jerk, and that my hair will turn gray. For 27 years and five months, I have been trying to follow the Buddha's remedy for the sadness of change, schlepping along his path to liberation from its affects. The famous buzzword for this is emptiness. Or maybe it's Now, as in the Present. The present is a gift, a truly useful one you don't ever want to regift. Yet in the thick of enormous changes coming at you like hail pelts, it can end up under the bed where you can't find it when you need it. All you can see is the past before the change or future due to it. That so scares the wits out of you, you forget you are still here now.

Sometimes I think I'm making real progress; I'm a big girl. I get it. This time is definitely not one of those times. Mercury and I are both retrograde, well me anyway. I have already written about being abruptly cancelled without notice by my 25-year-long VBF, which felt like a sudden airplane crash death for which there is no closure. That was followed by the news that my trusted carpenter/handyman, the guy who built my house and therefore claims the right to tend it, was in the hospital somewhere between life and death. He wouldn't be working for a long time. My house was not going to get fixed until I found someone new. I am going to have to live with uncomfortable problems for at least a year.

I wasn't taking these kinds of change very well and thought maybe I am not seeing clearly. That was a growing frustration. Then the eye doctor confirmed it would continue to be: I now have cataracts, one of the joys old age brings you. So now I get to test a new frustration point: the higher it is the longer I can postpone surgery. I figured it best to try not to have a nervous breakdown over this beginning of the body breakdown because the last thing I wanted was quick surgery when the excommunicator VBF was listed as the person to call in emergencies and my bedroom needed fixing.

I was trying, about as successfully as the Americans in Iraq, to cope with all these unwelcome challenges when I got word of the death of a major family member. I was alerted she had maybe a week to ten days, but she was gone an hour after that email came. This was an earthquake that shook disturbing memories down off the family tree and smashed a crater in the mindscape.

I like to suppose I could've coped with this increasing pace of subtraction--I was doing a lot of the Chenrezig puja for suffering, if it didn't suddenly speed up like today's high tech frenzy. Maybe because I was feeling weak, I had my breath knocked out by someone's casual news that a goddaughter of mine was getting married: date and place, registry on The Knot and airline tickets all done. Who knew? Although I have been close to the bride-to-be since she was three and adapted me as her fairy godmother, I am apparently now out of her loop. She needed my support as a young child; as a teenager she needed my expertise in navigating New York and a sense of style; at 21 she needed me to show her how to drink fashionably and sustainably, and to provide the flowers for her graduation recital. Now she is 42, lives in New York and knows it so much better than me, she picks the places we meet for coffee when I visit. She doesn't need my support or guidance any more, so I'm in the dark of the closet where childhood things are stored and wasn't told she was getting married. I get it intellectually, I understand the moving on. That's normal. But blood goes to the heart, so bloodless coups cause real suffering there.

Amputation from someone's life causes pain because they are automatically cut out of yours too, a gutting that creates a vacuum that needs to be filled. Thus the phantom limb for physical amputees and for those of us loped off others' lives, phantom images of other so called close friends or family members who needed us for a time, and when they were out of whatever that pickle was, moved on without saying goodbye. Best friends not until the end probably because they needed to forget how they used to be. Some people don't want their rainy day friends around when the sun shines. That is change of considerable magnitude, and its inevitable mantra: What did I do to deserve this? shows how change creates so much suffering. The Buddha nailed it.

Of course, not all change is dire. I got a surprise call two nights ago from my Nepali heart son. It was a double surprise because he is a famed musician supposed to have been on his European tour, not in the US on his local cell. So I suspected something was up. "I have great news for you," he blurted right away. "Really great news! You're going to be a grandmother!"  Oh my, all these people leaving and now someone new is coming. The center of attention is going to shift like the tectonic plates under the San Andreas fault. This relationship is now going to be different too. 

Change is the step from comfortable familiarity to the unknown, and I didn't think I was one of those "conservative" who couldn't digest it without burping up the sort of bile we have in politics today. But telling myself the Buddha said disruptions are inevitable--I should've seen 'em coming, doesn't make any of them go down more easily. Meditation is supposed--operative word is supposed-- to make it all go away, like the US military was to make all those violent Islamic jihadists go away. But at this assault rifle pace, it is very hard to keep standing. One change means another.  When someone casts you aside with their childhood things, they're reminding you you've aged, telling you they've got so many new people filling their life, you're  irrelevant--or perhaps redundant, as the Brits would say.  When someone gives you good news of childhood coming, you also know you've aged-- enough to catch the scent in the baby gain of losing some treasured emotional intimacy, enough to sense you're the one who has to be even wiser now. And when on top of it all, you lose your clarity of seeing, your family matriarch and the workman you've counted on for a decade to keep your house livable, you feel horridly upended. And alone. The lonely kind of alone.

So mission not at all accomplished. I have to hand it to the Buddha. He was right about change being an arrow that hits the bull's eye of your life and causes suffering. He was right about pain and fear and stress and also about transient, unsatisfying connections: they are weapons of mass destruction.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Saga Dawa

About two weeks ago, my Tibetan heart daughter, stunningly beautiful and just as stunningly pious, took up the cause of reminding me that we're now back in Saga Dawa, Buddhism holiest month. Supposedly, in this fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, which usually coincides nicely with our elegant month of June, Shakyamuni Buddha was born in Lumbini, got enlightened at Bodh Gaya and later passed into parinirvana, which is to say he died as we know it.  

Devoting an entire month to remembering --and of course trying to emulate --the accomplishments of that Buddha, particularly after everyone else has given him one day in May, seems to be uniquely Tibetan. I don't really know why, but I like suspecting this comes from the Mongolian/Siberian shamanism that inflects Tibet's version of Buddhism. In all those icy, isolated geographical areas, June is the burst of life after the long thaw, the onset of possibilities as formerly frozen dynamic energies finally spring into play. Tibetan Buddhism, like Mongolian shamanism and the Bon religion it birthed, is all about harnessing energies. 

Believe that or not, it is said that during Saga Dawa any act of merit you perform will be gigantically enlarged, any Dharma practice you do will be infinitely and perhaps instantly beneficial, and on the Internet, when you Google saga dawa, it's said that now is the time to visit what parts of Tibet you can get into because you'll see wildly colorful celebrations. Every tour company is on it. But then so are the lamas: two who are my friends texted me to do more practice this month because that will be especially beneficial.

Of course along with doing good, as my heart daughter was reminding me, you have to be good. Extra very good like the Buddha himself. You have to love all beings enough to not just be vegan before six, as the trendy campaign puts it, but after six too because bad karmic actions are going to be just as multiplied as virtuous ones. So for this whole month, you cannot touch eggs, meat, fish, fowl, or even dairy. (Not surprisingly, as I learned being in Mongolia in June, this is the month in those frozen countries when the animals they depend upon for milk have given birth and need their milk for the babies.)

My Tibetan heart daughter was, as usual, going at Saga Dawa purity with gusto, suddenly surviving only on lentils and tofu and black coffee. Suddenly feeling weak, possibly sick. The next phone call was about worry. After all, she is responsible essentially for two jobs plus charity endeavors and handling the affairs of her large family. On a good day she doesn't get much sleep and now in the humid heat of an early New York summer, she was doing all that she relentlessly does between complex subway trips on tofu and lentils. Weak after only a week, three weeks to go.

So there's where the rub met the load: how to be a devout Buddhist in modern times? How to be a Tibetan Buddhist outside Tibet? And there's where me and my big mouth, wrinkled by age, opened as the voice of America. I heard myself heatedly telling her Tibetan self that she wasn't some monk sitting comfortably on a cushion in a remote Himalayan monastery with nothing to do on lentils and rice but sit there and pray. She was a full blooded New Yorker full tilt in fifth gear on the F train. Accommodations had to be made for circumstances. After all, no Tibetan Rinpoche is a fundamentalist fanatic. Buddhism is not Islam. The beauty of this path is that all its guides right up to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness Karmapa are exemplars of the practical. They are realists who say: "If you can do this, great, if not, well try it incrementally or make it an aspiration." 

I couldn't believe I struck with such force at her stringent piety, so the next morning when I remembered the lamas telling me to do more practice, I went to my altar to ask forgiveness. I told Chenrezig I was only trying to liberate that stubborn woman from suffering. I asked Guru Rinpoche to excuse my culture clash. I was only pushing flexibility, a case by case basis for the rules. Then I had to go to my the kitchen where as "guest chef" I was preparing all the food for a sold out fundraising dinner. The immediate work I had to do was make rhubarb sauce for all the...chicken I needed to cook. Right in the middle of Saga Dawa, spring chicken and spring lamb for 64.  What to do?

I went back to my altar and did the confession mantra three times to ask for forgiveness for having to do this job. On the bright side, I confessed, I was going it gratis as my contribution to a worthy charitable cause that would benefit a geographical community and the livelihoods of farmers who lived in it and needed to make a go. The meat was not about me and my appetite.  I hadn't meant to cause harm. Maybe I could minimize the damage I was doing if I promised to only eat pasta and salads, yogurt and cheese while working on this venture. Would that be okay?

I went back to the kitchen, grabbed the pot handle and was watching the rhubarb finally congeal into sauce when I realized the whole point of Saga Dawa, like the whole point of Dharma, is to make us keenly aware of what we are doing, of what choices we have to make and how we make them. Certainly this extended period, a whole month with no escape, emphasizes our behavior patterns more clearly than three days might. I would have to handle and cook all that meat, but I could confess to Vajrasattva that I was sorry for the predicament, sorry for the loss of life and ready to eat spaghetti more often. In fact I worried so much about the bad karma, I have actually started doing more formal practice every day. 

Two days ago, before she had to board a plane for an emergency trip to India where her father is dying, my heart daughter texted me that she ate a bowl of mulligatawny soup and is feeling much better, thank you.  So I suppose all we can do is try. A friend of mine once said that's why the Rinpoches call what we do "practice."

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Buddha Speaks to Graduates

So we've come again to that time of year for conspicuously celebrating people who are moving on. June is a seemingly unending series of public promotions as students in tassels graduate with Pomp and Circumstance to higher education, provided of course they can sit through all the speeches first. You know: the valedictorian has to express hopes, the honored guest has to impress expectations, the principal has to depress fears. Then everybody claps.

I really don't want to be the grinch who puts the kibosh on all the caps and gowns, but I do think one way or other, without them, all of us are graduating all the time. No spotlight, speeches or congratulations for a job well done, but still we are continually moving on all the time, not just to a higher shoe size, but to what you could call higher education if you mean learning more about our hopes, expectations and fears. Yes, management. There aren't many honor scrolls given out for this continuing accomplishment, and the only procession is the one you are in by yourself. Yet I suspect these unheralded moments are graduations the Buddha might prefer to address. 

I imagine he'd do it in 21st Century style with a visual gimmick to look smooth and attract attention. You know: graphs, charts, pies, slides, videos--something really colorful that makes you look seriously smart. So I suggest Prayer Flags.  After all, they continually send into the wind the Buddha's unending wishes for all of us to graduate from suffering to satisfaction, or peace. Om mani peme hung. And, they come in five colors.

Red: May All Beings Be Free from Suffering
Red is a warning: DANGER! So why go there? Of course we are all trained to stop our cars at red lights and stop signs. We've seen enough TV and movies to know if we don't, we could get killed in a collision and end up DOA on CSI. But how about that other vehicle that propels us around, our mind? Where's its Driver's Ed? We don't always stop at "uh oh" or "ouch", do we?  We just plow right past our doubts, our sneaking suspicions and intuition that something's-- o.k. the total truth, someone's-- just a little off our specs. Thinking the wrong stuff in something or someone otherwise so right will go away, maybe just melt like the ice in a July gin and tonic, helps us ignore the signal to slow down, even halt before we collide with reality. Trust me, that usually does not end well. Reality is never going to be at fault. Despite the Buddha's insistence on impermanence, I've found whatever from the get-go did not feel right, whatever in a job prospect, a love interest or a piece of property jumped out as an "ugh!"  will not somehow suddenly morph into an "ah!" just because we badly want it to.  Sorry, it's going to remain a scratchy thorn that will eventually blind with rage or poison. So we need to be careful how we drive ourselves.  Since the universe is always trying to guide us safely to reality, perhaps we should stop running those red lights it installs to save us from smash-ups with it.

Blue: May All Beings Be Free from the Causes of Suffering

Picasso had his Blue Period, and we all have one--or two or three or, o.k. dozens--too. Nobody got on Picasso's case and we shouldn't pile on ours. As inevitably as the moon has phases, as inevitably as it switches places with the sun, we are going to have blue periods. The world is not, at least not just yet, one gigantic Disneyland cynically manufactured to keep us all spellbound by delight. It's a gorgeous combination of mountains, valleys and oceans that churn and calm, flow and ebb. Do you really want to be the grotesquely numbing, waterless flat of Kansas?  (Realized beings excepted)

What makes us blue anyway? Why do we sometimes feel so unhappy, sensing that life is treating us badly? Maybe, hmmm? Maybe it's because what we think of as badly or wrong is whatever is not going our way, i.e. the way we personally hoped or expected. The universe totally ignored our agenda. Life did not deliver the goods we wanted. Well, perhaps so many other people wanted the "goods" too, they had to be back ordered. You never know. 

Then again, we might ask: who says we are, each of us, the final judge of good or bad, right or wrong? How do we know for sure which is which? And for how long? The Buddha says happiness is getting what we want--the right stuff, and unhappiness is having that ignored--baaad. We are so pathologically afraid of not getting what we want, we have created a whole corporate culture dedicated to letting us have everything our way--for a price of course. But if we take a hard look back at our lives, we'll probably see that sometimes not getting what or who we wanted turned out to be the real happily ever after. Honestly, could you have lived a lifetime with that slob you saw at the reunion? Or been happy in that much smaller apartment than the one you eventually found?

Okay, granted, sometimes bad things happen to good people. The Buddha, through the mouth of Tai Situ Rinpoche, says suffering is the broom that sweeps up your negative karma and makes you good to go. Trungpa Rinpoche liked to say all our shit--the stuff that gives us the blues, is the manure that makes our perfection grow--if we learn how to apply it. So appreciate downtime. Only when you acknowledge trouble can you find the remedy for it. And, duh, trouble usually comes from not knowing the difference between right and wrong.

White: May All Beings Have Happiness and the Causes of Happiness 

White is supposedly the absence of color, nothing happening. Nothing meaningful anyway, as in white noise. White's a clean slate or a fresh start, also a soft billowy cloud out of which we can coax rain to fertilize and refresh. Most of all, it is the symbol of purity, a way of saying spotless perfection.  Killjoy was not here. But the Buddha says we are. Just like Chenrezig, we are, all of us pure stainless perfection --well, our mind anyway, Minds are, of course, the Buddha's field of expertise, so perhaps we should trust him on this. It's huge his message: no matter how badly we think we've fucked up, no matter how horribly others have harmed us, no matter what stains we've put on our reputation, or how black and blue our thoughts. we're still absolutely as pure and perfect as white, (oh yes, the driven snow) because nothing sticks. That's emptiness for you. Every second our mind moves into blank freshness with no carry-on baggage. It remains unsullied by whatever passes through; it's more stainless than steel. Whatever we feel is weighing it down actually isn't; that's  literally just our imagination having a field day because there's nothing there. Is there? Can you find it?  Bad thoughts about bad happenings are just like a cloud blowing across the sky without affecting it in any way. And it disappears, leaving the sky pristine. So every second is our chance for a clean break, a fresh start, a new way. You don't need a computer algorithm to be an innovative entrepreneur. 

Green: May All Beings Never Be Dissociated from the Supreme Happiness which is without Suffering  

Okay, so money can't buy happiness, but it definitely does buy a lot of stuff that lets you think you've nailed it. We've got an entire economy based on that fact fiction. I hate to hammer the point but your happiness has planned obsolescence built right into it; it's probably the one thing that corporations build  to last. Don't get me wrong. I'm not here to denounce money. My teacher Thrangu Rinpoche always says having money is not a problem at all, not a bad thing of itself. The bad and the problem come from how you got it and how you handle it. Did you acquire it honestly without harm to anyone or anything? Do you hoard it or share it? Do you use it to benefit others in a way that does no harm? (Like building Buddhist monasteries ;o) or feeding the hungry organic food.) Or are you one of those billionaires who uses wealth like a weapon to beat people into submission, the only happiness going to lawyers who get to submit outrageous billing?

What's wrong with having money is the greed it evokes for turning everything into it, for creating a Midas culture that commoditizes absolutely everything and everyone it touches--which leads to what I suppose you might call a Gilded Age.

There's also nothing wrong with stuff in and of itself. Nothing wrong with having a bed to sleep in, a fridge for your food, and a Smart phone to keep up with Facebook. What's wrong, or bad, is getting so attached to your stuff, you cannot live without it and will harm anybody who gets between you and it. Or getting despondent when you lose some. Or refusing to share or perhaps even give something to someone in need. Or gift someone who admires what you have. What's wrong with money and stuff, and yes attachment to people too, is not being able to let go without kicking and screaming, without thinking you can't live if you don't own them. Actually the sun will still come up in the morning and you will still have to pee after drinking two cups of tea. Trust me. I was robbed of my family heirlooms, threw away my yearbooks and had to toss my collection of trip slides but I'm still here! So love your people and your things, even your money with a shrug. Life has this weird habit of hanging around even when they're gone.                                     

Yellow: May all Beings Remain in Boundless Equanimity, Freed from Attachment and Aversion

We're done with talk of gold so let's have yellow be the sun, source of everything including us. Without it's warmth, its energy, nothing would exist. We owe it big time. Solar energy grows the greens that cows turn into milk. It grows the trees we turn into rubber wheels. It shines on our skin turning into vital Vitamin D. All that it does is without prejudice or favoritism. It shines on everyone, not just on a few A-list people, and does not find some people more deserving of its radiance than others. What a way to see how equal we human beings basically are with each other in the world. The sun seems to think we all equally deserve to live. It does not discriminate. It does not have first class and business class rays brighter than economy. The sun puts out everything it's got for the benefit of all beings and the effort hasn't killed it yet. It's still going strong. There's a message there.

~Sandy Garson "Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy Garson All rights Reserved