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 to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Time out

I finally got to answer my own question: why are there so many Tibetan Buddhist retreat centers in the SW corner of France known as the Dordogne. I got in a car and drove there, from the elegant port city of Bordeaux.

Like many famed regions of France, this one is named for the river the meanders through it. Yes it is dotted with chateaus like the Loire in the Touraine, but it is uniquely lined with porous limestone cliffs that rise and fall abruptly along its banks. Medieval redoubts of yellow stone that glimmers in the sun were carved into those rock faces. Way before that, prehistoric humans huddled in their natural caves. This is the region of the famed primitive grotto paintings of horned wild animals that launched Western art. 

The Vezere flows into the Dordogne as other smaller rivers do, making the land fertile for farming. It must have been a prehistoric paradise. It looks like paradise today: neatly tended fields, pastures of dairy cows, forests full of fungi, flocks of dock and geese, tiled roof stone farmhouses, massive stone block chateaux and water flowing everywhere.  

It is so timeless, time disaappears. Buildings are referred to as Romanesque. This was the land at the heart of the Hundred Years War, the Aquitaine of Eleanor and her Richard, lion in winter. A hundred years of mass killing and destruction over passing thoughts that got stuck in someone's head. Some medieval villages still have their walls. The chateaus outside them are Renaissance.  Only tourists, masses of them at times, disturb the peace in which this verdant land now rests in hard earned retirement.

The energy here is timeless. That must have attracted the great masters, Dudjom Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who set up houses a kilometer or so from each other on a lushly verdant hill looking over a valley in this prehistoric region, this stage on which the human drama has so long played. They set up retreat centers and stupas and I was fortunate enough to visit them, and be received with immense kindness and joy. 

A gray haired nun from Tibet rules their roost in excellent English, abetted by a young Spanish nun and two Tibetan women from Darjeeling who look after the late masters' houses. Live-in volunteers too of course: everyone busy building a larger temple at Dudjom Rinpoche's house and a field of stupas at the three-year-retreat center. The land hhardly shuddered. None of this seems at all out of place up the hill from the village of Le Moustier with its boulangerie, stone church and auberge/restaurant.

Or maybe it was simply that the shabby cars and sometimes makeshift cabins were very familiar hallmarks of Dharma centers I know in the United States. People who want to pray hard and do good are not hedge fund managers. They are old shoes. 

There are, as I said, a whopping number of retreat centers in the area and I was only able to visit one. But it was an infinite blessing to be so welcomed, fed, invited to circumambulate the stupa field in progress and to meditate alone in Dudjom Rinpoche's private shrine room just because I said I was a longtime Dharma student. I left a khata for the long life of my beloved teacher who will be 83 in another two days and dedicated the merit to everyone. 

It was a magical moment to contemplate the headlines, before more horror came. A moment to remember that we may think our world is dark beyond measure from man's inhumanity to man, but in this ancient region, we are reminded that there have always been wars and violence and the primal aggression of males necessarily locking horns in bloodbath to dive into gene pool. A hundred years war, crusades, Revolutionary War, Franco-Prussian war, Civil War, two world wars and so on. So even with ISIS nothing's changed. Except that lands like this one of the Dordogne have been there, done that enough times to be over it now. Its hard earned peace and plenty are a huge sigh of relief. 

May we all be as free of suffering as the Dordogne has become. 

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Prayer power

The first week of May I bought one of those miniature orchids that fill the entranceways of Trader Joe stores: $6.95 for magenta. It had two stalks, half of each's flowers already in bloom, the remaining buds fat enough to pop. I gave it six weeks, just about the time I'd have fresh flowers from my own garden.

Orchids need moisture so this one provided the perfect opportunity every morning to give away the small water/tea offering ritually made the morning before to Mahakala, the protector and remover of obstacles. Ever since one of Rinpoche's lamas told me five years back that honoring Mahakala this way would help me, I have faithfully put water from the tea kettle into an espresso mug that I put in front of Mahakala's picture on my shrine while invoking his name, followed by three loud claps. The air expelled in that sound of two hands meeting represents at least for me the obstacles Mahakala can remove. And I have to say, I've noticed he has removed quite a few. Some sailing has been astonishingly smooth.

So, every morning new water and the next morning a spritz for the orchid. I don't really know how long these industrially raised mini orchids stuffed into tiny pots are supposed to last. I've always assumed the blooms would burst, be beautiful, fall and that would be that. We're talking maybe six weeks, eight on the outside.

It's understatement that I was startled to discover this orchid had two blooms and a new bud on October 30 when I needed to throw it away. It wasn't ready to be canned. It was stubbornly going to live past the Day of the Dead. 

The same spooky longevity happened to the last orchid I watered with Mahakala's blessed water.  It's two stems dropped all their white blooms one by one over a period of three months and as I was lifting it toward the trash, I noticed three new buds trying to swell on those embarrasingly naked stems.  So I pushed that plant into the hands of someone who needed good luck and did the same with relentlessly beautiful orchid. Who knew prayer is reallly Miracle-Gro? I am now a firm fan of the positive energy it releases. I need my life to bloom so I'm keeping at it every day.  Om shri Mahakala yaksha betali hung zsa!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Life is a losing game

 I'd just finished writing about the death drenched spookiness at the end of October when an old, dear and much older friend called. Since I admire her stamina and will to keep on keeping on with a relentless schedule of helping other people and going to great cultural events, I was taken aback when she started  by telling me the past two weeks she'd been downed by deep depression. My friend has been losing friends regularly for the last two or three years, yet seemingly unperturbed she goes on mentoring her college students, succoring the sick and rooting for the Yankees. Evidently the friend who passed three weeks ago was such a life support and joy supplier, her passing left a crater too deep to step across.

If you get into your '80s, your life is going to lose familiar faces the way trees in October lose their leaves. Shelf life happens. All faces have different places in our heart and the ones who burrow in the front and center and live there for decades become so woven into the fabric of our lives that their loss unravels it. We don't know how to put it back together again. As my friend said, most of the others who've died, even longer terms ones from childhood, didn't upend her everyday like this. She was thinking maybe she needed a grief counselor.

I jumped in to save her the trouble and cost. The Buddha is the best grief counselor in the business and his Dharma teachings are free to all. They start of course with that mustard seed test nobody could pass. You know, when a distraught young woman came to him because her child had died and she needed comforting, the Buddha told her to go to every house in every village around and bring him back one mustard seed from any family in which there had never been a death. So we need to remember losing someone dear and maybe even near does not make us special. We are actually very ordinary: death happens every day. Nobody goes unscathed. Nobody gets out alive. Life is a losing game.

Grief at the loss of a friend or family member is an ordinary human reaction. It's not necessarily a pathological medical condition that requires outside help. After all, isn't it testament to the person who passed that they affected you enough to make you cry when they went away? And testament to you for appreciating how they made your life better?  It's acknowledgment of a debt and its payback. Hooray, you can feel! There should be joy in that.

There is another take on the normality of grief. The late master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche bluntly said:  The one who passed has left the sufferings of this life and has a chance for a better shot at it. You should feel joy for their leaving. But you don't and you are torn apart with grief because something you want has been taken away, like a toy from a child. You are crying for yourself, for what you can't have. Verdi's tumultuously angry Requiem written after a close friend's death may be the supreme damn you death hissy fit of all times.

So I told my friend to remember the joyous moments she shared and the new friends she's made from that old one. That friend may no longer be physically present but she will still be around communicating in hundreds of ways. Death is not total loss. Unless of course you want it to be.

And finally, according to Dilgo Khyentse and other great masters extending all the way back to the Buddha, the departed is merely shifting life forms. Right now, I said, your friend's energy is morphing through the Bardo. She needs your help; she needs your love and energy to direct her to the most beneficial and joyous rebirth. You can thank her for everything by praying for her, visualizing her, sending her all your love and hopes. 

"You know I don't believe in any of that religious bunk," my friend said.
"I know," I said, "but what's the downside of visualizing Mary and sending her all your thanks and love and good wishes for a few days. It's going to make you feel a lot less sad that maybe you can still do something good for her, make her a great gift. It's going to make you happy."

"Okay," she said, "that I understand. I'll give it a try."

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

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Sunday, October 25, 2015


The world around me is getting undressed. Leaves and pine needles drop and swirl in the wind, bugs bolt indoors, blossoms freeze and shrivel. It all falls down. 

Falling pine cones in shifting wind smack the roof like a fist. Cold air squeaks through cracks in the boards, howling wind rattles screens. All day long, big black flies, light brown moths and creepily feelered assassin bugs drop off sills and screens, dead on the floor. The vacuum cleaner can't keep up. Stalks keel over. The garden is a cemetery. Light dims early and fast and gets reluctant to return as though it could have much more fun elsewhere. Everything is dying. I am self conscious about life, particularly mine. And its failures, all that's died.

You can see why this is spooky season, time for ghosts and devils and skeletons that dance. Time to placate kids with the sweetness of candy.  The hallowed evening, day of the dead, divali festival of light. Everything is dying or burrowing or flying away to brighter sun. We're done with harvest. We have to make do with what we got. We've lost our screening; what we didn't see has become quite clear  Fewer places to hide. The high hopes of Spring are laid low or packed away or left to die like bugs in all the newly woven spider webs meant to kill. 

Spring is hope: brighter, warmer, pregnant with every promise of glory days ahead. Hope is the wish for change to let you keep what you like or bring you what you think you will; fear the expectation that change will take away what you like or bring you what you don't want. The dying of the light, the plants, the animals, the warmth, who wants that?  Boo!

The Buddha said we have only two emotions, two driving energies: hope and fear. You can feel that right now when all the dying provokes so much fear. You see it firing up news and headlines: everybody loudly afraid of something-- gluten, immigrants, data mining. All arrows point straight to a pain in the ego.

Fear is the easier emotion to manipulate; it's what politicians and marketers so profitably sell. Fear is a turbo charged engine compared to hope. If you don't believe me, try sitting still and generating a thought that scares the hell out of you. Or just watch Fox News because that's exactly what it's broadcasting. Focus on what happens to your mind and body when fear strikes. Then shake it off or suck it up, and generate a happy heartwarming hope. Kinda carries you along like an old jalopy.

Hope is progressive, fear conservative. Hope to the left, fear to the hard right. Hope is action, fear reaction. Hope for the truth, fear what it will do to you. Maybe if elections were in May their input and outcomes would be different. That word says it all: May. Not a month that begins with No.

The Buddha saw hope and fear as so intimately intertwined, he taught that by abandoning hope--expectation and control, you automatically become fearless. But right now in this darkening, chilling time of diminished possibility and dead reckoning, unenlightened me thinks hope is all I have to conquer the spooky fears the blazes of October ignite. Om mani peme hung.

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

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Words of my Perfect Teacher: family life

Every Sunday, my sangha posts a quote from our teacher, the very venerable Khenchen (scholar) Thrangu Rinpoche and here is today's, October 18, 2015:

People often ask me, “What is the best way to make sure our children grow up to appreciate the Dharma and become Buddhists?” The advice I give is to get along in your family. If the members of a family all get along and are kind and loving, honest and straightforward, peaceful and affectionate with one another, the children will see it and say, “You know, Dharma practitioners must be all right.” They consequently develop an interest in the Dharma and eventually start to practice. This is why it is very important not to bicker or quarrel or fight.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Same old same old Part 2

 The Fryeburg Fair in 2013: still version 1

I think of this as all of us pulling the heavy load of our hopes, hatreds and have-tos.

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

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Friday, October 09, 2015

As time goes by

My favorite line in all nonfiction may be E.B. White saying the day man went to the moon, he went to the Fryeburg Fair. I love the palpable glee with which he juxtaposes Cape Canaveral's radio reports from the sky with the livestock auction and Ferris wheel on old Colonial ground, near Maine's New Hampshire border. You don't have to wonder which he prefers, with relish.

I love that White bet right. Nobody goes to the moon any more, but this year more than 350,000 people are expected to visit the 167th annual Fryeburg Fair. On Tuesday, I lived up to expectation. Even though it means a two-hour drive each way, I have been going for at least 45 years. I have seen it all, yet I wouldn't miss it for the world. I just love that it doesn't change. There is no new Fryeburg Fair 7.06. The oxen still pull, the ladies still quilt, the lumbermen still swing their axe, the biggest pumpkin still gets a blue ribbon and the chicks still hatch right before your eyes just like they did when White went in the 1950s. And seniors still get in free on Tuesdays.

That word "still" is very precious nowadays--because what is still can get you to be still. The retro predictability is a welcome breather from the brutal putsch of impermanence in an age psychotically obsessed with next. I haven't found better balm for a bruised soul than a crisp blue sky afternoon wandering around this foot of the White Mountains while the trees are aflame in red and yellow, pumpkins and apples piled high. All feels right with this world. I can lick ice cream or crunch a candy apple strolling through the livestock barns to be awed again by the enormous haunches of herbivore draft horses whose brute strength comes from oats and apples, to be tickled by perfectly belted Galloway cows, and surprised by the differing colors of wool on sheep, differing types of wool on goats.

Last year I watched the pig squeal: 6-year-old kids chasing baby pigs around a straw covered barn hoping to catch one. This year I went through the chicken barn and thought I'd stumbled on Paris Fashion Week. Who knew poultry dressed so magnificently? Here are my friend's pictures:
My style favorite
check the fur booties
This one's the prized turkey!

There is still cotton candy, still barkers trying to get you to ring three moving ducks for a gaudy prize, still squash from local granges and rabbits from Four-H clubs competing for blue ribbons. You can buy tractors, boats, camping toilets, freshly carded wool even from alpacas, and bag balm galore. There's country music and trotter racing and bumper cars and church groups selling homemade pumpkin pie and chowder. All of it for one week every year, as heartfelt and homemade as it was last year and the year before and before. In these moments of "still" and stillness, you are in your right mind where you realize this fair, like all harvest fairs, is a huge exclamation point, a loud celebration of life its own self. That it's still happening is enormously comforting.

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

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