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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Buddha says it's okay to eat potato chips

In the sutras, the Buddha very clearly says to venerable Ananda: "Ananda, if there is no body, there is no dharma. If there is no food, there is no dharma. If there are no clothes, there is no dharma. Take care of your body, for the sake of the dharma."

So here's a little food dharma to help with that. Now in midsummer swelter is the time to gorge on oily, salty food. Yes potato chips. Right now they're good for you.  So are all those "olive oil dishes"--that's actually the translation of their category--from the Mediterranean: French ratatouille, Italian pesto, Greek plakis, Turkish imam bayaldi, Syrian tabouli and all those Armenian vegetables braised in olive oil. Right now when you are sweating in the heat, your body needs a lube job. Enter oil. It lubes the muscles and tissues so nothing tears while you're out having fun. 

And since you're sweating out the moisture the rest of your body needs, you need salt and lots of it to stem the flow. Yes potato chips. But yes, olives and feta cheese, anchovies and capers, even salt cod and miso.

Now is the moment Mother Nature hands out watery food: tomatoes, cucumbers, melons, berries. She knows your body needs the juice. Watermelon agua fresca anyone?

One more thing: chilies.  Now is the time. Hot and hotter inside and out. The reason super spicy dishes are so prevalent in hot climates is that chilies make the body sweat and sweating is nothing more than your body dehumidifying. A fancy air conditioner is nothing more than a dehumidifier so in essence chili peppers are cheap Frigidaires. 

The other sneaky thing about hot chilies: they make you want to put out the fire and boy does the body need water right now.

So there's dharma of the body for you, wisdom at least as old and proven as the Buddha's.

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

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Saturday, July 11, 2015

A better samsara

 "A better samsara."  Those words jumped out of Ringu Tulku's book, Confusion Arises as Wisdom, my second time around and haunted me long after I passed that page. A better samsara...a better samsara... The phrase brought back a puzzling phrase of my own beloved guru Thrangu Rinpoche: "the happiness of samsara." Apparently I've missed it: there's still some good stuff here where we're all stuck. We don't have to try so hard to get out so fast. 

That's very comforting. The whole idea that there is a better, happier samsara makes it easier to get up in the morning to face a world that's been bitten by money and rabidly mad. It definitely helps confusion and feels like wisdom.  So I want to share what Ringu Tulku told me on pages 36 and 37. Please share too.

First of all, you need to know as I didn't, there are two distinct sorts of Dharma practice, and--here's what I didn't know-- both are okay according to the great master, Je Gampopa, whose text Ringu Tulku is teaching. The first is "worldly dharma." Many of us think we have to disparage this. We practice this, as Ringu Tulku says, "to get something better in this life or future lives. For instance, we want peace of mind, we want things to work out well, and we want to be happy."

And then he says:  "It's good to apply the teaching to our states of mind and emotional problems in order to have a better life."   Not just Ringu Tulku and Je Gampopa, but even the great Indian scholar Nagarjuna advocates worldly dharma practice. "Ascending the stairs of the gods' and humans' dharma will bring one close to liberation." He actually suggests we all begin with worldly dharma practice to become better human beings, what Ringu Tulku calls "good solid citizens of samsara." The Buddha's teachings and all the sutras and tantras agree on this psychological point:  the first step to liberation is to become a decent, stable human being. 

And here's why I find that so valuable to know. Mostly we just hear about the esoteric, exotic or excruciating practices great masters do to achieve enlightenment, how they all so roundly rejected samsara. "This can lead students to think that having complete renunciation," Ringu Tulku says, "is the only way to practice, and unless they are like Milarepa, they are not dharma practitioners. This isn't true. Worldly dharma practice comes first. We can apply the dharma in daily life to take responsibility, do the right thing, go to work, make money, and look after our family. It's good to create a nice life and a nice community, to do things for others, avoid extremes and include a little meditation to bring peace of mind."

The law of karma is that positive actions bring positive results. "So," Ringu Tulku concludes, "worldly dharma practice means doing dharma activities to in order to have a better world, a better samsara. As long as you're here, why not live in a better samsara than a worse one?"

Yes. Why not? Anyone have a problem with that?

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

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Buddhism: Monks, Lamas, Rinpoches, Nun of the Above

Although I really wanted to go this year, I didn't get to the July 4th fireworks. I saturated myself with bug spray, grabbed a sweater and was leaving the house when my phone rang. Recognizing the number, I took the call. I didn't think I'd be holding the receiver to my ear for the next 75 minutes.

I missed the fireworks to listen to someone fired up about a missed life opportunity. A Swiss woman who's spent the last 24 years as a very active, devout Tibetan Buddhist wants only to be fully ordained as a nun and for all sorts of nonsensical reasons can't be. Since she closed her pricey couture shop in Zurich, shaved off her hair and took basic ordination vows in the Kagyu lineage (that I share), she's done more than enough long retreats to be a lama, worked as attaché and translator for the tireless English speaking Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo of Cave in the Snow fame, attended countless teachings and expended endless energy trying to get the full ordination the way any monk can. She had just returned the night before from an all-Buddhist nuns conference in Indonesia and was outraged all over again. More runaround, more fences to block this sort of immigration. 

"You know," she said with great exasperation, "while we were there in Indonesia, we heard the local sultan who has four daughters and no sons had just announced he would not let the title pass to his nephew when he died but to his oldest daughter. He said it was time for change. Imagine: a Muslim sultan can acknowledge women but a Rinpoche won't."

All Tibetan Buddhist nuns are categorically and systematically denied the final blessing of full ordination no matter how far beyond a monk their level of practice and achievement extends. The great icons of compassion for all beings give lip service about making these nuns equal to Tibetan Buddhist monks, but the luck stops there. The Dalai Lama is not against the idea; he just isn't the right person to ordain them and doesn't know who to ask. He says it will happen one day...soon.  His Holiness Karmapa has started to focus on women, saying he wants to repay his mother left behind in Tibet beyond his purview, by helping all women. He's set up a training program for would-be nuns, but it doesn't include final full ordination. "Maybe soon,"  he promises. My friend said that "soon" will only be for Tibetan Buddhist nuns who are Tibetan, not Western. Emphasis on Tibetan, not Buddhist. Read that wisdom, compassion, racism.

My friend is particularly incensed at not having a decent name. The Tibetan word for a nun is "Ani" and with a note of respect added becomes Ani-la. That's the term I've always used. But apparently powers that be are now telling laypeople and monks to call Western nuns "tsunma", Tibetan for auntie. "Can you imagine," my friend snapped, "I've spent 24 years in retreat, service and study to be called auntie! Just to show them how degrading that is, I've started calling monks uncle. Boy they do not like that!!!"

Nobody dares to be the first to do something that has never been done before. Tibetan Buddhism is so hide-bound, even my own beloved teacher is guilty of discrimination. With great foresight and compassion, he chartered what's become a thriving nunnery with its own separate three-year retreat center (graduation from that makes a male a lama) and shedra or five-year intensive study program. Five years ago, Rinpoche even let the nuns sit for the entrance exam to the great Buddhist university in the holy city of Varanasi where a specific number of admission slots is allotted to each branch of Tibetan Buddhism. The women earned more than 50% of ours. Nine nuns were sent for medical training and are now amchis, Tibetan doctors. But not one of Rinpoche's nuns has ever been fully ordained as a bonafide monastic in the Buddha's sangha. 

Western nuns have become the untouchable caste of Tibetan Buddhism. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo has had to turn away many who wanted to become nuns because Western women who want to devote themselves to Dharma as nuns can't even think about doing that without a fat bank account to pay for their food, lodging, studies and future of no income. If they do dedicate themselves and their money as my friend has done, they get to spend their lives and funds in limbo and oblivion, shunting about for sanctuary, never acknowledged, accepted or advanced. As though they'd pollute the pureland. 

The situation is not this dire in non-Tibetan Buddhism. Jetsunma and the even more famous Pema Chodron got their full and final ordination outside their Tibetan lineage, seeking out Chinese Mahayana and southeast Asian Theravada masters--on the advice of their Tibetan gurus no less. Tibetan rinpoches remind Western nuns they still have those options. My friend, who is getting on in years and thus has reason to be impatient, will go to Taiwan for the two-month full ordination program the next time it is offered. "What else can I do?" she said. "Rinpoche told me to go to China, but I don't want to be ordained by some mainland Chinese. It's sad enough you can't take your vows with the Rinpoche you've been devoted to the way a monk can. This is not the Buddha's teaching!"

She is right. This is not the Buddha's teaching. Dharma, with deliberate emphasis on the unity and equality of ALL sentient beings, was supposed to be the antidote to the poisonous caste system. With prompting from the loyal Ananda, the Buddha stopped discriminating, embraced the devotion of his step-mother and ordained her as the first Buddhist nun. Other women then entered his sangha the same way. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo-- an iconoclast of infinite determination--has managed to find an image of the first Buddhist nun and enshrined it at her own new and growing nunnery outside Dharamsala, India. My friend wants to make thousands of photo copies to pass out at the huge annual Tibetan prayer services, the monlams, now convened annually around the globe. The next one is Vancouver BC end of August, presided over by our beloved teacher. "I am going to put this in their faces. I am going to show Rinpoche and ask him why he is waiting, why he is not following the Buddha's example."

It's cultural, more Tibetan than Buddhist. The great voices of virtue that sometimes swallow meat can't swallow equality for women...ostensibly because they believe their job is to pass tradition on exactly as they received it--pure and unpolluted by changing worldly concerns. Since there were never any Western women in Tibet begging to be nuns, they can disregard and discount them now. The way none of us can smell our own bad breath if we have it, these men don't smell their own hypocrisy. Equality for female monastics, like meat eating, is the huge blind spot in the vehicles on the Bodhisattva path and it's causing life-threatening collisions. 

The saddest part is that these so-called great cavaliers of compassion and wisdom, the Karmapas, were knowingly empowered and launched by women, the dakinis to whom they owe their power. In fact the entire Tibetan Dharma and its sibling the Mahayana that is the foundation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama rests on the prowess of the great Prajnaparamita: wisdom --always and ever portrayed as the great goddess. One stream of the Kagyu lineage to which my friend and I belong was launched by the accomplished Sukhasiddhi. Guru Rinpoche needed Yeshe Tsogyal to advance and protect his teachings. The powerful and precious Tibetan Buddhist practices of Chod, Red Chenrezig and Tara were all created and bestowed by women. And it is not for nothing that the entire Kagyu lineage wakes up every morning and starts the day with prayers to Mother Tara. 

Women have innate power that men must struggle to attain. So shots are still being fired in the battle of the sexes, an unending civil war, even in places that proclaim peace and by men who proclaim compassion for all sentient beings. They are as stuck in samsara as the rest of us.

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

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Hanging On

I have lost a lot of time these past few weeks slavishly working in the kitchen. I've filled so many jars with pickled asparagus, rhubarb date chutney, apricot jam and peach jam, I've run out of space to store them.  I've got rhubarb pie in the freezer. It's about to be joined by a chard/spinach pie. Another jam session in a minute: strawberries. I am such a pig I nabbed two extra luscious pints from the local farm.  I can't let go.

I have been making jam for 45 years and pickling for 35. It's become a habit, a reflexive response to summer. I started when there was no fresh food supply in winters of the frozen north, but my life changed since then. I get all the fresh food a body needs in January from local farms in California. Yet I still rush to preserve.

Nowadays I end up giving most of the jars away as gifts. There are actually folks who wait for them, expect them, can't get enough of them. They got me thinking I was slaving away for others--and the glory of their praises. It's nice to be wanted.

I do a lot less than I used to. I have learned the hard way. Decades ago famed salmon still swam into the Kennebec River of Maine and everyone flooded the fish markets to get it for July 4. It was then or never because the Kennebec salmon only swam up to spawn for two weeks. That was that. Two weeks was no time at all for such delicious fare, so I got attached to the idea of eating it. I decided I would save salmon. I researched, asked and tried for years to freeze it in such a way that it would taste like fresh fish but not even freezing it in a block of salt water as some experts advised made defrosted salmon taste good. Fresh Kennebec two week salmon would not let me hang on. 

Then there were those little cold water shrimp that ran up the Maine coast every January filling boats up to the knees of the crew. You could buy pounds of them for nothing and you knew they'd make great shrimp salad in July if only you could hang on to them. I remember a lot of snowy night discussions about whether it was best to freeze the shrimp cooked or raw, with or without shells, in salt water or dry, because no method gave them the succulence of freshness. An Indian friend finally resolved this dilemma for me. "When they come into season," she said, "I eat as many as I can every day that I can until I am so full and sick or them, I don't want to see them for another year."

Now suddenly with a bizarre Eureka! I look at all these jars crowding my counter and closet and see what I have been doing all these years: still not letting go like that. The Buddha said impermanence (aka change) was the ultimate cause of all suffering and pain. Samsara is our continually repeated (aka habitual) effort to stop it, to attach and hang on to what's merely passing by.  After decades on the meditation cushion, I discover the kitchen is the place where you can actually get it. Seasonal local eating, that's the mantra of impermanence right there. Waxing ecstatic about fresh strawberry rhubarb pie in June-- such a long wait!, eyes lighting up at a pile of Georgia peaches or Jersey tomatoes--yes again! Phew!, gorging on corn fresh from the nearby farm and never again until its fresh from the farm again next year, that's the practice. Impermanence doesn't get any clearer than this. Especially when you so easily see yourself trying to hang on.

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

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Friday, May 29, 2015

Nepal Horror Update

 A private truck piled with tents, tarps, blankets and food donated by private citizens was ambushed and commandeered on its way to Dohkala, one of the most devastated and hardest to reach areas, by non other than the local government agents, claiming the villagers ahead didn't need the stuff so they were going to keep it.   This fits in with the traditional pattern of denying the existence of the mountain people and thus denying them all goods and services.

Tents, tarps, blankets and medical supplies being flown in by private groups and citizens around the world are now sitting still in the cargo hold of the Kathmandu airport where local government officials are demanding a 46% import duty on everything. right now, our school has over 100 kids sleeping under leaky tarps, needing those tents.

It is very hard as a Buddhist to have respect for those who have NO respect for others' lives. I really do wish someone would pile the entire government and its venal bureaucracy into the path of the next oncoming landslide so the Nepali people could be freed of such abominably needless suffering.

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

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

All Shook Up

Nepal's double earthquakes weren't just another headline to read and turn the page. They devastated "my people", places and faces I know and love, and schlep there to help. So the news was a landslide that buried everything else I had in mind.

It awes me how other people have gone on with their lives, Netflix queues and inane Facebook postings of sayings and dog photos as though nothing at all has happened. It's been three weeks since the first horrific shock waves and I'm still digging out of the rubble of other people's lives. Just moments ago, I dialed and woke my trusted taxi driver who a week ago woke me begging for help. His beloved father, a penniless aged widower, was sleeping in his field with no hope for shelter or food. And it was teeming rain, with bouts of lightening, monsoon season at hand. I figured Rembo, Rembahadur's chosen nickname for himself, wouldn't mind waking up to good news for once. Waiting for him at Western Union was half of the $500 he needed to make his dad life-saving shelter.

I already had $100 hand delivered by a mutual acquaintance, the best I could do. Still it ate at me that this was nowhere near enough to meet the dire need of someone I knew. All he needed to save his father's life was $500, and he'd reached out to me, with desperate hope.  Not being able to fully help upset me so much, l had to swallow my perennial misgivings about asking others for money and reach out. Waiting for him at Western Union was the contribution of four others who understood like I do that while Rembo works 12-14 hours a day driving a tiny, meticulously clean, white Suzuki cab, he is an honest man caught in the web of evil that is Nepal. No matter how hard he works, the price of basics often gets so ridiculously inflated by extortion and corruption, he can barely pay his own little family's bills. He has no savings but he is very proud to manage to scrape together enough tuition for his son to go to a decent school where he is flourishing in sports, English and computers. He wants the boy to have a decent life--hopefully outside Nepal. That shouldn't be a problem since the country's major export is its citizens. The earthquake is not the only disaster they flee.

Nepal is a failed state, disgustingly so. The media continue to refer to it as impoverished. It is that in spades because its deeply rooted palace elite continue to suck the life out of it.  They have such a parasitic stranglehold that beyond Kathmandu where they live in a luxury the earthquakes didn't dare upend, basic public decencies like electricity and water, roads and schools don't really exist. Every time Rembo drives me an hour outside the city to my guru's main monastery in the mountains and we turn off the paving onto a rutted dirt track, he grunts like the gearshift and apologies to me. "Sorry ma'am for the bumping but this is a road to a Buddhist place and those high Hindus in Kathmandu, they don't care about that." Indeed, the road to the great ancient stupa of Boudhanath, one of the city's more lucrative tourist attractions now that the government charges tourists to see it, was never paved until the late King had some ceremonial reason to go there.

The malign neglect comes with absolute refusal to acknowledge the existence of whole other regions of the country, especially its higher elevations with ethnic Tibetan people paying tourists adore, the people whose ancestors who created that stupa government lackeys are now profiting from. The Kathmandu Brahmins call them "bhotia", a miserable slang word for trashy outsider or foreigner. Merchants in Kathmandu refuse to serve them and airport passport controllers most often refuse to let them pass. 

These regions and people were hardest hit-- many places obliterated by the two quakes, and, even with some international media limelight shining (long yayThe Guardian, NPR and Al Jazeera), they have yet to receive one iota of public help. The government turned back heavy- lift British and Indian helicopters that could've rained supplies on that disheveled terrain, in good part to monopolize the helicopter fleet and profit from renting planes to all private do-gooders desperate to get up there, lucratively relieving the government of responsibility to do its own job. They kept the American choppers waiting on Okinawa for three critical days. I heard government officially forbade Buddhist monks to continue their massive and heroic rescue and relief efforts across the Kathmandu Valley because it didn't like the optics of maroon clad Buddhists doing what the Chinese clad Hindu police should have been doing.  Well, here is one of my favorite photos of the period: our nuns at work while the Nepali police, as usual, stand by watching. 

Extortion, graft, corruption and venality are so everyday ho hum endemic in Nepal, its police, army and patronage bureaucrats make Afghanistan seem a sainted paradise. Those humungous fees trekkers pay for Everest go into their pockets, never ever to the Sherpas who face the brutal climbing challenges or to basic services for their villages. Nepal is the only country I know that you cannot send a package or stuffed envelope to because it will never reach the recipient. It's a country whose security police search your purse because they want the money and jewelry they're likely to find in it; I've had to slap hands over the years and scream on my way to the departure lounge. The UN Commissioner is begging countries to give more given the mega scale of the disaster but nobody's chipping in. Help is not on the way because they know the drill. The day after the quake, some NGO or UN person found all the relief supplies do-gooder governments sent for the minor 1988 earthquake stockpiled in an army warehouse. Others quickly discovered new supplies just flown in for free distribution to the devastated were being siphoned off for friends of the government who were selling the rest to the needy for exorbitant prices. And then there was the sudden edict that all aid money had to flow through the special Prime Minister's Fund. That cut everything off at the pass.

So you can't blame a hardworking family fellow like Rembo for his crushing poverty. The Nepali people are in truth exceptionally artistic, smart and strong. They are the legendary Gurkhas and ingenious Tamang who carved steep mountainsides into the famous tea plantations of Darjeeling. They are the brilliant Newars who crafted the wooden houses for which Kathmandu is named and the iconic statues and thangkhas that fill the Buddhist shrine halls of India and Tibet. They are the IT geniuses on HB1 visas in all major US cities, stalwart builders of Middle East pleasure domes, and purveyors of pashmina--their word that's now ours. On top of talent without end, they are generous to a fault. Stories about homeless refugees rooting through rubble to round up firewood and a pot so they can offer passing relief workers a cup of tea are not surprising. It's why there's a tsunami of NGO's flooding the land and why so many of us care deeply about this misbegotten country. 

That's compassion for you. 
And there it is to the left: small school kids packing donated supplies bigger than they are to send on to others who have nothing. Ignoring the damage to their own residences, the older children, monks and nuns in our sangha have been equally engaged, trekking to their home villages with supplies, digging neighbors out of rubble, providing medical assistance and distributing what food they could find. 

These are the "bhotia", the very people that magnetize people to Nepal. And as usual they have been impeccably magnanimous. The Buddha should be proud. The magic of human splendor is very alive in all that abominable misery.

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

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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.

Soha! (That is Tibetan for Amen.)

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

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