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, September 22, 2016
The Poise in the Boat
Rain or shine, every day for the past few weeks, as soon as the sun rises and again not long before it sets, local college rowers glide by my house in sleek white shells of one, two, four and eight. The simultaneous dip of so many oars into fast moving water creates a rhythmic thump loud enough to wake me at dawn and divert my attention in the twilight. I just love that sight.
Most times there are enough sculls going by to be an armada. That's because women have equal opportunity now, scull for scull, and some days it's hard to tell who's who out there. I can only distinguish their boats from the males' on those not freezing days when guys tend to row bare-chested and all torsos in others boats are covered by tanks or tees or sweats. Because women in my time weren't allowed to row and I love the sport, I have been known to spontaneously shout: "Go Girls!"
That's about it for segregation at sea here, a sensible matter of muscle might. Since everyone's legs are bare, this year I see some are dark and others caramel. An encouraging addition to a very Brahman blueblood sport--like women. But then, sex
and skin color don't matter half as much as the guts to get up in
the chilly dark of 5 am to be out uncovered on the water by 6, especially when it's raining
or so cold I'm inside wrapped in fleece, snuggled in sleep. It amazes me they get out there. The crews have already gone a mile when they pass by me and
will glide another mile before they turn back stroke and feathering without letup: four miles with and
against a stubborn, powerful tide. stroke feather stroke feather.
Sex and skin color have nothing to do with the energy, stamina and sheer will to go the distance.
It's all mind. Mind over matter. Mind is the matter. Rowing is the most grueling sport because there's no pause, no time out, no chance to step aside on the field. Just continual stroke feather stroke feather with everybody dependent on you keeping up keeping on the stroke feather. A mantra.
Even when crew is done, it's not done. The rowers have to lift their shell out of the water and carry it away. There's no locker room to retreat to and relax in. Just a van ride back to campus. And there are no cheerleaders or friends/parents in viewing stands. It's lonely that way. Not an ego trip.
I think I am perpetually mesmerized by the sight of those shells sliding by because sex and skin color, slaps on the back, standpoint and sensibility are all so irrelevant. Rowing is every body literally pulling together. It is the awesome phenomenon of persistence, the miracle of exertion and the dazzling display of diligence--qualities I recognize I don't have enough of every time those boats glide by.
That magnificence was of course the point of that thrilling book, The Boys in The Boat. Those ragtag eight Washington state boys went for the gold and by their merit beat both bad weather and cheating Nazis to it in 1936 because, man to man, they could not bear to disappoint each other. If ever there was a team sport, crew is it.
The single scullers must look over their shoulder all the time to see where they are going. They look lonely out there in the crowd, and uninteresting to me. They get no coxswain to help, no one to to set the pace. Performance is strictly up to each of them with no way to know if it's good enough or not. Going it alone has obstacles and handicaps that go away when the number of rowers in a boat goes up. I think I am mesmerized by the sight of all those sculls sliding by two times a day because they are a memorably picturesque
message not only about how much more persistent exertion I need, but more crucially perhaps, how much faster, smoother and friction free we humans can
go when we are in the same boat diligently pulling together.
In mid July, instead of being at the Bob Dylan concert I had a ticket for, I was in Vancouver, Canada at Rinpoche's monastery for a special weekend teaching. That's where I came upon a tall, middle aged blonde I'd met there the year before. Back then she joined a friend and I for lunch, essentially because we had a rental car and she had no wheels at all. My friend had evidently made this woman's vague acquaintance years earlier at a retreat in the lonesome highlands of SE Colorado when they both found themselves washing dishes together in the kitchen. I newly made Arlette's acquaintance at that pub lunch. She was from Hawaii, Maui to be specific. She wore bright red lipstick. She was single, at that moment. She was a therapist. When the waitress came to take our order, she was an inquisitor. "I really want the chicken," she said, eyes on the menu, "but is it organic?" It was. "Is it free range?" It was. "How much of a range?" The waitress didn't know. "Was it well treated?" The waitress didn't answer. I thought I was in an SNL skit. I couldn't believe this woman was that ditzy, that a person long past 40 could be that much of an easily parodied type. I felt like shouting: "Order the baked potato!" but we were on a break from a Buddhist prayer gathering, so with considerable effort, I zipped my lip and pulled out my patience. In other words, I didn't say a word. When I spotted Arlette in the shrine room in Vancouver this year, that chicken shtick was all I could think about. I could not get over her total lack of self-consciousness, more to the point self-awareness. She had not been making a Portlandia joke. I had been making a judgment. She was a type. This July, Arlette was, as she had been, full of zest and zeal. She still wore bright red lipstick.She had flowered shirts. She cadged rides with my dharma brother, who found her charming. She waved at me. We chatted briefly, and I got reminded she was from Hawaii, Maui to be specific. I got reminded she smiled all the time. I got reminded how temporary a judgment can be. For what purpose was I carrying that chicken shtick memory around? To keep labeling her as a type. Little more than a month later, an unusual and unusually mysterious post showed up in my Facebook feed. The author introduced herself as Arlette's dear friend and went on to say while she was very uncomfortable speaking out on this medium, she needed to convey a message. To those who knew Arlette, all was not well. She had cancer. She had gone to Germany for an "alternative" treatment. Prayers for Arlette began to appear in my Facebook feed, followed the next day by news her body had reacted to either the cancer or the treatment with a stroke. She remained unconscious. More prayers surfaced on Facebook before a post that evening announcing she'd left her body, as Buddhists say. Just five weeks after I saw her red smiling lips, Arlette had gone free range. Thirty years of the teachings and talk about impermanence boiled down to Arlette gleaming in July, gone in August. Her friends posted like mad. They were going to miss her high spirits, her sparkling energy, her resolve to handle anything thrown at her. People said she never shirked. She always smiled. She had great strength and character. Someone posted a video of Arlette in her Maui apartment spontaneously dancing to the live voice and guitar of a gray haired, long bearded old friend. It was like watching Zorba the Greek exposing the joy of being human. Infinite love and admiration kept pouring through my Facebook feed for someone I hardly knew, someone I remembered as an SNL skit, someone very alive who died in a flash, just like that! I wondered if behind all those red-lipped smiles and bright energy in Vancouver, Arlette knew she had cancer and was doing a spectacular acting job. Or was it a surprise waiting when she got back home? A shocking hit, like a landmine. that blew her away to Germany where she died alone, in a hospital. Most of the world didn't know Arlette and I didn't either. But the unsolicited outpouring of pain and praise says she was a rare type: a human being worth knowing, worth the space she took up and the organic food she consumed. She didn't have a lot of money or a fancy house or a world mastery agenda. She just had a lot of heart and persistence that apparently made other people's lives happier. What more could anybody want out of life than to be a blessing to others? Who can do better than die alone yet be instantly mourned as a tremendous loss, someone remembered with unanimous love. "Now she is with Rinpoche," my dharma brother wrote in his post, "sharing his blessings." Her spirit, as Bob Dylan would say, is blowing in the wind. "Viva Arlette!" I spontaneously commented. "Viva Arlette!"
Everyone can breathe easier today. The world is a happier
place. This morning
I was up earlier than the sun could burn off cold fog, so I
fired up the range and made a small batch of late crop strawberry jam. Now
there should be enough-- although truthfully when it comes to sharing the love
of homemade jam from farmer’s market fruits there is never enough.
The jars of seasonal strawberry I made late in June were
disappearing rapidly, chosen over peach and apricot, even blueberry, so I was
fretting. For 48 years, I have been making pure ingredient strawberry jam (just
the berries with lime juice, rose water, spices and tiny bit of raw sugar), and
there have definitely been years I wanted to quit, this being one of them. But
people wait for it. They look so forward to getting a jar or two, I feel like
that Titanic love: I must go on.
There’s definitely a jar for me, if I even want it because I
don’t eat that much jam. But others, they’re crazy for it, and my jam making is
always for others. Frankly, no matter how much stuff and money
people have, they go gaga over a jar of simple homemade jam. It’s still the
best handout money can’t buy. I love how happy it makes everyone, how simple it is to make
people happy in this monstrously troubled world.
So, when to my surprise yesterday, I saw a few piled-high
pints of late crop strawberries at my local farmers’ market, I figured “what the hell’ and the pig in me grabbed
two. I could’ve sliced and enjoyed them, but I was, as I said, worried about
others. So I am happy to report the four jars of jam those berries just made reduced
my anxiety. More people are going feel the love. Homemade jam is such an easy
way to share it, I am in fact on my way back to the kitchen to turn the four
peaches a local farmer gave me and the handful of blackberries I picked by the
side of the road into a few more jars to give away. On this very happy morning,
I feel like the world is going to be a more perfect place.
I just helped someone put together brochure copy for a morning meditation program a major organization in New York City has agreed to sponsor. The operative word had to be mindfulness so this secular institution could avoid the religious implications of "meditation." My friend came up with "contemplation." I really wanted her program to succeed. I wanted lots of frayed New Yorkers to pile in and start their day with a pile of good news. I wanted to make the marketing pitch meaningful as well as dead on honest. So I contemplated why I find Buddhism to be so precious, sacred actually, and how it changed my life. This brought me to the innovative way a Dharma brother of mine in San Francisco has, with our Rinpoche's blessings, started to present Buddhism: as the pure, unfettered love called Bodhicitta. No texts for study, no big untranslatable words to parse, no tormas to fashion or mantras to memorize. Just guided meditation on the endless streams of light and love pouring into us from the Buddha and his retinue of deities, and from all the great masters who came before us and spent their lives perfecting the idea we can all transcend our anguish. Rinpoche's insight is that we are now living in heavy rains that have brought us all a tsunami of trouble.
Everyone is struggling in some way. Matters keep getting worse. Everyone has been wounded one way or another with no way to heal. No place to turn... except... .Rinpoche sees the Buddha and his retinue along with the long lineage of those who brought us his message as a sheltering umbrella we can all get under. So instead of meeting for 90 minutes to struggle over the meaning of ancient texts and treatises, he
wants his students to just sit there and feel the love. When you do, you walk away on clouds, nourished and buoyant. You wonder why no one ever told you this before. You want to share the love. Compassion arises. It's all bodhicitta, sometimes translated as "awakened heart." It starts with the Buddha's vital, simple message. Contrary to monotheistic doctrines that insist you are a mess who needs God's help, the Buddha assures you are perfect just as you are. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, nothing to hide.You don't need to rush out shopping for stuff to make yourself better. That kind of self-improvement improves nothing but some corporation's bottom line. Put the credit card away. You already have everything you need, You just need to discover that. The Buddha managed by contemplating how his life had worked out. Ever since he's been inviting us to a come-as-you-are party so we too can do that and come to see all the blessings we have. Chief among them is all that shit we're so busy hiding, all that scary stuff like failures and fractures and freakiness. They are actually the pile of manure that's going to make perfection grow, the dirt scrapers that can reveal the gold within you. If you dig in. After all, the symbol of Buddhist dharma is the lotus.This most beautiful flower on Earth can only grow in mud.
That's what contemplation practice actually is. Buddhist meditation is the insistent belief we are all worthy beings with access to unending blessings. The trick is how to sit still for a few minutes to find that out for ourselves. To help us, Buddhists back in the day created four images that are now widely available and wildly popular. First there is the Buddha himself. Artists have very strict rules for how a Buddha is portrayed. He will often have a third eye or dot representing it at the top of his nose. This represents inner seeing, the result of contemplation. Often Buddha will be shown with his right hand reaching down to touch the ground. This “touching the Earth” mudra represents the Buddha’s assertion that he and all beings have the right to be here on Earth and receive all its blessings. He is saying: we all belong here and we all benefit.” Sometimes Buddha is shown in full meditation posture and sometimes with his right hand turned outward in front of his chest. You know what that gesture means, don't you? It's the STOP sigh. Here, it's the Buddha saying, stop being scared. I'm here. The hand gesture represents the Buddha dispelling our deepest fears. Next, Tara, or Drolma in Tibetan. She comes in many colors and many poses because she has so many ways of protecting us. Tara is the great mother who wants for each of us what any loving mother wants for her child: good health, long life, freedom from fear, and wisdom. She is always shown with her right hand extended in the gesture of generosity to indicate she grants all our requests. Of the 21 Taras, the two most widely popular are Green Tara and White Tara. Green Tara has her leg extended, some say, so she can rise up quickly to come to our aid. Both Taras have a lotus in their left hand, rising from their heart. This is a way of showing us their great compassion and wisdom. Tara is the great mother and protector of all Himalayan peoples. She is known as Kwan Yin in China and Japan. Then Manjushri represents wisdom and he is always portrayed as a youth to tell us that wisdom is always fresh: it never ages, rots or gets stale. Manjushri is always portrayed with a sword because wisdom easily cuts through our ignorance and pain and slays it. He wants us to be that kind of warrior. Cutting through our delusions and illusions will give us clarity that we can wield like his sword to cut off suffering. Manjushri is a reminder that we are all born perfect with everything we need to be happy beyond suffering. We just need to borrow his sword of wisdom to cut through our despairs to reachthis truth, the way a machete hacks away the weeds until the land is clear.Contemplation is the best way to do that.
And finally Sipaykhorlo: The Wheel of Life illustrates the overarching truth we learn from contemplating ourselves: how we make our own suffering happen. In the center are the three poisons that destroy our clarity and skill: passion or wanting, aggression or hating and ignorance or not caring. These are shown with animal images. Around them are the six realms of suffering actions propel beings into: the hell realm (red hot anger), the hungry ghost realm (constant thirst from never having enough), the animal realm (ignorance of karma and dharma or, in other words, cause and effect), human realm (destroyed by desires), the jealous gods realm (endless warfare and envy), the god realm (downfall due to pride and arrogance). And around these are the 12 interdependent links of activity that lead us into so much suffering. This is the uh-oh image, painstakingly crafted to show us the chain that enchains us in interminable suffering for the purpose of showing us how to break that chain and set ourselves free.
Last week I tried to show a 9-year-old the huge bald eagle camouflaged in a dead tree across the inlet. I myself get ridiculously excited whenever I spot "big bird", but this child who had never seen America's national symbol before could have cared less. She looked up from her mobile phone game and quickly back with a barely disclosed ho hum, so what, why are you bothering me? I am still in shock.
I probably shouldn't be because her parents and only grandparents are all career-driven urban/ suburbanites who don't have pets, gardens, spiritual inclinations or the slightest curiosity about the natural world. They don't care where their food, electricity and water come from as long as they steadily get plenty. They don't care if they drive gas guzzlers; they can afford the gallons. They're in the driven multitude that commutes to the straight and narrow virtual reality of consumer culture and corporate career, stuck in that bubble of conformity, delegating the urgencies of life to strangers.
Not surprisingly, these are folks who lack hobbies, passions, spiritual strength, and most of all the urge to putter around. I am quick to notice what sociologists of the 50s called outer directed people--those force fed food for thought by outside interests, or to put it another way, those always under the influence-- because I am so happy to tune out their noisy must-do world and quietly putter around listening to myself. Instead of the mad scribble of endless appointments and must-dos that is
their and everybody else's calendar, mine is a symphony of blank spaces. This ode
to joy means time doing what today's hyperactive, pay to play
Tiger Mom culture absolutely loathes: live hands on. I mess around in the garden, the kitchen, the landscape, with boats and property, other people's needs and of course my
mind--which seems to include all the decor shifting I do trying to get my place to feel more "right." I also sit around watching seabirds, searching the stars, checking world news, admiring the sunset or full moon and sometimes just listening to my breath. Puttering is me dealing with the real world.
You could say my career has been being alive as a human. I adopted this "lifestyle" after I spent my 20s burying a half-dozen family and friends who played strictly by conventional consume and career rules yet got rudely torn away before they did what they truly wanted. All that subtraction added up to a huge epiphany: "question authority." Instead of tearing between life and death like it's a 200 meter Olympic swim and getting helplessly blown away, maybe it was better to float and surf life's waves.
I suppose without knowing it, I was an earlier adopter of the Buddhist belief in giving up all hope for fruition, giving up all expectation of glory, focusing on the present moment. Those with whom I shared my reckoning thought I'd lost my mind, probably from the weight of too much tragedy. Or, as time went on, perhaps it was guts because I stepped out of the conventional straight line life and began floating from one experience to another, a nomad among the settled. My oldest friend, grandmother of that uninterested child, took to calling me "the wandering Bu..."
Frankly, there have been moments I worried about myself, especially after the financial road turned into a dead-end pile of rocks. Having my "space", as the counterculture used to say, made me a generalist in an era that increasingly prizes and encourages laser-focused specialization. Our culture has become a ferocious Tiger Mom hellbent on raising competent career professionals who never get time to learn how to be a human being, to find out what it feels like to be alive.
Well, as life would have it, I'm now finding the oddest part of being the odd one out is being the only one among affluent and acculturated friends who has entered end times (old age) busily
challenged, full of energy, packed with curiosity, and reasonably happy. The one who feels the most alive, the one in the best of health. (Dear Buddha, may I not be jinxed for saying this.)
Yesterday maybe for the fourth time, my college friend who's been a "wealth manager" for 30 years very defensively re-iterated that even though she's 73 and has enough money, she can't quit because her life would have no structure. "I like it," she said, "that I know where to be at what hour. Otherwise I wouldn't know how to fill my day when I get out of bed." I heard here the echo of an old boyfriend telling me even though he was over 70 and had had a heart attack, he couldn't quit being a hedgefunder because he was good at making money and that's all he knew how to do. Two years ago, my friend who became an attorney after her second child entered kindergarten was forced by age rules to retire from her government job. Giving up that long held position meant giving up a title that, as she put it, told her who she was: a lawyer. I pointed out in my best Buddhist way she was still a wife, mother, friend and grandmother, but that didn't assuage her in the slightest. Those positions were ordinary. They didn't grant elite status. "I need a way for people to define me, for me to really know who I am," is how she put it. For two years, she's been flailing as she tries to find out. She started taking guitar lessons but her young teacher didn't want to work with a "Florence Jenkins" and told her to go elsewhere. She signed on at an employment agency that forwards volunteers to non-profit institutions but can't find one that resonates with her because "I don't want to be around sick, deranged, or foreign people." Her interests are so limited, there's hardly a museum where she could be a docent. Monthly botox shots, a personal trainer every other day, and quarterly spa visits don't fill her time or define her enough. She's so unhappy. My oldest friend was fired because of age. She lives in a huge, overly furnished house with two monogrammed cars, but she kept hunting down jobs and collecting unemployment. She got one for a year but lost it six months ago, so she's back on unemployment and interviews. "Can't you just quit?" I asked. "You're old enough and age is the issue." "I need something to do," she said. "I need a focus...and I like the extra money." Meanwhile all her focus nowadays is overwhelmingly on her grandchildren whose lives she seems to be leading.
Even more weird is how all that time everybody thought I wasted has somehow made me the person everybody now wants to consult. Oddly, I am the one guiding the wealth manager through personal real estate ventures. I am advising the former lawyer on gluten free options for her celiac grandson and non profit NGOs she doesn't know about that could use her help. Last year I was guiding her through the intricacies of dealing with condo management for redress and repairs. My oldest friend admired my herb plantings so I've helped her start her own. Her granddaughter wanted to come see me because when she was four, I taught her how to make jam and she just loved that. She loved it so much she walked out asking me what kind we'd make next year when she came back. We have been cooking up a storm one day a year and this year was no exception, except that the demand to make a lot of things we weren't going to eat struck me as more about resume building than the joy of cooking.
I have been on the phone and text messaging system with a bright young friend in San Francisco who has no clue how to handle vital property repair issues. I've recently helped a young friend in LA with the decor of houses he remodels to flip. I've had several rounds of coffee with a Fox News watching friend who needs to talk about a serious, secret family problem. I have been emailing a very successful college friend who lost her husband/business partner of 48 years because she keeps thanking me for the " unique good advice."
Twice in the last two weeks, I sat face to face with two other women whose lives were coming apart. To the one whose cancer had returned and was facing major disfiguring surgery--a psychiatrist, I explained how to focus the mind for protection and healing through the basics of Medicine Buddha practice. For the grandmother who kept tearing up when she talked about what an awful mess she'd become--she can't keep up with her grandchildren since her hips are so bad she requires a walker and she knows her physical impairment comes from her terrible mental state because all her friends are dead and she feels so lonely--I sat at the restaurant table and taught her basic meditation breathing and the idea of fresh start. I recommended books. Now someone is suggesting I help establish a Buddhist center for spiritual healing through Bodhicitta, Medicine Buddha and mind training skills. And I may do it because I see how many souls struggle and suffer when their humanity surfaces.
I have never considered puttering as sputtering, wasting time and "doing nothing." Cleaning my room and my clothes, moving plants around my garden, creating something edible from disparate ingredients in my fridge or discovering a dozen ways to deploy a can of chickpeas, doing crossword puzzles, watching the seabirds stalking the shore or dark clouds commandeering the sky have all been fitness training, cathartic ways of sharpening my perceptions, clearing my mind and honing my humanity. Last week someone shared on Facebook the idea that although we are living in an age of infinite information, we get no wisdom. I think that's because we're too focused on getting ahead instead of getting a head. People need to stop being afraid of life and just putter around in it.
My beloved Rinpoche seems to spend most of his teaching time harping on the same simple point: now is the time to take up the Dharma as fiercely as you can. Don't wait; don't get distracted; don't make excuses. Just pass Go ASAP. Suffering will get you if you don't watch out.
I flew to Vancouver for 48 hours to hear him teach a newly found pith instruction he boiled down to the same message. I reasoned, as I always do when he does this, Rinpoche couldn't get to the meat of the matter because he was speaking to a vast assemblage of ordinary people who dropped in for the weekend, not long term yogis privy to the secret esoteric practice instructions passed down through generations. What could an old man facing what could be his final public words say, but: Please please practice.
Of course Miss Piggy wanted the heady stuff. I'm not a long term yogi, but I've been studying for 30 years and I flew a long way to learn something new. Disappointment made me fidget in my seat and tune out. I know. I know, my mind railed. I've heard it 100 times: meditate, be kind, avoid negative thoughts and activity. You have this precious human life so hard to obtain: use it or lose it. I'm sick of hearing about how amazing it is to be in a human body--especially when mine is falling apart.
Yes, you get old and start losing your parts: the eyesight, the hearing, the knees and hips, the eyebrows (never the hair on your legs of course) and tiny waist. You end up wondering why all the fuss about this human body that's got expiration dates all over it. This is the age of sustainable. It's so not. In fact, I've started to think of the diminishing form as the Buddha's dirty trick to finally make me realize the only thing that doesn't disintegrate or even grow old is the mind (notice how you always feel the same young in your thoughts?), so get on it now.
Still, gurus always remind us our mind is housed in our body, temporarily. Like a rental car we eventually return, it's a vehicle for getting around. The body is also sort of a gym in which the mind can strengthen through fitness training. Or warp. In other words, a mind needs a body. Some body.
A precious human body being nearly impossible for the mind to obtain is the first of four thoughts supposed to turn the mind to practicing Dharma. A student hears it early and often. It's sort of a scare tactic. The BOO! subtext is how the odds of being born, the mind's being reborn, in a human body --and one that's got all its faculties working to boot--are the same as those of a turtle popping its head up in the Pacific Ocean into a floating brass ring. The Universe's A list of somebodies is that short.
Humans make the list as the only beings with minds sharp enough to cut through the daze/days to the causes and understanding of how to eradicate suffering. We are the only creatures motivated by abstract ideas. Each of us is the agent of change we can believe in because we can believe in change. Since only humans realize it exists, only humans can effect it. We alone can free ourselves from the endless woes of the world. So hurry while you're in a human body.
I thought myself pretty inured to this same old, same old motivation coach line and left Vancouver grumpy about not learning anything super new. So I feel obliged to confess it's been a surprise--or maybe Rinpoche's deliberate trick-- how activities since have ratcheted my usual precious human life ho hum up to Holy Cow!
A long hot summer has revealed beyond question the pathetic minority we human beings are. For one thing, I've been dealing with huge colonies of harmless black ants crawling everywhere, huger colonies of red ants digging up the sand under my brick walkway, spraying telltale flyers from swarming colonies of carpenter ants that would like to eat my house for lunch. And those damned fruit flies that mysteriously show up on the kitchen cabinets, those unswattable little buggers.
More annoying, I'm scratching the skin off my arms and torso where the toxic hairs of the hundreds of brown tail moth caterpillars crawling around the oak trees caused itchy rashes. These are not the four dozen tent caterpillars that built a huge cocoon in my sand cherry tree, causing me to saw off its largest limb. Then there are the earthworms I inadvertently disturb and damage trying to help a plant. And Buddha only knows how many white aphids are now munching on my drought stricken perennials, how many new almost invisible spider webs are being spun to catch them.
I joke that the way Tibetans give corpses to wild animals and birds to eat as a way of compensating for the animals they ate, I've given my live body to tiny creatures. I've gone through two tubes of 1% cortisone cream to stop the itching not just of brown tail moth caterpillars but mosquito bites, bigger black fly bites and the endless nips of "no see'ums", aka gnats, at night. The final insult was when I attempted to break up a huge seaweed clog on the ropes securing my dock and emerged from the salt water literally covered by hundreds of tiny tan wiggling worms that stung.
I don't want to know about the microscopic dust mites that live in the dust I pay dearly every two weeks to eradicate because they've eaten flesh off my face and triggered asthma. I don't count the bees buzzing around the purple lavender bushes and flamboyant red flower stalks of a Persian plant. I've lost count of the disgustingly voracious army of Japanese beetles trying to devour it, the dune roses and the sand cherry tree. My garden is under siege, and me as an army of one is fighting a battle against hundreds of these little shiny savages. At least six dozen lie dead in the four day old trap, another two dozen in the jar of soapy water left out as a warning, yet every afternoon they keep coming like waves of a tsunami.
One groundhog who's eaten a quarter of my perennials, half my annuals and all my black raspberries. Two chipmunks hungry for my blueberries. A family of dreaded red squirrels, a fat gray squirrel always scurrying. A woodpecker whose sound echoes, a bald eagle mom and its baby learning how to circle, 18 Canada geese all in a row swimming by, a pair of ducks with three ducklings paddling behind, three great blue herons hanging around the shore at low tide alternating with a half dozen snowy egrets so regal on spindly black legs, a flock of terns diving for the huge schools of small silvery "bait" fish carried by the fast moving tide, the continual splash of bass breaking the water. I hear the haunting cry of an owl from time to time, just heard the raucous squawks a crow mob and watched five seagulls fighting over a clam dug up by one. Clams and blood worms under the salt water mud, snails and mussels in the seaweed, crabs and lobsters crawling along the bottom, green flies skimming the surface...
Amid all this body options, I ended up an A lister with access, the elite with an In. And you did too. In this world of infinite critters and pests and living bacteria, we got the precious, hard-won human body. And look at me wasting it to death, sitting around sipping coffee, checking email, soaking up the sun, running off to hot spots and worrying about its hair, even though I've been warned at least 100 times I could lose this opportunity next time around. Look how many disgusting creatures I could turn out to be.
The swarms of summer radicalized me. So I am sharing the news. Somehow somewhere in the past I --and you--did enough things good and right to not be a Japanese beetle (hedge fund managers only), sand worm, mosquito (insurance executives exclusive), aphid, carpenter ant or gnat. Whatever made us win the karma lottery, I--and you--better be doing it from now on so next time around we win again and get another human body--maybe even in a more elite situation. A body with all its working parts, that's "precious" because it's the only vehicle driving to immortality with no suffering. Now really is the time to think ahead and be kind, avoid negative thoughts and harmful actions. Now may be the only time left to focus on the Dharma and liberate ourselves forever from pain, distress, decrepitude and death. Life in the body we've got may not be the greatest, but it's going to be a helluva lot more horrid to be a cockroach, termite, leech or vole.
Just before Independence Day, I saw headlines about medical scientists close enough to curing cancer, people were no longer going to die. Also gididier headlines that other scientists, blessed with Botox and ice, are close to extending human life spans to 150 years. By the end of this 21st Century, people will get closer to being eternal. A century later we should all be death-proof.
Like most grandiose schemes of grandeur, kissing mortality goodby does not seem to have been thought through. I have yet to read how some mad scientist is working on the critical shelf life issue, changing the expiration date of ears, eyes, knees, hips and heart valves. I know the young disrupters and innovators and starter uppers don't want to hear from the worldly wise and experienced, but I feel it necessary to point this out because here I am less than half of that 150, and already two of those five have worn out. Contemporaries have plastic hips and knees. Organ by organ we are trading hardware for soft ware, turning into plastic. I no longer need the Buddha to tell me impermanence is a bitch. It is a weapon of mass destruction, but we are not going to win a war that abolishes it.
And why should we? Let's suppose folks two hundred years ago found a way to surpass death
and make themselves permanent. Makes themselves the chosen. We would not be here now. Nobody would've
made way for the new, the fresh, the flexible. Nothing but stagnation
That's why these efforts feel as reckless as Brexit. Resentful of their lot in life--in this case a four score and ten year expiration date shared with others, people want out. They're angry at limitation, angry at loss of control over their own lives. So badly do they want what they want that as with Brexit, they haven't bothered to consider the hard realities and consequences.This quest reeks of animosity toward the forward pressing hordes of younger, stronger folks with all their hipbones, taut skin and not-fading smarts. As i said, impermanence is a howler.
A few weeks ago, or so I read, the octogenarian actress Vanessa Redgrave told an interviewer she was not afraid to die. In fact, she was looking forward to it. "Living is very hard," she said. "It will be easy to give up." A non-Buddhist has nailed it. Living is actually so hard, we should be glad to give it up. Let somebody else deal with it. Not even a life of vast privilege and vaster talent that brought more of it liberated Vanessa Redgrave from human suffering. Her adult daughter died abruptly in a skiing accident; her younger sister died of cancer; she went through divorce and probably sorrows and sicknesses her publicist did not let us know about. She's a reminder nobody escapes the inevitable suffering the Buddha pointed out 2600 years ago: being born into this erratic world, bodily sickness, the painful deteriorations of old age and death with its paralyzing fears. That's just for starters. Over the long July 4th holiday weekend, I thought a lot about what Redgrave said because the weather was so heartbreakingly exquisite. The sky was spotless blue, breezes fluttered, flowers bloomed, and the sea was warm enough to swim in. Perfection was right here with fireworks. And right beside it in full bloom with its own fireworks was Samsara, a tidal wave of sadness flowing from phone calls, emails, kaffeeklatch and texts.
On July 2 for no apparent reason any medical examiner can find, a 16-month-old two houses from mine abruptly died. The young parents are inconsolable and the 5-year-old does not know what to do. On July 1, an 85-year-old woman who lives alone and has no close family was told to report at 6 AM to the hospital for invasive testing that could provoke immediate heart surgery. The woman is terrified.
A normally doting grandmother confided the daughter-in-law divorced from her son had been cited by Child Protective Services for beating up the 14-year-old daughter my friend so loves because this mother is incapable of managing anger. What to do? Another upper middle class grandmother who is the pillar of privilege is trying to reach the much younger children her morbidly angry and weird son beat up. Finally the mother walked, taking the kids with her. Another grandmother hinted how physically painful it has become to keep and keep up with her overactive six-year-old grandson for a month while his single mother tries to sort her life out.
Cancer has returned to the body of the woman next door and the doctor says this time it's terminal. Meanwhile the chemo is killing her; some days she can't breathe. On July 1, I worked with three 7-year-olds. When i asked the sweet boy if he'd go to the office to ask for a photocopy, he stepped back, looked pained and whispered: "I can't. I'm shy." When I caught the more brazenly assertive and plumper of the two girls secretly stuffing herself with sugar, butter and whipped cream, her look defied me the way it did when she threw a plastic knife past my head toward the sink.
On July 4, I finally reached an old friend mourning for her 50-year life partner who passed in late May after a short, bloody battle with an exotic cancer. They had no children, just each other 24/7 all those years and suddenly she's all alone. I checked in with another friend who lost her 48-year life and business partner--same story, no children, together 24/7--two months ago and was struggling to establish her own life. Still no new job for a childhood friend who at 72 can't quit because she has no inner life and needs something to do, something to fill her time between grandchildren visits. I had a long phone conversation with another childhood friend in Manhattan who since she was forced to retire from her lawyer job has been a mess trying to figure out who she is and what she should do without a title and office. She has money, privilege, a husband, regular Botox injections in her face and a nice perch in midtown but she's bored, sad and scared.
Before the weekend, I had lunch with a young Sherpa woman graduated from community college in the US and totally on her own here, very unhappy that in the name of "efficiency" she doesn't get regular hours or a set number of hours per week at her paying job that pays erratically. After the weekend I had a long phone call from a friend in southern California, frustrated that he'd just lost 1/4 of his annual income because a competitor underhandedly underbid him on a big job, deliberately taking a loss to knife my friend. "Foul play," he grouched.
My French sister wrote that she couldn't go up to Paris for a weekend to enjoy the free concert tickets I offered her because she had to take care of senile parents and grumpy husband. A young friend working as a journalist in Europe was in tears after visiting a Syrian refugee camp, seeing how inhumane everything was.
A Dharma brother forwarded an email about the Chinese invading Sera Monastery inside Tibet and removing the nuns and monks trying to practice there. An elderly Buddhist nun of Swiss origin wrote from her retreat in Nepal that the monsoon and the monastery were hell on her body. Also her visa was about to expire so she was forced to leave the country without a clear place to go. And I got a call from my six-year-old "granddaughter" saying she missed me so much and when was I coming back. I tried to invite her mother to bring her across the country for a week--a week the mother was searching for something to occupy the child--but the mother already had her own life too programmed. What to say? "I miss you too."
Not even on a physically perfect Independence Day could I be liberated from human suffering. And these people want us to live to be 150?!?
Author of How To Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market, new edition published May 2011; and Veggiyana: the Dharma of Cooking, published September 2011 by Wisdom Publications. Founder and president of Veggiyana, a charitable effort to feed Buddhist monastics and schoolchildren in India, Nepal and Tibet. On Facebook as Prima Dharma Cook.
This is a blog of essays from the Buddhist perspective of Sandy Garson.
Visit my web site Yours In The Dharma, where I try to make sense of the bewilderment in daily life. I meditate aloud on how the teachings of my guru Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the golden rosary of his Tibetan Kagyu lineage and the Buddha himself come alive in the headlines and heartaches to rescue us all from suffering.