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.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Dealing with disappointment
Out of the blue this morning, I got a surprising and very unexpected overseas call from a lama I bonded with fourteen years ago. At the time he was one among hundreds of shy and slight monks, the one who hopped into the monastery pickup and patiently drove me all over Kathmandu the first time I raised money to buy food for the then 300 undernourished children in my teacher's school. As I lectured him about buying only iodized salt and bargaining for best price instead of playing patsy to delight Indian merchants, he listened intently and nodded, unperturbed. He even chivalrously unloaded the 50 kilo sacks of dhal and grains, at which point we parted.
When I recounted the event at dinner, I was startled to learn the modest mountain monk was one of Rinpoche's major players. He got to the top of a very large crop by being astonishingly smart, amazingly competent and so alert nothing escaped him. He was between tasks: being the builder and first headmaster of Rinpoche's school and becoming the master who was to get the enormous monastery in India built. Spotting his prowess, Rinpoche early on appointed him his personal attendant, then basically made him that for his entire organization. He seemed to be as irreplaceable as Rinpoche.
The monk was so unassuming, shy and so busy taking care of Rinpoche's growing collection of monasteries and ceremonies, few Westerners knew who he was. So when the India monastery was completed and Rinpoche rewarded him with entry into the three-year retreat to become a veritable lama, I sponsored him. I wanted him to have no worries for once. When to great fanfare he emerged and was put in training to take over running Rinpoche's now vast international organization as its COO, I sent shoes along with money to support him. Like all monks and lamas, Tenzin Dorje got his name from Rinpoche. It means "indestructible holder of the Dharma or Buddha's teaching." He certainly seemed to be that to the core, born for the job in a secret sacred high Himalayan valley. So two years ago when another of Rinpoche's major lamas came to visit me, I asked about Tenzin Dorje and was shocked to hear: "He's gone. Broke his vows. Somewhere in Germany."
That was followed by silence. And more silence. No matter who I asked that year, I got the same terse reply. "He's gone. There's nothing more to say." Nobody would fill the blanks except to re-iterate icily that he broke his vows, he asked for forgiveness and Rinpoche said there could be none. He had to disrobe.
I resented the chilly responses even though I suspected the monks were purveying a crucial lesson: life just keeps on chugging even when passengers get or are thrown off the train. Like it or not, everything keeps moving on down the line. That is one thing still out of our control. Dragging lots of attachments to what's past is dangerous; it impedes the flexibility to not get stuck and hit by the next thing coming. Tenzin Dorje happened to be only one of the monks I worked with or supported in some way. I've also contributed mightily to the entire ordained sangha by improving all their lives with better food and the on-site orchards and gardens to supply it. Last spring I gave my health working 16 hours a day at one of the monasteries to serve its head lama and Rinpoche. Since then I've been unable to contribute much, hobbled by financial failing and major health problems. Since everybody knew I was in distress, I've been surprised by the silence: not one call, note or email.
Before Tenzin Dorje phoned, I was struggling with the disappointment of not being appreciated. Tenzin Dorje, I told myself, always found a way to send me a thank you note, no matter how long it took. I didn't like discovering when you give your all, the lamas are all over you but when you're sidelined, they just move on like you don't exist. It's all just NOW. The Dharma seemed no different from politics or business in sending the unsettling message that you are so not special. You won't be missed. As Charles deGaulle so haughtily sniped: "The cemetery is full of irreplaceable people."
Of course with the lamas and monks it's all about the survival of the institution, not the individual. I wrestled with the realization that it's Dharma first and foremost the monks work for and protect, so that's got to be a fierce focus. Especially all eyes on our frail 80-year-old Rinpoche who is supposed to be the physical embodiment of it. But still, I wondered where the appreciation went. How can out of sight out of mind behavior possibly be construed as compassion? What about basic decency when someone is down?
This led of course to the biggest Dharma question, so common I think we've all asked it in some circumstance or other. How do you hold steady when Dharma people knock you for a loop? It's easy to shrug at atrocious behavior coming from Washington DC, Islam or China because Samsara is not the precinct of perfection. But when uninspiring, unfriendly behavior flows from the maroon-covered heart of your sangha, it slams your faith and dents your exertion-- the Buddhist version of enthusiasm.
I know the answer to the question and know that is the hardest of all practices: separate the Dharma from the people. As Rinpoche says: People are human so even Rinpoches are going to have faults. He especially liked to tell us how bothered he could be by Kalu Rinpoche's incredibly long and very dirty fingernails. But, he'd say, "if I just focused on that, I'd have missed the Dharma he was teaching. What's pure, what stays pure, is Dharma. You should ignore human failing and focus only on the truth in the teachings." That's what I was struggling to do when Tenzin Dorje phoned out of the blue. He spoke English far better than I remembered him doing in Kathmandu. "Emaho!" I shouted, when I realized who he was and that he gone to great trouble to find me. "I have a daughter," he said. "She is two years old now. She is Nepali. I am in Germany working and sending money to my wife...the way you sent to me. I am so happy to have your number. I will call again soon." "Yes, yes," I said, realizing nothing did escape Tenzin Dorje, indestructible protector of the teachings. His was a Dharma wake up call that opened my eyes. Whatever past giving I volunteered mattered only in making merit for me, and that merit was now being confirmed, being appreciated through the blessing of this monk's reaching out. Despite his exile and ordeal, Tenzin Dorje had not forgotten. The Dharma's was working. "You are a lama," I said before he could hang up, "so yes, please call again. We need to talk."
My energetic, enterprising Tibetan heart daughter Tashi has been working for several years to fulfill the Dalai Lama's aspiration to save the story of Tibet, not just for its generations condemned to exile, but for all of us who can learn from history. Through Voices of Tibet, she's been instrumental in recording by video and audio the truly heroic tales of those who, when the malignant Chinese so viciously overran it, fled their homeland for strange new worlds. Tonight, she's having a small fundraiser in Manhattan to move the recording forward. The great escape took place in 1959 so the survivors are quite aged now, which means time is critical. Also the survivors are widely dispersed from the top to the bottom of India, all over Nepal and Bhutan, Europe and the United States. And she needs to find all those who have a vital message for tomorrow. Since this evening's agenda includes a preview of the filming in progress, Tashi asked me for a title, something she might introduce it with, something that might explain the real meaning behind "Voices of Tibet." What I came up with is: "The Happiness of Sorrow." It seems to express that particular and perhaps peculiar perspective thousands Tibetans forced to burst their high altitude cocoon carried as they spilled down to Earth. I know I've talked about this before, but it can't be said enough. The relentlessly monstrous genocide in Tibet has been an ongoing unspeakable horror we can't much speak about because... well... um... the Chinese perpetrators have money and you know how grovelly we Americans get around people who can pay. But let's speak up because the Tibetans have a valuable message for us. The wanton extermination of their country, their culture and three million of their people has been a gargantuan, endless sorrow for them, yet the rest of us are the happy beneficiaries of their tragedy. While they have lost everything, we have gained Dharma and momos and the wisdom of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on TV and Twitter. For us, Tibet's Chinese cataclysm ended happily ever after. And they're okay with that. What defines Tibetans more than even their odd language and unique clothing, as all those early 20th Century travelers quickly noticed, is their great good and imperturbable humor, which shines even in darkest hours. They are true believers who believe a happening happens to be part of a never-ending story that like a river flows, tumbles and bends, shallows and gushes from one phase to another, bad turning good, good going bad. All there is is the flip side, endless change. It isn't over. Ever. So terror becomes joy, joy devolves into the pain of losing it, and not getting what you want turns out to be the happily ever after. We never know. All we know is that if we wait a minute, everything is bound to change because now is no longer. It's gone before you know it. The guy who left, the job you lost, the deal that fell through all set you up for something probably more appropriate, i.e. better. Most Tibetans now in exile are not unhappy. They're hard workers and good sports who've mostly acquired material comforts, medical care and financial security unimaginable in their homeland. With access to heat and hot water they've cleaned up from the legendary filth of their high altitude Himalayan aeries, and reveal themselves to be the handsomest people. And the heartiest in every way. With help, they've even managed to transplant their precious religious institutions to safer places in the world, to save their handsome, heartfelt truths not just for themselves but for us. They can see by the way we don't laugh at life that we need what they know. So tonight some of the elders will show up on video tape talking about their lives in Tibet as best as they can remember more than 50 years ago, and their lives in diaspora now. While the transition has never been particularly easy, the smiles on their creased and weathered faces say louder than they do that a sunny ray of happiness shines through even the most overwhelming sorrow. www.voicesoftibet.org if you are interested. I am on its Board of Directors.
Only Massachusetts celebrates what it calls Patriots' Day. Yes, Maine does too but Maine was forced into it because for longer than it's been a state, it was a province within the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Nobody else cares to celebrate the shot heard round the world.
When I lived in Maine we used to equate Patriots Day with our native son Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and go around reciting the famous lines of his famously patriotic poem.
"Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere."
That was the best we could do on an annoying day the mail wasn't delivered and banks were closed just for us.
From now on though, I think Patriots' Day will be famously remembered for the midday run of a marathon revered. People will say: "Listen my children and do not fear.
The shock heard round the world from here."
And they won't be annoyed now that we all know what patriots really do.
As the writer Dennis Lehane said the morning after in The New York Times and President Obama said at the memorial service two days later, the cowards picked on the wrong place at the wrong time. The bullies blasted the wrong people. Boston has stood its ground for almost 500 years; its roots are extremely strong and deep. It's still standing because it stands for something.
I've been spending time in Boston for over 40 years, yet I never stop being terrified of its traffic and horrified by its lack of signs-- someone once said that's because you're supposed to learn the traffic pattern at Harvard or MIT. I've suffered the frustrations of its blizzards, blight and Big Dig. But I love that city with all my heart and all my terrifying frustrations because with its masterful hospitals, magnificent universities and museums, elegant parkways and rivers, harbor, food and music, it's no place else in the world.
So those dastardly cowards with sludge clogged minds who tried to blow it to smithereens made me cry. But watching Boston run made me feel brighter right away. That town really does have the beans.
Boston was America's first major feat of civil engineering. A river runs through it, a harbor laps and the elegant Back Bay is landfill between all that and the fens, a fen being a lowland marsh frequently flooded and not really a ballpark. Being New Englanders thrifty and self-reliant, Bostonians aren't going to let all that effort to build a sturdy city ever go to waste.
Boston is America's bastion of brains--when winding along Storrow Drive, I always think I feel the heat of them cooking in all those universities. And it's a bastion of brawn: the Irish who gave the town the name of its legendary basketball team, Celtics. Its unique unity of town and gown was immortalized by the late Robert Parker as the stomping ground of his witty gritty detective Spencer who has a PhD Jewish girlfriend and black stud hitman. Its unique unity was immortalized on TV as Cheers.
The Boston marathon is one of the world's
oldest sporting events, one of its most universally beloved (there seemed to be an astonishing 1,000 runners for every mile of its course)
and probably its most gentlemanly and understated, right along with its autumn sibling, the Head of the Charles regatta. Let us not forget the elegant rowing marathon too.
This year Mother Nature gave the river of runners a spring
break with coatless temperatures and sunshine. It was a perfect day. So when joy and ice
cream and kids and prowess were suddenly upended by the greatest blow on
earth, the thousands who were still running for the finish line when somebody messed with the goal did not turn back. They knew what the goal was now.
The greatest medical centers in the universe processed all that carnage without a hiccup. The Italian mayor, Irish police chief and black governor (the state house is in the city) were prompt with the public, poised and dignified. There were no antics or grandstanding or gaffes like telling people to go shopping. There was just a focused marathon effort to staunch the blood and seek the suspects. Boston showed the world it has more than classes. Unlike any other American city, it has class.
Besides the marathon and regatta, besides its Patriots and pubs, hospitals and schools, harbor and traffic, beans, tea and symphony, Boston is known around the world for its instantly recognizable accent. You know, the missing "r" in the silly: "pahked my cah in Hahvahd yahd." So in the local dialect, terror becomes "terra" and horror "hahrah." And there you have the Boston Marathon on Patriots' Day: hurrah terra! It gored the bull of terror determined to gory it. I say: olé!
It's getting so rough out here on the ocean of Samsara, I am having the Dickens of a time trying to hold on. Just when I think nothing could get worse than drowning in our killer wave of political and financial skullduggery, or being held hostage by the endless army of Armani-suited pirates brandishing lethal agitprop, the kiss of death comes to my nuclear strength moisture cream. I know the Buddha warned that everything changes but what a revoltin' development this is.
Trust me. I lack the fish-like scales to pass for a mermaid because that cream's claim to be "dry skin therapy" is actually true. Neither cracks nor blotches or scales have erupted on my sandpaper legs since someone handed me a bottle saying: "Try this. I swear by it." Since I don't scratch my hand when it pulls up my leggings, I swear by it too. That's why I freakedwhen I discovered the cream just wasn't going to be that--and I mean this literally-- into me any more. I knew the relationship was over the second I saw those three little cruel, heartbreaking words placed like ta-da! on my new plastic bottle: New and Improved!
Of course when life serves you graying hair, a thickening waist and drying skin as "new", it serves them with a side of experience. That, I suppose, is what's "improved", because I've now seen enough of those three little words to know exactly what they mean.
"New" means the company that controls the cream. Some huge, rapacious numbers crunching corporation or equity monster has chewed up the little diligent company that created it. The gobble gobble of companies ravenous for "sustainability" requires them to kill off all competition and have the products to themselves. That's why the quality of the product becomes beside the point. Without competition they can throw it aside. They bought a name. What made the name is so...so... yesterday. What's actually "improved" is the new owner's bank account and executive pay. The big conglomerate gives the winning highclass formula to its hackers to copy with cheaper chemicals it can sell for the same price. You know, snake oil in a truffle oil bottle.
In the 80s the real coconut in the original Body Shop moisturizing shampoo was replaced along with the do-gooding company founder (the sales claim being there just wasn't enough coconut to source, ha ha ha ha ha) and in the 90s the real honey shampoo that kept my dry hair silky went bye bye too. "They're coming out with an improved version," the salesgirl said with a big smile. Well, I new and improved that by shopping elsewhere happily ever after.
When Ross Perot warned against that giant sucking sound of collapse, he could've been talking about the gargantuan feat-seeking maw of the cosmetics industry. All those cute make-up artists with funky products that glam and glow your face have been sucked into the corporate creativity vacuum, neatly reducing the field to just two mega-companies whose factories churn out the same product--profitably packaged and magically marketed as dozens of different brands! "New and improved" of course with shiny new names that make watermelon slush lipstick "ice pink fire." I've taken to foiling the greedy bastards by buying relatively cheap drugstore products that actually are the same as those mega-marketed department store brands and don't bring in enough profit to tinker with.
Frankly, what with the daily, endless barrage of "app" and software
updates that assault my computer and phone, keeping up with what's new has become a
tiresome challenge. It's not just Microsoft
anymore. Even Apple is regularly issuing critical--stop now and
install!-- "new and improved" operating.
If it were just my skin cream and lipstick and non-glitched version of iPhoto that got kissed good-bye, maybe I wouldn't be ranting like this. But as I said, it's gotten rough out here: somebody's messing with my lifeboat. The leaders of my beloved weekly Dharma class have started surfing the "new and improved" wave too. This is really cause for revolting. For 2,500 years Dharma has worked even better than my lubricating cream to eliminate the chafing, blotches and crack-ups of life, but they just gave it the kiss of death.
Since the Buddha's teachings made their way out of India, they have had to adapt themselves to every culture they migrated to in order to survive. We have self-effacing Theravada traditions in Thailand and Burma, stupendous vegetarian cooking in Chinese monasteries and warrior touches like Kyoto and whips in Japan's Zen.
Much discussion of how Buddhism would adapt to the West has churned since it crossed the Pacific some 50 years ago as geeks bearing the gift of tofu. Unfortunately the major manifestation of all that spin on the American way, the big hint we now have how Buddhism will look in the decades to come, is the American way itself: flashy marketing spiels. Magazines, websites and brand names have spun Buddhism into "happiness", "mindfulness", "well-being", "five minutes to a calmer you!"
A year ago here in northern California, one of my teacher's smartest lamas was asked by a group of seriously stressed young techies what might help them remember to find time to meditate. To my surprise, he simply said: "Think of the benefits." "Why did you say that?" I rushed to ask as soon as they left. "Rinpoche always always always answers that question with "the four thoughts that turn the mind: odds-beating chance of a human birth, impermanence and death, karma and the frustrations of Samsara." "Yes," he said, smiling. "I know. But I now know Americans. These people didn't want to hear anything difficult. Only happy things. They want only happy." And nothing makes us more happy than talking about ourselves. Even in Dharma which is supposed to train you in selflessness. So what the Dharma class has now become is a consciousness-raising circle where everyone is all touchy feely about how ten minutes of meditation was for them. We no longer hear the precious, glorious advice of the great masters and get to chew on it to make it more digestible. We get only personal reports of how's it workin' out for ya. "It's boring," another person who left confided.
It's wrong, the late brilliant Traleg Rinpoche warned, to conflate Buddhism with psychotherapy the way Americans tend to do these days. When I got home I looked at that plastic moisturizer bottle, I realized that's why and how the Mother of all moisturizers, the ocean of Samsara, was being purveyed as "new and improved" too. What a really revoltin' development this is.
I was getting ready to talk about the big bad uh-oh when out of the blue my young Spanish friend not named Serena called. How did she know I was thinking about her, thinking to call her shortly. "Let's meet," I said. "Where are you?"
"Los Angeles," she said. And then I knew this call was going to be long and juicy. It was going to be about the good uh-oh. Serena is a slow cooker who mulls and frets, considers and reconsiders, stews, stirs and constantly changes her mind in a quest for perfection. And she'd been hit by the rapid fire of love.
"I've always thought I'd be with someone very intellectual," she said, "someone committed to the mind and meditation."
"Yes, that would be great. I'm for intellectual myself. But...well...you always thought, didn't you, that you couldn't make proper paella without every ingredient being the traditional Spanish one you're used to. Remember when you came to my house and made yourself crazy because the clams weren't the ones you had back home, the chorizo was so different and Maine lobster wasn't your Spanish crayfish. You were a mess but you rose up and got over it to work with what you had and everybody lapped that paella up as the most fabulous they'd ever eaten. Do you remember that?"
"Anyway, you've done enough meditation to know what you think isn't worth the paper it's not printed on. Thoughts come and go continually, changing and reconfiguring so rapidly they don't stay long enough to matter. Life is not about what we think because what we think only distorts it."
Silence on the other end.
"So," I said, "intellectual is just something you thought up, something that has no relation to what's happening. Besides it's just a detail. Details you can improvise with, like lobster instead of crayfish. Life is improvisation, Serena, where we adjust the details. At least they're not fixed facts you can't do much about, like no clams or chorizo."
"Yes, I hear you but..."
"But from what you told me last week, the fixed facts are pretty perfect: he comes from your country, speaks your dialect, grew up in the same family business you did, works in the field you want and is offering you a business partnership in it to boot. Plus, you said he's taller than you. (Serena is over 5'10", the long legged beanpole all women's pants are now so frustratingly designed for so that I, who am only 5' 4", can't find clothes that fit.) Maybe he'll get intellectual later. That can change."
"Yes," she stammered, "okay but...but this is so fast. He wants me to stay here with him and go into his new business. It's so fast..."
"Not really," I said
"What do you mean?"
"Serena, you've been waiting for this at least the five years I've known you." She giggled. "Look at it carefully. You desperately wanted to quit your job but you couldn't until your immigration papers were reclassified. After costly lurches, you finally made that happen a year ago. The Green Card freed you to quit your job, but you held on, didn't you?, because you couldn't decide what to do. Remember how many times we ran around looking for places for you to start a business and every time you changed your mind because it didn't feel right. It now seems to me, something was keeping you free for something else you didn't know about. That's why you couldn't decide.
"But finally you did decide to quit that dark cubicle. You took off to the Far East and came back home to work with your family at Christmas. Then you came back here: a clean slate. You told me what you had in mind was to cook and live at a meditation center. But from what you've been telling me, that isn't working out. You've got no offers. so it seems to me the blessing deities are keeping you from committing to the wrong thing.The universe wants you, like all the rest of us, to be a winner and it set you up like this. Can you see that?"
"Yes...well..." giggle, giggle, "but it's so fast and he's so sure... "
"Hey, how many times do you have to buy a melon to know how to pick a ripe and juicy one? The first couple times you learn how to squeeze and smell, don't you?"
"And after a bunch of bad dates and frustrating relationships, you know quicker and quicker what's going to work or not, don't you? Your instincts get on top of things. And I don't hear you hesitating about this guy. You tell me he's handsome, he's sweet, he's kind and clever and he's getting famous in the field so he has a good future. You tell me he wants to work hard for a few years to afford time with kids and that's what you want too.
"I think what scares you is you think he's impatient. That's what you keep telling me. I think he's impatient because he's not young any more either and he realized right away you are the one for him. So he's pushing you to admit the same so you two can get going.
"Serena, what are you so afraid of? The universe handed you a huge gift and you don't want to open the box because it seems too good to be true? You've worked hard for this joy. You've earned it all those years in that dark cubicle and all those mornings after the guy told you you were too good for him and left. This guy thinks you are good for him! He doesn't want to leave."
"Yes, but he wants me to stay here and get started and I always wanted to have my own business in San Francisco. It's all..."
"Listen to an old lady, okay? Your wanting to start your own business here is like that pointless yearning for a guy who is intellectual. The universe doesn't care what you think you want. It's got a bigger perspective about what you need. You have no business here right now, do you? You could never make up your mind what to do and where, could you? There was a reason for that. And now you know what it is. And you know if suddenly you decide to start anyway, you will be stuck here for several years, effectively cancelling the opportunity to enjoy this relationship. Why would you do that? Especially when he just offered you a chance to start there with his backing?"
"Yes, yes, I see that but it's all tied up with him."
"Yes, but what are you afraid of? You told me you trust him, you have chemistry with him, you like spending time with him because you like the way he is. How else can anyone describe love?
"But I get it. So here's my big question, the big question you have to answer: if you stay in LA with this man, what exactly do you have to lose? What do you forever lose? Do you lose your friends? No. Do you lose a chance to start your own business at last? No, you've just got more credentials for it. Do you lose living in San Francisco? No because you can hold onto your apartment by subletting it for 6 months. That can be your security anchor if you feel you're drifting from the familiar. You need to know if you jump in, what exactly you will never have again. That's always what stops and scares us from plunging into the unknown. What will you have to give up forever?"
"Nothing," she said. "You're right. I can even keep my place. ...I knew you would help me figure this out."
This is not about anything that happened since my last post. I just wanted to share this piece I wrote a while ago about diet and Dharma and my experience in Mongolia.
of the blue in the spring of 2012, I got an SOS from Mongolia. The Foundation
for the Preservation of the Mahayana (FPMT), an international Tibetan Buddhist
group affiliated with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, was seeking someone who knew the
kitchen as well as the Buddha’s Dharma, someone who could come asap to Ulan
Baator to teach vegetarian cooking and re-invigorate its Stupa Café. “Mongolian food habits are
very difficult to change,” the email said. “They basically eat meat (sheep
meat) three times a day, and dairy products, obviously. But in the capital city
they are willing to change and experiment… .”
urgency to revive the cafe was part of an urgency to restore Buddhism to
Mongolia as the country re-asserted itself after a brutal Stalinist
occupation.For 70 years, the
Russians had done their best to obliterate every trace of what had been the country’s
official religion, and in the rush to fill the vacuum created by their
departure, Buddhists were being ruthlessly challenged by a surprisingly huge
and well-financed invasion of Christian evangelicals and Mormons. They couldn’t
afford to overlook any opportunity, especially major public outreach like the
Chingghis Khan airport, I was driven to the epicenter of the religious revival:
a four-story, brown brick building in the heart of downtown on a busy
thoroughfare whose impossibly long Mongolian name turned out to be Tourist
Street. It had been purchased a dozen years before, after his Holiness the
Dalai Lama tapped Lama Zopa Rinpoche and his FMPT organization to bring
Dharma back where it started in the 3rd Century BC during the reign
of Ashoka. This is to say at least 600 years before it found China, a
millennium before it spread into what we envision as Tibet. Although we don’t
think of it this way, when those famous paintings were made, the caves of Dung
Huang were Mongolian. Two of Padmasambhava’s 25 disciples were pure Mongol.
Chingghis Khan maintained a tight relationship with the Sakyas, and according
to historian Glenn Mullin, Chingghis’ grandson Kublai, unifier and ruler of
China, was so devout that Marco Polo failed to fulfill his real mission in the
East: to convert the tolerant Kublai to Catholicism and thereby subjugate him
to the Pope.
Khan’s death in 1294 and the consequent rise of the Ming dynasty vastly reduced
Mongolia’s hegemony, but not its grip on Buddhism. In the 1570s, the family
heir Altan Khan, on a throne in what is now Inner Mongolia, declared the
national religion to be Buddhism, the Tibetan Gelug Mahayana version, and
brought to his court the most renowned Gelug lama in his kingdom. Appointing Je Tamchey Khyenpa, or “The Omniscient
Master”, spiritual ruler of the country,
the Khan used the monk’s original ordination name, Lama Sonam Gyatso or Sonam Gyatso, Lama, but switched the Tibetan Buddhist Gyatso, ocean, to the ordinary Mongolian
word for that, which gave him the title: Dalai
the third heir of the Gelug teachings, Sonam Gyatso became the third Dalai
Lama. With power and money at his disposal, he built the now legendary Kumbum
Monastery at the birthplace of the Gelug sect’s venerated founder, Tsongkhapa, in
Kokonor, Amdo, Qinghai--now considered to be Tibet but then part of Mongolia.
(Kokonor and Qinghai are, according to Mullin, Mongolian words, and Amdo’s
inhabitants’ ethnicity remains heavily Mongolian.) To everyone’s surprise, his
successor, the fourth Dalai Lama, turned out to be a grandson of Altan Khan,
and the Mongol child was sent to the Kumbum to study. The fourteenth and
current Dalai Lama, a monk ordained Tenzin
Gyatso, was, as it happens, born in Amdo quite close to the Kumbum, which helps to explain why he is so determined to restore Tibetan Buddhism to the Khans' country.
newly chartered FPMT/Mongolia re-opened their building in 2002 as Ganden Do Ngag Shedrup Ling. Like much of Ulan Baator, it is
Soviet-era nondescript, yet absolutely impossible to miss or mistake. Behind
its iron bar fence, in the little paved plaza, where there could have been
three or four parked cars, there is a plump, gleaming white, 8 ft tall Tibetan
stupa. Mongolians have to pass and often circle this improbable landmark whenever
they come through the iron gate for yoga, children's Dharma, ESL, Buddhist
films, Gelug Lam Rim teachings, pujas or purchasing Dharma paraphernalia
imported from Nepal. Once they step up and enter the building, they encounter the
door to the café, whose windows overlook the stupa. Its refreshment was
supposed to attract passers-by to the center, enticing them to spend Tukrik, Mongolian currency, that could
help fund its free Dharma classes.
opened in 2005, the 16 table Stupa Café served tea with
pastries made by a Swiss volunteer, but after her departure, it
foundered as new managers tried to turn it into more of a restaurant, a
vegetarian restaurant. That was the problem. Mongolians seemed happy to have Buddhism
back—or so over 50% declared in surveys, but they weren’t happy about seemingly
new restrictions on their diet. Meat-eating is so embedded in the Mongolian
mind, before I arrived, at the FPMT/Mongolia soup kitchen eight kilometers away
in slums overrun by nomads who'd sold their herds to seek city riches, an angry
mob attacked the cooks, claiming the Buddhists were trying to kill them by not
putting meat in the soup. These beggars could afford to be choosers because the
Evangelicals down the street were quite willing to provide all the meat it took
to convert them.
educated citizens like my 37-year-old friend Narmandakh, who'd lived long
enough in LA to become an American citizen named Amanda, panicked when she
tried to abstain for the Buddhist holy week of Saga Dawa. On days 2 and 4 she called to complain she felt so weak,
she was scared. Maybe she was going to die. Maybe she should eat some lamb?
Neither the six women aged 20 to 43 who worked in the café nor its manager, a man who'd studied in East Germany, wanted
to be vegetarian, even for a meal. They were entitled to all the kitchen food
they could consume, yet once a week, they pooled their very hard earned money
to fill one of its small freezers with lamb. Everyday around 2:30, the head
cook Tuya or Eveel or the dishwasher Tsetseglen would pull some out to make everyone
a meaty lunch. The highest compliment they could give a dish I taught them--the
way I knew they really liked, say, the mushroom barley soup--was to ask if they
could add their lamb to it. Mongolians are proud to have survived thousands of
years on a treeless plain brutalized by six months of 40º below zero (that's
where Fahrenheit and Celsius intersect) as nomads who manage herds to supply all
the material, milk, meat and mobility they need. Because vegetables will not
grow in their frosty soil, and because nomads don’t farm, Mongolians long ago
cleverly mastered getting all the vitamins a human body needs from dairy
fermentation. In my Beginning Mongolian
booklet, the page on food shopping words illustrates four different kinds of
meat, milk, yogurt, butter, cooking oil, bread and flour--a perfect picture of
the Mongolian diet.But
since they were liberated from the Soviets in the early 1990s, the majority of
Mongolia’s three million inhabitants have migrated from a nomad’s ger to the
booming city, and this radical shift has begun to make the traditional fatty
diet worrisome to an increasingly sophisticated medical profession. The migration has also
provoked a spate of investor-backed greenhouses and small plot farming in the
surround, for while Mongolians have been rediscovering themselves, the world
has been discovering copper and gold under their Gobi Desert, and corporate
suits fly like locusts into Ulan Baator to devour them. In the astounding
economic boom, Mongolians have been treated to all sorts of restaurants:
French, Bukharin, Malaysian, Italian, Greek, Mexican, Indian, even American
barbeque-- restaurants all hungry for a steady supply of scallions, spinach,
even tomatoes, to please their foreign customers with salad as garnish for huge
slabs of “grass fed” Mongolian beef and lamb. Then too, the Russians left a
legacy of cabbage and potatoes.
was under an illusion Mongolia would become meatless soon. But the Buddhists at
Ganden Do Ngag Shedrup Ling knew His
Holiness the Dalai Lama had been experimenting with and encouraging vegetarian
meals to practice the Buddha’s first precept of no harm. Their aspiration was to
tap the brakes on all the slaughter the typical Mongolian diet required with a
strategy of offering an enjoyable meatless meal. Perhaps this would lead to a
second such meal and encourage a third that would make Mongolians want to try a
meatless meal at home. Every meat-free bite was a step along the path to the Buddhist
was encouraging. Dharma is maddeningly vague about meat-eating, yet it somehow reduces
consumption in every country that embraces it.Its insistence on awareness starts at the gut level with focus
on habitual patterns of personal behavior, and this makes eating habits fair
game. In fact, after years of brute asceticism led him not to enlightenment but
to death's door, the first absolute truth the Buddha recognized was: human
beings need to eat. For him the unresolved issues were: what and how? That’s
why a significant portion of the Vinaya,
his rules for monastic behavior, concern eating.
the Buddha made the cow sacred in India, the Brahmins held onto their hegemony
only by giving up steak for beans. The initial Chinese converts to his
India-based religion, coming from a culture described as eating anything that
flies but a kite and anything with four legs but a table, cleverly invented
tofu and exploited noodles. Chinese monks took their vegetarian ingredients
with their Dharma teaching to carnivorous Vietnam, Korea and Japan. In Japan,
cooking was turned into a meditation practice that yielded the exquisite Shojin Ryori and Kaiseki Ryori cooking Western restaurant critics rave about today.
Returning from zendos and ashrams with tofu, miso and lentils, Western flower
children arguably launched the lively and increasingly popular vegetarianism of
21st C America.
come closest to Mongolians in reliance on meat, and for centuries their
enormous monastery complexes included equally enormous abattoirs. Rinpoches
made excuses for eating meat, often insisting on its benefit: the human
consumer became responsible for purifying the karma of the animal consumed. But
when Tibetan monastics in exile were exposed as some of India and Nepal's
largest consumers of cow, an embarrassed Dalai Lama forbid beef at all Tibetan
monasteries. Shortly after, His Holiness Karmapa, noting India and Nepal had
plenty of nutritious alternatives unavailable in Tibet, issued a no-meat-at-all
fiat. Now the monks of the Kagyu sect dine daily on rice, vegetables and dhal. Pious
Tibetans in exile abstain from meat for the month of Saga Dawa.
key was to offer dishes that did not remind people they were not eating meat
(e.g. tofu burgers), yet dishes that nonetheless offered what meat did: strong
flavor, rich texture, and a feeling of fullness. The most vital criterion was
familiarity. Eating habits are so primal and deeply embedded, scientific
evidence—often from POWs, reveals people actually starve themselves to death to
avoid eating scary food. Instinct warns it could be poison. In all probability,
the weird Chinese seitan and soy-meat
the cafe was unimaginatively cooking had alienated its customers.
tradition offered the perfect solution. As herders, the nomads long ago became
masters of milking. Dairy products were familiar, tasty, protein rich, filling,
and abundant in the marketplace. Mongolians were avid consumers of yogurt, sour
cream, butter, creamy cheese and "urum", something sold frozen in fan-shaped
sheets that seemed to be heavy cream. In mid summer while their animals were
giving birth and nursing, they actually relied on dairy more than meat. Why not
support the remaining nomads, keep the money in Mongolia and serve dairy-based
cafe staff immediately explained why not. Shortly after Mongolia became a free
country, a beautiful, charismatic Vietnamese woman known as Supreme Master
Ching Hai appeared. Claiming to be an emanation of Quan Yin, the great mother
goddess to East Asian Buddhists, she relentlessly proselytized about purity of
spirit and diet. When she moved on, she left behind an army of awestruck
disciples, a chain of vegan restaurants, and the deeply embedded fear that a
Buddhist who ate any animal product would be punished by the furies ofhell. Too terrified of hellish karma to
serve dairy, the café staff dutifully –and listlessly--cooked up relentlessly vegan dishes like
"Goulash": cubes of soy-meat quickly stir-fried with onions and
canned tomato paste.
Café’s turnaround thus began not with a recipe but a Dharma teaching, the first
and foremostteaching that actually created
the Buddha and Buddhadharma. Prince
Siddartha was able to sit under the Bodhi tree and become Shakyamuni Buddha
only after he re-invigorated his starved, emaciated body by eating yogurt (or
arguably milky rice). Thus the Buddha was not vegan. In fact, he could not have
known what vegan means: the word and concept were coined in 1944 in England. The
Buddha lived, taught and died in 4th Century BC India, a country as dairy
dependent as Mongolia. So there was no historic precedent compelling a Buddhist
cafe in Ulan Baator to be vegan.
manager Oyunbaatar wailed, “how do we explain to our customers who believed
that Vietnamese woman?”
answer became Lesson Two. The Vietnamese got Buddhism from southern China where
dairy is not prevalent because the Han Chinese-- genetic kin to the Vietnamese--
are lactose intolerant.Unable to
find or to digest the dairy foods of their Indian masters, the initial Chinese
Buddhist monks invented tofu to look and cook exactly like paneer and yogurt.
Shortly after, in the careful process of making noodles to eat with that tofu, mindful
monks observed the wheat starch--the seed's protein or glue, i,e, gluten--
rinse off, and tried kneading it like their noodle dough into "wheat-meat."
These became the little breads named seitan
in Japan, but known in China by the words "Buddha's food."Bringing Dharma back to Mongolia gave
the café manager a choice: do it the Chinese way and pay Beijing for the
ingredients, or operate a Mongolian café. An exuberant Oyanbaatar flashed his
dimpled smile, ran a hand through his slicked hair and took off as though he
got out of jail free. Two hours later he was back by the stupa, unloading kilos
of butter, yogurt and sour cream from the trunk of his dilapidated little white
that I would spend my days choking on fumes of resentment quickly evaporated.
With the two old fridges full of the yogurt they knew, a semi circle of urum in the freezer and blocks of the
butter they loved on the stainless worktable, the women in the kitchen took to
chopping and stirring with a surprisingly joyous energy. Instead of preparing
food they didn’t understand and couldn’t stand, their work was to dispatch familiar
ingredients in new combinations, essentially conquering foreign food to make it
Mongolian. The first afternoon, the youngest staff member, the hot-blooded
20-year-old Otgo, raced through her potato peeling chores to watch me make a
batch of butter and cream scones. The next morning, when I started again so the
head cook, Eveel, could write the exact procedure in her new notebook, Otgo
threw a half-peeled potato on the stainless table, and raced over to my
counter, saying in her broken English: “I do.” And she did, almost perfectly.
This tour de force and the ebullience of the staff reminded me of
a historian’s claim that the true quest of Chingghis Khan, the greatest
conqueror, was to bring his seemingly primitive people up to speed with known
skills and goods they didn’t have. This motivation was the secret of his
unparalleled success in capturing and consolidating the world.
began to focus on testing new daily specials, Tuya, the tall, big boned back-up
cook, would in shy silence follow my requests to chop an onion, mince some
garlic. Then she’d phlegmatically saunter over to the stove, curious about what
I was doing with them, and when the moment seemed right, I handed her the
stirring spoon for a taste. It took a few seconds before she would widen her
eyes, burst into a smile, nod very enthusiastically and run for her notebook--
or just stand there puzzled. If she or the others didn’t like a dish-- frittata
turned out to be one, we never mentioned it again. A dish that dazzled the
staff--the potato gratin, eggplant parmesan or sour cream apple pie—was made
anew by them and sent to the front. If it sold out, the women would hug each
other, jump up and down, cheer, and run around like fools.
started to offer free tastes, people started to show up more regularly. Since
there was no longer a menu, daily specials were posted in two languages
(Mongolian and English) on a new whiteboard: Tibetan thukpa soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, noodle pudding. The
surprise, the tastiness or maybe just their spunky appetite for experimentation
brought Mongolians back. Earnest, khaki-clad backpackers drawn to the stupa
took such delight in finding familiar items on the whiteboard, they ordered two
or three dishes at a time: minestrone, Turkish pumpkin pancakes, and Italian arancini (deep-fried and cheese rice
balls). Buzz reached the neighborhood expats who’d abandoned the café en masse,
complaining they couldn’t even eat the spaghetti. Now that it was properly
cooked in a large pot of salted water, they slurped it up with coriander pesto
or brown butter and pine nuts. By week four, register receipts were doubling. Nandia,
who worked the front because she had the only command of English, couldn’t keep
up relaying all the compliments, telling us only when customers asked to meet
appreciation and excitement coming from the front buoyed the women in the
kitchen. Sometimes they stayed long beyond their shift, sometimes Tuya came an
hour early to check on what was happening. Twice I saw Eveel flipping through
my recipe file even though she could barely read the English. My last day,
after we re-created all the successes to be sure we’d nailed them, these heirs of Chingghis Khan took
on learning to make broccoli mushroom quiche, cream of leek soup, blackberry clafouti, peanut butter cookies and a
grand finale of double layer carrot cake with creamed cheese frosting, which
sold out in an hour.
The Stupa Cafe was now a very different enterprise. It was profitable, helping to sustain the center. Otgo was promoted to full time pastry chef with the dishwasher
Tsetseglen as backup. Eveel asked if she could keep my recipe book, even though
she couldn’t read it—yet. Nandia and Tuya got small raises. Manager Oyunbaatar got too overwhelmed to say anything. He simply refused to go home to sleep
after our last day because someone had to take me back to Chingghis Khan
airport at 3:15 AM, and he didn’t want the guard on duty to do it as routine. When
he put my suitcases on the shadowy terminal sidewalk, his eyes were filling with
tears. "It was my dream," he choked, "that this cafe would bring
the world to Mongolia and Mongolia back into the world again. Now it's actually
two months after I departed, I got a surprise email from Ulan Baator. Thank you, it said. The café continued to be a huge success. With great relief and tasty food to nourish their stomachs, the Buddhists at Ganden
Do Ngag Shedrup Ling were feeling re-energized and optimistic
about restoring Buddhism to Mongolia.
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.
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.