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

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Force Options

The other night I found myself watching people one by one fire guns at other people, the real bang bang you're dead thing. Six men and women were experiencing a police academy training program called Force Options, and I was reporting on their civilian response to simulations of situations the police get into.

The Captain of the district--for whom I was working-- decided to respond to ongoing uproar about perception of police brutality by putting the public in a cop's shoes when an SOS comes to the station or patrol car. Finding themselves suddenly face to face with a robber in an alley, an agitated linebacker of a man in a hospital emergency room, a guy who pulls a knife in a traffic stop, what would they do? The program was called Force Options. The civilians facing the simulation screen were armed with all legally available choices: handcuffs, pepper spray, baton, gun and their own voice. The room went dark, the floor to ceiling screen lit up and suddenly a bruised woman was whispering that her husband was in the basement thinking to kill himself with a gun, "don't hurt him." The room went dark, the floor to ceiling screen lit up and a recently returned Iraq war veteran babbling out of his mind on his front porch jumped down, ran forward and pulled a gun. 

Bang bang! Just about every scenario, every civilian grabbed the gun and shot. Our primal flight or fight response is that powerful. So overwhelming that when the lights came on and the simulation was rerun, the six men and women discovered their optics had narrowed to just the danger point, meaning they had missed all the scene's cues and clues. They'd heard absolutely nothing the suspects said because hearing is the first sense panic shuts down. Cold sweat kept them from calmly weighing possibilities: they just shot, bang bang. Everyone of those peaceniks came away shocked and shaken.

The next afternoon I found myself in a Dharma group where people wanted to talk about responding to difficult circumstances, about how as Buddhists we might learn to transcend them. I found myself thinking about Force Options and the way those unprepared people had deployed them the night before. In a split second epiphany, it seemed to me all of us go around, go through our daily lives invisibly armed with force options. Calls come, like they do to a patrol car, when we find ourselves trapped in circumstances set by other people. We walk in and how fast we pull the gun, bang bang. "Deal with it" is very hard.

Frequently our most powerful reach-for weapon is money: it's supposed to talk but turns out to be the greatest silencer. Sometimes we pull out denial, but more often anger--simmering as the pepper spray of sarcasm or outright explosive, aggression being the Dharma synonym.  Our teachers are always telling us red hot anger is not really a useful restraint weapon. It's a hot coal we have in our hand ready to throw, but meanwhile our hand is the one getting burned and the person we want to throw it at can easily dodge, coming away unscathed. Trying to defend ourselves, we throw our anger at anyone who comes near us, which escalates collateral damage. Turns out to be the same problem firing a police gun: no guarantee you will hit the target because one or both of you is probably moving. No guarantee the bullet will even stop the other person; they can now shoot back at you. Worse, any bullet could hit an innocent person on the scene: collateral damage.

The Police Captain insisted the whole point of Force Options is de-escalation. To the police, that means using time to create distance between them and the immediate danger. The shorthand is: de-escalation =time+ distance. Talking someone down, talking directly to them in a way that encourages them to talk, to engage in a conversation that reveals their intent and motive so you can skillfully head toward a resolution deflates the energy of danger.  Literally defuses. It is pluperfect de-escalation. The district's policewoman trained to verbally defuse is lovingly called by her cohorts "the crime whisperer." 

Those of us trying to practice Dharma, trying as the Buddha said, to tame our minds are trying to get trained to that too. Using all the force options our Rinpoches give us, we try to de-escalate our inner conflicts. We are learning not to have our focus get so narrow we only see danger. Like police cadets, we are training in skillful means to stay awake, alert, to pick up all the clues of all the circumstances. We learn to stop talking to ourselves so we can actually hear what others are saying. That's the only way to do something positive about it. If we make peace with ourselves, we have the skill to make it with others--mainly because they're no longer a danger to us. If we realize we have no self to defend, we don't need to shoot. We have restraint, the time and distance to use a smile and a kind word as force options. That's actually what the Dalai Lama and my beloved Rinpoche rely on and nobody gets hurt.

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

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Sunday, January 08, 2017

New Year Hope

 As a surprise birthday present, a Dharma brother gave me Dzongsar Khyentse's newest book: The Guru Drinks Bourbon? I don't know how he knew Dzongsar is my favorite in your face guru. Since my birthday was a washout--the universe's present was the Pacific coast storm of the decade, I immediately started to read it. And I found this inscription from the late great guru Jigme Lingpa that I want to offer as a New Year's present to everyone:

"Even if you may not always practice, if you have a constant wish to practice and a constant concern about not being able to practice, you are far wealthier than the most materially successful person. If you put emphasis on generating the motivation to be kind and to enlighten all sentient beings, there is no comparison. You have surpassed what any other religion or spiritual system can do."

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

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

It's about time

All of us who have survived this breathtaking year racing to its close have been let in on an astonishing secret: life still works exactly the way Chinese astrologers predicted millennia ago.  Their circa BC 2600 right the first time Reality Version 1 nailed 2016 as a frenzy of devastating upheaval, scorched earth and nonstop chaos. They said 2016 would be the time of shenanigans and surprises, a year of the fire monkey.

It feels impossible to imagine how so long ago those non electronic people could so accurately foresee this year of cataclysmic earthquakes in Italy and Indonesia, devastating hurricanes, catastrophic fires in Oakland and Alaska and Tennessee, fatal floods in Louisiana, Fiji and North Carolina, Brexit, the end of the staid in the Noble Prize for Literature, two teams in the basement for decades suddenly rising to fight for supremacy in the World Series, the economic meltdown in Greece and abolition of money in India, dangerous escalation of military macho in the South China Sea, unspeakable atrocities in Yemen and South Sudan and Syria, the impeachment of governments in Brazil and Korea, Zika, humungously debilitating cyberattacks and hacks, a worldwide contagion of hate and fascism, the rise of a zombie Russia and the dissolution of a united Europe, the death of so many creative and compassionate minds, a tsunami of hapless refugees, complete rejection of Ataturk in Turkey and total demolition of democracy in America. 

Every day headlines were yuge and that was just the upending in public. The private lives of everybody I know became a roller coaster best described in an old Paul Simon lyric: 
"I don't have a soul that's not been battered,
I don't have a friend who feels at ease,
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
and driven to its knees.

There was an excess of inexplicable firsts and lasts in my friends' lives: sudden deaths, women widowed and alone for the first time, people unemployed for the first time, people messed up by real estate deals for the first time, people whose routines were upended by family or medical surprises. There were all of us who finally broke through the cocoon of lethargy or apathy to come alive for Bernie only to be thrown off the bus by people whose arrogance drove it into a ditch. There were all of those burned by Samsung or brightened by Hamilton, the hottest show in decades. There were how many millions whose meals were suddenly affected by Cuisinart, and how many thousands ready to roll to Cuba. LGBT came to be or not to be. All of our major Dharma teachers told us now was the time to put down the texts and spread bodhicitta as fast and steadily as possible.

I had my own upheavals. I had my car stolen, my eyesight diminish and my younger nephew push his way into my life after a 20-year absence. I had the local police captain offer me a precinct position and had to go through lots of fingerprinting and eyeball vetting. After almost 40 years I suddenly had a letter from the great love of my life. I had the busiest summer and skimpiest bank account I can remember. I was thrust into an enormous Dharma project as its lead creator. I had to speed up the sale of my apartment to be three months earlier than planned and on short notice had to find a temporary home. I am not the person who started the year, and in equally obvious ways neither is anybody else.

All the high speed chaos and crushing of 2016 cannot easily be categorized as coincidence. The last time we went through a year of the fire monkey was 1956, and we can see in retrospect it was startlingly revolutionary in every way. Elvis Presley burst into our lives via Heartbreak Hotel and Norma Jean Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe. Morocco declared independence from France, Indonesia became independent of the Netherlands, Tunisia became a free country, Pakistan became a country (an Islamic republic), India remade its state borders creating three new ones down south, Hungary and Georgia both revolted against the Soviet Union trying to get free. Castro came to Cuba and the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza was assassinated. The last foreign troops left Egypt making it independent and Nasser seized the Suez Canal. Eisenhower started the US highway system and In God We Trust became the official US motto.

There was more: The luxury liner Andrea Doria sank like the second Titanic, the first commercial nuclear power plant opened, the  Ringling Brothers staged their very last circus actually under a tent. A massive earthquake upended the Cyclades and the largest mining disaster in history Belgium.  Asian flu epidemics began. Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history and the Methodists ordained the first woman pastor. The Supreme Court ended segregation with busing. My Fair Lady came to Broadway, As the World Turns started on TV and Grace Kelly married the prince. The drama of the year was Look Back in Anger, the book The Man Who Knew Too Much and the song sung by Doris Day Que Sera Sera.

It's all still alive and kicking, that stuff of 1956. And now we get the earth-shattering add-ons of 2016 seemingly aimed at blowing up everything that happened in between. Look back in anger. A hard rain's gonna fall.

The ancient Chinese also predicted a fire monkey year would inevitably be followed by the time of a fire rooster: crowing (flamboyance included), scratching (meanness meant) and a lot of fiery but witless behavior.  Que sera sera starts on January 28, just a week after the American President's inauguration. Damn if i know how the ancient Chinese figured that out.

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

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Culinary Compassion

Two weeks ago, the celebrated chefs of London, England participated in a one-day campaign they called "Cook for Syria." Carryout shops and fine restaurants sold traditional Syrian dishes and sent the income to support that long suffering country's children. The idea was schoolbooks, footballs, food and clothing. 

The bigger idea was to publicize, prepare and promulgate Syrian food, so those out of that country's line of fire could be reminded of its people and their unspeakable suffering. The idea was to somehow say: "You have not been forgotten." This well-timed antithesis of exit, disengagement and isolation was a way to flaunt human commonality. The exit from that is extinction.

Shortly after I read about this culinary goodwill, I made Syria's beloved comfort food Harak Osbao. The translation is Burnt Finger, for in older times people couldn't wait to eat this tasty combination of lentils, macaroni and fried onions and supposedly stuck their hands into the hot pot  I went big. I made enough to share with my Saturday Dharma group that always ends with a potluck lunch. Before I served it, I explained why we were eating this at this moment: #CookforSyria. Nobody had ever heard of anything like it before. But everybody was familiar with lentils, macaroni and fried onions. Nothing scary here. They dug right in.

I figured that would happen. Although people who don't think much about their food think I'm nuts, I have long believed that cooking and/or eating somebody else's food is an honest way of communing with them. I got started when I came back from Europe in 1962 and tried to recreate the food I had there so my trip wouldn't really end. Much later I became the Western expert on Himalayan food because I deliberately learned to cook it in order to better understand my Rinpoche, his monks and their surround.  #CookforSyria was me doing what comes naturally. I was already sprinkling Aleppo pepper on any dish I could, not just because its subtle heat makes the food more enticing. Every time I held the bottle with that word Aleppo on its label, I remembered the people who created and brought the spice to me, innocents afflicted by unimaginable suffering, including deliberate famine. I wished them well.

I am not totally crazed by magical thinking. I just realize there is absolutely nothing I can do to stop the sociopathic smashing of human life in Syria.  I am also old enough to realize marching down some office lined boulevard chanting "Save Syria! while dodging people throwing rocks for looting isn't going to accomplish anything.  What I can do is my best equivalent to JFK saying: Ich ben ein Berliner. I can
joyfully keep the nation's cultural identity alive by using Aleppo pepper and preparing Harak Osbao, spreading them around.

Hopelessness never has to be the default option. When students lament something terrible happened--a chronic illness, a sudden death, a rent relationship, a political nightmare, a lost cause--and there's nothing they can do, Rinpoches and lamas always say there is indeed something: tonglen. This is the Dharma practice more commonly referred to as sending and taking because you harness your natural breathing cycle to send out all the love and positive energy you can muster and breath in all the black pain and suffering of whoever is your concern to take it them from them. This is how you cleanse your world: send white light and love on your out-breath; remove darkness and distress with your in-breath.

People are often terrified to do this.  Exhaling love and light feels tentatively manageable, but the business of taking in and thus taking on somebody else's disease, death or distress is horrifying. Why would anyone dare? Who wants to get cancer or bombs? Our poor teachers must work intensely to point out this exercise is simply you breathing naturally in and out. Absolutely nothing else is  happening. You are in no danger of getting infected by HIV or Ebola or hit by bombs. You're going to get out alive. You are simply sitting still breathing the invisible air around you in and out while focusing your mind and energy on your desire to help someone. It takes getting used to.

Our teachers will also admit, when questioned, that tonglen offers no direct tangible result, no real remedy for the problem. Doing it is definitely not going to cure cancer, delay the divorce or destroy enemy lines. In truth, you are not sending and taking to improve the other who is your object of concern. You are doing it to benefit yourself. Tonglen is the exercise that develops your empathy muscle, reduces swelling of the ego and sharpens mental perceptions. It teaches you to acknowledge suffering and be unafraid to face it. Essentially tonglen is compassion fitness training. 

So in a way is cooking. It has always seemed to me that taking in the food of someone other is sending them gratitude, respect, even love. It represents appreciation and neuroscience is now telling us what all human beings have in common is the intense need to be acknowledged and appreciated. Eating what others eat makes you one with them in a bright and joyful way. Afterward, you usually end up breathing out thanks for that delicious dish they brought to your table, for the blessing of their existence. #cookforSyria.

Here is my Harak Osbao:

You can look up recipes. Essentially you cook up about 1 1/2 c brown lentils in vegetable broth until almost soft, then throw in a cup of small macaroni and 2 tbsp pomegranate molasses, 1 tbsp salt and 1 tsp Aleppo pepper. If you have tomato paste around add 2 tsp.  Cook til the macaroni is soft. Hopefully the liquid dries up. If not drain it out.
Meanwhile cut two red onions into thin rings and saute them in olive oil until they're caramelized, about 12 minutes, without burning. Put them on a plate and put 4 cloves minced garlic with more olive oil in the pan and brown the garlic. remove from heat and add 2 tsp sumac and handful of chopped cilantro.
   Pour the lentil/macaroni mixture into a large shallow serving dish. Top with the onions, then the garlic mix. Top all that with freshly chopped flat leaf parsley, some pomegranate arils and lemon juice or lemon wedges. Enjoy!

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

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Wednesday, November 02, 2016

The Day after the Day of the Dead is a Day of Living

 This is the Dharma and Bodhicitta and all the treasure we can ever hope to find:

'I wish I could show you, When you are lonely or in darkness, The Astonishing Light Of your own Being"


It really is there if you put down your not so smart phone and take the time to look for it.

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

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Monday, October 24, 2016

Nasty women are Dharma in action

Last week I went to Vancouver, BC, to see my glorious teacher and met there a seasoned Dharma student from the SF Bay area, a woman who home-schooled her three now grown sons, doesn't color her long gray hair and is steadfastly vegetarian.  As we talked about our personal encounters with the Dharma, she said in passing: "I really do wish it had more for a feminist, but that's okay, I guess." 

My ears perked right up because I have heard this complaint so many times and don't get why all these women don't get why this is necessarily so. Dharma has of course adapted the traditional trappings of the cultures it conquered to make itself at home, and most of them were highly patriarchal. It's easy to see the everyday misogynistic result, particularly in the rigid Tibetan hierarchy with its blatant discrimination against nuns and yoginis. It's definitely harder not to take this cultural baggage as carry-on down the path.  A bit of work to not be blinded by it and see Dharma nakedly.

When I can, I see why Buddhism didn't explicitly reach out to women. I see the reason in the traditional Chinese pictorial symbol for "hen hao", which means "very good": a woman intertwined with her child. This goodness does not look different from what Catholics see in that sacred image of Mary intertwined with her child, Jesus: "Pieta," a word derived from pity and godliness to convey the infinite goodness and beauty of unquestioning love.  

I see the Buddha as perhaps the world's first public feminist. Shakyamuni Buddha welcomed women to his inner circle and did not have the problem some of his less enlightened companions did. Often, it seems, females were his best students--and teachers, particularly the exquisitely beautiful courtesan who flaunted her aging as a way to make his legions deal with impermanence. 

The Buddha recognized the debt he owed his mother and reminded everyone of us of our same debt. He did not denigrate the vital role of his own wife, especially in caring for their son. More to the point, while he wandered India searching for truth and harmony, he time and again came upon women peacefully nurturing babies, helping the elderly and sharing with each other. Bravely he recognized women as the inherently loving, selfless beings he was trying to learn how to be. He recognized they did not need him to teach them the selflessness of compassion.

Men however were clueless. And therein was the suffering. The Iron Age was upon them, putting all sorts of new weapons of crass destruction in their hands. The future of humanity--and all beings, lay in urgently countering these new arms by inculcating the concepts of no harm and kindness in males.  Survival depended on teaching men to cherish others like women automatically do. Making them nonjudgmental would make them less competitive, less hierarchical, less demanding and harsh. Thus Bodhicitta, the awakened, intertwined heart is the core essence of all his teachings. So is the endless emphasis on others. It seems to me Bodhicitta is supposed to make men behave like women.

Unfortunately, we live on the flip side, in a world whose primary question for the last century has been Henry Higgins': "Why can't a woman be more like a man?" Feminists went for it. They bailed from the practices of lovingkindness-- feeding, nurturing, tending, uniting-- and rushed to put on pant suits, carry briefcases and hire household help. More money. No more drudgery. No more hearth and home. It's wrong to totally blame them: what women represented, what they bring to the world was denied and denigrated. Men were replacing them with machines. 

The late Isak Dinesen warned against a world that did not honor the innate attributes of women and did not recognize the critical counterbalancing of male and female. She pointed out that men do but women are, alluding to the way people always described their fathers as "a doctor or a lawyer or a seaman" while they inevitably described their mothers as "lovely or caring and warm."

We all live now in the cold, cruel, competitive and literally careless world that is the dystopian result of  lopsidedness--or monopoly power. Call it Neoliberalism if you want, this me-first, winner-take-all, king of the jungle masculine ethos that's engulfed and depressed us. Since everyone wants to be a king of the jungle man, people have tilted to looking for love in all the wrong places: on Tinder and Facebook, in kennels and animal shelters, out of pills and smokes and snorts. So many videos of cat cuteness going viral. So many opportunities for Big Pharma as this cancer metastasizes. Everyone is openly hurting one way or another. Newspapers carry headlines about endemic loneliness, killer opioid epidemics, gun consumption and suicide spikes. Last week alone I had three clerks express relief and gratitude when I thanked them for trying to be helpful and sort my problems out because we live in cruel times destroying everyone and everything.

In Vancouver, when I asked my elderly guru what he wants us to do now in this dreadful world, what legacy for him can we create, he said without hesitation: "Bodhicitta!" Show it, spread it, share it. He was saying what the Buddha said almost 2600 years back: Show everyone love and respect, protect and cherish them like a mother does a child. Bring people together; touch their heart; bring them joy. Introduce them to goodness. Who doesn't want that?

Rinpoche was asking me to be full on female, doing what comes naturally. Wisdom in every language known to man is always feminine. For the Buddha it all starts with Prajnaparamita, the great mother, the great wisdom. The legions of monks and lamas and gurus who've come after are powerless without her just as they are all powerless until the female wisdom goddesses, the dakinis, bless them. Every morning, the monks in Rinpoche's monastery open the shrine hall with an hour of prayers to the great Arya Tara, asking the swift, fierce, all-knowing goddess for protection, guidance, confidence and love. How much more "feminist" can you get?

I told some of this to that woman in Vancouver. She smiled brightly and kept smiling as we parted. I felt better myself. Dharma is indeed a warm and welcoming refuge in these greed stricken, cruel-hearted masculine times. Something like a mother's hug. 

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

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Monday, October 17, 2016

News for the blues

 I am posting this because my own experience tells me it's true, astonishing but absolutely true. I was going to write a lot more but found it wasn't necessary. That Tinkerbell magic really exists: if you just believe, believe hard enough and pray, light appears and goodness comes through.
 Oh, and one more thing, as Steve Jobs liked to say:
Both of these can make life worth living.

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

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