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

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

Friday, 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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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.

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

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Eulogy for a stranger

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!"

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

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Sunday, September 04, 2016

Jam Session: Bodhicitta in a jar

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.

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

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