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.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Yesterday came word from my dharma sister down on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala that having painlessly survived the ravages of Hurricane Stan, she is giving thanks by finding money to buy water filters for the thousands not so lucky, native Mayan villagers whose lives were viciously uprooted and hurled aside. “I figure this is the most basic need,” she said. “Villagers counted on the lake for water,” she reported, but it had suddenly become a reservoir of a different sort: a cemetery of floating corpses, animal and human—and sewage.

Her aspiration to provide clean water sounded as simple, practical and honest as the natives we'd met while buying embroideries or art, nibbling and swimming, especially when she emphasized that she, a Swiss, trusted the people from whom she would acquire the equipment.

Bang! Into the cyberkaya (realm), or onto the cyber yana (vehicle), I unleashed a request to Buddhist and charitable acquaintances around the world to help. We would join a dharma sister in anonymous real person to person aid beyond bureaucracy, bylines and tax brakes. The response deadline would be October 31, eve of the Day of the Dead.

Then started a day of dread. These folks had been privately beseeched to help monks and nuns locked in prayer, Tibetans without a home, Nepali children caught in endless guerilla warfare, save fish and sea creatures from dying. They had been publicly implored to help the bewildered, bedraggled survivors of one tsunami, two earthquakes, now three killer hurricanes and unspeakable manmade disasters beyond counting.

One of them raised funds to take to the orphanages of Afghanistan to buy medicine, one raised funds and went to help survivors of Agent Orange in Vietnam, one took tons of clothing to Mongolia. Everyone was already doing so much with the little that they had. Many in fact had little because they did so much. How could I have rushed to ask brazenly for more?

Today I remembered the story of the wandering yogi who enraged and mystified the people of the plains by always begging at the tent of the shabbiest nomads and always demanding second helpings. I recalled how enraged and mystified I got when asked to contribute to a Long Life ceremony because I was an honoree. How unfair was that to make those being rewarded for their hard work pay while the others didn’t have to? Like whaaaaaaaaaaaa? Didn’t I turn into a volcano ready to explode?

Confronted at last, the yogi explained that by inviting generosity he was simply trying to boost the merit of the ones with the obviously worst karma so that life could improve for them. Being asked to contribute, yet again after everything I had done, was also to help my merit exponentially increase. It was offered as a reward to help me pass Go again on my way out of suffering.

True generosity, we are supposed to learn, is giving even when or because it hurts. Years back I watched a Bodhisattva vow ceremony in which participants were told to give the teacher whatever they really treasured and out of trembling hands came heirloom rings, framed photographs and silver pieces. Then I was horrified. Now those people are still alive and well and functioning fine.

Maybe you could say we are all alive and well and functioning out of harm’s way when harm is everywhere because of past life generosity. Maybe merit earned from virtue like that bought us this excellent karma to shop and go to football games and be frequent flyers with garbage disposals when so much of the planet is smothered in misery. If so, we have to keep up the good work.

Putting the squeeze on people besieged by calls for help could thus be offering them life insurance. Money freely given to purify the water at Lake Atitlan could purify their being, getting them one step closer O Buddha to thee. Out of all that muck could come a pure unstained lotus, just like the ideal Dharma image. Some people have all the luck. Perhaps there really is a cause for that effect.

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Friday, October 14, 2005


SAN FRANCISCO: Last weekend, once those Blue Angels stopped bombarding the sky, our small group quietly poured thousands of living creatures into the bay below: crabs, fish, and shrimp said to total 450 lives in every pound. We had on short notice raised over $1250 to ransom these beings from the doom of baitdom and their provider was so moved he gave us more to free than we paid for.

Hearing we Buddhists were collecting for this fish release, one of my friends complained we should’ve thought first about feeding the hungry instead of wasting all that money. She brought to mind the story heard about American missionaries scolding a venerable Tibetan meditation master for sitting still not doing anything useful while they, armed with Bibles, powdered milk and Spam, were out saving the world.

We were out saving life because all weekend we were performing ceremonies dedicated to a long life for our esteemed but elderly Tibetan guru. To be so brazen as to beseech the higher energies to invade and extend his life, we were demonstrating that we too were prepared to extend life—that we were worthy of our request. Ours was a cause that wanted a certain effect: tit for tat or what goes round comes back at you.

As we downloaded pails and coolers into the water, we clustered at the end of the dock, tossing rose petals and chanting prayers for “peace and delightful years, the crops bountiful and cattle increased…all wishes fulfilled.” The speed boats zipping back from the thunderous military show came to an amazed halt. The gull formation that bombarded with its own precision screeching didn’t try to nip below the surface and grab a bite; the birds quietly floated in a semi circle, watching.

As he poured the last bucket of brine shrimp into the sea one of the participants actually wondered what good any of this could really do. That night he got a call announcing his beloved aunt, to whom he had dedicated the pouring of the final pail, for reasons no one in the hospital could explain had come out of her coma and vastly increased her chances to live.

Also that night another participant’s father was saved from certain death because he collapsed from his second heart attack at precisely the moment after he picked up the ringing phone. The person on the other end was consequently able to summon help that otherwise could not have come given that her father lives alone.

These coincidences are of course open to interpretation. But it is a fact that everyone who participated in or contributed to this fish release has been euphoric even through the seemingly endless release of troubling and depressing news. It is also true that the recounting of our outpouring into the bay palpably brightened hearts burdened by the weekend’s headlines of bodies crushed by earthquakes and buried by mudslides and blown up by suicide bombers. Filling spirits with a little joy, we in essence fed the hungry.

According to the bait man, other Buddhists regularly come to release fish. It is a way to gain merit, to pay back for lives destroyed for dinner, to save the world one being at a time as it’s released from suffering. Although many economically obsessed people and their representatives fervently think so, human life is not the only life on Earth. Buddhist thinking out of the crocks reminds that all forms are interconnected and dependent.

These beliefs acted out on that dock are not uniquely Buddhist. This very moment of the year Muslims and Jews refrain from eating to purify themselves and be worthy of requests. In fact that portion of their beloved Bible scheduled to be read aloud says: “See I have set before you death and life. Therefore choose life that you may live, you and your children and your children’s children.”

See, it isn’t difficult.

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