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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005


Everybody was moaning over the phone lines about how much work it was to cook the Thanksgiving banquet. Even a feast for two took the same amount of time and pots as gluttony for 12. Preparations ate up the whole day and then everybody ate up in an hour and it was over, except the unending clean up. What a pain!

Even I forgot when I volunteered to make dinner for four how much time, forethought and sheer energy the turkey and trimmings, even kept to a healthy Zen-like minimum, could gobble up. When I realized it was eating the better part of two days, from the planning and shopping through the final emptying of the dishwasher-- and what more entertaining undertakings like going to a movie or taking a long walk on the beach I could have indulged in-- resentment rushed in. Yes too, I could have meditated and had a result guaranteed to last way longer than dinner, the essence of impermanence.

I had to remember I put myself through the bruising paces to gather together the young adults of my family now in my area. While we dined we chewed the skinny on Thanksgivings past, at least as I remembered them-- from the genuine Victorian groaning board serviced by hot and cold running cooks at my great uncle’s mansion to the turkey for 22 I made at that particular celebration at which the sink stopped up and my cousin, insisting he could fix it, flooded the kitchen just as we got to the carve and serve. What could I say about the years the female adults in the family did not want to bother so we went to hotels or private eating clubs for the 4 o’clock sitting? Bearing no aromatics, no pathetic recipes or hilarious mishaps, no muss or fuss, they came up empty.

As it happens, not bothering was my grandmother’s specialty and she was so sensational at it she gave that old Buddhist concept 'not doing' a whole new spin. For example, she’d only play bridge if she could be the dummy because she didn’t want to think about which cards to play. After my grandfather died she made one of us routinely write and sign her checks because she didn’t “feel like it.”

My grandmother was born to bucks, she married money and she died on the cusp of 98 still certain that cash could buy you everything including poor people to do all the work. She never raised a finger to do anything—except scold which she did plenty. She seemed permanently disgusted by my having jobs that required smatterings of physical labor, always reminding me that “I wasn’t born to work like that” or “I wasn’t raised to cater to other people” or “For God sakes, you’re not supposed to work like somebody who doesn’t have any money!”

With it all, my grandmother’s biggest lament was: “I don’t have anything to do,” She was an entertainment addict who whined if she had nobody to go with to the movies or no friends to come over for a game of Canasta. She stormed about her houses, cursed the help and stayed up all night trying to take comfort in talk radio. In her last years when reality overwhelmed the TV sitcoms and Hollywood films she begged me with bribes to help her die.

In contrast her older sister whose days had been filled with tragedies and downhills went humming along up to her end. Aunt Florie cranked pink applesauce out of her old food mill for Christmas, at Easter she dyed eggs and nestled them among that green straw and chocolate bunnies in the most artistically fabulous baskets. She made elegant hats as presents and sewed any hem or rip that came her way. You never had to doubt she loved you: she came, she did, she fixed. We loved her fiercely and I miss her still.

Actually the indelible memories of her fussing-- those grapefruits cut each Easter into beribboned baskets for each person’s place at the table, coaxed me to knock myself out over 19 knockout Thanksgiving dinners, 10 July fourth lobster feeds and dozens of catering jobs. Now those turkey diners call me every year on the day to warmly remember. Twice I’ve happened upon a seeming stranger in the supermarket who’d gush with a sunny smile: “You catered my wedding years ago and everybody still talks about it so happily! Nobody forgets our wedding. I can’t thank you enough.”

Effort seems to be that gift that keeps on giving. In our culture of instant, easy, convenient, it may seem quaint but it’s got legs and it stands out. It’s got that old what goes round comes back at you magic because we forge our bonds by what we do for and with each other. As I have taken to telling the young folks in the mating marathon, all you have to offer each other is your time, your energy, your focus and these are so limited that to bother sharing or giving them is to send a huge message to someone. Trust me, they get it.

Look hard at people and you will see the sum of their efforts. I’m not talking so much about the afgo, (another fucking growth opportunity) as about why fondest family memories are often of the harder times, the trials or goof ups like the time my aunt and I tried to make a No Fail chocolate cake for a charity pot luck and the stupid batter failed by dripping out all over the oven because the pan we’d bought at the charity flea market for this do-good attempt had a tiny hole in it. What do we recall after a journey or vacation but what went wrong, unforeseen “adventure”? Remember how the monkey got into the tent and upended the duffle bag to steal the goodies or how the flight was cancelled and we ended up spending eight hours in that makeshift airport? The moments we had to rise to the occasion are the occasions that rise in memory because we savor the fact we had to do something and did.

I was lazy in school and have missed enough opportunities since to regret myself. So I am dazzled by the recollection that despite a defective neck and resultant troubled spine, I managed to pull off the 100,000 full prostrations Tibetan Buddhism requires. Lazy me who hates to get out of bed in the morning actually did 100,000 full prostrations and went on to do 100,000 100 syllable mantras and so on because the dharma is a merciless do it yourself deal. There are no crib notes, no hired help, no God to intercede, no electronic labor saving devices to boost you toward enlightenment. There isn’t even a way to cheat! There is absolutely no way around the invincible fact that the escape from suffering has no escape hatch. It is, as Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says, up to you.

The Buddha was so serious about the value of effort that exertion is one of the six steps to transcendence, right up there with generosity and meditation. You could say it’s that No pain no gain thing, the eeeeeeeeeech becoming wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. I say with every voluntary baste, braise and bruise: Bless this stress.

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Friday, November 25, 2005


A few weeks ago His Holiness the Dalai Lama got into a dialogue with a bunch of brain scientists at Stanford University on two topics that seemed stubbornly common to all human behavior: craving and suffering. Since the mind science of Buddhism was set up 2500 years ago at the intersection of these two words, all Buddhists on hand were presumed to know their meaning. To rush the others to understanding, the medical doctor in chief started the Western brain science talk with what he called a demonstration of the inevitability of human craving: he asked the audience to hold its breath for a minute. “Now,” he said sixty seconds later, “breathe in. Well, that’s it—you’ve satisfied a craving and doesn’t it feel good!”

The cameras panned to the noticeably dismayed face of the Dalai Lama. “I think,” he said through his translator, “we have differing ideas of this word craving.”

As His Holiness tried to explain that the human body’s very real need for air did not fit into the Buddhist concept of desire, the dialogue swerved into that breakdown lane called failure to communicate. Despite good intentions and efforts to bridge two valiant paths, both had been laid out with the shifting sand of words because, to paraphrase the Bee Gees, words are all we have to take our “apart” away. We are hinged on experience and held together (I am trying not to say “screwed’) by how we are able to describe it to each other, which means of course that what we haven’t experienced isn’t going to be in our dialogue let alone in our vocabulary. The Penobscot Indians of Maine, for instance, had no word for famine while the Indians of the northwest coast had potlatch as insurance against it. The initial monotheists had no word for God because they could find no accurate way to describe the phenomenon; they kept saying “that which cannot be named” or “that which cannot be described” which, maybe not so oddly, is why highly refined Buddhist practitioners cannot find a way to describe the great mind/body transcendence to the gargantuan experience of enlightenment. It’s always that “you had to be there” thing.

Of course experiences are out there to be had and with them the dictionary fattens. Look at the words thrown into our melting pot as we came face to face with the world: baksheesh and assassin from Arabs, gourmet and boutique from the French who gave us bourgeoisie, chutzpah and maven from Yiddish, macho and guerilla from our forays into Latin America, mogul and pundit and Brahmin from India. These words are evidently now such a part of us that not one of them makes my computer scold me with red underlining.

You can understand a people through their language. The Chinese have no past or future tense; everything in German is tense or a federal case. French is elegant but it’s inflexible. English is highly absorbent. In America opening windows no longer describes letting in fresh air, mustangs and pintos do not bring wild but iron horses to mind and all those weirdly spelled incarnations of Vishnu in crossword puzzles have been replaced by weirdly spelled corporate brands so that 1.down Jelly is no longer jam, it is KY.

A very literate foreigner pointed out that Americans are a culture of complaint with rare words for joy so I opened my Roget’s and all I found for joy was pleasure, cheerfulness while complaint took up a lot of index space with cry, illness, deprecation, annoyance, discontent, lament, wrong, accusation, blame, indictment, disapprobation, malcontent. Eskimos as we all know by now have a veritable panoply of synonyms for snow. We have 33 Internet pages of names for shampoo, from before Aveda to Weleda.

What the Stanford scientists didn’t seem to know is that Tibetans do not think as they do that brain and mind are absolutely equal let’s stop there synonyms. For one thing, to symbolize the body, Tibetans point at the forehead, to symbolize the mind they point at the heart. Then too, Tibetan has many words for our one English word mind, each delicately nuanced to its various phases of experience because, not tied up puzzling over the difference in those brands on those 33 pages of shampoos, they’ve been able to have those experiences. They also have several words for knowledge, indicating different levels of attainment the highest being wisdom, for which they also have calibrated synonyms (the lowest reflects outer earned "scientific" knowledge). Obviously this is an issue for them.

Buddhists also have more than one word for meditation because they could be seeking serenity or insight or the experience of emptiness. They could even be visualizing while reiterating mantra. It is through the inner eye of meditation, often symbolized in drawings as that third eye on the forehead, that they are able to dissect and discuss the mind which Western scientists with all their microscopes and electrodes and magnetic imaging still can't do. They can't see it and the invisible brings them up empty. Because it won't cooperate with all their high tech toys they can't trust the mind to its own devices so that perhaps eventually like Buddhists they could. Hell, they have all those pharmaceutical devices for the brain that they can see.

To make matters worse, the scientists were stuck with only five sense portals while the Buddhists had six because they consider the invisible mind, the portal of thoughts, to be another way we sense the world. Also, in relation to all the senses, Tibetan contains eight words for our single word consciousness; Buddhists carefully link each sense portal to a particular and separate consciousness. There was no way in the same short time it took the medical men to describe using electrodes or how Prozac changes this corner of the cortex that His Holiness could read from the complex Abhidharma, the behavioral laws scientifically discovered and codified more than two millenniums ago, or explain all those consciousnesses and subsets of ayatanas, dhatus, indriyas, kleshas that lead to them and how they all integrate to create behavior, especially to folks who live as Americans do on the shiny surface and believe only what is tangible—what can be bought, sold or controlled in the marketplace. Remember, to us Samsara is a French perfume, Nirvana a beach resort.

It was, as I said, a matter of time. Our vocabulary resounds with words like instant, snappy, immediate, convenient, easy, fast, zip, quick. Consumer culture is so addicted to instant gratification that our increasing desperation for the quick fix to stay high has turned our holy grail into the magic bullet. Bullets, of course, are for killing, if not people then maybe viruses, bacteria, cancers, depression, anxiety-- anything we don’t like we can shoot down with them. In his summary of the dialogue, one distinguished doctor mentioned that his own physician, warning him that his cholesterol level had risen to the danger zone, offered him the choice of drastically changing his eating habits or taking Lipitor for life. The doctor looked at the Dalai Lama, looked at the audience, and said with a laughing shrug: “I said ‘Give me that prescription!’”

His Holiness got that dismayed look back on his face because of course Buddhism is about changing habits, drastically changing habits because there is no magic bullet, no God, nothing to save you but yourself. None of the scientists disagreed that in carefully controlled experiments meditation had shown a positive effect on brain so none doubted its potential in their work of curing suffering. But, they complained, it took a long time, many years, to make a realized meditator. Who had that kind of time? “How long,” one of the Buddhists shot back, “did it take you to become a fully realized surgeon? A year? Didn’t you pass through 12 years of school, four years of college, four years of medical school and then many more years of training to get here today? It’s just a question of what you find important to learn.”

In the end that too was a matter of words. Stanford was proud to have hosted a dialogue between Buddhists and scientists so its final speakers chided the neuroscientists who petitioned against a similar dialogue in Washington DC. Many of those naysayers were Chinese and His Holiness represents a people their people have been trying to demolish for the last fifty years, but politics had been left out of the petition. The vehemence came from semantics. For lack of a better word, English defines Buddhism as a religion. This puts it in our experience right up there with the Catholic Church insisting the sun revolves around the Earth to ensure life on Earth revolved around their Pope and the American Christians screaming for Intelligent Design to avoid dealing with the unHallmarky fact that we humans are animals too. Having no words, no way, no third eye to see or allow there could be systematic knowledge of the physical and material (my dictionary’s definition of science) in something as immaterial as what we call religion, those brain guys didn’t want Buddhists meddling with their mind. It was stuck on a cherished belief in their own absolute objectivity and thus on the godlike omnipotence of science, desired ruler of the world.

There at last was a good example of the bad craving both sides of the Stanford dialogue could agreeably seek to end.

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Saturday, November 12, 2005


I get a real kick out of those glossy four color Buddhist magazines that share the rack with Country Living, Yoga Journal and Real Simple in body worker waiting rooms. I love it that the outer edges of every page are not obsessed by slick sex filled ads for luxurious cars, expensive watches and trashy looking jeans. Rather these are gloriously hemmed with slick, brightly colored professionally produced ads selling me retreats in glamorous locations, books I can’t live without and more meditation paraphernalia than the first thousand years of working Buddhists had in the all together.

Buddhism has survived the horrors of the last 2,500 years due to a remarkable ability to morph into the culture of whatever country it entered. In Japan it became a martial art, in China a menu item (Buddha’s Delight), in Tibet colorfully mystic shamanism. In America, well, you can see in those glossy ads what a consumer paradise we have made it. You get a choice of happenings with souvenir tee shirts and motivational seminars with ubiquitous celebrities like boom box Robert Thurman. You can go on an endless array of tours to Asia, paying for the privilege of going on pilgrimage with this Rinpoche or that. And wow, cushions come in every size, shape and color unless of course you want one of those benches or chairs. How about a fountain or a financial advisor? Tatami mats, thangkhas? Have we got a calendar for you! A few years ago I tried on a winter night in Cambridge to ask the American lama Surya Das a question but in a surprisingly sharp tone he cut me off with impatient words: “Go buy my book.”

Although it is not advertised it is rumored that for enough American dollars you can get yourself a tulkuship. And what's to make of a Stanford MBA candidate who enrolls in a six week Theravadin meditation retreat for the singular purpose of honing job focus skills?

What a surprise that the fastest selling sangha has MBAs helping to run it like a business. Its marketing includes its own 12-step program, its own rock star lifestyle idol, its own interactive website, its own assembly line of meditation programs, its own bouncers at the door, its exclusive centers you can travel to and one of those glossy magazines packed with ads. Forget that Sanskrit stuff: all the self-help self-improvement comes to you in psychotherapy jargon and street English.

Along with the goodies come headlines exhorting you to get engaged. In the US it isn’t enough to engage in daily practice. It isn’t even enough to engage with Buddhist cash registers. You have to get socially engaged! You need to buy into what deToqueville dismissed as our peculiarly cockeyed activism that believes it can cure circumstances. Become a human rights protestor, an environmentalist, a homeless advocate. If you are not out saving the world, you are not an upstanding Buddhist.

Funny thing, I thought you had to be down sitting to be Buddhist. I thought Buddhism’s defining characteristic is that by sitting you were working for the benefit of all sentient beings. Remember the title of Sylvia Boorstein book? “Don’t just do something, sit there!” Remember Trungpa Rinpoche always reminding how American missionaries chided him for just sitting still while they were out saving the world with spam and Bibles? Goaded recently by a street activist to give his view of social engagement, His Eminence Dzongsar Khyenstse Rinpoche closed his eyes, took a few breaths and then quoted Shantideva about how you should sit like a rock. “Like a rock,” he repeated.

Of course if you are sitting, you are not out buying goods and services. You are not a candidate for retail therapy or body building. And there we have the disconnect: Buddhism is the Anti-Price. America is the jingle jangle of selling everything you and your body could possibly want and Buddhism is the silence of teaching the mind to not want it.

In a country where all the seers’ predictions derive solely from reading the consumer index and the consumers’ spending, where stock and bond markets ride up or down on the taut wires of consumer confidence, Dharma’s determination to destroy desire is tantamount to treason. I have been as patriotic as the next citizen when it comes to contributing to the GNP: it takes four closets to contain the clothes I own and suffering as I do from Imelda Marcos outbreaks, I can’t find space for all my shoes even though I only have one pair of feet. I will never be one of those wandering loin clothed yogis. I can’t even imagine being a nun because despite all my obsessing over bad hair days, I can’t bear the idea of a no hair day. Yet practice has cut down my shopping time, my makeup needs and noticeably decreased my "get" drive. Dharma is the only antique I treasure in my house. Worse, my travels in inner space are so compelling, I don’t take vacation trips. I no longer run to theaters, movie palaces and concert halls for entertainment. I don’t tune out with an IPod or even pay for cable television any more. I am so engaged with reality I have no time for virtual fluff. This is scary. Being real simple is, as far as I can tell, so un-American I could be supeonaed any day now as a subversive.

A culture that worships the temple of the body has been invaded by worship of the mind. How ever are we going to make ends meet? The Buddha of the future, Maitreya the Bodhisattva in waiting, is often depicted with blue eyes. We all know what those genetics mean. But do they automatically mean those blue eyes will gaze orgasmically at us from the cover of a glossy magazine as he steps out of a Ferrari in a sloganed tee shirt and designer jeans, his Armani sunglasses jauntily in hand, under the coverline: “His name’s Budh. He’s a perfect “Bod” and he’ll be your server tonight.”
Trungpa Rinpoche
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Friday, November 11, 2005


The rain in Maine was totally insane. The 18 inches in 24 hours broke local precipitation records just like those 22 inches of snow in Boston months before. San Francisco never got its sunny September while the Gulf Coast got whacked by the most intense, extensive parade of hurricanes in history. Hurricane Stan smashed central Guatemala while the longest drought in Spanish history was cut by the first ever tropical cyclone to strike the place. Even the monsoon turned vicious when 37 steady inches rain almost drowned the entire city of Mumbai/Bombay. It all makes one feel like Mrs. Astor in her stateroom supposedly saying as the Titanic skewered that frozen berg: “I rang for ice but this is ridiculous.”

And then there’s been the whole lot of shaking going on: the sudden eruption of a dormant volcano in New Guinea, the killer earthquakes in remote Iran, more remote Himalayan Pakistan and ridiculously remote under the sea in Sumatra where the clash of tectons launched that gargantuan tsunami which, oddly, went thataway, by which I mean the people of Japan have a word for this sort of disaster but the people on the other side were speechless.

The most violent headlines of the year have been weather reports and sandwiched between the elegies and excruciating pleas for help were attempts to figure out what is going on here. “Interdecadal climate variabilities”, the newspaper reports, "are a hot research topic." Prime culprit for Mother Nature’s bad mood is our failure to clean up our room, which is to say, to stop playing with all those nasty gases that destroy the ozone layer protecting Earth from the negative impact of the Sun. Those who don’t like global warming theory offer “cycles”, insisting with a shrug that our time has simply come, so be it; this too will pass--it’s not our fault. There are also scattered votes, some cast by comedians, for the hand of God smiting the wicked, striking the burning Bush.

Traditional wisdom has it that people talk about the weather because we can’t do much else about it but what we have here is a debate about human responsibility. Global warming theory is the inkling that maybe we can do more about our weather than we suppose. We are waking up to the ancient Eastern notion of cause and effect, action/reaction endlessly repeated as a chain. The cause for the effect known as global warming is that our SUV’S and air conditioners and jetsetting like a big pot of boiling water turn the steam heat up. The reason weather damage is so mindbogglingly extensive is that our clearcutting slopes and “developing” wetlands has compromised Earth’s defenses.

Mother Nature does indeed smite the wicked. Flush your sewage into the ocean and it washes up on somebody’s beach or in the belly of a striped bass you were hoping to cook. Flush your coal smoke into the ocean of air all around you and it rains back down into your lungs and onto the trees which soak up its toxins. Get excessive with carbon dioxide and watch what cycles back.

Physics tells us that energy is never destroyed because it has a chameleon’s capacity to morph: sunlight hits the tree, sap rises, leaves bloom, leaves fall fertilizing the tree and where it stops nobody knows. What then is the consequential impact on our atmosphere of all the bombs that have been detonated over the past decade? Of all the roasting fires they unleashed and the arsonist’s wildfires that melted acres of trees or thousands of metal cars? Of the unending gunshot explosions? Can Earth absorb all this hellfire and remain calm? Why is it that the so called cyclical years of hurricane hysteria —1940s through 1960s, mid 1990s to now, coincide so uncannily with our historical years of hysterical violence: World War II through Korea, Tibet and Vietnam for one and Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Central America, Indonesia, Sudan/Somalia and of course Iraq for the latest? Imbalance doesn't much like itself.

More urgently, what becomes of the energy that animates us? When we’re smiling and sunny and giving off “good vibes” or when we’re fuming with black rage that releases volcanic ones, where do our personal emissions go? What happens to that energy? If our moods can change ring colors and human demeanor, do they make us rainmakers? Here she is: cloudy with a chance of thunder? Why did the once-in-an-eon tsunami begin in an area pockmarked by nasty energy and get sucked toward the epicenter of the deadliest human eruptions in the world? Why did Hurricane Katrina actually pass over the goodhearted people of New Orleans (let us remember it was the levees that broke two days later thanks to human indifference)? All the blackness of thought and mind the world is awash in, what does it turn into? Etna is rumbling again; is this intelligent design?

Two days after a handful of blindly misguided men turned their own bodies into weapons of mass destruction that blew up New York City, my teacher—a Tibetan guru who can make rainbows appear in the sky on a sunny day--was asked what we should do in a world so fueled by hate and fear. How were we to live in such brute times? “Radiate positive energy,” he said. “We must strive to regain a balance by emitting as much positive energy as we possibly can. Do not cease in this effort.” His intelligence design left us feeling noticeably better by implying we did have some control, could make a difference.

What the Buddha said 2600 years ago is looking better all the time: you have to monitor your every thought because every thought will eventually become an action that will set off a chain reaction. Evidence is literally pouring in that whether our thoughts are positive or negative can make a world of difference. So perhaps we should all think clear with a chance of warmth to find out whether or not we really are the weather channel.

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