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.

Monday, December 26, 2005


Now that the annual shopping spree is finished and the wrapping is off, it looks like the one gift nobody wanted to give or get yet again this year is equality. It seems everybody still wants to feel special, which is to say to be noticed, to stand out, to be celebrated in some way. Nobody wants to be that tree nobody hears falling in the forest. We want our existence validated and at this the darkest time of year, it seems to hurt even harder if people do not see or acknowledge our light. We humans are poignantly in need of continual re-assurance not only that we’re actually happening but that we're the greatest.

On Christmas Eve day, a powerful Buddhist guru pointed out how every one of us continually thinks no matter where we may be that we are the one standing right in the center of the universe. We never think that because Earth is round we’re hanging upside down on the bottom as it spins or that we’re out on some periphery. We’re sure we are the center of the world; no, make that at the top of the world—a feeling that does not necessarily leave much room for others, especially those we may not find attractive. Imagine! Every single being in the world no matter where or who they are continually thinks this very same thought: I am the center of everything. That of course makes the rest of us chopped liver--at least until the Buddhist theory of relativity kicks in and you ask yourself: where exactly is the center anyway? The bottom? The top?

We are mightily abetted in our delusion of grandeur by advertising and slick magazines full of seduction to “have it your way” which hints, of course, that nobody else matters and naturally your way is way above everybody else's. We have corporations fattened by churning out products to cater to every focus group whim: we even have cars where the temperature can be different on each side of the front seat! This helps us to think of ourselves as masters of the universe, at least until our plane is delayed. What do you think road rage is if not roiling vexation at not having it our way thanks to the equal right of every car on the road to drive at whatever speed its driver pleases? Don't we have the exclusive right to unimpeded speeding in the left lane? As Mick Jagger said: “get off of my cloud.”

We’re encouraged by a Republican hegemony that insists the word share is exclusively a noun and can’t possibly be a verb. The colorful everyday folks who actually do what’s thought of as work have to strike to get or keep whatever benefits they have in a time when pallid white guys hungrily gobble up bazillions of dollars, their financial clout rising comically in proportion to the decline of whatever physical prowess they may have had. Living like legendarily obscene Arab and Moghul potentates, they have recreated Calcutta or Dickens’ scenarios or a veritable American sultanate where they play out their lives behind walls with their own park-like gardens and spas, their own schools, their own ski resorts, their own planes, now their own right to buy their way out of security check lines, telling the rest of us to “keep out.” That means of their purses too. Not giving a damn about the jewels of sharing-- public facilities, equal opportunity--they insure the misery their miserliness causes will make them have to secure their status ever harder because the rabble they created ever more desperately wants to get out from the misery they've been shoved in. Look, the holiday message on my bank’s ATM is: “Scrooge may not have been popular but he retired early!”

History looks to be the sad story of those who have the status doing whatever it takes to defend the status quo. We have the Roman Catholic Church manipulating empirical reality by insisting the Earth is the center of the universe so it can insist it is the center of the Earth around which everything must revolve and you're dead if you don't believe it. We have Shiite Muslims killing Sunni Muslims merely because they have a different perspective of themselves as Mohammed’s heirs. We have three monotheistic religions all worshipping the same god and honoring the same prophets while ripping each others’ guts out in a vengeful sibling battle for absolute supremacy. That is a problem with monotheism: it's a kind of winner take all, as though one has to be better becauses there can be only one.

Actually we all have a little bit of King Louis “le soleil c’est moi” in us. You can see it now that we have descended from airplanes and all met each other face to face at baggage claim. Equality is so scary people are backing up at high speed into the rigid credentialing of Me Tarzan fundamentalism. There’s zero sum fighting everywhere you look to prove who’s better or more entitled. India’s Hindus are suddenly a coherent mass who don’t want to share the country with its Muslims. American Jews are becoming more intolerantly Orthodox to become more Jewish. The Turks want to jail a distinguished writer for mentioning their slaughter of Armenians. The Taliban want to be in charge because they’re deathly afraid how low they’ll be in the pecking order if somebody else is. Let’s not mention the Serbs and Slavs or the unspeakable fratricide African Muslims are so brutally engaged in. And for Buddha's sake, to avoid World War III don't dare tell those Evangelical Southern Christians that their definitive Christmas is actually a conglomeration of many ancient solstice festivities. They don't even want to accept separate but equal Happy Holidays! As Lucy says: “If everybody agreed with Me, they’d all be right.”

The Buddha says to be like a grain of sand on the beach: nothing different, nothing special, just another grain of sand joining others to form a beach. Thus the Dharma, like the weather, doesn’t give a damn about credentials or resumes. It’s like that good old Yankee joke about the yachtsman lost and foundering in high seas who keeps calling the Coast Guard screaming: “May Day! May Day!” until the beleaguered Guardsman on the receiver finally screams back: “Yes all right but what is your position? You never tell us your position.” So the yachtsman shouts back: “I am the Vice President of the Bank of Boston!”

It’s a tough trick to be a grain of sand especially in this Superbowl world devoted to fame. Robert Thurman is fond of pointing his finger and pointing out at large Buddhist assemblies that every person in the room probably entered thinking: “I’m the one, yes, I’m the special one in here.” And we’ve all seen the ugly sangha struggles to be teacher’s pet. A dharma sister has been confiding how depressed her husband has become at no longer finding himself the magnet of money, programs and status at his university where he’s been given a small office in an older building in the campus boondocks. I’ve been admitting how troubled I get being left economically behind, increasingly unable to keep up with the young nouveau riches cavalierly skyrocketing the price of things I used to easily afford. Frankly, I hate being the nouveau pauvre.

But on the other hand not needing to show off or have those things is a surprising relief. When you give up what you think makes you different, special or better, you begin to see how much you are everybody else which helps you to begin to feel less aversion to them, thus less fear and angst. When you give up trying to surpass the Joneses or be the cover of Newsweek, when in essence you give up trying to live in virtual reality and come home to unfabricated reality where you are just one body among millions all wanting to avoid pain, you free a lot of energy and focus to steer yourself toward a more satisfying way of doing that. You don’t care whether you are on top of the world or bottom or periphery because at least you’re standing. And boy what a view!

From this position, you can see the world system is like a Manhattan elevator: it constantly carries people up and down. You see just how panicky people get about the impermanence, how they fear the flow and suffer. We've made life so awful at the bottom, so glamorous at the top, everyone is either trying to freeze things to stay on top or kill things to get up from under. And yet where are they really going after all? Does anybody here know where the top truly is? An old friend of mine used to stare enviously at all the beautiful people having so much fun in Fun City in the 60s and say wistfully: “I bet they owe Bloomingdale’s money too.”

Look on the ruins of Ozymandias, despair. In the real world of the physical universe, we are all mere flashes of light. So when you become a grain of sand on the beach with those waves of suffering washing over, polishing you and leaving you peacefully in the sun, you see how we are in fact all equal in thinking ourselves the epicenter of the known world. That is of course merely the world as we know it and since everybody knows it only their way, we’re all rather like Ralph Cramden declaring himself to be the King of his house and everything in it. "What then am I?" his wife Alice asks. "Nothing! You're nothing." “Well bully for you” she retorts. “You’re the King and I’m nothing. So you’re the King of nothing!”

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Sunday, December 04, 2005


Timing, people say, is everything, like location. And right now, in the very season of singing Joy to the world the Lord has come, word has gone out that the Buddha is born into our world. Sorry, I meant born again.

I am not sure how 2500 years ago word spread that the itinerant beggar Gautama Siddhartha really was THE Buddha, but in 2005 we lucky stiffs have Google. Upon hearing the rumor, I typed Buddha boy in Nepal and Hung! out of the cyberkaya an image instantly self-generated of a half clothed teenager sitting in full lotus in the hollow of a pipal tree. (I love it that Microsoft in its know-it-all way keeps trying to make pipal papal.) All the headlines proclaim he’s been unmoved for almost six months with no time outs for food or drink or a pee. This is an inhuman feat that makes the Tamang boy a marvel to modern science. He’s even been bitten in this dense forest by poisonous snakes but evidently this did not distract or even faze him. What’s wrong with this picture? A lot of people are asking.

The scene is set in southern Nepal not that far from Lumbini where lots of textbooks tell us Shakyamuni Buddha was born to a woman named Maya Devi, which happens to be the very name of this young man’s mother. Evidently, this Maya Devi is a religious sort who took her brood on a pilgrimage that included Lumbini, Bodh Gaya and a number of Buddhist monasteries and upon the family return, this sixth of her nine children—always a bit odd, she volunteered, snuck off in the middle of the night to take up this weird residence. She fainted when she found out but it seems almost everybody else in the village started standing guard or set up a souvenir or tea stand to cash in.

Ram Bahadur Bamjan has not interrupted his intense meditation to say much, only to respond to those who brazenly ask him if he is the Buddha that he is only a Rinpoche. He is only in the primary, the kindergarten, phase of enlightenment so he needs to stay put for six more years and plans to do just that. Since already 10,000 pilgrims or curiosity seekers a day are reported to have made their way to this undistinguished thicket, that pipal tree is becoming a money tree. Nepalese authorities feel compelled to investigate.

The story stops there but the questions go on. Ke garne? as the Nepali people say, “what to do?”

Cultures in collapse commonly yearn for a Messiah to save them and there are always hawk eyed marketing men willing to produce one the way, say, Saul, John and Peter, came up with Joshua of Nazareth as Jesus Christ when the Jewish people hit rock bottom. The Nepalis have been that low seemingly forever but the political pressure cooker has boiled to such a high that the moment of implosion seems to be any minute now, partly because their demonic king’s tight embrace of China is squeezing their deeply rooted religion out of them. (Which is why those authorities aren’t putting any genuine Rinpoches on the case.) What a logical time and place then for the Buddha to rise to the rescue--in the land of his earlier birth.

There is also our own desperation at the downhill ski the world has taken. It’s slid further down now than 25 years ago when one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons showed a well dressed husband and wife standing at an airline ticket counter demanding: “Do you fly anywhere the moral climate isn’t hopelessly devastated?” and the other showed a TV news anchor reporting: “Today in civilization declines led advances by a wide margin.” A song snippet from those days might best describe our time and place: “Help! Help! I need somebody.”

It is possible to believe that now is the time because the Buddha did appear under similar circumstances about 25 or 2600 years ago. So more or less in that vague time frame did Jainism, Confucius, Sun Tzu with The Art of War, Moses’ 10 commandments, Homer’s Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, Sophocles, Zoroastrianism (thus spake Zarathustra that everything is polarized into light or dark, good or bad). The late great Buddhist scholar Edward Conze said there is a connection between the arising of the Buddha and Jains and the rise of the Iron Age which allowed men for the first time to forge weapons of crass destruction. The ensuing and potential damage cried out for new laws of human behavior. Enter the concepts of compassion, first do no harm, thou shalt not kill, and the true art of war being not going to war. Odysseus had to spend 20 years forgetting he had been a warrior and learning how to be a family man. That list of names seems to be one loud multicultural shout to put that spear, sword and pen knife down and love your neighbor as yourself.

According to classical myths, the Iron Age would be the last and worst. But we’ve fooled them. We’ve made what you might literally call a quantum leap and landed ourselves in the nuclear age. For the first time-- maybe just not in Iraq, we have weapons of mass destruction. Now that any angry body’s itchy little trigger finger can blow up the entire earth in a nanosecond, new codes of behavior have been emerging as all this New Age stuff. We have the new Nichiren Buddhism coming out of Japan, the Green Party born in Germany, a peace movement seeded in America’s Asian bloodbaths. We are touchy feely (not standoffish), organic (no chemicals), vegetarian (no killing animals), doctors and copycats without borders (no nationalistic rivalries) and flocking in significant numbers to Buddhadharma (no shopping, no hating). What a nick of time for a Buddha comeback.

The ancient Mayan calendar stops at just about the year this meditating being will reach 21 and come out from under his tree. If he truly is a Buddha, Hallelujah. Let us rejoice! If he is not—and he himself has never said he is—what a poignant hoax. His is a glorious aspiration for in today's world con men rig up pyramid schemes or get rich quick embezzlements to run off with money. Because that is what we worship, everyone wants to be one way or the other a corporate czar, political potentate or media mogul. You have to hand it to someone whose scheme is simply to be the Buddha. We don’t even make Halloween costumes for that.

If he is the Buddha, we've got six years to tame our aggressive desire to get close and pray to every deity whose image we can generate that he is kept far from the madding crowd. We all know how everyone will try to lay claim and make money. If he is not, maybe he can be like that fabled old dog's tooth, the one the old woman so wanted to believe was actually the Buddha's it turned out to bring her just as many blessings as the real deal. Whether this news is emaho! or Ho Ho Ho! the mere fact that the Buddha's name is in headlines, the mere thought that it could be possible for Buddha to take birth again in our messed up world and the idea that people see box office in Buddha really does send a little joy to the world. Om hung all ye faithful.

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