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, March 03, 2006


I am not given to watching television or following sports, but I have spent the last two weeks mesmerized by the thrilling spectacle of the quadrennial Winter Olympic Games. I am referring to all those human bodies zooming through my attention span squatted into Zs, canted into Ss, and levered by split second mid air splits into wire coat hangers. Balanced on thin blades or thin edges they rocketed downhill,slid across ice on gossamer wings, flew through the air with the greatest of ease. That people can actually perform such breathtaking feats shows what an engineering marvel the the human body truly is. That's joy to the world!
At high Olympic speed, it all happened not just instinctively but with awe inspiring grace. It takes years and damages to dare stunts like giant slalom or death spiral, yet even amid unforeseen circumstances of blizzards and bruises, the athletes made their tours de force look effortless and elegant. At one point, they got me to stop sitting glued to the screen and start doing knee bends. That’s how much they made me want to get in the human race.

The Winter Olympic extravaganza was a glorious celebration of the precious human body, which the Buddha says is so hard to obtain and so easily lost. That means we should not take it for granted. The myriad array of life forms on our planet and the infinite number of many such as ants or mosquitoes or bacteria indicates that we as energy sources have about as much chance of ending up human as a turtle in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has of sticking its head out of the water directly into a floating brass ring. Even if we beat the odds against us and get the brass ring, time will quickly snatch it away. The body we get is not built to last; who knows how many miles it will get? That is why the first thought prescribed to turn the mind from squandering around like a hobo and turn it toward meditation —and the first thought meditators are encouraged to generate upon waking—is: “This precious human birth…is hard to obtain and easily lost. At this time I must make it meaningful.”

Ah, the meaning of life. Well, for one brief shining moment it was nice to let those Olympic contenders show off what happens when you make your life a concerted effort to achieve something stunning with your body. I want to thank them for listening to their mother when she said: “Practice!” and for sharing the triumph over the tough times it took to get to Torino to make those bedazzling turns and twizzles. Watching those bodies go on the snow, its whitewash adding purity to their purpose, helped with the mornings after so blackened by news of another focused group also turning their bodies into guided missiles. Like thhe Olympians, they had sponsors, they had intensely trained to achieve a stunning moment although it was not about how, say, to glide down a steep slope with style. This group wanted to blast the bejezzus out of the slope to get it out of their way. Instead of skis or skates, they laced themselves with bombs and bombast, then ran out of cars to blow up marketplaces and mosques, municipal buildings, media people and Marines, creating spectacular havoc and happy devastation. Their suicides were a competing triumph of skill and will, only their attentive quest wasn't in pursuit of a gold medal with a little brass band fanfare and a lot of photo ops. They were burning for the downfall of nations and the uplift of those pie in the sky virgins or whatever Allah is putting on the podium these days for those who turn their bodies into weapons of crass destruction.

Night and day you could see that with rigorous training, intense focus and strong will, the human body can become a powerful tool to change the world. It took years of communal cooperation and international machination to make the Winter Olympics just as it took years of communal cooperation and international machination to get the World Trade Towers blown to smithereens. Whether we are born in Mecca or on the Matterhorn, we get ten toes and two eyes but, it turns out, what we do with these great gifts invariably depends on what we do with the mind that comes with them as a package deal. It is not an optional piece of gear; it is the gear. The mind has been engineered to be the body’s steering mechanism, the puppeteer pulling its strings, pushing its buttons. My teacher, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, is forever warning us that any thought we allow to pass through our mind will eventually--100% guaranteed--come out of our mouth or show in our eyes or turn our feet around, raise our fist or find some other outward expression in our body. Because a thought is an unstoppable juggernaut, he says, it's best not to think, at least negatively--with all that implies.

The do-it-yourself self improvement regime for this goal of course is Buddhism. It is Olympic fitness training for the mind. Dharma is a regimen to make mind positive, to make it pass all those stress tests. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama likes to say: we can walk on hot coals and burn our feet or we can put something over the soles of our feet to avoid the pain. That something is Dharma, a long term workout for getting the mind in beneficial shape, eradicating its negativity and pain. There is a whole section of the Tibetan practice called Lojong, which translates as Attitude Training and requires a stunning shift of focus from self to others, a realization that life is not a zero sum game but a true team sport. Lojong is an arduous workout on slippery slopes and thin ice, a regimen based on the observation that benefiting others actually strengthens and protects. By no longer needing to carry the heavy baggage of fear, resentment and blame, we become more flexible, fleet and joyous . Without the blinder of ME ME ME, we see more clearly, become more open, certain, daring and beneficial to the rest of the universe.

It was the Buddha’s great observation that our body lives in a world created exclusively and entirely by our mind. Ask the sublime ice skater Sasha Cohen who kept insisting to the newscasters that she would be perfect if only she could get her mind out of the way. We are all prisoners of our personal perceptions, all living literally in our own world where we are always the center of our attention. Thus Lojong which at least helps us to see and take into account the other rings in the samsaric circus.

Or we have only to stop a second, sit still and try to follow the breath entering then leaving our body, entering then leaving over and over to discover that by maybe the third inhale our mind has run off to yesterday or tomorrow and we’re not conscious of what is actually happening right now. This discovery that our attention span is continually hijacked is the shocking realization that most of us don’t truly know how we got where we are right now because we haven’t really paid close attention to the telling detail. Our entire life has been an out of body experience.

Getting back into it to notice the detail is the essence of Buddhist training. There are daily practices in which the whole body is involved in the physical exercise of hitting the floor in prostrations, pushing up and prostrating again. There are hand movements to do while the throat is chanting; there is drum twirling that requires refined wrist action. There are postures to open the channels and move the winds, various instructions for eye contact simultaneous with prescribed mental visualization. There is a workout to achieve a body heat that can melt ice, a workout for being aware of the goings on during sleep time. The coaching arsenal is enormous. And the training mantra might be said to be: "Get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged."

As with athletic training, commitment is required, a sense of urgency, a sense of purpose. Settling your mind permanently into your body takes time of course, sacrifice and guts. And you have to believe just as "pair" skaters do that by getting the two together you can be a winner. The soundbyte for mind/body sync is peak experience. In it no slope is too slippery, no trek too long, no slalom too dizzying. The texts talk about realized beings who flew through the sky, put footprints in solid rock and ran across the range faster than a wild horse, beings who could predict their next birth or stall their death or stop evil dead in its tracks. I have seen them create rainbows in a clear sky or crowded room; it is amazing. It is also encouraging. It makes me want to get up and practice, get up to that peak for that experience. In sync the mind and body can navigate a path through the suffering of our world the way those skiers found their way down the Alp in that unexpected blinding fog. Totally together they can get the human race one. Here’s hoping someday we have an Olympic display of the dazzle on those peaks. Those rainbows at the very least should make us all feel like a gold medal winner.

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