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.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


It isn’t every day you get to best the Bible but we’ve done it here in San Francisco without even trying: 42 nonstop days and nights of rain. March and April directly followed 90 days not much drier or brighter. They had in fact already trumped all the averages for rainfall, sunless days and other such statistics. December, January and February were so exceptionally cold and damp, people were making sick jokes about building arks and floating away two by two. When March rolled in, the rain got even more insistent, making the calendar stretch from Thanksgiving to Easter a soggy record breaking mess. As if someone had told Mother Nature: Supersize this!

It will be hard to beat. For one brief shining moment in late February the precipitation froze into sleet in Sausalito and three people were killed slip sliding away in a 28-car pileup. A levee or two up in the delta was recently washed away, houses condemned. Yesterday’s bold face headline trumpeted news that a septuagenarian landscape architect had been buried alive by a midnight avalanche of mud in his Marin County backyard. The day before the Devil’s Slide to the south got to be news by once more doing its own thing to confound transport and engineering “experts”; Highway One will be closed again for months causing mammoth commuter traffic jams and gargantuan tourist disappointment. Downtown San Anselmo already sank under water on New Year’s weekend.

California has big faults, the San Andreas being the most famous. And the planet has bone crushing droughts, notably in political hotspots like Somalia and Nepal where it hasn’t rained since August monsoon. So this intense focus on California could be a meteorological display of extreme disgust with the pileup of too many other faults like the Terminator, the terminal corruption in the University system, the interminably toxic political pocket lining in San Francisco, the termination of thousand-year-old redwood trees for vacation house deck boards. It certainly looks like the cosmos means to wash the state clean away or just clean. Seven counties have been declared “emergency areas” and it’s still raining.

The paper is packed with “human” interest stories. Contractors are twiddling thumbs, museums are mobbed. Gardens are gone, tanning salons enjoying a real hay day. For the first time since 1961 two major league baseball games in a row were rained out: the Giants are shriveling. Columnists are decrying postponements and cancellations making people testy, depressed, fatter. Road rage rises like the reservoirs. Mothers are worn out worrying how to occupy children who can’t go out and play. The monotony is maddening. Seattle sends no sympathy. It’s the economy, stupid.

This all feels a lot like winter in Maine . Sounds like it too except that Maine doesn’t cry over spilt February or March because postponements are to be expected. In winter, life is not dependable but weather dependent; you can’t even bury the dead. I’ve been through relentless chains of storms that dumped snow higher than the backyard fence or rain hardened nightly into killer ice and an entire week one February when the temperature never ventured beyond minus something. That’s why Mainers don’t plan much at this time of year, except perhaps a trip to Florida—and not even that is a given because the airport could be shut or the turnpike temporarily closed for plowing. Cabin fever isn’t headlines. News in Maine is that Mother Nature has cut us a break letting winter pass by without much damming the human current of events.

When you’ve had inelastic stretches of patience practice from Thanksgiving to Memorial Day, you see that people unfettered by the survival challenges of powerful weather get to feeling mightily independent. They get a lot of extra time to entertain themselves any way they want—which is why Mainers think Californians cook up so many cuckoo ideas. They take choice for granted, certain they lead their own lives. So today’s major San Francisco headline: “Mother Nature in Charge!” has to be a miserable blow especially to the control freaks around here and all who think all the high tech in their high rainmaker world makes them masters of the universe. Now like the first black ice or snow flurries that thicken into a blizzard in Maine comes the sorry reminder that life is not a Burger King: you can’t have it your way. No matter how adorable your parents think you are or how many gazillions you’ve stashed in hedge funds, out there in the real world you and your plans don’t matter doodles. You are, as the Buddha said, just another grain of sand on a shifting beach. This winter there's been no getting around what we call in dharma the absolute truth.

I want to feel sorry for all those Marin county mothers the columnist wrote about who are frustrated by kids who can’t go out and play. No doubt their families settled in that paradise for its good life, which if you read glossy magazines you know includes basking in the endless outdoors. (It gets chilly in January? Heat lamps by the barbeque, wetsuits for the kayak. Money is never the problem.) Suddenly the indoors—on which they’ve lavished so much remodeling--is not so great. I bet all they are thinking: It’s not supposed to be like this, and I bet even more they haven’t dared to stare at that supposition or question their expectation. They've seen too many movies and like most Americans can no longer separate the Hollywood version from the real thing. Haven't Californians twice mistaken an actor for a governor? These moms remind me that years back a similar type upper middle class mother confronted by the reality of her daughter’s bulima actually shook her head, shrugged and helplessly declared: “How was I to know about something like this? It’s never been mentioned in TIME.”

California is where an extravagant chain of mountains sink into a desert that cannot be differentiated from the sand it meets on the beaches by a freezing sea. And/or it is a gigantic redwood rain forest of temperature extremes, and/or the fog bank of the entire continent. Since the first Spanish missionaries ventured north from Mexico human beings have been in a tug of war with its harsh reality, shifting perceptions to match desire. Blinded by rugged beauty, which could in places rival Maine, and emptiness, they saw tract houses, theme parks, plantations, boulevards and believed in the mirage. Now all the planned communities are dealing with the unplanned. Five months of rain have washed clear what the Buddha meant by how we all live in a world of our own creation instead of the one that actually is.

Weapons of mass desperation are being released on both sides of a tug of war over California's truth. Right now reality is reigning, beating virtual reality by a landslide or three. Attacking day by day the century-old, carefully crafted and tended hype--giddy sun, sand and Disneyland under the Golden Gate--Nature is putting truth to power with brilliant timing. This watery plague on all our houses comes exactly at the major centennial anniversary of the great earthquake, the 1906 explosion of truth that blew the gold rush image to smithereens. That is what ushered in the you are my sunshine marketing hype of the last hundred years. Now it is all wet.

Marketing maniacs are fighting back, brazenly raining all over the cable TV channels, although I don’t for beans know why they air it here, a lucky California commercial of quick cuts: surfer kings and bikini queens, whiter than snow teeth and long hair blowing in the wind, a vineyard baron, a barrio fiesta, Tomorrowland, Tahoe skiing, Valley Girls, Chinatown and finally Clint Eastwood on a Big Sur putting green driving home the idea that the magic of California makes every day here your lucky day. Every time I listen to yet another storm pounding against my windows and see its closing cut of the iconic twin towered Golden Gate under immaculately clear sky, I expect to hear a soothing voice purr: “You want to buy a bridge?” I can't help thinking we’re going to need one here in nevereverland to get over the tragic of all this rain on our charade.

Technorati Tags: . . . , ,

Sunday, April 09, 2006


When all the said was done, the true winner of this year’s Academy Awards for Best Producer, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Scriptwriter was Mom. With astonishing unanimity, the glittering folks with Oscars in their hands and tears in their eyes spent their prime time brimming with thanks not to handlers or stylists but to mother, evidently the person most responsible for them stepping up to that gold medal microphone. Best actress Reese Witherspoon thanked her parents for being so unceasingly proud of her that even when she just made her bed, they praised her for a job well done. Best Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman thanked his Mom for single-handedly raising four kids with enough pluck and faith leftover to share his dream of acting and encourage him to make it come true. Sound, animation, shorts, long, writing—whatever country they came from-- all shared the same secret of their success: Mom’s pride, faith and encouragement.

These were, in every sense of the phrase, acceptance speeches and they beamed across the planet news that mother love is the vital leavening in any recipe for achievement. If someone who knows you as well as your mother will believe in you then you will believe in yourself --and off you go on the yellow brick road to Oscar. If in contrast nobody hears you singing Stand by Me and you come as I do from a place where never was said an encouraging word, let alone a kind one (“You’re all shits, why should we care about you?” were my grandmother’s exact words), you rarely get up that high. You end up stunted or paralyzed, your dreams stuffed into some trash bin which you search from time to time like the homeless hunting for a can or bottle to redeem.

It should of course be obvious that if a human being is plugged into the acceptance called love, they will automatically glow from the power generated. Energy morphs like that. Ask science. But the obvious isn’t necessarily the ubiquitous. Beyond the Academy Awards mother love is evidently in such short supply in America that therapy and prison have become mega-industries while the pharmaceutical business is booming with drugs to make you conform to somebody else’s norm or plaster over your depression at not being parentally approved. Imprinted insecurity is in truth the black gold fueling the consumer economy: buy this or that to make that nagging feeling you’re not worthy vanish. And if it doesn’t, well buy something else. If self-esteem didn’t come from Mom, maybe it will from the car, the Mcmansion, the hand tooled cowboy boots, wine cellar. As the TV ad campaign so cheekily proclaimed again and again Oscar night: Life takes Visa.

Actually life takes a beating in our Western world where it’s continually obliterated by weapons of mass psychological destruction. We have more authorities sending us on guilt trips than there are airline seats. We have the Jewish mother finding so much fault we can’t be chosen and the Muslim cleric angry at non-conformance to outmoded regimens. We have the Born Again bunch insisting our mother did not do the right thing for us the first time and we have the whole Catholic establishment smearing us with the stigma of Original Sin even though it is so unoriginal everybody does it or none of us would even be here for those “celibates” to chastise. The monotheistic religions throw our human failings and frailties in our face to promote—with astonishing aggression--our need to be saved by someone else obviously much better. You know: Pay now, better luck next life.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has never been able to comprehend the low self-esteem running amok in the American psyche. He cannot fathom how it happens that wannabe Buddhists asked to visualize all beings as mother who so selflessly gave of her body and heart for you to survive in this world, as often as not raise their hand to balk because their mother was self-absorbed or an alcoholic abusive or professionally preoccupied—or… or… or… the litany of mother sins goes on. His Holiness comes of course from a culture where survival is so unassured, the cherishing and nurturing of children is everyone’s day job. But more importantly he comes from and represents a religious tradition based, at least as I understand it, entirely on mother love.

Describing compassion or interdependence or just cutting to the pith of his vision, the Buddha always comes back to the same Pieta image. He is not alone in citing this as ideal: mother with child is in fact the origin of the Chinese hieroglyph for the word “good” and Mary as mother remains after almost 2,000 years the hands down most beloved figure of the Catholic faithful. With mother and child, two existences are so intimately intertwined they are impossible to differentiate. Even after the child has come out from the mother’s body, can anyone truly see where one life begins or the other ends? At the very moment lethal weapons had been introduced to the world, Buddhism was presented as a way to teach men such selfless behavior, especially in their own company. The core teaching is to treat every human being as your mother who brought you into the world and sustained you, because in your past lives they could well have been. Compassion practice is about visualizing everybody in this intimate way. And why not? Interdependence means one of us breathes out, the other in, thus the same oxygen vitalizes both equally. Food and space are shared, the same teachings fall on two sets of ears. How then can one be said to be so different, so apart from the other?

And at the deeper level, every body is one and the same sacred. The way a woman who’s just given birth counts her baby’s fingers and toes to feel satisfied everything’s all there, the Dharma starts with the premise that every human being is perfect as is. We don’t need to be born again or dunked in water to get pure. We are walking around with all the right stuff right now. We all have what it takes to ascend to the heavenly pinnacle of enlightenment and transcend our human suffering. The analogies are that there is butter in milk although you will not see it until you’ve churned the milk; the sun can be hidden behind a sky of clouds and gold is inside the earth but you’ve got to dig for it and polish it to know that. The big problem is that we don’t know how inherently ideal we are because nobody has pointed this out to us.

You get small hints of your hidden divine nature in most Asian Buddhist societies where the customary “angeli” (head down, hands clasped as if in prayer) that accompanies most encounters is actually the bowing to the Buddha in you. You get bigger hints when somebody devotes themselves to work as selflessly and intimately as a mother to help you grow up and realize your full potential: your Buddha nature. Waking you up to be all you can be is the heavy duty social work of Bodhisattvas and Rinpoches, lamas and roshis and acharyas. Whatever form they may take, their teachings all boil down to the one same announcement that you are no different from the Buddha, a human being who with much practice, aspiration and devotion transcended the limits of human life.

This is the bigtime human potential movement; these dedicated people believe without exception in everyone's perfection. That is the great secret of why so many millions come away so inexplicably joyful from encountering His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He has no force field surround: he does not beam thunderous judgment but the cloudless smile of acceptance which for one brief shining moment makes everybody feel fine. That is also why so many of us are so devoted to our teachers. They don’t judge or give up on us. Rather they are constantly crisscrossing the planet and all its security checkpoints, tirelessly and patiently devising ways to cure our blindness. The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has created an unexpectedly huge following with her message: “I’m not okay, you’re not okay and that’s perfectly okay because we’ve got what we need to deal with that.” My own teacher, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche is forever saying: “If you can practice a lot, that will yield enormous benefit; if you can practice a little, that will be of noticeable benefit; and even if you can’t practice much right now, well, we’ve planted the seed and eventually it will grow.”

With that kind of you can't go wrong encouragement, it does grow, self esteem. And slowly it shades out doubt, fear, distress. Perhaps that’s why outsiders often think Buddhists to be somehow exceptional people, singing in the rain types: true grit folks who follow through or come through, who don’t mind, who don’t need to take if they give, who seem to know something and smile a lot.

What's most interesting about such praise is that Westerners who tend to become Buddhists are those who physically or mentally have suffered more than most. We didn't start out as with-it, hot ticket A-list type-A parentally validated cheerleaders. But we’ve vaulted up the rungs of human potential nonetheless. Acceptance has made us, like those Academy winners, stand out. It has made us the little engines who could--and did. The magnetism of Dharma is its non discrimination. It so freely dispenses blessings you proudly make your bed and like a winner lie in it.

Technorati Tags: . . . , ,