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, May 17, 2006


A friend writes that to her surprise she’s running a lunchtime dharma study group at work and that because the women seem to like it they continue to come by the dozen. Now, she said, I have to explain “emptiness” in 20 minutes and that’s a very tall order. Well, I would have agreed with her until today when I discovered Lexus has made it a lot shorter with that bold new advertising slogan: Is it possible to engineer desire?

The answers are everywhere. Last week there was PALMS POP UP ALL OVER S.F, the big banner front page headline in the San Francisco Chronicle. Below in small print you discovered that $1.9 million has been spent planting these alien trees around this chillingly foggy town as “towering symbols of tropical paradise in an effort to lure tourists… .” Although palm trees are expensive and serve no useful function (they do not provide oxygen as an antidote to traffic gases or provide shade or cover from the wind), “palms are,” one official explained, “associated with upscale places like Miami Beach.” So according to plan, while you’re bending to avoid the July wind and huddling knock kneed in your fleece on a downtown skid row corner, if you look up and see a Canary Palm right there beside you, you are going to thank the heavens and your fabulous travel agent that you’ve finally arrived in the dazzling elite beach resort of your dreams and go home happily fulfilled, raring to return.

Of course, the tree itself doesn’t know anything about this. It’s not putting out Miami vibe, crescent beaches, Hollywood hipness, spells or anything at all in its pillar trunk or fan leaves; just atoms and molecules doing their thing to form a tree. That Canary palm does not possess the significance your sucker’s mind has attached to it. The illusion is all yours. There is, you might say, no there there.

Snake oil salesmen, those touchstones of the American landscape, are alive and very well. Like Peter Pan urging Wendy to believe, the advertising industry is sweating its brains out every day to sell “experience.” They pump gas to fill up an empty space and get us going on the power of suggestion. What do you see when welded steel on rubber rings comes in sight: how orgasmic you’re going to feel stepping out of a Mercedes onto red carpet? How invincible you will be inside a Hummer so nobody will mess with you? Or just welded steel on rubber rings that can roll you down the road to where you want to go? (Actually a true definition of emptiness would require deconstructing the rubber and steel down to a mere accidental and temporary accumulation of sub-atomic particles but let’s not go there right now.)

We all know that in a darkened room someone cleverly moves their fingers as a shadow in light on a wall and someone else sees a live puppet with a whole story going on when in fact nothing is happening except two fingers are moving through light. And remember that wizard of Oz? Imagination is a magical reality stuffed with mirage, chimera, charade, illusion and delusion that in our world hopefully cause not necessarily heart or brains but shopping. The entire consumer culture runs on Rorschach. What do you see in the ink blot although there is absolutely nothing there but ink? Not nothingness because there IS ink, but emptiness because there is ONLY ink and not what you projected onto it.

But project we do and we so like our projects that even without LSD, we live in a world of hallucination. Two days ago I received a Washington Post snippet about a mutual "friend" who after an obsessive campaign of relentless pestering succeeded in getting a picture of her current poodle hung at The Palm. The hanging at this particular restaurant apparently signifies her importance to the scene which, like a magnet, supposedly makes her more attractive and thus more important. All that significance ascribed to the restaurant, its wall display and the individual human bodies who are going to react to it, does it exist or not? Is it projection beyond the big screen? There is only a dog picture on a restaurant wall and look at the scenario now framing it. It truly is a mad mad world but where would the GNP be without us chasing our own tales?

On another hand, I myself got up close and personal with emptiness through a reality check that came in the male. Relationships are the very essence of the two fuels that drive us: hope and fear, bringing them up in a steady stream—s/he loves me, s/he loves me not—that gets us endlessly acting out. Wanting it to be so, I read the simple wave of a hand as a come on to connection, a brief phone call from the road as fidelity: “He’s thinking of me!” But in the end there was no connection, no fidelity, just me and the whole narrative I in having gone gaga had spun out to sustain that, excusing him along the way for not crossing the bar of my expectations—not that he knew what they were. I was living in a fantasy of my own spinning. As Miranda pointedly finds out on Sex and the City, if he doesn’t call, you don’t make an excuse and keep waiting. You don’t keep creating scenarios because all you are doing is filling an empty space with your own panicky delusions.

Overhearing two anonymous younger women trying to decipher as secret code the non-responsive behavior of one’s boyfriend, the newly liberated Miranda brazenly interrupts to announce: “Forget it! He’s just not into you!” And the women spit anger at her. It is painful to get real. It is really hard to see things for what they are. We all want to believe we can be happy, feel good, have what we desire. So we don’t need all the graduates of MIT to engineer desire and we don’t need Lexus either. We’re all doing a very good job all by ourselves. Something, even delusion, seems to feel better than the non story that is emptiness, that plain truth, as my friend Tommy always says with a shrug: it is what it is.

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Monday, May 08, 2006


An old boyfriend once told me that if you love someone, really love them, you may have to let them go. If you loved them, he explained, you wanted them to be happy no matter what, even if their happiness was beyond you, for true love meant letting them go to be who they had to be, the way a wise parent frees a child to its own space. This was so hard to swallow, I took it at the time as a set up excuse for a break-up that was about to happen, which of course it did. But ensuing experience gave the advice some credence and eventually, after I was introduced to them, The Four Immeasurables became the spoonful of sugar that made it go down. You cannot awake everyday and say: “May all beings have happiness and be free of suffering” without some resonance wresting your behavior. Dharma is after all about impermanence, a user’s guide to letting go.

So yesterday I smiled courageously in the doorway as my First Love reached the bottom step and walked briskly to his rented Jaguar, late for the big business deal. “Thanks,” he hollered nonchalantly, not even bothering to look back. “Don’t know when we’ll ever do this again.” Into the car he disappeared, taking off with the same you are no big deal aloofness he did 43 years ago.

Love is messy like ink stain because spilled emotions never really clean up without a trace, and the first ones etched on a stainless surface usually become indelible. That’s why those heartwarming stories about widowed or widower senior citizens who reclaim their high school sweetheart to live happily ever after. As a poet said, the friends you make before adulthood are the true or pure ones for you have at that stage nothing to offer each other but your selves.

Certainly First Love’s was spectacular. I was newly 18, naïve, quiet, smart and he at 19 was wild, cunning, speed hungry and powered by razor blade intelligence. Scandalized peers exclaimed us dangerously improbable and urged me to flee. I wanted to but his brazen frankness launched my first visit to a place that scared the hell out of me. With stubborn courage I didn’t know I had I stood by him and cut right through not only my own shaky sense of self but his. That made him trust me with his truth, me trust him back with my life and the victory of our intimacy was heady bliss. Then without a word or trace he vanished.

For what seemed an insufferably long semester or two stuffed with no one remotely equal, I moped as I obsessively tried to solve the mystery of his evaporation. I indulged in endless He loves me loves me not hair pulling, while deep down in my heart of hearts the thought kept pestering me that perhaps he’d fled because he loved me. The merger of true coupling calls for some sacrifice of sovereignty as I squeezes into we so maybe he couldn’t survive the loss. I who had pierced him with laser like intuition was his scary place and in his stubborn determination to hold onto himself, he had to flee for dear life.

First Love cut through delusion, etching into my heart the secret suspicion that love is such a frightening charnel ground most marriages are really business deals for monopoly control or bargains of convenience. Our culture is awash in good old fashioned romance novels and the Ivy League version known as chick lit because man will do anything to be worthy of the woman he loves marriages like Calvin Trillin’s, so bravely and magnificently described in his recent New Yorker elegy to his late wife, are not the norm. That’s why in the huge dramatic Sex and The City moment Carrie catches up to tycoon Big who has just got himself engaged to a good looking little tart and compulsively screams: why her and not me? It was déjà vu all over again only this time with an answer: Baby, you are just too much. Too complicated, too much change of heart, too scary to not be in the driver's seat.

Because First Love awakened me to the reality of self-preservation, I have never been able to forget him. Evidently he can’t forget me either. Every half decade or more he pops up. At first when we happened upon each other by chance, he would seize the situation by suddenly finding time to offer me. When I moved out of physical range, as soon as he would hear about me from someone he’d call to find out when I might come closer. And so over the decades downhill through time like a beginner’s skis we briefly came together then parted. He still has the confidence in me to share his confidences. It seems important to him to show me his success, that potential I first saw in him, and to continue to expand upon that from the financial to the familial. Apparently,to have someone know you inside out and still be standing by is not just frightening, it is desirable, setting up a real push pull. For 43 years First Love has been checking in, checking on my approval, and immediately checking out like a spa visit. Never has been said an affectionate word but I now know alas that I was correct all along. It is his Taurus/Monkey karma to avoid any love that threatens his autonomy. At the first flap of butterflies in his stomach or weakness in his knees, he’s destined to vanish, without a hint of explanation to avoid being hurtful.

Khampa people say you should end things quickly and cleanly like a knife cutting through butter but it is my karma to be deeply in love forever with whoever manages to meet my gold standard. So although I live a fine life full of blessings and bounty and busyness, that gravelly voice that came over the dorm phone so long ago is still magnetic. This time though, with a dharma eye, I saw myself sucked into the whole samsaric shebang. Lives are all like the paintings of Seurat for everyone in our frame of reference leaves a dot or imprint. First Love is an attachment buried in my foundation consciousness and once the senses get wind of him, my immediate mind shifts into high gear to haul out memories that morph into a geyser of wistful and wishful thoughts making the wheel of nidanas spin faster and faster. Every incident of our lives has a beginning, middle, but, as Pema Chodron likes to point out, no end because we keep it going on and on in our thoughts, desperate to reach happily ever after.

Mine of course is that he finally says “I love you” before he runs but the absolute truth is that happily ever after is the dissolution of all attachment. My teacher Thrangu Rinpoche says love is just the habit of attachment. Karma brings you together but habit keeps you going. Our bodies are atoms constantly in ricochet romance, desperate to bond into a molecule. In our seemingly unbearable isolation we continually struggle to reach out to touch someone and actually getting through with a real connection is precious because it’s rare. We don’t want to let go. It’s bliss when consciousness changes. All sense of separation is off. The momentary cessation of struggle feels like nirvana and that frankly is addictive. Like it says in the lyrics of that lovely old ballad But Beautiful: “Love is a problem or it’s play; it’s a heartache either way but beautiful…beautiful to take a chance and if you fall you fall...” When the I is rounded out to live becomes to love.

A very dear dharma sister once told me not to beat up on myself for being human. After all we are stuck in these bodies powered by habits we’re struggling to overcome. The human heart is autistic. It lives by its own rhythms, its own intelligence and codes and doesn’t necessarily respond to reason or dharma talks. If you love someone for who they are then you’re stuck loving them as long as they have those qualities you love and if they suddenly enter your airspace and want to land you likely want to give them permission. You are one of the beings who may have happiness.

Thrangu Rinpoche, commenting on a text by Jamgon Kongtrul, Lodro Thaye, said:
Suffering is the dance of what is.
Suffering, mental pain, distress, agony,
all these states can be seen as the dance of what is,
meaning as an opportunity to realize the nature of things.

I had that old sinking feeling of being the road bypassed, the Type A's plan C, as I stood in the doorway and watched the rented Jaguar disappear. Yet I knew for certain I could not have lived with him because we are temperamental and cultural opposites. I also knew I didn’t want to live without him for what I love so deeply is not that tycoon who smokes cigars and sneers at the liberalness of San Francisco. It is the feeling of being loved, being intimately connected beyond words, being special to someone who stands out in my crowd. We held hands walking to the restaurant and for a moment I was 18 again, a beautiful reflection of his fulfillment. All over again, I mattered. Then he walked out and I didn’t. I had only my own reflection in the mirror, that of a 61-year-old woman who had loved and been let go. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche said crying when someone dies is the manifestation of selfishness. The dead person has been liberated from suffering, so your tears are for yourself. Left alone and flat, you can't see your self reflected and fear it isn't really there.

The Dzogchen view, to be practiced into fruition, is that the world is pure and perfect as it is. From start to finish First Love turned out to be the blessing of a perfect teacher. In the painful wake of his departure, I went to walk on the beach where getting out of my car the first thing I saw on the side of a kite boarder’s car was a sign that said: It all depends on the ebb.

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