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, August 23, 2006


My boy, the first child of my heart, is turning 35. We have known each other
since the day after he was born. That was in Virgo and maybe because I have Virgo rising, which means I am destined to become his type, we have always been extremely close. He now lives a few blocks from me, an entire continent away from his mother, my sister the ditzy and glitzy Gemini.

I did not always describe personality with astrological signs but on my 24th birthday, two years before my boy was born, my Manhattan roommate laid a Zodiac book on the birthday table. She wasn’t the type to believe in Mercury retrograde, having banked her faith in designer clothes and men with provenance. But this was the ‘60s so karma ingredients corporate capital couldn’t cook up were served as raw marketing triumphs and she, ever fashionable, bought astrology. When I put down my fork and looked up Capricorn, I saw myself so clearly reflected, fright almost took the dinner out of me. I kept glancing anxiously at the coq au vin for the unseen spy who knew the me nobody knows.

What a relief that was! I was born into a family more anxiously focused on faults than all the geologists in California and I seemed to be their San Andreas:
forget the A in French, look at the D in gym and why isn’t your skin better? Why are you so reserved, not perky? What’s wrong with you that you worry about your friends so much and why didn’t you take Finance instead of Creative Writing and shouldn’t your skin be thicker? How could you drop out of law school when I so wanted you to be a lawyer? (I am in my fact writing this only because none of them is standing by to grab the pen and push me outside to play ball and stop being weird.) Crippled by the weight of heavy criticism and feelings of failure for not meeting expectations, I developed breathing difficulties and leg pains, paralyzing aches where confidence should be and thoughts of suicide because it’s hard to grow without sunshine. Now here was the Sun Sign saying I hadn’t failed at all. I was just what the universe ordered when it called for Capricorn.

My friend moved onto a life where there is always something to go buy. The Zodiac launched me into a life where there is always something to go by. It’s the real world where gravity will keep pushing you down and younger people will keep pushing you aside and Scorpios will be far more likely vengeful than Pisces. In it the sun will come up even if you don’t meet the sales quota or do wear last year’s look and every being with any inkling of consciousness will go to any length to avoid pain and any expense to hang on to what pleases them. The Tao which means the way or Dharma which means all knowable phenomena or astrology or Greek mythology are some of its road maps.

The energy that governs this world is the same that animates and governs us and while you may think: “aha chaos theory!” my teacher says it’s here to help you. My friend Nancy who doesn’t believe in anything not headlined in TIME magazine reminds me during front porch chitchats that when she gets confused or brought up short, I promise her the universe provides and now that I've taught her to notice she can’t get over how it delivers. Better than Domino’s. I wanted to buy a small cottage back in Maine but the owner of the one I wanted refused to bargain, which so turned me off I gave up. But eventually I turned the search back on and found a cottage four houses away that was so much better situated and came out to be cheaper. I am still stunned that months ago when my friend Iris got upset by the collapse of a deal struck to move into an apartment because her house had not yet sold, I said there must be a reason the universe is protecting you; then ten days ago her younger sister abruptly died the day before she would have had to move.

There are of course business class ticket holders who believe in Will and Superman and Ayn Rand, take charge types certain what they see and touch is all there is and they can work with that because God is dead and they are in charge now. Sometimes I think the whole ‘60s cultural tug of war was a very raucous argument over what hands are on the steering wheel: will or grace by which I mean destiny and higher power. My grounded goddaughter tells me she’s in therapy because it’s good to have someone see your shit and call you on it. I agree. I do not know how much she pays an hour for doodoo dingdong, but for three shiny pennies the Book of Changes, the ancient Chinese
I Ching, with candor and cheekiness does it for me. When I asked about a new man with whom I was out of control in love, it told me I wasn’t going to like the answer, which was that I would always be in second place and that is exactly what turned out no matter how I tried to get it my way.

The real world doesn’t seem to be exclusive like a private club, operating on either or, like nature or nurture, will or fate. It seems to favor “ands.” A young friend recently told me he is in therapy because he has expectations, maybe aspirations, not being met so he feels powerless and depressed. I told him how a dozen years ago another young adult friend came to stay on his way out of college. He had in his baggage a mighty stubborn ambition to get hired by a specific investment bank and kept going there high on expectation. But its rival was the one that offered a position. “What should I do?” he asked anxiously. “Stone walls are red lights you can’t run,” I said. “And you get big headaches butting into them. Doors that open are the go ahead signal. The universe is giving you a green light. You must flow with the Go.” And so he put his will on fate like a jockey on a horse and magically sped along to dizzying heights of professional success, meeting a woman along the way who is now his business and life partner.

At start my boy was easy going and crazy about animals. I would find him at 4 on summer mornings lying on the floor hugging my dog, quietly singing as though she were his confidante. When at 7 he saw a family of seals dive into the water as our boat passed their sunning ledge, he burst into hysterics, terrified our churning motor was now going to chop them up. No BB guns for him, just crayons--he had a knack for graphics. At 12 he loved browsing bookstores and seeing foreign movies and swim racing, even if he didn’t win. His sister, not quite two years younger and a Gemini as outer directed as her mom, was the self-proclaimed winner who hated books and Harvard Square films and fashion not up to the minute cute. She brazenly assured me she was “a material girl just like Madonna” and indeed she consumed everything the culture served on MTV and Gap shelves, shrieking at my comparing her-- when her manicure prevented helping with the dishes--to a Barbie doll. In my sister’s house, my niece had a frilly souvenir stuffed room of her own upstairs; my nephew lived in a windowless space down in the basement.

My boy grew up to be so handsome MTV producers stopped us on a San Francisco street and made him offers he refused, insisting he was not interested. He did not have the confidence to be much interested in anything except perhaps long distance bike riding or sitting in my house watching movie after movie on the excuse that he was going to be a moviemaker soon. So many times he broke my heart, so many times I did not know what to do I broke my own. When he was six or seven, my boy’s father—a man I warned my sister not to marry because he seemed bizarre—revealed psychosis that perfectly matched his own father’s and slammed the door forever on his son. My boy came to stay with me and I picked up the drawings he dropped as he fell asleep at night, each started:
Dear Daddy. That was all.

My boy grew into a creative type: he has worked on movie sets in art direction and analyzes scripts. He has patience galore with children. He loves jazz and treasures literature. He aspires to save the whole environment while his new girlfriend is busy saving trees around Lake Tahoe. He doesn’t have much income. His sister, who described her own house to me as “6,000 square feet” and peppers conversation with the saucy “hottie”, complains he is such a loser; he doesn’t hang with happening people. My sister says he’s over 21 now so he’s no longer her problem and anyway she’s busy. His grandfather insists there’s something wrong with him because he’s not trying to get rich, which was my father’s dream. And of course it’s my fault so I should fix him. The Tibetan translation for samsara is korwa which means to go endlessly around and around, blindly spinning.

When a long time meditator asked our teacher why she couldn’t interest her grown children in Dharma, he said: “They haven’t suffered enough.” Who am I to argue when way too much of it including many funerals and the collapse of my orthopedic support system drove me straight to Buddhism. I was out of alphabetical order the evening I took refuge, a confirmation ceremony, having volunteered to be the ears of an L who was hard of hearing. As best as I could detect while the line progressed to G, the lama was naming everybody Karma this and Karma that and the woman I was helping got Karma something also. Then I bowed my head and he said:
Pema Chuchi. I was too stunned to move. Somebody gently pushed me and the Rinpoche resumed his Karma litany. During the tea party I learned Pema Chuchi means the flower that blooms from the energy of Dharma. I still don’t know how Ato Rinpoche knew what he was doing. Capricorns are described as the evergreens of the world, the scrawny bedraggled saplings who—unlike those quaking aspens of June-- have the strength to survive the worst of winter and eventually tower, unshakable and forever green.

The sublime poet Mary Oliver says the world calls to you over and over announcing your place in the family of things. When I visited a friend in Vancouver about eight years ago, she was using a book that blends the Chinese annual energy cycles with our monthly Zodiac to spy on the place of the young women her son was dating. Of course I had to look up me and the mirror-like portrait of the conflicted Capricorn Monkey unleashed that birthday déjà vu again. I freaked out yet felt better for it must be true that I picked up take-out karma on the way here. A Capricorn Monkey is, if you don’t believe me, supposed to be creative and know how to tell stories that are very emotional and can make suffering quite moving. That is why my perky Gemini Pig sister is one way, perhaps a buttercup, and moody me is quite another, a slow, steady late bloomer—like Autumn Joy.

Last December my niece had a baby, the next generation. My boy flew across the continent to the 6,000 square foot house two different times and came back the last one to confide that with all the anxious fault finding, bickering and busyness he observes, that boy is “definitely going to be screwed up.” I could see he felt sorry for that little boy the way I felt for him, the way I think the bodhisattvas are supposed to feel for all of us down here because they can see how we fashion so much suffering.

I could also tell my boy was finished being sorry. He had started to see there never was anything wrong with him at all. With the laying on of diaper hands comes the laying on of expectations, opinions and fault finding that feed the egos that make the fashionable world spin around. He was waking up just like the Buddha said to find in the sunshine of actuality the guy under all those opinion clouds was quite okay and very workable to boot. He got a job, he got a girl, he got a less defensive tone in the voice on his answering machine. Last night reading a book by my teacher on Buddha nature or the natural perfection that lies deep in all of us, I came upon this question: “Is there a special way to deal with everyday problems?” and Rinpoche’s answer: “…What ordinary beings do is try to fulfill their own wishes and to do so they have to harm other people. That’s just the nature of ordinary beings so that is how we should expect them to behave. That way our expectations will be met and we won’t suffer.”

The two of us just had dinner to celebrate his birthday, after he went kayaking to stay in training. A while back he took up this new extreme sport called Adventure Racing and evidently made himself a name in it. He has sponsors and pictures in the newspaper and a dynamic website he masterminded to the envy of professionals. I never ask him for details because I don’t want to know my boy ran, paddled and rapelled a three day marathon in the 115 degree desert around Moab, Utah. But now that he was talking with uncharacteristic triumph, I had this funny urge to ask him just what it is he does. “It’s exploration,” he said. “Lewis and Clark type stuff. You get to Start and they tell you where the finish line is and then it’s up to you to find your way there.”

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Sunday, August 13, 2006


I am not one of those perky good morning America! people who wakes up with a song in her heart and bounces out of bed with high beam enthusiasm. I am more: “website contacted, waiting for a reply,” the groggy slob who smashes the alarm and drifts off, grimaces, grumbles then eventually in defiant silence staggers with a do not tread on me demeanor toward the coffee pot. My father used to say if only I went to bed earlier I’d get up easier but that logic never works for me. My first year of sleepover summer camp when I was seven and lights out was at nine, I listed my pet peeve as Reveille. My first year of being in my 50s when I overheard an early rising boyfriend make an appointment for “midmorning” I plaintively bleated: What the hell is that?

My failure to fly into action at the sound of an alarm no matter how much I’ve slept crimps my faith in the infallibility of other people’s logic. It bolsters my faith in assuming because every situation is different it’s best to operate within its parameters and make distinctions: for instance, if the sun is not up yet, I should not be either. So I have to say it hurt when one of my most favorite dharma sisters, a lovely granny who at dawn can be found on the roof of the monastery leading yoga class, described somebody as: “…well, a little chubby, slow moving… you know, the type who can’t get out of bed in the morning.”

It peeves me, this personality presumption. I read in those blaring headline stories trumpeting the habits of the rich and famous, how those envied lean and mean icons of success are all up by 5 AM, working out, working away reading stacks of newspapers, sending emails, writing briefs, hopping planes, toppling nations and doing all they can do before I can even get my eyes open. I know we stamp our approval as A list by calling these rise and shine folks Type A because A comes first and certainly if you think of life as the Kentucky Derby where everyone starts to run at the sound of Go! first is best. I tend to distinguish them as Type A because they are ambitious, aggressive, action packed. “You don’t think I work hard?” a Wall Street tycoon said. “Well last Tuesday I flew to Los Angeles at midnight, got a car at dawn, drove two hours south, checked out a company, drove an hour west, checked out an operation, drove two hours north to look at another firm, then drove back to Los Angeles where I had two meetings before getting on a a redeye back to New York.” Oh my. I think that sounds like the very sort of work hard day those ambitious, aggressive and action packed guys at Al Qaeda might have too.

I do think it’s awesome people get up and can do all this stuff. I marvel how they take charge and barrel ahead with such certainty. They exert themselves to do things that make other things come undone and have to be redone causing consequences somebody has to do something about. So there is always a lot to do. These action types create a problem, say morning mouth, but then they do the solution, say mouthwash for only $4.99 a bottle. Or they create a problem, say Iraq and then they do a solution, hogwash for only $4.99 million a toilet seat, which gets a lot of people into action to show what they can do too and so the doing goes on and on, where it stops nobody knows—except perhaps all those folks hawking apocalypse now.

Clocks came to us with the industrial revolution so we could get mechanized with the factories, so we could get productive like them. And we got mechanized with Pavlov’s response to jump up at the alarm sound like a racer jumping the gun. We mechanically race to face the day, to do something-- mostly to get out and like factories make something-- of ourselves, perhaps a famous name, by making something, perhaps money. You know: the early bird gets the firm. This is obviously why Type As are affluent while Type Zzs like me are…well, rested.

Of course Buddhism is about waking up but, blessed be Shakyamuni Buddha, it doesn’t say at what time. And Dharma doesn’t prescribe jumping up to do something as soon as you awake. I just love it that in the poignant Chenrezig prayer we are supposed to say every night for all the suffering in the world, that while the suffering particular to the animal realm is dullness and stupidity, the suffering of humans is “excessive activity and constant frustration.” This is such a comfort because its hint at non-action diminishes my worry about lying in bed in the morning to face myself before I face the world. For me, this time is kind of intimate, precious carefree time, a date on which the I you see and the me I know hold each other and drift in an amorphous current of mental events trying to get it together. We have to be ready for whatever shows because the Buddha like a good Boy Scout said you never know so be prepared.

Of course I am prepared. Just like everybody else I have my To Do list. I have in fact always had a little list of things that should not be missed, things I have to do when I do get up. It’s just that what I most need to do is to remember my To Do list, then to do it. Today usually has the same stuff on it as yesterday and the day before and before. Not just establishing world peace and curing cancer. Below them all this week I had: wax legs (the hair was long enough to be set with rollers), supermarket (the fridge was frighteningly barren), post office (down to 3 stamps). But here is what happened:

Monday as soon as I got up I found out that the youngest sister of my college friend Iris had abruptly died over the weekend, probably from an anaphylactic reaction to new medication. Iris’ Monday agenda had included making a major presentation for a fund raising event and suddenly what she had to do was tell her parents Nancy was dead, make funeral arrangements and get her own husband to fly home from a convention in San Diego. Life did a major hostile takeover of her To Do list, and she didn’t want to consult any of those early risers in her Wharton world—the sort of high action folks who madly swim laps back and forth, back and forth, aggressively accomplishing the heart rate and ambitious numbers. She wanted to talk to me, Miss tread water and drift. She said I would know what to do.

I decided Tuesday would definitely be the day to do the To Dos but I woke up with my shoulder very out of sorts. This reminded me to make an appointment to have it checked when I go to Maine and, as it happened, after the machine message about the office being closed, the doctor herself picked up because she was right there waiting for a special fax. This gave her a chance to download all her latest explorations into Buddhist meditation during a divorce and some medical crises erupting around her and we got to talking about what to do with knowledge so that it causes no harm, how to handle wisdom—talking for an hour. I had just hung up when a call came from a popular young Nepali musician I love like a son; he was between tours and wanted to come by in an hour to say hello—a rare offer I could not refuse. I started to figure how to do my To Do list around him when the phone rang and the Chinese man whose healing hands help the aches of my orthopedic system said because I sounded like I was in a lot of pain he would come at the time just after the Nepali left which is when he normally has a break to eat between patients. So you see, this kind of day, telling me the logic of my life may not be my own, certainly knocks the certainty out of me. I said: wax, food, stamps and the cosmos threw a surprise party so that instead I got wisdom, joy, compassion.

Wednesday I had to go to Berkeley for a Tibetan friend so Thursday I was ready to do but alarm went off making all those red blooded red staters get right up and at ‘em. A pile of Pakistanis living in merry old England were picked up plotting to blow away US transatlantic airlines so the John Wayne types jumped right up to do something. Within minutes we had lots and lots of action because they were certain every August vacationer trying to get on a commuter jet with suntan lotion was a suspected terrorist. Word had leaked that the Pakistani plot involved mixing benign liquids into lethal bombs on planes flying out of London, so these guys took charge and instantly declared all gels, liquids, lipstick and creams carried onto airplanes-- by people who hadn’t even heard the news--to be weapons of mass destruction. At security lines airports began mass destruction of toothpaste, eye drops, rouge and unopened bottles of drinking water.

In America people used to be innocent until proven guilty, but now the buckaroos who had to do something reversed the logic: everyone was presumed guilty, even toddlers, for all carry-on baggage and carry-on bunnies were taken away. Millions of bewildered people back from the beach or business deal boarded airplanes one step short of strip searched, carrying a single plastic bag of belongings just like perpetrators booked into prison.

Well, that Number One non-action guy the Buddha said we have this habit of trying to get rid of our suffering with action that only creates more suffering and there was the action with lights and camera. When the alarm sounds I just throw the blanket over my head; the directors of the do something derby threw a blanket ruling over everybody and their toothpaste. Israeli security, which can do action just fine, urged the more limited response of profiling—sort of operating within the parameters of the situation and making distinctions. That way kids could keep their juice boxes because, frankly, parents getting aboard an airliner with three kids really don’t have the strength for more terror. But we don’t seem to like limits and parameters, and distinctions don't always come with certainty. They make for ambiguity; they make you have to be responsible to think and thinking…well, that’s non action. That’s why so many folks whose certainty gets shattered by a funeral in the family or fire in the furnace or a current event like 9/11 flee to work: a job provides something to do, the appearance of action. It makes a person feel solid again, certain, can-do. Sometimes I think that’s why when the alarm goes off, people who can’t face themselves—all that juicy human ambiguity, limitation and unknown-- leap out of bed like passengers bailing off Titanic

Dr. Bonnie and I talked about how wisdom and compassion are the eyes that see what’s happening but they’re kind of stuck without legs for action. Those legs are skillful means,
upaya sometimes translated from Sanskrit as power, and they are seriously hard to come by because being skillful means acting to cut suffering without creating more of it.

Friday His Eminence Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche talked in public about such means for the alchemy of turning our ripped, dirty fearful selves into bright useful gold. There are three things on the To Do list. The hardest is not to get stirred up and stir things up, inevitably for the worse. All these schools of thought are passing by in our minds and suddenly, like a fish going for the bait hook, we get caught on one of them, just one of them. Here a thought there a thought everywhere a thought thought. We hook onto one of the passing millions, grab on for the certainty of having something to hold onto and cling afraid to let go, creating a huge lethal whirlpool as we flail. We hear a nihilistic cabal plotting to turn liquids into terror and get hooked on the thought: liquids are terrifying. So we terrorize and torture normal people trying to fly on an airplane, blow up the economic future of our airlines, take Teddy bears from the hands of babies and the funniest part is this new thought on Saturday morning that all these weapons of mass destruction collected on Thursday and Friday, all the water and wine and lipstick, should be donated to charity because who wants to throw away perfectly good stuff?

The second thing to do is want to actively engage in the conversion process by applying antidotes and the third which is far and away the easiest is simply to wish that everybody can do this. You know: like all those Miss America’s, it’s to make the aspiration for world peace. Khyentse Rinpoche talked about supply and demand: the demand for peace seems to greatly exceed the supply these days so we need to get a little supply side economy going, need to get out there and produce peace.

Now as it happens, on Thursday when I was taking off with my To Do list, I got one of those internet emails that spins around, this one purporting to be an old Chinese proverb about how money can buy a mattress but not rest, a clock but not time, a book but not wisdom. I started thinking: it also can’t buy the leisure to lie in bed doing nothing but getting to be with myself. This is something I can do. This is why I will never be Type A. If there is any Buddhist thought to hold onto it is: peace begins in your own mind. Not getting hooked on somebody’s thought, not stirring things up that should be left to settle, not blaming someone else for a loved one’s death, not being afraid you can’t do your agenda. It’s only when you truly know what peace feels like that you can start to spread it around. Alarms are wake-up calls even when it’s not morning in America. When they sound, I figure you can respond with the jump into action or you can stay still—not adding to the confusion, panic, disturbance of the peace-- until you are awake enough to know just what to do.

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Friday, August 04, 2006


My teacher’s monks seem to get endless laughs out of my self-chosen Bodhisattva name: Hayong Trukhen Lakpa. These three little words properly pieced together bring you as close as you can get in Tibetan to what we call dishpan hands, an expression I had translated in honor of all my time spent in the kitchen at meditation retreats. I am the devotee whose dharma duty between the opening chants and final dedication of merit often turns out to be cooking something up: meals for 140 students, dinners for many a guru, and days worth of nutrition for the 350 Himalayan kids in my teacher’s Kathmandu boarding school who eagerly shout “America machen!”, the cook from America, whenever I show up.

KP has taken me to the intersection of Buddhism and food where I’ve learned enough to write a few articles and to be writing a book about Himalayan cooking. It also got me to see at the nexus of Buddhism and food the fountain of endless surprise fed by the flow of endless misconception, for when it comes to understanding the dharma of dinner Westerners are all wet. The time I made 850 cookies for nine afternoon teas at a New England retreat for 80 appalled friends in whose Jewish/Christian minds piety means abstinence: the haunting spirituality of a fast, not for godssake a feast of tea with homemade cookies. I’ve shared the experience of Theravada Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein who finds students shocked to find her in the faculty room drinking coffee—coffee! —because Buddhists are supposed to be dead calm tea sippers. And I’d like to take this opportunity to mention my surprise when Ten Speed Press, so anxious for first rights to my Himalayan cookbook On High Ground, abruptly and rudely dropped it because they didn’t want to deal with a “cuisine of scarcity.” But the biggest shocker is always that Buddhists do eat meat.

Hitler may have been a vegetarian but Gautama Siddhartha, the Shakyamuni Buddha, was not. He reportedly died of food poisoning after eating rotten pork served by an unknowing host who intended only to be generous. This was a denouement that neatly illustrates his teachings on the topic of meat eating: do not yourself knowingly kill a creature merely for the pleasure of your own meal of it and do not waste or flaunt life by refusing whatever may be served to you-- which is to say beggars can’t be choosers. The Buddha did however choose to pig out on more than his fair share of that lethal pork in order to save others from the suffering he foresaw it was going to cause.

The Buddha never said: Thou shalt not eat meat because Dharma does not slap absolutes on human life. How can it when it teaches that everything is constantly changing according to causes and conditions: a moment comes together differently from the next or last moment and the truth of that moment no longer holds. It’s all relative, all that gray area called what to do? taxing your gray matter all the time because you have to keep thinking fast on your feet to be present for the circumstances of the current moment. Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche says that in this whirlpool the only thing you can have complete control over is your intention span. Maybe this is why what the Buddha said was: First, do no harm.

Tophooey Westerners blindly stuck in the monolithic absolutism of monotheistic thinking like to grab onto the concept of the Sacred Cow as a pitch for strict vegetarianism. But it is strictly a practice of do no harm. The arrival of the Iron Age with its novel weapons of crass destruction had allowed the Brahmin class to so greedily indulge in the nonstop ritual sacrifice of cattle for gluttonous dinner parties that the rest of India seemed to be dazedly starving on the side. The sanctification of the cow was a way of saying the cow is worth way more alive than dead since it chews down the grasses to make a field, pulls the plow that produces legumes and vegetables, provides dung for both fertilizer and cooking heat, provides milk for protein, provides more cows and because of all these life saving qualities can be exchanged as money in bridal dowries. Net net, in India it is not cost efficient to eat steak; it is in fact an arrogant, deleterious waste of vital resources. The Sacred Cow re-established harmony in the interdependence of all beings.

Coffee or tea? Tofu or tuna? Spiritual beings ought to fast not feast. Western minds prefer things to be all one way or the other, right or wrong, so they are constantly torturing themselves in the hell of continual judgment seeking that ever elusive stamp of eternal approval. Just last month, the lovely, devoted dharma student who was to take over from me the honor of serving water to the teacher went into a tailspin of angst trying to nail down the precise way to do it: glass to the left or right, what moment to start, how high to hold the tray…? All I could say was: “I don't think there is a right or wrong way; I just do what feels workable at the moment and I haven’t been smitten by any Furies.”

The Buddha was a hard core realist who taught that life is not a one-way highway to heaven but a delicate balancing act here on Earth. The opening words of the Abhidharma, the scientific text on apparent truth are: “All beings exist on food.” Buddhism began with a meal. Bedraggled and near death from ascetic practices that led not to transcendence, Siddartha finally accepted an offering of food whereupon his body regained the strength that allowed him to pursue meditation and attain enlightenment. So his teaching is: Eat and be well. That’s why it’s hard to imagine him condoning continued Macrobiotic eating when it causes malnutrition or condemning the Dalai Lama for eating meat after his good faith effort to go cold turkey vegetarian caused him serious digestive damage.

Admittedly the perp walk between Eat and Do No Harm is tricky. That’s why the Buddha taught in the Sutras that food should not be an indulgence, an object of blood lust and wanton pleasure; it should be treated as mere necessity. You gotta do what you gotta do but you don’t gotta make a big deal over one ingredient or other, one restaurant or other, one sycophantic Food Section article. And he larded the Vinaya, the code of behavior, with table manners for, as Trungpa Rinpoche told his Western students: “A lot of things are based on the idea of eating food properly, which is how to behave as a basically decent person.”

Dharma clearly is not so much concerned with what you eat as how you eat. The kids at my teacher’s school in Nepal call themselves “veg” and “non-veg” at meal times then go about their day together, one group not holier than the other. The Tibetan people are among its most pious devotees but inhabit a frozen skyscraper landscape that has forced their bodies to evolve so totally dependent on livestock they cannot be “non-veg.” Yet they do not eat themselves up over it. My teacher who comes from Kham but now lives mostly between India and Nepal has finally adjusted his digestive system enough to be happily vegetarian for a stretch but when a hostess in New England asked him what he wanted her to make for dinner, he said without hesitating: “Steak!”

I happen to know he wouldn’t sit down and relish eating it all bloody rare or remotely pink hot off the grill or with bragging rights at The Palm. I have been trained to cook all signs of life out of meat served. I know to cut it into bite sized pieces so there is no “butchering at the table” with sharp weapons of aggression that could kill the person sitting next to him. I also know he said steak because Tibetans try to minimize harm (i.e. killing) by eating only from large animals. That way one death sustains many lives. I got this loud and clear when I took my Tibetan goddaughter Tashi to see a Maine lobster pound and she started screaming hysterically about a holocaust of beings, screaming even louder outside over the crab traps. I went home and got rid of the clams, mussels and those tiny Maine shrimp, six to a bite, while she fled to the supermarket where she bought a pound of beef out of which she made dumplings for six. I’m just glad I hadn’t been planning to serve individual Cornish hens or smoked trout.

I know too that every Saturday in Sarnath, India a carful of my teacher’s monks goes down and pours $100 worth of somebody else’s fresh caught fish back into the Ganges just as last October his devoted students poured $1200 worth of bait fish back into San Francisco’s bay. If you are going to consume life then you’re going to have to demonstrate that you do actually respect and want to protect it. That’s why Tibetans engage in Lenten-like refrain from eating not only meat but eggs on certain appointed holy days of the month and/or during the entire holy month of Saga Dawa, the fourth month of the Tibetan year and that month in which the Buddha is said to have been born. (Typically this coincides with Gemini.)

Most Buddhists also buy and set free creatures marked for consumption other than fish: water buffaloes, yaks, ducks, goats, sheep and pigs are often decorated with bright ornaments before being returned to the wild or offered to the pastures of a rural monastery. Tibetans have developed such an extraordinary sense of fair play that in the end, they give their bodies back to the wild to be eaten too. We’re probably not going to be having sky burial here any time soon but perhaps our latter day equivalent is giving our bodies to be harvested for life-saving organs.

The absolute in Dharma is not a set of commands. It is your mindfulness, your awareness of what exactly you are doing, and some things are better than others as a support for that. I happen to be a meditator who dislikes tofu, a sometime carnivore who tries very hard to honor the animal who gave its life for me— whatever the circumstances -- by paying careful attention to the way I prepare, cook and present it rather than mindlessly slopping it out. I clean my plate, scrape the pot, don’t waste one drop in this exchange of its life for mine (the dog downstairs loves my largesse). When asked how to cope with being a carnivore and a Buddhist, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, the traveling yogi considered the modern day emanation of the great Milarepa, told us: you make a karmic connection to any animal you consume and thus assume a debt that can be paid only by living so virtuously that one and all gain merit for rebirth in the paradise of no-suffering. Frankly, this is not an awareness, aspiration or motivation Hayong Trukhen Lakpa ever gets jumpstarted or sustained by string beans.

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