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, September 30, 2006


It isn’t every day you get to be God especially if you are a Buddhist. But if-- as those who are fervently praying all this Jewish New Year weekend-- God gets to inscribe the living in the book of life, thus deciding who gets to live and who does not, I did indeed have the job.

It fell into my lap when like an arrow a mouse brazenly shot out of the fireplace and headed straight to the kitchen. I dropped my book in shock. There was the explanation for those strange little deformities on the edges of the soap bar by the sink… and the source of those inexplicable seeds here and there on the granite counter. Here was the dastardly culprit who upstairs had sacrilegiously noshed and crapped on the Tibetan malas (rosaries) I had carried all the way from Kathmandu to Maine to give to my teacher when he arrived so he could give them out as gifts. What a panic, having to make a cross country call to Berkeley to get costly replacements in time.

And the time had come. My teacher was in Maine, past the middle of this stop on his world tour. He was coming to my house for luncheon--and my kitchen counter had been turned into a mouse toilet! I called around for a Have-a-heart trap but nobody had one. Instead everybody had the heart to remind me if I’d seen a mouse, my house must be a riddled with them because everybody knows mouse is a misnomer for mice. Just as there is not a potato chip there’s no such thing as one mouse—even if they do all look alike.

As it happens, I refuse to not live at least some time in Maine because being part of a very apparent ecosystem rich in wild life makes me feel alive: it’s magical to watch the great blue heron or swimming seal, the loon, the red fox, even the occasional raccoon mother lumbering down from a tree. But a mouse in the house? I locked up every temptation I could think of, including that nibbled soap, in the hope that emptiness would drive the unwelcome creature back to the great outdoors.

I had to leave the house to buy lobsters because my special luncheon the next afternoon was to include a surprise fish release in which living fish headed for death are sent back to the sea. I was worried I might not have time to round up living fish from fish markets in the morning. I was gone less than an hour. When I returned with two flip flapping lobsters, the varmint had rudely nibbled through the gold foil wrapper on one of my precious See’s Chocolate Lollypops stuck in a vase and then munched the pop itself. I had dragged those irreplaceable treats across the country so the monks could take them as gifts to Kathmandu and that mouse had the nerve to eat one! First the malas, now the lollypop. That did it!

I was...there it was, darting from the sink toward the lollypops at the end of the counter. The mouse hovered on the backsplash as we met eye to eye. We both froze. Maybe it is politically incorrect to say this, even if I have spent the past decade trying to determine why all Asians do not look alike by looking for salient facial differences, but it sure looked like the same lively wide-eyed mouse I first saw. I was sure I had just one.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” I said. I subtly slid my right hand toward the small tin of my homemade toasted pumpkin seeds. The mouse bolted across the stovetop toward the lollypops at the counter’s end and jumped down behind the propane heater. “Hey wait!” I hollered. I turned on the propane heater hoping to force it out from behind when it got hot back there. I sat down on the planked floor and told the mouse I was trying to save its life: you know, the ‘I am here to help you’ speech. And you know what they say about quiet as a mouse.

I got antsy, got up and put down a tiny trail of pumpkin seeds leading to an empty deli tub I held on its side. I sat back down and, having heard that gurus can calm wild animals by singing this common mantra, I chanted:
Om mani padme hum—may all beings be freed of suffering. Thank Buddha I was home alone and nobody could see a very adult woman sitting on the floor staring at a wall heater singing in Tibetan to an invisible mouse.

I got miffed that this creature was not tricked by my treats, not dashing for my homemade pumpkin seeds the way my real friends do. But then, I realized, I couldn’t let a little insult mar my eternal karma.
With my teacher in the vicinity all merit was magnified and all bad karma blown equally out of proportion so I was desperate to save this mouse. I tried a different mantra: that of White Tara, goddess of long life and wisdom, protectress of beings. I waxed ecstatic about the fine life it could have in the field down at the end of the dirt road if it would only appear. But it wouldn’t.

I did not want the trail of seeds to be a trail of tears but I did not have the entire evening to sit on the floor singing to a mouse. The Buddha was coming for lunch and everything had to be ready. I tried to be nonchalant: I got up, got out disinfectant and washed the entire counter and stove and sink and the foil on the remaining lollypops, all the while keeping an eye out for the mouse to move so I could pounce sort of Tom and Jerry style. No luck.

Finally, after another round of sitting on the floor singing to the space heater, I gave up.
My karma was going to hell and this was not a Saturday morning cartoon but what was a girl to do? I dashed to the car, sped two miles to the convenience store and nervously stalked the aisles, hunting for the dreaded Decon. I was risking not only my future life but the putrid stench of decaying mouse in the wall of this one. But how could I afford to risk the sight of mouse turds in Rinpoche’s lunch? I consoled myself by remembering the story of a virulent outbreak of Shigella dysentery at a huge tent retreat in the Colorado Mountains which sent the guru storming into the tent kitchen darkened by swarming flies. “Why don’t you have flypaper up?” he demanded. Because of course being newly and zealously Buddhist, nobody wanted to kill living creatures. So the guru screamed how utterly stupid and irresponsible they all were, making everybody near fatally sick just to save disease carrying flies. Up went those sticky curls of flypaper.

And so Decon: four packages to the box Made in America with a BIG stars and stripes flag. Decon: “Fifty years of killing rats and mice in America!” What a headline brag about all the death it had engineered. And here was I, also made in America where the highly compensated elected and unelected executives are cavalierly killing thousands of human beings by the hour and celebrating that as victory. I was standing at the counter of a gas station convenience store behind two burly guys in tattoos buying cigarettes and beer, churning with angst about killing a field mouse. I mean, who was I to will the death of a living creature? Had not the God of the Bible buried Jonah in a gourd for wishing to do that as well? Have not all those soldiers made to kill living beings struggling to survive in the Muslim madness post traumatic syndrome because slaughter is not doing a what comes naturally?

With trembling hands I opened one of the four packages of poison in the box. I threw the other three in the garbage and put the bait where the trail of seeds had started. I held my breath. Then I sat down in front of the heater and chanted
Om mani padme hum. I reminded myself of the old tale about the south Indian swami who sat on his throne in the steamy heat preaching against aggression of any sort while loudly smacking the mosquitoes who landed on his arms and legs. “ How can you kill them?” one of his devotees asked in horror. “Because,” the swami said without breaking his rhythm, “I am hastening them on to a higher incarnation.” I sang to the mouse the prayer for rebirth in the pure land and told it I hoped it wouldn’t be born again in Toys are us form.

I started to worry about the two lobsters I had bought not making it through the night. Outside heavy rain had begun to crash and there was thunder, strikes of lightening like retribution. It mightily scared me but I put on a slicker, grabbed the biggest pot I owned and bravely navigated my way through the stormy night to the bottom of my slippery dock. I was on a lifesaving mission to get seaweed and a bit of sea water. Back in the house, I poured the click clacking lobsters from the waxy fish market bag into the pot of seaweed, cooing how happy they were going to be to end up not in boiling water but back in their freezing ocean free and clear to do their own thing. They had been saved! Happily I pushed the huge pot into the fridge, taking great care not to dislodge the towel I had ingeniously tied over the top to keep them from crawling out. I was such a good girl!

I turned to preparations for the lunch and was chopping vegetables when at high speed the mouse bolted from behind the heater and charged into the fireplace from which it had originally run. I put down the cleaver and prayed for it. I apologized. I was not only sorry, I was depressed at now having such bad karma to overcome. I jettisoned the open package of poison and went to bed praying for the mouse and for me to at least not have to suffer the smell of its rotting carcass in the walls.

Early the next morning I ran around the nearest town looking for live bait to rescue and send back to the sea. You’d think in a fishing capital like Maine this would be easy but in Maine dead bait is all the lure you get. I could free eels, but the guy who sold them was late to open and I had to move on. So I went to the nearest fish market and scooped up a lobster plus clams and mussels not farmed but yanked from the wild. I stuck them on ice in the back of my car and sped to the retreat’s closing ceremony: a ritual for the long life of my teacher. (And people think I am having 10 days of total blissed out calm!)

Once the last white scarf had been offered to the guru, I flew out the door to set up for the lunch and surprise fish release also for his long life. My teacher is nearly 73 years old and as he is the most revered scholar of Tibetan Buddhism alive you can’t really overdo these rites. I drove home down a country road passing the butcher shop where the day before I’d picked up the lunch meat. On one side of that road are the cows grazing and on the other a huge unmarked barn attached to the meat emporium where I’d asked if they had a brisket good to go. When they said: “We can get you one” I looked over to the field to see if I could determine which steer would be coming to lunch at my house. One of them had because a 6 pound piece of meat was in my oven. Maybe if I had asked for lamb it would still be nibbling grass with its friends out in that field?

Then at last Rinpoche was at my house. The meat was on the serving plate, the clams and mussels on the dock. I ran for the lobsters in the fridge. I threw the towel off the pot, heady with excitement about saving their lives. But no! They lay unmoved. “Dead,” my Dharma sister Joan the scientist said, peering over my shoulder. “Probably not enough oxygen. They took all they could get from the little bit of water and it wasn’t enough.” I had inadvertently killed them—sort of death by friendly fire.

And so it was: wanting a ceremony for the long life of my guru, I had invited him to lunch and somehow managed to cause the death of one cow, one mouse and two lobsters. That is why I cannot begin to describe how thrilling and fulfilling it was to stand on my dock next to him and send back to the sea, one lobster, two pounds of clams and one pound of mussels that had been mercilessly ripped out of it to be put to death. Thanks to me, off they went freed of suffering, inscribed for life. This part was absolutely painless and absolutely joyful and I'd take the job absolutely any time.

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Friday, September 22, 2006


Not long ago, I drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles on infamous I-5, a spooky four-lane speedway that for three hours shoves you through preternaturally perfect plantations, past identical concrete clover leafs, off ramps paved only for desert oases of fast food and gas, and into the one true marker of the whole flat out run: ten miles of high stink manure from Harris Ranch where if you are not gagging you can stop to eat steak. Driving the alien I-5 makes me feel I’m playing the lead role in a horror movie, and this mid-summer trip was even scarier. At 75 miles an hour, whizzing past right lane semis and slaloming around SUVs lolling in the left, I had to keep deciding mile by mile whether in the record breaking 115 degree heat, I should fry myself or fry the car: air conditioning off, air conditioning on. A breakdown on this desolation freeway, famous for predator perverts and pirates, could be fatal.

Comfort is all I wanted when I arrived. I wanted to be soothed, born again in the human realm, and I reckoned this would happen easily for I had driven six perilous hours in steam heat to sit in the presence of my Buddhist Rinpoche, newly arrived from Asia. He was giving a public weekend teaching. The fact that it was on the farthest side of town and in an unfamiliar location unfortunately aggravated my yearning for the safety of familiarity but I figured his words would bring it quickly.

As always before my teacher talks, we had to do the opening chant, the six-verse prayer to the lineage of gurus to help us realize enlightenment as they did. I’ve recited this chant so many times, in Tibetan, I’ve nearly got it memorized, a small point of secret pride. So I didn’t take the handout on which it was neatly printed and which was rattling in a lot of hands as the translator took the microphone to make an unusual preliminary announcement. If Rinpoche hadn’t been seated center stage in this recital hall borrowed for the occasion, I would have expected deflating news about the star being so sick we were getting the understudy. What we got was news that His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, head of the lineage, had written a new tune for the old supplication.

The translator turned on a tape and everyone started singing, trying their best to follow the alien high, low, Chinese sounding melody. Except me. I sat there with my mouth open, silently freaking out as I struggled to find the Tibetan syllables I knew in cadences I didn’t. Nothing was recognizable: losing the familiar rhythm, the known tune, I lost track of the words and I didn’t have the handout like everybody else did. I had nothing to grab to steady myself. The long chant became an incomprehensible alien jungle. I was starring in a nightmare again.

I was sure this was all just a misunderstanding, a wrong detour, and we’d revert to the old tune for the opening of the afternoon session. But of course we didn't. The translator reminded us we needed to learn the new one—a solemn Tibetan inspired melody the Karmapa had created to increase our devotion. It was still a foggy foreign mess to me: I couldn’t fit anywhere into the tune any Tibetan syllables I could remember so I could not join in prayer. My mood darkened. My smile collapsed. I wanted my tune back; I wanted to chant without a handout in front of me so everyone could see I knew the tune because I was an oldtimer, somewhat special. It was distressing enough that my teacher was in a strange room in a strange place in an unfamiliar city. I didn’t need a strange tune to deal with too. I wondered why I had put myself through so much stress to come here.

That night I caught up with my beautiful goddaughter newly back to Tinseltown after earning an award adorned master’s degree from the nation’s premier drama school. She was having a hard time adjusting to the disrupted rhythm of her life now that the scaffolding of grad school had come down. She’d moved from her own place in the East to the West where she was staying with friends, lost her long term boy friend, not found a rewarding job or welcome arms. She seemed even more unsettled than me. We went to a fine French bistro where despite such treats as grilled salmon and cassoulet she ordered mac and cheese.

Sunday morning I tried hard to be cheerful now that I knew my way to the site and where I could find coffee at the break. But my mood blackened hearing that new Chinese sounding chant tune again and still not being able to find my way among the words, like Bill Murray staggering around Tokyo
Lost in Translation. My mind was so messed up I could hardly hear what my teacher was saying. My eyes abandoned him to wander around the room.

I spotted a friend I’d done many a retreat with, especially in India. Two years ago at the monastery there, I remembered, somebody abruptly changed the evening recitation for us. The soulful prayer to Chenrezig, deity of sublime compassion, a prayer I profoundly love, was without warning supplanted by a whole new version we were told had surfaced in Tibet. It included recitative where lyric melody had been which instantly ruined the whole spirit of the aria-like prayer for me. But my friend was thrilled. She insisted with a bright smile she loved it. And that’s what made me really mad. People who loved the new version were smashing my chance to get the old one back. I went back to my room which was also her room and spitefully recited the old one in its entirety. I was so oppositional I did not bring the new version home, which allowed me to keep doing my favorite prayer the way I first heard it and still like it. I figured I would solve my opening chant problem that way too.

The wise men of the Dharma must have known I was coming soon to the religion nearest them. I have been told Trungpa Rinpoche who got here first and set the stage constantly switched tunes and prayers and schedules and just about everything he told people to do one way he then told them to do another, exasperating them as he kept them from pouncing on one way or other as being the right way, grabbing hold and attaching like a barnacle to a rock. He was like the back and forth tide that chafes those creatures, keeping his students continually off guard, not letting them land on solid ground and plant themselves with a big Aha! He was trying to train them to be survivors of real life where there is no solid ground, just banana peel after banana peel, circumstances one after the other pulling the rug out from under you. Causes and conditions are shifting continually as in a kaleidoscope, rarely coming together the same way twice so the only grip you can get is onto the understanding that life does not provide re-runs and instant replays. Like Ole Man River it just keeps moving along.

Oddly enough when Trungpa Rinpoche died his old student guard immediately tried to freeze things right where he had left them. They became a Vatican determining ecclesiastical right from wrong, adding so much weighty baggage they slowly sank a vibrant and flexible assembly into a stiffened dark age. That’s what the weekend headlines were revealing as well when I read the Sunday paper at the break for lunch. People who’d had their particularly beloved supplication tune—
shamah, hosanna, mashallah-- superseded by another were going crazy ripping each other’s guts out and blowing up everyone in sight to insist their way is the only right way, the grand triumph after which life is dammed. They in their blinding rage were making the world as desolate as I-5.

I left the weekend teaching certain I did not know the new tune and thus would not feel at all obliged to sing it. I switched on the radio as the car struggled to climb over the mountain and get down to the dead flat and treacherous speedway. I scanned rapidly one station to another unable to find a sound that soothed me. There had been a decade of satisfying radio, tuning in and taking part until the erudite grace of Simon and Garfunkel, the intricate chords of Bill Evans gave way to the ear bashing pound of Led Zepplin and silence seemed the saner setting. Tapes, CDs and IPods are a gift to those of us who want our way or no way. You know: They’re playing our song! We want it played over and over making us think we can go back, hold on. We want the same singer to sing the same song and get mad when s/he moves on to something different for a change, like Dylan going electric. The way we first heard it, that’s the way it should be, the right way. I put on Mozart, mac and cheese Mozart who wrote sublimely soul lifting music for people in an age of enlightenment.

I sat down in front of my shrine the night I got home and loudly sang that opening chant the familiar way. I was into maybe the fourth verse when suddenly words stopped coming out of my mouth. I had been stung by a thought. There were actually two old ways to sing this supplication: the halting deep basso way Rinpoche’s monks do it at his monasteries and the singsong I was using, a way Rinpoche once laughingly described as dog howling. This was taught to newcomers, he explained, because it’s so simple anyone can master the cadence. Well, how about that! I was sanctimoniously hanging on to dog howling, arrogantly certain it was "right", that I knew best. My teacher, bless his wisdom, always chants this foreigners' dog howling version with the same gusto he displays on the more sonorous monastery tune because, I guess, he knows better than I do that praying is praying and life moves along. This prayer was written in the 15th Century. Who alive could name all its tunes? And truly, if what you intend to do is pray, did they matter?

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