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.

Sunday, February 18, 2007


This week began with Lincoln’s Birthday, now little noted or strong remembered. It rolled through the candy heart fuss of St. Valentine’s Day and crash landed in the Chinese New Year of the pig. My Tibetan guru says it is the year of the female fire pig, so I suspect it will be the year to go hog wild. Certainly the energy at an unusual confluence of Chinese, Tibetan and Vietnamese New Year feels like it revved up a gear. The dizzying way relationships, job opportunities, merriment, the release of movies and the dis-ease of politics are happening speaks truth to power.

My Chinese friend Mei says the pig is supposed to stand for wisdom, the power of truth. Perhaps that is because the pig can put its snout into a pile of garbage and pull out a truffle. Certainly the headlines this week have been an extraordinary pile of garbage. Here is one day’s worth:

Bush Promises New Afghan Offensive
Nevada Governor at center of bribe probe
Audit finds $10 billion in fuzzy spending
Beleaguered Air Passengers Want New Laws
Woman in affair with Mayor got $10,154 after leaving post
Dog who was shot defending owner put down
Slain woman was to be married
Stock-options backdating scandal escalating
Bumped Passengers taking off
Hershey cuts jobs, sends work to Mexico
HMO Kaiser earnings up 30%
Sonoma on the verge to become the new Napa

And here are a few more from the first section of the newspaper the day before, which was post St. Valentine’s Day:
Homeless Woman’s dies in crime of exceptional depravity
Kids in US worse off than in other rich nations
Lawyers, lover, Mom, battle for Smith’s body
Anne Frank’s family’s visa pleas unanswered
Justice Scalia’s daughter charged with DUI with 3 kids in car
Judge says he was misled on Libby testifying
U.S. Prosecutor and Oil Lobbyist bought vacation home together
CIA’s former No. 3 pleads not guilty in corruption scandal

The profits of doom consume the news. Kaiser HMO, the human equivalent of factory farming, raises its health care premiums 15%, cuts its workforce and shows Wall Street the money just like the weapons makers show the lobbyists and spooks the money. We are no longer human beings but consumers and are thus being consumed. It is an ancient tactic of war to treat and call the "other" by a dehumanizing name. Ecci consumer, one way to connect the rots all those headlines represent. You know: Just give us the money, and everyone gets hurt.

Two weeks ago at a teaching, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche said that if we had all been dropped into the ocean, we'd be desperately trying to learn how to swim to a shore to get safely out. Yet we've all been dropped at birth into the vast ocean of samsara (suffering), and what are we doing to get the hell out of it? To get safely to the far shore, as the Buddha put it to describe nirvana or enlightenment, the absence of all suffering? What are we doing to change those headlines in any way?

Ke garne?, what to do?, as the long suffering Nepali people say. Get out with drugs and iPods and 100 mile bike rides? Get in? Get going? I have friends quick to rally to protest with shouts and placards and trespasses that merely show off their anger. That aggression meeting the aggressive is a mere drug-like momentary feel-good high that sinks back into depression, changing nothing in the end. It is, as folk wisdom has it, fighting fire with fire. You do not change other people's behavior by mirroring their own back at them, in their face.

My teacher says again and again what to do to change the balance of power is to pour back as much positive good heart energy into the world as we can, to never stop trying to put light in all the darkness. Odds are in our favor, for one candle can light the whole night. Think about that.

The key is skillful means, action with absolutely no negative reaction or echo in any direction --no anger, no nasty thought, no baring your teeth. Skillful means knowing what you can do peacefully and doing it to create peace. It is speaking power to truth.

I have my ticket to it. At midnight on the first day of the year of the female fire pig, I am lifting into the stratosphere of airline food to cross an ocean and sit in the Indian monastery of my teacher. This building deliberately overlooks the spot where Shakyamuni Buddha gave his first teaching 2500 years ago. “I teach the end of suffering,” he said and laid out the Four Noble Truths. They start with the observation that all the world is suffering. That is the first noble truth: the truth of suffering. It is followed by the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering and the truth of the way to bring that about. Simply put, the way is to bring peace forever to your own mind.

Peace is certainty and in the end, that's exactly what we are all searching for: certainty. Ask any risk manager, or teenager. As we all know, nothing of course is for sure but death, taxes and our culture groping further toward the bottom denominator. Except this: certainly no harm can come of the positive intention to calm and focus your mind. No headline either. So here is the news: for two weeks, at the start of the new lunar year, I will sit still, staring at my mind, and try in all the garbage of this world to find the truffle.

Tashi deleg. Namaste.

~Sandy Garson

"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Saturday, February 10, 2007


On one of those seductive blue sky days winter musters, I decided to take my mind for a walk. I needed the exercise, and I figured both of us could prepare with an hour of fitness training to meet the guru. Getting in shape had been one of my New Year’s resolutions.

So there we were, my mind and I, walking together in fleece around Stow Lake in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Except that we weren’t together at all. My mind was more rambunctious than the naughtiest puppy. I kept shouting the usual training commands: Come! Heel! Sit! Stay! But my mind kept running off, mostly to roll around in juicy, smelly thoughts. It yanked me back to the movie we’d seen the night before, to a dispiriting phone conversation a week earlier with an old flame. It jerked me forward to a meeting I dreaded and frolicked ahead into plans for the summer.

While I tried to hold steady on the leash of mantra, my mind loped relentlessly back and forth like a huge shaggy retriever, dumping the ghosts of people, places and events in my face as though they were bones to chew. Almost in assault rifle sequence, it made me burst into smile, it made me sink into sadness, it made me wince, it made me manic with plans. It made me forget the mantra by carrying me away to do all that. Yet I was just walking around Stow Lake, now passing the elegantly situated Chinese pagoda, then all those turtles up from the depths to sun on that log—not unlike, except much cuter than, the thoughts my mind was bringing to light.

With the year still new, I was trying to air my mind, make it fresh, clear as the sky, empty as the Buddha says it is supposed to be. And it dragged me through mud, staining my vision with fears and hopes, memories, plans and faces nowhere in view. No wonder I crash into things, trip and run red lights in life. My mind is always yanking me off on busyness trips, out of body experiences. I came home in the foul fog of frustration, pouting over how I live in daydreams and delusion. After nearly 20 years of trying to corral the rogue, my mind is still in charge of me.

The next day, out of the blue, a young Chinese friend who has become a medical doctor asked me what meditation means. Still smarting that my unsmart self carried on an imaginary phone conversation at Stow Lake, I told her that when asked to explain what he taught, Shakyamuni Buddha said, “I teach only this: tame your mind.”

The late Trungpa Rinpoche had a graphic description for this: mental toilet training. He said we Westerners are very adept, indeed compulsive, at being private and tidy when disposing what our body produces; we’re masters of showers, sinks and toilets. Yet we drop, fling, and smatter our mental sweat, tears and shit all over the place, blithely clueless about its deadly pollution. We think we have to hurl it out at someone to eliminate it from ourselves—like vomiting makes you feel better. Just look at Sunni/Shia, Arabs/Jews trying to get rid of each other in the Middle East.

Every day headlines shriek: More shit hits the cesspool fan! Somebody gets fired, gets all fired up to get rid of the negative torrent of thoughts and fires a gun to get rid of a nice grandmother in Ingleside, San Francisco. Yesterday a man attacked Elie Wiesel in a hotel elevator because he wants to erase nagging doubt about his dearly held idea the Holocaust did not exist. Turks want to prosecute people who mention the Armenian genocide because they don’t want to think about that. This week began with an astronaughty who exquisitely planned a real life pee-free,1,000 mile road trip to sledgehammer a woman she imagined her romantic rival, certain if she just got rid of the other woman, the thoughts she lives in would be happier. It ended with the inexplicable Hard Rock death of bombshell Anna Nicole Smith, famous for running ram shod over courts, sports, warts and the facts of her life because she was stuck in the six-year-old’s fantasy of being a palatial princess.

The Sanskrit word that became our word meditation, bhavana, means to cultivate and the Tibetan word, gom, to familiarize. Cultivating enough attention to be familiar with the way mind unearths then hurls old phone calls, movies and words supposedly written 2,000 years ago to obscure what's actually happening is the start of obedience training. After all, we are in the current moment, so it’s helpful to domesticate the wild mind to join us. Something like that old developers’ marketing message at the stuck traffic end of Boston’s Storrow Drive: “If you lived here, you’d be home now.” Or, those signs by the elevator in hotel hallways that say: You are here! Zen Buddhists would put it this way: when you’re walking around Stow Lake, you are walking around Stow Lake.

I sent my young friend home with a stash of books, most of them about meditation arranging the mind/body marriage. The Buddhist perspective is, not surprisingly, different than the Western so-called scientific one, because in the West, mind and body have been divorced for nearly two millennia. But as scientists are seeing in their focus on meditators in action, when the mind’s home, the body performs awesome feats. The brain’s niche for fear shrinks; the immune system strengthens; lungs work more efficiently. Yogis really do levitate, they run faster than the wind, they melt ice with the heat of their naked bodies.

Athletes describe moments when, with no self consciousness, they’re like a sailboat running down the wind. They call this peak experience. Clear vision is peak experience. During the nanoseconds I can clean thoughts (opinions, notions, fears) off my body’s windscreen, the periphery gains sharp focus, details glow and everything/ everyone is perfectly revealed. When I don’t hold my own thoughts, I can remember to not grab those flung at me by others. Last week it took every Buddhist bone in my body to go have a drink with someone who’s abused me almost my entire life, sending me on that long and winding, negative thought paved road to hell. Yet I made myself do it and came out unscathed, smiling.

Chinese New Year, Tibetan New Year (Losar) and Vietnamese New Year (Tet) are all approaching and everyone is madly cleaning house, cleaning their clothes, cleaning out the cabinets. It’s traditional to start the year fresh, a cleaned slate-- exactly what the mind can be. The teaching is: the mind is no more stained by a thought than the flow of day after day is by our shenanigans. Thoughts are just passing through without end, like days on the calendar, schools of herring through the sea. It’s when we stop them and hop aboard that we get taken hostage and condemned. As I write this, my heart laments a teenaged boy who is failing out of school, feeling worthless only because his girlfriend left him and started going steady with another classmate.

On our New Year’s Eve, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa gave a talk to 2,000 Westerners in Bodh Gaya, India where Shakyamuni Buddha uniquely realized how all human beings are all prisoners of mind, and thus broke out and transcended it, paving our way. Karmapa suggested that we use the difficulties of the past as the fuel of skillfulness for the coming year, and if we cannot use them as fuel, then to let those difficulties go and not bring them into the New Year. He invited us to begin this year with crystal freshness.

Buddhists say: to change the world, change your mind. The person you save may be yourself. My mother used to tell the teenaged me that if I’d get around to cleaning up my attitude, the world would be a more spotless place. “If you can’t get along with your sister,” she’d chide, “how do you expect others to live in peace? If everyone cleaned up their own little corner, the world would not be a mess.” I laughed at her then. But look at me now, taking my mind out for a walk.

~Sandy Garson
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.

Yours In The Dharma 2001-2007, Sandy Garson @copy: 2001-2007 Sandy Garson
All rights Reserved

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