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.

Monday, March 05, 2007


Evidently, winter so universally stinks that every culture goes gaga at a sign of spring. We have April Fool's and Easter eggs, Europeans' maypoles and May Days, Vietnamese Tet, Brazilians wild Mardi Gras. The Hindu universe marks its return with lunar-based revels called Holi.

As it happens, these inevitably coincidewith my post-lunar New Year visits to Nepal and India. And as it also happens, they are never advertised as an enticement to come see either country. This is probably because on the long march of evolution out of an ancient fertility festival (ah rebirth!), Holi has turned into 24 hours of flames, drink, drugs and, most characteristically, bombing anything that moves with dye. Holi is called the "festival of colors", but carmine, that bright lipstick red of the tikka, is the one almost guaranteed to hit you, usually out of a water bomb from behind.

The colored water fights and dye bombing are celebrated with such gleeful abandon, particularly by testosterone-laden teenagers, that every year old Peace Corps hands and expats repeat the same mantra: "Stay inside. Stay out of the way." I second the emotion because at the end of the Dionysian day, white goats are as pink as pashmina shawls, faces ]ghoulishly masked, car windows oozing dye, clothes are sopped with stained, and streets seem to be running with blood. The satyric jolliness rises noticeably in proportion to the mess destruction, with "yellow hairs", as dark skinned, dark haired natives call Whitey Westerners, as prime targets.

Like most lunar holidays, Holi lights up on the eve. It starts with a bang. Firecrackers, fireworks, booming music shatter the stratosphere. By dawn dye rioting is in full swing, creating new meaning for that old expression “seeing red.” As the new eve approaches, last rites turn quiet and private. Families gather behind fences around bonfires that burn their old clothes, especially the dye tried ones. Men put on new pure white outfits, wives don fresh saris, children get clothes for the year to come. All the red gets sucked into a single, tiny spot: a freshly mounted tikka put on the forehead of the married. Cleaned and chastened, Hindus sit down to feast, leaving dye hard "yellow hairs" wandering the streets in search of Wine-away, stain sticks and a towel.

The dyes of March hit me this year in India, in the back of the ancient village of Sarnath. I was part of a Buddhist sangha clustered both at my guru’s monastery and at its guesthouse maybe 120 yards away. Both fronted on one of the village’s major dirt roads at a point where it was lined with shops and houses, and a community well. Monastery denizens had to walk past all of that to get to the guesthouse for meals, just as guest housed students like me had to pass them going to the monastery for the morning seminar. So, no matter which way you had to go, the holi day turned that short stroll into a panicky perp walk.

Although the entire seminar schedule had actually been re-arranged at the last minute to keep people safely on hand that weekend of Holi, there was no way to avoid walking in either or both directions the Sunday morning it came to pass. The inevitable onset of firecrackers and fired up loudspeakers in the night became hell on we’lls, as in “we’ll wait” or “we’ll walk en masse” or “we’ll just run really fast.” No strategy seemed safe. It was Sunday, Bloody Sunday out there.

Some students grabbed onto word running rampantly around the breakfast tables that monastery monks, pointing out the free medical clinic and paid labor offered locals, had warned villagers not to mess us. Most doubted the teenagers, who were in plentiful supply, would even care. Somebody exhorted us to look straight ahead to avoid eye contact—exactly what the Buddha originally instructed his monks to do when walking in public. Somebody announced they’d heard the local government in nearby Varanasi (aka Benares) declared a 2:00 PM deadline for dye throwing to stop. From my window, the guesthouse driveway began to look like a drop cloth. My roommate handed me a garbage bag to wear.

Holi is so not my idea of a good time that, from the first burst of firecrackers, I want the whole thing to go away, like a bad TV show you can turn off. But erasing it has never been an option. Ditto denial. Cringing and cowering are always available, and I have at times in Nepal vigorously elected them. But this year, not having the choice to hide inside if I wanted a teaching, I opted to put a sacrificial shirt over the one I was wearing and the plastic bag my roommate handed me over my backpack purse. The least I could do was show the Hindus a Buddhist was prepared.

Even though I was queasy at heart, I managed for a moment to feel like a good Girl Scout. I was armed and they were dangerous. But the security that comes from feeling prepared evaporated the second I walked through the guesthouse gate and saw pink goats, purple faces and red running everywhere. A shabby looking guy was slaloming drunkenly around the road, a cardboard crown tippling off his head.

Maybe it was the silly sight of the town drunk, or maybe 20 years of dharma kicking in, for when I hesitated to take a step forward, what hit me harder than a water bomb was the realization I was not victimized by carmine dye but my own clammy fear of it. There was nothing personal or life threatening about Holi, just stuff I don't like and the possibility of getting something I didn’t want: color stain. Where is it guaranteed the world is supposed to give me only what I want and like? What was the big deal? Why was I hanging on so dearly to the sanctity of my body, my clothes, my inconvenience, my right of passage as uber alles?

Another practitioner tugged my skirt and came up beside me. “It’s so scary,” she gulped, “I’m in such a panic, I don’t know what to do. I can’t do this alone.” I stared at her, a woman forty years in the dharma, a respected teacher and discussion leader on two continents, an addicted note taker who famously hangs on to every guru's every word. Here was life happening, and she didn’t know what to do, how to practice anything she had ever been taught or taught--for only 120 measly yards. That launched my resolve.

“I am so sorry,” I said, as much to myself as her, ‘that you don't know much Dharma. Haven't' you ever practiced Chod, giving up obsessing about your body? Or understood emptiness or the protection of the deities?” Left no choice by this audacity except to pretend I did, I was armed to be dangerous. In the way an Orthodox Christian might hold up an icon, I put out a chant. I visualized a protection circle of light around me and strode, with as much bravery as I could feign, down to the monastery, deliberately waving to the children and shopkeepers as I passed.

And there, as auspicious coincidence would have it, Rinpoche was teaching: Suffering is the abyss we push ourselves into, the chasm carved between reality perceived and the way it appears to us as we color it in, between what is actually out there and what we make of it. We create a difference by judging what we perceive to be good or bad, assigning value or no value, stay or go. Unable to resist our own assessments, we make the whole world self-referential and end up victims of our own delusion.

What Rinpoche actually said was: The Ganges is always there flowing along. You ride on it and send out a flower offering and you feel joy. That's how the Ganges appears to your mind. Then you see corpses and you feel disgust. That's your mind again, making the Ganges appear to you in an entirely different way. Yet it's still and just the Ganges.

Holi doesn't terrify Hindus coming out of winter’s pressure cooker to blow off steam, but if all you can think about is yourself, yourself, your precious self, it could scare the life out of you. The extra set of clothes stuffed into my backpack embarrassed me so much now, I walked back to the guesthouse for lunch ahead of other students. Near the well, a posse of teen aged boys was gathered and clearly they were studying me alone there in the vanguard. I swallowed and smiled as widely as I could. “Happy Holi,” I stuttered.

“To you too,” one said, smiling back. He stuck out his hand to shake mine and as I took it, I could see I was going to be a marked woman. Cheerfully I waved my faintly red palm at the others and walked on to the guesthouse gate, light and happy as anyone who ever realized, as the teaching goes, that their imagination was a riot of delusion, for what's in that dark corner is just a rope, not a snake. In an hour public festivities would end for another year--the curfew was indeed a fact. In five minutes, my badge of courage would be dissolved by soap, my hand as spotless as if Holi had never happened.

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

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