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, April 29, 2007


Because it’s so all American to run out and shout: what do we want? and: When do we want it, I want to say although it isn’t Christmas, there are many things I want. These include laws preventing any child under six from boarding an airplane, thicker lips, thinner thighs and like all Miss Americas, world peace. I want it now!

I also want to admit— now--I know these things are merely my own personal, picky desires, picked fresh from the fertile ground of my imagination, which produces more wants than China does tea leaves. That’s probably why their lifespan is about as long as the attention span of today’s teenager. Wants just keep rolling along the endless conveyor belt of hope, attached to whatever comes into focus. Today, for instance, in addition to all of the above, I wanted all those people who showed up for the Dalai Lama’s teaching in shorts and tank tops to have their karma tie dyed by the decency dakinis.

I want to add, maybe somebody at His Holiness’ teaching wanted me to get karma detention for wearing lipstick. I am not alone here on the planet, not the only human thing going. I know mine are dime a dozen pipe dreams because Buddhism reminds me every day that every other human being sharing the earth with me is juggling oodles more of their own. As the Dalai Lama likes to say, everybody is chasing down happiness one way or another. This is probably why we keep running into each other, with nasty headline results: everybody wants their wants uber alles and becomes such a sore loser when that doesn’t happen. Read all about it.

As the Dalai Lama will also tell you, when you don’t like something, it’s quite human to want to make it go away. I want the airlines to get rid of all those squalling babies the parents refuse to tame. Others put erasers on pencils, lasers on chin hair, prohibitions on gays, gas chambers at Auschwitz and rudely block the entrance to gynecology centers. These are all Do Not Disturb signs flaunted like placards at a protest. What universally disturbs most people is uncertainty, the unknown, multiple choice—anything likely to create doubt. Doubt means you could be wrong. Nobody wants that.

If there are no forks left in the road and it’s all one way, that has to be the right way, (eh Sunnis and Shia?). That's why some folks are rejoicing that last week a medical procedure wanted as safe and useful in specific circumstances has been dispatched into the unwanted realm of heinous crime. They were not comfortable with the idea of it, so they wanted the reality of it to go away and got it shipped off, priority hail, to oblivion. Now these happy people don’t have to suffer doubt or negative thoughts about that sort of abortion any more. Even if women have been having abortions for thousands of years and will keep on having them like it or not, they forced on us all their preference to forget about it, to deny it.

The keenest analysis I read of the Supreme Court decision to make late term abortions a crime was that the anti-abortion mob had won the incremental war of chipping away at the right to life’s privacy, (make that: the right to female life’s privacy), by changing the dialogue and thus forever the way people picture abortion. They unleashed the tactic of making people actually see exactly what happens. Not seeing the operation as perhaps painfully wrought liberation from suffering for the mother but only as something wantonly gruesome, creates so much negativity, people do not want to think about it and thus want to do away with all abortion. The analyst said their next likely move is to force women to watch videos of actual procedures at every fetal stage to raise awareness about what really happens.

Well, nothing pleases a Buddhist more than anteing up awareness. Consciousness raising is us. We are continually training to follow our breath, watch every movement of our mind so as not to inflict our "shit" on others. We're urged to dig down to our depths to become mindful of what is actually happening as we pass through life, how much fear we have of getting what we don’t want, to wake up and smell the poses.

Naturally then, I want everyone to be more aware. And being American, I want that now. So going with the flow, I want all those folks who want to coerce others to watch videos of abortion to be forced to stand in front of the supermarket meat refrigeration bins and watch videos of animals caught in the apocalyptic horrors of factory farming. I want in their face close ups of the scare and feeding, the slaughterhouse vibe, the cellophane wrapping. I want them to see the whole antibiotic packed schmear, birth to death to barbeque.

I want them to go to sea to watch the dolphins die for their tuna fish sandwiches. After all, His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa recently exhorted all Tibetan Buddhists not to inflict suffering on other beings by eating them for dinner. It indicates we value ourselves above all others, disregarding the value of those others. Better for all karma concerned, he said, to eat vegetables. I want these people who so loudly proclaim the right to life to see how much life they’re lunching on.

I want these folks to be forced to see streaming videos of real time real war as it really kills, maims and upends real civilians, children, animals and young men dressed as soldiers. I want them to climb an oil rig to watch a wildcatter lose his fingers for the gasoline that powers their SUV to pizza glut. I want to know what is wrong with all these rights to life.

Forget last week’s outcry about Korean killer Cho. I want those who think doctors (whose credo is" First Do No Harm") kill but guns don’t to be force fed his video followed by pictures of NRA lobbyists (whose credo is "Show them the money") playing golf with Congressmen. I want them to see people being killed and the unquestioned profits of the manufacturers of the product that does it so niftily.

After all, if you are going to be pro life, it’s probably best to be a pro about life. I want these people to sit for ten years straight at the bedside of a human vegetable, to live on the streets with unwanted children thrown out there, to room with a woman pregnant from rape or incest or carrying a fetus she knows is fatally flawed. I want them to see life in living color because, despite how much they want it so, life is never black and white. The Buddha said: deal with it. Be aware that everything has consequences and, alas, they will never end up being pleasant, no matter how fervently you want them to. That is the truth of suffering.

Life is never as you like it. Nobody can really make that bad news, that bogeyman, go away --especially just by wanting it to or passing off their wants, their ideal, their panic, onto me. The Buddha said it’s better to reach out to others by example, by the disciplined perfection of your own life rather than by the fevered pitch of scattered sloganeering. Maybe this is because when you have your hands full minding your own business, you become aware of what tough stuff it is. You don't have the time or nerve to busybodily butt into that of strangers, wanting them to want to be exactly like you. You live and let live. That is my pro life ideal, my vision of world peace. So, that is what I want. And, of course, I want it now.

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

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007


When I was three, my parents purchased their own place: a brick row house facing a large park where children could sled or swing. We were one of many families with toddlers, infants and pregnancies. The fathers went to work, the mothers worked the home and the kids played in the back alley and that park. It was a pretty picture.

At this start, I bonded with a little girl nine months younger, four houses away. Both of our names began with S, both of us had new siblings and problematic eyes, neither was athletic. After she fell down our basement steps getting to the play room, we always played at her house, which is probably why hers was the first phone number I could dial by heart.

My first ever friend and I were as close as sisters, so like family I called her parents “aunt” and “uncle.” My sister, the tomboy, played with her little brother. When they all moved away, her parents being the first to migrate to the suburbs, I went to her new house almost every weekend for a sleepover and knew it as intimately as my own.

I was eleven when late one Friday night my mother discovered my friend’s father had, as the crisp hospital voice explained, expired. In a matter of hours, his third heart attack had destroyed him at 36. My mother shook me out of pajamas and drove to my friend’s house where we were to spend the night. Terrified and confused, I rode protesting I had no idea what to do. “Just be there like always,” my mother coached. “People need friends at a time like this.” This was my introduction to the expiration date called death, and what I never forgot is my bewildered horror that my friend in her twin bed and I in mine lay in the dark at such a momentous time discussing lipstick colors and other stuff we’d seen in Seventeen. For years I beat up on myself for letting life go on like that when-- it seemed--it should’ve stopped dead as her father.

That was the last time we talked as girlfriends or talked for a decade. My friend went mute, ushering the word autistic into my life and herself out of it. For most of our teenaged years she spoke to no one -- which is why her anguished little brother grew up to be a psychiatrist specialized in adolescent psyches. It apparently took six years for someone in the nonstop string of therapists to get out of her that on the morning of her father’s final day, she and he had been having one of their usual stubborn arguments over her not wanting piano lessons. The to-do at the spinet made her miss the bus, so he’d driven her to school, insisting she was going to play that piano. And because she was an angry pre-teen, as she got out of the car slamming the door, she screamed: “I hate you. I hope you die!”

In college she spoke, having been convinced, although not mightily, that fateful day was coincidence, not the curse of witchcraft. She did not in fact possess the power to damn those she spoke to. But damn, she did indeed possess the power to bewitch them. That come hither stare, brought to her by near sightedness, hovered over a toothy smile that burst with nervous reluctance, and a buxom body so otherwise small and fragile, it seemed a summer breeze could topple it. The entire effect was more magnetic than the North Pole. She was a honey pot for men and a second major league lesson for me: males really do not notice what you’re wearing. Spend your money on something else.

The one she married looked a little like her father. He played the piano—good enough to have been on the concert circuit. But he was more interested in making real money real fast, so he studied medicine, taking up psychiatry because it wasn’t bloody. Perhaps she thought she could go home again, although they took off with their record collections (I owe them my devotion to Bill Evans) and a foundling pooch for the Cambridge/Watertown life. Thus I got introduced to Harvard Square, and the Moosewood Cookbook.

Then the call came to come, come quickly to the ground floor of that wood-frame, two-family house on that heavily shaded Mt. Auburn side street. (We were now officially sisters, for my widowed father had recently wed her mother and the stuff of both our childhoods had come together in their three-bedroom apartment.) I found her across the street. Apparently the marriage of two stubborn, independent intellectuals had turned into an ego whirlpool taking her down. They’d been arguing, he’d been having headaches, using drugs, using her as designated driver. She wanted out. But the day she told him turned out to be the day doctors told him he had an inoperable brain tumor that made him as good as dead.

It went according to plan, his horrifying six months in the breakdown lane and the silence of her horrifying breakdown from the sense of being a serial killer. Her father was dead, my mother was dead. Their old next door neighbor was gone. Even Bill Evans had passed pre-maturely when Steven died at 29. She didn’t drink; she didn’t go for drugs, but still it wasn’t pretty. She slept with the surgeon, supped with her boss, surrendered to psychiatrists and kept searching for solace in someone who could make death stop happening. Powerlessness is powerful that way.

Sitting in the Boston hospital watching him go and her go beserk tipped me from Manhattan to Maine. I needed the hard reality of feeling alive, fighting for life rather than life style. Moving put me closer to Watertown and my “stepsister’s” laid back preferences. Up she came on weekends for sleepovers, always with a man, always one as strong as she was silent. They turned out to be the ones who showed me how to swing an axe, make a fire, drive on ice, and adapt to LL Bean country. They were friends I needed at a time like that, so I never forget that Sharon brought me my survival skills.

About two years into widowhood, her dog died of age and as suddenly as she’d once gone silent, she was gone to the other coast, as far as she could get from anyone she cared about. A call came saying she was living in Santa Cruz and I should hurry out to visit. So I did. And then she went silent once again, more than 25 years.

Two years ago last week, I came home from Kathmandu and started a practice my teacher bestowed on me. It concludes: “That which has wandered is summoned. The broken is mended. All that has been impaired is healed.” I had been reciting this for maybe six weeks when one morning the phone rang and the caller said: “This is Sharon.”

She was sorry, she said twice, for not talking to me. She missed our friendship. She was in Santa Fe, a mountain guide, a ski patroller, an animal rescuer and regular on “fourteeners.” Thus I learned about mountain climbing in America, the height of it being 14,000 feet, and learned about PowerPoint, which she said I needed to receive her pictures from the top. The other news was: she’d beat cancer and worked as a counselor, helping others try the same.

We talked then and again about a sleepover, and I learned why there’s a popular song called, “Do You Know the Way to Santa Fe?” Because no way to get there is cheap or easy. Then about a year into our reunion, she fell on the trail of a fourteener and was taken down to a hospital where instead of a bandage and stitches, she got radiation and morphine. The doctor found a tumor on her spine. When she got home and called, I found a way to Santa Fe.

I went last May, and there in a stucco bungalow behind the excited dog, on a cane she stooped, still near sightedly squinting and smiling nervously but thinner and more fragile than you can imagine. She had a boyfriend ten years younger and discards all over town. What hit me harder was how she’d aged into looking exactly like I’d last seen her mother years ago. I was so spooked, I couldn’t remember which of them I was with, what part of my own history I was in. The trajectory of my own life was all there in that tortured face.

When she wasn’t sleeping we talked like we used to during sleepovers, agreeing on almost everything, from marvelous music to malicious family members. Independently, we'd both cut ties to most of them, for exactly the same reasons. As best she could, she showed me by car the outdoors she loved, deliberately stopping at a hidden high spot she thought I'd like: a large marble Tibetan stupa whose hilltop she, leaning on two canes, ironically reached much faster than me.

She continued to try short hikes. She said the tumor that suddenly popped up on her brain was no big deal. She drove herself to the hospital for radiation. Still I heard the undertone in that bravado. I wrote the essay In Dependence for her, summoning the courage to say she had deliberately turned herself into a flawless mountaineering machine to grind away the sense of powerlessness endowed in her by too many tragedies. She called to let me know it was thoughtful, real, and meaty. She was happy I was writing again. ‘I care about you,” she said.

This year, the day before I left for Kathmandu she assured me she was fine. It was the dog who worried her, for Keeper had cancer and needed chemotherapy, although that was easier on canines. She said both of them would go on a hike real soon to get in shape for the season. “Talk when you get back.”

In Kathmandu, I told my guru the long life practices he’d bestowed on me were evidently working. “Look!” I exclaimed in glee, “all my hair, all my teeth, no wrinkles, no scars of surgery and I’m 62. Plus broken things are mended.” Six weeks later, full of fever, bronchial mucuous and intestinal havoc, I went out in a wheelchair. The Swiss born nun Ani Tenzin Dolma, surprised to see me like that at the airport, exclaimed: “How fast we can get so low!”

Once home, I sent my stepsister an email saying I was ill and would telephone her soon. I knew she hated emails but as days passed, I went into high dudgeon at her silence. I was the sick one who deserved the slack, a friend at a time like this. Then a message appeared saying she no longer accepted email at that address. What the hell, I thought, and waited. Yesterday I solved the silence: Sharon died three days ago from an aggressive liver cancer.

“How fast we can get so low!”

The silences, the suffering, the spectacular samsara of her life from the pits to the fourteeners are not a pretty picture, not a power presentation. I hear my mother and her mother in those row houses saying: Let that be a lesson to you. So I will say it is: a primer on the stuff called life that nobody talks about, the silent suffering that merits the compassion it never gets. But then I learned all the big lessons from my sister Sharon, including how life doesn’t stop even when you think it should, at least just to tip its hat to someone who struggled so much to live it.

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

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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