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, May 20, 2007


It seems to be an occupational hazard of being Buddhist to have friends call, desperately seeking, (to plagiarize a prize-winning phrase), an interpreter of maladies. Soulistic people are supposed to be some sort of sibyl or spiritual Sherlock able to make sense of the seemingly random, sad events that bring phooey to life. At least that’s why my friend Nancy claimed I was the only person she wanted to talk to the morning she and her husband found her beloved cat inexplicably dead. Why did this middle of three brothers, the healthiest and the non-peripatetic homebody, get out of their bed before dawn and die? She had been inconsolably crying for more than a week.

I am a dog person really, not clever about cats. And certainly no one who can seance with spirits. But the Dharma does teach that there are no absolutes, thus no thoroughly good or all bad. Shit happens. And life teaches that shit is used as fuel to make things cook, thus transform themselves, just as it is fabulous fertilizer that really makes things grow. Frankly, I've had so much of it in my life, if it didn’t, I wouldn’t be here now. So it is possible when bad things happen to good people, a good thing may also be happening. Maybe it is just not apparent, or just not happening yet. Maybe we don’t see it because our vision needs a corrective lens—like that third eye of wisdom.

With that in-sight, we are supposed to see that to make an omelet, you have to break some eggs. Tibet, for instance, suffered a tragedy when China sacked and burned it. Yet many of us have benefited from the Dharma that leaked out specifically as a result of that devastation, just as Tibetans who fled the genocide benefit from better sanitation, healthier food and stronger awareness of the value of their culture. Forced to renounce centuries of secrecy, the universally popular Dalai Lama is now arguably humanity’s greatest hit, ironically brought to us by a weapon of mass destruction: the Chinese.

My friend Suzanne, a child development specialist, told me almost the same thing a few years back, when my ability to write and think appeared to have fallen inexplicably through cracks, sending my morale down under. She said I should be thrilled by this great sign of progress. This is how children learn. What they’ve already mastered can look awful only after they realize there’s more to it and start to discover new skills. It's evolution.

It's also the Bardo. When things break up and come apart, it’s because they’re ready to be re-assembled another way. Nothing ever stops dead still. There's always going to be more to it.

Two years ago, when in the night some San Francisco scoundrel masterminded the theft of two cyclamen plants from my front stoop, what high dudgeon I went into. My Tibetan goddaughter Tashi showed up and, like the wisdom sword of Manjushri, mercilessly cut right through it. “Madame,” she laughed, “an obstacle has been removed! Somebody has done you a favor.” Her lack of sympathy for my loss made me so angry, I snapped she was a know-nothing foreigner and shooed her out.

Yesterday I was able to connect the dots quickly to see what Tashi was getting at: bad things can happen for good reasons because the story keeps evolving. A friend called to say she was so incensed the lawyer she was to meet for lunch failed to show up, “after a half hour I decided not to eat in the restaurant and went home before going back to my office.” At home she found her 13-year-old Westie vomiting blood on the floor—just in time for a life-saving run to the veterinary hospital.

When the creeps came back and made off with my second batch of cyclamen, I tried consoling my kicking, screaming self this happened not because San Francisco has no operative police force, but because I had another bloody obstacle that had to go. I mean that although at first I grumped about the audacity of the thief, the baldness of the stoop, the affront to my image as a good caretaker, I trumped myself by trying to see the emptiness as another Efgo (fucking growth opportunity). After all, Be grateful to everyone is a major mind training practice.

I tried to cling to my new view by telling people, sometimes cynically, I didn't have a theft but an obstacle removed. Other Buddhists nodded knowingly or traded stories, while the rest shrugged like what I’d lost was my mind. I stuck to my story. When friends reported they’d lost a wallet or had a car towed or in this case a cat died, I told them to look on the bright side where they’d see they’d been freed of something shadowy, negative. Sometimes, as the song sings, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone: anxiety, arrogance or maybe stupid attachment to things you’re sure you can’t live without.

Eventually to my great surprise, I realized the obstacle that went off with those cyclamen was my proud attachment to them as a reflection of me. That’s why the barrenness of the stoop was driving me nuts. This was just the point my teacher Thrangu Rinpoche likes to make when he says: ‘if a tea cup breaks on the other side of the room, you don’t get much upset about it because it’s just a tea cup that has broken. But if it’s the tea cup you are using, you go bananas because it’s yours; it has to do with you. Yet it’s still only just a tea cup that has been broken’.

This is what the late great Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche meant when he spoke about death. We are all busy crying for the deceased, he said, when in fact the dead have been liberated from the suffering of samsara, offered the opportunity to achieve a better birth. We should celebrate that karma has been expiated and they’re moving on, particularly those who die young in what look like horrible circumstances. But we’re stuck in the hole the departed left in our life, crying because they went without us. Our tears are only for what death has done to us. It’s ego.

So, those sticky fingered creeps liberated me from a mind trap and sent me around back to the other side of the story.

Dharma teachers say we see reality the way a blind man sees an elephant: he touches the trunk and thinks: Aha, an elephant! Or by chance he reaches out and hits the back leg and thinks: So this is an elephant! Like them, we don’t see enough in the surround to get the full picture. For example, an old friend phoned from Maine joyous that a scan revealed his Mom liberated from cancer. Six months before he’d phoned to say: after surgery and therapy, it had returned to her intestine, and the prognosis was pessimistic. The doctors were going to try more of the same with minimal hope for a happy ending. Yet here it was. But is it correct to say for certain his mother is alive and well today just because we see medicine men?

As it happened, doctors told my friend’s family--fishermen, there was nothing they could do. But I and other Buddhists told them to go on the bay while their mother was in surgery, to forget about income, and to throw every female lobster caught inside their traps back into the ocean, so that she who was destined for death got another chance at life. We urged them to text that sort of message, priority, to the universe. And as it turned out, these guys, Christians all with no reason to believe this voodoo, so seriously wanted to save their mother, they went one better. They broke the rules to release all the lobsters in their traps that day, 300 of them, each one marked as forever untouchable. From the dreadful cause of colon cancer came this magnificent effect of exponentially increasing over time the living creatures in Maine’s bay. The good happened because of the bad.

When my friend Nancy explained autopsy showed her Maine coon cat collapsed from an enlarged heart, I felt my Aha! gear rev. Hers had been one great dog of a cat, the fuzzy buster who magically intuited people’s needs, then did his best to meet them. When I came into his domain with my aged, post-op depressed dachshund, the other cats hissed and fled. But this one looked into Bogie’s mourning eyes, went over and lay down next to him, as close as he could fit. When I did not come back with that dog because he had passed, the cat attached himself to my heels and my lap, attentive to nobody else. My friend and I joked that while the other cats were felines, this was the Major domo, ushering people around, keeping schedules, busy with the household business. He indeed was special.

Although it is not apparent from the magazine photos of that cat's house, there was serious suffering in it. My friend who is the great nester and cook and caretaker has a daughter who is so harshly mentally ill, she cannot abide polite company. Her psychosis, in its abusive phase, tends her toward a sordid life out on the streets. Understandably, my friend has been crushed by not having the warm and loving daughter she’d hoped to raise.

Seventeen years ago, the daughter she has got knocked up and delivered a boy child. This was at the time my friend’s husband fell off his bicycle after an Iron Man training and was found to be suffering from stage five lymphoma. He was to die in weeks. But when he saw that infant boy named for him, he determined to live to see his namesake grow up. While everyone in his chemo groups and transplant groups and support groups is dead, he is going strong. In fact, he and my friend are raising an unusually warm and loving teenager right now.

In this back story, beauty came from a beastly thing. A daughter gave her father back his life and her mother the child she could not be. She’d done her best—and it looked pretty good. But in February, before I left for Nepal, the daughter went deeper off the edge than she’d done before, making her final demise inevitable. In fact, I recalled, my friend and I had discussed how to face that. “Can I call you in Nepal?” she’d anxiously demanded.

She never got to do that because her daughter lived while her beloved middle cat died. “I think he did that to help you bypass an obstacle,” I said. “I think he took something away with him. He sensed something was to happen and, enlarging his heart with love, gave you the rest of his nine lives.” This sounded plausible to me, soothing to her.

It actually sounded even better yesterday when my friend phoned to say she’d spent Mother’s Day with her daughter who was miraculously looking better, acting nicer and somehow trying to relate again. “I felt so relieved dealing with her this time,” my friend said. “I felt like something had changed. My dread has lifted.”

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

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Sunday, May 13, 2007


My mother died almost 40 years ago, liberating me from the Hallmark hullabaloo of the second Sunday in May. I get to stand aside, watching millions rush to the mall hoping to answer the great and mysterious question: What do women want? According to all the ads, it's phone calls, lingerie and luncheons at fancy restaurants. How truly out of it I am! I go around thinking what women want is a little appreciation and somebody to please take out the garbage.

Appreciation seems quaintly old fashioned now, if it doesn't come, say, gift wrapped in a Neiman Marcus box. Before credit cards and shopping malls--even before the invention of Mother's Day, you could find it almost everywhere. In that fired up Fatherland, Germany, Goethe appreciated women as closely bound to art, referring to creativity as a talent innate in the female body. Obviously. While it may take two to tangle, females alone get to nurture and bring forth living beings. Woman is the giver of life, and we acknowledge that in many ways, starting with Mother Earth, Motherland and Mother Nature. Sorry, but that which takes away is Father Time.

Mother's Day was in fact created in the wake of war specifically to honor women as the givers of life because this gives mothers a huge vested interest in the upkeep of the world. The founders of Mother's Day figured women to be natural peaceniks, anxious to protect from the tomb the creations of the womb. The honoring is essentially an anti-war protest.

Motherhood is such a universal metaphor of creation, it was the only way the men who transmitted Dharma could figure out how explain the way that knowledge enters the world. The Great Mother, Prajnaparamita, Transcendent Wisdom, they said, gave birth to Dharma and all the Buddhas, just as the great Tibetan Dharma sages, from Guru Rinpoche to the Karmapas, are enlightened by female wisdom goddesses. God sent Jesus out through the body of Mary, and the educated go into the world through the gates of Alma Mater, fostering mother.

Did you ever look on Mona Lisa's smile and wonder what does she know? In every language spoken by man, wisdom is feminine. You can't get away from that. Knowledge may go either way linguistically, but never the word for wisdom. My grandmother often reminded me of this semantic difference when she'd complain, "educated you are, smart you’re not." My Ivy League diploma never impressed her, I finally figured out, because knowledge can be purchased by memorizing, experimenting, observing or asking—by doing. Wisdom is earned by being. It's the knowing from experience that settles down into your bones, making you rooted and unflappable. Since that kind of gut wisdom is associated with the female, males who need to soothe seekers with an aura of invincible expertise willingly cross dress in robes priestly and judicial robes, in wigs, and in medical coats that look suspiciously like my grandmother's old housecoat.

Nowadays with grudges going on display every day, wisdom gets belittled and dismissed as women’s intuition. The Old Testament doesn't have much room for females, after it accuses Eve of screwing things up, but it begrudgingly calls women tents that provide stability and shelter for nomads. It calls us the tree of life, giver of shade and sustenance, creator of fruit. The New Testament reinforces the idea that a supposedly male God created heaven and earth, then adds that Jesus redeemed human kind, but, it just shows you, Mary simply offered her body and self to give birth, and everyone has always loved her most. The protector of Tibet is not exactly His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but the mother goddess Tara. It’s always the fairy godmother wisdom that protects and saves, like Tinkerbell with Peter Pan, because other is what mother understands, doing what comes naturally. Helping somebody else is her wisdom's raison d'etre.

The late, great Isak Dinesen said the difference between the sexes was: “The woman’s function is to expand her own being. …the man creates something by himself, but outside himself and often, when it is finished, abandons it and pushes it out of his consciousness in order to start on something else.” This week the newspaper reported twenty-somethings moving from law school to law firm are getting $160,000 in transition. This is 160,000 times what is offered for not abandoning or pushing out of consciousness and moving on, for naturally staying put as a mother.

On the very midwinter solstice day newspaper headlines proclaimed Wall Streeters were awarding themselves $16 million bonuses for making money, my childhood friend’s daughter put her life on the line for free to make a human being. Because the fetus was big, breeched with no room to turn around, this was a medical event. At the hospital, she was swept into a prefabricated disassembly line, besieged with questions, needles, requests for signature. She was stuffed into a hospital gown, propped onto a gurney in a defiantly sterile room, nonstop monitored, infiltrated and initiated. Her husband was busy practicing on his camcorder when a doctor came in, and coolly recited a litany of anesthesiology procedures, starting with this: delivery is the only surgery for which the patient is not pre-sedated. Then comes the spinal and here is how you bend. The various grandparents -to-be argued about who should go into the operating room, paying no more attention than her husband. “I’m freaking out.” she whispered shakily to me. But when the call came, she transcended her fright to shuffle to the operating room. Her courage made the money men getting their $16 million seem pitifully worthless.

It's been said: “Scholars assume that for a man what is an ideal is for a woman a natural thing.” At that solstice, it seemed if all the heroic soldiers who earn purple hearts and medals didn’t rush again into bombed buildings and burning bushes, life would still go on, just as it would still go on if that newborn's father didn’t engineer machines and worry about getting from the hospital to the gym. But if women did not find the strength to get over freaking out and risk their life in the horrible magic of childbirth, there would be no world for them to do any of that in. None of us would be here now to say: Be Here Now!

Two weeks ago in San Francisco, His Holiness the Dalai Lama praised birth, breast feeding, all the specialness of mammalian motherhood, saying this is all the wisdom we need to get successfully through life. This natural attachment between newborn and mother is how a human being learns what affection is, what connection achieves, how vital love is to survival. The experience of incubation, birth, diapering and feeding is how we learn we are not alone in this world, but dependent on the kindness of others. Mother is our wisdom deity, the guiding light who shines the path to happiness by showing us right up close and personal how we are part of something bigger than just us. That's why it's not surprising the most vicious criminals are usually those who did not receive this natal wisdom, and end up invariably described as “loners.”

This week the paper featured an echo, a story about how noted cartoonist Berkeley Breathed in his new book Mars Needs Moms! “zeroes in on this profound truth” he just discovered. “The instinct for self-sacrifice is precisely what differentiates mothers … .” They are willing not just to lose sleep at night, but to die to save somebody else’s life. That, as it happens, is precisely the model for Bodhisattva compassion: treat everyone as your child. Motherhood is the Buddhist model.

Of course this is not our business model. We've changed that just the way we changed the horse and buggy to the Hummer. We’re about the individual, the rugged do-it-yourself, answer-to-none type independent as all get out, who screams: Get out! It's very profitable for a consumer based GNP to push the idea that each of us casts our own fate, has it our way which “is not your mother’s.” That's why there isn't a parent on prime time TV any more except perhaps as an object of derision. What do they know, those outdated buggies? The leitmotif of the ‘90s was friends, people you can shop with. Where in all that high falutin’ anomie of Sex and the City was anybody’s mother, any voice of been there done that experience?

Is there any difference between a rugged individualist and a loner? One syndicated opinion columnist just summed up this decade’s newspaper version of Friends, the Bush Administration, by quoting the late Kurt Vonnegut: "they are stunted human beings, mutant creatures with no conscience, absolutely no sense of the value of others." They certainly did get a bit prickly, didn't they, when grandmother Barbara Boxer asked the childless Condi Rice how she could justify sending other people’s children to die in a pointless war.

Our culture continues the long Western tradition of glorifying the one over the others, glossing over dependence and interconnectedness in favor of "individuation." We suckle on notions like virgin birth. Today’s version is evangelicals exhorting folks to be born again, this time the right way, which is not through the gory female birth canal, attached for dear life by an umbilical cord to somebody else.

Then there are the scientists who want to get rid of mother all together and switch to cloning. They’re abetted by the massive surgical industry dedicated to taking away all the female body attributes, especially that girth around the butt and hips kindly provided by Mother Nature to help in childbearing. That’s why young women are pathetically trying to starve or Stairmaster themselves into lean, mean male bodies and I, built womanly like a pear, can’t find a pair of pants that fit.

We are do-do deep into the Friedan feminist business of addressing Henry Higgins plaintive complaint: why can’t a woman be more like man? Over the past 40 years, women have put on pantsuits with bow ties, left home for a paycheck, gone to war, padded up for soccer, and obsessed over their pecs. When net worth is self worth, portfolio value personal value, women believe their priority should be earning money, taking care of themselves. After all, when much money is being passed around, people believe high cost means high value. Motherhood, being free, seems worthless.

Dharma is, refreshingly, about making a man be more like a woman. Buddhism finds supreme value in motherhood. It doesn’t just acknowledge the awesome uniqueness of birth. It insists because we have been born over and over again countless times, it’s a good bet everyone has been our mother at some point along the karmic way. Everyone has had a hand in bringing us into being here now. We are therefore related to and indebted to everyone. It is incumbent on us to show gratitude to all, to be prepared to put others before self. “Other before self” is actually the mantra given to monks and children.

Not long ago, the British born Buddhist nun, Tenzin Palmo, pointed out someone born into traditional society automatically becomes part of a large network. Generations and siblings, cousins, in-laws and neighbors provide a continuous safety net, so nobody stands alone. there is always someone to turn to, to take you in. These others may be a pain in the neck or some other body part, but their surround provides ballast necessary for a single being to stay afloat. The clearly defined duties and rules of interacting can be burdensome, but pay off by clarifying doubts about how to behave in the world at large, what is expected every day, what to do in relation to others. Connection is valued for the security it provides, the assurance it affords, the discipline that can set you free. Belonging to something larger than one’s self is the self-defense of potlatch.

Sadly, when Dharma teachers encourage Westerners to generate compassion by thinking of all beings as our current mother to whose generous body sacrifice we owe our life, we individualists start right away to complain our Mother was not ideal. She was too preoccupied or too critical or too absent, whatever. In our have-it-your- way consumer paradise, we seem annoyed that we can’t just pick out a mother on We can’t return her for credit or trade her in for a more upscale model. All we can do is divorce her, and live independently, as if she didn’t exist. That’s why Tenzin Palmo says we in the West are all homeless, emotionally living on the streets, and have to rely on drugs or drink or dieting to deal with this disaffection. We are all panhandling for attention or affluence, any way to soothe the terrible feeling of being alone.

My mother and I did not actually have a sunny relationship, mostly because I was still rebelliously young when she died. It really irked me to find her sitting up at midnight sipping tea, waiting anxiously for me to be in sight. I complained bitterly, ordering her to stop it. And all she ever said was: “One day you will be grateful somebody cares where you are in the world.”

My mother and her GPS are gone, yet the memory is a bind that ties. I try to pass the watched over, anchored sensation to others who seem blowing in all the wind of advertising and punditry. Being there for others seems to make a positive difference in their world, so maybe it would in ours. Maybe we could all learn again to appreciate what Mother means, the wisdom of ye first, if someone would please take out the cultural garbage.

~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