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