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.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


This was the first in twenty three consecutive Thanksgivings I did not roast a turkey. I didn’t eat a piece of somebody else’s fowl cooking effort either, not that I suddenly became a butt busting vegetarian — as it happens, I just polished off a pork chop. It’s rather that I spent this year’s holiday alone in a Buddhist retreat cabin, needing-- more than to eat cranberry and cornbread-- to kick but.

Like the storms of El Nino, negativity—defined in Dharma as not getting what you want, getting what you don’t want—had been rolling over me, fading the brightness of my life with failures, bone fracture and frustrating people. I had begun to feel like the blind spot in the Buddhist view that the world is pure and perfect as it is, my mantra yes but.

For a time, I consoled myself thinking I had entered a bardo, that interval where known circumstances fall apart so things can come together in a new, usually more beneficial, way. I actually for once counted on the truth of impermanence kicking in so what was stirred up could settle down, but the cosmos wasn’t sending it express, or even by priority. That pushed me deeper into bummersville.

I told friends, like Picasso I was having a blue period, and my goddaughter sweetly said blue periods are natural among life’s cycles, so I shouldn’t be too blue about this one. But a lifelong friend whose childhood turned her into a lithium battery pointedly asked if I considered taking “meds” to manage my downer. Then a friend not known for self-control or discretion asked why I didn’t just take something to make my bad mood go away, and I got blue anew at being so out of it in a culture obsessed with making everyone conform to a “What me worry?” 24/7 smiley.

Still, it wasn’t hard to just say no, because there isn’t any difference between the temporary fix from an illegal drug high and the temporary mood change from a prescribed med. Neither fixes anything-- except perhaps the bank account of the pusher. Neither claws down to the root of the trouble, digs it up and cuts it out. Both leave it, like a seemingly ineradicable weed, to spring up again. Doesn’t work for me.

Besides, my blues were not from a physiological chemical imbalance. They were specifically event based: the accumulation of specific reactions to specific events, my same recurring reactions to recurring family contact. And this particular toxic waste pile-up burned up any notion my blood relations were somehow going to change their behavior as it burned me. My only hope of not going ballistic seemed to be me. The only way out of this same old same old suffering was to close the gaps in what I have come to think of as my anti-ballistic Dharma defense system or ADDS. It was a plan.

Just as plastics was the graduate buzzword of the 60s, plasticity is the hot buzz now. According to both the Buddha and up-to-the-nanosecond neuroscience, a predisposition can be changed by changing the way mind signals brain. No matter how aged we get, our brain’s waves, patterns and proportions can actually change if prompted enough to do so. And enough is not all that much. So I just said yes. If I could alter my view of what takes place around me as pure and perfect, in a four day weekend I might update my brain enough to change my mind, potentially banishing the blues forever. Why not?

The long Thanksgiving break seemed auspicious, for by coincidence, my world sangha was gathering in Nepal to celebrate the 75th birthday (in Tibetan years) of our beloved Rinpoche. I could cosmically join the prayers and thanks giving would go on for days. I could give thanks for his great gift of Dharma by actually trying to put it to use, the only gift a Bodhisattva like my teacher wants. If I could do it myself, he’d have one less being to liberate from suffering. Why not?

I drove north to a Buddhist center and settled into an outlying cabin while everybody else in samsaric captivity was scampering and scattering across the continent, desperately trying to go home again or get away from it all by sea or snow. I could not help but remember my first fall in Maine, when I drove 400 miles to my father’s house because I’d heard he and his wife had invited all the other children for Thanksgiving. I wanted to be part of the group. When he greeted me at the door with surprising dismay: “Why did you come here?”, I fled, never to go back.

Being alone, while the rest of the country was dispersing every which way to join up, showed me Thanksgiving as a harvest celebration not just of the garden but of the gene pool. It's an annual renewal of interest in family bonds. It’s so primal a gathering of blood clan, that even with all the turkeys and pumpkins at the table, nobody wants to be left out, the cheese that stands alone. Not being part of one mandala or other makes you feel like your parking here on Earth will never be validated.

These misgivings of misfits can get exacerbated by all the conformity crucial to the occasion: the exact day, the prescribed feast, the traditional parades and football matches, the mandated leftovers. Because few dare to be different, nobody wants to be. In all that herding, deviation is blown up like a Macy's balloon. There must be a defiant few who roast beef, but the desperation for a place at the table has caused more than a few folks I know to seek out or stay in defective relationships. A woman actually said to me a few weeks ago, she was awed hearing on the radio the secret of some famous couple or other’s fifty year marriage was they were still in love with each other because, as she put it so bluntly, “we can’t stand each other.”

As I used to tell friends with relationship dilemmas, blood is thicker than brains; it’s the primal quicksand, we all can’t stop sinking in no matter how rational we want to be. If our family isn't all see Dick and Jane or Ozzie and Harriet, we tend to think there’s something wrong with us, even when, say, a parent's behavior is physically uncontrollable or blatantly unprovoked. I know by hard won knowledge, in my case it isn't me, but I can't change the others and not having family can make me feel like an amputee waiting for a prosthesis. Thanksgiving makes the phantom limb throb insistently.

I have managed to transcend this handicap by creating families out of friends. I had what all of us in it called “the Thanksgiving family,” formed by friends who didn’t want to travel out of state at that particular time, didn’t want to be with blood relatives out there or didn’t have more than a nuclear little unit right at hand. For nineteen straight years we came together on turkey day, bringing with us not only good cooking but anybody we found left on their own, who immediately became a family member eligible for coming years. This ensured the “family” flexible enough for no one to feel unrelated. People still talk warmly about it, fondly remember and hope for an encore. I even got an email this year from one member saying: “Still turkey after all these years, the diehard traditionalist gathered people together. You were thought of, toasted, and missed. I trust you of the Thanksgiving diaspora had a satisfying, gratifying time as well.”

Well, yes, I have to say I did. It’s not just that my first sight upon leaving my cabin Thursday morning to go to the bathhouse was actually a wild turkey pecking away on the ground—a live turkey on Thanksgiving day! Or that three hours later on a walk to the stupa I came upon a lovely doe who graced me by not bounding away. Or that the full moon appeared in the uncluttered mountain sky so luminous and gloriously alive the next evening. It’s also the family that came to life in my retreat cabin, took me in, fed me and sent me back into the world with assurance they’d always be there no matter what.

I am talking of course about the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—father, mother, offspring. To be a Buddhist is necessarily to take refuge in them, which happens so easily, so painlessly, it sometimes doesn’t seem to mean much. But when you find yourself on your own in the world, you truly understand what refuge means: the three really are always there for you no matter how you show up, ready to take you in, reduce your stresses and make you shine.

So this Thanksgiving I spent quality time with my pure and perfect family. And when I passed not turkey but my blues around among the living ones, the conversation at my table went like this:

My teacher, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche: Yes, through the power of various predispositions or latencies, there is a lot of distress in our mind that becomes distress in our bodies. Having such predispositions leads to situations of difficulty and anxiety. What can one do? We talk about precious human birth… . It can be very helpful to think about the significance of having such an opportunity. We have the capacity to do almost anything, but we don’t recognize this or remember that we have a precious human body. So we begin to think there is some thing we have to have, and if we don’t have it, we become very discouraged. We do not notice the tremendous range of options, the great variety of opportunities that are open to us. We can let our mind become very vast and spacious. Besides, the past is over and done. We can’t do much about whatever has happened.

Mingyur Rinpoche:…the automatic nature of human emotional tendencies represents an interesting challenge. It doesn’t require a microscope to observe psychological habits. Most people don’t have to look further than their last relationship. They begin by thinking: This time it’s going to be different. A few weeks, months, or years later, they smack their heads, thinking: Oh no, this is exactly the same… . Despite your best intentions you find yourself repeating the same patterns while expecting a different result. …Fortunately, the more familiar we become with examining our minds, the closer we come to finding a solution to whatever problem we might be facing…

Exception, The late Patrul Rinpoche: The root of samsara is mistaken thought.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche: …well, I think depression is very much rooted in wrong view. …You see, many times depression is very necessary. In fact, in one of the …sutras the Buddha says sadness is one of the greatest qualities the aspiring Bodhisattva must acquire at the beginning stage. …the whole path of pure perception is, I would say, probably the best medicine for depression because it’s just one of the most logical, hands-on methods to combat wrong view.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Viewed as friends, the emotions do not threaten our wellbeing but are regarded as essential to the development of deeper levels of knowledge and insight; they are therefore seen as containing tremendous potential to liberate us from states of suffering.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: People sometimes ask me whether Buddhism--an ancient teaching which comes from the East-- is suitable for Westerners or not. My answer is that the essence of all religions deals with basic human problems.

My teacher, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche: Protecting the mind from the disturbing emotions and discursive thoughts can be compared to protecting ourselves from thieves. Thieves know not to attack a strong, powerful, disciplined and attentive person. Instead they will attack someone who is weak, lazy and distracted. Mindfulness and alertness make us strong, attentive and well disciplined so we can not be robbed by disturbing emotions and discursive thoughts. They have to just give up.

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Therefore all our mental afflictions can serve as supports for our path. They can help us to go beyond the cycle of suffering. We should not become discouraged when they arise or irritated with those whom we perceive as provoking them. If there were no one to make us angry, for example, how would we ever perfect our practice…?

Mingyur Rinpoche: You’re not the limited, anxious person you think you are. …most people simply mistake the habitually formed, neuronally constructed image of themselves for who and what they are. And this image is almost always expressed in dualistic terms: self and other, pain and pleasure, having and not having… . Unfortunately, when the mind is colored by this dualistic perspective, every experience is bounded by some sense of limitation. There’s always a but lurking… . Personal experience has taught me that it’s possible to overcome any sense of personal limitation.

Me too. No buts.

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

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