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.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


Way back in the 20th Century around America’s Bicentennial, I was asked to serve on the Commission for the Future of Maine. I was thirty years old, and when I showed up for the initial meeting, what hit me right off the bat was being the panel’s youngest member by more than twenty years, with the lone exception of a lapsed nun who was maybe five years older than me. She though had never been outside the state while I had already been on three other continents. 

Experience had delivered a crystal ball that made me a lonely, loud dissenter, seeing a future unlike anybody else’s. Consequently, over the course of meetings, with mounting horror, I watched myself turn into an enfant terrible. The elders, for instance, stubbornly focused on a widened turnpike while I, whose college buddy had just earned the first PhD in Operations Research and was working for the EU to develop pedestrian districts, tried to bring up bullet trains and auto-free zones. Mentally, the gray hairs couldn’t, as we said in Maine, get there from here although, ironically, the new world of jets and franchises had already left their perspective in the dust. The entrenched clung to the belief life would keep on keeping on in their established way, as though change would politely stop for them like a car at a crosswalk.

My age made me the likeliest panel member to be active in the year 2000, so at the end, I was sad but not surprised the final report of the commission was scrapped the day it was issued, a pathetic waste that made me wonder if Maine had a future. As it turns out, in 2007 it was the only state in the union sliding downward by every economic measure.

The endless Presidential election has brought back that painful experience with “the vision thing.” As Frank Rich said in last Sunday’s Times, what’s going on in America is a tug of war—he called it “an epic showdown”-- between those holding on for dear life to the world as they knew it back when, and those heralding now because the future is already their Skype habit. It's like watching a re-run of me and the Maine Future Commission skirmishing to claim reality.

The Buddha had a handle on this, way ahead of talk TV, because politics is the mind's behavior exposed. Candidates and voters, like those future commissioners, have freeze-framed time into their own personal snapshot of what life was like when they were staking their claim. They have, as it were, made up their minds. Familiarity breeds such content, the input when growing becomes the hardware reality runs on, so we're stuck on “our” music, “our” movie star idols, “our” brands, habits and manners, even our looks (notice how the obituary photos of folks who die at 90 show them at, say, 35), making our past our perpetual now. Trust me, I am no exception.

That’s why the candidates’ vision is so fogged. John McCain was forged in the Hanoi Hilton fighting hippies, and Hillary Clinton in the crucible of grudges, gotchas and grand conspiracies to get her. The two are vested in images of themselves as zero sum, cold warriors in the battle of me against them, and they won’t let go of that old Nixon language of enemies and enmity. To younger generations enjoying fusion, and ego-fighting Buddhists, they come across as supersized, shopworn offerings of what the late Arkansas Senator Fulbright called “the arrogance of power” and later George W. Bush called “shock and awe.” Both are in fact apt descriptions of the Clinton campaign which fizzled like Mission Accomplished.

Hillary’s morphing every other day into somebody else at the urging of Madison Avenue handlers revealed her a product of the giddy fifties when packaging was everything, and its purveyors didn’t have to care what they stuck inside. She was phony. Ditto McCain who reminds us what was in the package was mostly air, for the product was usually way smaller than its box. (Sometimes you have to reach almost halfway down to finger the first cookie or cracker, don’t you?) Knowing what we know now about where this emphasis on controlling appearances from a war room has got us, having them as candidates is like having the crisp photo of some handsome high school jock brandished to cover up the dissolute, beer bellied, balding man he became. It’s the rapacity of hope.

Obama looks different and is different because he is not a marketed pre-fab package, not a sequel to extend the brand. He comes from a mother who never followed the past but headed for the road not taken, toward that future my commission couldn’t see. He is 1976 here at last. He catches us up to the multicultural, multilingual, multitasking world without borders where people don’t wave flags in each other’s faces because boundaries are so electronically porous, they’re not interested in what separates us but what unites in planetary networks and free trade agreement. All the students who spend a year abroad and come back blogging to each other remind me how the young Russians of my Cold War day were hot to talk about getting blue jeans and rock records, exposing the hypocrisy of divisive politics.

The Buddhist teaching on time is clear in this mishmash of past, present and future all tangled up so right now you can't tell one from the other and can keep asking like a Zen roshi: what is now? While the future is present, we want the past to come back, so instead of moving on, we keep bringing it around. I second Thomas Friedman who mentioned earlier this week that the Middle East is a permanent mess because historic grudges keep rolling like a tidal wave over the present, drowning any fresh young shoots of new life. There’s where you can really see how force of habit becomes the force of havoc, and the past present suffocates those who don’t stop clinging to it and open their mind to let fresh air in.

It’s really scary to be over the threshold of a new millennium and find us stale, running on sequels. How distracted we are by those 20th Century happy days when we reigned like a high school jock. Our country once admired as the new world is facing the same oil crisis, inflation and food shortages we had when I was on the future commission. Everybody screamed the sky is falling but a fat, happy Detroit sat around its country clubs clinging to its business as usual, arrogantly counting on change to stop before the intersection for it too. Its can't do attitude then put a new word on the tip of our tongues: Toyota, and its blind attachment to its once athletic past and refusal to be can do is so ingrained, Japan this year became the leading car maker to America.

Downfall is that easily our own doing. Many flag waving Americans still can’t see the nimble Prius for the hulking Hummer hogging their self-image Their minds are clamped that tight. Everybody knows this planet and the too many of us who live here are going bellyup soon because all support systems have been severely distorted, but our Senators, in the spirit of my old future commission, just voted to fuhgetaboutit and keep on keeping on with Detroit style business as usual. Even Rockefeller young’uns couldn’t ease the clinging of Exxon/Mobil fat cats to their past to let a little future sunlight shine in. I would ask: what are they thinking? But I don’t believe they are thinking. They’re running on automatic pilot, those rut worn habits that support the familiar self, which is like an old friend of mine who's made a mountain of money but refuses to quit because it's the only thing he's good at. 

Look at China, India, Brazil, and America’s downhill slide into this new millennium looks sadly like what happened to Maine.It begs the question: is what’s been going on here over the 30 years worth the Gorilla Glue attachment we have to it? According to the headlines and the idiot polls most people, recognizing it as familiarity, think it is.

I’ve kept on my desk a quote two centuries old, attributed to William Hazlitt: “The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of self.” To a Buddhist, that is election year bingo! Pundits took to counting how many times Hillary Clinton said “I” because sometimes that was all anyone could hear, especially while Obama was so handily reiterating “we.” One tally has her referring to herself 64 times in one speech, John McCain 60 times in his on the same day while Barack Obama slipped in 30. My my, talk about attachment to ego.

Voters cling just as hard, aye, furiously projecting themselves onto elections the way tourists put themselves in front of landmarks when they photograph, as if to prove they are part of that reality, even if they block out the Parthenon or Hermitage behind them in the process. Interest groups interested only in themselves have inserted themselves like that on the political scene for decades. This country has been ripped apart and left foundering on moral shoals by those partisans who, like the terrorists and Taliban they rail against, still threaten to hijack the future to force us all to conform to their preferred self image.

It’s scary the fulcrum which tips this election could be blue tint Florida bubbies stubbornly and singly focused on an Israel so abstract they’ve never been or taken up arms for it. It's just this delusional idea they have and they want to hold us all hostage to it. They're so self-absorbed they can't even see Barack is Baruch and we're all together now.

It’s pathetic that some women who piggybacked their ego onto Hillary’s have spitefully switched to misogynist McCain and that some racist citizens circulate those nasty Elders of Zion like protocols swearing Obama is a terrorist Muslim. It’s depressing that women who fought for their own workplace equality conflate themselves with Hillary and personalize the campaign to see her defeat as the sexism they faced because this round of balloting did not reject women per se. It rejected that particular narcissistic woman so determined to keep her hand on the phone in case it rang at 3 AM to announce a nuclear attack, it wasn't free to take the pulse of a war torn people desperate to give peace a chance. Gender was not the problem, thinking was.

When he came to America, His Holiness Karmapa reminded us happiness is connected to others and their well-being. Our habitual "me and mine" mentality of self-centricity isn’t going to create joy any time soon. The way a ventriloquist sends voice out of body into an inanimate marionette, we need to throw our thinking outside our self. That’s what happens when people like Caroline Kennedy and Florida representative Mel Martinez admit they’ve decided to back Barack Obama at the urging of their children. Voting for the benefit of younger generations who are going to be stuck with the future is a tonglen exchange of self for other. It's the generosity my future commission didn't have.

It has taken twenty years to go from singing “We are the world” to looking like it. Barack Obama can talk about and promise inclusiveness because that is what his genes are and he showed up at just the moment the whole Me generation has been turned upside down by the winds of We. Over a decade ago, the rigid patriarchal hierarchy so prevalent on TV sitcoms gave way to the democracy of peers—on Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City--and the culture took to the concept of sharing: ride share, car share, load sharing, time shares, power sharing. Those think globally, act locally bumperstickers have now been joined by Al Gore and Co’s We can do it campaign with improbably larger than life antagonists coming together for the common good of stopping our extinction. Neurobiology has started telling us our brains are wired for fairness, empathy and attachment because the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships-- an echo of Buddhism which is spreading wildly among young people in search of transcending the pitiful limits of self.

His Holiness Karmapa just told us the world we live in is getting smaller and smaller due to technology and globalization, so individual actions have a much greater effect on the whole of humanity. People can no longer afford to cling to their particular views or self-centric identities -- not even to the limited notion of "being a Buddhist." We need to open up our minds to think in larger terms, thinking outside the blocs. In telling us to part with partisans at a time we’re suffering from their willful failure to part with their self-cherishing, his words sound like an echo of those heard back in the 20th Century just before I was tapped to serve on that future commission, when the media quoted the political dissident Eldridge Cleaver: If you’re not the solution, you are the problem.” Aye aye.

Sandy Garson

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

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008


At this moment when the planet is writhing in the pain of mass starvation, financial upheaval and morale meltdown, His Holiness the 17th Karmapa was miraculously released from his cage in India like a genie from a bottle. When finally, after years, he got that precious visa to America, nobody knew his visit would follow first the Olympic Torch that lit up the excruciatingly bad behavior of the Chinese inside Tibet, and then the aftermath of a monstrous cyclone and matching earthquake which, like some mad plastic surgeon, changed the face of Asia. His timing was so impeccable, he flew out of India as about five million Asian refugees were adding their muddy misery to the world’s reservoir of wretchedness.    

Was it coincidence that his Holiness’ burst of freedom coincided with thunderous cracks and cascades crumbling bits of the totalitarian cement suffocating Burma, stifling China? That he put his face in front of ours when China closed off all vision of Tibet?

It also came at the moment word went out that the masterminds of Mid-East violence had decided to turn their swords into Dow shares, for happiness was not hatching out of their havoc; perhaps they had misinterpreted Islam? While he crossed America, California officially declared it was not okay to make war on people who love each other; a Texas Bushman very publicly atoned for abetting politically motivated wrecks, lies and warscapes; the Supreme Court served up justice to those abused by corporate employers; Sex and The City came to the conclusion that caring about others beats designer labels.

This huge swing of the see-saw looked a lot like Superman was out of the phone booth and on the tipping point of the moral fulcrum. His Holiness Karmapa, 17th in an unbroken 800-year-old lineage, is indeed supposed to be the superhuman who smites suffering. But as Peter Pan warns the Darling children about the magical Tinkerbell, you have to believe. Remember that famous scene where Tinkerbell is dying, and will survive only if enough people believe she has the power to light their way? Other characters plead with the audience to keep her alive by shouting, "I believe in fairies," and clapping, a joyful noise designed to make a passive audience newly active in the unfolding story. Transcendent power depends on willingness to concede that something grander than humdrum can transpire. Without aspiration, the heavenly won't happen on Earth any time soon.

It was not hard to want to clap and shout when Karmapa appeared. His Holiness was graced, as is often the case, by a halo of rainbows. I had just left his ceremonies at Woodstock, N.Y. and was driving over the Massachusetts border to Boston airport when two breathtakingly enormous and vivid ones miraculously arched across the sky, forcing me to swerve to a stop in the breakdown lane. I stared in awe and involuntarily shouted: “Emaho!” It turns out, from photos posted on the official visit blog, he was walking that very minute on the roof of his monastery with huge rainbows framing him. I heard there were others along the Hudson the day before, and saw photos of the ones the day after over his head in New Jersey.

His Holiness was also framed everywhere by a phalanx of protectors. He moved surrounded to the max by layer upon layer of no–nonsense body and security guards from the State Department, the Tibetan Government and the Buddhist brigades. He is dangerous because his special sacredness is the only thing both the Chinese government and His Holiness the Dalai Lama have ever agreed upon. He is already legendary for a miraculous midnight, midwinter escape from Chinese guards at his fortress/monastery north of Lhasa. At age 14, on the New Year’s eve of the millennium, he fled for his life and spent a week in secret and disguise crossing Tibet and the Himalayas by jeep, horseback and foot—his own divinations having told him it would be a go. He incredibly burst into our world simultaneous with a whole new century, the Asian one.

His Holiness does not wear blue leotards and bright red cape, only the maroon robes of a Tibetan monk. But he does possess a reportedly magical black hat and some of his predecessors have proved adept at gravity-defying tricks that dazzled emperors of China. He told us at Woodstock how as a nomadic boy, he managed to extinguish a potentially deadly hillside fire with the force of his prayers, causing his relatives to suspect he was some guru’s incarnation. Karmapa literally means embodiment of the activity of all buddhas-- the title was bestowed long before a Mongolian king created the Dalai Lama—and he is consequently supposed to be able to see the past and future as clearly as the ground under his human feet. His purpose in incarnating on Earth is to show with a human body--the most direct way to make the point-- what wisdom and unconditional compassion for others looks like.

His Holiness makes it look so good, some people seeing him in New York took to calling him His Hottiness. Twenty-two-year-old Orgyen Trinley Dorje is easily six-feet tall with the physique of an athlete and the face of a Hollywood heartthrob (lusciously full features and creamy skin). His high cheekbones and fuzz cut make him a sensation in sunglasses. I think he has been blessed with this awesome rock star presence because magnetism is supposed to be one hallmark of a genuine Buddha. People are automatically attracted, ready to listen, even serve.

Security forces were busy warding off his magnetic attraction, making people listen to “Get back!” “Open your purse.” “No cameras!” “No photo ID, no entry.” Sadly, here in Samsara high hopes serve up huge fears, so the perils of his power set off lots of alarm. His Holiness is in essence a Buddhist monk, yet he is in reality an embarrassment to the Chinese, an obstacle to the weasly Bhutanese rival for his crown, a flashpoint for Tibetans. Although he is thoroughly spiritual and artistic, he is seen as the likely successor to the more political Dalai Lama. His every move had to be cordoned, controlled, and painstakingly choreographed out of intense fear that he would be stabbed, shot or, worse, poisoned by an innocent looking cookie. Only the pre-chosen vetted could get him a glass of water. In San Francisco, his black SUV had both a police escort and tail.

His Holiness took birth to help all humans find happiness, yet one condition of his visa seems to have been no media mention, no headlines—no inflaming the infectious attraction. Word of his visit had to spread by mouth, email, and the intuition known as the Tibetan telegraph. The Colorado venue was sold out in almost seconds. Twenty-eight hundred people crowded into a Seattle theater on a Saturday morning, more than seven hundred invited guests made their way to Woodstock, NY mountain top on a chilling rainy Wednesday. Despite the secrecy surrounding his flash touchdown in San Francisco, dozens and dozens of Tibetans, spiffed up in traditional finery, lined the sidewalk to get a glimpse of him. For a Buddhist, his coming was the rapture. It definitely created lots of happiness.

The street mobs and packed audiences were composed of true believers, but the Dharma Karmapa embodies is a red alert, an all points bulletin that this 22-year-old Tibetan was whatever anybody wanted him to be. Because we only see what we know enough to look for, his reflection in the mind’s eye varied from viewer to viewer, in the way he looks to the Chinese like a traitor while he seems a savior to us. Some saw the Karmapa as a hotly handsome twenty-two year old or at least an energetic young man exuberant from the novelty of freedom. Others noticed a reserve, dignity and intelligence that was preternatural for a male of so few years. Some saw only the fuss his extraordinariness was causing. Who knows if other drivers even saw those Mass. Pike rainbows and if they did, what thoughts they had of them.

Karmapa’s noble presence and graceful command of it inspired many people to see him as hope for humanity, and to stop everything to serve voluntarily, like feudal vassals to the lord of their manor. Dozens of Dharma students donated time, money, energy and even an airplane to keep his visit flowing, ordinary people like my goddaughter Tashi who served on his personal care staff in Manhattan, and Steve who got up at dawn several days in a row to ferry lamas across the Catskills from an outlying dormitory to Karmapa’s monastery, then waited until dark to take them back. People like Damtsig who tirelessly gave five full days she needed for her job and children to clean and cook for His Holiness’ one-hour visit to a San Francisco monastery, and the male nurse Greg who took vacation days and flew at his own expense to Seattle to stand guard for a day.

Believers generously set up a blog so everyone could follow in his footsteps via daily posts of words and photos; videos were rushed to You Tube. All this selflessness was His Holiness bringing Dharma to life. Every which way they could, people passionately exchanged themselves not just for this one other, but for all the others who would benefit from his teaching and the radiance of his holy presence. The enormous possibility he represents must have really resonated, for he certainly got a lot of hits on You Tube.

So many gave so much so Karmapa could have a little happiness of his own. It had been his lifelong aspiration to come to America, he said over and again. Perhaps he felt born with a connection because the previous Karmapa died here, right in the heartland of the country. I heard him exclaim how joyful he was at actually being here, feeling free for the first time. And that was before he ate cheesecake, went to Disneyland, and spoke to a large audience of his most affluent and ardent supporters in their native Chinese.

Of course some people only saw themselves in all of this. Karmapa’s American sojourn ignited noxious explosions of ego in some of the most pious looking Buddhists I ever saw. They asked not what they could do for Karmapa, but what he could do for them. Not just exiled Tibetans who bitterly complained that Karmapa had time to go to Disneyland but not accept a khata and bless them. (Tibetans have been known to injuriously mob high lamas they worship to get personal blessings, so security was charged with keeping them at bay.) I watched mind training flee minds as so-called dharma students who did not lift one pinky to participate in the preparations planted themselves in front and center seats saved for volunteers and benefactors. With hands full of dirty dishes, I watched them stampeding to stuff themselves with what had been Karmapa’s feast, so that those who had spent two days preparing and were struggling to clean up didn’t get a crumb.

A few days later in Seattle, according to the blog post, Karmapa said we have experienced in the West so many external advancements and technological benefits, but also a corresponding increase of fear and suffering in people's minds. This is related to our inability to cherish others -- our pattern of clinging solely to our own concerns, the habitual "me and mine" mentality. If we are not aware of how our happiness depends upon others and we do not work to benefit others, we end up with a society full of people who think only about themselves and act in ways that cause harm to themselves and those around them.

His Holiness also spoke of how the world we live in is getting smaller and smaller due to technology and globalization, so individual actions have a much greater effect on the global village, the whole of humanity. Consequently, people can no longer afford to cling to their particular views or self-centric identities -- not even the limited notion of "being a Buddhist." We need to think in larger terms. In other words, what needs to be supersized in all this shrinking is our mind.

At every stop, His Holiness expressed giddy but profound gratitude to everyone who helped make his first visit to America possible.Then in the end, he said he didn't quite realize how truly happy he was until someone showed him photographs from his tour, and he saw that he was smiling in many of them. The Karmapa said this surprised him, as he does not normally smile a great deal. Indeed an International Herald Tribune reporter recently referred to him in Dharamsala as stubbornly solemn, even downright dour. His Holiness went on to say his happiness during his travels in America came from the fact that everyone around him was also happy and smiling -- a further illustration of his teaching that our happiness depends upon others.

Each time he said his dream to visit America had now miraculously come true, Karmapa also generously dedicated to others--the Buddhist way of sharing-- his good fortune. “This is the result of my unwavering aspiration,” he explained, “and it can happen as well to you, if you believe strongly that it can. I wish for every one of you that your own dreams and aspirations quickly come true.” Inevitably everybody gasped and clapped, drawn into the action with that joyful noise of wanting to believe.

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

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