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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


Sometimes it’s really hard to get up in the morning and convince yourself the world is pure and perfect as it is. Like the American Express card, samsara is everywhere you want to be, self evident as those July 4th truths of the Founding Fathers.

On the solstice, I was in Los Angeles at a wedding planned for more than a year by two 26-year-old engineers whose lives had already been joined for seven, thanks to MIT. I joked about their schnauzer being the ring bearer and expected a joyful event. Shockingly, when he came down the aisle, the tall, sandy haired groom was as wan and weightless as a ghost with such deeply sunken cheeks, his teeth looked immense as a vampire’s. The bride, with her gown’s wide shoulder straps slipping, looked pained and doughty. She kept disappearing from the celebration for long stretches. Eventually their homemade party teetered into disorganization that so unnerved elder relatives, I had to get them out of there, only to get wildly lost on freeways heading to their hotel, upsetting them even more.

I’d foolishly put too much effort—two weeks-- getting the right outfit for that wedding which was to be a Mexican fiesta, as though my clothes mattered. When inevitably friends who’d suffered through that mishagoss asked how the wedding went, I said “memorably, outfit fine” and dropped the subject, not only because I was ashamed to say I could’ve showed up in pajamas and it wouldn’t have changed anything. I had found out the young couple’s world went belly up a month before their nuptials when the bride took sick and turned out unexpectedly to be pregnant. She would not be able to work as planned, so they could build a nest egg. The husband, who’d already lost half his intestines to stress exactly a year before, would not be able as hoped to leave his debilitating job. They were drowning in a powerful current of events.

I drove back to San Francisco from dismal LA expecting a nice dinner the next night with an old friend to belatedly celebrate her birthday, but she called to say she wasn’t up to it. Could we please cancel? While I was out, her friend of fifty years —and sometimes co-antique dealer-- had died of cancer down in Boulder Creek. Patsy had to go there to help get the house cleaned out which, given memories, would be tough enough, but, she sighed, she’d probably mostly be mediating trouble. The children of her friend’s late husband wanted to claim stuff while the friend who’d sat bedside until the end had been told to take whatever antiques she wanted. Patsy sighed again and said she had been told to help herself too. What to do?

Even taking refuge in the dharma didn’t help. I heard this summer my teacher was sending in his stead one of his most precious monks and that, accompanied by a translator and another valued monk, he would be coming to the Bay Area in August. Help was needed arranging two days in San Francisco. Of course I wanted to manifest Rinpoche’s famed generosity, so of course I pitched right in right away. The lama who, before I went to LA, had been so anxious to house the trio at his monastery withdrew his offer. The six standoffish people who meet regularly and deem themselves an official study group of my teacher’s just wanted the one lama to come to their regular meeting and didn’t care how all three were housed, fed or transported so they could enjoy that privilege.

I wanted to scream, as the sitcom star in the Life of Riley used to say in the 1950s: “What a revolting development this is!” But the first thing I see when I open my eyes in the morning is a thangkha of Guru Rinpoche who reminds me that birth, death, frustration, greed and selfishness are not recent developments. The only new aspect of samsara is that I can see it. The eye of nexus is upon me.

This third viewpoint is supposed to be the automatic pilot that drives a person to revulsion for the ways of the world, and I admit it has done that to me, with increasing speed. But, I also have to admit, I’m still clinging to some of them, usually because familiarity can be a comfort in upsetting moments, and probably because, as Woody Allen once said, reality is the only place you can still get a good steak. Frankly, it’s the only place to swim in the sea, gaze at the moon and sit around a table with dear friends, which is why I thought going “home” to Maine for a bit of sweet summertime would make everything all better.

I was so desperate, it slipped my mind that love is blind. For starters, the decision to go away naturally triggered an enormous frenzy of packing, cleaning, coordinating on both ends. Just because I was trying to wind my property work down, every building I manage blew up: the elevator died, an apartment stack’s kitchen pipes clogged up into a major flood, the boiler conked out, the dry rot was so extensive we needed other bidders. I was running like a wind-up toy, while constantly yoyoing to Craig’s List to find someone trustworthy to take over so my plants didn’t die sending my karma to hell, and the credit card companies didn’t chase me into bankruptcy for being a day late. Very fast, I got cranky and snarcky about all this trouble eating up all my time, and it didn’t help my mood that whenever I looked at Guru Rinpoche, he silently reminded me it was just me myself and I who had unleashed this avalanche, simply because I wouldn’t give up my attachment to Maine. I could just stay put, and the stress would self-liberate, as the dharma likes to say.

I tried explaining to the thangkha that I had paid for a plane ticket that was non-refundable. I took it as a good omen that the next-to-last day I found a suitable tenant, although I now had to run around remodeling my apartment to lock up papers and valuables. I assured Guru Rinpoche as he eyed me scampering about that I indeed knew the story of how Patrul Rinpoche had thrown all his gold away in the rushing river so he no longer had to worry about anything. I asked him to cut me a little slack because Patrul Rinpoche didn’t have to protect IRS records, insurance documents and credit card numbers from ID theft. Finally, chanting “Karmapa chenno” I went to the airport, hoping that Maine would be worth all the trouble.

When I got off the plane, the car rental people didn’t have the car I had carefully ordered. When I got to the house, I discovered I didn’t have the plug-in cord for my computer; I couldn’t work. When I tried to console myself by going to my favorite farmers market to get my favorite Maine foodstuffs, my favorite farmer wasn’t there; he was dying from asbestos he’d been unknowingly exposed to forty-five years earlier on a summer job. So I called a dear older friend to come have tea to cheer me up, but he couldn’t because he was on duty for our mutual friend, the usually indomitable Mariah who was apparently so eaten up by the loss of both her son and grandson two summers ago, she’d developed stomach cancer and had just been sent home to die.

There was no way to drown my sorrow because there was no water. It hadn’t rained since the snows stopped in April and the normally loamy ground I’d left perennials and bushes in had turned into the Sahara desert. Everything on the screened porch was coated in dust and pollen. I couldn’t get the trap door off my hand dug well to see if anything was left in it so I could clean up. I could only see that my emergency gutter-fed cisterns were little more than half full, the worst kind of news.

I was freaking out because the sun kept right on blazing over 90 degrees in the barren sky as if nothing were amiss. I was so afraid to take a shower, I jumped into the channel and froze myself. I fussed with buckets in the sink to capture water that ran as I washed my hands or brushed my teeth so I could save the flowers dying outside. I am immensely foolish for flowers. I kept praying for rain and kept being reminded I wouldn’t be so tediously afflicted by this drought if I hadn’t planted flowers and had just stayed in San Francisco.

My major motivation to come to Maine had been a manuscript. A local publisher was interested enough in the initial chapters to encourage me to finish and send the book along for consideration. Consequently, I’d spent virtually ever spare minute for five months composing it, told everybody I was writing a book and counted mightily on this effort to turn my life around in many ways. Because the verdict was supposed to come in early summer, I thought being in Maine might cosmically influence the outcome, and since it would be positive, I wanted to be on hand to help with editing. Sure enough, I got an email from the editor a week after I arrived and a day after Fedex delivered a new power cord. It said her company had decided not to publish my book.

The devastating news seemed to be in sync with whatever message the Furies were hurling, but it was such a definitive blow, I tanked. I cried in front of my fine new photo of Karmapa and demanded to know why he had abandoned me. How horrid had my karma been in my last life that I couldn’t have the one little thing I wanted most in this one? Who was it going to hurt if I had a book published? I made myself so sick over the rejection I had diarrhea the next day, which is extra fun when you are trying not to flush the toilet because you are going to run out of water any minute.

None of Fate’s nasty tricks seemed to disrupt the serenity on the photographic face of Karmapa. Seeing him as the still point of my churning world, it occurred to me that our lives must look from afar like an endless sitcom. Here a mess, there a mess, everywhere shit is happening. Doesn’t the prayer ask Chenrezig to save human beings from the suffering of excessive activity and constant frustration? Those deities in the Sambhoghakaya must be laughing their heads off, even in those cases where there are four of them.

Over July 4th weekend, I watched all the boats go up and down the channel, to and from the sea. There were families celebrating, but more than half the boats had only a lone guy in them, and more than half of them had a beer can and a dog for company. Most sped by with motors revved to the max, their extremely loud varroom creating huge splishsplashy aftermath in a clearly marked No Wake zone. Poor bastards, I thought as my dock rocked violently, trying to be fireworks so the world will notice their existence.

Everyday in the lineage chant I say: May I have no desire for honor and gain. So maybe, trying so hard to have my say in a book was me being a jerk too. I think, therefore I am: hear ye hear ye. I went to watch what we actually call fireworks and came back thinking those self-evident truths of the Founding Fathers are pretty much the self-evident truths of the Buddha too. All beings are created equal with Buddha nature, and endowed not only with the freedoms of human birth but inalienable liberty to pursue any and every delusion of happiness that squashes it. That at least is pure and perfect.

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

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