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, September 21, 2008


Precious Ramotswe who runs the Number One Ladies Detective Agency says there is nothing that can't be solved by sitting down with a cup of tea. So I am sitting with a mug of her favorite red bush, puzzling over what it means when headlines line up like Zen Haiku:

Lehman Files for Bankruptcy

Merrill Lynch to be sold

Hurricane Hits

Millions Without Power

Rescue Continues

What if Viagra doesn’t work?

It does seem as if reality struck, blowing up America like the terrorist truck bomb did to the Islamabad Marriott. Or maybe reality just wouldn't stay dammed and overran woeful levees, drowning more than New Orleans and Galveston. Either way, life as Americans know it looks to be falling apart after a collision with its own consequences. An injured country is in a mangled vehicle waiting for the jaws of life. Om mani padme hum. Or, as some monks I know like to joke: O money, pay me some.

Maybe Precious would figure out that unsupervised kids took off on a joy ride drunk with glee, ran a whole bunch of red lights, and inevitably crashed in a huge ball of Armageddon fire. A Buddhist might conclude that impermanence means composites inevitably fall apart, that everything comes to an end, even binges of good times. Either way puts us into the Bardo, or regrouping interval. Here appearances supposedly come nonstop just like Hurricane Ike tailgating Hurricane Gustav and the New York Times editorial headline: 'Never again', again.

“Just as the appearances of this life are produced by states of mind,” my teacher Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche says, “so are the appearances in the bardo… produced by states of mind…and negative states of mind produce negative appearances or experiences.” Precious would probably find this the sort of clue the author of her trusty detective manual would applaud. And useful to boot.

In this bardo of the desire realm, it certainly is scary. Bulimia killed a culture that binged fervently, then shamelessly vomited up everything it consumed. So it's tough to tell the difference between the supersized appearances of an obesity epidemic and all those endemically swollen Wall St. egos and profits. There's just this endless terrifying vision of the union of high fructose corn syrup and high falutin finance, dancing in the dark of derivatives. What you don't know can indeed hurt you.

In the horrifying deficit bardo of animal stupidity, financial deficit, national deficit and value deficit appear on paper, Nature deficit in books and on psychology panels. In luminous union, these have become all pervasive truth deficit. Frank Rich appears in the New York Times saying, the pipeline to reality has been clogged by the detritus of truthiness. Maureen Dowd appears claiming reality's been shipped back to junior high, in Alaska where frozen visions of cheerleaders and muscled jocks constipate the brain. The difference between virtual reality and virtuous reality has been totally obscured.

In the bardo of hungry ghosts, experts cry out that the country must quickly give more credit where it isn't due. Plastic must catch fire. People must get out and buy stuff they probably don't need. Only when consumers create more personal debt will the country be saved and born again. Shop so it doesn't drop does not make it idiotic to be patriotic. Or is it patriotic to be idiotic?

From my vantage point behind a tea cup, this looks like the bardo of the gods, those doomed to fall from pride. All those folks with a grip on winning as everything, the only thing, suddenly go blank when they top the charts. They get so dizzy from power, they can't see the appearance of then what? They can't see that winning a trophy for a football season is not the same as winning a trophy election. One is the end, the other the beginning of now what.

Well, for one thing the appearance of more headlines:

Houston Is Without Power

Hedge Funds Face Chaos

The Right to Smear

Tainted Milk Sickens 53,000 Babies

Somebody pumped up the economy with deficit, the political system with swift boat lies and somebody pumped up watered down milk with melamine. So then, what if Viagra doesn't work? What if reality comes home soon?

In this bardo of jealousy all nice and green, nobody can see the Great Panic of 1837 when the balloon of unprecedented and unregulated land speculation burst, causing a painfully convulsive contraction that squeezed out almost half the banks in all the states, and shrank the money supply by a third, an altogether dismal record yet to be matched despite challenges like the Great Depression.

In 1888 a historian put that 1837 panic this way: “The American people with one consent gave themselves to an amazing extravagance of land speculation. There is no longer dispute that the prostration of business in 1837, and for several years after, was the perfectly natural result of the speculation which had gone before. The enormous extension of bank credits during the three years before the breakdown was rather the symptom than the cause of the disease. The fever of speculation was in the veins of the community before “kiting” began. Bank officers dwelt in the same atmosphere as did other Americans and their sanguine extravagance in turn stimulated the universal temper of speculation. …

“It is difficult to rightly apportion among the statesmen and politicians of the time so much of blame for the mania of speculation as must go to that body of men. They had all drunk in the national intoxication over American success and growth. Every pretense of a politician, whether in or out of the Senate chamber, that the government could by devices of financiering avoid this necessity of long physical repair, was either folly or wickedness. And of this folly or even wickedness there was no lack in the anxious spring and summer of 1837. (The Panic Of 1837, by Edward M. Shepard)

And of this folly or even wickedness, in the anxious September 2008, there is no lack of headlines.

Wall Street in massive bailout

Suicide bomb guts hotel

Toll expected to rise

California Budget full of financial sham

Rail Workers retire early, then claim disability

And the biggest:

Republican Campaign Continues

Despite being a Pack of Lies

Look: Burn this after reading appears everywhere.

The bardo teachings warn that panic in the face of frightening bardo visions rapidly propels a person, somewhat automatically, toward what seems the safe harbor of familiarity. Seeking instant solace this way in the same old, same old wipes out any chance for improvement the next time around. So when John McCain arises as the worn out union of temerity and emptiness, he appears as salvation to a people who have run out of energy.

Bardo teachings also tell us the body is nothing more than the appearance of the state of mind. To a people speeding faster and faster, burning up all limits, Sarah Palin has arisen as the embodiment of the bridge to nowhere. She is accompanied by a moose all dressed up...umm...with nowhere to go.

According to the Buddha, mind has 51 states. America has 50. It was a community that needed organizing. A community organizer in the form of the black and white Barack Obama appeared --with, of all things, calm abiding. Since the WMDs turned out not to be in Iraq but right here in the bank, the rise of a black man to the top of the political crop surely brought about shock and awe, did it not?

Dharma teaches interdependence. Every action ignites reaction, every desire a new desire in the chain of human karma. Gurus talk about collective karma. Political textbooks say a people gets the government it deserves. The comedian W. C. Fields said: “Nobody will ever go broke underestimating the taste of the American people.”

I wish I knew what Precious would say. My teacher says, “People are so terrified of the bardo… they dislike hearing about it or thinking about it. (I would add, writing about it to convey a convulsive sense of nightmare.) It may be from one point of view, the bardo is terrifying, but from another point it is not." From that point, I suppose, the good news is that bardo teachings promise one second of realizing emptiness, compassion or the absolute truth of it all can liberate beings from recycling through more suffering. Possibly, Precious would say this simply means realizing truth that is virtuous always ends, like virtuous does, in "us."

Then too, perhaps she'd say the even better news is that the bardo is the real deal for all those Americans dying to be born again.

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

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Saturday, September 13, 2008


I’ve just returned from five sublime days of dharma teachings by my beloved Rinpoche, who in the midst of clarifying complicated text also managed a hugely splendid empowerment as well as several smaller pujas on the side. Over 200 people sat at his Tibetan feet, soaking up profound instructions for passing through samsara to nirvana and on to the pure realm beyond, praying for no stop lights or breakdowns on the way. I came away with a full heart, a wiser mind and a strong conviction that the most important lesson dharma students need to hear at events like this is actually: please watch your back.


This is a reminder that many of the deities we are told to emulate have an extra face to stay aware of what’s going on behind them. I can’t imagine they would play bumper cars on the shrine room floor like all the folks who show up supposedly to practice putting others before themselves, but stand up in a crowded room and, without bothering to look over their shoulder to see if any one might be back there, start prostrating as though they are the only person present. The first morning of this particular program, I made the three hand gestures and was leaning forward to go to the floor when a woman in front abruptly backed up and filled the whole of space. I rocked backwards, grabbed the chair to stop wobbling and fell into it because there was nowhere else to go. The first afternoon, the man in front of me backed into the space beside my chair as though nobody behind him existed, and prevented me from sidling out to prostrate. That’s when I decided there ought to be a sign on all Bodhisattva thangkhas that says: Look both ways before uncrossing the feet.


Watch your back also means a bodhisattva, when choosing a seat, would probably care a lot about possibly obstructing whoever might be behind them. They would not necessarily, like the tallest men in the room, inevitably rush to sit in the front row, obliviously preventing everyone in all the rows behind from seeing anything but them. At this event, the three Caucasian giants blocking the view really stood out like skyscrapers because most of the folks behind them were far shorter Chinese. Their inconsideration was culturally embarrassing.


Unfortunately, they had nothing on the 5’8” woman with the really, really big hair —a Niagara Falls of multi layered, mid back length, frizzy black tresses—who, every time she sat down, insistently reached up to fluff it up higher and wider. The afternoon I sat behind watching this expansion practice, I developed the maddest urge to reach into my purse, pull out my little pocket picture of Rinpoche and tape it to the back of her head to turn it into a thangkha, so I could at least see his face while he was teaching. I thought this kinder than pulling all her hair back from the roots into a super tight pony tail so I might get a glimpse of him for real. And to tell the truth, I didn’t have a rubber band as handy as that picture.


Of course, these are gripes and perhaps petty to boot, but they lead straight to the bigger problem of not politely looking behind to notice, in the forward flow of time and relation to the teacher, other people have appeared. Robert Thurman likes to shout in his stentorian way, we insidiously think of ourselves as “the one, the only one, the most important person in the room.” We tend to think the door to Dharma locked once we ourselves walked in, blissfully ignoring the fact that “younger siblings” kept on coming also to bask in the glow of the guru, to become as integral to the sangha as we did. Zealous or devout as practice might appear, it seems to be painfully hard to reach the realization of not being the one and only child, to rouse enough generosity and/or confidence to freely share the teacher.


In fact, it’s such a bitch to transcend jealousy, pride and clinging to him or her, don’t bogart the Buddha looks like the toughest of all teachings. I found this out years ago when I spent the majority of a ten-day retreat catching the tears of a model meditator severely distraught at being shut out of its executive hierarchy specifically because she’d had first dibs on its Rinpoche way back when nobody else recognized his grandeur. Being first once seemed to have instilled in her a divine right to first place every time, for despite being an authorized teacher of mahamudra and the truth of impermanence, she couldn’t get over being passed over as the sangha rolled on taking on new members. She was crying and kicking about being replaced instead of honored.


I crashed into that feeling about five years ago when suddenly I was shut out of the inner circle of a coterie that ran a particular annual retreat. For several years, at its behest, I ran the kitchen for Rinpoche, and in the process, fussed like a mother over the care and feeding of his attendants. Consequently I developed a strong personal relationship not only with my teacher but with important monks. Inner doors of the sangha opened, and I got quickly to its epicenter. It was heady.


After being repeatedly asked to cook, I presumed to have the lock on the job, so it came as a colossal shock to find myself ignored the next time around, not only passed over but deliberately shut out with a gesture of grand slam. I had no access to the teacher and couldn’t even talk to “my” monks. I went ballistic, into the full frontal suffering of rage. Wanting to kill those nasty organizers for keeping me from “my people”, that year I went through the ten Dharma days smoldering and snarling, as though what had happened to me was far more important than what Rinpoche had come to say.


It took almost three years to move past what had been an organizer’s personal vendetta, to see at least that others were getting the opportunity given earlier to me. I told myself there was nothing wrong with this per se. It was simply their turn to connect with the greater sangha, and I was supposed to have immeasurable joy and equanimity over their wondrous opportunity. Impermanence had stepped out front and center to wave at me, knocking me over with its hurricane strength, and I needed to pull myself together.


The grumps and grunts of trying to grant leeway subsided slowly, their demise hastened in Kathmandu by the discovery that old relationships were almost as good as new. There was no way they could be altered by interlopers because I’d been keeping them alive by other means. I’d gone from feeding those monks to feeding all three hundred children in the school one of them had become principal of, and setting up a massive kitchen garden at the monastery another was now in charge of. Realizing my relationships depended only on me, on my generosity, helped relax resentment, de-intensify begrudging others their fair space. Not perfectly, but a lot.


I went to this last retreat to upgrade, for I knew full well I was going to be just another Caucasian face in a predominately Chinese crowd, one that knew absolutely nothing about my sangha relationships or contribution “cred.” Those folks were all come-latelys doing their own thing, in this case all the work to set up a splendid retreat for my benefit. I needed to salute, not scorn, them. I got off the plane reminding myself I had come to Vancouver for the teachings and not for monopolizing monks. I had come to be just another grain of sand, and test what Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche said two weeks before about real humility arising only out of a confidence true and pure enough to be devoid of pride. 


It was awesome. For starters, this was a perfect place to see what happens when someone really does glom onto the guru, ludicrously signaling “mine! Mine! MINE!” Angelically rich Chinese benefactresses seem to share the stubborn trait of staking and broadcasting their sponsorship claim by physically attaching themselves to whichever Rinpoche they’ve selected. So there was one, marching to the blare of longhorns, in and out of the shrine hall right behind Rinpoche and before all his monks, so that we were bowing simultaneously to him and her inseparable. Seeing flamboyant pride so ignorant of what Khyentse Rinpoche was trying to say about never a boast or brag was an ideal teaching about letting go. 


I also got spotted by the four among the dozen monks who knew me from the past. In their magically discreet way, they plied me with gifts and quiet entrée to Rinpoche. I had surprise reunions with dharma brothers and sisters, and as people overheard us talk, word of our contributions to Rinpoche’s charities somehow circulated. Strangers began to nod as I passed. “Holy shitake!” I told myself. Merit for maintaining this chill-out practice is manifesting. This stuff really works!


On the final afternoon, when I came back from lunch to take my seat, one of the monks I knew and one of the Chinese worker bees energetically intercepted me. With matching smiles, they pointed to the makeshift storeroom, telling me to hurry and put on one of the Tibetan dresses in the nearest suitcase. I had been chosen for the grand ceremonial long life offering that closes these retreats. It’s an honor usually bestowed on the most valuable players. I would not upon arrival have given even the smallest odds to me, yet the next thing I knew, I was in a bright red brocade chuba and a golden yellow shirt. With everyone in that room’s eyes on me, I was slowly walking, to the chanting of a dozen monks, down the aisle toward Rinpoche’s throne, steps behind the great and glorious Chinese lady bountiful. 

Just that morning I had told Rinpoche his blessings were enormous and endless. Now I knew that not even all the sentient beings in the universe pushing in from behind me could dilute them. I could take as practice the mantra,  walk-ins welcome.

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

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Monday, September 01, 2008


When thirteenth century Dogen Zenji wrote in his Instructions to the Monastery Cook, a simple green has the power to become the practice of the Buddha, he was extolling as well as revealing the sacred virtue of cooking and eating. “Actually, just working as the cook,” he said, “is the incomparable practice of the Buddhas." Amazingly, this seemed important enough to make Dogen Zenji’s instructions one of the earlier Buddhists texts translated into English, yet it has proved mighty hard to translate into a culture that has no business like show business. That was evident when the Slow Food Nation cooked up a San Francisco extravaganza, without irony, Labor Day weekend.

While the event was put in place, I was feeding Buddhist monks, so during the labor of slowly cooking meals both vegetarian and not, I was reminded how deeply concerned Dharma has been with eating for more than two and a half millenniums. Buddhism actually began with a meal and its scientific text, the Abhidharma, starts with the statement: All beings depend on food. Offering food is thus the oldest, most honored ritual of Buddhism, where the word for monk evolved from the word for beggar, and lay people supply food to monks, so that in a very real way compassion supports wisdom and wisdom encourages compassion. Beyond that, more than half of the Buddha’s rules of behavior codified as the Vinaya deal with food consumption, because, the late Trungpa Rinpoche said, "a lot of things are based on this idea of eating food properly, which is how to behave as a basically decent person."

Having been inspired eighteen years before by Dogen Zenji’s insistence that a good cook was the key ingredient of good meditation, I was feeding those monks. After all, an empty or disgruntled belly can be a compelling distraction. Consequently, with sometimes ridiculous zeal, I’ve been feeding not only the traveling monks in my teacher’s sangha, but those in his monasteries in Nepal and India as well as the 350 children in his boarding school whose health and scholarship have improved markedly since I first ventured into their dirt floor kitchen and tinkered with their diet. I have raised a lot of culinary consciousness.

I settled in San Francisco because it was an epicenter of both much dharma and much cooking, but except for Green Gulch Farm, they haven’t met each other much. They were definitely poles apart in the Slow Food Nation, especially when it came to emptiness (“There are no such distinctions,” Dogen Zenji wrote, “as delicacies or plain food”) and clarity. While panelists inside Herbst Auditorium railed against fast food and folks eating on the run, across the street in the plaza, vendors shoveled out fast food as fast as they could for prepaid tickets. I had a lemon grass with noodles and pork plate from the Slanted Door for $8.00. People walked around with plates in hand or sat awkwardly on hay bales supposed to supply rural purity to the concrete corridor. The organizers certainly had not put their plenty were their mouth was, because clearly missing were the family tables and slow go feasts their panelists were busy praising.

The night before my dinner for monks, I went to hear Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche talk about merit, which he explicitly defined as any act that pushes you closer to incorruptible truth. It can be tiny, he said, but what must be big is the aspiration that motivates it, the wish to do whatever it is purely for the benefit of others. He kept citing the example of turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth. If it’s mindless, there is no merit, but if it is deliberate because you aspire to stop wasting water to save some for others to use too, that is the real deal.

In this respect, being a vegetarian because it’s cheaper is not virtuous. Being one deliberately so that a living animal does not have to die for your dinner that night definitely is. You have to keep your ego out of it. So it’s tough to deny the blessings of merit to Alice Waters whose stubbornly consistent stance led her past the laurels of a legendary restaurant, to set up an edible schoolyard at a junior high, buy food from a prison garden, ignite what is now the million dollar college community food garden that feeds the food service at Yale where her daughter studied, and set up a foundation to fund such enterprises—even though she supposedly gave birth to this absurd Slow Food Nation. Clap, clap.

Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche went on to say the poison guaranteed to eradicate or prevent the rise of merit is pride. One example is showing perfect meditation posture in body while mind secretly wanders around—a genuine merit buster. Thus I was primed to see pride pushing the posturing of Slow Food Nation whose all consuming effort was showing off fancy so-called Mediterranean food that might be found on the menu of, say, Alice Waters’ restaurant: prosciutto! Pizza! Pinot Noir! Forget the rice, forget the salt, the taro that sustains half the world, don’t even mention lentils. I’m still trying to forget the enormous display of dead fish on ice—all those creatures who died just to be used for show and tell, then thrown away.

The Civic Center site was supposed to be a farmers market but was a bizarrely abridged or maybe amputated version carefully composed of specially chosen single product vendors --melons here, potatoes there. In comparison to, say, the vibrant and boisterous Marin County farmers market on Sunday morning where you can get everything from fish to fiddleheads to ficus trees and fiddlers playing, it seemed as artificial and tasteless as saccharin. The Fort Mason Taste Pavilion, $65 to get in, was to be a gustation, so there was a coffee tasting with a wine-like “flight” of three cups, over which the server poured a scripted commentary about how one tasted like onions with a hint of raspberry, but more importantly perhaps about the simple purity of the family producers, singing as they labored in Guatemala or maybe it was dancing up the foothills of Mt Kenya. When I interrupted to ask how the coffee had been brewed, because it  tasted like the crappy old supermarket stuff reviled as dishwater, I was brushed off, told with stark earnestness: “we’re only supposed to talk about how happily the beans were sustainably produced.”

The local newspaper, breathlessly reporting on its home team, carried news of the event’s Taste Pavilion sell out with a squib about the young couple who flew in from Wisconsin without prepaid tickets. They stood at the door with a banner blaring how far they’d come to eat “great food”, so wouldn’t somebody please let them in. They got into a great gorge fantasyland. All the favorite food groups had the exclusive at Fort Mason: ice cream, chocolate, cheese, salami, pizza, jam, pickles and olive oil—and you could wash them down with espresso, beer, wine or booze, all organic of course. Food had at last been turned into a Disney theme park and the gold card crowd came in droves to binge. Hunger for entertainment is so insatiable in America, 50,000 had tickets.

The lines were long, the food consumed on the move and so loaded with cholesterol, I calculated that a lifetime supply of artery clog could be consumed in under an hour. Obviously nobody’s mother was watching over this event. With fanciful architecture adding fizz, it added up to such ado about nothing, I hungered for a real meal, served at a table. I felt sick over not coming close at that moment to Trungpa Rinpoche's description of a basically decent person. I resented having people push in my face what they thought the best of whatever it was that money could buy and bring, especially when most of it came from California, home of the Hollywood food makeover I think of as American Victual.

Slow Food Nation seemed in fact merely more of San Francisco ad infinitum, sickening self congratulation over its “local” California food supply, as though the rest of the world does not exist—except for Tuscany. Perhaps it stuck in my craw because the best food I’ve consistently eaten comes from the state of Maine where it is hard won, thus loved hard and tastes truer for not being sugar coated in blind hype. Ask the five-star chef Sam Hayward. I carried in my purse during all the Slow Food hoopla the remains of a bag of red peanuts hand roasted a month before in an antique machine in the woods of Maine and sold without fanfare at Main Street Variety, and they beat everything in that pavilion for the merit of being what Dogen Zenji would call no big deal. “The true bond,” he said, “established between ourselves and the Buddha is born of the smallest offering made with sincerity rather than of some grandiose donation made without it. This is our practice as human beings.”

It was quickly obvious the self-centric people of the Slow Food Nation weren't going to much change the world anytime soon when Dogen Zenji says: "As long as your mind is not limited, you will naturally receive unlimited fortune.” None of its members knew or cared that already in the early 1990s Massachusetts and Maine forced food stamp recipients in the Women and Infant Children program to spend at least 15% of them at farmers’ markets so they’d learn about fresh foods while supporting their neighbors. Nobody knew about the campaign mounted back then to protest not having Massachusetts strawberries on Massachusetts tables. And how could they know I ran a catering business in the 1980s buying food from the local farmers and 4-H kids when all they could talk about was themselves and foodies around them in California.

Even while I was nibbling my three cheese sampler, having stood in the line of the relevant section, the cheese coordinator took a microphone to brag how she’d screened the country for the best of the best and here were fifty Wow samples of America’s greatest fermented milk. That boast compelled me to tap her afterward as she passed by and say: “Last year the state of Maine won 17 first prizes at the artisan cheese show, yet I don’t see one Maine cheese here.” Clearly she was flustered. “Well, we put out a call for participants nine months ago,” she blurted. Then she shrugged. “Maybe they didn’t want to be here.” When the pure fresh butter guy from Minnesota came by a second later passing out a piece of rye smeared with his perfect product which he said you could buy at such and such an outlet, it occurred to me that those in the Slow Food Nation were there to gain, and the five letter word beginning with m wasn’t merit. Slow Food had pulled a fast one: the nation was an infomercial.

In one brief shining moment of pop-up truth at the bull session I attended, the youngest panelist by a decade sat up and without warning interrupted the talking heads. “You are all busy saving heirloom turkeys and being very proud of that,” he said with passionate sincerity. “But what are you doing for all the people who can’t even afford the factory turkey you despise? What are you doing to feed those in America who need food most?” It was breathtaking how fast he was cut off, by the sanctimonious moderator, a woman who decided to ignore the questions of the audience in favor of her own musings. 

That young man’s question flavored all the fast food in the Slow Food taste pavilion and all that expensive vetted produce at the Civic Center. The other voices of his nation released a lot of hot air about human rights and inhumane government, about how hard it was to get officials and bureaucrats to get it that fast food was fast killing Americans, especially our children. Nobody jumped up to jump in with the dough, the bread, the lettuce, to change anything. Everybody had very obviously come to put their considerable money were their mouth was, spending a holiday weekend milling around munching rapini pizza made with $30 a bottle olive oil, drinking Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc, stuffing themselves with chocolate and sardine seviche while out of sight others starved. As my dharma brother Greg said when we walked out: it was a real Roman orgy with everything but the vomitorium.

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

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