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.

Monday, December 29, 2008



Tashi Delek Benza Sato, or perhaps I should say, Namaste Vajrasattva,

Probably as the father, or is it god father, of confession, you’ve heard it all, the full monty of human foible. So I’m seriously sorry to make you have to hear this one again. I do hope you won’t go ho hum. After all, you are what a Buddhist like me has got at a time like this, Ha Ha Ha Ha Ho, when little kids of the Western world have been sitting on Santa’s lap to get right in his face about what they want. I don’t have to tell you how big desire for getting what you want is around here. Ho ho ho. It’s so widespread even the grown-ups are polishing their gotta haves for this week, all those must-dos parading as New Year’s resolutions.

So here's about getting what you don't want. Om fa la la. I confess that this is exactly what made me blow my Buddhist cool last week, and now I am worried sick about the residual impact on my karma. The good stuff I was counting on for my future, what's in my Individual Rebirth Account, could be evaporating as fast as funds placed with Bernard Madoff. That’s why what I want for Christmas and need for New Year is your purification. Especially since somebody’s just sent me a You Tube link to joyous photos of Malaysian dharma brothers and sisters who stayed on for a retreat at my teacher's newly consecrated Namo Buddha monastery.

Holy guacamole, blessed Benza. There they were, even the ladies, being happily what the English caption called “tonsured.” Hair today, gone today. They were grinning wildly —as if having their head shaved for a ten-day program was winning a $2 million jackpot! And there I was back home in San Francisco, going ballistic over some hairdresser whose ego maniacal mantra is: “I do sculpture, architecture, artistic creation”, showing his scissor skills by chopping off most of my hair. It disappeared like all the money in the mortgage market. At points on the back of my head, it is barely an inch long.

I know the French say "il faut suffrir pour la beaute" but this is ridiculous. I also know this feeling of unwarranted and unexpected loss puts me in sync with almost everybody in the world right now, but did we really need one more? And the most ridiculous part is that I'm a mess. I know I should immediately have jumped at this unexpected shearing as a gift, a reward for any merit I may have accidentally accrued for giving all I could to the consecration of that monastery. Here was an opportunity to let go of one big mother of an obstacle, this bodily fixation of mine that dams up my true intelligence. I should have accepted my loss as perfect practice to get with the Dharma, a step closer to saintly nunhood. But I immediately covered the mirrors in my apartment, cursed the costly creep and spent two days hiding before venturing out to buy a wig for $89 plus tax from a shop listed in the Yellow Pages.

Saintly Sato, what is it with me? I like to think I’m as devoted as all get out, yet when Rinpoche sends along this juicy chance to be even more like him than I ever could have imagined, I freak out and run for cover. Having been given profound instructions and done a little mind training, I keep preferring a lifetime of bad hair days to one low hair day. Even becoming a fashionable recessionista, saving money because I won’t need to pay for a haircut for six months, is no comfort.

Maybe it’s because winter has come, even to California, and it is unbearably punishing to feel the damp cold on the back of my head and neck. I worry about getting sick, and the wig at least keeps me warm like a hat. Besides, it’s so real, nobody knows. Maybe I wouldn’t be so irked if it were July when some women like to have shorter hair to keep cool or dry fast after swimming. But, hey, it’s Christmas when everybody’s all decked out and jolly for all the photos being snapped at all the parties. Everything’s piled high and piled on, fullness everywhere. Look at how wigged out that old guy Santa is! He’s got enough tresses and whiskers to sweep Fifth Avenue. Do you for a minute think Christmas would be merrier if he came down the chimney bald?

And really, Buddha Benza, how am I now supposed to imagine myself the deity? Do you see one of them on those thousands of thangkas, even with a thousand heads, buzz cut? Guru Rinpoche shows a dashing hairline and gets to keep his mustache. Where would Palden Llamo be without her flaming tresses? I know from reciting the text, Rapunzel-like locks flowing and swirling in long swoopy curls help create Tara’s splendor. I'm supposed to look like that! Well, by loudly complaining I couldn’t possibly see myself as Tara, or let anyone see me, if I couldn’t tame my messy wet mop with a hair dryer, I once actually got the head monk of Rinpoche’s monastery in India to stop everything and fix the dead electrical outlet in my room. This lookalike thing apparently calls for everybody's vigilant attention.

What then is a girl to do with this no hair obstacle as a handicap? My self image has been unexpectedly punctured like a balloon. It’s happened in the middle of the city in the middle of the social season. I am not in a nunnery or at a retreat making a meritorious sacrifice like the Malaysians. I am in California, the golden hair state where it all hangs softly, blowing on the beach or in the convertible. Having an air brushed mane is such a must-do here, only one in 76 females passing on the sidewalk or in the supermarket, during the eye to eye surveys I personally conducted this week, manifest this sort of emptiness. I want to look happy, not gay.

That’s why it’s disturbing that a guy with a pair of scissors can so aggressively trespass when I am sitting in the chair telling him over and over how I hate it when hairdressers go gaga over my thick hair and try to cut it off, telling him how much I can’t bear to have any hair shorter than my ears. It is outrageous that he is standing there snipping and viciously razoring, telling me how experienced he is, how talented he is and how admired, all the while selfishly branding my head. Deaf ego like that causes a lot of unnecessary pain, doesn’t it?

Ah ha Sacred Sato! I know Dharma says be grateful to everyone, so I convinced the Scorpio in me not to kill that expensive egomaniac. After all, attacking him won’t bring back my hair. And he did hurl me into this crucible for another fgo. (fucking growth opportunity), even if I’m kicking and screaming my way through it. Even though I am swearing I will never let a man touch my hair again, I have to admit he’s shown me how I am fixated, attached and suffering, and Rinpoche always says go right for the big defilements, head first. "Il faut suffrir pour la beaute."

I want to think I am going to get past this embarrassment, although, I have to confess, maybe not on the cushion as Rinpoche would intend. Yesterday after shampooing, I figured out how to blow what hair the bastard left me straight outward, sort of Laurie Anderson style. So what if I look like I live in a wind tunnel or maybe just stuck my finger in a live electric socket? I at least look like a deity. Okay, so it's Vajrapani. But Rinpoche always say one deity is all deities. Did you know some non-Buddhists say: if you can’t look beautiful, look weird; they’re almost the same thing.

Oy Benza Sato hmmmmm, what a perfect candidate I am for purifying.

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

< Tags: , , , , , ,

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.

Yours In The Dharma 2001-2008, Sandy Garson @copy: 2001-2008 Sandy Garson
All rights Reserved

Friday, December 26, 2008


With buildings freshly painted rusty red, evergreen trees in the ground and pathways glistening with white cement, my teacher Thrangu Rinpoche consecrated a monastery complex fifteen years in the making. It sits 7,000 feet in the air, on a sacred hill in the blessedly pollution free outskirt of Kathmandu, and the banner celebration up there had all the grandeur of Bollywood. Colorfully garbed people from every continent piled into and around a soaring structure filled with brass statues, lavish brocades and streaming banners. Everyone was fancily decked in round red shirred silk badges for the three days of song, speech and lama dance, dinners and desi (ceremonial saffron rice with raisins), the whole shebang punctuated by endless processions of dazzling gifts.

The inauguration of Barack Obama will pale in comparison to that awesome spectacle of gilded statues, gold threaded cloth, hand-woven carpets, longhorns, elephant tusks, the stuff just kept coming and coming, even a kilo of emeralds carried from Brazil. I could joke there wasn’t much emptiness, but that spectacular outpouring was the most profound inspiration imaginable. Almost exactly fifty years to the start of the hoopla, the ninth Thrangu Rinpoche fled Tibet with nothing but his devotion to the Dharma and faith in the Buddha. At the time, these were miraculous enough to deflect a bullet from Chinese determined to destroy him. The awed 25-year-old grabbed his life and moved through five decades never letting that faith veer or waver, never straying or betraying the Dharma, never letting an ego swell or despair damage his devotion. Consequently, his focus was magnified by the devotion and faith such pure behavior inspired, ultimately giving him the power to create this breathtaking Buddhist center. The message was clear: look at the riches uncorrupted devotion to and unflappable faith in the Dharma leads to.

Not that getting there is easy. Rinpoche’s life is a reminder it takes excruciatingly hard work. But, the gala said: Yes we can, because the spectacular three-day tribute to transcendence of tragedy, poverty, and the humiliations of exile was an elegant display of how to overcome. It looked just like a guide to the paramitas, those six behaviors whose virtuoso perfection the Buddha deemed fitness training for sailing over the sufferings of Samsara, to the shore of sainthood—or the pinnacle of a sacred Nepali mountain.

The first, and maybe toughest, generosity, started with the huge red welcome portals temporarily erected along the dirt track leading up, then the immediate offering of biscuits, tea and personalized access badges upon arrival. “We humbly request that you accept this invitation,” the website said, echoing the big yellow printed solicitation mailed to thousands. With the whole world essentially invited, anyone who showed up, and over 2,000 people did—Tibetans from all over their diaspora, Tamangs from the local village, Manangis from a hidden Himalayan valley of Nepal, Chinese from Malaysia, someone from New Zealand-- got to share meals, tea, seating and souvenirs, a reminder that the Buddha said we must be like the sun which shines equally bright on everyone, without prejudice, judgment or favor.

So many showed up, Rinpoche had to rent a hotel in the resort town back at the base of the mountain, along with buses to shuttle the dozens of us up and down, yet it was all offered as freely as the tea. Even to the loud, opinionated, bucktoothed, red headed German backpacker who never shut up, never stopped asking for seconds, never contributed to the construction or the celebration, but always helped herself to the prime seat, smashing some of us on the bus in her stubborn push to get off first. to add to the perfection, the freeloader's name was Hella. I kid you not.

Ordinary material giving was matched by great giving. This included all those processions offering the rare and personally precious, plus thank-you gifts coming in return from Rinpoche. It was Rinpoche offering prostrations and precious gifts to His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the thirteen-year-old presiding over the rituals. It was Rinpoche politely sitting on his throne two extra hours so hundreds of Tibetans and Tamang villagers could file past, one by one handing him a white scarf for blessings, each one getting a souvenir in return so no one left without feeling part of the occasion. The special giving of Dharma was pujas, lama dances and distribution of Buddha statues to everybody who contributed to the place, no matter what that contribution was. The extraordinary giving of freedom from fear was the warm welcome given to the local villagers, even those who climbed up in rags with babies on their back, and the opening of a free hospital clinic on the monastery ground—the first medical care ever for them.

As for exceptionally great giving, that rare and precious sacrifice of life or limb, Rinpoche pointed out the monastery sat on a site made sacred by the Buddha himself. In his incarnation as a Nepali prince, he willingly gave his flesh and blood here to a starving tigress and her cubs, thereby in the very next lifetime catapulting to Buddhahood. We are all so stubbornly used to equating our temporary body with our eternal mind, Rinpoche said, we clutch it fiercely, and thus panic wildly at intimations of illness, death or giving any of it away. He hoped time spent here at Namo Buddha (homage to the Buddha) recalling what the prince did would loosen that white knuckled grip.

Actually, just getting there helped. All of us over-fifty survivors of the tortured 25 hours of flying, mingled with torturous transit waits and invasive searches, spent a few days before the consecration trying to adjust to a city choked by pollution and paralyzed by politics, to a time zone where night comes when you’re geared for day and day becomes night because the barbaric Maoist government deliberately cuts electricity to destabilize the place. To a person, we swore the whole experience, complete with dangerous water and risky food, a physical ordeal getting too tough at our age to repeat. Yet we were all genuinely thrilled to have endured the depredations in order to witness our teacher’s moment of glory. And our suffering was a reminder how for years on end, Rinpoche has selflessly tripped through airports, crossed oceans, changed climates, suspended routine and upended eating habits, sacrificing his comfort to respond to requests to teach the Dharma.

Rinpoche never complains about how hard nomadic life has been on him, or about the difficulties of building this splendid monastery. That is perfect discipline. So were the poignantly unhesitating prostrations of this venerable 76-year-old scholar to the eminent Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the 13-year-old who embodies one of the most legendary minds in all Tibetan Buddhism. The hundreds of monks, scores of schoolchildren and dozens of nuns frenetically scurrying around to insure everyone among the two thousand visitors had tea, every dish was washed, every cauliflower was cut, every water tank was refilled, every plastic chair was carried from one event to the other, every guest had a bed, every statue was polished also beautifully illustrated perfect discipline: always creating as many sources of good for the future as possible by always doing whatever positive actions you can, regardless of how insignificant they may seem.

The massive festivities were planned and pulled off without hitch or aggravation by a small committee of monks armed only with cellphones and focus. Dozens of their cohorts had gone without sleep for a week to polish their dances or hundreds of shrine statues or the new dining room floor. I heard about monks willingly tight rope walking wobbly bamboo pole scaffolds to get that rusty red paint at the tops of buildings. Not one of the monks, regardless of rank in the vast maroon wrapped army, failed to smile welcomingly, not one forgot a thank you for what may have been given in the year gone by (several joyfully offered to stop what they were doing to give me tours of the 2000 trees they’d planted with my contribution), not one ignored questions or requests. For their contribution, the seven-year-old ones exuberantly walked on their hands and spun blithely across concrete in cartwheels.

The teenage school kids bused out from the city slept on the floor and wore the same clothes for three days, and while these were getting dustier and dirtier, the smiles on their faces got brighter and wider because the choreography was flowing flawlessly and they knew they were helping to keep it that way.

I swear I saw a grimace fly across Rinpoche’s face when the infuriating Hella interfered with the lama dancers, throwing herself in their faces with her large camera, but he never acted on it. The monks continued gracefully to give her seconds and thirds of the ceremonial rice offered in the shrine room, plus fancy accommodations at the resort hotel, right along with the most generous contributors. Letting it all hang out was transcendental patience. The same patience Rinpoche displayed waiting and working fifty years to make this gift to the world.

Early on, many fancier gurus who fled Tibet were given grand sites to re-establish monasteries while Rinpoche toiled quietly, without a retinue, as a teaching scholar. By the time he was ready and able to set up on his own, all he could do was squeeze into a pocket sized space near the crowded stupa of Boudha. Then out of devotion, he made a pilgrimage to the often ignored sacred Namo Buddha site. There was no road, no water, no wiring, no shelter when he first climbed the 12 kilometers, but upon getting there, he vowed to make the spot pacify misfortune, promote peace and push people to rebirth in higher realms.

Down to the symbolic number of pillars in the shrine room, he envisioned this magnificent monastery, with specific components for teaching and healing, and not even a decade of mean Maoist interference deterred him from actualizing it. It slowed him down but didn’t stop him, didn’t cloud his sunny view. For this consecration of a monastery named "all that has been collected back from being scattered", he had gathered almost all the titled gurus of the original Thrangu Monastery of Tibet including Tulku Lodro Nyima Rinpoche who remained in it, and the 85-year-old Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche who made the journey from Woodstock, New York. So what was Hella but a reminder how pointless a distraction irritation is.

There’s probably no greater irritation in all Nepal than its evil politics. The elite is relentlessly exclusive. The narcissistic and petty cruelty common to the King, his Brahmin legions and the Maoists has undermined normality. Yet, like a star quarterback or political mastermind, Rinpoche has managed to move forward, creating a nunnery, retreat center, boarding school and now this marvelous monastery in the middle of the mess. He’s planted Dharma by being inventively inclusive, giving space to everyone. It's no secret that the complex was essentially built by Chinese people, enterprising ones who fled the Communists and set up colonies in Malaysia, Taiwan, Vancouver and Hong Kong. They're the very ones who funded the restoration of Rinpoche's original monastery flourishing unmolested inside Tibet. And they were all there en masse, with Rinpoche supplying a Mandarin translator.

In the crowded crush, I caught a passing glimpse of the unctuous Kasim, come from Varanasi, India where generations ago his Muslim family established a brocade weaving workshop that specializes in tapestry for Buddhist monasteries. For over a century, Kasim’s great grandfather or grandfather or father trekked from the banks of the Ganges into eastern Tibet to deliver and sell, cataloguing patterns specific to each customer. Thus as emigrant Rinpoches re-established themselves, Kasim was able to faithfully reproduce the designs of their heritage. Rinpoche has made him a rich man, and made us richer by always inviting him as a guest, to remind us of the historic, honorable interconnection between Muslims and Buddhists.

The real display of perfect vigilance, sometimes called morality, was having as the principal ribbon cutter and orator the new speaker of Nepal’s fledging and chaotic government, Subas Nemwang. Unfortunately, we had to sit two hours waiting for him to launch the festivities because he was caught in that spontaneous highway roadblock at the bottom of the mountain that had been vexing us. When he finally arrived, fez on, he expressed surprise at finding social services like school and clinic on private property and commended Rinpoche for this charity. He praised all of us who had contributed to such a beautiful and monumental effort, so beneficial to Nepal, and ended on what seemed an odd note. He asked us to please now rebuild into similar splendor the one Buddhist pilgrimage site in the country, Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha.

On the bus ride down to the hotel that night, I found out the point of the pitch was the Maoist government, sensing a potential jackpot, wanted to clean up what is widely known as the slum of must-do Buddhist pilgrimage places. Nepal is so endemically depraved, all the reconstruction committees pocketed whatever funds were volunteered or coughed up, and left a golden egg seriously tarnished. So the Maoists disbanded the latest group and, having glimpsed the glory of Namo Buddha, appointed one of Rinpoche’s monks to take charge of rebuilding Lumbini.

Transcendent concentration was easy. It wasn't just Rinpoche's unswerving fifty year's of focus or the year effort made unstintingly by his monks. There were no televisions, radios, computers clicking, movies rolling, no bright light distractions like that. Dharma was the only focus and there was nowhere to lose it. Namo Buddha is a pilgrimage site, and Rinpoche says that visiting such a blessed place helps strengthen devotion and faith, changing our behavior through inspiration.

Unexpected inspiration came from the brocaded Chinese dumpling sitting next to me at the first event. Her face was pale as a China doll, her cheeks plump and eyes slit, her stature small. Her English was very halting with echoes of a lisp, and in it she said her name was Mancy. She was not, as I first thought, one of the so-called overseas devotees from Malaysia, Taiwan or Hong Kong. She was bona fide Han Chinese from the southern city of Guangzhou, a passport carrying citizen of the Communist regime. And that was the problem. Cherubic Mancy had an unexpected eruption of karma. Experiencing a yen for Dharma, she traveled to Hong Kong, heard Rinpoche talk and immediately vowed to learn Tibetan so she could translate his teachings into Cantonese. It's the only language the southern half of China including Hong Kong truly understands. "I realized," she explained, "that the translation was in Mandarin and most of the Hong Kong people, like myself, didn't really understand it all. We were missing a lot." So Mancy has been traveling on her own alone, on limited visas and under police surveillance, to Nepal from time to time for tutoring in Tibetan. After the last visit, she was detained at the airport for two hours because she had a Tibetan dictionary. She had one on her that day too and was looking for a Chinese speaking monk or nun to teach her til her visa ran out.

As for perfect wisdom, Rinpoche gave everyone a booklet explaining that “this world of ours, where material goods are available as never before, could be taken as a positive sign. However, this abundance has also created an era of craving and attachment escalating beyond measure. In their wake, our environment has deteriorated while wildlife has been slaughtered to the point of extinction. Major earthquakes and rising ocean levels also attest to the tremendous damage done and the danger of future harm.

“At such a time, it is very beneficial to recall the life story of the Buddha, and narratives of his prior lives which provide models for excellent conduct. Here he offered himself to a starving tigress and her cubs. When we hear the story of such fearlessness and dedication to protecting the lives of animals and the natural world, it becomes clear we need to do all that we possibly can. …

“I offer the aspiration prayer that making available this history of this sacred site will bring great benefit by helping to protect the environment and preventing its further decline, and especially by preventing the loss of wildlife through safeguarding the lives of those who have no protection.”

Rinpoche also says: ", we can visit this place where the Buddha demonstrated such great courage and compassion. That we can ...indicates how fortunate we are." Frankly, at this very moment when kleshas were exploding like fireworks all over the earth--Pakistanis blowing up Mumbai, Afghanis attacking each other, Palestinians bombing Israelis with lots of vice versa revenge, Darfur dying of uninterrupted genocide, Republican blowhards stirring up a stew of American racial enmity--everybody really did feel that way.

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

Technorati Tags: , , , , , ,

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.

Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.

Yours In The Dharma 2001-2008, Sandy Garson @copy: 2001-2008 Sandy Garson
All rights Reserved

Labels: , , ,