Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I want to make a shameful confession in case it is of benefit to other sentient beings.

When the Buddha taught his great truth of emptiness, I am not sure he meant to include my bank account. Now that I’ve discovered it there, I’ve struggled to convince myself that since the greed grubbing stock jocks have thrown my money into their swiftly flowing river of polluted paper, I should feel as joyously liberated from its burden as Patrul Rinpoche when he threw what gold he’d collected for offerings into a Tibetan river to get relief from the fear of losing it to thieves. It certainly would be emaho! to say I am headed fearlessly into my money free future, but I’ll leave the lying to Goldman Sachs.

Although I desperately do not want to, I wake every day depressed, angry and frustrated, Jetsun Tenzin Palmo’s worst case scenario. Every ticking second my churning stomach tells me this form as emptiness has not left me liberated or living happily ever after in the realm of wisdom. I’ve said I’m trying to work with Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamsto’s teaching that fear is just a thought about the future, but I am failing the test. Fear of destitution in old age cuts deep. I am such a mess that when the chocolate fortune cookie said: You will have great success in all personal relationships, I threw its tiny slip of paper on the waiting bill and said in disgust: “Yeah, but so what? The truth that everyone likes me isn’t going to pay for this $8.95 lunch.” I didn’t even care how the fortune cookie knew the night before, I was writing how stymied I am moving forward with my own problems because so many people call me thinking I’m the one who can solve theirs.

A GPS device or Google Earth would locate me caught in the intersection of the Dharma and the Dow. In these clashing tides, I am treading water as I wrestle like Jacob and his Biblical angel with the infernal question of how to balance self worth and net worth in this wildly unbalanced world. Caught in financial quicksand, I am losing sight that I am pure and perfect, an unpolluted source of Buddhanature, and to boot everybody’s favorite go-to girl, something I used to be proud of and now see only as a job without financial compensation.

This revolting development could be because, unlike Patrul Rinpoche, I don’t live in a society that will make offerings to a wandering wizard or kitchen table confidante, only to big boys who bust big bucks and the likes of Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh. I have to pay for a place to live, food to eat, clothes and a telephone, on terms that are increasingly mean. It may be because the philosophizing about how there really is no there there has nothing to do with the absolute truth of the utility bill and health insurance. It may be because I am too old to recoup investments, and income prospects have been co-opted by brighter, shinier young people. America’s youth obsessed society throws out what is old, unless it throws dollars to blindly dazzle its way to fame. And it may be because the economic cowboys who launched the Darwinian free for all of free markets a decade ago have created a culture where net worth is everything, the only thing, go get it.

This is my drowning moment on the proverbial road not taken because I didn't. All my adult life, I have been a conscientious objector to the moneyed elite that worships material things. Dropping out decades ago came from instinct. I now understand it was karma because I was born into that elite, studied with it, dated it and at times lived among it, although I confess I shook up the superintendent of that Park Avenue building when I arrived in a muddy Subaru filled with firewood, down coats and house pets. It is in my DNA to not be déclassé. Spiraling down to the subway feels like the karma of the god realm which is all about the painful fall from grace. What did I do to deserve it?

I walked away from people depressingly shallow, callow and intensely self-serving, particularly young men whose inner life was a cash register. I’ve found the artists, philosophers and skilled workers of the world much more invigorating and inspiring company than people who can only talk about the latest greatest most expensive whatever, usually bragging how they have it or have been there. I walked away from relatives who wielded their money like a night stick or smart bomb to beat me into submission. I very desperately did not want to be like that. In fact, a college friend and I had a silly pact during our first jobs in Manhattan that if either of us noticed the other was acting hardboiled, a New York trait, we would point it out and run the culprit off the island.

I worked very hard not for money but to help. I gave money with no strings to those around me who didn’t have it for the mortgage, the life saving surgery, college. I sat in hospitals, buried the dead, raised lost children, fed the foreign hungry and donated to the Dharma for the benefit of all beings. Last week I wrote the website text for a new Tibetan nonprofit and next week I’m going to help my computer geek do his English literature class essay. For the past two weeks I’ve been madly making calls for immigration papers, vetting lawyers, charitable grants and consolations. I am not lazy. I haven't been to a beach or spa for years and I don't veg out in front of a big TV because I don't have one.

The fortune cookie nailed it. I have actively participated on the planet. I have been face to face across the table with Napoleon’s great nephew, an African family in their hut, and a young mother in Bhutan. Three weeks ago I got a surprise email from Paris, from a Belgian woman I met when we found ourselves in our twenties on a double date in New York with two boorishly childish Wall Streeters. She remembered me fondly and hoped we could rekindle a friendship because her life had become difficult. That felt like an honor.

I cannot change the fact that I have reached out and touched the authenticity in this world. I dearly wish everyone could have the same inspirational experience. Except now I don’t because my full heart is empty handed, and that raises stinging questions about how I spent my time in a world where time is money.

This morning at his internet news conference, President Obama rued the fact that America has a shortage of nurses, people who cared for him in a time of need. We have a shortage of teachers too, a shortage of anything that requires caring because we do not value it. The guys who shuffle securities and don't care about anything but "eating what you kill" have all the monetary muscle. The papers carry news that the Post Office is going bust because it's not government supported, and New York City's vital transit system is in danger of collapse for the same reasons. Service to others is no longer in the scheme of things when that giant sucking sound you hear, as Ross Perot might say, is all the money flowing to the pockets of people whose only raison d'etre is to manipulate it.

I know I am surrounded by innumerable and immeasurable blessings, I really do. Last week the monks who received my Losar gifts emailed that they would pray for me. Yesterday Gaby offered me her Paris studio any time I wanted it. Today my Nepali heart son put his arm around my shoulders and told me not to worry. He’s getting quite famous for his music and probably will be rich and he is always going to take care of me. This is all good. But I am writing this to confess that I am wondering how it is I feel so punished, why the road I took seems to have such a heavy toll, why I feel so empty handed, and, yes, worth less. It’s an ugly and painful struggle to get the vajrayana vehicle to drive me out of this morass.

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

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Friday, March 20, 2009


Rudd Douglass was small potatoes. Twice a week for two decades, the energetic, white haired and clear eyed ex-professor showed up at the Brunswick, Maine Farmer’s Market with baskets of them, offering at least ten of the who-knows-how-many varieties he experimented with. Every Finnish rose, Yukon gold and Inca purple was elegantly clean and exquisitely sized, like a gem.

Regimes rose and fell, stocks boomed and busted, the last full service gas station in the area evaporated and two Indian restaurants came to globalize the town. While everything was changing at dizzying pace, what stayed dependable were Ruddy’s potatoes, every Tuesday and Friday for six months. His cranberry reds, white roses, Adirondack blues were the secret behind my catering business’s much talked-about festive July 4 potato salad, and patriotic bowl of warm, roasted new potatoes to put beside the traditional peas and salmon.

Of course he pulled other merchandise out of the old white truck he drove down from Dresden. He was the original, and for a long time lone, organic farmer at the market, a vision in overalls and clogs. He offered tomatoes, melons, cucumbers plus peppers of varying heat. He did business as Blueberry Ledge Farm, so true to his name, about three weeks every summer he showed up with stacks of squeaky clean blueberries neatly packed under cellophane in green cardboard pints that sold out fast. Using a 1930’s winnowing machine, he filled big freezer orders, ten pounds at a time. He also set up huge greenhouses and plunged into the plant business, adorning his biweekly produce display with carefully picked perennials, many of them rare, in full bloom. But the main attraction was Rudd the spudman. He always had long lines.

Ruddy brought to his wildly international assortment of potatoes--the Austrian crescents, Russian Bananas, Caribes-- the tutorial skill and relish he brought to teaching science at Fordham University before he moved to Maine. He and his wife Liz, who gracefully adapted to his farming obsession, spent winters tasting every new variety (4,000 are known to exist) he dared to plant. Each was then sold with a sign announcing: great for baking, best in salads, try roasted, or nutty, dry, sweet—to which Rudd would on request add his up-to-the-minute, well articulated opinion. He was far in front of famed food gurus like Michael Pollan who are now telling everyone that eating healthy food involves learning about that food by getting to know its farmer and engaging in open discussion.

To write a book on Maine farmers’ markets, I visited a good many of them. I still check out markets in other states-- the wildly popular Grove in Los Angeles, the legendary Pike’s Place in Seattle, Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket, two state sponsored markets in greater Boston. Some part of me always looks for someone like Ruddy, but I never find anyone who has even a third of his startling display of French fingerlings, German butterballs, Norlands, Adirondack reds, Green mountains and yellow fleshed Carollas. He was unique.

He was also magical. In minding his business, Rudd poignantly revived enthusiasm for potatoes in the state once synonymous with them. The traditional growers of Aroostook County so stalwartly refused to change old-fashioned mass single plantings that destroyed the soil, they ran the business out of the ground, By the 1970s, no one wanted a Maine potato because they were black with rot and/or unnaturally shriveled. By the 1990s, without fanfare or grant money Ruddy was selling out whatever he could grow, including standard Maine favorites like Katahdins and Kennebecs. Visitors from away carried his tubers out in their luggage. I sometimes used them as packing “peanuts” in gifts to show them off. A national food broker offered to pile his potatoes in every organic supermarket.

There was no way Rudd could meet demand for his treasure. Despite his dedication, energy and intelligence, he quietly struggled to get his small supply of small potatoes to the market twice a week. His whole life depended on Maine weather because too much snow, a dry spring, a cold June, a wet summer, a beetle infestation, almost anything could upend his tubers and wipe him out. There was never a right time to dig because no one could predict what was coming next, so he usually took his potatoes out small. That’s why they were perfection to cook and serve.

Ruddy also had to depend on hired help to harvest, and as the new millennium progressed, it got harder and harder to find strong, young people willing to do farm work for minimum wage. Even teenage neighbors abandoned him at blueberry time. More and more, he and his daughter alone fielded the labor, packed the harvest, and staffed the market where in the latest years, an exhausted over-sixty Ruddy could frequently be found catching Zzs inside the truck while Samantha worked the scales and bantered with the customers.

Ruddy was keenly aware he had sacrificed the Connecticut comforts of a full professorship because the wild vagaries of ledge farming in Maine never let him off the edge of a financial cliff. But he met the low income challenge like he handled the storms and droughts hurled at him by the weather: with a shrug. He went on playing with potatoes, hunting down new varieties to plant and taste, until pulmonary fibrosis took spudman away earlier this month.

I have always thought the best revenge against death, the one consolation for the sorrows of life, is to become someone so distinct, you become indispensable to people of good heart. So few people are profoundly memorable that in the great scheme of rapidly changing times, to anonymously carve your own niche and become irreplaceable to others is in no way small potatoes. There is no greater or more elusive honor than to be painfully missed, and because perfect potatoes won’t be on the menu any more, W. Rudd Douglass will be every summer in Maine.

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

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009


Tibetan Losar was the last chance to celebrate a New Year until Jewish Rosh Hashonah in the fall, making for a long stretch with no fresh start. So I accepted the invitation to my fourth annual new year’s eve celebration, a very traditional family dinner that revolves around a special soup named after the little dough dumplings, tentuk, bobbing in its broth.

On this particular night, one flat disk of dough is added to every bowl of tentuk, each one containing a tiny slip of paper bearing the karmic trait that will control the upcoming destiny of its picker. On past eves, I found coal, chili and salt in my soup, but no one ever seemed to know why any of them were in there. I had to live a whole year to find out how things would work out, and by the time I did, I had long forgotten and little remembered the warning in the broth. This year, worried that suspense could kill me at my advancing age, I made noise about not showing up unless somebody actually knew what these fortunes meant. “Come anyway,” they said.

To my surprise, when soup was ladled out, everybody assured me they knew the answers to the meanings of life in it. One by one as we bit open the pasta, I learned coal means black hearted, chili angry or out of control, cotton soft hearted, salt lazy because it makes things sluggish and heavy. When I, the only non-Tibetan, got butter, I wildly waved my tiny scrap of paper. “It means I’m the high calorie one full of fat, an American.” “Actually,” somebody rushed to say, “it means smooth talking, smooth sailing… a year of richness.”

After years of being black hearted, lazy and out of control, what relief it was to have such good fortune. To be butter is to be loved, at least by Tibetans. They not only gorge on it for warmth and protein. They famously make tea of it, and lamp light, prayer offerings and religious sculpture. At the launch of anything, it is poured into rice as their champagne, turning the dish into desi. It even flows through their language. The common Khampa way of describing something clean, quick and skillful—such as the way to end a bad relationship-- is “like a knife through butter.” The perfection or Buddha nature inherent in everyone is alluded to as the golden butter that comes from churning milk. Churned milk is omnipresent in Tibetan culture, because butter’s gold color and ridiculous fat content make it a potent symbol for wealth, and that makes it also a symbol for joy, since wealth of any kind can reduce suffering.

I drove home thinking I would not have been so fortunate in other cultures, ones that see butter as the cause of suffering. How they would have preferred coal. I wasn’t thinking so much of the folks in weight watcher world who can’t believe it’s not butter, but rather those who put on the planet probably the most echoed sound byte of all time: guns or butter. It is still alive and well, brought forth like a stewardess, once the seatbelt light has been turned off, asking for your drink preference: coffee, tea or milk? The implication is: pick only one, and often it comes with the suspicion it’s really Hobson’s choice.

As it happens, the first time I heard guns or butter in the 1960s was no different from the first time I got one of those karmic fortunes in my soup: nobody really knew what it meant. The phrase was there in the opening of the classic and best selling Economics: an Introductory Analysis everybody slogging through Economics 101 in the Ivy League had to digest. We all somehow knew the author, renowned MIT professor and subsequent Nobel Laureate Paul Samuelson, put out a new edition every time his wife had a new baby, but nobody knew much of anything about why Samuelson consistently presented economic decision making as a political tug of war between two evidently polar opposites. The phrase guns or butter was inculcated in us as the supposedly inevitable zero sum political game every community must play, since every dollar spent on one necessarily reduces its chance to have the other. Maybe because I was the only female in the class, I thought it made economics look like a football game with lots of tackling between those goal posts.

Also, I found the paradigm odd. I was baffled by what seemed weird choices, especially when a civilized society should aspire to much that seemed to have been omitted for mysterious reasons. Granted, I was young enough to think you could have it all, and certainly a romantic young woman who found food far more compelling —and vital, than Howitzers. Yet, definitely, like everybody else forced to swallow that text, I had no idea Samuelson had salvaged a picturesque phrase from the sunken economic theory of the late Adolph Hitler. Guns or butter was actually the jingoistic battle cry created in the 1930s by ace spinmeister Joseph Goebbels to justify the Nazi agenda— although those three words are its abbreviated sound byte. The full propaganda slogan went something like Guns will make us fit while butter will only make us fat. In other words, goose stepping over goose feeding any day.

That’s how the Nazis whipped their country into its feeding frenzy on Poland, Czechoslovakia, France et al, making violence their bread and butter. I discovered this during the Moral Majority 1980s doing research on German women who risked their lives in resistance to Nazism. I learned Goebbels propagated the slogan to knock women down from the workplace heights they had achieved during World War I, and to prevent their sons, husbands and fathers from standing by them, becoming what the Austrian-born governor of California calls “girly men.” Guns or butter was a deadly potshot at women and by extension the arts and craft of sustaining life. Butter was snide shorthand for the homefront, the homefires, for three German words the Nazi schemers linked to the female realm: children, kitchen and church. The either or symbolized the eternal seesaw between masculine and feminine, hard and soft, death giving and life giving—with or emphasizing one correct choice.

The battle cry guns or butter conveniently allowed the Nazis to co-opt all resources for armies and armaments, and we know how the story ended. The Soviet Union was the next to try, bombastically banking on an enormous military and nuclear arsenal while its people stood in breadlines in thread bare coats. It could have been the stuff of comedy but it wasn’t funny. Besides, even though the empire eventually imploded, what remains of Russia seems to be trying it again. It is still the rage of North Korea. Perhaps that's why it is not the popular tourist destination a buttery country like Italy is. People with their druthers have the damnedest habit of sticking to the humanity stuff.

Anybody who thinks guns or butter wasn’t lifted out of the economic textbook into America’s political reality must have been on the moon during the Reagan years when social services were eliminated, suffocated or strangled to free up welfare money for the defense contractors who supported the actor's candidacy. Reaganomics is guns or butter. So too was the high testosterone Cheney government, for which the election of 2000 was hijacked. Don't just look at how that man spent his spare time shooting living creatures. Look at the spending record. Gazillions of dollars paid for war machines and whatnot in Iraq while the homefront—schools, a safe food supply, bridges—fell apart from lack of attention. Conscientious objectors were spied upon or persecuted, women’s rights eroded. The governor of California pompously called those not in favor of his spending priorities “girly men.” Remember all the emphasis on “lean and mean” as opposed to “fat and happy?”

Now here comes Barack Obama trying to butter up the nation with his stimulus to build schools, roads, solar panels and organic food—enriching the country as we go, and Republican congressmen, especially from southern California, go on television to rebuff him. And what's the problem? They complain money allocated for the arts and pre-school education is an egregious waste of money when what America really needs to be strong again is more missile systems and stealth bombers. So there it is: guns or butter? I guess some Americans want their karmic fate this earth ox year to be coal, salt or chili. They would have found a year of butter misfortune in the soup.

~Sandy Garson
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
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Wednesday, March 04, 2009


According to news that leaked from Beliefnet onto the wheels of dharma that roll across the internet, Barack Obama took the oath of office with a khata blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in his pocket. It was reportedly a last minute offering from Richard Blum, founder of the American Himalayan Foundation and husband of the Inauguration’s emcee, Senator Diane Feinstein, and in a distinct break with political tradition, the almost President was reportedly very happy to pocket His Holiness’ blessing. I bet he knew it would go perfectly with the little bit of the Buddha he already had up his sleeve.

Obama took the khata minutes before he took over a nation neglected and decayed into more shambles than the south side of Chicago. In America 2009, people live on sidewalks, bridges collapse, libraries close, airports smother, trains don’t run on time or at all, water and sewer piping corrode, soup kitchens run out and it’s almost twenty years since people started calling New York Calcutta on the Hudson.
As he did again in his speech last week to Congress, on Inauguration Day the President nailed the cause of the decline as neatly as the Buddha. It’s the autonomy stupid (no comma intended). Everybody flaunting their own declaration of independence, L’eclat, c’est moi!, marching to the beat of their own I-tunes has left we the people in tatters (sometimes hyped as niches). As they declare in divorce court: so much for a more perfect union when there's nothing in common.

It was a no-brainer to imply why the state of the union is wrong. “If anything characterizes the 21st century,” a Rutgers professor of Mobile Communications Studies (how’s that for a major!), recently told the New York Times, “it’s our inability to restrain ourselves for the benefit of other people.” Everybody who has not done a gap decade on Mars has experienced cell phone blabbermouths bogarting their space. Last week I met the foul mouthed brute who likes to park his massive SUV across the loading driveway of the building I work in, because when the building manager, a 5’6”, 76-year-old with a heart condition, finally went out to ask him to please move, the guy physically attacked. But then, almost everyday I drive in San Francisco, I nearly meet the websi generation whose expensive cars and cell phones entitle them to run the four-way STOPS with the same arrogant impunity that Northern Trust Bank took my taxpayer bailout money, didn’t stop and blew millions last week on a lavish Los Angeles golfing gala with Sheryl Crowe.

The wealth obsessed wonders who wake up in August in their multimillion dollar cottages on the coast of Maine demanding the native lobstermen and boat builders move elsewhere to get their “junk” out of a gorgeous view are me too dittos of the thirty-something Sausalito swell who didn’t care if he bankrupted his elderly neighbors on Social Security by forcing each to pay $60,000 to bury a power line that was ruining his bay view. All sense of neighborliness has been washed away by the dam that burst on Wall Street’s primitive instinct: “eat what you kill”, investment banker code for Get out of the way, it’s all mine. I don’t have to share. Go get your own credit default swap.

We do have to hand it, the trophy please, to these egomaniacs. The WMDS weren’t in Iraq but right here in the bank! The Mayans said the world as we know it would end on December 21, 2012, but these me first folks blew it up by December 2008, record time. Of course, the Buddha did say the I deal is a first class ticket on the bullet train to the teeming slum of suffering known as Samsara. And because every crisis is an opportunity and it’s not over until everyone is over it, someone will likely turn this into a cheery drink-up vodka ad something like: Absolute power! Disrupts absolutely! Try it, you’ll like it. Hurry, call now for your free offer! Operators are standing by.

After the second speech, a TV news host wistfully asked a guest from the thick of things if there was a way to shame the money men into doing the right thing. The answer was sadly obvious. Habits die hard, (just ask a Buddhist), and anyway, shame has been politically incorrect since the ‘60s ended in the re-election of Richard Nixon. In real unnoticed climate change, America went green after that. Take the money and run became the national pastime, and the million dollar book contract to brag how some lobbyist or secret agent showed you the money was a bases loaded home run. During the infamous OJ Simpson trial, day laborers told the press, Juice couldn’t have done anything wrong because he had so much money. Worked for Bernie Madoff too.

This is the rot Obama was referring to: no fifteen minutes of shame, no sense of other. I think that’s why he specifically singled out the banker who happily shared his boggling bonus with co-workers who helped him over the years, and the pilot who endlessly practiced safety techniques and thus in real time seconds saved lives. These people look like Bodhisattvas, putting others before self knowing self is really others. Obama can’t organize the community around here until everybody gets that.

Pontificating with a grand unifying theory about what’s made selfishness all the rage is a pratfall. I learned that when my grandfather, an otherwise canny master of the corporate universe, insisted the whole hairy hippie 60s phenomenon was merely the result of an increase in barbershop prices. Yet there may have been a tad of unexamined truth in my father swearing our Vietnam misadventure was simply the result of the powerful Catholic archbishops of New York and Boston pressuring the Catholic President Kennedy not to lose the faithful. Formerly French Vietnam was chockablock with collection plate Catholics threatened by godless—and Popeless-- Communism.

So I won’t say Armageddon came courtesy of cheap cameras that created a smile! and look at me! civilization which is all show biz, a culture that happily crops darkness out of every picture with one simple I am feeling lucky button. No worries. I won’t even say, Americans like to keep moving to what they imagine will be a “better” place, preferring flight to fight, and since we’ve run out of physical territory to invade, the well documented white flight to shiny new and seemingly safe suburbs, the most popular way to “get away from it all”, was followed by flight from equally crowded, risky and rundown Reality, the most popular way to “have it all.” I think Wall-E did that.

But it is tempting to posit that the demise of the Draft jumpstarted the current culture that does not ask any more what you can do for your country, which is to say, for others. The cashiering of conscription came like a metaphorical mop up after Republican Richard Nixon unhinged the country from the gold standard to do its own thing. And the shrinking of the popular Peace Corps came next, victim of Reaganomics preference for smart bombs over smartening people. So maybe the free fall began when everybody became a free agent free of any restraint, any compelling civil or civic responsibility, any real risk of sacrifice, and America became a duty free country, happy to not tax anyone in any way. The great unleashing of so much inner Alfred E. Neuman, What, me worry?, built up to to the apotheosis in Draft dodger W who, it was recently revealed, never bothered to scoop Barney’s poop off the White House lawn any more than he bothered to clean up the ca-ca of derivatives or the defense contractors cleaning up in Iraq.

Unfortunately it also turned our power centers into frat parties that giddily hazed an entire nation. Graduates who never had to serve a cause larger than themselves flocked to K Street and Wall Street, changing the tenor of business and politics as usual by boiling everything down to one question: what’s in it for me? A whole world of private planes, private equity, private schools, private security, private communities, private banking, private hospitals that added up to one big private joke on the public.

Even medical school graduates started to step on each other to get residencies in formerly shunned fields like dermatology, because they only want to do elective, thus lucrative and conveniently scheduled procedures like cosmetic surgery, although these have nothing to do with healing. That takes so much effort and personal contact, so much caring for needy others, there’s a shortage of hands-on doctors and probably will be for a while. A few months ago, my brilliant young cousin, about to graduate with honors with her MD plus PhD all at once, told me she had decided to go into nuclear medicine “for the lifestyle.” Yesterday my childhood friend told me her son, after a decade of training in cancer surgery, would probably go to work for a pharmaceutical company because of the money. That’s the whealth care crisis.

During last November’s startling protests in normally placid Bangkok, my Thai friend wrote upper crust Thais were shocked by the divisive tenacity of ousted leader Taksin Shinawatra. The tradition that’s kept Thais free and strong, she said, is that elected leaders put aside personal considerations to do what’s best to protect the country. By selfishly holding onto power, he wrenched the country in half, setting Thai against Thai for the first time in history. Maybe he got to do that because the Thais had by then surrendered another tradition. Upon graduation, Thai men are no longer required to shave their heads, abandon their possessions and spend a gap year as a monk in a Buddhist monastery, learning not only meditation, but heartfelt consideration of others and humility at being just one atom that functions dependently in a large body.

The whole premise of Buddhism, of the Buddha, is that men need to be taught how to connect protectively to others the way mothers instinctively bond to a child. I want to think national or charitable service are equal opportunity. But serving others went the way of regulation, trampled in the mad rush for the absolute disconnect of absolute freedom. The free market the private jet set so staunchly defends is the mirror of this belief an individual has no allegiance, no attachment to what founding New Englanders called the common good, anything that supplies community. That’s why sometimes the staunch exhortations for free markets free of countervailing power looks like infantile male individuation from mother, raised to its highest exponential "don't tread on me" power, sort of a whole bunch of guys trying lock Mom out of the room because they don't want to hear: "Eat your spinach!"

The huge ha ha here is that the right wing Christians who have made free markets and individual liberty so sanctimonious they’ve been incited to violent Obama opposition, are the very people thumping and swearing on a book whose story begins with the perils of not being your brother’s keeper. In our story these perils have turned out to be potholes, falling bridges, lethal pollution, poison peanuts and adults so stupid, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor just told Jon Stewart that 68% of Americans can't name the three branches of government but they can name one judge on American Idol.

Obama talked about taxes because even in a free market where ketchup can be a vegetable, there is no free lunch. Taxes are the way we make an offering to the mandala of which we are an inextricable part, the way we restrain ourselves for the benefit of others. This is because we are supposed to pay taxes because taxes are supposed to pay for what we need but can’t obtain alone: air traffic control to save our life, disease control, highway patrol, fire fighting, ports and parks--all that stuff of the common good. I know people who deliberately moved to and gladly pay taxes to the town of Scarsdale because they get back something they really want: great schools and a town swimming pool. I also know what was once the bright, shining California college system is now shriveled and sere because some state residents adamantly objected to paying for it, so the state now gets to produce huge crops of uneducated, unemployable adults whose incarceration or Medicaid has burst the budget.

Obama provided stimulus for smart people over smart bombs, compassionately pushing people to push themselves toward more education because knowledge creates skillful means and America needs every single American to be fit enough to join the team that’s to reboot and rebuild. He told those who quit highschool, they are quitting on their country to skillfully frame these lives in larger context, give them grander meaning, showing them they are needed. “This is not a Republican issue or a Democratic issue,” he said, crossing the artifical continental divide. “It is an American issue.” Trying to re-knit a tangled web of interdependence, all for one, one for all, Obama spoke truth to power: I after we except before see.

The next day people were practically euphoric at this reminder that virtuous always ends in us. Nobody felt left out. I could see a lot of smiles and hear a lot of relief. Even my stalwart Republican friends, normally panicked about capital gains tax, were extolling the call to community, the notion we’re all on the same Team America, sailing on the same proverbial ship of state. Perhaps their newly ignited hope for the better, this new joyous sense of rightful togetherness pure and perfect, was the out of pocket blessing of His Holiness'
khata at work.

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

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