THE IGNOBLE TRUTH OF SUFFERING
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.
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.