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

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

Tuesday, April 28, 2009


Every so often, my belief that nobody reads the blither of this blog gets shaken by an emailed comment from someone who has. In the past few months, when I’ve written mostly about loss of hair, loss of money, loss of family and face, the occasional comment condemns me. I have offended some reader or other by not always writing about Dharma with the high falutin’, high brow poetry of there being no there there. I’m chastised for making a big deal of stupid little events in everyday life.

Actually, since there are already more Buddhist philosophy texts than we can all read in the next six lifetimes, stupid stuff is supposed to be my point. The details of daily life are where we trip and trick ourselves. It’s one thing to wait at a bus stop thinking there is no bus, that bulbous vehicle is just an illusion, and quite another thing to board with your ticket ready, mindful of the people in front AND behind you, not push or pull or grunt at all those folks who got seats and whose Buddha nature gets harder and harder to imagine as you bump along straphanging for dear life.

Asking for his blessing on this blog, I told my teacher, over the years I have noticed with great lament how many Dharma students keep a firewall between their practice on the cushion and the raw doings of their daily life. It’s almost as if they’ve checked their Dharma like heavy baggage and come into what’s called post meditation with only carry-on habits. I said I wanted to use the blog to strengthen my own effort at integration with hope that it might encourage others to try it as well. Otherwise, why bother to be Buddhist? “Yes,” he said. “Good.”

Yesterday a friend dropped off a bunch of back issues of Bodhi, the Voice of Vajrayana Buddhism, and as fate would have it, the first thing I found this morning, opening the first of them with my coffee, was this Middle Way teaching from the Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: …”how are we to relate to all the things we see and feel in our day-to-day lives…? Is it all just nothing, to be ignored? No. …To help sentient beings form a path to ultimate realization while still living and taking part in the everyday world, the Buddha taught the two truths: the relative and the ultimate truth. The relative truth, the appearances and experiences all ordinary people believe to be real, can become a stepping stone to realizing the ultimate truth… In fact, there is no other stepping stone for realizing the ultimate than the relative.”

Most of us, or so it seems to me in my unenlightened confusion, are not tucked into the serene seclusion of a monastery where we can sit imagining a bus to be an illusion. We are running around in relative truth, stuck in the slambang of Samsara, looking for a way out. So why tuck the Dharma teachings away for later or somewhere too high for our reach? The lotus, remember, comes out of mud, fertilized by a lot of filth. Hopefully you can read all about it here, the fertilizing filth of 21st Century life that gets you on board a Dharma vehicle.

Down here where all the ouch becomes grr-ouch, it may be helpful to remember the Lojong slogan variously translated as: if you can practice even when distracted, you are well trained, or the ability to practice through distraction is a sign of progress. As I said in an earlier post, last fall three great teachers came to San Francisco, all saying the same thing: sitting in serenity in a cave is easy; walking in the world and keeping the equanimity you can get in that cave is the true test of practice. The point of enlightenment, Jetsun Tenzin Palmo said fearlessly, is: are you a happier person day by day? Do you breathe easier?

Ponlop Rinpoche has asked his students to practice the paramitas this year in a personal way by dedicating each month of the year to one of the six. March was patience, May will be meditation, which in the Mahayana context, he says, means focusing enough to become intimate with the Bodhisattva qualities of compassion and kindness to others. Mother’s Day is in May, a good start for such a focus.

April has been Diligence, or Exertion, which doesn’t mean becoming workaholic, but rather overcoming the huge obstacle of laziness by delighting in practice. Obviously, something delightful is not something you want to drop, so pleasure in practice turns it into a favorite carry-on, a reach for, a cloth to polish up your Buddha nature. One particular aspect of laziness Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche pointed out is no self-confidence, basically shrugging off practice because you think you’re too stupid or busy or weak to bother. Or you are not good enough. Diligence is getting a grip on that old “I think I can, I think I can” little train that could attitude. It helps you to notice when you’re backsliding into “I can’t deal with this”, as I did with the hair cut and financial loss.

Someone once asked Tulku Urgyen how to maintain a daily practice when they had to run off to work, chores, family obligations that took up almost their entire day. Rinpoche replied—at least in the book transcript I read: “Start your practice in the morning and go up to the mantra. Stop there and carry the mantra with you through the day as the continuation of practice. Close when you come home. That makes your whole day practice.”

Every little bit helps so I mumble some mantra or other through the day, and it does magically open up a space in which steam dissipates. I know because I have a ridiculously low threshold for annoyance. If I pay attention to practice—don’t just read the elegant texts and leave their lessons on the shelf, nobody gets to notice it too much these days. I’ve somehow managed to raise the bar so that I’m only ticked off maybe twice an hour instead of ten times, and catch it faster and faster. Sorry to say, I am still a fount of frustration behind the wheel of a car—remember Woody Allen in Sleeper? But at least I notice, and sometimes when I catch myself ready to scream at a slow driver in the fast lane or somebody who turns abruptly without a signal, I scream Karmapa Kyenno instead as a cry for help.

My personal trick to take Dharma to work is to use it to remember which floor of the parking garage I find space on. Since this is a spontaneous happening, every day my car gets left on a different floor and most days, the rigors of the job wipe out all memory of where the car is. Having spent way too much time wandering from floor to floor wondering where the now damn Toyota is, I’ve developed a little dharma device. If I’m end up on floor two, I go up in the elevator thinking about the absolute and relative truths. On three, I take refuge in the three jewels three times before starting work. On four, I recite the four noble truths, on five name the Buddha families. If I end up on six, I name the paramitas three times in the elevator going up, on seven I think of the seven branch prayer and do the seven offering mudras, as long as I’m not carrying anything. If I have to go all the way to eight, I remember there are eight auspicious symbols, but truth told, I end up singing to myself that famous old Contadina tomato paste advertising ditty: Who put eight great tomatoes in that little itty bitty can?” Know the rules so you can break them, Trungpa Rinpoche supposedly said, and never lose your sense of humor.

Finally, because getting a street parking spot in San Francisco is nothing short of a blessing, I always dedicate the merit when I turn the motor off, going as it were from one vehicle to the other.

~Sandy Garson

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Sunday, April 19, 2009


I just spent a week in silent retreat at a well known meditation center in northern California, among approximately seventy other practitioners, most from a different Buddhist tradition. Here, despite their worthlessness, are notes jotted in the privacy of my room.

There are four residence halls, named in Pali: Metta, Mudita, Karuna and Upekkha, and I who have come to wrestle down the blackness overcoming my mind have by amazing cosmic circumstance been assigned to Mudita, which means Joy. How did they know that is my favorite word, and the lost sense I’m desperate to recover?

In the dining hall, we’re asked to scrape our plates as much as possible with a long handled rubber spatula before sinking them in the soapy washing bins. I can’t stop watching a curly headed guy with a pregnant stomach and sweat pants sloppily pleating around his ankles, scrapping his plate reluctantly with palpable disgust. The thought that most guys are typically unwilling to clean up their own mess is quickly overwhelmed by the thought of how metaphoric the image is. All of us have come here to scrape our minds clean of habit barnacles and karmic stains.

The schedule, published and posted everywhere, is a reminder this is no vacation. Wake up is at 5:00 and meditation starts at 5:30. Breakfast is at 6:45 in the dining hall down the hill. The evening program starts at 7:30 and ends with meditation until 9:30 or 10 PM. Lunch is at 12:15, dinner at 5:15, everything vegetarian and soy milk and sugar free. No food in the room please.

Mingyur Rinpoche says fear is actually pain, so we should apply to it the mind remedies recommended for pain.

In the morning, six or seven black tailed deer munch on the wild greenery of the gentle slopes. Many retreatants pause to stare in fascination at what appears to them excitingly exotic wild life. This reminds me how other people, particularly those whose gardens and foundation shrubbery have been noshed to the nibs by deer bereft of wild habitat, see these creatures as a huge annoyance, rats on long legs, and demand their death. That’s how we each create the world we live in, isn’t it?

My teacher Thrangu Rinpoche says deer have good minds: they eat only greens, do not disturb other animals and are not aggressive in any way. Deer adorn many Tibetan monasteries, surrounding the wheel of dharma, because the Buddha’s first sermon fell not on the ears of human beings but of peaceful deer.

Mingyur Rinpoche refers to the brain as the body’s office.

There are only teabags here, none strong. At Tibetan retreats, strong chai is offered or plain milk tea, and sometimes even coffee. Buddha means the one who is awake, so not surprisingly Buddhist meditators for millenniums have appreciated tea, and more recently coffee, for its caffeine. But this is Northern California, center of social correctness, so most tea is decaffeinated and no coffee is provided.

Following instructions, I brought some coffee, but it was ground too fine for the infuser basket in the thermal cup I also brought. Happily, the dining hall had a supply of one cup drip cones, so I stuck a paper towel in one and tried to brew my coffee, without delaying the line for the hot water—an impossible feat. I was so embarrassed. Within minutes, two different women retreatants tapped my shoulder and in pantomime showed me where their coffee filters were, inviting me to help myself any time. The kindness of strangers…

On the third afternoon, Mingyur Rinpoche pointed out the inevitable trope toward happiness. Bliss is our birthright and we are simply trying to make our way home to it. The instinct for happiness defines us. Just moving your leg when you are sitting on the meditation cushion because a new position feels better, bringing relief from some form of pain, shows the drive for happiness.

There is so much gray hair and limping from bad hips, this crowd looks like an elderhostel. But there are quite a few young people too—always a heartening sight. People have come from down the road and down Mexico way. There are probably as many men as women although two or three people make the distinction difficult. I see notes left for Sergio, Gita, Margaret, Alan, Mark. When I wonder what made them come, all I can think is how a dharma sister asked Rinpoche why her children weren’t interested in Buddhism, and he said without hesitation: “They haven’t suffered enough yet.”

For work duty, I have been assigned to evening meal preparation. This turns out to be mostly chopping vegetables for soup or washing lettuce for salad. As I was leaving to attend a teaching, I overheard the cook with eye liner say: “I wish I could go.” I turned back and said in good faith: “I’d be happy to trade places with you, if you’d like. I don’t mind.” Immediately she dismissed me with a loud, cynical cackle of “Ha ha.”

Somebody left a Hershey kiss in my shoe!

Most of the retreatants have been Hinayana practitioners of the Burmese Theravada mindfulness tradition, taught to monitor their thoughts and movements as a way of achieving nowness. Watching them raise a spoon from the soup to their lips or raise their foot to take a step walking up the hill is like watching a movie in the slowest possible motion. The self-absorption is painful to behold. Trungpa Rinpoche once said the problem with Zen people putting all their attention into perfectly washing a plate was that the activity became the entirety, blotting out any chance to glimpse the nature of mind and step closer to enlightenment.

A small troupe of wild turkeys hangs around. The hens seem polite and quiet. But one of the males struts around displaying all his feathers, especially his fan of a tail, like a proud peacock. Trying to keep a grip on this territory and those hens, he spends all his time either squawking gobbledegook at the top of his lungs or pointing his teeny, waddled head at another turkey or one of us with scolding screeches that end up in a high pitched neigh echoing loudly across our enforced silence. I think of Tom Turkey as the comic relief, the perfect reminder of all those cocky politicians, TV personalities and overprivileged CEOs full of the sound and fury of Samsara, signifying nothing. I also think this is going to give new meaning to calling someone a real turkey.

While the others are sitting in silence in the big meditation hall, or doing their housekeeping duties, I am playing hooky in my room praying as hard as I can to the lineage, and to Guru Rinpoche as my teacher has instructed. The traditional teaching is you need the blessings of the Bodhsattvas and gurus to progress along the dharma path. I pray to Mahakala to destroy all obstacles on that path. I pray to White Tara for health, wisdom and life long enough to do as much good as possible. I pray to Chenrezig last thing at night to protect all beings and round them up in his pure land of Dewachen. This is what the Theravada group leader superciliously referred to as "noise."

Somebody asked Mingyur Rinpoche if prayer matters. He asked her for her name and when she gave it, Marian, he called out to her. “Marian!” Then he said: “You answered, didn’t you, when your name was called. That is a programmed response. When you pray to the Buddha or Bodhisattvas, you’re calling out to them. Why wouldn’t they respond?”

A senior citizen with white hair is worried bad knees will keep her from doing prostrations to enter Tibetan Buddhism. She doesn’t want to be left behind. I take her aside where nobody can see us talking and tell her I waited 15 years to do prostrations because I have severe orthopedic problems. I tell her after I started I made those problems worse. I shared the three things I learned: you can do table top prostrations, just lowering your head; you can get on your knees and stretch out from there without having to stand up and fall down each time. But best of all, when in England a 94-year-old woman in a wheelchair asked Ato Rinpoche how she could ever become a Buddhist when obviously she couldn’t prostrate, he said without missing a beat: “Just put the lineage tree in front of you and pray hard for refuge.” How this woman brightened!

Questions, so many questions. Mingyur Rinpoche has been beyond generous in making space for questions, and the Theravada meditators have swelled with them, as though these Tibetan Buddhist teachings are waking them up. I feel like I’m watching bulbs pop out of the ground in warm spring sunshine.

It is Easter Sunday morning and I have arisen a lot earlier than I normally do on Sunday. Clarity dazzles. The sky is without blemish, and the sprinkling rains have left the earth glimmering green, the rolling hills covered in velvet. Everything is HD. So it hurts my heart to watch these Theravada meditators walking along staring at their feet on the ground, their faces pained from forced focus on what they think of as mindfulness: now I am raising my foot, now I am putting it down. How I long to make a joyful noise to wake them up. Look, look up! See the sky! Mix your mind with space. That is the teaching. See it now: the clarity, infinity, capacity, emptiness itself. What blessings to have been showered with such wisdom, to know this.

Now that Mingyur Rinpoche has learned to pronounce the word burrito, he likes to use it. He likes to throw it off his tongue, burrrrr…ee…toe, as an example of something that seems to make people happy. Of course people always want more of what pleases them, don’t they? So they eat more and more burr… ee…toe and then, oops! Too many burr…ee…toe. Stuffing yourself with happiness leads only to suffering. So better to seek the only source of happiness that doesn’t do that: realizing the nature of the mind that craves burr…ee...toe.

So many people come to these retreats burning with a life crisis question that needs to be answered and pounce on the teacher, hoping to shake a clear do this or that instruction out of them. In the group interview today, a gray haired woman behind me asked, slowly in obvious pain, how to know the right time to leave a bad job and not end up jobless. I could feel her anxiety, waiting for an answer, and her huge let down when Mingyur Rinpoche said knowing was no problem. He just knew the time had come to start teaching and to travel. His failure to provide an explicit how to guide was as baffling as answering in Urdu. So I wrote her a message on a napkin in the dining hall, saying when students asked him questions like that, or asked him for a divination, Trungpa Rinpoche used to say: you already know the answer in your heart of hearts. The only reason you need to ask me is because you somehow don’t like the answer your innate wisdom has provided and keep hoping for a “better” one. I watched her let out a sigh and smile as she read this. On the hill, she waved at me.

I heard somewhere that Kalu Rinpoche said it's good to say om mani padme hung to all creatures you encounter because it helps raise them to higher rebirth, and because they can recognize the sound, it will dispel fear. I keep breaking the silence by whispering Om mani padme hung to the squawking turkey and to the deer when they are close enough. One fawn stood stone still about three feet away and just looked at me as I kept up the recitation under my breath.

I have started to think of my breaking the silence to help others get answers to their painful questions as saying Om mani padme hum like that. What a blessing to be able to do this.

The retreat management announces the closing ceremony will have Tibetan style to it. We will get to come up one by one and present a khata to Rinpoche. There are only 40 khatas for sale so folks will have to share. Back in my room, I discover I have five khatas—my most expensive ones. When nobody is in the hall, I run around and put four of them randomly on four doorknobs in a reckless act of generosity. I have absolutely no idea who I have gifted.

Bunny slope hiking trails have been thoughtfully carved across this landscape, often leading to forest altars or meditation platforms or a bench atop a lookout. Spring is sprouting everywhere. Wild blue iris and yellow poppies have popped up amid the moss and grass still wet enough to be glinting in the sun. Birds are hopping about, chirping and scavenging. Clouds scud across a deep blue sky in breezes that are blowing all sign of April sprinkles away. Some of the retreatants are doing their housekeeping work detail, others are sitting silently mindful of their passing thoughts. The deer are on the far hill, the turkeys down below as I climb the hill behind the residence halls to the clearest vantage point. Checking to confirm I am alone, I stretch my arms out as wide as they will go and slowly start to spin, around and around like a prayer wheel. I flap my arms to be a flag and shout Om mani padme hung to nobody and everybody, giddy from the joy and glory.

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

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Thursday, April 16, 2009


Now that the panic has passed, I want to feel embarrassed for the outburst. But instead, I keep feeling that howling in public to reveal pain may be an honest way to help others understand the Dharma path is not a bunny slope. Even after two decades of practice with the motivation to help all sentient beings, somebody with hair on her head slipsliding along the sidewalks of Samsara in ordinary clothes can be ambushed by powerful emotion, and hurled into that tangled darkness where it’s easy to mistake coiled rope for a live snake. A huge pile up of bad news--deaths, disease, family fatwas and financial devastation— blocked the view. But I stand by the consoling words of my Dharma sister Nancy: “Don’t beat up on yourself. We’re all here in human bodies because we’re not yet perfect enough to be Buddha.”

Fortunately, the Dharma welcomes panic attacks. Mingyur Rinpoche says in his new book, Joyful Wisdom, they demonstrate the awesome power of mind to turn a passing thought into an emotional cyclone tearing up everything in its twisted path. How better to see we have nuclear power, so we will want to work on nonproliferation? Sometimes Biblical characters panic too, and rudely demand God explain why he hast abandoned them. The Bible is full of retrograde moments of lost faith or lost cause, because without ignoble backslide, how can redemption happen? Where would be the happily ever after once upon a time, say, in the belly of a whale?

When the appearances in our life have become so strong we cannot overcome them, my teacher Thrangu Rinpoche recommends bringing obstacles to the path. He says we should be grateful for disturbances of the peace, for without adversities how would we know whether our samadhi has validity, that it’s working? That’s why great meditators deliberately abandon serene settings of solitude to seek “a very crowded place where disturbing emotions can easily arise. …This practice will develop realization.”

It seems the reverse can do that as well, because slinking from the cacophony of city life into the silence of retreat has made that ugly, scary darkness all gone. For a week, I read the words of my perfect teacher, prayed passionately and sat stone still watching my mind. I tricked myself into doing that this time by visualizing myself seated in a reviewing stand to watch troops parade by, these being of course my thoughts. Because in a parade like that, you can't really distinguish one passerby from another, and because sitting in the reviewing stand means you are definitely not part of it, one degree of separation was magical, forcing me to follow Jetsun Tenzin Palmo's admonition to not get stuck focused on what arises by looking at the space in which it arises. The distance in this view severed the shoots of suffering, as the prayer to the wisdom deity Manjushri puts it.

So many times, students stubbornly seek out a teacher, any available teacher, to earnestly download the confusion of some job, health, or relationship crisis, desperately hoping to get back a clear do this or that answer. And the letdown from a spout of general philosophy seemingly unrelated to the question leaves them more depressed and bewildered. You can see them painfully wondering why after they asked a question in such painstakingly detailed English, the teacher answered them in Tagalog.

So I feel very grateful to have beseeched the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and my teacher to tell me what had gone wrong, and to have got in return the enormous blessing of an unmistakably clear answer. In the secure, breathe-easy environment of a retreat center that provided a comfortable room, dependable meals and inspiring scenery--everything all taken care of, no worries-- I could easily see Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso's point that fear really is just a thought about the future. It is not now. So many things will change between now and that feared future, including what to fear.

My teacher would probably describe this retreat as bringing pain to the path. “This refers in particular,” he says, “to the mental pain of feeling sad and poverty-stricken. Usually one tends to feel that such pain is doing one considerable damage. The practice is not to fall under the sway of such an impoverished state of mind. Usually one feels that the situation is unbearable, but here one mixes one’s mind with this sadness and looks directly at this disheartened state and sees its actual nature, which is emptiness. This enhances one’s meditation. …it enables one to recognize the nature of one’s mind.”

It is significant comfort to look him straight in the eye and realize the Buddha actually does have business with you. Even though he doesn’t speak in the language of your daily struggle, knowing nothing about the craziness of 21st Century computerized, credit swapped culture, he has perspective, something all too easily obscured by the instant gratification of the faster and faster short run. The Buddha is still here because he is a useful reminder that this too shall pass. It’s all impermanent, illusory, insubstantial--these i's have it. Life is one big Ipod shuffle, The mind training, “Emptiness is the best protection because it cuts the solidity of your beliefs”, really does turn out to be the thingamabob that does the job. Twenty six hundred years and still working, a true energizer battery.

Oddly, or maybe not, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche’s sangha is practicing the paramitas this calendar year by devoting a month at a time to one of the six, and April is exertion. A retreat is exertion to the max. But, I am happy to say, if you make the effort when you are the worse for wear, you will probably be the better for it. Dharma is a mindboggling gift.

Om mani padme hung.

~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.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.Yours In The Dharma 2001-2008, Sandy Garson @copy: 2001-2008 Sandy Garson
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