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 28, 2009

Keep the Change

On this New Year’s threshold of a new decade, armed with the Buddha’s warning that everything changes, it’s easy to see impermanence is still one guaranteed truth of life. On the small scale, our bodies have been handed a little more old age than we’d prefer, our mind hopefully some of the clarity we didn’t know it lacked. People have died, people have been born. Some of my socks got divorced during a visit to the washing machine, leaving me only one of the pair.

Since what goes up must come down, the 20th Century ascendancy of the United States of America has become a fast downhill slide into the 21st when the land of the free and home of brave turned into the land of fee and home of the rave. White skinned natives slowly slipped from majority to minority, and opportunity is no longer knocking because it’s been shipped to China, last century’s starving nation become this century’s superpower. Having replaced the tribe and city-state, nationalism and the nation-state have given way to the international corporate state where people identify with proud loyalty not as citizens of a country with a flag, but consumers of a brand with an icon.

We entered the year with a new leader who campaigned on change you can believe in, and exit believing nothing’s changed. Al-Qaeda is still trying to blow American airplanes out of the sky, American troops are still chasing chimeras in Asia—this time not southeast but southwest, financiers are still finagling to game the economy ‘til it tanks. After yet another ridiculous boom, we’ve had yet another great depression even if the image-makers don’t want to call it that, a Samsaric cycle spinning since the 18th Century. And, look, there’s Glenn Beck on TV as the new version of re-assuring Mr. Rogers.

The French long ago diagnosed our disorder: the more things change, the more they stay the same. The insanely popular image control program known as Photoshop is, for instance, just the latest tool for the oldest con. America is so addicted to seeing itself as pure and perfect that my just-out-of-college job in magazines in 1966 involved carefully cropping cigarettes out of all photos of the new, high wattage celebrity, Jackie Kennedy, and making sure big box office hunks kept their homosexuality to themselves by publishing only photographs of them with orgasmic looking starlets eager to pose for a shot at fame. And now we know despite all the image manipulation that Tiger Woods really couldn't hit a hole in one.

The imperfections that belie our purity have been similarly cropped out of history books. The founding of the nation has been spun into a slick, sweet and picturesque Disneyland confection: pious religious pilgrims seek sanctuary from persecution and find utopia on a rocky Massachusetts beach, launching freedom for all to do their own thing. How unpatriotic to mention that there were already at least a half dozen colonies settled in and settled down to extracting as much of New England’s natural riches as they could—fish, furs, salt, timber-- for massive corporate profit back in England.

Despite all the sanctimonious sound bites about trust in God, nobody ever did. The East coast was settled in a rush for cod, the West coast in the rush for gold and much of the land between in spurious real estate scams set up by railroad profiteers to get farms making food available along their routes. Our prophets have always been profits, so our man of the year this TIME is unsurprisingly central banker Ben Bernanke, launcher of the latest boom and bust.

We may have exchanged codpieces for neckties and schooners for SSTs, but the horrors of our still unreformed health care system come straight from 1607. That’s the year this country likes to claim it began and here’s how: discovery of massive cod schools in the Gulf of Maine uncorked such irrational exuberance in the investor class of olde England, corporate syndicates formed to finance fishing figured out they’d make way more money parking their labor onshore rather than ferrying it back every autumn, filling up ships that could be carrying income producing salted fish. So with all sorts of unctuous profit sharing promises, they recruited pioneers. The first batch, sponsored by the Plymouth Company, shipped out in spring 1607 and in late summer landed on the coast of Maine. Not realizing this Mecca was any different from that of rival East India Company, the Plymouth investors outfitted their recruits for the heat of Mumbai, and when the Maine winter killed the majority so that all hands were not onboard to fish in spring, the investors simply abandoned the few survivors to live or die on their own. They had not become "profit centers." There was no money to be made rescuing them.

Just like today’s corner office occupants at Goldman Sachs who we now learn made buckets of money betting against their own clients, the Pilgrims were only too happy to score huge personal profits by biting the hands that fed them. Those belonged to the Plymouth Company settlers on Damariscove Island off the coast of Maine, a prosperous but raucous bunch of fishermen who in 1622 took pity on that sanctimonious starving, ragtag band, freely giving them food and survival guidance. The newly strengthened Pilgrims returned the favors by returning to fish the same grounds, trade with the same Indians and get a land grant guaranteed to usurp their redeemers’ most profitable business. Then to insure their monopoly on the lucrative fur trade, the Pilgrims baldly lied about the boundaries of that land grant, telling England the mouth of the Kennebec River was the open ocean near Damariscove Island when it lay in fact fourteen miles back in Merrymeeting Bay. The sleight of hand got the Pilgrims the shipping channel they needed to bust business for Damariscove and although their chicanery was contested in pious Puritan courts for 200 years, their lie continues to be perpetuated as truth on charts and maps, because the Puritan courts would not rescind it. To say it ain't so was to admit this country was not founded on pure piety but raw greed.

We are closing in on the centennial election anniversary of the laissez faire forerunner of Ronald Reagan and George Bush whichever, Calvin Coolidge who in the mid 1920s so famously declared: “The business of America is business.” And we know what happened after that: the crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, right?

Ignoring the genocide in Tibet and snubbing the Dalai Lama are just re-iterations of minding our business the way we did when “good” Germans came begging for America to help them do away with Hitler before he destroyed the world as they knew it. The same cold bottom line calculus that keeps Obama in thrall to China kept FDR—reportedly with help from his aide Felix Frankfurter, from intervening to stop the Holocaust or the bombing of Great Britain. The thinking was: if the Germans and British remained tied up in war, madly destroying each other, American corporations would have a clear playing field in the world marketplace, and thus unchallenged monopoly on its profits.

Both the Buddha and Guru Rinpoche prophesied the year coming and the one going would be part of a degenerate age. Certainly that’s easy to believe watching the entire Republican Party mistake government for a Superbowl game, going out on the Congressional field with a strategy that winning is everything so they have to hard-headedly butt block any advance by the Democrats toward any goal.

But Tai Situ Rinpoche says degenerate means the “good things” are harder to come by than they used to be. In the early days of human history, he claims, “it may have been just as difficult to come across goodness as it is now, but it was very difficult to also come across so many distractions from it. “On a superficial level the quality of life is better while on a deeper level it has become so much worse … . There are all these new things which cause people to have so much trouble inside themselves, which affect people’s emotional health to a very great extent.”

The emotions and defilements of human beings have not changed, Tai Situ Rinpoche says. Negative emotions and actions were the same in the time of the Buddha as they are now. “Whatever it took Milarepa to get enlightened, it will take us too.” Jacuzzis, first class airline tickets, HDTV and 400 thread count linens aren’t going to make it easier.

So if everything changes but everything stays the same, what is real change? Rinpoche says he sees it in immense education efforts and the increasingly rapid spread of Dharma. “Like a knife having been honed, our senses have become quite sharp nowadays, so if we gain the strength, if we have true awareness and a bit of wisdom, we can cut through negativity much more effectively than the people before us. …Worldly things are so abundant, that for many people they are no longer exciting. Having lost that sense of excitement, we can really say good-bye to all that.. .”

And Hello 2010.

~Sandy Garson

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

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Thursday, December 24, 2009

The best stocking stuffers are feet

While people scurry in search of last second stocking stuffers, I want to speak for socks. For the last twenty years, they have been my gift of choice—to myself and everybody else, including Rinpoche’s monks. I wish I could describe the look on the young cashier at the Gap when I came to the register toting 18 pairs of men’s in maroon. “I…I guess you must like the color,” she finally blurted.

Frankly, there is much to like about socks. They keep your feet warm; they don’t make you look fat; they don’t need to be tailored or dry-cleaned; they’re a common denominator for all ages, sexes and incomes; they’re not frivolous or gaudy trinkets; and best of all, they’re cheap—a useful gift frequently for a few dollars. Wool socks can even turn sandals into year-round shoes, saving the expense of a second pair.

It’s really really really hard to give somebody a pair of socks they already have or won’t need. Socks come high and low and anklet, crew, ragg and tissue thin for dress up. They’re milled of almost every fabric from acrylic and bamboo to worsted wool and yak hair, and in every color imaginable—plus some that are unimaginable as well.

People say I am easy to buy a gift for because I'm so into socks. I say: who doesn’t need a pair? On a snowy day in Manhattan last January, I had lunch with a childhood friend who reminded me her husband had just celebrated a milestone birthday. “He didn’t want gifts,” she said, “but people sent stuff anyway.” Feeling challenged, I left the lunch and hunted down a hosiery store where I bought a pair of gray cashmere men’s socks. “I didn’t know such wonderful things existed,” her husband said on the phone. “Thanks for such a great idea. I’m going to get a pair for a friend whose birthday is next month.”

As it happens, I was standing in that Gap store clutching 18 pairs of men’s maroon because at the end of what had been a two-month tour across America, I’d simply asked Rinpoche’s Dharma heir, Tulku Damcho, if he needed anything. At first he shook his head dismissively, but after I stubbornly repeated the question, adding: “don’t be afraid to tell me,” he squinched his face up and sheepishly confessed. “Socks, I really do need socks.” I heard a “me too” from the monk sitting next to him.

Because of that three for $12 purchase plus the thank yous I got from all the monks who shared those 18 pairs of maroon, I went to Kathmandu last December with a mountain of socks, and after watching the monks scurry across cold stone monastery floors in bare feet, I whipped out the heavy ragg wool ones from LL Bean. They weren’t maroon but they were such a hit--what a Bodhisattva end of suffering gift warm feet was, that the ragg socks were the first to go from the pile I presented Rinpoche and his monks last summer when they came to Maine. After that were the ultra fine merino wool trouser socks from a premier designer that I’d scooped up on sale for only $6 a pair because maroon evidently isn’t a color men in gray flannel suits want to wear.

Right now I am wearing my black socks with red and white snowmen and snowballs on them. During October and November, I wore my brown socks with orange pumpkins. In July, I alternated between my yellow socks patterned with dancing Joe Cool lobsters in denim blue and my green socks patterned with vegetables. I have gray socks with dogs on them, black socks with monkeys because monkey is my Chinese astrological birth year, leopard socks, socks with an Eiffel Tower climbing up my leg that a friend brought back from Paris; denim blue socks patterned with coffee, eggs and toast, and three different colors with pigs all over them because I tell little children to call me Piggé. (I didn't want to be accused of plagiarizing Miss Piggy.) I still keep an old pair of black socks with piano keys and notes to wear to concerts.

Sadly, I seem to have lost my treasured black socks patterned in white with the skeletal bones of a foot and ankle. Because shoes must be off, I used to wear them in shrine rooms to keep up with all the deities adorned in skulls and bones. I did this so routinely I forgot I had them on during my first visit to Rumtek monastery in Sikkim, so I didn’t understand why the family of Malaysians across the room were so excitedly pointing at me while I received blessings from His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche, why they chased me down outside. “We want your picture, please, your picture,” the son said. “Lift your skirt a little so we can see all of your socks.”

Thank Buddha, I haven’t lost my twenty-year-old gray cashmere socks from Switzerland, even though they have holes in the heels. You just can’t get that quality of cashmere or sock anymore, certainly not at a pleasant price. And since I only need them when it’s cold outside, I wear them inside boots. Nobody sees the shabby holes.

I would certainly sacrifice them if I came up with an alternative but the quest goes on. Several years ago, I wandered around the shawl shops in Kathmandu overwhelmed by the vast array of colors and so moved by the mountains of merchandise yet to be sold, all I could think was: Socks! People had enough shawls already, how about pashmina socks…in all those glorious colors it was already dyed. I thought I had hit upon the economic development idea of the decade, for me and for Nepal. Unfortunately, Nepal is a country corrupted by narrow, arrogant Brahmins and has become too mired in their machinations to mobilize or envision. After a year of trying to find a willing pashmina factory, the best my influential local friend could come up with was two hastily milled and rather expensive pairs in black, and alas, my toe went right through the first the day I put them on.

Two years ago this month, I drove two hours south for a wedding in Monterey. I got to walk on the beach of Carmel and spend an afternoon in the remarkable aquarium, awed by jellyfish and sharks, but the highlight of the weekend was finding a store in the clutter of Cannery Row that sold nothing but socks. Socks with parrots on them for a friend who has a small green one named Pickle, ruffled pink socks for my childhood friend’s new granddaughter, and red cashmere socks for me.

I wore those snazzy socks the whole damp winter in San Francisco. I reached for them last year this time, slid them over cold feet and suddenly noticed both the heels were shredded and gone right up to the ankles, too big to hide. They had been made in China.

But then, as any washing machine will gladly show you, impermanence is the absolute truth of socks. Which is why human feet will always have a need to stuff themselves into more.

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

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Saturday, December 12, 2009


In this darkest, coldest time of year when we officially celebrate giving and good will, I want to tell you about Carlos whose only brush with Buddhism and Bodhisattvas was shining up a San Francisco monastery before His Holiness Karmapa set foot in it. That was because he is a custodian, an immigrant who gets paid to clean the lobbies and hallways of luxury apartment buildings, and I hired him for that special job.

Frankly, no other custodian cleans like Carlos. He is only 5’4” and slight of build, but he is a macho gaucho with fiery dark eyes, slicked hair and pointed cowboy boots that stick out under uniformly stiff and spotless jeans. To him, dirt and disfigurement are affronts that must be addressed as quickly and fiercely as disrespect. He whips buildings and apartments into shape with the intense focus and vigor he uses to train horses. "Look at that!" he will sneer after running a finger along wainscoting, light bulbs or picture frames. “Dust!”

He was in fact so appalled by the “dirty” Tibetan monastery, he spent ten nonstop, lunchless hours high and low scrubbing, polishing, replacing dead bulbs and missing cabinet door screws nobody even knew about. Everybody who came after commented on the sparkle.

Carlos is openly proud of his work and has good reason to be. In the two decades he’s been here, he has built a thriving janitorial business, one so steady and sought after that he employs half a dozen other immigrants to vacuum, shine and swab where he cannot. Despite these extra hands, he still works six, sometimes seven days a week, and has an income in six figures to show for it.

In addition to his business and his horses, Carlos has a son he is now raising alone, a sulky teenager he is desperate to keep on a college bound track. Two weeks ago when he told me we had to talk, something important, I thought he might be losing Minor to high school gangs. But it turned out to be trouble with other children.

“I need your help,” he said and whipped out photos he’d just brought back from Guatemala. “I want to make a school… in my village. I want these children to have a proper school. My sister, she is the principal and she tell me how much the children learn, how far some of them walk just to get to the one room you see here. The government, it does nothing, so I want to make the children a school. Can you help me?”

Carlos said the judge and the businessman who live in the most luxurious building he cleans had already volunteered to contribute something if he set it up right. What did that mean? I explained people in this country didn’t give freely with lots of ho ho ho. They aren’t Buddhists practicing transcendent generosity. They are Americans who want to get back a 501C3 charitable tax deduction so the giving gets something beneficial for the donor too.

Carlos immediately hired extra help and took a day off to drive to the state capital to wait for bureaucrats to provide the papers that charter official charity. He did this because he heard it was six weeks faster than filing through the mail, and he had a mess to clean up.

Carlos was racing the clock not only to beat next summer’s rains by getting a new roof on the old building and channeling raw sewage toward a proposed septic site. He wanted to help a particular 7-year-old girl. He showed me several snapshots of her, and she had the makings of a pageant beauty except for the enormous black fan of fungus growing out of the middle of her face. As it spread, she was going blind. Eventually it would asphyxiate her.

“Carlos, you’ve got to do something… before she’s totally blind for life!” I heard myself shouting. “We can’t…we can’t let that little girl suffer. This can be cured, no?”

Carlos nodded sadly. Of course it could be fixed, surgically. As soon as he saw her, he wanted to take her maybe to Guatemala City to a proper hospital but “the parents…the parents…they don’t want.”

“How can they not want their own child to stop suffering?” I was horrified, not only by the sight of such abominable suffering, but by the realization that the parents had done nothing to help their own child. Somewhere in the southern mountains of Guatemala, there was a beautiful 7-year-old girl needlessly losing her face and going blind. All she needed was a surgeon’s scalpel to cut out the giant fungus--and evidently somebody to cut through her father's machismo.

“The people from my village, some are very backward. They live a long time the same way, hundreds of years. They don’t want to do anything different than they know. They don’t want anyone to tell them do this or don’t do that… But I tell my sister I am going to try.”

Haunted by that little girl’s disappearing face, I went right home and Googled medical assistance in Guatemala. At 6:00 PM Pacific Time on a Friday night, I called Carlos to say I’d found a charity of volunteer doctors who go down there four times a year to bring medical help to rural areas, and their next foray was in weeks. He called them right away, 9:30 PM on a Friday night. They told him they would help that little girl. He told them he would pay any bill.

Carlos gave this news to his sister back in his village in Guatemala, the one who is the school principal. She trekked out to tell the little girl this good news but that was all she could do. The parents adamantly refused any interference in their family.

“That’s how they are,” Carlos said, shaking his head sadly when he told me. “They are ignorant, scared people. That’s why I have to build a school. You have to help me build this school so the children will know better and everything will change for good.”

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