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.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Baby Boon

Two precious baby girls came into my life last week: in New York Lorelei who is all-American and in San Francisco Amisa who is all-Newari, the Newars being the original inhabitants of Nepal. Both are pure and perfect, little rays of sunshine breaking through the storm that is our world.

They look so peaceful and rosy in person and in photos, I haven’t the heart to tell them better luck next time. Life in the new world they’ve just discovered is a disaster epic in the making. Life’s so amok somebody is circulating word around the internet that crisis hotlines have been outsourced to south Asia call centers so if you get one in Pakistan and say you’re calling because you’re suicidal, they will perk up and jubilantly ask if you can drive a truck.

I couldn’t bring myself to say: Girls, it won’t be easy to grow up. Now that the scallywags are running the planet, there might not be any dry land or clean air left for you. Shame, personal responsibility, decency and privacy are already as diminished as the polar icecap. And forget about airports and airplanes unless you want to know what masochism feels like.

The newborns don’t know it hasn’t stopped raining here in California for two months as though the universe is crying from our sucker punches or a cosmic nanny is trying to wash away our spilled common sense. Or that water is simply trying to fill the vacuum of moral leadership because Mother Nature does abhor a vacuum. Science says so.

These five and eight pound cherubs simply let us know we still get some things right—in the good old-fashioned pre-internet, pre-television, o hell, pre-iron age way. The more things change, babies being born with ten perfect toes and one little nose stays the same. Life renews itself despite our best efforts to destroy it.

It’s eerie to be reminded we were all little, pure and innocent once, rosy with promise before stuff happened. I was holding little pink pants, realizing I must have fit into a pair like that one January long, long ago when I too was four days old. But of course since I can’t remember what I was supposed to pick up at the store today, I know nothing about it. I just know right now I can’t fit three fingers in one leg of those little pants. I wanted to cry along with Amisa. I wanted to tell her there was a cartoon in the New Yorker of her birth day with a fortune teller rubbing her radiant crystal ball and telling the anxious young woman across from her: “You will make the same foolish mistakes you have made before, not only once but many many times again.”

But I figured it was easier to end her suffering than dwell on my own. So I held her against my body, very tightly, her head pressed in one hand, the rest of her in the other. I swayed and rocked as I swaddle-hugged her in my arms. Softly I sang: Om mani padme hung with the Disney-fed aspiration of turning into a fairy godmother who wards off obstacles and suffering even though I arrived in a small Toyota and not a pumpkin carriage.

Truth told, I mixed in a round or two of the first words of that standard lullaby row, row, row your boat because I discovered a few weeks ago while using rubber rope for an ersatz rowing workout, you can sing that line in the same lilting cadence as Chenrezig’s mantra. Also the idea of moving along gives impetus to your sense of Dharma practice. Om mani padme hung, row, row, row your boat, om mani padme hung…

Before long, the four-day-old was asleep, and with the barest hint of a smile on what had been a bewildered little face. I don’t know whether it came from my off-key crooning, my erratic rocking or my holding her tightly for dear life, bonded one degree short of Krazy glue. But I didn’t care. I was awed at having turned a being from suffering to peaceful in a matter of minutes. And we aren’t even related by blood or DNA.

You have to hand it to the Buddha. He said the only way Bodhisattvas could appease or attenuate suffering was to treat all beings as their own precious child. He told everyone to be a mother clinging fast to every living creature the way I was to that Newar newborn. He wanted men to cultivate the maternal instinct that, I am told, popped right up in Lorelei’s mother.

Her father was reported to be “very supportive but a little timid with the direct care.” Because that male fear is probably as old as time and babies, the Buddha’s great insight was to establish the philosophical and physical discipline of Dharma specifically to sculpt men into gifted caretakers and givers. He recognized they have to be taught to connect to others the way mothers are physically attached in and then out of utero.

The Buddha’s belief in maternity as the antidote to suffering is neither obscure nor arcane. Tibetans display it in the ma of lama and torma. Yes, ma does mean mother: it means the lama is wise like a mother to her child and torma is giving away and feeding others like a mother feeds her child. Prajnaparamita, ultimate wisdom, is always portrayed as a woman called mother of the Buddhas.

Every paramita is brought to you at once when you are tending a new baby: generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, concentration and wisdom. Here is a shot at true transcendence. Think of the ultimate kindness of changing a diaper, gladly helping someone else to clean up their mess. Think of how another's life is purposefully sustained and not shut out by women breastfeeding and men running at all hours of the night with heated bottles that aren’t rum or cognac or even cocoa. Think of how money is so freely given for the goods of another. Think of me going back tomorrow to sing Om mani padme hung…life is but a dream.

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

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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Bail Out

The day after I had the very real experience of expunging the stain of a traffic violation point by sitting through four hours of online traffic school, I went into retreat hoping to scrub off one or two of those adventitious karmic stains the Buddha warned will get me caught again and again on the speedway of Samsara. That's how I spent the long New Year’s weekend: working to not be a recidivist.

It was supposed to be just me in that borrowed Zen Center cabin, alone with my thoughts and survival skills. But it didn’t take long to realize the cabin was crowded. My friend Ellen was in the fruit bowl of the kiwis and mandarins she’d given me from her garden, my heart son Manose in the shawl keeping warm my legs and feet. Arlin from Maine was on the makeshift shrine in that photo of the famed goggle-eyed Guru Rinpoche statue she gave me, and my longtime friend Joan in the slipper socks that had once been her Christmas present for occasions like this.

There was of course the presence of my excellent teacher Thrangu Rinpoche and even a text message flashed in from his Dharma heir Tulku Damcho saying: “No matter the sky is black or blue, so long as your heart is true.” Mahakala and White Tara seemed to appear. Hopefully, at least for a few seconds, Guru Rinpoche did too. All in all, interdependence made for quite a party. And over it soared the voice of his Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche warning about the UFOs he calls unidentified flying egos.

“Everybody has an ego,” I read in his teaching of the Mahamudra Prayer of the Third Karmapa, “everybody has ignorance. Yet in the West, and this is very much true of modern society, people are able to play a game. Somewhere back there in their minds, in a rather clever way, they manage to make themselves believe that they do not have an ego, that they are not like that. This makes everything very tricky. …the ego is there but is not identified as such.”

Since my ego is the driver that’s been violating for lifetimes, I prayed for purification of all the bad points and for the blessing of wisdom-- to know better than to continue repeating these offenses. I prayed hard to the protectors to get the obstacles off my path through the year to come. I prostrated, banged drumming sounds, chanted, murmured mantras, made offerings, circumambulated the local stupa, and sat as still as I could to watch my mind as though it were a rare bird hidden in a very leafy tree. The effort was exhausting, and that may have been the point.

Before I signed up for traffic school, a young friend told me she’d done it for her husband and another asked me to do it for him because he was too busy. Evidently you can cheat online and nobody is the wiser for it. So through all the strenuous activity of my New Year’s weekend, I was aware how impossible it is to outsource the removal of karmic points. In the Buddha’s traffic school, you are all you’ve got as an eraser. There are no crib notes, cheat sheets or shortcuts either. The path to the cessation of suffering is the ultimate do-it-yourself project.

And what is it that you do? In that cabin, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche spoke up in a book to remind me the word for Dharma in Tibetan is cho. “The literal meaning of cho is ‘to change the course.’ For example, a person suffering from some illness wishes to have something that will cure his illness. Introducing a change to reverse the course of the illness is the cho. …But this alone is not the complete definition of Dharma. It is also kyo, which means ‘to protect.’ In this context, it means to protect from future recurrences.”

Because karma is the law of cause then effect, the truth of consequences, I took this to mean to change outcomes, you have to change input. You have to understand there is a definite and indestructible connection between what you do and what happens next.

And there you have the cultural mess we’ve all been slipsliding away in. What’s been missing in action, what’s caused such immeasurable suffering in the decade of the uh 00s, is the failure to acknowledge this connection of cause to effect, the realization of consequences. You know that old Pogo logo: I met the enemy and it is me. I am the master of the universe who makes stuff happen.

Just the way the butchering industry has used a lot of bright lights and cellophane to cleverly remove us from any visceral connection to the infinite bloody slaughter of innocent animals, the too big to fail health insurance, oil and banking executives make layers and layers of shell companies and cubicle workers to keep them blissfully insulated from the nasty impact of their profit taking on human lives. This is what Henry Kissinger was accused of by the liberal left when in the middle of the Vietnam War he masterminded the gratuitous bombing of Cambodia. Since he never had to face the horrors that followed, he lived a Mad what me worry life, exactly what the guys at Goldman Sachs and AIG live today. Fear of facing painful consequences is why the anonymous corporations kept hired gun George Clooney up in the air firing their employees in the hit movie of the moment. Putting distance between causes and effects was the message, the diagnosis of our sickly times.

You can’t help but be struck by that hubris when you hear the insurance industry turncoat Wendell Potter say, as he does weekly on MSNBC, he was moved to immediately quit his lucrative job as spokesman for Cigna the day he accidentally saw thousands of people pathetically lined up in the freezing cold to get medical attention at a temporary free clinic. Insulated in his corner office and country club, he had no idea. Now he is banging the drum for radical changes to end unnecessary misery.

The air is so full of flying egos, nobody else has yet become grounded in that clarity. You see this when news just keeps coming to light about how Timothy Geithner was directly responsible for some of the most egregious lapses that caused the mass destruction of our economic system, yet he continues without contrition or challenge to serve at the pleasure of Obama’s henchmen as their Secretary of the Treasury. Robert Rubin bankrupted both the United States of America and Citigroup but he continues unrepentantly as the eminence gris writing essays in Newsweek on how to save the world. It’s not just a bad re-run of Kissinger but a sad reminder of the stonewall response at corporate headquarters in Connecticut to that horrific explosion at Bhopal. After all, the blow-up didn't happen to them.

There isn’t much difference between the obesity epidemic and the supersizing contagion of the corporate world: enormity is just as unhealthy for the body politic as the human body. The human face can't see it's feet and the body politic can't see its people. The firewalls that prevent people from feeling or seeing the effects they cause have become very real weapons of mass destruction. They mean never having to say you’re sorry or my bad or even oops. There is no reverse of course.

“This is the age of irresponsibility,” Matthew Continetti wrote not long ago in The Weekly Standard. “There are moments when it seems as though every figure who waltzes across the public stage is a cheat, a fraud, a liar or a failure. Child abuse scandals have tarnished the image of Catholic bishops and priests. Steroid scandals have racked Major League Baseball, the Tour de France and the Olympic Games. As the men who brought the financial system to the brink of collapse were cashing in and remodeling their offices, the executives and union officials who bankrupted the American automobile industry were begging the public sector to give them aid. On any given day, any public figure might be arrested, assaulted, admit to infidelity, go bankrupt or break down emotionally in front of television cameras. There are no consequences.”

Watching the same thing happen over and over is seeing Samsara wildly spin. Just as my friends were in the retreat with me, we were all in the corporate and congressional conference rooms. That we’ve been scarred by the carelessness of those at the head of the table is as good a Dharma lesson as any in the sutras about interdependence, mindfulness and compassion. It makes me want to work even harder to bail my own self out. "He who knows he's a fool," it says in the Dhammapada, "is a wise man indeed."

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

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

Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.

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