In these appalling times, I’d like to answer that ongoing chat room question: What does being Buddhist mean to you? It means three things.
The first is crossword puzzles. Everyday they help me understand the teaching about stuck mind and habitual patterns more than anything else. I get it. I get it when I try to fill in something like 5 down: Nice night, with four letters, second of them u. What’s so nice about a night? A date? A gala? It's maddening to be stumped and stymied, to be forced to admit I don’t have all the answers. It’s not just 5 down. I don’t know a 16th Century Hindustani emperor or petermen.
But in crosswords, I push on, encouraged by 27 across: epic finishes. I’ve done enough puzzles to know the word “finishes” means ‘come up with endings for the word epic’. Here finally experience counts! Since there are four spaces, I write u…r…e…s, for epicures. I feel so smart. But I am so wrong, two letters wrong. I move to 36 across: fabulous finale? Of course I assume finale means I need an ending for the word fabulous. But fabulous is so fabulous, what more can I add? Who gets fabulouser? (Microsoft Word is going bonkers on my screen underlining that with red.) In crossword puzzles, now is never later. From clue to clue everything changes. The answer here turned out to be "moral."
The clue checked requires seven letters and the last two are obviously e…d. Looked into? Confirmed? Verified? Oops, wrong train of thought. Check means a lot more than I so quickly assume. My mind gets forced through its own firewalls into a whole new train of thought when the right answer turns out to be stopped-- as in checkmated. It's this constant bait and switch that makes crossword puzzles the mind flexibility workouts Dharma demands. And there’s nothing to hold onto. In the next puzzle, checked could turn out to be studied.
Nice night proves to be n…u…i…t. Nice was not the adjective I so quickly presumed. It was the name of the French city, Nice. And there you have it. With their deliberate impermanence, ambiguity and traps for presumptions, crossword puzzles seem to represent the Buddhist view of life: be flexible, never assume, don't repeat. I do them religiously.
The second thing that Buddhism means to me is lollipops. For the last five or six years, I’ve been passing out See’s Chocolate lollipops left and right, east and west, so relentlessly, two Tibetan tots think my name is Lollipop. That word rushes through their lips the second they see me, so it’s become the way their mother prompts them to remember me. But it’s not kids that make lollipops Buddhist.
A few years back, I sent a Dharma teacher home to Manali, India with two boxes of chocolate lollipops that she apparently shared right away with various yogis and family members, for she called three weeks after she left begging me to send more. Everybody loved them. I got a real kick imagining white clad yogis sitting inside caves sucking on chocolate lollipops, and laughed at what a hoot of a thangkha such an image would make. This isn’t what I mean either.
Lollipops are small, not too sweet treats that are irresistible because they have shelf life. They don't represent instant gratification. They are something to save and savor at a special or sad moment. When I give somebody a lollipop, it puts me beside them in their joy or sorrow as a little ray of sunshine. Lollipops are a great response to those bumper stickers that tell you: practice random acts of kindness.
Sometimes instead of the common cookie, I donate a lollipop to the deities on my shrine as torma. All the time I travel to Kathmandu, despite the weight, I take two boxes and dutifully keep six pops always at the ready, worrying of course that this won’t be enough for all the monks and schoolchildren now ready for one when they see me. I spontaneously press a lollipop into some unsuspecting hand or other as a way of showing thanks that these people are who they are, doing what they do. It’s a very small thing, this chocolate lollipop, but that sucker lasts a long time—and not just in the licking. Spontaneously handing an unexpected treat to someone merely to acknowledge their existence has enormous resonance. For one thing it helps others to be kind by remembering my existence too. Generosity, a Tibetan meal chant says, is the virtue that produces peace.
Last week, the teller at the bank, seeing me fumble with the safe deposit box keys went out of her way to give me a key-chain just to be nice, so I whipped out a lollipop. “Oh,” the young Chinese woman said, taken aback, “you don’t have to do that.”
“You didn’t have to do this either,” I said, waving my new key-chain at her. She blushed. I walked out, hoping my cheap trick—a blessing for her merit-- made her day a little brighter. I think that’s what being a Buddhist means we have to do. Be generous, generate merit, have compassion, create joy.
And finally, the third thing is prayer. It wasn’t going to be but as I started writing this it kicked in. Frankly, my life has not been lollipops lately but more like confusing, ambiguous crossword clues, and I hit the stress skids pretty hard. But I don’t cry any more—that’s part of what being a Buddhist means to me. I’ve trained myself instead to stand or sit in front of my shrine and pray my heart out. I have been encouraged to do this by a dialogue that took place during a retreat I attended almost two years ago. A woman relatively new to Buddhism asked the inimitable Mingyur Rinpoche, somewhat skeptically, if prayers to the deities of Dharma he had mentioned could ever really be answered. Weren’t they just cries in the wind?
“What’s your name?” he shot back.
“Susan,” she said.
“Okay,” Rinpoche said and hollered: Susan!”
“Yes,” she answered.
“You see,” Mingyur Rinpoche said, “when somebody calls your name, you answer. When you call Tara’s name or Chenrezig’s name, what makes you think they don’t answer?”
When I pray now, it is to remind and assure the Three Jewels that indeed and in fact they are my only refuge, my only hope to get through these troubling times. I beseech them to see that I am stuck here doing my best to shovel out of this newly supersized Samsara, the way those Chilean miners tried to dig out of their collapsed mine. I beg for their help, guidance, and blessing, which would be enough clarity to absorb my confusion so what I do is copacetic--kind of an elevator shaft to get me out of the darkness to some kind of enlightenment. I tell them if they help me, I will devote myself even more to helping others, but right now I need to get myself strong to get back to that. I faithfully do the Auspiciousness Prayer by Mipham Rinpoche that Rinpoche told his students to do daily. The colophon says if you do this prayer in the morning, you will prosper mightily all through the day. Rinpoche insists this is true. The prayer is powerful. It has worked like magic for his Chinese students. I close it with a lot of “karmapa chenno” and “om mani padme hung.”
So at what felt like the pinnacle of pressure, I was praying extra hard and weather was busy enhancing the dismalness. It was unseasonably pouring rain and blowing cold as if the alarm clock of the Furies had sounded. I finished the final “om mani padme hung” and was bowing to the shrine so I could go make hot coffee when my cell phone rang. A Skype number.
“Is this,” an accented voice said very slowly as it picked out proper words, “Veggiyana?” That is the name of the charity I started to feed Rinpoche’s monks, nuns and schoolchildren. “I am calling from Kathmandu. I am thinking about you and I want to say hello. Do you know who this is?”
It was night in Kathmandu, and the soft voice belonged to saintly Tulku Damcho Rinpoche, my teacher’s Dharma heir and prized pupil. Spontaneously calling me, the lollipop lady, at the crescendo of my despair. He had never called me out of the blue like that before. “You okay?” he asked. And I had to stop crying to tell him in a halting voice I knew now that I would be. My prayers had just been answered.
~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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