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.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Good Saturday

I showed up this morning at 11 for what the invitation called “tea and meditation” and found seven other women had reacted the same way. I arrived first and stood wondering as one by one, the women came in alone, some from considerable distance, sat down with a cup of tea and shyly tried to blend into a friendly group.

I didn’t know anyone but everyone seemed to be in her 30s, and not at all aware I was old enough to be their mother. (No complaints from me about that awareness failure.) Their array of fresh, unpainted faces and hoop earrings hinted that none worked at banking, lawyering or any predatory profession, and it did turn out—at least in part—that these were earnest young women dedicated to helping others. In the end, they exchanged cards and brochures for bodywork and nutrition counseling.

Gathering for 90 minutes in the middle of a Saturday in the middle of a major mainstream holiday weekend to meditate and mull it over seemed to be a way each had decided to help herself. There was mention of gratitude for the invitation being to women only. This let them feel more relaxed and open. This being a Saturday and a weekend the city feels hauntingly emptied by families rushing off to Disneyworld or Sierra skiing or Baha sunbathing, and unnaturally quiet while its considerable Latino population prepares for Catholic fetes and Easter feasts, and this being a spring so many millions of stifled and stunted individuals have exploded with demands for freedom in the Maghreb and the Middle East, the freedom we had to gather at someone’s house to practice the teachings of the Buddha seemed particularly poignant and precious.

All the more so when these young women asked pained questions about how to make meditation help them in their busy lives. Their concern was how to be right now, how to react when they realize they’re speeding unheeding through life, how to stay in and not stray from the moment at hand. Of course that’s the big Buddhist trick and the trickiest part of the trick, as was discussed, is not to turn away from what’s happening right now because it seems boring or hurts or frightens us or disappoints expectation.

It is in fact in just these distinctly edgy, unglamorous moments—standing alone in a Starbucks line, scrubbing pots, confronting physical pain—that our life is airing in high definition. If we attentively watch that show, we get all the insight we need to confront suffering, impermanence and the restlessness of existence. Fearlessness, not turning or running away, is the trick of the trick. And our culture definitely discourages that. It tries extra hard with all its networking, neon, entertainments, opiates, luxe, lucre and celebrity come-on to brush over, cover up or debunk reality. People who believe in a permanent high get laid very low very fast. They get foolish or violent. Perhaps that's why taking time for tea and meditation on a holiday weekend, seeking stability and satisfaction by going against the current, sitting still, being alone or lonely, breathing in and out, in and out, trying to see joy in flossing, can be a resurrection.

To have time to understand heart ache is a blessing.

When several women wanted to know how to sustain a meaningful practice, which is really the question of how to stay motivated, our hostess, Rose, quite forthrightly and matter-of-factly in her Cornwall accent, said: “Well, you know, we all have this beautiful Buddha enlightened mind in us and we can either turn on the TV and spend 15 minutes watching the antics of some fictional family or friends, some stupid gossip or food fight, or we can spent 10 minutes tuning into ourselves and our own perfection.” Yes, you can watch your own home box office for free 24/7.

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

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Once upon a time

Yesterday I was a volunteer judge for a voluntary junior high school program called World Affairs Challenge. Until a week ago, I knew nothing of the small nonprofit, World Savvy, that created and runs it, but for the past few months, it's evidently been the center of attention of some 150 middle schoolers in the San Francisco Bay area. They had been tackling its 2011 topic: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, and this was the big day of prizes for presentations. A dozen groups of 8 -10 each got to display a table top shout-out solution for whatever problem they had chosen to examine: climate change changing farming, saving our seas, corn, gmo's, the meaning of organic, factory farming, fair trade food, bees. I loved the ingenuity of the high school group (I wasn't involved with the 160 high schoolers also assembled for presentations and prizes) making its case in the argument over corn fed or grass fed beef: under posters explaining what happens in the gut of a cow fed corn and a cow grazing grass, they put out a huge pile of forks, saying: "You vote every time you choose what you eat, so vote now by putting a fork either in the corn-fed bowl or the grass-fed bowl." B the time I got there, the grass-fed bowl was overflowing.

At 11- 14, the middle school children I was assigned to were the obvious target of the Justin Bieber/Hannah Montana puberty panderers, yet before the day began, they'd taken a 50-question world affairs quiz and answered such questions as: In July 2010 which county experienced flooding so devastating that it will likely set their development back almost 50 years? And: 2011 has seen a dramatic increase in food prices around the world. The last time prices were this high was in 1) 1987, b) 1995, c) 2001 or 4) 2008? Frankly, I who am up to the elbows in food and food facts had no idea.

Most importantly perhaps, the tweens got to act out a 10 minute skit to illustrate their problem solving skills, and were obliged to produce its bibliography to show they'd done research to define the problem and used facts to solve it. As the afternoon raced on, it was obvious they all knew something had gone very very wrong with the lifeline between the earth and the kitchen. They stood up in front of friends, family and strangers like me judging them to show problems of malnutrition and maladies stemming from malfeasance and misplaced priorities, then tell how to right this dangerous tilt in the food supply and save the food chain from breaking. Their common scenario was either a TV news show or a courtroom drama, and the unanimously common conclusion was that everybody should live happily ever after. The 4 ft high girl with big glasses and a big smile of metal covered teeth sticking out of her head-to-toe tuna fish costume, the 12-year-old twirling around as a honey bee, and the 4 ft tall boy who popped up as a gmo and started squirting "pesticides" on the taller boys standing there as cornstalks made me want to eat that delicious thought right up. I wanted to support in their idealism because that's where we really need sustainability. What else should you want when a young woman with teeth still in braces, dressed in a white lab coat as a doctor in Africa, says matter-of-factly on The Black and White Report: "Everybody knows climate change has made disastrous changes to the Earth and to farming."

Having done their homework, these kids had absolutely no doubt that Monsanto, corn-based fuel, factory farms, and high fructose corn syrup were weapons of mass destruction. They seemed to have unearthed a vital but ignored truth: when it comes to food, we are all totally dependent on the kindness of strangers-- and kindness, at least the last time I or they checked, is not in any corporate mission statement.

Maybe that's why they really took my heart in the special section called Collaborative Question, a problem solving exercise that put together 10 kids pulled from their own groups and mixed up in ad hoc ones. Each of these temporary groups had 30 minutes to decide which of four real food-based nonprofits deserved a hypothetical contribution of $10,000. I was to judge how well the members of one collaborated with each other and with reason to reach a conclusion. It only took my group ten minutes to bypass the Food Alliance which supports Fair Trade and The Hunger Project which serves 11 countries and choose a miniature group that gives gardens and nutrition training to HIV patients in Rwanda. They have in fact only pilot projects to build up immune systems and supply food that help as medication. "We chose this one because it will save people from dying of AIDS," they explained. "The others do good things but people can survive. We can help people not die."

That little tuna with bright braces didn't want her tuna parents in the sea to die. She didn't want the whales to die. The bumble bee didn't want to die. Nobody wanted people to die because their corn crop was taken away for car fuel or cattle feed. Nobody wanted chickens or cows or pigs to be mistreated before they died. Every kid in every group I judged displayed the natural compassion the Buddha and the Dalai Lama insist is inherent in all human beings. I was so exhilarated by the constant arising of that innate wish that everybody and everything live happily ever, I voted for it by giving all those kids high marks.

Then I came home, sadly haunted by that other insistent Buddhist teaching: impermanence, and down my high spirit came. Yesterday was only once upon a time. And it's gone already. How long til money talks loud enough that these kids no longer hear their heart? Is their hope for happily ever after as sustainable as they want our food supply to be? When will they stop feeling world savvy and start taking all their food for thought with a supersized grain of salt? That seems to be the world challenge we need to judge.

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

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Hope of Audacity

As the horrors of unchecked financial hi-jinx and hi-jacking continue to rise above the high tide mark, I want to share the tidbits of sunshine and joy that also washed in this week. It's a comfort, I think, to know shoots of compassion can sprout in a sea of selfish greed. So here you go:

An Irish woman, retired from nursing and a master organic gardener, wrote that she is getting a visa to go at her own expense to Kathmandu, Nepal to work at a nunnery teaching vegetable gardening skills, nutrition and emergency medical response. A young American man trained as a pastry chef is going at his own expense to work in the kitchen and vegetable gardens at Namo Buddha monastery in Nepal where there is currently a serious shortage of water and not always ample supply of food.

A bamboo flutist in Philadelphia did two extra-curricular concerts and sent all the proceeds to feed children in Nepal.

A mother of two in Switzerland wrote that somehow between family and friends, she would find some money to help a literally penniless young woman from the high Himalayas who is finishing scholarship-funded high school studies in Europe. A mother of three in Halifax then wrote that she would take the young woman in and immediately got her accepted at a university there with a minimum wage job that should pay for her books. "All you have to do," she wrote, "is find about $6,000 for the non scholarship funded tuition--and airfare to Halifax."

I immediately emailed Vancouver and Portland, Maine and got responses back almost as fast. People would do what they could. Maybe they'd organize a fund-raising dinner or sell something precious. None of these people even know Karma Dolma who comes from a mud hut in Manang where almost everyone is illiterate. She now speaks five languages: Nepali, English, Tibetan, Manangi, Hindi--and a bit of Swiss German because she's been living in Zurich for two years, on the kindness of strangers. Here's what she wrote to say she was trying to go to a university:

I made a website to fund raise for myself:

Here's an excerpt: I had to graze the cattle, collect the firewood and help my parents with the farming. I used to collect firewood with my friends and sometimes with the neighbors. To collect firewood, we had to walk for two hours on narrow and steep paths in the mountain forest. Life in the village was very hard. We had to walk to the forest in the morning around 8am and go back home wit our firewood during lunch time, around 2pm but sometimes due to strong wind blowing, we reached home very late, covered with dust. Seeing the hardship of the village life, my uncle (disciple of our founder, Rinpoche) brought me and my sister to Shree Mangal Dvip school (SMD). Thanks to his help and Rinpoche's kindness, today I am able to share my life experience with everyone very proudly though I am from a poor family.

It's already awesome that she's graduating from high school in Switzerland, so add her hope to go to a university so she can go back to Manang to help her people. And think how little it would take to help her do so much.

Out of the blue three weeks ago, I got an email from an unknown person in Croatia, and I immediately set out to spam slap it as a new take on the old Nigerian scam. But somehow I noticed that the writer was a Buddhist looking for the lyric to the haunting Calling the Lama from Afar prayer. Finding this on my teacher's website, I sent the link with all good wishes. This person immediately sent back not only gracious thanks but a copy of another Buddhist prayer I might find meaningful. And now, it seems, I am linked to Croatia because once a week news of a website that could be of interest pops up in my email.

Right here at home in San Francisco, last week, members of my Mahamudra dharma group that meets once a month spontaneously volunteered to offer me money to help pay for the visit of a lama I personally funded. One individual, who didn't even get personal time to talk to the lama, flipped four $20 from his wallet and wouldn't take rejection for any of them. "It isn't right you bear the whole burden and we got to enjoy him too," he said.

And finally, last week, a notary public upon hearing the charitable reason I was asking for the seal of approval, refused to take the required fee for service. "My contribution," she said, with a gesture of pshaw.

It's enough to keep your spirit above water.

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

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Saturday, April 09, 2011

To a T

Warning: Here comes the nuclear blow up of a mind hit this week by a tsunami of inane human news.

It's become impossible to see any difference these days between the Taliban and the Tea Party, so the wonder is why we're so expensively trying to eradicate one while so extensively placating the other. Both are radical terrorist groups so terrified that time goes by, they advocate an extremist turn back the clock hold on tight conservatism. Both are so hysterical about losing their seeming individual specialness in the trend toward interracial, interactive interconnectedness, they are desperate to have the world their way or go away. They are control freaks so frightened by freedoms, they're hellbent on establishing a Medieval theocracy, a dictatorship where everything is permanently cut and dried. Mike Huckabee, a former preacher and current politician--same thing these days--was arguing forcefully this week with Jon Stewart that he has no problem relying on a discredited ideologue historian because we have to do everything we can to prove America was meant to be a Christian nation. Read his lips: I'm the one with the truth and you're out.

The Tea Party and Taliban are so scared of losing control--read that: self control, they won't take No for an answer: no more fouling the climate, no more infallible Shariah laws, no more coal or oil. And no other people allowed to exist in the universe, just them. The rest of us are flies on their food for thought who must be shooed away before we poison it. That makes them chillingly cavalier about killing, and knee jerk ready for violence. That gives them a sense of macho in charge here, of cleaning up and ordering the universe to fit their view of it. Ah, the world served to me just as I ordered it! And they want to push women back into the darkness of silent servitude, because sexuality--something more likely to control you than you it-- seems to scare this hell out of them. After all it involves others and otherness devils these people. Those this uncomfortable in their own skin keep itching for a fight, their way to vanquish otherness.

You also have to wonder why all the anguished talk about schoolyard bullies and the epidemic of social networking bullies, but none about those holding up the cue cards for these kids. Not one word about the Tea Party bullying here, the Taliban there, the corporate CEO's and Rovian Republican leaders in Washington, the military in Tahir Square and all the Arab strongmen trying to stop sandstorms in their desert. So many people now so profoundly believe in that old football philosophy "winning isn't the only thing, it's everything," that bullying has become the 21st Century's M O. The fear of being wrong, second guessed or second best is now so intense, being indisputably right has become the obsession of the Right. What's Left is whatever.

Bang bang, you're dead and now I don't have to deal with you is the way fundamentalists historically react to doubt, a natural corollary of otherness: if them, what about me? Fundamentalists are certainty zealots deathly allergic to doubt the way some are to peanuts. We don't need radical Islam to show us the horror of this hysteria. We've been there, done that before with Nazism and fascism and the Catholic totalitarianism of the Inquisition, the French reign of terror. Burn books, burn people: the poet Heine pointed out they are the same thing. It's so much easier to blame the other guy for your distress, to change the furnishings instead of yourself.

A Buddhist realizes thoughts flow through our mind like huge schools of fish out in the sea and we tend to hook onto one as though it's really there and matters terribly. Most of us eventually let it flow on and catch a new idea but not the Taliban or Tea Party. The Taliban and the Tea Party have hooked on to one stale thought and are holding for dear life as though that's all there ever should be. They are not just attached to an idea, you might say, an idea that is actually something ephemeral and insubstantial and always floating away. They are cemented into it like it's a coffin. They're so embedded they can't get out. I was listening to a Tea Party spokeswoman interviewed on CNN and no matter what was asked, she shouted the same memorized answer. And she sneered viciously at both host Anderson Cooper and the Democratic spokesmen for not "getting it" when they continued to probe. Over and over with increasing shrillness, she parroted the same lines. I thought her mind had been botoxed. She seemed as brainwashed as crazed cult members in Guyana or Waco. It is so sad. So many minds so dark and airless. So much suffering to the rest of us caused by so much suffering they don't want to see.

Impermanence is the nature of all existence, the Buddha said. No wonder the movement most opposed to the Tea Party is called Move On.

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

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