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, June 28, 2011

Coming Apart at the Seems

My Rinpoche is now in the West and the monastery in Woodstock, New York was trying to share his weekend teachings via webcam. Unfortunately the feed wasn't steady, at least on my Mac, so I was subject to endless opportunities to experience emptiness that was not the Buddhist kind. I got so frustrated with the blackouts after while that each time Rinpoche vanished into the cyberkaya, I began to rapid fire click and desperately punch the keyboard to make him re-appear. Somehow at some point, I ended up with his video feed streaming behind a series of pointless cartoonish ads for sophomoric shows and absurd beverages, and then it streamed atop a banner that flashed every 50 seconds offering Ads by Google.

So there was Rinpoche intoning on the critical teaching to not be attached to honor or wealth or anything in Samsara because attachment is simply a distraction, a detour from the truth. And there I was, smashing the delete button every 50 seconds to get rid of all those flashing Ads by Google banners trying to seduce and attach me. And in that disconnect between Rinpoche and Ads by Google was the clear realization that the Dharma and our consumer culture share a crucial common bond: they are both relentlessly focused on appearances, obsessed with how everything looks and how you should look at it all. Eyeballs, as they say in the ad trade.

The difference of course is that for Buddhists appearances are nothing. They don't matter because they are not real, have no meaning, don't count for anything. They are distractions of the imagination like a mirage or chimera. We practice meditation to get past them, to deconstruct them down to nothing. We struggle to understand people see what they want to see, not what is actually there. It's all empty space. But to the consumer culture appearances are everything. They are the only things, all that counts and matters and reveals all the meaning you are supposed need to fill the space of your thoughts. Pretty images and peppy talk ("I made a fortune and so can you!") are all about seducing you into somebody else's control so you give them all you've got, and you know how seduction ends: you get screwed.

America is so mired in make-believe that it's actually been fun to watch a culture smitten by the picture perfect face, designer suit and Harvard resume coming apart faster and faster at all its seems. People are very painfully finding out those they trusted are just not into them anymore, that high achiever athletes their kids worshiped like gods are just druggies who couldn't do squat on their own. Executives hire stylists to make them look like power and then the powerful bare themselves in all their pitiful bestiality (Strauss-Kahn, Anthony Weiner, John Edwards and name your overpaid athlete), venal duplicity (name your politician beside I-Rod who just got shunted to Illinois jail, lobbyist, Federal Reserve banker or TV talking head), and profound incompetence (name your economist, nuclear regulator or President of the United States who although incursions in Libya look a lot like war says it's categorically not). It's fun to watch instant celebrities of no substance blow themselves up with some substance abuse or other and watch Jon Stewart trap Chris Wallace at Fox News into finally admitting that network is not what it wants to appear to be: fair and balanced. Pretentious is the same as pretend. Lying is now the truth of life. Almost every day Nobel economist Paul Krugman calls out "very serious people", heat seeking missiles aimed at every camera angle, who pronounce like popes although they actually have nothing coherent or cogent to say about what's really happening. They are stuck on disconnected ideological platitudes, a box into which reality doesn't fit.

The Buddha would agree with Jon Stewart, Paul Krugman and all the other public voices shouting: you can call it what you want; you can call a Marine a pizza, (You can call Scalia a justice although he's beyond blind) but everything will still be what it is. And that's mere flashing appearance of light, ephemera of no import. Let go of them and you get a life, with no Ads by Google.

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

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Here's Looking at Who?, Kid

A while back, when I was too fraught to blog, an email from an unknown popped up late at night. I am really quick to smack the delete or junk button at what smells of spam, so I had my hand poised when I saw the subject line: A Buddhist question. That stopped me cold. And this was the message:

"I saw your website in my search to understand the Buddhist concept of emptiness. I am a college student taking a course on Mahayana Buddhism and I am working on a paper right now. Although I thought I understood the material, it turns out that I am completely confused. If you can help me that would be great, but if not I understand."

The material, it turns out, was "emptiness." Whatever did that mean, in Mahayana terms? She'd been reading some college professor's textbook full of didactic descriptions of Buddhism and came away thoroughly baffled. She wondered if the statement: "all dharmas are emptiness" meant the Buddhist teachings were empty. And what did that mean? Maybe it was just a Mahayana thing? meant she had a seriously high falutin' teacher parroting a lot of pedantry. And it meant she was getting Dharma from someone with absolutely no experience of it, which is precisely what the Buddha and all the teachers ever since insistently warn us against. And it meant somebody was actually reading my blog. And that amazingly good news meant I had to honor my vows to never let Dharma be perverted and respond to her call for help. So I tried to be a 911 emergency Buddhist responder.

And this is what I improvised: a beginner's guide to emptiness, me being the beginner.

"You have asked a huge and complex question that I hope I can answer in a simple and unconfusing way. Buddha’s teachings have come to us in a two-step sequence. They start with what’s called Hinayana or small path, sometimes called Theravada or in America Insight Meditation. These teachings are “small” because they relate only to the individual and are called insight because they are about discovering that there really is no ongoing coherent, solid person inside your body. Your body has changed a lot since you were two years old and will not be the same in another two years. What you know and how you see things keeps changing too, doesn’t it? It keeps changing all the time.

So in the Hinayana, you work with understanding that because everything in your body is in flux and can’t be frozen, there is no real solid ego or self in your body. You do meditation exercises asking yourself: am I my knee? Am I in my heart or my brain? If I lose a finger, do I lose myself? This is to help you understand you are just imagining that you are really there all the time as the one same unchanging hardcore thing. When you think that, you work very hard to protect that one same unchanging hardcore thing, which is what causes you suffering, mainly because it’s changing all the time: you win some, you lose some, you move on. Nothing stays the same. Think of it as a kaleidoscope: can you pinpoint anything solid there in it? When you look for something, you can’t find anything, just movement. The container is empty. In essence, hinayana is about discovering the “emptiness” of your ever shifting body as a container. This liberates you from worrying about a lot of things.

Mahayana means “great vehicle” because its focus is no longer just yourself but all others. And this is where emptiness can take on complex meanings. When it says “all dharmas are emptiness,” it means something like this: dharmas are simply all the phenomenon of the world—all the happenings that happen, that show up, that go on—everything outside yourself. Mahayana teaches you how to relate to all that through this idea of emptiness. And it is basically the same idea you discover in the Hinayana: nothing that happens and nobody else is solid and unchanging and invincible any more than you are. Everything is one big flux, one big kaleidoscopic gyre. Nothing is what it appears to be. Your imagination is just working overtime, making you shadow box with your own projections.

Here are some simple examples, really simple, of how emptiness works. Put four rubber wheels on a steel chassis with four doors and what do you have? An engineer sees the strength of good quality rubber and the benefits of Indian steel and the perfect calibration of horsepower. A salesman sees $3000 commission on that baby. Maybe you see a way to get to school. Somebody else sees a status symbol that makes them look good. So what is the real sum of those parts, the real essence, the one solid thing you can absolutely count on to never deceive you? Nothing! Those parts are in themselves devoid of all ascribed meaning. They are “empty” and it is that very emptiness, that clean slate, that lets you project your particular meaning onto them.

Here’s another example: your mom sees you and sees “my daughter.” your sister or brother sees you coming and sees “my sister.” Your teacher sees you in class as “my student” who is there from 11 to noon. But your best friend sees you as someone to text and go to the movies with on Friday night. So which one are you really? Everyone who sees you assigns to you a different meaning. And you yourself are one minute a daughter, one minute a lover, one minute a student. So who are you really? You are a container that traps a lot of passing ideas but is actually empty of any solid, sure, ongoing meaning.

So the whole world is only what we make up about it every passing moment, and everybody has their own ever changing way of seeing it. Some people see Barack Obama as the devil, some as a Muslim terrorist and some as their savior. Malia just sees him as her father. What actually is he? Just a screen for all those projections. Thus all dharmas are emptiness. It is the great gift of the Mahayana to help us to realize this, for once you begin to do that and relax your grip so that you don’t cling to your own mistaken impressions and suffer as things change or elude your grasp, you begin to notice how others around you make themselves suffer so terribly by not seeing how there is really nothing there that they think is there. This is how compassion spontaneously arises. That is the very heart of Mahayana teachings: compassion for the suffering of others and a will to stop it.

In a recent blog post I talked about selling old clothes and how shocked I was when I took a sweater I had been hoarding for years as so fabulous it would make me appear special to two different consignment shops and had it rejected as “old and baggy and not at all stylish.” So you see how we vest something with our own ideas about it when in truth it is just a bunch of atoms bonding for a moment. That’s emptiness.

P.s.Here is another quick example you can use in your paper. Take the word “flower.” I’m sure you know what that is and you are sure you do. But look closely at that word: does it mean a rose? An orange blossom? A daisy? More to the point, what is the flower? It is petals and a leaves and stem and probably a pod head with seeds. Which part is the real flower? If you take off the leaves or pull off one daisy petal, do you still have a flower? The same flower you had before in your mind? If all the petals fall to the ground, is it still a flower? Is the bud the flower? Is the first shoot the flower? Or perhaps is flower a word we make up to cover this ever changing evolution of energy from a seed to a shoot to a sprout to a bud, to a bloom, to falling petals and rotting smell. What actual meaning does “flower” have? It’s pretty empty, isn’t it?"

The only reason I am telling you all this is because I got a return email. It said:
"Thanks so much, you are seriously the nicest person in the world! This information is so helpful, I can't thank you enough."

So perhaps this will be useful to others who wish they could call Buddha 911.

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

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

No kidding karma

My Tibetan goddaughter Tashi is a perpetually practicing Buddhist who seems just as devoted to the practice of revising my habitual world view. If I report with complaint that somebody stole the plant off my entry ledge, she will tell me that's good news because it means an obstacle has been removed on my path to success. I should be grateful for the theft. When I tell her Rinpoche says he's proud of me, she insists I forget I heard that and stop being attached to praise or bad things will come from my pride. So last week I figured I'd throw at her a karma puzzle I couldn't solve.

Two summers ago, a lifelong Maine lobsterman who I'll call Joe promised to produce four fresh lobsters for my teacher, Thrangu Rinpoche, to release back into the sea in a specially arranged Life Release ceremony. Rinpoche and his entourage were down at the water's edge ready to go when Joe putt putted up in his boat and handed the wiggling crustaceans over. I tried to put money in his hand but he pushed it away. "Keep it," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I need the...what do you Buddhists call it...good karma."

So, I asked Tashi, how do you explain good karma when two months later lightening struck his house and blew out everything electrical? How can you possibly consider it good karma when six weeks after that, because of lightening damaged wiring, his house burned to the ground and he lost everything?

She shot me her reproachful "duh!" look. "Come on," she said. "You should have figured it out. You told me the lightening struck at night when he and his wife were home, right? And it didn't harm them, only the electricity, right? And then you told me that when the house actually did burn down from the lightening damage, they were both away at work, so nobody got hurt. Well that was the merit he earned, the good karma. The fire didn't happen when he was in the house. Because of that delay, he wasn't hurt or killed. He came out fine."

As it happened, the next day we saw Joe's adult son and I couldn't help but tell him what Tashi had told me about his father's good luck. "Do you think so?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," he said, nodding vigorously. "Definitely. It was awful for my parents losing everything they had, but the truth is that old house was crumbling and dark and my mother absolutely hated it. She was always praying something would happen to get her a new house. And then it did. She is so happy now in that new place."

Tashi shot me her best "I told you so" look. Amen.

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

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , Creative Commons LicenseThis 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 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy GarsonAll rights Reserved