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 15, 2012

Radio Rinpoche

Early in December word leaked from Hong Kong that on the eve of his 78th birthday, our precious guru, the great scholar (the literal translation for that, Khenchen, is his Tibetan title) Thrangu Rinpoche suffered what may have been a mild stroke. Nobody would give an accurate diagnosis but emails claimed Rinpoche seemed to be recovering-- although there was still residual damage to his eyesight and vocal chords.

Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche is a Dharma vessel, a way of saying he is a lighthouse of rock solid sanity in the swelling sea of Samsaric madness we all flounder in. Now with the risk of that vessel being permanently cracked or broken, everyone was urged to arouse aspirations and pray for both his full recovery and extended life. Specific prayers like those to the Medicine Buddha or Amitabha, deity of immortality, or White Tara, the compassionate Mother goddess of well-being (long life, strong health and wisdom), were recommended.

Like other students of Thrangu Rinpoche's, I hopped right to chanting Medicine Buddha and White Tara mantras, lighting candles, clasping my hands in front of my heart and praying to the deity of accomplishment and the deity who removes obstacles for his long life. Mine was just a small voice but it was flowing into a massive polyglot outpouring of love streaming toward Hong Kong like one of those giant arrows on the Weather Channel. I felt tremendous satisfaction knowing that even despite a lack of medical training or proximity to the patient, I was doing something to help someone who has been an extraordinary helpmate to me.

By the new year, news from Hong Kong was getting ever more positive about the possibility of Rinpoche's chances for full recovery. Still, since you can't be too sure, we were asked to keep praying. So I am, with great fervor--and not with blind faith. Friends ask why.

For one thing, Rinpoche has always urged his students to pour positive energy into this negative world, particularly in troubled times. He always says there can never be enough or too much to go around. Besides, even if you don't believe the world is just a kaleioscoping energy field, how or who can your aspiration to stop suffering actually hurt? Where is the downside to prayer?

The other thing is that I have personally experienced prayers making a big difference. I saw their uncanny power to affect outcomes. About two years ago in this blog, I reported on being magically rescued from the abyss of a nasty death in the family by Chenrezig, the great god of compassion for the suffering, to whom I had so desperately prayed for help in a moment of painful confusion. This past year, on the advice of one of Rinpoche's higher lamas, I have been praying every morning to the deity who removes obstacles and lately also reciting a special prayer to all the protectors and deities of the world to put everything in good working order for me. Actually "auspicious" is the word used: "May all be auspicious...all harm removed and obstacles pacified." And whaddya know. Since the solstice I feel like a dark, heavy weight was lifted off by an invisible crane and I'm giddily free in the clear sunshine of auspicious possibilities.

Another reason I feel this way right now may be, or so a friend says, because there was an astrological shift newly favorable to us beleaguered Capricorns. This, of course, strengthens my belief that there really are all sorts of forces chauffeuring us through life, that we are not as much in control of our destiny as, say, the energies of the Zodiac, all that Mercury retrograde and Saturn in your fifth house stuff. Frankly, I now believe so much in cosmic cues--although not $10 fortune-tellers, that I spent some of New Year's Eve trying to win at solitaire, thinking this would be an omen that 2012 would be a winning year. Unfortunately, I went to bed struggling to decide if losing all five games meant all my losses for the year had just been played out so I was now good to go, or I had just been warned about another hopeless year.

I worried about this because I have come to accept the fact that that behind the scrim of our man-made culture lies a real world we can't manhandle. As science says, it's all energy, continual morphing waves of energy. Spiritual pursuits like mine are an attempt to acknowledge that since I am not in charge, the best I can do is tap or tune into, and harmonize, with them. Thus my companion the Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes), and my checking in with the Greek Zodiac that charts annual energy flows. Last May my Tibetan goddaughter wouldn't let me hang prayer flags until she checked which day was the most auspicious and which day would prefigure disaster, something I'd never considered before. But I will consider it every year now because those were the only prayer flags that never seemed diminished or dulled due to time and weather. They were magically flying as whole and bright five months after we put them up as the morning we put them up, chanting prayers.

I think of the primeval Buddhist deities to whom I pray as ancient versions of modern radio stations: invisible energy waves in the invisible ocean of air. Each has its own spectrum, often visualized broadcasting as one of the colors of the rainbow, which is merely light waves of energy. (Medicine Buddha is lapis blue, Amitabha is blood red, Chenrezig is stainless white.) By praying, I tune in to surf the most propitious waves. If I connect, as the Irish say, I go forward with the wind at my back, the sun on my face. Or in other easy rider words, I don't go against the grain and all is auspicious. That's peak experience.

Admittedly, I can't hear the deities the way I can hear All Things Considered, but that does not dent my faith. Rinpoche always insists the deities hear me. And since I started praying, I have to say he's right. They have been dialing down my life into less and less of an obstacle course, something more and more auspicious and joyful. That's why I stay tuned. And why I, along with so many others, continue to send out energy waves of prayer to lengthen the life of the man who gave me this extraordinary gift.

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

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

New Year Resolution

Finally, at the very end of 2011, a multi-starred restaurant chef stated the sadly obvious: "... if you are at a good restaurant, you can assume that the ingredients will be good and that they'll be cooking seasonally. That simplicity, it's a beautiful way of eating and cooking. But as a chef, it's not the most gratifying. At some point you have to ask yourself if we are talking about food as nourishment or food that is emotional and impactful."

At some other point, I guess, you have to ask yourself why food as nourishment isn't emotional and impactful--and gratifying? What is food anyway?

Actually, we all need to ask ourselves because the Gilded Age gotta-have rage, and concurrent consumer culture bubble, is food. Notice in the chef's quote how "simplicity, it's a beautiful way of eating and cooking" is so cavalierly dismissed? That's why at a moment when a quarter of the country is starving, one tenth of one percent is ostentatiously stuffing itself with $500 a person dinners. People with too much money and time are so bored now by everything else, they're playing with food.

Lack of respect for food as simple nourishment has brought us all the manically unstoppable bacteriological, biological and inhumane horrors in our food chain. The day that quote about simplicity not being enough appeared in print, another headline shouted: Planting the Beach! It heralded the sad story of how Baja, California is being systematically stripped of its soil and water simply to meet our unrelenting demand to eat distinctly seasonal ingredients, particularly tomatoes, any time of the year we damn well want to. How's wanting to have it all all the time no matter what for emotional? And impactful too.

Other headlines are screaming that emotional and impactful food for the people rolling in excess dough these days, that infamous 1%, isn't just blow torch mini-bites but humungous tray-sized slabs of meat, if not the entire animal itself on a spit. Restaurants that imitate Roman banquet orgies are a Wall Street rage, echoing in the mad profusion of steakhouses and hamburger joints spreading across urban areas. Apparently, the more animals murdered, the merrier. It's Mad's "What me worry?" all over again, because thanks to other headlines, we are well aware of the destructive impact of polluting factory farms, and exactly how animal manufacture increases the menace of climate change.

Since long before the birth of the Buddha, greedy appetites were a major cause of suffering, Shakyamuni could accurately diagnose our human problem: craving. Enough is never enough. We always want more of something out there to fill up what we can't find inside. The Buddha connected the Brahmin caste's ravenous consumption of beef with a wide-spread famine in India because all the cows that pulled the plows and gave the milk that made the ghee, yogurt and cheese, had been confiscated for their beefsteak. He never stopped teaching that because our need to eat inevitably impacts everything and everyone around us, simple eating, consumption without harm, is beneficial for everyone and everything. The generosity of not making a mess is extremely gratifying because it makes others grateful.

In my book, Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, I tried to convey this ancient message that what and how we eat matters every which way. I wanted to prick the current food bubble with food framed in its historic perspective as nourishment, as life and therefore something very sacred to be respected. The ingredient degradation and agricultural destruction so frenetically in process (not progress) can't be stopped until we stop seeing food as blood sport (all those killer TV competitions), high style pornography (all those carefully doctored high gloss photos and lascivious descriptions), rocket science (all that chemical engineering with high tech blow torches), entertainment (highly stylized food that, for instance, takes you on a walk through oak leaves so you can remember your childhood), or what marketers today call "aspirational" to put a spin on social climbing ostentation.

In a brief email correspondence I had, the famed and former Zen Buddhist chef Deborah Madison wistfully noted how unusual it was these days to have a food book published without magnetizing glossy photographs. "I thought it was our obligation as Buddhists," I wrote back, "to not feed the frenzy of attachment and lust, to inflate the bubble any further." She did not reply.

If you are at all aware and awake to this frenetic fuss over food as consumer gilt, going to the supermarket, or better yet the farmers' market, becomes authentic Dharma practice. Standing there selecting food to digest makes you aware of your choices and decisions, your motivations and intentions, your being connected to a greater whole. That tie-in to the greater whole is the literal meaning of the Latin religio, the English religion. I wrote about the power of sesame seeds and the historic meaning of rice to show how people have struggled for millenniums to figure food as fuel for their body so it runs. Humans have thought about food as long as there have been humans because without food there can't be humans. That's really all you need to know: food is what every single being has in common. It is what truly unites us and ties us back to the Earth, re-ligio, religion. It is sustenance, and what sustains us needs to be sustained. A shared survival resource is not a play toy.

I started my life as what was derogatorily called a stomach Jew, somebody who pulled the rank of religion only to get good corned beef sandwiches and pickles. And I can still pull rank to tell a cream cheese schmearing Tibetan they don't know from bagels. But I've spent many of my adult years proud to be a gastronomic Buddhist. I cook and write about food to nourish minds that feed bodies that support the mind. I think I may be the only one or nearly so with this compulsive focus, but I don't think I'm crazy. Two thirds of the Buddha's rules for monastic behavior are about food. "Many of the 250 monastic rules given by the Buddha,” the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche told his Western students when he started teaching, “are connected with how to eat properly. When you eat properly, then you can walk properly, think properly and relate with other human beings properly. A lot of things are based on the idea of eating food properly, which is how to behave as a basically decent person.”

This is why I've been dismayed that the earliest and most widely disseminated review of my Veggiyana book, despite its positive encouragement to buy the book, complained under the heading "What is Dharma?" that I stopped short of actually delivering much Buddhist philosophy. Here are the exact words: "I assumed a book with "Dharma" in the title would include lots of guidance (that I need!) on pursuing enlightenment or at least serenity. Something along the lines of 'present moment, wonderful moment'. I was hoping for tips on how to keep my mind in the present while chopping vegetables...My dear ordained Zen priest...defines Dharma as...'teachings of awakening'. I don't see much about awakening..."

Talk about no awakening! The reviewer called me a Zen Buddhist when most of the text starting with the dedication made clear my Buddhism is Tibetan. She called pomegranates and daikon hard to find, exotic ingredients that belied my promise of universality. And despite my revelations on how profoundly Buddhism has influenced how and what we eat, even my stating right in the introduction that I hoped to raise awareness of our relationship with food, she said I offered no guidance on pursuing enlightenment.

If Dharma, as she says, is nothing more than step by step instructions on how to stay serene while stirring soup, that woman, PhD in science, is clueless about awakening. That's sad, especially if others also think Dharma is just about minding the moment you cook or clean. One of the great Tibetan Rinpoches, watching Zen students obsess over kitchen chores, pointed out how exaggerated mindfulness becomes a distraction, in fact a roadblock on the path to discovering the enlightenment in your own mind. I wrote almost two years ago about sadly watching Theravada mindfulness students obsessively focus on their footsteps--now my knee is bent, now my leg is stretched, now my foot touches the ground-- as they walked outside on a gloriously green spring day. They were so absorbed by their body movement, they were pathetically oblivious to the glory of mixing their minds with the clear blue sky and the liberating joy--the peak experience-- of Dharma.

Resolution, the word most associated with New Year, actually has meanings beyond the one traditionally trotted out on January 1: aspiration to begin something new, do something differently in the time ahead. One of those meanings is to bring something to an end. A resolution can be an outcome. For this New Year 2012, the resolution I am praying for is the bursting of the food bubble, and re-awakening to awareness that food is Dharma practice. Because Dharma practitioners have to eat, we could wake up to the food supply alarm. Awakening this year can mean the simplicity of eating seasonal, sustainable food that is nourishing and beautifully cooked, as well as the gratification of not being emotional or "impactful" in any way. Wouldn't that usher in a nutritious and delicious new year for everyone.

~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