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, February 18, 2012

Vive la difference!

Thanks to a friend willing to help my hankering for food hotspots, yesterday I got to eat at San Francisco's literally fieriest eatery, Mission Chinese. One of the many stealth meanings of its name is the owners' emphatic effort to serve authentic, everyday Szechuan food not watered down, although sometimes spiced with a few cool things American. Ergo kung pao pastrami and smoked brisket noodle soup along side beef cheeks, lamb bellies, pig trotters, trout roe and chicken hearts, all under Himalayan mountains of chilies.

Surprisingly, my initial reaction to the menu was revulsion. It wasn't so much the preponderance of offal on the menu as the preponderance of dead animals. The menu was littered by way too many exotic parts of way too many kinds of them with not much else to choose. This made slaughter and butchery suddenly so real and really horrifying, I didn't want to eat in that restaurant. To top it off, the ghoulish Buddhist vision of a man greedily munching on meat ignorant that it was the re-incarnation of his mother elbowed into my mind, so that I was profoundly appalled by all the cheerful gorging going on around me. I thought I'd come to a madhouse.

I ordered, with qualms, the only seemingly tolerable entry: porridge with local crab and oxtail, yet as soon as the food arrived, my friend insisted I try his beef cheeks with Chinese broccoli, aka gai lan. I couldn't bear the thought of putting my chopsticks on that plate, which he called the best dish on the menu. He kept urging me to dig in, and something inside just as insistently urged me not to dare do that. Eventually, I reached out and nabbed some of all that gai lan covering those cheeks--two times, for effect.

I left that restaurant, kicking myself for having gone to it. As the Buddha was known to have said more than 2,500 years ago: how utterly amazing. I, who grew up in a family that ate prime beef every day in some form, filling in the other meals with tuna fish or chicken, found myself sitting in a must-do restaurant sickened by the meaty menu. Twenty five years and three weeks after I discovered Dharma, I'd discovered Dharma kicking in.

I'm sure the incessant flow of horror stories about pig farm sewerage lakes exploding, pig gestation crates, hens stuffed together without breathing room and the brutal beating of fallen animals too weak to make it to the slaughterhouse fast fueled my ability to visualize animals as living creatures who we have forced to suffer unspeakable brutality. The word holocaust comes to mind. And for what? A show-off dinner or barbeque? Higher cholesterol?

Frankly, I was already noticing how when I go into a food market, I still go to the meat section to see what I want for dinner, and find myself pulling back the arm reaching out for lamp chops or flank steak when a voice inside pops up to say: "Don't go there. You know you don't want to do that. What are you, a cannibal?"

I'm getting over it slowly. Meat abstinence has cut my food costs but it helps to find the unplanned frugality doesn't really impair my eating pleasure. Tuesday's I used up some brown rice by serving it with mung bean pancakes and garlicky sauteed greens. This made for a filling, tasty and surprisingly satisfying especially when accompanied by a glass of oaky white wine and a dessert of quince paste and sheep milk cheese. There was nothing lacking either in Wednesday's meal of Pugliese pasta with broccoli rabe, fava beans and lemon, topped with real freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano and black pepper--along with a great salad greens, nuts and olive salad, and glass of Sicilian red wine.

This morning I realized the Dharma had also crept into my closet, where there are no more upscale designer clothes because I don't seem to need them. I don't shop at the fancy stores I used to frequent (and old friends still do). I no longer want to impress anyone with power clothes. Actually, I am so down to earth these days, I haven't worn a pair of high heels in at least three years and I pity the young girls teetering around on them because they believe these are a survival must-do.

I no longer care about the false shine of jewelry either. I wear a watch and that's about it except for an occasional pair of earrings. The gold and gems have been stuck in the drawer so long, I forget they are even in there. I didn't bother to take them out when I went to New York where people routinely pile baubles on like bulletproof armor. I surprised myself, not caring about looking plain in Manhattan just as I surprised myself by being less stressed there than I'd ever been. All the years--make that decades-- I'd tortured myself believing the clothes I wore were going to make a difference in my day came down to the awesome revelation they did not. Like Rhett Butler, nobody at the museums, restaurants or theater gave a damn.

I had no idea 25 years ago when curiosity propelled me to a Buddhist meditation open house on a freezing January night in Maine that I would become such a makeover I don't recognize myself. I guess I should pay more attention to that teaching on impermanence.

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

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