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, August 26, 2012

Dishing Dharma

I have spent the last 22 years on a lonely, seemingly odd quest to put food back into Buddhist thought. When I started, eating wasn't even acknowledged in the Tibetan tradition. Feeding monks and nuns was not the last thing on any lama's mind: it was no thing, nothing, a void avoided. The thousands upon thousands of dollars donated to these extraordinary beings were invariably spent on buildings, paintings and statues. Oddly for teachers who emphasize the ephemeral in everything, they deemed these things worth the investment because they didn't seem to be all that impermanent. On the other hand people were for sure temporary. They didn't last as long and were more easily replaced. So the gurus didn't seem to care if the true believers in their buildings, praying to their paintings and statues, had anything to eat.

The gurus themselves, whether great or ordinary, ate out of habit, without reflection, ignorant of health consequences. Every one I met had the same physical ailments: high blood pressure, diabetes, constipation, high cholesterol and a heart on the verge of attack. Thinking a different diet might save their precious lives, I volunteered to cook for them.  

I studied Tibetan and Nepali cooking, because people--all people including eminent Rinpoches--have fixed eating habits ingrained early on and so deeply embedded that people have actually starved themselves to death rather than ingest "weird" unfamiliar food. What's most likely to be eaten with relish and relief is food from mother or the motherland. So serving their comfort food, tweaked for their troubles, was my way of pleasing these great gurus, my way of saying thank you for taking all the trouble to travel to my side of the planet just to bring me food for thought.

About 12 years ago, I went from feeding lamas and the occasional Dharma group to feeding everybody. . I couldn't stand all the scraggly bodies, runny noses, scratches and unhealed sores of schoolchildren and monastics in my Rinpoche's care. Hunger, fatigue and sickness are major impediments to practice and activity, yet they can be avoided with nutritious food. So I couldn't stand by. I impulsively started to cook, starting in the boarding school whose kitchen had no electricity, running water, floor, furniture or a stove. There was just a pile of mudded bricks with a hole in the top and another through the side, into which three men shoved a flaming tree trunk. 

I wanted all these children, monks and nuns to have enough strength, energy and focus to keep their vows to benefit beings, or at least enough to do their daily work without the distraction of hunger pangs, weakness or worry. It still pains me to remember how after I raised $100 and sent a truckload of apples to a monastery, their first fruits since who knew when, the monks treated me with all the deference they would have given His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Someone had remembered them and liberated them a bit from suffering. Just apples. It was that fast and that easy and very sad to realize it had taken over 1,000 years to accomplish.

We live in a souped up world addicted to the hot sauce of excitement, a world in which food is taken for granted. Since it's a given, we play with it, exploit it for status or sexual innuendo, or gin it up into the blood sport of Roman gladiator bread and circus. But for these people like most people, just having food was the excitement. All the excitement they needed. They had been given the gift of life.

I kept up my quest to feed these people and as the difference in their energy and attitude became significant, the lamas' wisdom eye opened and they saw what had happened and saw that it was good. Nuns who were fainting from malnutrition only five years ago were now studying to be doctors, or they had become environmental activists and teachers of small children. Because immune systems had been fortified, nasty diseases no longer rampaged through the school like an unstoppable tsunami. All that for peanuts. Sometimes literally.

So the gurus stepped up to the plate. They realized having food close at hand, especially in times of political or natural disaster, is vital for freeing the mind from fear of hunger, freeing the body to meditate. So they diverted some of their donated dollars and now there are orchards and vegetable gardens at the monasteries, nunneries and schools. There are cooking classes and courses in nutrition too.

It is still an uphill battle to get enough nutritious food on a Dharma table. Two weeks ago I got an email from Nepal saying my small easily thwarted effort to improve the monks diet by insisting for dhal the monastery kitchen stop skimping and serve protein rich beans and split peas had shown positive results. Several volunteer doctors had just finished a three-day gastric clinic, and found 80% of the monks to have digestive problems. But, they said, it would've been worse without the more nutritious dhal. The energy levels were higher and immune systems slightly stronger because of it.

Several months ago, I answered an SOS to come to Mongolia to teach vegetarian cooking at a Buddhist cafe. There was no pay, but I went because it's vital that people eat and be well so they can pursue the path to enlightenment for all of us. Also because eating a vegetarian lunch would be a teaching from the Buddha to Mongolians, heirs of Chinggis Khan fiercely addicted to and obsessed with meat. I stayed over 5 weeks and worked over 14 hours a day everyday but two. I taught the cafe staff of six how to make healthy, balanced and delicious meals featuring local products, particularly dairy because Mongolians invented it and literally lap it up. The dishes--eggplant Parmesan, potato/turnip gratin, mushroom stuffed cabbage, grilled cheese sandwich, cream soups, raita-- threw the Mongolians headfirst into the wider world and joining pans with the rest of us elated them, and their male manager Oyunbaator. They were conquering all over again. The new menu also brought ka-ching to the cash register, money to fund the Dharma classes. 

I came home severely exhausted and afflicted by something scary and mysterious. The only thing that made me feel better for the two months I was so sick were the emails that kept coming from Ulan Baator.
From the executive director: "Everyone is very happy about the changes in the Stupa Café’. ...The sales went up... ."

From the cafe staff: "cafe girls and i well. cafe work is going well.manager Oyunbaatar and i are very happy about that. all cafe is selling good."

From the nun who was in charge of the center and didn't think food deserved attention:  "I am delighted to be now the recipient of healthy and balanced lunches from the Stupa Cafe. There is a vast improvement in the type and quality of food and such a joy to not have seitan and capsicum almost every day!! While I am a sangha person and shouldn't complain of what is served to me, I also acknowledge that receiving healthy, balanced food does contribute to my physical and mental well being, enabling me to offer more energetic service."

It's been worth the effort and its afflictions to know that after 22 years of trying to tell the truth, people get it. Food is not frivolous, not even in the Dharma. It is there what it is everywhere every time: the profound gift of life. Every being wants a taste of that.

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

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Looking for the Easy Out

After more than 8 weeks, I am still tangling with a body that's fails me and watching my mind lash out in frustration, even anger. I got to Medicare with only a structural problem brought on by a car accident in which I was a passive victim. So sickness is a place I've never visited before and now that I'm here, I'm behaving like a tourist whose vacation is suddenly upended by the catastrophe of war or earthquake. I want out. I have fiercely fixated on getting myself to the first plane leaving this ground. This is to say, for instance, when the medical powers that be told me I have a thyroid problem, I brewed up seaweed soup and slurped in its iodine, certain this would solve that. I doubled down by throwing away the expensive sea salt in favor of slathering good old Morton's iodized on everything. I don't want a thyroid problem.

Praying to Vajrasattva for purification, Medicine Buddha for healing and White Tara for protection from this suffering doesn't seem to be doing anything, at least so far as I can tell. Maybe I would be sicker without the prayers? I don't know. I just know every day I have to sit around and do nothing, I grow more impatient to get back to my active life. My idea of impermanence grows closer and closer to the current culture's: change faster than you can say the word. In an age of supersonic travel, instant communications and a new product every nanosecond, why are these ailments still dogging me? Where is change I can believe in?

A huge part of my suffering is the mystery of why I am. Is it me or was it Mongolia? Strange symptoms come and go and come back sometimes. Among the most recent tests were those for bacteria-induced brucellosis and parasite (tick) induced babieosis. If I indeed have one of them, it would explain almost everything, so I find myself praying this is the case. It would be a relief to know it was not me but Mongolia, that I have an external predator victimizing me. For one thing it indicates I didn't bring it on, didn't do something wrong. But more to the point, there is a relatively easy cure for bacteria and parasites: antibiotics, lots of them. Then I can go back to my life as usual. It would also be a huge relief to know it was not me breaking down, not age and not overdoing life. The idea that it could be me has been way to scary to contemplate because there is no easy fix.

I am praying to the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas for a bailout. Not for my sake personally, although that would be nice. Rather, for the whole Mahayana, all the people who depend on me, all the sangha charity work that needs to be accomplished. If the Buddha makes me well, I tell him, I can help so many people. I can really be of benefit. Yes! Make me well and I'll get right back out there working for others. I really am quite sincere about this, but I also know what I am doing is of course a lot like others bargaining with death. I want the fates to give me what I want, my precious life back. And when do I want it? NOW!

Of course I don't tell the Buddhas I have become so absorbed by this frustrating frailty, the other day for the first time I actually said NO to a friend. I would not go out to buy and send something frivolous he wanted because I was tired of always doing things for others especially right now when I most needed to do everything to help me. Somebody had to help me and there was only me.

According to the emails coming in, people from Mongolia to Maine are praying for me, rooting for me to get well soon. Their caring has been the only comfort. It takes me back to the blessings of my Dharma practice. I know of Rinpoche's and monks who's medical crisis quickly passed on the winds of other people's prayer. Maybe the same will eventually be said about mine.

More testing... testing...

P.S. five days later: Among the commons symptoms the endocrinologist asked me if I had with this mysterious thyroid inflammation were depression and irritability. "Really?" he said, "You don't?" and that's when I realized 25 years of Dharma practice had kicked in, like a time release capsule.

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

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Eating up the World

When the Japanese beetles first invaded, they went straight for the rose bushes, all the rose bushes from the hardy dune roses to the prissy tea ones. They came in droves, like a plague of locusts, and ate the bushes bare. Some did not recover from their voraciousness.

I know when I am outgunned. Hundreds of those luminously shiny gold beetles to one of me. I gave up on the dune roses and let that disgusting army of destroyers have them. When I didn't see them on the dune roses this year, I of course thought my merit had kicked a protection circle in. I dedicated the merit. Ha ha. Turns out they simply broadened their tastes, like the frenzied nouveau riche racing from one food fad to another. They didn't want the usual this year. No. Those little gold blobs of supersized destruction were munching away on the dark maroon leaves of the sand cherry tree and the spiky red flowers on the other side of the path. The telltale lacy leaves were everywhere. How was I to know the beetles buffet is why my never fail hydrangeas were keeling over?

I was so enraged, I wanted to kill. I didn't care about the karma. I told myself I had to kill those killer bugs to protect the life of innocent plants, my plants. Every beetle booted from the yard meant, by the way they breed, dozens less next year. With baggies, plastic tubs and glass jars I mounted a campaign, stalking the enemy and piling up bodies in those transparent containers. Defiantly, I left them under the plants as a cemetery, a warning--the way the ancients used to leave severed heads mounted on gateposts.

I did in a dozen at a time but new ones soon took their places on those now fragile plants. I grouchily snatched more and more, telling myself I was hastening each beetle on to a higher rebirth, maybe as a skunk. That would be the animal realm, and that would be one step above these hungry ghosts who so perfectly illustrated the ravenous appetite and inability to stop that the Buddha described.

Today, as I slid another destructive dozen into the glass jar, I was thinking how friends have been phoning me the past few days to tell me stories about Mongolia are in just about every magazine and newspaper now. It is the country du jour. Most of the stories are of course about the world's investors and corporations swarming all over, trying to dig up the Gobi Desert to get to the world's largest untapped gold and copper mines.

And so as the last beetle slipped into my jar, I couldn't see any difference between these hungry ghosts feasting on my plants and those human hungry ghosts feasting on the Gobi Desert. Like a plague of locusts, the mining companies swarm from one site to another, hungrily gobbling up the land and spitting it out. Then the reporters fly in and chew up the goings on. Our crazed consumer corporate culture has made most of us hungry ghosts who wanna be or gotta have. And that creates even hungrier ghosts who fly around tearing up this planet from the Amazon to the Gobi and the pure Arctic waters off Alaska, leaving them for dead like my plants.

There doesn't seem to be a jar big enough to catch any of these devastating critters in.

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

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Thursday, August 09, 2012

Mongolian Grandma

Okay, better late than never the story of Grandma, the unnamed, sharp-eyed, 73-year-old woman who lives alone in the Mongolian countryside. When she greeted me at sunset on Saturday night, 9:15PM, she was wearing a royal blue silk deel, the traditional Mongolian dress, and black riding boots--the same outfit she was wearing when I left the next day at noon. Both times the gray hair around her weathered face was severely pulled back in a bun. Earrings dangled.

She pointed me toward one of the little painted stools arranged around a table in the middle of the room. These typical Mongolian chairs are only about 15" high and 15" square, which means you are basically squatting when you lower yourself onto one. When she saw everyone was seated, she thrust a bowl of candies on the table, then a bowl of small packaged cakes. Then one by one the milk tea arrived. Grandma didn't say much at all and while we ate and drank, she sat stationed on a regular chair about two feet away--between us and the cooking area--so she could keep an eye on the hospitality's choreography.

About an hour into the animated conversation, all in Mongolian and thus not comprehensible to me, I found out how we had come to be there with her that night--and at the same time learned a little about Mongolian social life. Grandma, it seemed, had two sons. The younger one had died in adulthood. The older was an artist now living in the Czech Republic. Thus she had come to be alone in the world.

But it turned out that artist son had once been married to my friend Narmandakh's sister-in law. It was that sister-in-law and Narmandakh's brother who had driven us here, at Narmandakh's request because she wanted me to see the real Mongolia and the real Mongolia is a ger in the countryside. It also turned out that the artist and Narmandakh's sister-in-law had a daughter, Grandma's only grandchild. The daughter was grown now, had studied in Paris and was back in Mongolia working lucratively as a translator for a French company. The person she most adored in the world and went to visit at every opportunity was Grandma. The ex-daughter-in-law, Narmandakh's sister-in-law, who was very close to her daughter, also called the old woman that, which is why I was told we were "going to Grandma's."

Grandma herself said very little that first evening, but the next day after breakfast, she brought out a bunch of photo albums, piled them on the table and began reminiscing. Grandma at 20 was a stunner! With her high cheekbones, almond eyes and bow-shaped lips, she could've been a double for Greta Garbo. Those high high cheekbones, that narrow little chin, the hair pulled discretely back...she was a beauty.

But she was simply a seamstress. And the wife of a Mongolian Communist Party official. They lived in a house in Ulan Baator. She worked for the Soviets in a big sewing factory, rising higher and higher in the ranks because of her focus and skills. "I am the one who sewed that special suit for the first Russian in space." She pointed to a picture of herself seated at a machine. My mind lit up like switchboard. Was this bizarre or just the way the world is if you are out and about in it? I was sitting in a shack in the Mongolian countryside with the woman who had gone to Moscow to sew the spacesuit for Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space and the man who in 1961 first shook America senseless when it realized it was running behind. Grandma had unknowingly affected my life as a schoolkid, because Yuri Gagarin set off the space race and the forced teaching of math to idiots like me.

Now I knew why there was a full table model Singer Sewing Machine in that shack. But there was also a small altar with photos of Chenrezig and Vajrapani, a remnant of the pre-Communist days when Grandma's parents had been Buddhist.

More photos of her son the artist and her son who was lost, photos of Narmandakh's sister-in-law sitting next to me know gasping at how thin and young she looked. Photos of Grandma and her husband being honored for something in Moscow. "She was really quite sophisticated for her time," Narmandakh whispered to me. "But after her husband died, she didn't want to stay in the city. She said the countryside was 'home' and she wanted to go back to it. So here she is."

Here was the shack I described earlier in my post from Mongolia. Grandma didn't have herds anymore to tend; her son in the Czech Republic, her French speaking granddaughter and her neighbors in the ger all felt she was too frail now to tend them. They worried. So she just had two mangy and fierce looking mongrels tied up on the far side of her yard where she'd planted scallions and potatoes and had hoed the spot for the tomatoes she'd started indoors. "They want me to go back to the city," she said looking at me, "but who will feed my dogs. No, I have to stay here, that's all."

Here, I discovered when we took a short walk after the photo ops, was about 100 yards from a beautiful river where Grandma pulled her water from. She had a bicycle she rode infrequently now 10 miles to a mining town where there were markets and banks. She had a pension from the Mongolian government and felt quite comfortable, not wanting for anything.

When we got up to leave, she disappeared into her bedroom and came out balancing a pile of packages. She gave slippers to Narmandakh, her brother and her ex daughter-in-law. She gave me a pair of merino wool gloves. I had no idea why she was being so generous, especially to me a total stranger. "It's a Mongolian custom," Narmandakh explained, "that the elderly always give departing company a gift. That way, if they die before the next visit, they leave on good terms."

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

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Monday, August 06, 2012

sorry for the silence:sickness is a dharma challenge

I wanted to share from Mongolia with those who may be reading this blog the stories of the 73 year old Grandma who lived alone in her remote ger and of the remarkable, brave and extremely beautiful young woman named Narmandakh. Exhaustion, a bad internet connection and the problems from some mysterious ailment kept me from it.

Sadly I brought the exhaustion and mysterious symptoms with me, and for a while they did me in. Not being in control of your body is serious dharma practice. The frustrating and scary symptoms and the failure of anyone to diagnose what they add up to has definitely challenged my patience, dented my sense of impermanence (they are not going away), and taxed my belief that everything is pure and perfect as it is (sorry but I can't figure out how to make severe qualify.) I sat around obsessing about what was wrong with me and spent too much time looking up ridiculous things on the internet, desperate for an answer.

But last week, I caught myself bringing myself down, holding myself down in distress, wasting my time in pointess research. Slowly I began to realize that getting upset and depressed wasn't helping me feel better and get on, it was just making life worse. "Suppose this is all fatal and you die tomorrow?" I asked myself. "What you're gonna most regret is that you didn't do things you wanted. So what the hell? Go swimming. Enjoy yourself. Go to the movies with friends and laugh while you can." So I have been. I try to go about the day as if nothing is wrong, at least when I'm not going for tests. And if I do pop off tomorrow, at least I will have had some fun in the runup.

Auspiciously, the day I decided to do a U turn with my behavior, I received a very cheering email from Mongolia in which the six woman working at the cafe where I taught cooking hoped my back was better and announced that the cash register was really ringing daily now because of all the new food they were cooking. They were especially proud to report that the two youngest, who had been dishwashers and general aids when I got there, were now fulltime bakers. The demand was great for our soucream apple pie with the butter cookie crust, our cream cheese frosted carrot cake and oatmeal cookies, plus of course the cheesecake.

This was wondrous news all around. The cafe needed to make money to support all the return to Buddhism activities going on in Mongolia--or at least the free ones in its building. I'd been asked to come because the food was so unappealing the cafe wasn't raising enough money to pay its own bills. Now its receipts were double the old days and climbing.

The joy of the women and their kind messages to me was the most cheering. Frankly, it was unnerving to have to walk into a restaurant kitchen and tell the staff who'd been working 10 hours shifts there that what they cooked was disgusting, that in essence they were inadequate. After all that is the reason I had been summoned. But it turned out they were anxiously awaiting a teacher, someone who would show them how other countries cook. They couldn't get enough. And when something sold out, they were so gleeful, they jumped up and down, screamed and hugged each other. They couldnt believe they'd done it. In the end they were so grateful they pooled their very limited resources to take me out for dinner and give me a present.

That made the 14 hour work days, seven days a week, and the exhaustion worth it. Their email lifted my spirits out of their gloom, for it reminded me I had actually achieved something--something that seems to be of benefit--and achievement often carries a price. No Mongolia, no mysterious symptoms. No good deed goes unpunished.

Next the story of Grandma and Narmandakh and more....

Meanwhile let us all pray for the swift return of Kyabgon Traleg Rinpoche, so astonishingly clever at teaching Dharma to us Westerners and in flawless English. He died suddenly two weeks ago. The loss is enormous.

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

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