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, September 29, 2012
Who and How We Buddhists Are
As it happens, I was only one of a flock of people who have been flying to Vancouver and going to the monastery to see Rinpoche before he departed for Asia, since nobody knows for how long. Another was a tall, slim gray-haired British grandmother named Niki who came almost simultaneously from London. She had survived bladder cancer and a law career to become a yoga teacher while her husband keeps up his hectic work as cartoonist for a major London daily. Niki roomed with Nancy, an athletic Rhode Island blue-blood grandmother and retired social worker, a former prom queen who teaches sailing.
Ling-Lung came from Kansas where she lives with her Swiss husband, a retired anthropology professor. She has her own high degree in anthropology but rather than use it, she runs a Dharma group and translates Buddhists texts for publication in Chinese. Shortly after she went home with a request from Rinpoche to translate another book, she was leaving first for a monastery in northern India and then Taiwan where her unmarried brother is ailing and needs her.
Julia showed up from Halifax where she teaches economics at Dalhousie University. Her specialty has become, as she puts it, CSR: Corporate Social Responsibility, and by the vagaries of the profession, she's ended up as the leading authority on how mining companies can clean up their act. How auspicious. I pointed her to Joan, whose gold mine CSR was feeding the entire monastery and its guests five nights a week. We talked about Mongolia, where Julia hadn't realized mining was now so profound because she's moved on to become the Canadian government's agent for establishing trade ties with Cuba and now spends a lot of time back in the country her family fled when she was a baby. "It's been really interesting for me as an emigre and as a Buddhist to be there trying to scope out how new businesses can continue the decency ethos of socialism."
Retired teachers Pat and Clark made the trip from Denver even though Pat had heart surgery only a few weeks before and was worrying about their son who'd just been transferred by his tech company to San Francisco and couldn't find an affordable place to live. Forty-something Carolyn who used to live in Guatemala came from where she lives now with a man she met on retreat, Moab, Utah, and brought her brocaded Tibetan chuba to wear when she got to see Rinpoche to ask a question about her meditation practice. Thirty-something Nathan took the bus up from Seattle to ask his question and stayed overnight, looking for a ride back to the bus. A few weeks before, Alan drove his old car up from San Francisco where a year ago he, a Berkeley grad, retired from the Fire Department and launched what's become an international career as a Feldenkreis teacher.
Dr John came unexpectedly from Newfoundland. Having satisfied his 2-year contract for emergency room surgical services way up above Gander, he had been moving his stuff including his little Fit car to northeast Nova Scotia to begin a one year retreat in a large center there when he was summoned to serve as Rinpoche's doctor. So one moment he was sitting up in a corner of his room reciting mantras and another he was in a tie and jacket accompanying Rinpoche to the orthopedist. John, who has been trained as a field surgeon and worked briefly for Doctors Without Borders, is going to be responsible for taking care of 79-year-old, frail Rinpoche while they are at his main monastery, an hour from a decent hospital. Meanwhile his wife Sara closed her yoga studio in Newfoundland and is heading to New Zealand to study biodynamic gardening. Together they plan to move next year onto a ground-breaking off-the-grid, biodynamic commune in the middle of Canada and try their hand at no harming. Just a snapshot of who and how some Western Buddhists are: almost all in the caring professions or like Julia making caring part of their profession.
The six-week Yarne or monsoon Retreat ended last Saturday when lots of people came to the monastery early in the morning before breakfast bearing fruits and all sorts of small items like soap. Those of us living inside were assigned to join them for the first celebration ritual. Since 14 monks completed the Yarne retreat, each of us had to have 14 of the same item to offer. Tradition called for fruit but small personal items like soap or toothbrushes were also allowed. All of us non monks lined up two arm lengths apart around the perimeter of the monastery, juggling our offerings. Having not known about this giving ritual until it happened, I was suddenly glad I stockpile food for emergency moments just like this. I broke open a box of cookies I'd brought with me, counted out 14 three times and went to the kitchen in search of baggies. Happily after that frenzy, I was calmly in place with a smile and a shopping bag full of bagged cookies, standing between a Chinese woman with 14 plums and another Chinese woman with 14 tubes of toothpaste. The sound of the longhorns called us to attention. The monks, in various ceremonial hats and robes all red or yellow, came down the steps from the main monastery single file parading behind the horn blowers. Each was carrying a small black begging bowl--which I recognized as the noodle soup bowls from the dining room. As each monk passed, we had to put our contribution in that small bowl, which got pretty tricky by the time they got to my section because the bowls were brimming with apples, grapes and pears. I slid my baggies of cookies in without dropping any, quickly one, quickly another. The line moved fast. The monks couldn't look at us or break stride. When the parade reached its starting point, it was over. Big empty boxes were waiting and all the begging bowl contents were dumped into them. The monks went to remove their costumes and the boxes were carried into the dining room as an offering. Breakfast was finally served. Apparently it is also ritual tradition that all monks must leave the monastery the day after Yarne retreat ends. Having been cooped up for six weeks, they must go out to the world, so an outing had been planned, or sort of planned, and I was commandeered into participating because they needed three cars for 19 monks. The idea was to leave Vancouver and go across the water to Vancouver Island for a real leaving. But that idea involved all of us getting up before dawn to make the 7 AM ferry. I got up at 5 but it was worse for the monks. They have to do the Tara protection puja every morning: it takes over an hour, so they had to get up at 4 and were chanting away when I came downstairs at 5:30 ready to go. That's the price of a day off. The three vans drove through the dark in drizzly fog of 6 AM to the Tsewassen Ferry Terminal, about 20 minutes from the monastery. This was my first experience with British Columbia Ferries and it was seriously impressive. They cost but they deliver. Clean, courteous, convenient and crammed with anything you might need: bus tickets, tourist info, snacks, wi-fi, sun room seating, business center, soup bar, shopping arcade, video games...
As we approached there were flashing signs overhead alerting us that the ferries were already 25% full: we had a fighting chance! We paid a pretty penny for the van with 7 people, $156 to be exact, and waited patiently to board. Monks in the other vans were already inside the food court having breakfast while we waited. Magically at 6:40 the ferry docked and the cars rolled off, dozens and dozens of them. At 6:50 we rolled on and exactly at 7 that loud whistle sounded and we pulled away from the pier. By then I and the six monks in my van were seated in the scenic view restaurant having a huge steamship style buffet breakfast for $20 each, each of the monks, I noticed, piling their plates with sausage. It was elegant. Then we went out on deck where all the monks were all busy taking pictures of each other as evergreen islands and white sailboats went by. I got asked to take a lot of portraits. We were all back in the van for our perfect 8:40 arrival, rolled off on cue and easily made our way on very well marked roads to Butchart Gardens, a world famous attraction that opens at 9. It is indeed so world famous that the admissions clerk told us she had guides to the gardens in 16 languages including Urdu. Hearing that, for the fun of it, I got the monks in my van one in Hindi, which is cousin to Nepali, so they all understand it. What happened next in the gardens was that the 19 monks clumped together to go around, stopping endlessly to take pictures of each other or themselves in every scene. This seemed to be quite amusing to them and they were so obsessed by it, I started taking pictures of them taking pictures of each other. We got through the gardens in record time, the longest event being the carousel where I treated them for $2 a head to a ride. The attendant was a bit boggled by 19 monks in maroon robes going up and down on the various animals-- a frog, a leopard, horses--shouting to each other in Tibetan while "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" played from the tinny speakers. We sped through the roses and Japanese garden since they apparently had enough photos, stopped at a refreshment stand where they treated me to water and themselves to water, ice cream and soda. Then back in the vans and by 10:15 we were on the road to Victoria proper. Very proper. Parliament. It was a spectacularly clear and warm Sunday and Victoria was crowded with tourists and locals strolling around the harbor on streets closed to cars. Nineteen maroon clad monks taking pictures of each other on the huge Parliament lawn became another tourist attraction, prompting even more photos. Then we paraded into the mobs on the car-less shopping streets, searching for a restaurant.
We found a place that set us up banquet style at two long tables in the back, a place whose menu had everything from nachos and Caesar Salad to roasted vegetable quesadillas, Thai coconut soup and mile high hamburgers. Drink orders were all fruit juice. Every monks ordered at least two dishes: one of them had a whole pizza and then the roast chicken plate. At least a half dozen monks had the 9 ounce steak. And that was it. We had to drive like bats out of hell to make the 4 o'clock ferry because the lead van was following GPS instead of the highway that goes straight from Victoria to the ferry. That's the downside of GPS: it doesn't discriminate between types of roads so we were stuck in Sunday traffic in center city instead of whizzing north on the highway. But we made it at the last second, speeding under a lighted sign that said the ferry was 63% full. The monks were back in the monastery just after 6, in high spirits and in time for Joan's vegetarian Chinese supper. Yarne was officially over for another year.
I've returned to the monastery outside Vancouver for the finale of Rinpoche's stay here. There are twice as many monks--20 just now compared to 9 in April, and endless slews of visitors. Everybody in the Western hemisphere is trying to get here before Rinpoche goes to the East. Niki is here from London, Julia just arrived from Puerto Rico, Caroline came yesterday from Moab, Utah. The residence area has become a busy hotel, and the inner circle of monks busy trying to accommodate everyone's gotta see Rinpoche requests, while protecting him from the throng. He is frail and smaller than he was in May.
The Chinese still come to cook and clean. Joan, who I just learned did not own a restaurant but rather a gold mine, has been here with her $150,000 Mercedes SUV, bright smile and flashy clothes, turning out lunches and dinners for hordes of people. "I'm glad I can use the money from the mine to do this good," she told a Chinese speaking friend of mine who is here from Kansas. "I love to cook and I love how it makes people happy." Bless her!
The volunteers still come Wednesdays and Saturdays to change beds, mop floors and do the bleak work nobody else will do to keep the whole enormous place spic and span. The kitchen elf is gone though, at least for the moment. The monks told me she is doing a six week retreat at home.
The monks themselves are caught up in the traditional six week retreat known as Yarne, which means rains in Tibetan. For centuries during monsoon, Tibetan monks holed up inside their monasteries to do continual prayers. They took vows to not eat anything between noon and the next dawn. They gave up certain foods as well, particularly yogurt, which in the Ayurvedic scheme of things it's considered wet, heavy food and that's just plain wrong for heavy wet weather. So Yarne traditionally ended with a "yogurt festival" when the white ferment flowed for days. Yarne here is going to end Sunday, or so I hear, with a picnic.
Some of the monks in Rinpoche's inner circle and the cooks are not keeping Yarne which means they eating after noon. They enjoy sweets and fruits with tea at 3 and have a light dinner sixish. It's quite confusing to figure out who is and who isn't eating, and quite painful to watch monks who can't eat hang around watching the ones who can and are. Happily, not one of the noneaters has given in to temptation, even though they've made it clear they're quite hungry. "It's not fair," one of them joked with me, " that you start making your cakes right when we have to stop eating." So I've had to make two of everything, hiding the second for breakfast.
"It's funny," one of the younger monks said last night as I was taking a peach pie out of the oven, "when you can eat you feel hungry and when you know you can't you stop feeling the hunger." Then he desperately scavenged the fridge for any remaining fruit juice--liquid being allowed.
At least one Westerner forcefully complains how brutal this Yarne regimen is, pointing out what suffering it causes monks who really do get weak from hunger, or get migraines. She goes on about the hypocrisy of a Rinpoche who teaches liberation from suffering, compassion and the need for kindness, then half starves his monks. And worse locks them inside to makes them stay in the meditation hall for six weeks, the only six weeks Vancouver has basically sunny weather. "They should be outside! They should have the warm fresh air," she vented. "This is NOT our rainy season. What's wrong with these people?" That's her personal perspective, her way of seeing things. The Tibetans of course see it differently.
All the cultural collisions around here makes the monastery feel like the bumper car ring at a carnival. It's not just that some Westerners are appalled by the rigid adherence to strictly Tibetan tradition even though nobody is in Tibet anymore. It's not just that some local Caucasians are turned off by the overwhelming Chineseness of this place--no photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. That also offends Tibetans. It's not just that the Chinese spend dearly to tend the marigolds and boxwood out front but will not even look at, let alone lend a hand to, the troubled orchard out back that Westerners had to establish to meet the land mandate for their Chinese funded building. To Hong Kong Chinese, farming is disdainful peasant work. NO thank you. Yesterday I asked the newly arrived Tibetan monk who serves as the cook if there was going to be yogurt at last at the end of Yarne and he said, with some exasperation: "We've pretty much had to give up eating yogurt all the time. It just doesn't go with all the oily Chinese food they insist on cooking for us." Last night my Chinese speaking friend who was baking cakes for the monks with me overheard the Chinese in the dishwashing part of the kitchen talking rudely about the two of us as "those foreigners."
And yet everything runs perfectly on schedule, everybody gets fed, and everyone from here and those come from afar together look forward to the big end of Yarne celebration Sunday.
I have been living in an unplanned retreat for the last two months, which is to say, in a house without television or broadband, with a phone that doesn't do Twitter and no real page on Facebook. Many younger mortals would've died from this deprivation but I am still here, feeling all the better for not having all that junk food for thought cluttering my mind. It's been so easy to tune into what's actually happening within and around me.
I've read the headlines online and can see it's the same old, same old just getting older, growing darker. I've read Khenpo Gangshar's pith instructions urging me to get the key point: nangwa, Tibetan for perception. The key to the point is that what our five sense consciousnesses encounter--a table, the ocean, spaghetti--comes through loud, clear and purely what it is: a table, the ocean, spaghetti. How we receive the unadulterated news is the mess up known as nangwa, the way we personally perceive the table, the ocean, spaghetti: yuck, yum, ho hum. Gotta have it, go away, whatever.
That we do not all see the same thing the same way has become devastatingly obvious in the headlines. Some people see "share" as a noun, "my share", and see themselves as Republicans. Others see the word "share" as a verb, "to share", and see themselves as more Democratic. Some people are so blinded by their own feelings of powerlessness, they can't even see they are fiercely embracing the powerful people who left them powerless. And of course, traditionally in every culture, powerless men make themselves feel powerful as "men" again by beating up on women. So many men are all for destroying women's health care, work rights and bodies. What courageous warriors! These times would make wondrous Goya-esque illustrations for Samsara.
Idiocy and samsara are one spinning wheel in which we do the same thing over and over again and expect to get a brand new result. That's become a staunch Republican view: cut more taxes on the rich, more services for the rest of us, more regulations to protect us from predation and pollution--and just like that the horrific problems this already caused will vanish. I can see that's become an equally staunch Democratic view too: don't do anything and it will all just go away. People saw Obama and they saw change; now they see Obama and realize that change was about them: they didn't see straight the first time. Samsara and insanity are like this, same scenario over and over in new costumes: the Huns, the Mongols, the Islamic hordes set upon innocent towns, burned and pillaged them just the way the private equity firms set upon, take and pillage otherwise decent businesses, leaving the employees (residents) for dead. This country was founded exactly that way: when the first colonists the Plymouth Country shipped across the ocean died before sending back anything profitable, the investors abandoned the few survivors to the wolves so they could focus on a more promising project. And eventually we got to Plymouth Rock. I don't miss this business of being left out of what passes for valuable information. I watch the tide coming in, the boats going out, the great blue heron stalking the sea-weedy shallows, the circles that follow the slap sound of fish jumping and bask in a world much larger than myself, a world that isn't out to get me. I get how the man-made world runs today: "Just give us your money and you get hurt."
Corporations are people and their perception of the rest of us people, their nangwa, is that we are bank accounts. Nothing more. San Francisco medical specialists refuse suffering patients like me because Medicare doesn't pay them enough (and now we get proposals to pay them even less!). American Airlines will not let me use my free miles to fly from where I am to Paris, United Airlines will let me yo-yo all over the planet to achieve that simple thing. Viking Cooking Corporation steadfastly refuses to acknowledge it released a slew of ranges with dangerously defective electronics, so I have to pay all over again for a whole new cooking appliance. The IRS, unable to go after the million dollar cheats, has gone with vengeance after us little fry caught in its sudden change of rules. Not knowing the rules had changed after I filed cost me $210 in taxes and $1000 for the CPA to figure it all out.
I see today in the headlines that the ordinary Chinese loudly rue what's become of them since getting rich became glorious. When they see yuan, they don't see joy, but everything they've lost. They feel as hopeless as we do. Today's opinion pages carry a story about being perpetually trampled on as a nobody in America, how the powers are so in their own world, they don't even perceive us at all.
I see in headlines that we still so badly need drugs to make things look better to us, to upgrade our nangwa so to speak, South American drug kings are hugely profiting from getting those drugs to us under the ocean in a new submarine that all our expensive taxpayer funded equipment cannot detect. It's so much easier to attack people for using drugs than to change the reality that leads them to take them, isn't it? It's so much easier to do drugs or do TV or spend endless hours scanning Facebook than to face yourself and get real, isn't it? What reality is there in Reality TV?
My teacher says we have to keep on putting out rays of sunshine into this dark world, and that gets harder and harder. In the 9th Century Padmasambhava predicted we would live in very black times and who can argue with that? Everything learned about psychology has been used to manipulate our perception, or as Khenpo Gangshar might say: to create nangwa. Lies are running amok because so these deliberately phony nangwa have been loosed upon the planet.
I am trying to see straight. What I can do when I don't have the distraction of TV and broadband is cook. I can feed people. Having food makes people happy; it removes the fear of death. This is beneficial. A month ago I tuned into that truth, got on the stick and magically raised enough money to buy 2,000 kilos--that's 5,000 lbs--of the most nutritious dhal, superpacks of chickpeas, black-eyed peas and kidney beans--to strengthen the bodies of Buddhist monks, nuns and schoolchildren who devote themselves to ending suffering. Because enough people cared about helping them--and even thanked me for the opportunity to do something good in this venal world --my charity, my little charity Veggiyana, just amounted to a hill of beans!
Author of How To Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market, new edition published May 2011; and Veggiyana: the Dharma of Cooking, published September 2011 by Wisdom Publications. Founder and president of Veggiyana, a charitable effort to feed Buddhist monastics and schoolchildren in India, Nepal and Tibet. On Facebook as Prima Dharma Cook.
This is a blog of essays from the Buddhist perspective of Sandy Garson.
Visit my web site Yours In The Dharma, where I try to make sense of the bewilderment in daily life. I meditate aloud on how the teachings of my guru Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the golden rosary of his Tibetan Kagyu lineage and the Buddha himself come alive in the headlines and heartaches to rescue us all from suffering.