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, November 27, 2012

Happiness Expert

 A friend forwarded listings from an online service that connects media reporters with potential sources. One of the requests was for a Happiness Expert. "I am looking for 1 to 2 line quotes that make you happy," it said, "and WHY they make you happy. This should be fun!  If there are any happiness experts out there, I would love to connect!"

Oh my Buddha! Immediately I sent my favorite quote for cheering people up, the best of Trungpa Rinpoche: "The universe is raining down blessings and you fools have your umbrellas up!"  Just to gild the lotus, I devilishly added a second: "Sometimes not getting what you want is the happily ever after ending." 

"Of course they're looking for some neuroscientist or psychologist," my friend said. "Somebody with credentials that makes them an expert."

Of course. Credentials! Degrees! Titles! I know lots of people like that and most of them are a mess. I know up close and personal three MD psychiatrists and they are not only totally nuts; they are miserably unhappy people whose personal lives are not inspiring. But they are experts who get paid huge sums of cash for guidance and prescriptions.  My expertise comes not from reading books and writing papers, but from real experience. 

This is of course where our corporate culture and Buddhism really clash over who's the true turkey. Corporatists want credentials. The Buddha and all the gurus who've followed have been quite clear that credentials are just another form of vanity. Personal experience is the only authentic basis for the expertise. Someone whose read up but not been there and done that is like, well, like someone sitting home reading Fodor and Fielding and Frommer, then advertising as a topnotch travel guide.
So I didn't count as a happiness expert when I went to lunch two days later with a newer friend, a buxom blonde I admire for staring down adversity. With help from no one, she's built a well respected business and created a devoted family. So I was surprised when, after she forked up the last piece of Romaine in her grilled chicken Caesar, her tone got quiet and serious and she asked if she could ask me something. "Tell me why you got into Buddhism and how it helped you."

Like everybody else, she just wanted to be happier. Winter was heading in bringing the darkness and sometimes depressing thoughts about missing her late husband and not trying to move on. Like everybody else, she was being told by her therapist--who passes for an expert--to go back on Zoloft. That would solve the problem. Zoloft: swallow and smile.

"I don't want meds," she said. "Not any more. I want to be clear headed and understand what I'm doing. If they helped I wouldn't still have the same problem. I know that.  I think you know something...something about finding that inner place where you can just be at peace. How did you get there?"

I chomped on the last fry from my mussels/frites platter and recited my two favorite quotes. She brightened. I recommended two books. She wrote them down. I explained meditation in the simplest terms I know: Gom, the Tibetan word for it, means "to familiarize" because Buddhism is all about becoming familiar with your own mind. How does it work? How does it work on you? How do you work with it? There are no crib notes, cheat sheets or meds; just your own experience of discovery. When at last you get it figured out, you get it, how others mess themselves up because you've been there, done that. Effort becomes expertise.

We sat at that restaurant table for 2 hours and 45 minutes. She left with a big smile and my permission to call at any hour. Still no email from the reporter looking for a happiness expert. As i like to say: "The world is raining down blessings and you fools have your umbrellas up."


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

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Thursday, November 22, 2012


On today's holiday dedicated to the tradition of gluttony and the art of supersizing, let's give thanks for the Dharma which tells us to cut the craving and let go of that second helping. Your mind wants it more than your body, maybe because your mind doesn't gain weight and have to buy new clothes. I know we're supposed to be now in the moment, but frankly, now at this moment, not stuffing yourself can offer liberation from certain suffering.

Zen Buddhists even have a word for eating with restraint: oryoki, which translates as "just enough." Behind it is scientific theory, an ancient one, that says just enough is 2/3 full. In other words leave a little breathing room or spaciousness. So today offers a grand opportunity to practice Dharma by ramping up awareness of just how many helpings of mushroom stuffing or apple pie we are reaching for. Refraining from the all-American ritual of wretched excess followed by head bashing football on TV is a luxury akin to sitting stone still in the midst of city clamor. Inaction on third helpings can be meditation in action.

I'm saying this because this week non eating events kept pointing to this totally unAmerican idea of just enough. A suitcase, for instance, not super-sized because you packed just enough, can liberate you from suffering. I was, I have to say, quite proud of myself for being in Europe ten days with only a carry-on bag because somewhere along my line middle aged spread hit my packing. When in doubt, I took the whole closet. United Airlines tossed onto its baggage carousels a lot of suitcases with those dire orange tags that say HEAVY. but hey, I was ready for rain, snow, party, picnic, stains and just about any contingency a lawyer can think of. So it was a major miracle like modern science that I just went to Europe and carried on with only a carry-on in the season of heavy winter clothes, not airy summer frocks and shorts. Was this not the kind of progress that comes from Dharma practice?

I was, I admit, pat on the back proud of myself for squashing four pairs of trousers, four heavy sweaters, four tees and a blouse, plus two pairs of shoes along with lots of wool socks, clean underpants, camisoles and other necessities of female life into a dainty red wheelie. This, I also admit, turned into a two-day project, a frantic, experiment in scientific problem solving that absolutely had to work because my first trajectory was three planes and two trains. That, if I made it at all, was to be followed by more trains, subways, endless corridors and stairways, a three-block walk on Blvd St. Germain and a two flights up a narrow circular stair. Small was dutiful.

I thought letting go of a lot of clothes and the desire to have them handy was a high ranked enlightening achievement, but now that I'm back, I've had realizations. The main one is I took too much. If my wheelie had been, say, 2/3 full, my back wouldn't have suffered as much dragging it up and down all those public stairways.

But I was easily tempted by pet delusions. The main one is that I would never, make that never ever, wear the same thing everyday. I admire monks who don't have to decide before coffee what to put on but I am not ordained. I needed changes for weather, mood and occasion. Maybe Sunday I wouldn't feel like wearing black so I should pack something red. I needed to be able to make momentary choices. So I stuffed and stuffed my suitcase like people stuff and stuff their stomachs at the Thanksgiving table--out of some primal but inchoate fear. Yet in reality, I chose to wear the same pair of boots everyday and never once reached for either of the two pairs of shoes I thought I couldn't live without. Strike 1.

Surely white tees would dirty quickly so I needed four. Wrong: I got three days out of each and only needed two. Two tee shirts were never worn. Ditto one blouse: strike 2.

Every time I packed anew, I had to spend 15 minutes stuffing four sweaters into that little red carry-on and I don't want to think about the frustration of undoing all those zipper jams in their wool. And this only so I'd have variety and choice. But I never chose to reach for one of them because I was quite content with the other two. And wore the third only once because I'd brought it and was weary of pulling it out of those zipper jams.

i was so gobsmacked when austerity turned out to be excess--another practice in warped perception --that i am now cringing at my closet. It's another form of baggage. I need the guts to let go, to liberate myself from what's just hanging around there waiting to be chosen and just keep what I need. That's what I want for Christmas: that kind of clarity, those guts.

Getting down to the nitty gritty has become even more urgent now that I've moved momentarily into a friend's 6000 square foot house where there is not anywhere a clear counter, an empty drawer, a free closet. Everywhere the eyes are assaulted by stuff. what doesn't fit in all the drawers, cabinets and closets rests up against walls. And only two people live here among the 9 pairs of skis and four pairs of snowshoes, ten boxes of lightbulbs, 60 pots and pans, four televisions, 23 jackets, seven piles of magazines, 8 sets of dishes for 12, etc etc and so forth.

The house I am going to for turkey dinner is similarly stuffed. There is not even a space on a tabletop to put down your glass. The two-car garage is so full the cars are always parked outside. My friend's mind is similarly stuffed with concepts, all the should be's she gets from the culture and is perpetually struggling to turn into reality. I watch her suffer the frustration and physical burden of heavy lifting these carry-on preconceived prejudices and ideas.

I guess this is what "having it all" comes down to.

I want to tag these houses more than 2/3 full: HEAVY. Maybe others would give them medals of honor for supersizing and keeping the economy from sinking into Depression.In all its weirdness, this country actually depends on people overdoing it and having all these superfluous things. Emptiness, spaciousness is anathema: space has to be filled. It is no accident or mere coincidence that the great gluttony of thanksgiving Day opens the greatest shopping season of the year with its grand crescendo on Christmas Day. Then the year starts anew.  As a visual artist just put it in the New York Times: want it, buy it, forget it.

I want to tag these minds stuffed to the gills with manufactured must-dos and concepts--my friend gets most of hers from Dr. Laura and Limbaugh--HEAVY. What dead weight they lug up and down the steps of life.

So this is how Dharma kicks in, how perception purifies and wisdom dawns. Don't want it, don't buy it, forget about it. Don't buy in and think it either until you test drive it and see if it gets you where you need to go. Dharma did help me to empty and free up my mind; now onto my closet. How precious and revolutionary is the hard won understanding --at the table, in our baggage, in our houses and above all in our minds--of just enough.

Friday, November 16, 2012

More on Buddhist Paris

Who knew that Claude Monet meant his Waterlilies series to be a Dharma experience? But that's what L'Orangerie's handout guide essentially says.

Monet created these masterworks specifically to give Parisians frazzled by the First World War a chance to regain calm. And perspective. He was "inviting them to contemplate the infinite," the handout guide says.

The entry is through a blank white corridor designed by Monet to be a "decompression space" between agitation and peace. It ends in a large gallery with four enormous canvases full of waterlilies and their stagnant pond. "...this room," Monet wrote in 1909 when he was searching for a way to express the ineffable, "would offer asylum for peaceful meditation...."

And the eight canvases spread out over two enormous galleries--what the guide calls "the culmination of an entire life"are all about meditation. "Monet represents neither the horizon, nor the top or bottom. The elements--water,sky,earth--become intertwined in a composition without perspective... . The painter thus gives 'the illusion of an endless whole... .'"

I take it that the huge stagnant pond can be Samsara. And of course the waterlily is the Western lotus rising out of it. Clarity, cloudiness, darkness are all there in natural phases.

The Waterlilies Gallery at L'Orangerie was a magical place to meditate.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The sidewalks of samara

Really, if we have to be stuck in Samsara, Paris is the best place to be on the sidewalks. Paris has bookstores, brasseries and cafes, museums and an awesome Metro that carries 5 million people a day away from where they are to wherever they are going. It's a city of light, and small shops and big comforts to soothe the human condition.

I think of it as a lotus because half the time, I am underground. It's not just the awesome Metro, but fancy shopping arcades down there. And just about every bathroom in every brasserie is down under. There's even a tour of the sewer system, they are so proud of it. The French aren't fat despite the rich food they eat because they spend half the day going up and down steps, from the dungeon like depths below the living city to the light of day and monuments, only to fall back again into some cellar or other. We go into the underworld, then rise up without a stain, just like a lotus.

Paris is so old and so well preserved, it's possible upon coming up for air to sense just how far we've come as human beings, and perhaps just how far gone we are. The city is a melting pot, a rainbow. And seeing all the Arabs and Africans reminds me about consequences, that inescapable law of cause and effect: the French went there, the colonized came here. Sadly, there are beggars, but they offer a chance to chant Om mani padme hum and remember the constant reality of suffering.

History cannot be avoided either. Whether you walk down under by the thick ramparts of Medieval Paris or surface at the Arc de Triomphe or the Bastille or stare at the Revelations of the Rose Window in the Saint-Chappelle or simply stroll by a row of 17th Century houses as you window shop, the past demands to be noticed and digested. It's easily possible to look at Impressionist paintings--think: Van Gogh at Arles, Renoir in the bath, Seurat sur la grande jatte, all experimenting with the science of seeing after the camera was invented-- and 2nd C Afghan Buddhas in the same hour.

It's impossible to arrogantly uphold the narcissistic braggadocio of today's claim that our world is brand new, the best and brightest be all and end all. The past is so very present everywhere that at the Musee Guimet, an oasis of utter serenity that calls itself a Buddhist oasis,  several ancient statues of meditators stopped my mind point blank. "We've been here before, been here done that."

Paris is softer and far less ferocious than New York, infinitely more polite than Hong Kong or anywhere the Chinese push and shove, definitely more forgiving than Berlin or any German place, and less self-conscious and self-congratulatory than shallow San Francisco.

A big bowl cup of cafe au lait with a croissant to start the day challenges your sense of suffering. Just being in a place so attuned and so accustomed to meeting without judgment all our petty human needs soothes the soul.

Paris is the place that reminds us life goes on, and as the French say, the more it changes, the more it stays the same. I think the Buddha had a similar idea in mind when he taught us about Samsara. So here's to the City of Light.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

November 6

What timing! In the disunited states of America today is election day, the time to anoint our leaders. As it happens, on the Buddhist calendar November 6 is the day the Buddha descended from the god realm of Tusita Heaven. So let's get one with everything: Here's hoping by tomorrow we can all mark November 6 as the day Prince Willard known as Mitts also descended, perhaps by car elevator, from his own god realm, Tough Shit Heaven, albeit not voluntarily. Emptiness does have its limits.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Holy Shit

I think of this November moment when frost has definitely done in the perennial plants and shrubs as manure time. Not to be confused with early November Election year bullshit time. I'm not talking about what's been dropped all over us. I'm saying I've been known at this particular point after Halloween to show up at some innocent person's horse barn like a wayward trick or treater, asking if I might snag a few bags of the poop on the floor. I get away with this because people with horses are especially thrilled to get rid of that shit. It just keeps coming, like the kind we're all shoveling ourselves out of all the time nowadays. Nobody in their right mind wants to take that crap but horse manure is known in gardening lingo as "dressing." It's very useful. So I want it.

Let me tell you, it marinates the soil like hotcakes. Raw manure--from a horse, cow or chicken--is hot stuff. When its fresh, all its chemicals components are cooking so fiercely, the garbage bags I scoop it into really do feel warm. On the ground below rose bushes and other perennials, that heat works like a down comforter to keep these fragile plants from freezing and getting their roots snapped off. Spreading it around is like sending the plants to Florida for the winter.

Eventually of course the conversion of powerful chemicals like nitrogen and potassium cools down. It couldn't happen at a better time. Snow melt and spring rain push those powerful nutrients down into the soil just as the plants are waking up and hungry for breakfast. Do they ever eat it up.  You want to talk about an obesity epidemic...those shit infested plants double or even triple in size, fulsomeness I like to interpret as a thank you for giving them Florida without the hassles and bling.  

Seeing the miracles this shit can make, I totally get the guru spiel about not getting the full bloom of enlightenment, aka liberation from suffering, without applying fertilizer. And what is the fertilizer the gurus unanimously recommend to grow enlightenment?  Our own personal shit. If we don't have any neurosis, craziness, regret and confusion, we've got nothing to work with, nothing to realize or purify and so end up in the breakdown lane on the path.  Here's the exception that proves the rule of emptiness: tiz better for a meditator to have dirt on hand than to be empty-handed. This time of year reminds me how sacred shit can be. The Dharma, just like the garden, is a place where if you got it, you can flaunt it.

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

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Mantras for the Moment

What should we be caroling and chanting on this sacred election eve?

All the politicos involved in this election event, all the candidates and all their enablers, the media, should intone the words of WC Fields:
"Nobody will ever go broke underestimating the taste of the American people."

The 1% could put down their champagne flutes and chant from Jamgon Kongtrul:
"All suffering arises from wanting my own happiness.
On top of not benefiting others, I harm them.
Bless me that I am able to put myself in others' place."

Progressives should stand outside the White House and chant from Bessie Smith:
 "You been a good wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down."

The Tea Party, which is out of its cups, should chant:
"When there is doubt, I spit it out and do it my way."

Senate Democrats can chant the words of that great Yogi, Berra:
"When we come to a fork in the road, we take it. Hallelujah!" 

Republicans led by Romney/ Ryan, notice the grrrrr or is it the errr...sound in that?, can sing from the Beatles:
"all through the day, I me mine, I me mine I me mine." 

Mothers of small children can chant:
"All I am saying is give peas a chance."

Seekers on the spiritual path can stand up to all the mean spirited evangelicals by sitting down to chant these words of my teacher, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche: 
"This is what blessings are. They are the absence of greed, aversion and delusion."

All of us who are just trying to get through the frustrations of everyday with our sanity intact can sing the greatest message of this dreadful year, brought to us by Ann Romney:
"This is hard."

Om mani peme hung. And then some.

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

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