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.
Like Santa, I have a little list. Every night I write down what I need to do the following day: get AA batteries, download document, renew membership, hem pants, email Nanda, call ... . Jotting these reminders makes me feel I am getting a grip on the chaos that is my life. It's a plan. But just about every night, I find the list from the night before and discover I didn't do many or any of the to-dos on it. Don't look for me on any list of enviable habits of the rich and famous.
Maybe since it's that jolly time of year that makes us crabby, yesterday I beat up on myself. Yes, for not being rich and famous, but more for seeing the same stuff listed day after day for more than a week. Get batteries, download document, renew membership... . No progress at all. Not even on pedicure. As the only life coach I can afford, I made me promise right then to stop being so stuck. I would drop everything right awayand pass GO because those must-dos must be done.
The phone rang, a call from Germany. Then because the machine is shared, I moved the laundry from washer to dryer. The phone rang, a call from Kansas. I needed to eat something. I washed the dish. It went like that for over two hours. I was making my bed with clean sheets when I suddenly stopped and exploded: NOW, JUST GET OUT AND DO THAT LIST.
I pulled on my left boot. Jingle bells, someone was at the door. Right boot in hand, I limped to the front and there, wonder of wonders, was my Tibetan goddaughter who lives in New York. "Surprise!" she shrieked and reached out to hug me. "I've been trying since yesterday to see you and I have only one hour before I have to fly back. I had to take a chance."
I yanked off my left boot, made coffee and pulled her holidays gifts out of the box I had been so frustrated trying to fit them in. Now, Hallelujah! Off my to-do list. I didn't have to deal with styrofoam peanuts and bubble-wrap. "You really do have all the luck," a friend said last month.
What I must do right away that has never been on my list is admit my friend is correct. It just took forever to not be stuck on start and recognize this. Frankly, I've been held up, or held back, because one of the things not on my to-do list that I happen to do a lot is self-pity. With so much practice from so much not getting to do what I really want to do--get into Harvard, get paid for my food writing, be part of a non lethal family, get enlightened so I don't care about successes like that-- I've developed a real knack for wallowing. Strewn as it has been with the loss of lives, money and opportunity, my life has felt like the closet pole I wrote about that fell down and refused to be put back into place.
But something's changed.
I spent the month of July in an unfamiliar place for which I had no visa, and no clue how or why I'd arrived somewhere not on my to-do list. I behaved just like those vacationers who, when an earthquake or hurricane hits, trample over each other to get on the last plane out. I wanted to get far away from being that sick. Medication wasn't working, tests weren't revealing anything, As August appeared and it seemed I really was stranded, I fought my way over the phone into the attention of a medical sleuth, a highly respected infectious disease/travel medicine specialist who took more than a week deciding to take my case. When he deigned to put me on his to-do list, then found me "interesting and so intelligent" and discovered I had no primary doctor, he invited me to stay on the list. Two weeks later, the enormous organization he is part of closed to new patients. Who knew that being so sick would pay off big time? Just in the nick, I landed a topnotch doctor for the future.
When that doctor told me I could take a small trip, I beat it out to Vancouver to see my teacher before he left for Asia--since I wouldn't be going there any time soon. The rental car I got, a huge nine-seat soccer mom van, was far from the economy vehicle I'd signed up for, but I had no choice. It was the only car left on the lot. I was furious as I drove away. Well, who knew? That nine-seat soccer mom van was a magical blessing the day the monastery needed me to transport seven monks to a day off in Victoria. The monks would not have had their holiday without it.
Still, it was not the car on my to-get list. When I returned, I politely and honestly reported to the clerk that the car I didn't ask for had been very expensive to fuel, difficult to park, and scary to drive at highway speed. "I'm sorry we made you unhappy," he said and scrambled around the computer. After a minute or two, he looked up. "How about we take half off your bill?"
The clearest teaching that not getting what I want is the real happily ever after came next, in October. Since I couldn't go to Asia and since I hadn't been to Europe in 22 years, I decided, what the hell, I'll take up the longstanding invitation of a friend to use her apartment and enjoy a reunion. I haven't had a real do nothing but enjoy yourself vacation for at least ten years. But as soon as I threw my free miles at a ticket, she reneged. What the ...?!?!? Since a nearly free trip was the only trip I could afford, I sputtered with rage. I told myself to cancel the ticket, even if there was a penalty. It was the only financially sensible thing for a not rich and famous, but cash-challenged woman to do.
Something prevented me from getting around to that phone call on my to-do list: a trip to Boston to do a cooking demo and book talk. Since this required an overnight, I stayed with a friend, one who just happened to remind me her sister had a huge flat in Paris I was probably welcome to use. And I was. Had it to myself. Unlike the first apartment, a studio in the sterile 16th, this flat was fabulously located right in the atmospheric heart of the city on the border of the 5th and 6th, two blocks from the church of St. Germain des Pré. And to boot, it came with a free VIP pass to all the city's museums.
Coming home from Paris via Frankfurt was not on my to-do list. But the airline that gives you your earned free ticket gives you the run around with it. For free they throw in all the joys of tight connections, triple security checks, and missed flights, because they never let you fly direct. At dawn, I was to fly backward from Paris to Frankfurt, then after a long wait, onward over Paris to the US. What a pain but it was better than the option of Zurich or London.
When my dear Dharma sister in Frankfurt heard I wasn't visiting the bait-and-switch Parisian, and heard I had a ticket back to the US from Frankfurt, she suggested I cancel the first flight leg, take the high-speed train from Paris and spend a day or two with her. Who knew Frankfurt would be the perfect flight pattern? I got the bonus of experiencing the glory of high-speed trains, which America doesn't have, and I spent a cozy weekend with my friend and her family, seeing the city of Frankfurt. This not only added a fillip of delight to a perfectly splendid four days in Paris. It made my flight home direct. I did not have to end my vacation at a costly Paris airport hotel with shuttle, just to catch the 7:00 AM flight to Frankfurt and wait four hours there for the flight to the US.
Now because I didn't do what was on my to-do list, I got to see my Tibetan goddaughter. I think it really is true what the gurus say: the universe is trying to get me out of my own way so life is good. Pure and perfect, as the Buddha said. I just have to remember the next time something on a to-do list isn't done, when some hope turns into fear it won't be fulfilled, it's better not to curse and fume and pity myself--at least not right away. It will be more useful instead to try to open space for the story to go on and play out. What i need to do, on the list or not, is remember how this autumn the stories magically played out with monumental improvement to the narrative. To do: keep the faith and be not furious when things seem to go wrong, but rather, curious about how not getting to do what I tell myself I need to do will turn out to be the happily ever after.
All the suffering I didn't want---all those people who died, the whole poisonous viper family I was born to and the seemingly endless foiled opportunities-- led me to the Dharma. And Dharma led me to open the powerful eye of wisdom that sees the magic trick that's been my life. Joy shows up disguised like Halloween kids playing trick or treat. Who knew all that sorrow was on the to do list for getting all the luck.
At this, the darkest time of year, it's good to share bright stories, especially if they offer us a taste of magnificence. So I'd like to mention the recent 80th birthday celebration of my teacher, the very Venerable Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche. Fifty-three years ago, Rinpoche ran for his life with nothing but the maroon robes on his back. Like an unstoppable tsunami, the psychopathic Chinese were rampaging through his native Kham, a huge province of Tibet, viciously annihilating everything in their path. Rinpoche made a daring escape on horseback with a cohort of about 100 and as he has told us, they soon ran into an ambush of Chinese gunfire. As his white horse reared in panic, Rinpoche saw White Tara in front of him and actually saw her deflect the bullet aimed at his chest when in actuality there was no tangible object to do that. While most of his party was mowed down, he galloped on and made it to freedom.
Rinpoche arrived in India with absolutely nothing, in our material sense, but his life. No money, no food, no phone to call home. Fifty years later, 2,000 people braved what's become the squalor of Nepal from every continent on Earth to wish him a happy birthday with the most baroque splendor any movie set designer could conjure. There was feasting and dancing and an eye-popping array of shiny brocades. The brass and gilded statues were polished to gleam. And there was of course a long long snaking parade of glorious offerings, after which the monastery shared the generosity by giving huge sacks of rice to every villager in the valley below. All this something for someone who had nothing was quite the thank you.
Judging from the faces in the photos, the highlight of the week's festivities was the re-union at long last of the main gurus from the monastery in Kham Rinpoche fled. The even more aged and frail Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, who'd also escaped, made the arduous journey to the outskirts of Kathmandu from Woodstock, NY. To everyone's amazement, the tireless Lodro Nyima Rinpoche actually got out of Tibet and into Nepal. And to even greater amazement, the young Zuri Rinpoche, who'd so hotheadedly departed company years ago, came from the far east of Bhutan to renew his respects. Here were three miracles, or as I like to think, three huge handouts of appreciation by the universe.
Rinpoche's smile was widest, his eyes brightest in the posed photos with his brother lamas. For him being re-united was the real cause for celebration. And that joy brought everything back to the beginning. It was the reminder, or the teaching if you prefer, that Rinpoche didn't pass GO with nothing. He had the Dharma.
For over 50 years, Rinpoche has nonstop tirelessly and generously shared his Dharma with just about anybody who needed or asked for it. He never expected anything in return. "Give up all hope of fruition" and "don't expect applause" are part of the training. But what he got, what was voluntarily given back as thank you, was a global empire. Today there are substantial Dharma centers filled with his monks and students in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Germany, Toronto, England and the United States. Sponsors have constructed enormous monasteries in Sarnath, India; Vancouver, Canada; and Namo Buddha, Nepal. They are now fundraising for one in Kuala Lumpur. They have erected smaller monasteries in Crestone, Colorado; Boudhanath and Lumbini, Nepal; Hinan (Nubri), Nepal; Tashigong and also western Bhutan.
There is a nunnery and separate retreat center for 260 women, and a boarding school overcrowded by 400 kids who get prepared for higher education. Dozens of them are now with scholarships in colleges abroad and dozens are going back to their primitive villages high in the Himalayas to teach hygiene and literacy to finally improve the miserable quality of life up there.
A special three-year retreat center now stands in Bhaktapur, Nepal where as part of the celebration, Rinpoche just consecrated the new seven-story Milarepa tower. That tribute to the great Tibetan Buddhist saint--as well as that extension of retreat facilities-- was an aspiration that grateful students fulfilled.
There's a dharma publishing house run by and for the overseas Chinese. Three of the monasteries and one nunnery contain medical clinics that provide free health services to the surrounding communities. Three guesthouses were built so seekers would find clean, inexpensive lodging. Fundraising is almost complete for the restoration of the original monastery in Tibet which was totally devastated by the earthquake two years ago. There is a small nunnery nearby. Canadians set up an official charity to support some of this (Vajra Vidya Foundation) as did the English and the Americans. Himalayan Children's Fund is consistently ranked tops for honesty, transparency and donating every last cent to its cause. For over 50 years, Rinpoche has depended totally on the kindness of strangers, and this is how his kindness to them paid off. Honesty, simplicity and relentless generosity turned empty pockets into splendor. Amid all the glory that now surrounds him, Rinpoche himself remains penniless. All contributions go to charitable foundations. So he never sold his soul for riches. Giving it away made his dream come true: he's been able to spread the Dharma across the Earth to benefit the strangeness in us all. Sounds like the genuine, heartwarming spirit of this cold holiday time to me.
Just when I think we've reached the pinnacle of insanity--people devoting their lives to schemes that make us miserable so we'll shop--we go over the top. Today on a bulletin board in the supermarket, I discovered there is A Happiness Institute. It's on Market Street in San Francisco. It has a website that says "we take happiness seriously" and a blog. It has weekly email tips on happiness strategies and a buzzy nickname: HI. This week it's having a Non-Verbal Communication Worship with Dr Manifesto. Next week it's having a Media Mixer that will offer speed meeting and a cash bar. Happy now?
Who knew the New York Times aspired to be Buddhist, and would have its reporters write about the things I do. But it's hard to miss the way it's stuffing the season with all sorts of advice on DIY stress management. And it just topped them off with a gobsmacking Sunday Op-Ed piece on the power of not shopping. The headline of that essay,Suffer, Spend, Repeat, could've been a byte-size review of my recent posts, Just Enough and Holiday Gifts.
What the author did far better than I was reveal how far gone we are into the Age of Nefarious. So I want to thank Oliver Burkeman, a reporter at the venerable (read that: British) Guardian, for illuminating with thankgha-like precisionthe modern interdependent links of suffering. He is a guide to how step by step Samsara is now assembled.
He begins: "...
may strike you that retailers have gone out of their way to make holiday
shopping as unpleasant an experience as possible. The odd truth is that they
probably have. And there’s a reason for that: evidence suggests that the less
comfortable you are during the seasonal shopping spree, the more money you’ll
What a fool I am. Christmas comes at the dark time of the year, so it is theoretically supposed to be celebrated as the time we become bodies of light. A time of compassion, empathy and caring for others, a time of generosity. All is calm, all is bright. We Buddhists can live with that because after all, calm and bright means perfect meditation experience.
But in reality Christmas is now the dark time corporations spend fortunes to make us so miserable we'll spend fortunes. That's all it's about. Burkeman tells a horror story not even Dickens could've conjured: modern psychological insights are no longer about helping people liberate their suffering. They are wholly dedicated to helping corporations profit from that suffering. Coy to the world! "
stores crank up music, repeat the same songs, pipe in
smells, race shoppers around to far-flung points of purchase and clog their
heads with confusing offers. All of which makes it more likely we’ll part more
readily with more money"
Who knew there are actually human beings willing to dedicate their life to the marketing power of scent? Or that a college professor actually studies what music tempo makes people most likely to buy something? Who wants to know researchers at supposedly illustrious universities like Yale, Stanford and Duke use their hard-won expertise to calibrate "shopping momentum"?
My ignorance was bliss. I didn't know until Burkeman alerted me that I lived in a world dedicated not to abating suffering but rather adding to it through a tactic known as "disrupt-then-reframe.
The idea," Burkeman explains, "is to confuse a potential customer, so as to evoke uncertainty, then
rush in and offer a reassuring path through the resulting confusion. We hunger
for what psychologists call “cognitive closure,” and if spending is the
solution, so be it.... The relentless sensory overload — from the cinnamon
smells to the Salvation Army bells — fuels agitation and an impulse to escape.
How convenient, then, that there appears to be one obvious route through the
chaos: buy that Nintendo Wii or that iPad or that designer perfume — whatever
you’ve been wavering over — and be done with it."
Then comes the clinker! The author asks why we think that buying something will make this artificial anxiety go away. He asks why we don't rail against this nefarious manipulation; He points out that we don't need to make ourselves suffer like this.
"An alternative," he says, "might be to cultivate what
Buddhists call 'nonattachment' — and if the earliest Buddhists tended to
practice this in beautiful natural settings, perhaps that’s only because they
lacked shopping malls. Stand on a busy downtown street at dusk on a
pre-Christmas Saturday with this in mind, and decline to be swayed by the
exhortations to spend, and it suddenly becomes a purely exhilarating spectacle,
as breathtaking, in its own way, as any waterfall or mountain panorama."
I think the New York Times istryingto report how we all got to be neediest cases.
Christmas hasn't exactly happened yet, but friends have already thrust gifts upon me.
"I just knew this was for you the minute I saw it," my friend Nancy said at the end of lunch, handing over a large shopping bag with red tissue poking out. "You really shouldn't have," I said. "Go ahead," she said. "open it." There was a joyous beam in her eyes as I pulled from that red tissue an antique wooden cutting board shaped like a pig.
Ho ho ho: my longtime nickname to her now adult grandson has always been Piggé, a doesn't infringe the copyright version of Miss Piggy. Too bad I'd just said, "You really shouldn't have," because I already had two pig cutting boards exactly like it. In fact, she'd helped me buy the first. "Well," she said when I mentioned that last fact, "now you can stack them. That's sometimes very nice, to show your stuff in stacks." Just what I always wanted: a third pig shaped cutting board to create a stack to show off. My friend Joan's gift was easier to... how shall I put it?... recycle. "Just a little something," she said, "that felt appropriate for you." Out of a much smaller bag of tissue paper I pulled three sets of antique postcards from San Francisco-- flea market finds. "Oh thank you," I said. Just what I always wanted: antique postcards of Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Joy to the world. We're in the thick of that time of year we officially get to think about others. Generosity is in. Generosity is a Buddhist practice, the art of caring about others. It is a virtue to be polished. So here's a warm welcome for generosity. But let us also remember that true generosity is caring enough to figure out what to give that people actually need to get to ease their suffering. A third pig cutting board? Anybody for last year's bottle of fig vinegar?
Right now, billions and billions of dollars are morphing into tons and tons of stuff: gourmet Whoopie pies from Maine, Hermes scarves from Paris, mini iPads from Apple. Millions looking for the meaning of life or the way to just get through the day are merely going to get a wine decanter or a singing jewelry box to add to their frustrations. This is for me?!? What were they thinking? Oh Joy, more stuff to regift. Helluva word that regift.
Welcome to Samsara in all its glory. How insanely this glittery season of thanks and giving bends generosity out of shape. Whipped to frenzy by our priests-- the seers and fortune sellers of the media, economy and politics-- who painstakingly read
the tea leaves, oops I mean the cash register receipts, to determine
the future health of the country, able-bodied citizens fight to shop so the country doesn't
Who didn't see all those proud TV shots of people pushing and shoving
their way into the stores during the pre-sunrise hours of Black Friday? I can't wait to find out what national omens antique
postcards and cutting boards turn out to be.
We're now totally brainwashed to believe a flat screen TV or the latest perfume is all it takes to make us better. Over and over we vote against our own self-interest by relentlessly shopping. You know the definition of insanity: doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result.
So here's the real ho ho ho of these holidays. if you believe the new books and talk show programs and slick magazine covers, the latest, hottest must have, that which is most sought after by most people to make them feel better, isn't something to charge, wrap up and hand out. Nope, not a new pair of Uggs. Nope, not a lifetime supply of pears from Harry and David. Nope, not a book from some phony life coach on how to bend the world to your will. But yes, it is a gift. A bit of an antique to boot. Despite the mountains of stuff people now have--and these are Himalayan high mountains, what they don't have and really want is Happiness.
Maybe they can find that in their private plane or personal fitness or Sri Lanka which gave us the word "serendipity." Maybe if they do, they can even charge it on their uranium card and stash the receipt in their $800,000 commode. People used to shopping for and getting what they want seem to think happiness is that easy to acquire. Think: life coach. Think: Hedge fund. Think: Zoloft pill.
I'm over it, the having, and think: being. Think: Dharma. The Buddha has become my life coach and hedge. I am not ashamed to tell anyone who asks that Buddhism was truly a gift, the best one I ever got because it made my life livable. For starters, it illuminated my own experience, showing me how years of charging through the glittering aisles of Saks Fifth Avenue or owning high-end condos or raising puppies did nothing to ease my considerable suffering. It taught me the uselessness of things.
So, I may not be thankful for the gifts my friends sometimes hand
me and am all out honest when I say: "You really shouldn't have." But I am writing to say I am deeply
and steadfastly grateful to have friends who reach out to me as one of the others they want to care for. That sublime human connection is the perfect and priceless gift of happiness any time of year. ~Sandy Garson
"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"
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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.