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.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The O! in Obit

I have a thing for obit headlines. You know: "a visionary ad man", "culprit in California fraud", "led postal strike." With compression that makes Haiku or Twitter encyclopedic, obit writers sum up a whole life. All the years, all the meals, all the worries and joy, all the credit card bills, subway rides and mortgage payments, everything condenses to 3 or 4 words. "President of Sampadoria football club", "horn player and activist", "an expert in team dynamics." This is sixty, eighty, ninety years chopped up and hashed out.   What devil in those boiled down details?

Our lives are fluid, rivers that flow and flow without cease through so much scenery and time, rising and spilling, calm and fiery and always going. Yet the obit stops them in a single freeze frame. That's how we get remembered.  "Writer's writer" ..."helped build real estate empire" ..."defiant IRA bomber." 

As I get perilously close to being obit content, I think plenty about summing it all up mainly because when I was young, like the teenage girl in the stage show, The Fantastiks, I fervently prayed: "Dear God, don't let me be normal." Now I find myself saying: "Dear God! I am not normal." So I read obits to find out how others handled their transitions. Was their life less of a slalom course? 

Sometimes I feel like the Cheshire Cat saying: "Whooooo are you?" "Led Kent State lawsuit"... "Rabbi seeking peace"..."linebacker"... I wonder if a guy like the insurance company lawyer trying so hard these days to deny payment to a newly arrived Nepalese immigrant college student hit and seriously injured by a distracted truck driver always dreamed when he was a kid that he'd grow up to be a real m-f jerk. What a headline he deserves: "greedy, lying bastard." Actually, I know someone who so didn't want to be that, he left a very lucrative post Harvard position to become a near penniless Dharma teacher. What an obit he'll merit: "died joyfully without a doubt."

Of course most people pass without getting a headline because there's not much to distinguish them. Survivors are listed after their name and time of the funeral. That's sad. All the animals who died for their dinners, all the water used for wash and drink and spaghetti, all the oil torn from the Earth to keep them warm while they watched television or made more people to take up more room and resources. I wonder if they ever wondered why they were here using up so many irreplaceable, precious things. I wonder if they held out a helping hand or just put their hand out to help themselves. What did they value most? What did they do all day long, watch or run the human race?

We don't have to do much. Sometimes it's just a woman who raises a child who becomes an adult who benefits many others. That's what she contributed and it was plenty. Think of Mama Sotomayor or Barack Obama's Kansas grandmother. Sometimes it's a musician or meditator whose insight calmed and guided others to higher ground.

The first thing Dharma teaches is that human life is precious, a profound gift. We could have been born ants or sardines or bacteria. Humans are such a minority of possible life forms--or used to be 2600 years ago at the time of the living Buddha, Dharma says the chance of being born one is about the same as the chance a sea turtle gets to pop up and put its head through a ring bobbing on the vast ocean surface. Based on the merit or good deeds of our past lives, we've had all the luck and won a lottery.

Still, being human is not an entitlement. It's like Social Security: something we've paid for and earned. Having a human body is supposed to indicate that before we got here, we did everything right, piling up amazingly positive karma that propelled us to this highest destiny. We should be proud of ourselves. And feel worthy. We are all champions. We've earned the right to be here.

Of course the second thing Dharma teaches is that we can't stop now to rest on our laurels. This life is not a paid vacation. It's not retirement. If we don't make use of it,  work at it, we'll end up in big trouble next time around.  

So this crack at getting it right again didn't come with guarantees or insurance packages for the future. Our lives are water bubbles that can burst at any moment.  As the chant says, we have to make them meaningful right away. Tomorrow may only be a day away but tomorrow may never come. Who says it has to?

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

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Self Protection

Perhaps it is, as the Tibetans say, auspicious coincidence, or as Jews say, bischert,(meant to be), that this very week America is withering under too much hot air about guns and control, the leaders of my Dharma class wanted to focus on a 1,000 year old piece of advice about saving yourself from harm. Its single sentence is one of 37 mind training slogans passed down through Tibet from the great Indian master Atisha, who got it from the master Serlingpa, supposedly on the island of Borneo. So it has been around.

"To see confusion as the four kayas is unsurpassable shunyata protection" appears in Atisha's section of spiritual fitness training instructions called "Transforming Adverse Conditions into the Path of Awakening." It's so dense and hard to grasp, it usually causes a lot of head scratching and despair. Often in urgency to grab something less slippery, people rush right over it, seeking simpler stuff, like the advice that comes just before: "Be grateful to everyone." We are no less lazy in the Dharma than we are in the gym.

As it happens, I was for years one of those who slurred right over it in the race for something to really get into. But I have been mulling over this shunyata protection proposition lately and have begun to see how handy it can be. It's rather like having your very own fixer--once you break the code.

We all know what confusion is, or so I think. We say we live in New York or Paris or San Francisco or Borneo for that matter, but the truth is we all really live in confusion. What is really going on here? Do you know it all? Sometimes just when you think you do, whack-a-mole! We live in permanent confusion, Dharma says, blinded by our anger, pride, jealousy, craving and willful ignorance.

Shunyata is Sanskrit for emptiness, and in simplest terms it means: no there there. For other terms, you can read lots of past blog posts to find out how and why things aren't what we think they are. Let's just say: "not what I think" is what to think as the new normal.
Kaya essentially means the space in which life happens, that space all around and in us. The Tibetans have three main kayas. Sometimes I think of them as the movie screen (the Dharmakaya where everything happens), the projector (the Sambhogakaya which provides the luminosity to see it) and the movie itself (the action on the screen).

What the Tibetan gurus are getting at is simply that when something happens, whatever happens, anything that happens puts the absolute truth of life right out there on display. It's now playing in or as the Dharmakaya, the big wrap around screen which gives it the space to show up. Simultaneously there is the seemingly real appearance of something actually going on on that screen that we can grasp: the Nirmanakaya, what we taste, touch, see, hear, and smell. Between these everyday events and the harder to sense truth about them is the third kaya: their indestructible bond of togetherness, the space and light in which the other two mix and mingle so we can perceive them. They are so joined at the hip we never get one without the other.

Mostly we get confused. Things keep moving, morphing, shape shifting, not waiting for us to catch up. The story just goes on and on and on and on.... . All these things coming at us in the Nirmanakaya, the everyday endlessly hitting us. What to do? The boss is a bastard, the kid is crying, the spouse is a souse...the alarm is blaring like a bugle and we don't want to wake... . Doesn't it sometimes feel life is gunning you down? And that it's learned to fire faster rounds of assault?

Well here's the bullet-proof vest: remembering emptiness, sensing there really is no there there. Because when something seems to be happening, it may not be. You may just be interpreting it that way, perhaps taking it personally. So cuddle emptiness, and ask: what person is taking it personally? The employee? The parent? The spouse? Who am I? Which one is waking to that damned alarm? 
  Who is the who there to who it can happen? Horton may hear a who but whose who? 
And does it matter? To answer that, take this stress test: Imagine a cup breaks on the far side of a restaurant dining room. You hear and see it but it means little to you, doesn't it? A cup has broken; no big deal. Okay. Now imagine the cup in your hand suddenly slips, drops and breaks. Eek!  Ouch! She--it! YOUR cup. Broken!  Mega super deal, isn't it? Yet tiz the same story: a cup has broken. What, you who yoo hoo, made it such a big deal? 

So here's the trick: when your mind's in a four-person pile-up or just blindsided by some hit and run idea, and you are so utterly paralyzed by confusion, you probably just keep telling yourself: "This isn't happening!" "This can't be happening to me." Well, hold that thought. You are absolutely right! It's just a show on the big screen, the same display of colorful light that comes when a reel of film winds through a projector and appears on a screen. Nobody is on that screen, really, are they?

Knowing this, knowing that you are watching something and not exactly inside it, opens up space, the aisle you can move down to relieve yourself of the poisonous thinking flowing through your mind. That poisonous thinking is the anger, jealousy, pride, craving and willful ignorance that blinds and thus enslaves us. Knowing you can put some distance between you and your kneejerk negative reactions provides breathing room, which induces clarity that lets you steer out of harm's way.

So this sentence about emptiness being the best protection is something of the magic bullet everybody's after, all the protection from assaults of pain and suffering anybody needs.

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

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Monday, January 07, 2013

The End of the World

Maybe not exactly on December 21, as the Mayans warned, but here in the new year on the eve of a birthday, the world I know has definitely ended. If I tell someone to "open windows", they have no idea I am trying to say: let in fresh air. Being gay doesn't necessarily mean being happy. And people talking about apple are not in the fruit business.

Mention "spin cycle" and I think: washing machine, not Washington machine. I am so yesterday, I thought "professional" means doing a job expertly no matter what. But I have been chastised for being "unprofessional" because I pointed out to a client where he was wrong (a polite way of not saying he was a jackass). So I was wrong because nobody is allowed to be wrong any more.  "Professional" means not telling a jerk he is one.  Maybe this is why we have so many nowadays.

In the world I knew, human beings talked to each other with their mouths. Now it's with their thumbs. Actually to be fair, before, human beings actually talked to each other. All the time was "face time." And btw, they used full words.

There were also people in that world who talked to themselves. I'd see them walk down the street babbling away and sidle over because I could hear my mother say when we passed the insane asylum: "Always remember, there are more crazy people on the outside looking in than there are on the inside looking out." Nowadays I get to remember that and sidle to the curb every day because sidewalks are mobbed with people walking alone babbling. I tense up and walk faster, afraid my mother was right: the world around me really is a looney bin. I cannot begin to tell you what an enormous it is to see on some of those babblers the ear piece of a cell phone. Lol.

In the latter days of the known world, people of means had freezers as a means of preserving meat and cakes in an ageless state for later use. But freon has gone the way of the dodo and dino. The new world preserves the ageless state by freezing human faces with botox, avoiding the reckoning of later.

Then there's communication. Once upon a time, I paid money to buy a TV, paid in loss of time to watch ads that paid for its programs and for contributing this, I got to watch stuff for free. In the unhappily ever after, I pay to buy a TV, lose time watching ads, and then must pay an additional monthly fortune just to see those damned ads or anything at all show up on the screen. How did this happen?

And when did tea party which was a refined gathering of the upper class where dainty bites were served with a strong, hot brew in delicate China come to an end? Because now the words "tea party" get you a gathering of bilious no class men hot to bite China, women, poor children, the elderly, the sick and anything highly thoughtful people deign to brew up.

Of course on the eve of this birthday, I mourn that lost world youth, a land of promise and pitfalls. Quite different from the new world where promises turn into pitfalls or pratfalls. But life happens and worlds change. Three of my friends are trapped in marriages to insufferable men they had found so attractive as boys. Maybe that's why they've sent me birthday cards extolling the virtues of girlfriends-- although we are technically women now.

Having long passed the world of full bloom, I have reached what I call Fall: my hair is falling out, my boobs are falling down, my income has fallen drastically, I fall asleep a lot and have a helluva time rising from the bed. I have fallen so far behind that when I got my new iPhone, I had to drive immediately to the Apple store--not a fruit stand-- and march up to the Genius Bar--not a club for Mensa and Nobel Prize winners-- to learn what is in every new world baby's DNA: how to flick my thumb and first finger against the screen to make stuff move. Funny, that used to be the rude gesture for flicking away mosquitoes, flies and human pests.

Crossing a world border, I got a new vantage point. I now wish I looked as good as I did in that old photo I always thought made me look like hell. Of course in the world back then, people used to assure that looks aren't everything.  But who would say that today? Let's ask a dermatologist: a doctor who used to help sick people with skin eruptions and grafts, but now only helps healthy people with liposuction, implants, nose jobs, tummy tucks, facelifts and eyelid remodeling. When I crossed the border I didn't know I should've waved goodbye to healing.

Actually this new world seems one big diss to the old creation of Mother Nature and Father Time. My dentist of yore used to just care about cleaning and filling my teeth. Although I'm grateful and a tad proud to still have all of them, the young dentist today can't stop pushing me to pay her to whiten and crown them into picture perfection.

Tomorrow will be the anniversary of the day I decided to appear in public. Actually it was night, dinner time, in the midst of a blizzard. So the family had to stop eating, bundle up and skid to the hospital to find out whether I was a boy or girl and in good condition. Surprise was a big thing back then before we made machines that play  peekaboo. But surprise has gone the way of the dodo and dino too.

Did you know that now babies come by order and take-out? I learned from a friend's daughter's experience that with enough money in your bank, you can get implanted with the eggs for a child of the sex and characteristics you can choose from a menu, and then you make a convenient appointment months hence for take out. What a new world: babies delivered just like Chinese food.

Given how much could go amiss by surprise and how much neurosis had been discovered by Freud and his friends, everybody in the old world felt grateful to be normal. Normal meant survivor. But just the other day I saw a huge ad headline: It's not enough to be normal; you have to be amazing! So the new normal is amazing. You read everyday about all the doping, hyping, photoshopping, outright lying, skullduggery,  jerks and manipulation this requires.

You know, Icarus wanted to be amazing, but I think upon getting close up to the light of reality, he got over it.

Maybe the Mayans were wrong about December 21, but the Buddha was a very accurate whether man. He predicted normal would keep changing. Impermanence, impermanence, he said, characterizes everything. He also said we all live in our own worlds, the ones we make up and think are really out there and therefore act in or on as though that's all there is. That's the wonder of wonders, he proclaimed, meaning of course that normal was amazing.

My unabridged and not remodeled body shows signs of age. My mind cannot assimilate the swirl of change and demand of instantly.  Admitting this makes me something of a dodo or dino, I know. In this world without surprise, I think of myself as a holdover, a museum exhibit, something that makes normal amazing because it reminds newbies how life used to be: people talked to each other face to face and solved problems over a cup of tea, and with the fat and frailty of age came the compensation of wisdom flavored with what the hell generosity. Experience was the contact lens that made people see worlds end whether they want it, freeze it, tuck/tweak it or not.

I am not sorry about what I have become. How could I be? Nobody is in this new world, are they?

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

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Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Why now?

 "What New Year?" a young friend said with surprising pique when I asked how he and his wife planned to celebrate.  "There's a New Year all the time: Chinese and Tibetan, our Nepali and your Western, Vietnamese, different ones in India... ."   

I guess that's why Buddhists insist on now.  Human timing is such a mess, New Year is all over the place: January 1, March 21, the first day of the 7th lunar month, the first new moon in Aquarius, you name it. India has a whole pile of New Year's from Gujarati in October to Bengali in mid April. 

I look at this calendar confusion, see how clueless we are and realize we are just making this stuff up. Frankly, nobody really knows where a year begins. Where do you pinpoint the start of a circle? It's been said that early Hebrew rabbis argued endlessly over whether the life cycle starts anew when a seed is planted or when it is harvested. Same difference in the way Westerners and Tibetans tally human age: we start at birth, but they start from conception so that a Tibetan exiting the birth canal is already one-year-old. So even our birthday calculations are iffy.

The rabbis eventually settled their debate by having it both ways.  Rosh Hashonah, which literally translates as "head of the year", comes at harvest time, because that moment started renewal of the land for new crops. But Rosh Hashonah turns out to be the first day of the seventh month. The first day of the first month coincides with spring planting. It's just doesn't get the same respect.

Perhaps those rabbis wanted to say the spiritual renews itself apart from the physical--and is maybe more worth celebrating. Perhaps they were just cannily trying to stand apart to stand out from the sameness of their neighbors who celebrated in spring. Or maybe they were just picking a time--after all the farm work was finally done-- they figured people would show up to pray. In spring, folks were too busy.

Defenders of this double whammy like to say we're guilty of the same double standard. They point to our culture whose calendar year begins in January although fiscal years often start in July. They talk about school years starting in September, the ninth month. Calendar perspective, they will tell you, hinges on what's to be counted and why.

It also hinges on what we use for an abacus. Do we count a year by the go-rounds of moons, or the Earth going around the sun?  Obviously the changing phases of the moon make it easier to track than Earth spinning around a constant sun.This seems as good a reason as any why so many years and New Year's are... well... lunar. 

Still, there is no clarity about where a moon year starts. The Chinese think it begins on the new moon between January 21 and February 20. That happens to be the exact sun sign period we call Aquarius. It also happens to be two new moons after the winter equinox, a solar happening. Apparently this particular time signals the beginning of  planting season. 

Some in India think the new year and planting season comes one moon later, on the new moon between March 15 and April 15. In Sri Lanka and Thailand, where New Year is called Songkram, it's our April 14-15 continuously. But in Gujarat, India and all of Nepal, New Year called Diwali comes in October, on the first new moon after the autumn equinox. It's about light decreasing which feels like the past has been extinguished.

Muslim residents of all these countries and plenty more have their own lunar New Year, a new moon day that migrates around other calendars because Muslims only count 354 days to a year.  Vietnamese Tet is always calculated in the short time between harvest and new planting. The Greek Orthodox fixed their New Year firmly on what we call January 1 only because that's the day they centuries ago calculated that their patron, Saint Basil, passed into heaven. In Ethiopia, it's September 11-12, onset of autumn weather.

Persian New Year, Nowruz, is solar powered, and falls always on the spring equinox, March 21. That's when light increases, planting starts and spring fever revs the blood. In theory anyway. Nowruz coincides with the start of the ancient Greek astrological sun sign year, that one whose months are Aries, Taurus, Pisces et al.

Other Middle Eastern New Years adhere to the ancient Babylonian tradition of saying the year begins on the first new moon after the spring equinox. This puts it in the sun sign that kicks off the astrological year, Aries the ram. And as it happens, Jews who don't celebrate their new year here but wait until the seventh lunar month blow a ram's horn at that later date.

What's even more dizzying is that our own, familiar New Year, January 1, is probably the most unhinged from any astrological or agricultural realty, which is to say from the real world. Maybe if it coincided with the winter solstice which signifies not only the darkest time of year but the moment light returns, it would make sense. But it doesn't coincide...with anything. It seems totally made up, as arbitrary as Thanksgiving, which used to be a valid harvest holiday in October. Those cranberries, that squash and the turkey make sense for that moment, but during the Depression Thanksgiving was moved by fiat to the fourth Thursday in November to launch Christmas shopping season. Ka-ching.

As best as I can tell-- because I wasn't there so it's all hearsay-- the Romans had ten months somehow divided into 304 days--I can't do that math for beans--and found themselves a bit shortchanged when Earth went around the sun. So Julius Caesar convened the best mathematical and astrological minds of his kingdom and they came up with a twelve month, 365 day scheme. They planned to keep their calendar hinged, as their old one had been, to the ancient Babylonian still in vogue elsewhere, where the year started on March 21. But apparently someone pointed out that the month of January had been named for Janus, the god of gates and doors and thus of new beginnings, so why not start there? First of January, New Year. And now we drop the ball, so to speak.

So a word to those who still feel shame on not having a date to celebrate or noisemakers to blow. This whole New Year's Eve thing really is a great way to understand the essence of emptiness. There is no there there when you examine it closely. Last night was a perfectly ordinary, just another night. We invested it with a big deal. But what somebody else thinks is New Year, just an ordinary night to us, will be coming soon.

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

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Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy Garson All rights Reserved