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.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

How do you know for sure?

I was getting ready to talk about the big bad uh-oh when out of the blue my young Spanish friend not named Serena called. How did she know I was thinking about her, thinking to call her shortly.  "Let's meet," I said. "Where are you?" 

 "Los Angeles," she said. And then I knew this call was going to be long and juicy. It was going to be about the good uh-oh. Serena is a slow cooker who mulls and frets, considers and reconsiders, stews, stirs and constantly changes her mind in a quest for perfection. And she'd been hit by the rapid fire of love.

"I've always thought I'd be with someone very intellectual," she said, "someone committed to the mind and meditation."

"Yes, that would be great. I'm for intellectual myself. always thought, didn't you, that you couldn't make proper paella without every ingredient being the traditional Spanish one you're used to. Remember when you came to my house and made yourself crazy because the clams weren't the ones you had back home, the chorizo was so different and Maine lobster wasn't your Spanish crayfish. You were a mess but you rose up and got over it to work with what you had and everybody lapped that paella up as the most fabulous they'd ever eaten. Do you remember that?"

Serena giggled.

"Anyway, you've done enough meditation to know what you think isn't worth the paper it's not printed on. Thoughts come and go continually, changing and reconfiguring so rapidly they don't stay long enough to matter. Life is not about what we think because what we think only distorts it."

Silence on the other end.

"So," I said, "intellectual is just something you thought up, something that has no relation to what's happening. Besides it's just a detail. Details you can improvise with, like lobster instead of crayfish. Life is improvisation, Serena, where we adjust the details. At least they're not fixed facts you can't do much about, like no clams or chorizo."

"Yes, I hear you but..."

"But from what you told me last week, the fixed facts are pretty  perfect: he comes from your country, speaks your dialect, grew up in the same family business you did, works in the field you want and is offering you a business partnership in it to boot. Plus, you said he's taller than you. (Serena is over 5'10", the long legged beanpole all women's pants are now so frustratingly designed for so that I, who am only 5' 4", can't find clothes that fit.) Maybe he'll get intellectual later. That can change." 

"Yes," she stammered, "okay but...but this is so fast. He wants me to stay here with him and go into his new business. It's so fast..."

"Not really," I said

"What do you mean?"

"Serena, you've been waiting for this at least the five years I've known you." She giggled. "Look at it carefully. You desperately wanted to quit your job but you couldn't until your immigration papers were reclassified. After costly lurches, you finally made that happen a year ago. The Green Card freed you to quit your job, but you held on, didn't you?, because you couldn't decide what to do.  Remember how many times we ran around looking for places for you to start a business and every time you changed your mind because it didn't feel right. It now seems to me, something was keeping you free for something else you didn't know about. That's why you couldn't decide.

"But finally you did decide to quit that dark cubicle. You took off to the Far East and came back home to work with your family at Christmas. Then you came back here: a clean slate. You told me what you had in mind was to cook and live at a meditation center. But from what you've been telling me, that isn't working out. You've got no offers. so it seems to me the blessing deities are keeping you from committing to the wrong thing.The universe wants you, like all the rest of us, to be a winner and it set you up like this. Can you see that?"

"Yes...well..." giggle, giggle, "but it's so fast and he's so sure... "

"Hey, how many times do you have to buy a melon to know how to pick a ripe and juicy one? The first couple times you learn how to squeeze and smell, don't you?"


"And after a bunch of bad dates and frustrating relationships, you know quicker and quicker what's going to work or not, don't you? Your instincts get on top of things. And I don't hear you hesitating about this guy. You tell me he's handsome, he's sweet, he's kind and clever and he's getting famous in the field so he has a good future. You tell me he wants to work hard for a few years to afford time with kids and that's what you want too. 

"I think what scares you is you think he's impatient. That's what you keep telling me. I think he's impatient because he's not young any more either and he realized right away you are the one for him. So he's pushing you to admit the same so you two can get going.

"Serena, what are you so afraid of? The universe handed you a huge gift and you don't want to open the box because it seems too good to be true?  You've worked hard for this joy. You've earned it all those years in that dark cubicle and all those mornings after the guy told you you were too good for him and left. This guy thinks you are good for him! He doesn't want to leave."

"Yes, but he wants me to stay here and get started and I always wanted to have my own business in San Francisco. It's all..."

"Listen to an old lady, okay?  Your wanting to start your own business here is like that pointless yearning for a guy who is intellectual. The universe doesn't care what you think you want. It's got a bigger perspective about what you need. You have no business here right now, do you? You could never make up your mind what to do and where, could you? There was a reason for that. And now you know what it is. And you know if suddenly you decide to start anyway, you will be stuck here for several years, effectively cancelling the opportunity to enjoy this relationship. Why would you do that? Especially when he just offered you a chance to start there with his backing?"

"Yes, yes, I see that but it's all tied up with him."

"Yes, but what are you afraid of?  You told me you trust him, you have chemistry with him, you like spending time with him because you like the way he is. How else can anyone describe love?

"But I get it. So here's my big question, the big question you have to answer: if you stay in LA with this man, what exactly do you have to lose? What do you forever lose? Do you lose your friends? No.  Do you lose a chance to start your own business at last? No, you've just got more credentials for it.  Do you lose living in San Francisco? No because you can hold onto your apartment by subletting it for 6 months. That can be your security anchor if you feel you're drifting from the familiar. You need to know if you jump in, what exactly you will never have again. That's always what stops and scares us from plunging into the unknown. What will you have to give up forever?"

"Nothing," she said. "You're right. I can even keep my place. ...I knew you would help me figure this out."

~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

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Meatless in Mongolia

This is not about anything that happened since my last post. I just wanted to share this piece I wrote a while ago about diet and Dharma  and my experience in Mongolia.

Out of the blue in the spring of 2012, I got an SOS from Mongolia. The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana (FPMT), an international Tibetan Buddhist group affiliated with Lama Zopa Rinpoche, was seeking someone who knew the kitchen as well as the Buddha’s Dharma, someone who could come asap to Ulan Baator to teach vegetarian cooking and re-invigorate its Stupa Café. “Mongolian food habits are very difficult to change,” the email said. “They basically eat meat (sheep meat) three times a day, and dairy products, obviously. But in the capital city they are willing to change and experiment… .”  

The urgency to revive the cafe was part of an urgency to restore Buddhism to Mongolia as the country re-asserted itself after a brutal Stalinist occupation.  For 70 years, the Russians had done their best to obliterate every trace of what had been the country’s official religion, and in the rush to fill the vacuum created by their departure, Buddhists were being ruthlessly challenged by a surprisingly huge and well-financed invasion of Christian evangelicals and Mormons. They couldn’t afford to overlook any opportunity, especially major public outreach like the café. 

From Chingghis Khan airport, I was driven to the epicenter of the religious revival: a four-story, brown brick building in the heart of downtown on a busy thoroughfare whose impossibly long Mongolian name turned out to be Tourist Street. It had been purchased a dozen years before, after his Holiness the Dalai Lama tapped Lama Zopa Rinpoche and his FMPT organization to bring Dharma back where it started in the 3rd Century BC during the reign of Ashoka. This is to say at least 600 years before it found China, a millennium before it spread into what we envision as Tibet. Although we don’t think of it this way, when those famous paintings were made, the caves of Dung Huang were Mongolian. Two of Padmasambhava’s 25 disciples were pure Mongol. Chingghis Khan maintained a tight relationship with the Sakyas, and according to historian Glenn Mullin, Chingghis’ grandson Kublai, unifier and ruler of China, was so devout that Marco Polo failed to fulfill his real mission in the East: to convert the tolerant Kublai to Catholicism and thereby subjugate him to the Pope. 

Kublai Khan’s death in 1294 and the consequent rise of the Ming dynasty vastly reduced Mongolia’s hegemony, but not its grip on Buddhism. In the 1570s, the family heir Altan Khan, on a throne in what is now Inner Mongolia, declared the national religion to be Buddhism, the Tibetan Gelug Mahayana version, and brought to his court the most renowned Gelug lama in his kingdom. Appointing Je Tamchey Khyenpa, or “The Omniscient Master”, spiritual ruler of the country, the Khan used the monk’s original ordination name, Lama Sonam Gyatso or Sonam Gyatso, Lama, but switched the Tibetan Buddhist Gyatso, ocean, to the ordinary Mongolian word for that, which gave him the title: Dalai Lama. 

As the third heir of the Gelug teachings, Sonam Gyatso became the third Dalai Lama. With power and money at his disposal, he built the now legendary Kumbum Monastery at the birthplace of the Gelug sect’s venerated founder, Tsongkhapa, in Kokonor, Amdo, Qinghai--now considered to be Tibet but then part of Mongolia. (Kokonor and Qinghai are, according to Mullin, Mongolian words, and Amdo’s inhabitants’ ethnicity remains heavily Mongolian.) To everyone’s surprise, his successor, the fourth Dalai Lama, turned out to be a grandson of Altan Khan, and the Mongol child was sent to the Kumbum to study. The fourteenth and current Dalai Lama, a monk ordained Tenzin Gyatso, was, as it happens, born in Amdo quite close to the Kumbum, which helps to explain why he is so determined to restore Tibetan Buddhism to the Khans' country.

            The newly chartered FPMT/Mongolia re-opened their building in 2002 as Ganden Do Ngag Shedrup Ling. Like much of Ulan Baator, it is Soviet-era nondescript, yet absolutely impossible to miss or mistake. Behind its iron bar fence, in the little paved plaza, where there could have been three or four parked cars, there is a plump, gleaming white, 8 ft tall Tibetan stupa. Mongolians have to pass and often circle this improbable landmark whenever they come through the iron gate for yoga, children's Dharma, ESL, Buddhist films, Gelug Lam Rim teachings, pujas or purchasing Dharma paraphernalia imported from Nepal. Once they step up and enter the building, they encounter the door to the café, whose windows overlook the stupa. Its refreshment was supposed to attract passers-by to the center, enticing them to spend Tukrik, Mongolian currency, that could help fund its free Dharma classes. 

When it opened in 2005, the 16 table Stupa Café served tea with pastries made by a Swiss volunteer, but after her departure, it foundered as new managers tried to turn it into more of a restaurant, a vegetarian restaurant. That was the problem. Mongolians seemed happy to have Buddhism back—or so over 50% declared in surveys, but they weren’t happy about seemingly new restrictions on their diet. Meat-eating is so embedded in the Mongolian mind, before I arrived, at the FPMT/Mongolia soup kitchen eight kilometers away in slums overrun by nomads who'd sold their herds to seek city riches, an angry mob attacked the cooks, claiming the Buddhists were trying to kill them by not putting meat in the soup. These beggars could afford to be choosers because the Evangelicals down the street were quite willing to provide all the meat it took to convert them. 

Even educated citizens like my 37-year-old friend Narmandakh, who'd lived long enough in LA to become an American citizen named Amanda, panicked when she tried to abstain for the Buddhist holy week of Saga Dawa. On days 2 and 4 she called to complain she felt so weak, she was scared. Maybe she was going to die. Maybe she should eat some lamb? Neither the six women aged 20 to 43 who worked in the café nor its manager, a man who'd studied in East Germany, wanted to be vegetarian, even for a meal. They were entitled to all the kitchen food they could consume, yet once a week, they pooled their very hard earned money to fill one of its small freezers with lamb. Everyday around 2:30, the head cook Tuya or Eveel or the dishwasher Tsetseglen would pull some out to make everyone a meaty lunch. The highest compliment they could give a dish I taught them--the way I knew they really liked, say, the mushroom barley soup--was to ask if they could add their lamb to it. 

Mongolians are proud to have survived thousands of years on a treeless plain brutalized by six months of 40º below zero (that's where Fahrenheit and Celsius intersect) as nomads who manage herds to supply all the material, milk, meat and mobility they need. Because vegetables will not grow in their frosty soil, and because nomads don’t farm, Mongolians long ago cleverly mastered getting all the vitamins a human body needs from dairy fermentation. In my Beginning Mongolian booklet, the page on food shopping words illustrates four different kinds of meat, milk, yogurt, butter, cooking oil, bread and flour--a perfect picture of the Mongolian diet.  But since they were liberated from the Soviets in the early 1990s, the majority of Mongolia’s three million inhabitants have migrated from a nomad’s ger to the booming city, and this radical shift has begun to make the traditional fatty diet worrisome to an increasingly sophisticated medical profession. 

The migration has also provoked a spate of investor-backed greenhouses and small plot farming in the surround, for while Mongolians have been rediscovering themselves, the world has been discovering copper and gold under their Gobi Desert, and corporate suits fly like locusts into Ulan Baator to devour them. In the astounding economic boom, Mongolians have been treated to all sorts of restaurants: French, Bukharin, Malaysian, Italian, Greek, Mexican, Indian, even American barbeque-- restaurants all hungry for a steady supply of scallions, spinach, even tomatoes, to please their foreign customers with salad as garnish for huge slabs of “grass fed” Mongolian beef and lamb. Then too, the Russians left a legacy of cabbage and potatoes.

Nobody was under an illusion Mongolia would become meatless soon. But the Buddhists at Ganden Do Ngag Shedrup Ling knew His Holiness the Dalai Lama had been experimenting with and encouraging vegetarian meals to practice the Buddha’s first precept of no harm. Their aspiration was to tap the brakes on all the slaughter the typical Mongolian diet required with a strategy of offering an enjoyable meatless meal. Perhaps this would lead to a second such meal and encourage a third that would make Mongolians want to try a meatless meal at home. Every meat-free bite was a step along the path to the Buddhist goal. 

History was encouraging. Dharma is maddeningly vague about meat-eating, yet it somehow reduces consumption in every country that embraces it.  Its insistence on awareness starts at the gut level with focus on habitual patterns of personal behavior, and this makes eating habits fair game. In fact, after years of brute asceticism led him not to enlightenment but to death's door, the first absolute truth the Buddha recognized was: human beings need to eat. For him the unresolved issues were: what and how? That’s why a significant portion of the Vinaya, his rules for monastic behavior, concern eating. 

When the Buddha made the cow sacred in India, the Brahmins held onto their hegemony only by giving up steak for beans. The initial Chinese converts to his India-based religion, coming from a culture described as eating anything that flies but a kite and anything with four legs but a table, cleverly invented tofu and exploited noodles. Chinese monks took their vegetarian ingredients with their Dharma teaching to carnivorous Vietnam, Korea and Japan. In Japan, cooking was turned into a meditation practice that yielded the exquisite Shojin Ryori and Kaiseki Ryori cooking Western restaurant critics rave about today. Returning from zendos and ashrams with tofu, miso and lentils, Western flower children arguably launched the lively and increasingly popular vegetarianism of 21st C America. 

Tibetans come closest to Mongolians in reliance on meat, and for centuries their enormous monastery complexes included equally enormous abattoirs. Rinpoches made excuses for eating meat, often insisting on its benefit: the human consumer became responsible for purifying the karma of the animal consumed. But when Tibetan monastics in exile were exposed as some of India and Nepal's largest consumers of cow, an embarrassed Dalai Lama forbid beef at all Tibetan monasteries. Shortly after, His Holiness Karmapa, noting India and Nepal had plenty of nutritious alternatives unavailable in Tibet, issued a no-meat-at-all fiat. Now the monks of the Kagyu sect dine daily on rice, vegetables and dhal. Pious Tibetans in exile abstain from meat for the month of Saga Dawa.

             The key was to offer dishes that did not remind people they were not eating meat (e.g. tofu burgers), yet dishes that nonetheless offered what meat did: strong flavor, rich texture, and a feeling of fullness. The most vital criterion was familiarity. Eating habits are so primal and deeply embedded, scientific evidence—often from POWs, reveals people actually starve themselves to death to avoid eating scary food. Instinct warns it could be poison. In all probability, the weird Chinese seitan and soy-meat the cafe was unimaginatively cooking had alienated its customers.

Mongolian tradition offered the perfect solution. As herders, the nomads long ago became masters of milking. Dairy products were familiar, tasty, protein rich, filling, and abundant in the marketplace. Mongolians were avid consumers of yogurt, sour cream, butter, creamy cheese and "urum", something sold frozen in fan-shaped sheets that seemed to be heavy cream. In mid summer while their animals were giving birth and nursing, they actually relied on dairy more than meat. Why not support the remaining nomads, keep the money in Mongolia and serve dairy-based dishes?

The cafe staff immediately explained why not. Shortly after Mongolia became a free country, a beautiful, charismatic Vietnamese woman known as Supreme Master Ching Hai appeared. Claiming to be an emanation of Quan Yin, the great mother goddess to East Asian Buddhists, she relentlessly proselytized about purity of spirit and diet. When she moved on, she left behind an army of awestruck disciples, a chain of vegan restaurants, and the deeply embedded fear that a Buddhist who ate any animal product would be punished by the furies of  hell. Too terrified of hellish karma to serve dairy, the café staff dutifully –and listlessly--cooked up relentlessly vegan dishes like "Goulash": cubes of soy-meat quickly stir-fried with onions and canned tomato paste.

The Stupa Café’s turnaround thus began not with a recipe but a Dharma teaching, the first and foremost teaching that actually created the Buddha and Buddhadharma. Prince Siddartha was able to sit under the Bodhi tree and become Shakyamuni Buddha only after he re-invigorated his starved, emaciated body by eating yogurt (or arguably milky rice). Thus the Buddha was not vegan. In fact, he could not have known what vegan means: the word and concept were coined in 1944 in England. The Buddha lived, taught and died in 4th Century BC India, a country as dairy dependent as Mongolia. So there was no historic precedent compelling a Buddhist cafe in Ulan Baator to be vegan. 

"But," manager Oyunbaatar wailed, “how do we explain to our customers who believed that Vietnamese woman?” 

The answer became Lesson Two. The Vietnamese got Buddhism from southern China where dairy is not prevalent because the Han Chinese-- genetic kin to the Vietnamese-- are lactose intolerant.  Unable to find or to digest the dairy foods of their Indian masters, the initial Chinese Buddhist monks invented tofu to look and cook exactly like paneer and yogurt. Shortly after, in the careful process of making noodles to eat with that tofu, mindful monks observed the wheat starch--the seed's protein or glue, i,e, gluten-- rinse off, and tried kneading it like their noodle dough into "wheat-meat." These became the little breads named seitan in Japan, but known in China by the words "Buddha's food."  Bringing Dharma back to Mongolia gave the café manager a choice: do it the Chinese way and pay Beijing for the ingredients, or operate a Mongolian café. An exuberant Oyanbaatar flashed his dimpled smile, ran a hand through his slicked hair and took off as though he got out of jail free. Two hours later he was back by the stupa, unloading kilos of butter, yogurt and sour cream from the trunk of his dilapidated little white sedan. 

My fear that I would spend my days choking on fumes of resentment quickly evaporated. With the two old fridges full of the yogurt they knew, a semi circle of urum in the freezer and blocks of the butter they loved on the stainless worktable, the women in the kitchen took to chopping and stirring with a surprisingly joyous energy. Instead of preparing food they didn’t understand and couldn’t stand, their work was to dispatch familiar ingredients in new combinations, essentially conquering foreign food to make it Mongolian. The first afternoon, the youngest staff member, the hot-blooded 20-year-old Otgo, raced through her potato peeling chores to watch me make a batch of butter and cream scones. The next morning, when I started again so the head cook, Eveel, could write the exact procedure in her new notebook, Otgo threw a half-peeled potato on the stainless table, and raced over to my counter, saying in her broken English: “I do.” And she did, almost perfectly. This tour de force and the ebullience of the staff reminded me of a historian’s claim that the true quest of Chingghis Khan, the greatest conqueror, was to bring his seemingly primitive people up to speed with known skills and goods they didn’t have.  This motivation was the secret of his unparalleled success in capturing and consolidating the world.

As we began to focus on testing new daily specials, Tuya, the tall, big boned back-up cook, would in shy silence follow my requests to chop an onion, mince some garlic. Then she’d phlegmatically saunter over to the stove, curious about what I was doing with them, and when the moment seemed right, I handed her the stirring spoon for a taste. It took a few seconds before she would widen her eyes, burst into a smile, nod very enthusiastically and run for her notebook-- or just stand there puzzled. If she or the others didn’t like a dish-- frittata turned out to be one, we never mentioned it again. A dish that dazzled the staff--the potato gratin, eggplant parmesan or sour cream apple pie—was made anew by them and sent to the front. If it sold out, the women would hug each other, jump up and down, cheer, and run around like fools. 

Once we started to offer free tastes, people started to show up more regularly. Since there was no longer a menu, daily specials were posted in two languages (Mongolian and English) on a new whiteboard: Tibetan thukpa soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, noodle pudding. The surprise, the tastiness or maybe just their spunky appetite for experimentation brought Mongolians back. Earnest, khaki-clad backpackers drawn to the stupa took such delight in finding familiar items on the whiteboard, they ordered two or three dishes at a time: minestrone, Turkish pumpkin pancakes, and Italian arancini (deep-fried and cheese rice balls). Buzz reached the neighborhood expats who’d abandoned the café en masse, complaining they couldn’t even eat the spaghetti. Now that it was properly cooked in a large pot of salted water, they slurped it up with coriander pesto or brown butter and pine nuts. By week four, register receipts were doubling. Nandia, who worked the front because she had the only command of English, couldn’t keep up relaying all the compliments, telling us only when customers asked to meet the cooks. 

The appreciation and excitement coming from the front buoyed the women in the kitchen. Sometimes they stayed long beyond their shift, sometimes Tuya came an hour early to check on what was happening. Twice I saw Eveel flipping through my recipe file even though she could barely read the English. My last day, after we re-created all the successes to be sure we’d nailed them, these heirs of Chingghis Khan took on learning to make broccoli mushroom quiche, cream of leek soup, blackberry clafouti, peanut butter cookies and a grand finale of double layer carrot cake with creamed cheese frosting, which sold out in an hour.   

The Stupa Cafe was now a very different enterprise. It was profitable, helping to sustain the center. Otgo was promoted to full time pastry chef with the dishwasher Tsetseglen as backup. Eveel asked if she could keep my recipe book, even though she couldn’t read it—yet. Nandia and Tuya got small raises. Manager Oyunbaatar got too overwhelmed to say anything. He simply refused to go home to sleep after our last day because someone had to take me back to Chingghis Khan airport at 3:15 AM, and he didn’t want the guard on duty to do it as routine. When he put my suitcases on the shadowy terminal sidewalk, his eyes were filling with tears. "It was my dream," he choked, "that this cafe would bring the world to Mongolia and Mongolia back into the world again. Now it's actually happening.”

About two months after I departed, I got a surprise email from Ulan Baator. Thank you, it said. The café continued to be a huge success. With great relief and tasty food to nourish their stomachs, the Buddhists at Ganden Do Ngag Shedrup Ling were feeling re-energized and optimistic about restoring Buddhism to Mongolia. 

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

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Friday, March 15, 2013

Small World

For several weeks, I lived in Downtime Abbey. Don't look for the adventure on PBS because the place is too tiny for a camera crew, let alone one rolling camera. It's 650 square feet and some of those feet belong to the storage closet, entry hall and bathroom. 

My apartment's lack of that vital Buddhist component, spaciousness, has always irked me. In the beginning, I considered the skimpy place a come-down, a fall from grace because until then I had always lived in splendidly roomy and light surroundings. I was born into a ten-bedroom house, grew up in a four-bedroom one and even my former one-bedroom apartment had 1100 square feet. So these 650 square feet made me claustrophobic. 

They also made me feel like an amputee. The place doesn't have much floorspace for guests, and no separate room to house them. I've always had people over to eat, people from away stay a few days. Sharing my place made the world cozy and I loved being a hostess. So this cramped place made me lonely. 

I wanted out and was planning a jailbreak when circumstances, including emergency eye surgery, suddenly conspired to keep me in. Literally in for weeks. The retina surgeon told me my coping skills weren't as tested by the surprise operation as they were going to be by the post-op necessity of staying put in one position for seven days, then staying reasonably still for a few more. Major movement was a no no.

I like to think I didn't go to pieces hearing this news, even under the shock of the surgery, because it fitted my finances perfectly. But actually, years of Dharma practice kicked in and kickstarted my mind. I understood I didn't have a choice. Resisting confinement just because I didn't like it was going to make confronting it worse. As the late Trungpa Rinpoche used to say: resistance to not getting what you think you want/deserve just eats up your energy and focus and traps you in negativity. Just relax and go with whatever is happening; it will end well.

Certainly dozens of Maine winters of cabin fever didn't. Snows came and blocked me inside a big house, confining me to frustration and rage that I couldn't get out. At times there wasn't any pressing reason to go out, but I was hopping mad that blizzards prevented me from having the choice. That's all I could focus on: resistance. And it didn't end well. I had to leave the state.

Maybe that experience left me antibodies for supercharged immunity to cabin fever. Or maybe it really is the Dharma working like fast acting yeast. Because I, who nobody would call an optimist, sensed a challenge I wanted to conquer.  With a gauntlet  thrown down, the competitor in me welled up. I was going to explore, or perhaps exploit, my capacity for limitation because Trungpa Rinpoche also warned that boredom is a form of resistance. It's the most common weapon we use to fight being where we don't want to be, doing what we don't like. I had to avoid being bored if I was going to win this challenge of Survivor! or The Amazing Race, in this case best described by the title of a Sylvia Boorstein book: "Don't Just Do Something, Sit There!"

It helped of course that I could imagine myself in one of the retreat cabins I've frequented, one of those small shabby structures where I start out wondering why the hell I am masochistic enough to imprison myself, then end up not wanting to leave because I feel I have accomplished so much. I am deeply calm and happy. Why would I want to leave and let the world mess that up?

Remembering that inevitable reversal of mood, I kept trying to imagine I was in one of the cabins while I spent the first week lying on my right side tuned into the Me network. I tracked and spotted my thoughts and emotions with the dedication of a bird watcher hoping to embellish her life list. I tried to remember various short meditation exercises and try them to see if I had learned anything after all the years practicing.

I said a lot of mantras and prayers, especially to the Medicine Buddha who I was counting on to cure me. I rooted for myself to keep this devotional attitude and keep the faith because negativity changes your body chemistry and I didn't need dis-ease on top of this.

To keep my spirit up so my body didn't go down to that, I rejoiced in the news that being put on my right side was a blessing. Not just because most post-op retina patients have to stay on their stomach for a week, but also because when the Buddha himself was supine, he was always on his right side.

In that position, I talked on the phone to people all over the country, sometimes long juicy chats, and to a friend in Germany. Once a day I squinted at emails on my iPad from Mongolia, India, Nepal, France and Canada. These miracles of communication made me feel as though I were out and about in the world, not shut-in. And so did the friends who paid short visits and brought food. Sometimes I felt sorry they had to go back into the menacing world while I stayed peacefully cocooned in my retreat cabin.

Keeping myself clean took far more time than normal, much of it devoted to the challenges of how to wash my hair or body without getting my eyes wet. Trust me, taking long hot baths is not a hardship. Trying to contort your head sidewise over the sink to wash your hair with a pot of water becomes a game. 

A little more movement let me back into the kitchen where I am always carried away on grand foreign adventures when I try a new recipe. I recommend this as trouble free travel. While making a Palestinian stew I could reheat for days, I mulled over the origin of the recipe: old women stuck in the Gaza Strip remembering the food of their childhood on farms in Palestine. While making a Macedonian bean soup, I challenged myself to figure out where and what exactly Macedonia was/is. I challenged myself to figure out how I could improve upon these dishes. 

And then of course I cleaned up. The bedroom where I'd spent so much time sleeping, the kitchen and its appliances, the bathroom, my clothes... . I hate housework but I've learned to do it without damnation because I am a huge believer in people cleaning up their own mess. For one thing, it's cathartic in that you're actually cleaning up your mind while you do it. Especially cleaning your desk and closets. I took to tearing out of the drawers and closet any clothes I wasn't reaching for. That helped with spaciousness.

The other thing about cleaning up after yourself is that it makes you more conscious about the mess you make. That is huge. If people have to confront  themselves with a dustbuster, mop and scrubbie, they often clean up their act. Their behavior stops being arrogant, cavalier and hurtful. Just imagine Jamie Dimond having to vacuum, Ted Cruz cleaning the toilet, Timothy Geithner making his own bed to lie (stet) in it. 

Two weeks in a small world went faster than five weeks I have spent at some jobs. I can't say they were totally painless. My right shoulder took the brunt of my having to lay on my right side 22 hours a day, and my confinement unfortunately synchronized with the two weeks of San Francisco's Public Radio station incessantly pleading for money ten minutes of every half hour.

Meditating, chatting, cleaning, cooking, listening to the radio, once in a while trying my hand at solitaire and taking a stab at reading a few minutes at the end of the later days ... that was my small world. Yet surprisingly, limitation turned out to be freeing. Maybe because I followed Trungpa Rinpoche's advice and didn't resist, I learned up close and personal I don't need a lot to keep on keeping on, particularly a lot of room(s). I got on with myself quite well in this tiny abode. It seems if your mind is spacious, your surroundings turn out to be as well. You will notice I didn't start out saying I lived in Downtime Abyss.

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

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Thursday, March 07, 2013

Navigation Charts for the Ocean of Samsara

A lifetime ago, as I was I moving to the great state of Maine, I took a special course in ocean navigation that was called "Boat Handling."  Since I was going to be living by the sea, and a legendary one at that, I figured my survival could depend on knowing how to go with the flow. So I spent a bunch of winter evenings sitting in a high school basement getting from volunteers in the Power Squadron, the educational wing of the Coast Guard, some tips for steering. In all probability, I am still here because those classes taught me to cut across scary swells at a 45º angle, to cut the motor and use the water's oomph when I neared an object, to dock my boat against the tidal flow.

With its moody chops and swells, its tsunamis and reefs, its breakers, and especially its seeming infinity, the ocean has always been the symbol of Samsara. It is, I suppose, the perfect visual for our unending tides of thought, swells of impulse and emotional eddies. Sooner and later, we all lose what we have, don't get what we want, promises aren't kept, hopes are bashed, fears get inflated and some form of aggression erupts to make it all go away. But it doesn't. So the world is said to be an ocean of suffering. 

Also when we inherit a body, we inherit its birthright of old age, sickness and death-- the double whammy of losing what we have by getting what we don't want. Since we can't stop these changes, life is said to be a sea of sorrow.

Its perpetual motion also makes the sea a perfect metaphor for our continual suffering. We go round and round, doing the same things over and over thinking this time they'll come out differently. Our mind goes up and down, churns and calms and changes in an endless flow of reactions. The current of events never stops. We get motion sickness.

Since there are no handrails and nothing to... well, "stand on", our slippery banana peel feeling brings on desperation to stop it. We  want to grab onto something, anything to make it all stand still until we can get a grip. And since, as Karmapa just said, we like to do things the easy way, we think grasping a title, credential, bank account, jewel, property, award, whatever, holding onto something like an icon that wards of evil spirits will disrupt our perpetual and inchoate discomfort. 

What's hugely ironic is that the Buddha diagnosed the cause of our endless suffering to be the unending flow of change, yet since he did that 2600 years ago, what's never changed are the big scary changes he focused on: loss, aging, sickness and death. He thought of these as fate. They were challenges to be accepted and approached, and Dharma offered up a plan. 

In our era of marketing madness, we think of these killer kahunas as disrupters, something corporations can fix with just a product or two.
It was chilling to read about Plan B in a brilliant essay Sunday in the New York Times, "the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley today: what could be disrupted should be disrupted — even death. ...Barriers and constraints —  anything that imposes artificial limits on the human condition — are being destroyed with particular gusto. ...Silicon Valley’s technophilic gurus and futurists have embarked on a quest to develop the ultimate patch to the nasty bugs of humanity."
Evgeny Morozov says Silicon Valley believes algorithms will cure everything that ails us. Apps are being created to make what we don't like to see disappear from view, to make Twitter accounts keep going after death, to crowd source decisions so we can avoid be rejected for our choices. Of course that way we become programmed robots who don't really get to make choices or be responsible for them. Making decisions is the hard work Karmapa says we prefer to avoid. After all, as a Rinpoche once said: "Mistakes are something you don't discover until after you make them."

If algorithms are the new Advil to take away human pain, what we're buying into is Silicon Valley's easy way out: snooze control. Here already a driverless car: coming soon, a mariner-free boat on autopilot cruising the ocean of Samsara. Another labor saving device. No pain, no gain. Learning to appreciate imperfections, Morozov concludes, "at a time when the means to fix them are so numerous and glitzy, is one of the toughest tasks facing us today."

What to do?

Well to give Silicon Valley a run for its considerable money, perhaps it's helpful for those of us out here in mid ocean to remember these imperfections of ours, the thorny sting and itchiness of life, death, sickness and aging its software writers want to abolish, are precisely what provoke some of us to download Dharma and use Buddhism as our primary app. Happily it really is a much much more powerful navigational tool than Next Bus or Google Maps or Waze or anything IT people create. It's like that Power Squadron class I took all those years ago. Awakening internal GPS, it teaches how to steer through the menacing swells, rips and shoals of a specific ocean. It teaches how to approach the flotsam of others and objects. Its goal is smooth sailing to the shore, the harbor of transcendence.

A boat actually is the metaphor for the way to liberation, although it is sometimes called a raft, even liferaft. A boat was the Buddha's way of indicating Dharma is a means of transport, a vehicle. That's the meaning of yana in Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana: something that carries us across the ocean of Samsara to the shore of Nirvana, true blissful enlightenment.

On the ocean in a boat, Dharma protectors becomes the Coast Guard. I scream: "Mayday!"  and they come to my rescue. As I have written in earlier posts Chenrezig responds to my prayers, Medicine Buddha responds, teachers pull up beside my raging fears and tow me to calm. 

Just like when someone actually calls the real Coast Guard for help, I have to be extremely honest about my position. At sea the conjunction of your coordinates is called dead reckoning and it leaves no tolerance for deception. Self-deception undoes it completely. I love the story about the yachtsman floundering in whitecapped distress in the Gulf of Maine calling the Coast Guard on his fancy marine radio and every time another officer asks, "What is your position?" he replies with increasing testiness: "I am a vice-president of the Bank of Boston."

As I remember, the critical lifesaving lesson the Power Squadron teachers repeated was to never embark on an ocean voyage, no matter what length, without sea charts and without giving somebody else the navigation plan, hopefully with updates on whereabouts. In a sense, that is the origin of this blog. Out here on the ocean of Samsara, I'm trying to steer away from trouble and surf swells.  I am trying to cut over big emotional waves at an angle so they don't flip me over, use the force of Dharma to propel me over reefs and shoals, and chart a course. Once I take dead reckoning and know where I am, I send a message.

With these flares I send up, I am also signaling that Dharma is not something for the books back on the shelf, something you read like a novel and then go on to something else. On this ocean of suffering, it's GPS for every minute of every day for everyone. It's a carry-on. Frankly, when I use what it's taught me, I find to my own amazement, I may be all at sea but at least I am aware of that. And this is probably why I am still here.

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

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.
Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy Garson All rights Reserved