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, April 26, 2013

The Happiness of Sorrow

My energetic, enterprising Tibetan heart daughter Tashi has been working for several years to fulfill the Dalai Lama's aspiration to save the story of Tibet, not just for its generations condemned to exile, but for all of us who can learn from history. Through Voices of Tibet, she's been instrumental in recording by video and audio the truly heroic tales of those who, when the malignant Chinese so viciously overran it, fled their homeland for strange new worlds.

Tonight, she's having a small fundraiser in Manhattan to move the recording forward. The great escape took place in 1959 so the survivors are quite aged now, which means time is critical. Also the survivors are widely dispersed from the top to the bottom of India, all over Nepal and Bhutan, Europe and the United States. And she needs to find all those who have a vital message for tomorrow.

Since this evening's agenda includes a preview of the filming in progress, Tashi asked me for a title, something she might introduce it with, something that might explain the real meaning behind "Voices of Tibet." What I came up with is: "The Happiness of Sorrow." It seems to express that particular and perhaps peculiar perspective thousands Tibetans forced to burst their high altitude cocoon carried as they spilled down to Earth.

I know I've talked about this before, but it can't be said enough. The relentlessly monstrous genocide in Tibet has been an ongoing unspeakable horror we can't much speak about because... well... um... the Chinese perpetrators have money and you know how grovelly we Americans get around people who can pay. But let's speak up because the Tibetans have a valuable message for us. The wanton extermination of their country, their culture and three million of their people has been a gargantuan, endless sorrow for them, yet the rest of us are the happy beneficiaries of their tragedy. While they have lost everything, we have gained Dharma and momos and the wisdom of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on TV and Twitter. For us, Tibet's Chinese cataclysm ended happily ever after.

And they're okay with that. What defines Tibetans more than even their odd language and unique clothing, as all those early 20th Century travelers quickly noticed, is their great good and imperturbable humor, which shines even in darkest hours. They are true believers who believe a happening happens to be part of a never-ending story that like a river flows, tumbles and bends, shallows and gushes from one phase to another, bad turning good, good going bad. All there is is the flip side, endless change. It isn't over. Ever. 

So terror becomes joy, joy devolves into the pain of losing it, and not getting what you want turns out to be the happily ever after. We never know. All we know is that if we wait a minute, everything is bound to change because now is no longer. It's gone before you know it. The guy who left, the job you lost, the deal that fell through all set you up for something probably more appropriate, i.e. better.

Most Tibetans now in exile are not unhappy. They're hard workers and good sports who've mostly acquired material comforts, medical care and financial security unimaginable in their homeland. With access to heat and hot water they've cleaned up from the legendary filth of their high altitude Himalayan aeries, and reveal themselves to be the handsomest people. And the heartiest in every way. With help, they've even managed to transplant their precious religious institutions to safer places in the world, to save their handsome, heartfelt truths not just for themselves but for us. They can see by the way we don't laugh at life that we need what they know.

So tonight some of the elders will show up on video tape talking about their lives in Tibet as best as they can remember more than 50 years ago, and their lives in diaspora now. While the transition has never been particularly easy, the smiles on their creased and weathered faces say louder than they do that a sunny ray of happiness shines through even the most overwhelming sorrow.  if you are interested. I am on its Board of Directors.

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

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Thursday, April 18, 2013

Viva Boston!

Only Massachusetts celebrates what it calls Patriots' Day. Yes, Maine does too but Maine was forced into it because for longer than it's been a state, it was a province within the commonwealth of Massachusetts. Nobody else cares to celebrate the shot heard round the world.

When I lived in Maine we used to equate Patriots Day with our native son Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and go around reciting the famous lines of his famously patriotic poem.
"Listen my children and you shall hear,
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere."
That was the best we could do on an annoying day the mail wasn't delivered and banks were closed just for us.

From now on though, I think Patriots' Day will be famously remembered for the midday run of a marathon revered. People will say: "Listen my children and do not fear.
The shock heard round the world from here."
And they won't be annoyed now that we all know what patriots really do.

As the writer Dennis Lehane said the morning after in The New York Times and President Obama said at the memorial service two days later, the cowards picked on the wrong place at the wrong time. The bullies blasted the wrong people. Boston has stood its ground for almost 500 years; its roots are extremely strong and deep. It's still standing because it stands for something.

I've been spending time in Boston for over 40 years, yet I never stop being terrified of its traffic and horrified by its lack of signs-- someone once said that's because you're supposed to learn the traffic pattern   at Harvard or MIT. I've suffered the frustrations of its blizzards, blight and Big Dig. But I love that city with all my heart and all my terrifying frustrations because with its masterful hospitals, magnificent universities and museums, elegant parkways and rivers, harbor, food and music, it's no place else in the world.

 So those dastardly cowards with sludge clogged minds who tried to blow it to smithereens made me cry. But watching Boston run made me feel brighter right away. That town really does have the beans.

Boston was America's first major feat of civil engineering. A river runs through it, a harbor laps and the elegant Back Bay is landfill between all that and the fens, a fen being a lowland marsh frequently flooded and not really a ballpark. Being New Englanders thrifty and self-reliant, Bostonians aren't going to let all that effort to build a sturdy city ever go to waste.

Boston is America's bastion of brains--when winding along Storrow Drive, I always think I feel the heat of them cooking in all those universities. And it's a bastion of brawn: the Irish who gave the town the name of its legendary basketball team, Celtics. Its unique unity of town and gown was immortalized by the late Robert Parker as the stomping ground of his witty gritty detective Spencer who has a PhD Jewish girlfriend and black stud hitman. Its unique unity was immortalized on TV as Cheers.

The Boston marathon is one of the world's oldest sporting events, one of its most universally beloved (there seemed to be an astonishing 1,000 runners for every mile of its course) and probably its most gentlemanly and understated, right along with its autumn sibling, the Head of the Charles regatta. Let us not forget the elegant rowing marathon too.

This year Mother Nature gave the river of runners a spring break with coatless temperatures and sunshine. It was a perfect day. So when joy and ice cream and kids and prowess were suddenly upended by the greatest blow on earth, the thousands who were still running for the finish line when somebody messed with the goal did not turn back. They knew what the goal was now.

The greatest medical centers in the universe processed all that carnage without a hiccup. The Italian mayor, Irish police chief and black governor (the state house is in the city) were prompt with the public, poised and dignified. There were no antics or grandstanding or gaffes like telling people to go shopping. There was just a focused marathon effort to staunch the blood and seek the suspects. Boston showed the world it has more than classes. Unlike any other American city, it has class.

Besides the marathon and regatta, besides its Patriots and pubs, hospitals and schools, harbor and traffic, beans, tea and symphony, Boston is known around the world for its instantly recognizable accent. You know, the missing "r" in the silly: "pahked my cah in Hahvahd yahd." So in the local dialect, terror becomes "terra" and horror "hahrah." And there you have the Boston Marathon on Patriots' Day: hurrah terra! It gored the bull of terror determined to gory it. I say: olé!

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

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The big uh-oh

It's getting so rough out here on the ocean of Samsara, I am having the Dickens of a time trying to hold on. Just when I think nothing could get worse than drowning in our killer wave of political and financial skullduggery, or being held hostage by the endless army of Armani-suited pirates brandishing lethal agitprop, the kiss of death comes to my nuclear strength moisture cream. I know the Buddha warned that everything changes but what a revoltin' development this is. 

Trust me. I lack the fish-like scales to pass for a mermaid because that cream's claim to be "dry skin therapy" is actually true. Neither cracks nor blotches or scales have erupted on my sandpaper legs since someone handed me a bottle saying: "Try this. I swear by it." Since I don't scratch my hand when it pulls up my leggings, I swear by it too. That's why I freaked when I discovered the cream just wasn't going to be that--and I mean this literally-- into me any more. I knew the relationship was over the second I saw those three little cruel, heartbreaking words placed like ta-da! on my new plastic bottle: New and Improved!

Of course when life serves you graying hair, a thickening waist and drying skin as "new", it serves them with a side of experience. That,  I suppose, is what's "improved", because I've now seen enough of those three little words to know exactly what they mean.

"New" means the company that controls the cream. Some huge, rapacious numbers crunching corporation or equity monster has chewed up the little diligent company that created it.  The gobble gobble of companies ravenous for "sustainability" requires them to kill off all competition and have the products to themselves. That's why the quality of the product becomes beside the point. Without competition they can throw it aside. They bought a name. What made the name is yesterday.

What's actually "improved" is the new owner's bank account and executive pay. The big conglomerate gives the winning highclass formula to its hackers to copy with cheaper chemicals it can sell for the same price. You know, snake oil in a truffle oil bottle. 

In the 80s the real coconut in the original Body Shop moisturizing shampoo was replaced along with the do-gooding company founder (the sales claim being there just wasn't enough coconut to source, ha ha ha ha ha) and in the 90s the real honey shampoo that kept my dry hair silky went bye bye too. "They're coming out with an improved version," the salesgirl said with a big smile. Well, I new and improved that by shopping elsewhere happily ever after.

When Ross Perot warned against that giant sucking sound of collapse, he could've been talking about the gargantuan feat-seeking maw of the cosmetics industry. All those cute make-up artists with funky products that glam and glow your face have been sucked into the corporate creativity vacuum, neatly reducing the field to just two mega-companies whose factories churn out the same product--profitably packaged  and magically marketed as dozens of different brands! "New and improved" of course with shiny new names that make watermelon slush lipstick "ice pink fire."  I've taken to foiling the greedy bastards by buying relatively cheap drugstore products that actually are the same as those mega-marketed department store brands and don't bring in enough profit to tinker with.

Frankly, what with the daily, endless barrage of "app" and software updates that assault my computer and phone, keeping up with what's new has become a tiresome challenge. It's not just Microsoft  anymore. Even Apple is regularly issuing critical--stop now and install!-- "new and improved" operating.

If it were just my skin cream and lipstick and non-glitched version of iPhoto that got kissed good-bye, maybe I wouldn't be ranting like this. But as I said, it's gotten rough out here: somebody's messing with my lifeboat. The leaders of my beloved weekly Dharma class  have started surfing the "new and improved" wave too. This is really cause for revolting. For 2,500 years Dharma has worked even better than my lubricating cream to eliminate the chafing, blotches and crack-ups of life, but they just gave it the kiss of death.

Since the Buddha's teachings made their way out of India, they have had to adapt themselves to every culture they migrated to in order to survive. We have self-effacing Theravada traditions in Thailand and Burma, stupendous vegetarian cooking in Chinese monasteries and warrior touches like Kyoto and whips in Japan's Zen. 

Much discussion of how Buddhism would adapt to the West has churned since it crossed the Pacific some 50 years ago as geeks bearing the gift of tofu. Unfortunately the major manifestation of all that spin on the American way, the big hint we now have how Buddhism will look in the decades to come, is the American way itself: flashy marketing spiels. Magazines, websites and brand names have spun Buddhism into "happiness", "mindfulness", "well-being", "five minutes to a calmer you!" 

A year ago here in northern California, one of my teacher's smartest lamas was asked by a group of seriously stressed young techies what might help them remember to find time to meditate. To my surprise, he simply said: "Think of the benefits." 

"Why did you say that?" I rushed to ask as soon as they left. "Rinpoche always always always answers that question with "the four thoughts that turn the mind: odds-beating chance of a human birth, impermanence and death, karma and the frustrations of Samsara."

"Yes," he said, smiling. "I know. But I now know Americans. These people didn't want to hear anything difficult. Only happy things. They want only happy."

And nothing makes us more happy than talking about ourselves. Even in Dharma which is supposed to train you in selflessness. So what the Dharma class has now become is a consciousness-raising circle where everyone is all touchy feely about how ten minutes of meditation was for them. We no longer hear the precious, glorious advice of the great masters and get to chew on it to make it more digestible. We get only personal reports of how's it workin' out for ya.  "It's boring," another person who left confided.

It's wrong, the late brilliant Traleg Rinpoche warned, to conflate Buddhism with psychotherapy the way Americans tend to do these days. When I got home I looked at that plastic moisturizer bottle, I realized that's why and how the Mother of all moisturizers, the ocean of Samsara, was being purveyed as "new and improved" too. 
What a really revoltin' development this is.

~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