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.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

September 11 all over again

I have never seen anything so horrific. A gorgeously warm sunny day fades into night, and wham! in only seconds, languorous heat lightning supersizes into hellish flames of white. A rooting tooting storm rampages in and starts looting the landscape. White light keeps flashing through my room and finally boom! Murderously crackling bam! unleashes wind that pounds with vengeance. Who knew Nature planned to celebrate September 11 creating terror.

My house is a World Trade Center magnet for lightning. It's perched without foundation on a tiny point of ledge protruding into salt water, land decorated with tall, shallow rooted trees: pine, spruce and oak that bend in their struggle to hold on. Four years ago, a bolt zapped the tallest, a pine next door. It was just like the smashing of the jetliner into the glass tower. The strike cracked the tree open, zizzed through the abutting power line into my neighbor's house and sizzled everything that was plugged in. Two months later, a leftover interior wire smoldering in resentment sparked, burst and sent Joe's house in flames to the ground.  

Who wants to mess with any killer qaeda. I just try to remember everything I ever heard to do when lightning is striking. I grabbed a flashlight (I keep one in every room for moments like this), turned off everything electrical, pulled the plugs on the computer and charging iPad. I did that because two friends whose turned off computers got totally frazzled when lightning raced through house wiring and zinged them.

Wind smashed against the walls. Rooms lit in ghostly flickers. Pounding thunder shook the floor. I sped around pulling windows shut, as though a double pane of glass would protect me. I grabbed anything made of metal, threw it in the kitchen sink and covered it with a rubber mat because rubber absorbs electricity.

I ran to lie low, literally lie down. That's the rule when caught on a boat or outside near trees during a lightning blaze. Lie down so your height doesn't draw its attention. Let electricity hunting for prey dive into the flatness around you. Strike one for this point. The morning after this surprise September 11 hoopla, TV news reported that a guy standing next to his refrigerator had to be helicoptered to a hospital after being struck by lightning that bounced off it.

Gales screeched, thunder pounded, flares of white light blazed inside and out. My fear broke all records. This sturm und drang was no temporary tantrum or scolding. The fury was evil, and I just knew it wasn't going to end well. But what's a girl to do?  Well, about the only thing a terrified person facing her worst nightmare can do: I hid under the bed covers, cowering.

My roof sounded as if tabla master Zakir Hussein was pounding a rhythmic thud thud thud. Jeesuuz! I thought, now we've got hail! No, maybe it was acorns being shaken off the massive oak. The bong! bong! stopped but not the frenzied light show with boomers. I lay in my duvet bomb shelter empathizing with people in war zones: the London blitz, Syrian carpet bombing, Tripoli terror. In these horrific and often inexplicable barrages, you have no control, no power, no say in the outcome. All you can do is lie there quaking like the landscape around you. You can only lie in wait, hoping the next big kaboom! goes harmlessly by, sparing you like the Lord of Passover. All you can do is pray.

So I did, loudly as though the shout of mantra could drown out the rumbles of fear and crackling of thunder. I tried to turn the terrifying lightning streaks into Guru Rinpoche's all powerful dorje, the great thunderbolt that strikes evil and negativity. Dorje means indestructible and in practice I am supposed to imagine a protective ring of these flaming thunderbolts around me. I tried to visualize my besieged house encircled, lightening bouncing off the whole shebang. I shouted the Guru Rinpoche mantra over and over as if it too could deflect the never ending swords of electricity savaging midnight's black.

Trying to push back onrushing panic, I remembered Green Tara, the Mother who protects from fear, and as wind rattled the windows, I beseeched her with mantra. Whomp! The roof reverberated. Then the heavy bong! bong! of objects falling. I cringed. Mother Nature was on an impetuous remodeling tear. Why couldn't she just stop, go away and leave me alone. Not change anything. I thought about the people whose lives were destroyed in one instant of wind and water from Hurricane Sandy, one instant of jumbo jet dive bombing a skyscraper. One minute is all it takes to yank lifetimes off their mooring. Om mani peme hung.

I pleaded with White Tara for protection. Another crash of thunder brought another momentous crash to the roof. "Karmapa chenno!" I screamed, "Great Karmapa the all seeing and knowing, know me here and now." Which is to say: do something to save me! Karmapa chenno.

The loud insistent rapping at the door woke me up. To my surprise it was quiet, daylight, 7:30 AM. "You'd better come out," my neighbor shouted. "Your roof's bashed in pretty bad. You got a mess out here." 

He had a mess over there too. The puzzling flashlights I'd seen bobbing in the midnight frenzy on the water had been his and his son's. They were out there rescuing his dock and brand new boat, both ripped ripped from the shore as easily as you unsnap a jacket. "Wind shear," he said. "A wicked microburst of wind tunneled through here." 

Let me tell you Mother Nature is no tree hugger. She left that message in a Christmas tree size pitch pine on my shore uprooted amid a pile of ledge evicted with it.  An oak limb rested astride the metal chimney cap its fall had bashed. Pieces of a pine limb were scattered around the base of my bedroom's dustpan dormer. The rest of it lay across the stone patio and my table. The runway of my dock was twisted rightward, listing like a cripple.

The front of my house was totally blocked by a massive pine lying on its side entwined with the small cedar its descent had beheaded. Most of the pine that is, because the rest was dangling off the peak, giving my roof a really bad toupee. Branches covered the upper skylight. Gutter lay on the ground among ripped green asphalt roof shingles and a long wooden board. That explained the huge world shaking thud: this massive evergreen, which leaned toward the sea, had been snapped off, blown back, and smashed into the little cedar which deflected it to the corner of the house where it literally hit the roof like all hell, split and rolled off smashing all my plants and laborious gardening effort out front. 

I was all right. There was no broken glass, no leaks. The outdoor furniture was just fine. Within an hour five guys were there with ladders and chain saws and by noon, I could see through the skylight and get out the front door. "You were lucky," the tree guy said. "That monster just grazed your roof when it could've caved it all in. But you never know. You should check for hidden damage."

The builder couldn't find any. He scoured and scooted around the roof, climbed down his metal ladder and said: "Seems you had some luck. The damage seems to be only to this part of the roof that's the eave. Everything over the rooms looks fine."

The adjustor circled, his tape measure a yo yo in and out and in as he inspected and noted. He eyed the mountainous pile of slash and logs. Four trees gone, wood chips everywhere you could see, tons tracked inside the house. On the shoreline he saw the uprooted pine and ledges that looked like pulled pork, the boulder thrown up like a softball, the twisted metal rod of my dock ramp. 

"It was terrifying," I blurted. "That was the scariest storm I've ever seen. I just knew it wasn't going to end well."

"It was violent," he said without looking up from his notebook. "I can't keep up with the claim calls. Cars bashed by trees, roofs caved, power lines torn off."

"I was scared out of my mind," I said, "cowering under the covers doing any meditation mantra I could remember. I heard a horrific thud and prayed louder and louder to all the Buddhas to protect me. I couldn't bear the thought I'd have to evacuate, going out at the mercy of such fury. I didn't know what to do. I just kept praying as if my prayers of faith in the Buddhist gods I know would make them come through for me. You know, like paying off the mafia for protection. I just kept doing meditation mantras."

"Well," he said, "from what I see, looks like your protectors did a good job deflecting real trouble. I've seen much much worse today. My job's pretty simple here, so I'd say: Keep meditating."

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

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Friday, September 06, 2013

Show and Tell: My Summer

Summer's over. I know because Labor Day was days ago. Who cares that the equinox, the authentic end of summer, is three weeks away, proving how artificial our designations are, just like the Buddha said. The beach towels have been put back. Now is the time everyone in first grade and on Facebook is doing show and tell about how they spent their summer, and I got caught up in this surge of self-expression and confession. My labor of Labor Day was to sit down and take dead reckoning, so I could show what I did under the sun and tell where it got me.

What jumped out right away is that I may have broken a world record. I have six blueberry bushes, here in the cold, acid soil famous for blueberries, but I did not get as much as one hint of blue on any of them. Not one. Granted, they have been struggling over the years from lack of water, sun and attention, but at least they used to begrudge me a cupful of berries to remind me why I brought them here. Now that I've actually spent this summer watering and weeding and fending off the Japanese beetles, they gave nothing. Just like a guy you start being nice to, they snubbed me.  Believe it or not, a farmer says I am probably not doing enough. Maybe they need special acid adding fertilizer to combat their complacency.

Black raspberries were the other berries I tended. I dedicated them to the taste of small batch black raspberry ice cream that's hard to find. Nobody sells black raspberries, so if I want to enjoy them, I must grow my own. That's why I make sure my scraggly canes get water and sun and motherly love, even when other plants don't. This year I got about a dozen berries, except I didn't. I was proudly watching those precious black thimbles plump up, being very generous with my limited water, waiting for the right moment, and when I thought it had come, I went with great expectations to pick and everyone of them was gone. A clean swipe. Not one telltale trace of the culprit on canes so hidden inside my property, nobody but me knew they were there.

I had to go to the farmers' market to buy berries, green cardboard box after green cardboard box of them. This was a must-do. Berries say summer in all its lushness. Berries say Nature has a present for your happy being on earth day. And they are vegan so there's no arguing over whether you should eat them or not. Berries are right here right now.  Help yourself. Their later is jam, the warm comfort of June in January.

That part is do it yourself so I made lots of jam, a decade high of least 3 dozen jars. It's an instinct, a habit, an attachment. I have been making jam for over 40 years and now people wait for it; they actually expect it. It's become their habit and attachment. Sometimes think I get invited to dinner or get silly holiday gifts because people know I'm going to reciprocate with a jar of my preserves. Who knew in our time of supersonic jets and supercharged communication, handmade jam would be something to cherish?

That's heartening. It means we do want to remember we're still human and we get it that life has highs and lows, seasons and sometimes somebody stops the mad scrambling for money and makes something old fashioned authentic just for the love of it. My bit for upping our sorely neglected humanity skills is to keep making jam until I pass the tradition on. I've been looking for an heir and this summer I found one. My childhood friend's granddaughter clambered onto a chair, said "give me that", took my wooden spoon and with beaming delight of a five-year-old watching a magic trick, stirred up a batch of peach. She had been waiting for this since last summer when she was 4 and we made blueberry.  She just loved the way the blueberries suddenly became "schmush" and schmush suddenly became jam she could take home in jars. She already knew who she was going to give this year's peach batch to.  "Mommy, Nana, Trini... she's the babysitter... . I want to make apricot next time," she said, as she went triumphantly out the door in bright pink crocs. "She doesn't even like apricot," her mother wrote me from Manhattan, "but she can't wait to make jam with you. You are making memories that will last a lifetime, providing an experience she wouldn't normally have."

Speaking of experience, we had six--make that: endless-- weeks of cold dreary rain when I wished like hell for sun. Then miraculously we got ten days of hot sun with high humidity so to make the miasma go away I prayed for rain. Obviously somebody heard me because we got more rain than anybody needs. I had to  pray for sun. Really, who wants tans and swims and the slam of the screen door to be rained out?  Apparently the universe got it because the sun showed up. It must have started having a really good time because it just stayed there in the sky shining like hotcakes for weeks and weeks...three and a half nonstop weeks. I got so worried about my water supply and my exposure to UV rays, I prayed for rain. Yes, I spent my summer being just like the annoying cat who wants to be in when it's out and out when it's in: never satisfied. Right on, Buddha.

I spent a lot of time fighting with "things." You know: trying to totally shut that baggie with the infernal pink and blue lines, dealing with that idiotic plastic piece that always falls off the so-called "zip lock" bags, straining to snap in the closer on a bra, struggling to open an unused envelop sealed by the humidity, getting bird shit off my car's sun roof...all those damned things that frustrate the hell out of you and your patience and unleash cursing. Until you realize you're letting yourself be humiliated by inanimate "things." How sick is that?

I also spent a lot of time, read that: a lot of time, fighting very animated things, breaking the vow not to kill by attacking Japanese beetles with all the verve and gusto of the Egyptian military eradicating Islamists. I had the same excuse: I was protecting living things from destruction, struggling to sustain stability. And I did. After six years, the flowers actually opened on my rose of Sharon. Who knew they are that pretty: dainty carmine-streaked white roses.

Alas, my bad karma for the massacres ripened immediately. The plant for which I killed those invaders most energetically was a gorgeous full bodied knotweed, which is one spectacular weed. It has spiky red flowers that rise exuberantly from skinny stems like raised hands waving for attention. It has Persian provenance. It has lots of busy bees. Since bees are dying in droves everywhere, I figured it was my duty to keep them keeping on here. That's why one night during a drought, I took a bucket of kitchen sink water out to douse the bush and before I even knew it, something malevolent stung me.  In the wrist. I never saw it coming. My wrist just swelled like hell and got red and hot and I saw two mini fang-like marks. I had to curtail my activities to keep covering them with the old-fashioned poultice of baking soda and water.

In the midst of all this home work, I branched out, which is to say, I networked. I made a huge effort to stop staying home and got the good luck to meet people who live right here in my rural vicinity, people who turned out to be worth knowing. One of them is an American brahmin Zen priest who has established a Zendo in his house thousands and thousands of kilometers from where the Buddha began, right here in my boondocks. At my convenience at a dinner table about three miles from me was a Zen priest of impeccable lineage (San Francisco Zen Center no less) who two miles away organized sitting meditation six mornings and five evenings a week with a longer Saturday morning session that included his talk. He had a football build and a shaved head and so oozed that fierce inscrutability of Zenjis, even amid rapt dinner conversation, that as soon as he'd gone, the other fellow at the table blurted: "This guy really knows something; you can just tell."

As it happened, the zendo turned out to be an option to the startling new "Dzogchen Meditation Center" a mile away. I pass it almost every time I leave my house and I know the fellow who established it. I think I've already said, earlier in the summer, one of Rinpoche's special lamas, who started calling from afar, told me to do more meditation, and bingo! two centers for it suddenly appeared in walking distance of my house. Was that a hint or what? Well, I didn't take the hint. I just couldn't rouse myself to get to 7:30 AM Zazen or 9 AM Sunday morning Dzogchen or miss the Saturday morning farmers' market. It was just too much to ask of me.

I figured--okay, I rationalized, I could find out what that the Zen priest knew with a little DIY. That's the craze these days, everything DIY, right? So when I felt I needed meditation time, I got into the hammock. I lay on the lounge chair on a gorgeous cloudless day to practice open sky: mixing my mind with its infinite space. I slipped into my bright yellow kayak and paddled to the rhythm of mantra. I was here and now: summer on the water. Summer in the water when my karma took a nosedive and the kayak tipped over. Hint hint.

I did make an effort. I drove six hours through blinding rain, thunder and the horrors of Massachusetts traffic to hear the one among Rinpoche's precious now designated for teaching in the West as his "heir."  Tulku Damcho spent the weekend going over the lists compiled by the great organizational genius, Gampopa, who launched our lineage. Nearly top of the list among the first of the lists of what to  do to get to enlightenment was appreciating the importance of having an animate, healthy human body. Above all we need to appreciate the crucial gift of life, like the gift of handmade jam. Since we can't know when life's going to end, we don't have a moment to waste. Now is the time.

Six hours in Sunday traffic gives you a lot of that time to think about life's chances, and how I spent the precious sunny days of summer using the good time of life to have a good time. Whoever stole those black raspberries, as my Tibetan goddaughter would insist, removed an obstacle for me because this summer I had the good karma to get out and meet a Zen priest only two miles away. I had the good karma to keep the jam tradition going. I had the good karma to get a message about how annoyed I get fighting with things. The one day I vowed to be less leaden and more aware of nimbleness, I stepped into the kayak and I immediately capsized, spilling me and my clothing into the sea. There was a hint that upending isn't as devastating as I always fear. I certainly hope that's the takeaway because this summer I was exposed to and surrounded by so much Dharma, yet I didn't take advantage of my good fortune. I turned into one of those six blueberry bushes that wouldn't produce a berry. Obviously I need a dose of special "acid" releasing fertilizer, read that "hard times" or as the Buddha would say, suffering, to combat my complacency. Maybe that's why winter's coming like the rains after all that sun.

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

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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