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, November 23, 2013

Why are we doing this to ourselves?

I'm sure you already know we've come again to the darkest, coldest days of the year, the ones that invariably unleash an onrushing tsunami of food, drink and partying you just can't avoid. All the fa la la and deck the halls you were so happy to see go by like the thorns on the raspberries have boomeranged back. As days grow dark, everyone lights up the house, the trees, extra trees, store windows, whole buildings, even their spirits with overflowing booze and exaggerated merriment. Since there's nothing green on the ground, we get going gangbusters pouring greenbacks all over checkout counters. Since there's nothing growing in our colder climes, we overeat. Some people turn blue.

Apparently my childhood friend thought that's what I was about to do. She wouldn't accept the idea that, being 3000 miles from my turkey dinner invite sites, I wasn't doing anything for Thanksgiving except finally getting a chance to improve my meditation skills. Out of the blue, I got an email from her daughter insisting I drive the 150 miles to join her family festivities and stay the whole weekend to take in the baby's birthday. "There," my friend wrote a few hours later. "Now you see we all want you. I hope you're happy. I just wanted you to be happy!" 

Oh my. I had been happy that I finally had time for a meditation retreat, but I must admit the realization that I was now included shamelessly ignited a spark of joy. This brought to mind the 15 Thanksgiving feasts I hosted and cooked from the mid 80s to the millennium for a core group of friends who called ourselves "the Thanksgiving family." I never knew until the final moment how many were going to sit at the tables because from the get-go this made-up family made a rule that anyone in it had to invite anybody they knew who had nowhere to join in. And once they came, newcomers forever became part of "the family" with the ongoing right to come again.

So it seems the merit of all those good feeding deeds is, as they say these days, back at me. I am being taken in to another family, and as the blessings of the universe known as auspicious coincidence would have it, the research I've been doing for my food writing, explains why I was surprised my friend's invitation to inclusion lit my spirits.

It turns out we humans are wired to be fired up right now, instinctively and intuitively responding to the urgency of our survival needs: food and water. Before refrigeration and supermarkets, these were hard to come by at this scary cold, dark point in time. And that yanked our underlying fear of death out from under the bed. So we pull out all the noisemakers and life energizers we've got to chase it back there. Our hoopla is a hand-me-down from the ancients who figured out this was the critical moment of survival, the crucial time to flaunt food, drink, warmth and merriment at having them.  

The point was to share, to include those you wanted to keep alive through these dangerously short days. Sharing was known as hospitality. Okay, yes, for us that's a seemingly innocuous word, too often associated with suburban bridge night or the banal coffee urn and non dairy creamer packets at a seminar or conclave. That's too bad because the word actually comes from Latin where it means "to supply the needs of strangers" (read that: others), and to understand how important that has been throughout history, look carefully at it: hospitality. Do you see what's right there at its core? Hospital. As I wrote in my book, Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking, that is not some homophone coincidence. We made the word hospital out of hospitality deliberately because a hospital  does the same thing. It heals and sustains life, doing whatever is possible to prevent death. Home hospitality achieves this same miracle by offering someone who doesn't live there the food and water that gives them health and life for another day.

Of course this might not make sense to people who have credit cards and know where the closest convenience store is, but it's been passed down to us by nomadic, hunter/gather ancestors who could never be sure where their next meal was coming from, especially when they roamed far from familiar tents. Since not finding food and water actually meant doom, survival totally depended on encountering the kindness of strangers-- and the IOUs such kindness created. Especially In a desert, mountain or jungle environment, to not offer a passerby food, salt and water was cruelty tantamount to murdering them. This turned hospitality into human triumph over death, and the working basis of what we call morality.

Because saving the life of another is as close to godliness as we can get, hospitality became a precept of every significant religion. If I can believe the research I've been doing through the Internet, the teaching to include has never been partisan or sectarian. Human beings universally agree that hosting another saves the day so it's our moral obligation to do so. The give even has a take. It creates a safety zone of goodwill, earns credits that can be cashed in, and fulfills allegiance to the universal commandments to not kill and to love thy neighbor. 

We have all devised particular ways to chip in to the survival of our species. Just think of all those kids who put out milk and cookies for Santa because they know he's going to be out working all night, far from the cooking of Mrs. Claus. The Jews set an extra place at the Seder table in case a stranger knocks on the door as a reminder that they were once strangers in a strange land, and, having been freed, have an obligation to strangers in their land. 

The Sanskrit word for guest,  athidhi, translates “without time,” which means someone who spontaneously appears at any moment. Because this person could be God manifesting, perhaps as a character test, Hindus treat every guest royally. The Northwest Native tribes have potlatch, the cunning invitation to other tribes to share a year of abundant harvest in order to create an IOU for a year of scarcity. In almost every culture of Asia, hello is some form of "Have you eaten yet?" 

Hospitality in Arab lands is famously over the top because Muslims have a duty to God to protect his creation; to prove you cherish this duty and happily honor Allah is to endlessly anticipate and satisfy the needs of a visitor, grateful he affords this chance. Believing to not greet a guest warmly is utter rudeness, Russians have the samovar, a water boiler that keeps tea ever ready, and a tradition of immediately offering the vital necessities of bread and salt to all comers. In fact the Russian word for hospitality is actually "bread and salt."  

There's more but let's stop here and say Buddhists rank hospitality as transcendent or ultimate generosity because supplying people their survival needs liberates them from their greatest cause of suffering, fear of death. That's why I had an atavistic spark of joy arise at the thought of being included in a feast right now. That's why at this particular time of year being left to fend for themselves mysteriously makes people blue.

Tiz the season to party on for good reason. Prosit! Salut! Skol! A votre santé! L'chaim! Look at the meaning of those words and you see at this dark and dangerous time, the mania is a prayer asking to be included in the handout of life.

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

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Knife fight: Part 2

The day after I talked to Rinpoche, I got back on a plane and pulled out my new issue of The New Yorker. It was the annual food issue. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. This is going to be good, I told myself. The New Yorker is the last print paragon of good taste, and food is me.


First up was a report on what's happening to chili peppers. I knew what had happened: Americans spent the 70s and 80s breeding the life out of them. All those Tex-Mex aficionados turned out to be so Tex and not Mex, they didn't want sass from their jalapenos. They wanted them as dumbed down as they are, so breeders put the fire out, making supermarket chilies as bland as bell peppers. (In case you wanted to know why they are.)

Now, the New Yorker was telling me in a report titled Fire-Eaters, men are breeding chili peppers to soar off the Scoville hotness charts, higher and higher into the fiery stratosphere of molten lava volcano and nuclear meltdown hot three times the peak of the Scoville register. Hobbyists described as "essentially American, Australian and English guys" have zealously cross and cross bred plants to get the daredevil thrill of "being face-fucked by Satan" or "Hell in my mouth" from peppers named "ghost" (bhut jolokia), Armageddon and Naga Viper. It's all about safe near-death experience.

So there it is, what roils this cauldron of Samsara. When life itself goes gaga and becomes roller coaster dizzy or gets complicated by too much whether --which is what real life tends to do, people want their food dependably flat and bland. No challenges, no extremes because we have enough already. Just give us our daily mass produced safely predictable eats. But now that we've catered to this risk aversion, now that our have it your way consumer culture has made everything so dependable we've bred all uncertainty out of life, (you know: hedge funds, derivatives, franchises, sequels), bored beings are thrill seeking through risky food. Chiliheads rely on these new ghost and ghastly peppers for cheap, cowardly daredevilry. These guys are, scientific tests say, sensation seekers.

And in another report, so are out of control carnivores, men happy to eat whales, cod sperm, baby salmon, pigs' ears, duck hearts, insects and horses. "The less acceptable something is, the more delicious it seems," the author says. She used the words orgy, Caligula and savage. Why yes, of course, extreme eating. What's new?

For at least a decade, this orgiastic barbarity has been on media display as the sideshow to the loosened constraints on capitalism. Those Wall Street wonders who savaged the economy making their killing have been much publicized for brazenly feasting on whole spit roasted pigs, barbequed steers and foie gras in everything imaginable. Bacon in everything edible including ice cream. That's a lot of brutal killing, but I guess when you have no respect for some laws, you have no respect for others. Bye bye shame. And whales.

Sadly, the horrors of savage devouring aren't just on display in glossy magazines like The New Yorker. They're close to home. Once I got back from this trip, I was on the phone catching up with a childhood friend who lives in New York, has her own florist and thinks nothing of owning an alligator skin handbag if that's what the elite fashion statement of the moment is. This being November, the conversation inevitably turned to Thanksgiving and the mandatory banquet she usually prepares for her immediate family. "It's 20 this year," she moaned. "I've never cooked for that many."

As a caterer, I had, and for lots more to boot. On Thanksgiving when we welcomed those who had nowhere to go, sometimes I hosted 35. "Two small turkeys are better than one of those terrible big ones," the cooking instructor in me blurted. "More juice, more parts, more different stuffings, less cooking time."

"I know," she sighed, "but I hate dark meat. My family doesn't like it either. So I've ordered two turkey breasts, two large breasts. And my butcher assured me I can have all the giblets I want to still make my gravy."

So there you have it: a turkey's breast capable of feeding at least ten people. Barbaric sadists create turkeys with breasts so big the pitiful bird cannot stand up or move at all. A living creature savagely imprisoned so people don't have to eat wings or thighs, parts that say "live animal here."

Sometimes, the hard earned awareness eked out of two and a half decades of Dharma practice overwhelms me with despair. I want to ask: what are people thinking? but I know they aren't thinking. They are totally unaware of what they are doing, text examples of the ignorance that creates Samsara.

But maybe all is not lost. Yesterday my young Spanish friend Sonia came by to introduce me to the love of her life, a fellow Spaniard who has become an increasingly publicized four-star chef. He's about to open a restaurant in LA. "What will you cook?" I said. "All sorts of fancy paellas?"

"No," he said. "I'm done with fancy. I'm going to serve what I love the most. I'm going to present simple Spanish home cooking with all the flare I can. It's tradition too good to change."


~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

Thursday, November 07, 2013

My knife fight: Part 1

Last week I journeyed from sea to shining sea to check in with my revered and aged teacher before his return to Asia. "Rinpoche," I said, sitting at his feet, "I've come to confess I do not much meditate upon a cushion as you would like. But I have made Dharma part of every minute of everyday and now I keep seeing how everything about me has totally changed. Frankly, the Park Avenue person I used to be would probably just die if she knew what I've become." Rinpoche sat still in his brocade chair and loosed his huge Cheshire Cat smile.

"The deities have become as real as family. I talk to them by mantra all the time now. And I sense they are protecting me. Something is. Rinpoche, something actually makes good things happen--the way loving parents might. I think it's Guru Rinpoche and White Tara and definitely Mahakala coming up with the  most magically wonderful solutions when problems arise for me. People say I've got all the luck, but I think it's just your blessing on my practice." More of that  smile. 

"And now that I know how wondrous it is, I am so afraid to lose the bliss, I  obsessively watch my every move and thought. So I guess my whole life has turned into practice." 

"Very good," he said.

"Yes, well sometimes it doesn't feel like that.  Can I tell you a story?"

"Do you remember the last time you came to my little house in Maine, we released live lobsters off the dock?" He nodded. "You remember my neighbor the lobsterman who brought them to us in his boat?" Nod. "Well, about six weeks ago I was standing in his doorway paying my share of the private road bill and eating lobsters came up. 'You know,' I said, 'Rinpoche and the Dharma have so deeply got to me, I just can't kill and cook one any more. When I think about the fact that they are living creatures who can feel, I can't bring myself to buy one to eat it. It would give my karma massive indigestion. Of course, if someone serves me a cooked lobster, I'd eat it. The Buddha ate whatever was offered so as not to offend his host or prevent the merit of generosity. But you know how it is around here: none of my friends serves lobster when it's just us because they figure we're all eating it all the time with our house guests. So I haven't had a lobster for two summers.

"Midway through this confession, Joe's wife appears. 'I can fix that," she says. "I've just cooked up a mess of lobsters and crabs Joe caught. Wait a minute....  Here you go!'  She hands me a cooked lobster tail and claw and a whole crab neatly in a bag.

"I take the bag home and cast aside what I was going to cook for dinner. Reluctantly I put the cooked seafood on a plate, make myself a little salad and pour a glass of white wine. I am finally in Maine eating real Maine food, all that seasonal, local blah. i used to do this all the time, for decades, and people envied me. But every time I cracked that crab, my spirit sank. I felt White Tara's disappointment in me reverting to cannibalism, dipping one of her children in a little melted tarragon butter. But what to do? Out of respect for my neighbor's generosity and the killing of these living creatures for my enjoyment, I ate every possible morsel of them. Just like all those clucking happy tourists on all the piers. But I didn't enjoy it like they do because I knew murder was involved and I was disturbing White Tara, protector of all beings.

"About two hours later, brute darkness rolled over the soft September evening. Languorous and tentative sways of lightening that were dancing like Tara's veils suddenly sharpened into sizzling swords pointed at my house. Again and again my room lit up ghastly white, ghostly white actually. Fierce wind stormed in and began to loot the landscape. Thunder boomed. Branches broke, trees crashed. One hit my roof and I shook more than it did.

'I'm sorry!' I screamed. 'I didn't mean to eat the lobster, I didn't want that crab. I'm sorry!  I won't do it again, honest. I promise. So stop! Please stop attacking!' Three times I did the mantra to ask Vajrasattva for forgiveness, swearing in between I'd never eat seafood again. But the storm didn't stop. It just got worse and worse..."

Rinpoche was laughing away. 

"The next morning I told Joe to never ever ever again give me lobster. It cost me five trees and a piece of roof. Rinpoche, who knew 26 years ago when I started my first meditation class, I'd end up like this?"