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.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Moving On: Meditation Lesson 6

So by now perhaps if you've tried to sit still and tune into yourself, you've probably discovered you're  flooded by a thick, unending torrent of thoughts. They just keep coming. Some people find this discovery scary: they think it just happened and now they're going to drown, not realizing this gusher is nothing new at all. It's has been their norm forever. 

Finally seeing it is cause for celebration. Knowledge is power. This is to say: now that we know we're haplessly whooshing around in these rushing rivers of thought, we can do something to bring ourselves under control. We can tone them down. We can slow them down. We can ignore them all together, turning off the refrigerator hum white noise they generate to continually distract us from what's really happening.

We have to start by really tuning in to this torrent of thoughts in full HD mode. That's the meditation practice. Watch those thoughts streaming by. The textbooks urge us to scan, to scrutinize, to search for a gap, any gap between them. That's what we want: that emptiness. 

Personally, at first this instruction did not resonant with me. I found it easier to get closer to the truth this way: when you are sitting still tuned into your current of thoughts, think of yourself as river or ocean side watching thick schools of fish swim by. You want one: you just gotta have one in passing, maybe just to show somebody else what you saw. So you cast a reel to catch one. As hundreds of fish go on by, you hook one. Now it's yours. What happens? 

Several obvious things. While you're now busy unhooking, bagging and admiring your prize fish, you can't notice lots of new ones swimming by. You're stuck on that old fish. And now that it's out of place, it's out of energy. It's dead and soon it's going to stink. All it can maybe do now is feed you alone, getting you even more bound up to it. The current is carrying more and more fish by you, but you're too hooked on what happened five minutes ago to be part of what's happening now. That's how it is when we pick a thought and hold onto it. 

This is the secret of all that stuck thinking in the news headlines, pundit bloviations, Facebook pages and internet rants coming at us every minute. People are hanging onto one idea or another that comforts them. They can't let go, can't move on. Think of it this way: 200 years ago there was no Hollywood. That was an idea that arose and lots of people grabbed on. Then a new thought arose: television. Later VCRs, computers, then live streaming... each thought giving way to another like vinyl records to CDs to iTunes. Yet those financially attached to one thought or other---movies, CDs, cable boxes--desperately try to keep promoting their "thing", holding on tighter and tighter as the current of new events rushes past. We fool ourselves into thinking now is forever. It's only now. and by the time you've read that, it's not that now anymore. It's all new and different.

It's useful to turn this idea of go with the flow to ourselves, or what we think of as ourselves. Remember that exercise about the "bigger" finger? Well, who--as the Cheshire Cat said to Alice--are you?  A baby? A child? Someone's child? A student? A parent? An employee? A boss? A citizen? A neighbor? An athlete? A tourist? A senior citizen? A basket case?   Who are you? Can you pick one idea and stick with it? Or is your identity as fluid as a river's current? Does it depend like the finger trick on who's standing next to you?  Who are you for sure ? Can you pinpoint someone fixed?

Perhaps you've heard of that age-old phenomenon: the idée fixe, fixed idea? It's a thought people won't let go of because their entire identity is bound up to it like a tent which will collapse without its stake post.  A perfect example would be the Catholic Church insisting the sun orbits around the Earth and killing everyone who disagreed or proved them wrong. You could say religious fundamentalists are chained like a dog to an idée fixe, barking, growling and snapping at anyone who comes near it. Sometimes, less obviously, we are like that, clinging to and cherishing one idea or other about ourselves or our world. That's an enormous cause of suffering that this practice can liberate us from.

So now is the time to sit still and watch yourself in action, either catching yourself hooking onto a passing thought which leads to another and another until you're far from where you are, or finding that elusive gap the texts talk about, that emptiness between spasms of thought, the space where you can shift your own gears and use the practice as a paddle that steers you over the current. If you do it with diligence and patience, the thought torrent becomes a trickle, or as the late Trungpa Rinpoche put it: the huge breakers that were knocking you over become a gentle ooze around your ankles as you stand tall. 

 May all beings be freed from the causes of their suffering.

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

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Sorry, out of border

I have been in Malaysia when plane went missing and have been in Kathmandu working on my food charity for the past four days.  I keep meaning to post but I fall asleep. So very soon news about Malaysia and my work here in Kathmandu. Fed 450 kids Saturday their first ever strawberries and papaya and trail mix which we made up.  Spent one day getting cooking lessons from locals. Today was the dreaded Holi when Hindus throw red coloring on you if you dare go outside. I spent it in my hotel with three of the fabulous children from our boarding school, teenagers who were achingly polite and profoundly grateful for a chance to get out of school.  We couldn't do much: sat in the hotel garden which had been turned into a lame party site and ate momos plus one chicken enchilada to try Mexican food. We had ice cream and Cokes and watched TV and they were so so happy. They took such pains to restore my room to pristine condition before they left.  And yesterday every single one of the more than 400 children I fed passed in a line to say "Thank you."  Tonight the moon over Kathmandu is round and golden, obviously glowing with pride.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Clarifying What I said about Interdependent Origination

 When I spoke about interdependent origination in our everyday lives, I was trying to use very familiar situations to introduce the concept of one action leading to an inevitable reaction and so on. As it happens, the Buddha's 12 interconnected links of how things happen are somewhat more profound and unseen. Here are the 12 nidanas, or chain of happening, as explained by someone else and me adding to it.

  1. Ignorance  Fundamental ignorance of the absolute truth that everything is constantly changing except for our awareness of that, and the delusion of mistakenly perceiving that what's happening to you constitutes a verifiable solid self.
  2. Formation: As long as there is ignorance, see above,  there will be formation of karma: positive, negative and neutral. This leads to rebirth in the various realms.In other words, act out of ignorance, create karma and go from there.
  3. Consciousness: Formation cause the consciousness of the next existence to arise. The consciousness which propels one towards the next existence is called the impelling consciousness. And the consciousness that is led to that particular state, once the conditions have come together, is known as the consciousness of the impelled result. These two aspects of consciousness are counted as a single link since together they establish the link between two lives. (we are talking here about morphing energy.)
  4. Name-and-form:  The power of consciousness causes  the energy to seek a womb, and there a body develops. Thus energy takes form and that form inevitably develops sensation, perception, formation and consciousness (awareness of what's happening).
  5. Sense Faculties: The six sense faculties then come into play to feed consciousness. These are the way we know: seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching,  and in Buddhism the sixth sense is the mind which processes all this input into thoughts.
  6. Contact: The coming together of objects, sense faculty and consciousness is contact.
  7. Sensation: From contact arises sensation: pleasurable, painful and neutral.
  8. Craving: Contact leads straight to the desire to not be separated from pleasurable sensations or to get rid of painful sensations.
  9. Grasping: As that craving to have or avoid increases, it becomes grasping, i.e. intense striving never to be separated from what is pleasurable and to avoid what is painful.
  10. Becoming: This grasping takes the form of action by the body, speech and/or mind, and that action creates karma, an action imprint on the underlying energy. That karma then determines the energy's next morph, a new existence.
  11. Rebirth: Through the impelling power of karma, something becomes. When the conditions necessary for this energy pattern are assembled, one is reborn in a particular birthplace.
  12. Old age and death: Once born or reborn, one's form is subjected inevitably to the continual process of aging as all the parts change and develop. Eventually there is death. And if it is in ignorance of how this actually works, the same cycle starts again.
So the goal of Dharma, the goal of meditation, the pinnacle of awareness/consciousness/mind/spirit is to break this chain and be freed of all the suffering ignorance creates. And that brings us back to the discussion about adjectives like good and bad.

Thank you.

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

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Sunday, March 02, 2014

Happy News for a Happy New (Tibetan) Year (and Meditation Lesson 5)

Today, March 2, 2014 is Losar, Tibetan New Year and this message came from one of the most revered and savvy expounders of Tibetan Buddhism, His Eminence Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, in his own English:

Buddha’s teaching on dependent arising distinguishes him from all others as the supreme expounder of the truth. Once dependent arising has been pointed out to us, it’s a truth so blatantly obvious that we wonder how we missed it. Yet in our daily lives, our craving for independence is so strong that we forget how entirely dependent we really are.

We may notice that we depend on food, for example, on shelter and even friendship, but we forget, or perhaps fail to notice, the fine and intricate web of subtle phenomena upon which we are equally reliant. And because we ignore this  reality, we find ourselves falling over and over again into a realm of disappointment, where we become numb because we are too hopeful and then sink into the agony of hopelessness.

But the truth is that our conditioning rules us. We both create conditions and depend on conditions, some of which are good, and others we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemies. Those of us alive today are extremely fortunate because the name of Shakyamuni Buddha still exists and still has meaning.  Shakyamuni Buddha is therefore an important condition, a "dependent arising," that can help us shape our lives.

For those who don't know what dependent arising means, the facile explanation is: you never walk alone, or no man is an island and even if he is, he's part of the sea. There is no such thing as independence, absolutely nothing that exists all by itself with no connection to absolutely anything else.  No. Life, the universe, the whole shebang is just one thing after another, a shaggy dog story in which the hip bone's connected to the shin bone and the shin bone's connected to the ankle bone and you're no home alone.

What the Buddha realized is that everything that happens happens only as the result of something that just happened, endlessly. There's no start or finish. More importantly perhaps, there's no straight line: it's all an endless spinning circle of one event leading to the next in repeating cycles. He drew a wheel of interdependent origination with 12 sectors, one feeding into the next and so on back around. Dharma students study and often have to memorize the 12 nidanas, links of interdependence. And you can do this easily through books or even on the web by searching Nidanas

So instead let's talk about what interdependent origination means to us everyday. The Vietnamese Zen Buddhist elder Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a beautiful short tract tracing all the links in, for instance, your breakfast glass of orange juice, starting with the sun that shines on the tree, the person whose land the tree rises from, the rain that waters it, the person who tends the tree, the people who tend the person who tends the tree and so on until the entire universe is in your stomach with that orange juice.

The Japanese Zen roshis will ask you: Who was your mother before your mother was born?  This brings us to ancestors without whom we would not be here. You know that old joke: children are hereditary. Chances are if your parents didn't have any, you won't have any either. So we owe our existence to thousands upon thousands of beings who came before us and did whatever they did to survive, reproduce and allow their children to survive.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama always speaks of compassion, how caring for others and being connected to others comes back to us as happiness because there's no way we can avoid contact with others. We're told to treat every single being as our precious mother because, see ancestors above, energy never dies it just morphs, so at some point earlier in time any living being we encounter today could have been our mother. We have a debt to pay.

And that brings us to the law of karma, lately known as what goes  'round comes 'round, once known as "give and ye shall receive." The law of karma unlike the laws of Congress is simple: karma literally means action, as in an action-reaction--reaction chain of events. Its law says virtuous action begets blessings and more virtue while harmful action unleashes negative energy and thus distressing events. According to the law of karma, you can change the course of your life by changing your current karma: every virtuous action you commit will produce a positive outcome for you, the more the merrier. Nothing happens haphazardly or mysteriously if you look closely enough. That's why sometimes, as I've said before based on my sometimes painful personal experience, not getting what you want turns out to be the happily ever after your good karma earned you.

And finally, interdependent origination on the most mundane basis brings us to adjectives and the way we sling them around. Good bad, small, tall, here, there, east, west.....What makes you so sure? Adjectives are a rush to judgement, a search for the absolute, when in fact everything is relative. This is to say, what you see is merely the effect of a momentary collision of causes, action and reaction. So in a second it will all be different: new action and reaction. Everything is always in play like this and thus continually shifting. Nothing is as fixed as you may think it is.

Take this idea of good and bad. As i think I've written before, Tibetans might describe the Chinese invasion of their country and the genocide still going on as bad, really really bad. But can we say that it was all bad when in fact it was the Chinese pushing the Tibetans out of their country that cracked the shell on their secret wisdom and let it leak to us. So what happened to Tibet has been good for us. The Dalai Lama says: Nothing is all bad.

Here's how my beloved Rinpoche likes to explain how adjectives confuse and muddy up our perception of reality: hold up your hand, either one will work. Now extend upward your pinky and your ring finger. Look at those two: one is small, one is big, right? Your ring finger is a big finger, right? Okay, now put down your pinky and thrust up your middle finger. Uh oh. Is your ring finger still big? What just happened?

There's the theory of relativity for you, the theory of dependence on causes, the teaching that nothing exists in a vacuum by itself unchanged by any connection to anything else. So that's us: a huge mash-up of causes and conditions changing so constantly we can't pinpoint anything as fixed.

So happy new year.  None of us are stuck; none of us are good or bad or tall or short or anything at all except changing. When you sit quietly and meditate, watching your thoughts streaming endlessly across your attention span, you can see the constant changing. If you look more carefully, you can even see how one thought leads right into another, interdependent origination in HD. And when you really see that, you begin to see how you alone are the master of your own fate. Happy New Year of the Wooden Horse. May it carry you to the joy of no suffering.

~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