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.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Mission not accomplished

My oh my. For 27 years and 5 months, I have been trying to be a Buddhist and the last six weeks show what a miserable failure I am. I suppose in retrospect I got into Dharma the way America got into Iraq: thinking I could smartly and quickly clean up a mess and make everything sparklingly perfect with a surge of effort here and there. Ha ha ha ha ha.

I just got to see how I'm doing with the most basic point of the Buddha's teaching: his First Noble Truth, suffering. That's the ABCs of Dharma right there and it's what I wanted to deal with when I started all those years ago. The Buddha diagnosed how we are all continually suffering in three profound ways: we suffer from suffering pain, fear and stress; we suffer from inevitable change-- when joy disappears, when we get what we don't want, sickness sets in, aging occurs, death happens; and we suffer from the very deep malaise of being isolated in our bodies so that no connection is ever complete and satisfactory. Right on.

I suppose the best known of these sufferings is the truth of suffering from change, famous perhaps because it is so intimately related to the buzzword impermanence. So many wannabe and non-Buddhists have heard Dharma is about impermanence, dealing with the inescapable transitory quality of everything. (I would have said "absolutely everything" if I hadn't been looking at the fat on my thighs.)  The Buddha--unaware of hormones and high school and high tech innovations-- pointed out the major changes everyone of us will all have to deal with: birth, sickness, old age and death, hinting they were not fun things to tweet about.

I know this, at least at some level. I know the sun will set on a beautiful day and the night bring a killer storm; I know money made in the stock market will inevitably be lost; I know a cute kitten will become an obnoxiously whining cat, someone I have a crush on will turn out to be a jerk, and that my hair will turn gray. For 27 years and five months, I have been trying to follow the Buddha's remedy for the sadness of change, schlepping along his path to liberation from its affects. The famous buzzword for this is emptiness. Or maybe it's Now, as in the Present. The present is a gift, a truly useful one you don't ever want to regift. Yet in the thick of enormous changes coming at you like hail pelts, it can end up under the bed where you can't find it when you need it. All you can see is the past before the change or future due to it. That so scares the wits out of you, you forget you are still here now.

Sometimes I think I'm making real progress; I'm a big girl. I get it. This time is definitely not one of those times. Mercury and I are both retrograde, well me anyway. I have already written about being abruptly cancelled without notice by my 25-year-long VBF, which felt like a sudden airplane crash death for which there is no closure. That was followed by the news that my trusted carpenter/handyman, the guy who built my house and therefore claims the right to tend it, was in the hospital somewhere between life and death. He wouldn't be working for a long time. My house was not going to get fixed until I found someone new. I am going to have to live with uncomfortable problems for at least a year.

I wasn't taking these kinds of change very well and thought maybe I am not seeing clearly. That was a growing frustration. Then the eye doctor confirmed it would continue to be: I now have cataracts, one of the joys old age brings you. So now I get to test a new frustration point: the higher it is the longer I can postpone surgery. I figured it best to try not to have a nervous breakdown over this beginning of the body breakdown because the last thing I wanted was quick surgery when the excommunicator VBF was listed as the person to call in emergencies and my bedroom needed fixing.

I was trying, about as successfully as the Americans in Iraq, to cope with all these unwelcome challenges when I got word of the death of a major family member. I was alerted she had maybe a week to ten days, but she was gone an hour after that email came. This was an earthquake that shook disturbing memories down off the family tree and smashed a crater in the mindscape.

I like to suppose I could've coped with this increasing pace of subtraction--I was doing a lot of the Chenrezig puja for suffering, if it didn't suddenly speed up like today's high tech frenzy. Maybe because I was feeling weak, I had my breath knocked out by someone's casual news that a goddaughter of mine was getting married: date and place, registry on The Knot and airline tickets all done. Who knew? Although I have been close to the bride-to-be since she was three and adapted me as her fairy godmother, I am apparently now out of her loop. She needed my support as a young child; as a teenager she needed my expertise in navigating New York and a sense of style; at 21 she needed me to show her how to drink fashionably and sustainably, and to provide the flowers for her graduation recital. Now she is 42, lives in New York and knows it so much better than me, she picks the places we meet for coffee when I visit. She doesn't need my support or guidance any more, so I'm in the dark of the closet where childhood things are stored and wasn't told she was getting married. I get it intellectually, I understand the moving on. That's normal. But blood goes to the heart, so bloodless coups cause real suffering there.

Amputation from someone's life causes pain because they are automatically cut out of yours too, a gutting that creates a vacuum that needs to be filled. Thus the phantom limb for physical amputees and for those of us loped off others' lives, phantom images of other so called close friends or family members who needed us for a time, and when they were out of whatever that pickle was, moved on without saying goodbye. Best friends not until the end probably because they needed to forget how they used to be. Some people don't want their rainy day friends around when the sun shines. That is change of considerable magnitude, and its inevitable mantra: What did I do to deserve this? shows how change creates so much suffering. The Buddha nailed it.

Of course, not all change is dire. I got a surprise call two nights ago from my Nepali heart son. It was a double surprise because he is a famed musician supposed to have been on his European tour, not in the US on his local cell. So I suspected something was up. "I have great news for you," he blurted right away. "Really great news! You're going to be a grandmother!"  Oh my, all these people leaving and now someone new is coming. The center of attention is going to shift like the tectonic plates under the San Andreas fault. This relationship is now going to be different too. 

Change is the step from comfortable familiarity to the unknown, and I didn't think I was one of those "conservative" who couldn't digest it without burping up the sort of bile we have in politics today. But telling myself the Buddha said disruptions are inevitable--I should've seen 'em coming, doesn't make any of them go down more easily. Meditation is supposed--operative word is supposed-- to make it all go away, like the US military was to make all those violent Islamic jihadists go away. But at this assault rifle pace, it is very hard to keep standing. One change means another.  When someone casts you aside with their childhood things, they're reminding you you've aged, telling you they've got so many new people filling their life, you're  irrelevant--or perhaps redundant, as the Brits would say.  When someone gives you good news of childhood coming, you also know you've aged-- enough to catch the scent in the baby gain of losing some treasured emotional intimacy, enough to sense you're the one who has to be even wiser now. And when on top of it all, you lose your clarity of seeing, your family matriarch and the workman you've counted on for a decade to keep your house livable, you feel horridly upended. And alone. The lonely kind of alone.

So mission not at all accomplished. I have to hand it to the Buddha. He was right about change being an arrow that hits the bull's eye of your life and causes suffering. He was right about pain and fear and stress and also about transient, unsatisfying connections: they are weapons of mass destruction.

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

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Saga Dawa

About two weeks ago, my Tibetan heart daughter, stunningly beautiful and just as stunningly pious, took up the cause of reminding me that we're now back in Saga Dawa, Buddhism holiest month. Supposedly, in this fourth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, which usually coincides nicely with our elegant month of June, Shakyamuni Buddha was born in Lumbini, got enlightened at Bodh Gaya and later passed into parinirvana, which is to say he died as we know it.  

Devoting an entire month to remembering --and of course trying to emulate --the accomplishments of that Buddha, particularly after everyone else has given him one day in May, seems to be uniquely Tibetan. I don't really know why, but I like suspecting this comes from the Mongolian/Siberian shamanism that inflects Tibet's version of Buddhism. In all those icy, isolated geographical areas, June is the burst of life after the long thaw, the onset of possibilities as formerly frozen dynamic energies finally spring into play. Tibetan Buddhism, like Mongolian shamanism and the Bon religion it birthed, is all about harnessing energies. 

Believe that or not, it is said that during Saga Dawa any act of merit you perform will be gigantically enlarged, any Dharma practice you do will be infinitely and perhaps instantly beneficial, and on the Internet, when you Google saga dawa, it's said that now is the time to visit what parts of Tibet you can get into because you'll see wildly colorful celebrations. Every tour company is on it. But then so are the lamas: two who are my friends texted me to do more practice this month because that will be especially beneficial.

Of course along with doing good, as my heart daughter was reminding me, you have to be good. Extra very good like the Buddha himself. You have to love all beings enough to not just be vegan before six, as the trendy campaign puts it, but after six too because bad karmic actions are going to be just as multiplied as virtuous ones. So for this whole month, you cannot touch eggs, meat, fish, fowl, or even dairy. (Not surprisingly, as I learned being in Mongolia in June, this is the month in those frozen countries when the animals they depend upon for milk have given birth and need their milk for the babies.)

My Tibetan heart daughter was, as usual, going at Saga Dawa purity with gusto, suddenly surviving only on lentils and tofu and black coffee. Suddenly feeling weak, possibly sick. The next phone call was about worry. After all, she is responsible essentially for two jobs plus charity endeavors and handling the affairs of her large family. On a good day she doesn't get much sleep and now in the humid heat of an early New York summer, she was doing all that she relentlessly does between complex subway trips on tofu and lentils. Weak after only a week, three weeks to go.

So there's where the rub met the load: how to be a devout Buddhist in modern times? How to be a Tibetan Buddhist outside Tibet? And there's where me and my big mouth, wrinkled by age, opened as the voice of America. I heard myself heatedly telling her Tibetan self that she wasn't some monk sitting comfortably on a cushion in a remote Himalayan monastery with nothing to do on lentils and rice but sit there and pray. She was a full blooded New Yorker full tilt in fifth gear on the F train. Accommodations had to be made for circumstances. After all, no Tibetan Rinpoche is a fundamentalist fanatic. Buddhism is not Islam. The beauty of this path is that all its guides right up to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and His Holiness Karmapa are exemplars of the practical. They are realists who say: "If you can do this, great, if not, well try it incrementally or make it an aspiration." 

I couldn't believe I struck with such force at her stringent piety, so the next morning when I remembered the lamas telling me to do more practice, I went to my altar to ask forgiveness. I told Chenrezig I was only trying to liberate that stubborn woman from suffering. I asked Guru Rinpoche to excuse my culture clash. I was only pushing flexibility, a case by case basis for the rules. Then I had to go to my the kitchen where as "guest chef" I was preparing all the food for a sold out fundraising dinner. The immediate work I had to do was make rhubarb sauce for all the...chicken I needed to cook. Right in the middle of Saga Dawa, spring chicken and spring lamb for 64.  What to do?

I went back to my altar and did the confession mantra three times to ask for forgiveness for having to do this job. On the bright side, I confessed, I was going it gratis as my contribution to a worthy charitable cause that would benefit a geographical community and the livelihoods of farmers who lived in it and needed to make a go. The meat was not about me and my appetite.  I hadn't meant to cause harm. Maybe I could minimize the damage I was doing if I promised to only eat pasta and salads, yogurt and cheese while working on this venture. Would that be okay?

I went back to the kitchen, grabbed the pot handle and was watching the rhubarb finally congeal into sauce when I realized the whole point of Saga Dawa, like the whole point of Dharma, is to make us keenly aware of what we are doing, of what choices we have to make and how we make them. Certainly this extended period, a whole month with no escape, emphasizes our behavior patterns more clearly than three days might. I would have to handle and cook all that meat, but I could confess to Vajrasattva that I was sorry for the predicament, sorry for the loss of life and ready to eat spaghetti more often. In fact I worried so much about the bad karma, I have actually started doing more formal practice every day. 

Two days ago, before she had to board a plane for an emergency trip to India where her father is dying, my heart daughter texted me that she ate a bowl of mulligatawny soup and is feeling much better, thank you.  So I suppose all we can do is try. A friend of mine once said that's why the Rinpoches call what we do "practice."

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

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

Buddha Speaks to Graduates

So we've come again to that time of year for conspicuously celebrating people who are moving on. June is a seemingly unending series of public promotions as students in tassels graduate with Pomp and Circumstance to higher education, provided of course they can sit through all the speeches first. You know: the valedictorian has to express hopes, the honored guest has to impress expectations, the principal has to depress fears. Then everybody claps.

I really don't want to be the grinch who puts the kibosh on all the caps and gowns, but I do think one way or other, without them, all of us are graduating all the time. No spotlight, speeches or congratulations for a job well done, but still we are continually moving on all the time, not just to a higher shoe size, but to what you could call higher education if you mean learning more about our hopes, expectations and fears. Yes, management. There aren't many honor scrolls given out for this continuing accomplishment, and the only procession is the one you are in by yourself. Yet I suspect these unheralded moments are graduations the Buddha might prefer to address. 

I imagine he'd do it in 21st Century style with a visual gimmick to look smooth and attract attention. You know: graphs, charts, pies, slides, videos--something really colorful that makes you look seriously smart. So I suggest Prayer Flags.  After all, they continually send into the wind the Buddha's unending wishes for all of us to graduate from suffering to satisfaction, or peace. Om mani peme hung. And, they come in five colors.

Red: May All Beings Be Free from Suffering
Red is a warning: DANGER! So why go there? Of course we are all trained to stop our cars at red lights and stop signs. We've seen enough TV and movies to know if we don't, we could get killed in a collision and end up DOA on CSI. But how about that other vehicle that propels us around, our mind? Where's its Driver's Ed? We don't always stop at "uh oh" or "ouch", do we?  We just plow right past our doubts, our sneaking suspicions and intuition that something's-- o.k. the total truth, someone's-- just a little off our specs. Thinking the wrong stuff in something or someone otherwise so right will go away, maybe just melt like the ice in a July gin and tonic, helps us ignore the signal to slow down, even halt before we collide with reality. Trust me, that usually does not end well. Reality is never going to be at fault. Despite the Buddha's insistence on impermanence, I've found whatever from the get-go did not feel right, whatever in a job prospect, a love interest or a piece of property jumped out as an "ugh!"  will not somehow suddenly morph into an "ah!" just because we badly want it to.  Sorry, it's going to remain a scratchy thorn that will eventually blind with rage or poison. So we need to be careful how we drive ourselves.  Since the universe is always trying to guide us safely to reality, perhaps we should stop running those red lights it installs to save us from smash-ups with it.

Blue: May All Beings Be Free from the Causes of Suffering

Picasso had his Blue Period, and we all have one--or two or three or, o.k. dozens--too. Nobody got on Picasso's case and we shouldn't pile on ours. As inevitably as the moon has phases, as inevitably as it switches places with the sun, we are going to have blue periods. The world is not, at least not just yet, one gigantic Disneyland cynically manufactured to keep us all spellbound by delight. It's a gorgeous combination of mountains, valleys and oceans that churn and calm, flow and ebb. Do you really want to be the grotesquely numbing, waterless flat of Kansas?  (Realized beings excepted)

What makes us blue anyway? Why do we sometimes feel so unhappy, sensing that life is treating us badly? Maybe, hmmm? Maybe it's because what we think of as badly or wrong is whatever is not going our way, i.e. the way we personally hoped or expected. The universe totally ignored our agenda. Life did not deliver the goods we wanted. Well, perhaps so many other people wanted the "goods" too, they had to be back ordered. You never know. 

Then again, we might ask: who says we are, each of us, the final judge of good or bad, right or wrong? How do we know for sure which is which? And for how long? The Buddha says happiness is getting what we want--the right stuff, and unhappiness is having that ignored--baaad. We are so pathologically afraid of not getting what we want, we have created a whole corporate culture dedicated to letting us have everything our way--for a price of course. But if we take a hard look back at our lives, we'll probably see that sometimes not getting what or who we wanted turned out to be the real happily ever after. Honestly, could you have lived a lifetime with that slob you saw at the reunion? Or been happy in that much smaller apartment than the one you eventually found?

Okay, granted, sometimes bad things happen to good people. The Buddha, through the mouth of Tai Situ Rinpoche, says suffering is the broom that sweeps up your negative karma and makes you good to go. Trungpa Rinpoche liked to say all our shit--the stuff that gives us the blues, is the manure that makes our perfection grow--if we learn how to apply it. So appreciate downtime. Only when you acknowledge trouble can you find the remedy for it. And, duh, trouble usually comes from not knowing the difference between right and wrong.

White: May All Beings Have Happiness and the Causes of Happiness 

White is supposedly the absence of color, nothing happening. Nothing meaningful anyway, as in white noise. White's a clean slate or a fresh start, also a soft billowy cloud out of which we can coax rain to fertilize and refresh. Most of all, it is the symbol of purity, a way of saying spotless perfection.  Killjoy was not here. But the Buddha says we are. Just like Chenrezig, we are, all of us pure stainless perfection --well, our mind anyway, Minds are, of course, the Buddha's field of expertise, so perhaps we should trust him on this. It's huge his message: no matter how badly we think we've fucked up, no matter how horribly others have harmed us, no matter what stains we've put on our reputation, or how black and blue our thoughts. we're still absolutely as pure and perfect as white, (oh yes, the driven snow) because nothing sticks. That's emptiness for you. Every second our mind moves into blank freshness with no carry-on baggage. It remains unsullied by whatever passes through; it's more stainless than steel. Whatever we feel is weighing it down actually isn't; that's  literally just our imagination having a field day because there's nothing there. Is there? Can you find it?  Bad thoughts about bad happenings are just like a cloud blowing across the sky without affecting it in any way. And it disappears, leaving the sky pristine. So every second is our chance for a clean break, a fresh start, a new way. You don't need a computer algorithm to be an innovative entrepreneur. 

Green: May All Beings Never Be Dissociated from the Supreme Happiness which is without Suffering  

Okay, so money can't buy happiness, but it definitely does buy a lot of stuff that lets you think you've nailed it. We've got an entire economy based on that fact fiction. I hate to hammer the point but your happiness has planned obsolescence built right into it; it's probably the one thing that corporations build  to last. Don't get me wrong. I'm not here to denounce money. My teacher Thrangu Rinpoche always says having money is not a problem at all, not a bad thing of itself. The bad and the problem come from how you got it and how you handle it. Did you acquire it honestly without harm to anyone or anything? Do you hoard it or share it? Do you use it to benefit others in a way that does no harm? (Like building Buddhist monasteries ;o) or feeding the hungry organic food.) Or are you one of those billionaires who uses wealth like a weapon to beat people into submission, the only happiness going to lawyers who get to submit outrageous billing?

What's wrong with having money is the greed it evokes for turning everything into it, for creating a Midas culture that commoditizes absolutely everything and everyone it touches--which leads to what I suppose you might call a Gilded Age.

There's also nothing wrong with stuff in and of itself. Nothing wrong with having a bed to sleep in, a fridge for your food, and a Smart phone to keep up with Facebook. What's wrong, or bad, is getting so attached to your stuff, you cannot live without it and will harm anybody who gets between you and it. Or getting despondent when you lose some. Or refusing to share or perhaps even give something to someone in need. Or gift someone who admires what you have. What's wrong with money and stuff, and yes attachment to people too, is not being able to let go without kicking and screaming, without thinking you can't live if you don't own them. Actually the sun will still come up in the morning and you will still have to pee after drinking two cups of tea. Trust me. I was robbed of my family heirlooms, threw away my yearbooks and had to toss my collection of trip slides but I'm still here! So love your people and your things, even your money with a shrug. Life has this weird habit of hanging around even when they're gone.                                     

Yellow: May all Beings Remain in Boundless Equanimity, Freed from Attachment and Aversion

We're done with talk of gold so let's have yellow be the sun, source of everything including us. Without it's warmth, its energy, nothing would exist. We owe it big time. Solar energy grows the greens that cows turn into milk. It grows the trees we turn into rubber wheels. It shines on our skin turning into vital Vitamin D. All that it does is without prejudice or favoritism. It shines on everyone, not just on a few A-list people, and does not find some people more deserving of its radiance than others. What a way to see how equal we human beings basically are with each other in the world. The sun seems to think we all equally deserve to live. It does not discriminate. It does not have first class and business class rays brighter than economy. The sun puts out everything it's got for the benefit of all beings and the effort hasn't killed it yet. It's still going strong. There's a message there.

~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