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, November 28, 2014

Thanksgiving Talk

I am in a waterless retreat cabin on a mountainside in Northern California with three statues to meditate with, four sadhanas to practice and a three books to study in between. While my mind is calm and my eyes are reading, certain sentences in those books jump off the page and stare me down. Since I've noticed lately that almost everything people post on Facebook and on simpleton sites like Beliefnet are quotes they think makes their life feel better, I thought I'd share my harvest of the last 48 hours.

"The concept and the reality are quite different. Often we mix these up. Concepts are in the head, and experience is in the heart.  That is why it is sometimes said that the longest journey we take is the journey from the head to the heart."   Ringu Tulku

"...we may occasionally not feel much devotion to what the guru looks like or how he behaves or talks. But the object of trust in ths relationship with our guru should actually be the teachings that he gives--the Dharma--that are no different from the teachings of the Buddha. The effectiveness of the teachings does not depend upon the guru's looks or what he does or how he speaks."  Thrangu Rinpoche

"By recognizing that we put ourselves through more unnecessary turmoil and suffering than anybody else could ever possibly inflict on us, we will respond to whatever other people subject us to in a more relaxed and effective way"   Traleg Rinpoche

"One important thing to remember about obstacles is that they are not permanent." Ringu Tulku

"The reality of our mind may seem very deep and difficult to understand; but it may also be something simple and easy because this mind is not somewhere else. It is not somebody else's mind, it is your own mind, it is right here; therefore it is something you can know." --Thrangu Rinpoche

"It is not true that we only develop when we feel loved, cared for, appreciated, respected and admired; we also grow when we are despised, belittled, held back and denigrated. If we use our own intelligence--the Dharma type of intelligence--we will find a way to grow through these situations."   --Traleg Rinpoche

"We need to go beyond our past, because otherwise it is all too much and we feel overwhelmed. We cannot resolve each and every thing that ever happened to us, even if we could remember them all. If we could see all the unconscious baggage we carry around with us, even a big garbage dump might not contain it all. We can't work on all these problems one by one. What we need is a total transformation."   Ringu Tulku

Friday, November 21, 2014

Now Uber Alles

In case nobody else has told you yet, the antiques business has died, victim of the highly contagious Wow Now virus spreading unchecked across America. Friends who've spent 40 years patiently purveying six and seven figure 18th Century pieces of American perfection described their most recent shows as "dismal", "disappointing" and "devastating. Nobody wants what we have."  On the opposite side of the country, a friend in the business of selling Asian folk antiques for 25 years said the past two years have been "dreary and discouraging. What am I going to do with all this stuff?" 

I feel their pain. I can't get rid of my great uncle's complete set of 19th Century gold rimmed Limoges china or sell the gold and gemstone jewelry my grandparents paid part of their fortune for. I can't even find a taker for two Cambodian sandstone statues that were supposed to have been "an investment." So much for the new sharing economy.

You may be thinking: My my, so what? No biggie. Who cares about antiques? That's so...old. I am thinking: this is huge. This is so new. Now what? We are drowning in hoopla and hyped up happiness about a new sharing economy that's going to revolutionize everything, and nobody tells you it's pretty damned picky and choosy about what you can share. Mostly just the stuff teenage boys want: a sleeping couch, a ride, elbow grease, and home delivery for everything, so they never have to deal with real people. Nobody wants to say to real people with wisdom and treasures: "Thank you for sharing."

America's obsession with shiny new has run amok, trampling the past and turning age into a leper nobody dares to touch. People are so afraid of being infected, the botox business is booming. Plastic surgery is the highest grossing medical profession. The hippest words of the day are baby talk: hoodie, wheelie, selfie, my bad.   

It's come to this: computers are allowed to have more and more useful memory, but grownups aren't welcome to have any. Haven't you noticed the only Beatles song you never hear replayed is I Believe in Yesterday. Really, who does that anymore? Everybody is too busy avoiding yesterday's ideas, heroes and arts like toxic waste. Remember how last month, Democrats couldn't bring themselves to utter the letters FDR or JFK. You can see how we are so over precedent and predecessors in all those recent Supreme Court Decisions. Last week the University of Maine announced it was axing its American and Franco-American studies programs to save money. Well, I will bet you this is the last school to toss history in the garbage. I know because I watch Jeopardy. I see how all those under 30 wunderkinds who instantly buzz for the name, label or title of every pop song and movie of the last decade or two are totally silenced by far more famous events or personalities before 1980. It just flabbergasts me how clueless those so-called smarties are about General Westmoreland, Walter Winchell, Fred Astaire and the OSS. 

Let me put this situation in terms I really understand: food. Our culture is propelled by the sort of people who refuse to eat and throw away leftovers. Leftovers! Often the best part of the meal!  Silly me who hungers for a leftover that's been on the table for 2,600 years. I spend 27 years trying to fathom that old Buddha's teachings, trying to adapt myself to authentic meditation practices, hand-me-downs in Tibet for at least 1,200 years. It's been a formidable struggle and now I discover a 30-something former fashion magazine editor and makeover maven spent a meditation week with Oprah and a month of mindfulness, and immediately morphed into a "spiritual entrepreneur." No sweat. She simply adapted the Dharma to herself, to have it her way like a hamburger--I'll take mine with ketchup and no onions-- and opened a drop-in, Buddha-free, time-sensitive meditation center where type As can calm down. It's in LA and it's called Unplugged. She sees it as the first of a chain. 

Well, I'd also call that unplugged.  Definitely. She has pulled the plug on the millennia of lamas and gurus and Rinpoches fiercely devoted to making sure we were handed down unpolluted Dharma. I see that as the end of a chain.

Don't get me wrong. I am Buddhist. I believe in Now. I try to live in the moment, carpe diem and all that. But Now has gone wild. I don't think the Buddha meant living in now as a child's tantrum against hand-me-downs. He didn't teach people to get obsessed with innovation, novelty, youth, freshness, interruption and disruption for its own sake--all new all the time.

New Age seems to mean nothing is allowed to last. Everything has to have an inviolable expiration date. Food, credit cards, drugs, warranties, operating systems, marriages, that Asian antique Shakyamuni Buddha. Sometimes expiration dates aren't stamped on stuff; you're just supposed to intuit. How embarrassing, one of those highly manicured and polished department store cosmetic cuties scrunched her face into a big Ooo after I confessed my lipstick was probably a year or two old. "You can't use that!" she exclaimed. When I scrunched my face into the big Ooo of Why?, she smiled brightly. "Because ... well,'s so old, it's probably no good any more. You need to change it every six months before it gets too full of germs and stuff."

Well, I am going to share something: as a Buddhist I appreciate impermanence, but since it hasn't killed me yet, I use the same germy lipstick 'til it's used up. I'm even okay plugged into the original Buddha's instructions. I am so old age, I drive my tech genie bonkers by working on a six-year-old computer that he considers antique. Worse, I refused to upgrade my IOS from 6 because it was working just fine when the new IOS 7 was busy crashing everybody else's iPad and phone. I didn't even jump right up to 8 when it was introduced. Hell, my iPhone is 2 years old and six weeks ago, I was due for an upgrade, but why rush to ditch something familiar that works just fine on trusty old IOS 6?

I know in this age of short term profiting, long term thinking makes me a freak. So pity me, please. I suffer from a handicap. I grew up when things were built to last. I came of age when tomatoes weren't the only acceptable heirloom. Mad Men era revelations about planned obsolescence unleashed culture shock. Who suspected Chrysler was making cars doomed to die at 60,000 miles just so they could sell more of them? Who knew that would lead to cosmetic counter clerks dissing my lipstick just so they can manipulate me into buying a new one.

Of course, you could say: Ho hum, no biggie. Planned obsolescence was not exactly a new idea of the '50s and already 2600 years ago the Buddha taught impermanence. You'd be right. My eyes are failing and my hormones have evaporated. That's planned obsolescence right there. Impermanence was in the original Mom and Pop business plan and it's worked out so well, Mother Nature and Father Time are still turning out products not carelessly made in China. For instance, me. I am the result of long term strategy and antiques. My parts that broke down lasted 50 and 70 years. They may be gone, but I'm still here, running smoothly. I was built to last a lifetime.

Or so I thought. With all these antique hating newbies so busy disrupting, instead of a lifetime, instead of the high life or the good life or the examined life, whatever you want to call fourscore years and ten, I now have a shelf life. Old is the New Fat. I saw that headline. My eyesight is not that bad. I saw: Old is the New Fat. Here's the story: Being grownup is dreadful; don't go there.  Everybody is ducking from dignity and running from anything that indicates age, because unless you happen to be a bottle of wine, being old makes you contemptible. You are so not Now, nobody wants to be seen with you. You are just a fathead.

Well, what to do? I have gained experience, added huge amounts of memory and pumped up my perspective. And now people dread having to sit next to a fathead like me in the ever shrinking coach cabin.

The eye doctor says I have cataracts, and I see them ruining my night vision. But cataracts are not blinders. They have not clouded my long view or blocked my wide angle perspective. I see context-- the fat. That makes my thinking nowhere near so thin or nearsighted as a 25-year-old's. I don't have a problem with that, but apparently twenty-five-year-olds do. The new young male editor of the Internet daily I used to opine for passed on my proposed piece showing fashionably novel and highly trumpeted services like Uber and Airbnb to actually be nothing new, just iterations of traditional ways to solve the age-old "servant problem."

What to do? Twenty-five-year-olds don't want me to share the news that they're not unplugged after all. They're just another moment in a continuum, not sky splitting, Earth-shattering special creatures after all. When tomorrow is now, they're going to be antiques.

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

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Monday, November 17, 2014

Happiness Express

I want to share most recently heard words of wisdom about the sort of happiness you can't get with a credit card or find under the Christmas tree.

From Thich Nhat Han: Success and happiness are not the same thing. People often become the victim of their success but nobody ever becomes the victim of their happiness. 

From Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche: If one can benefit one sentient being, then there will be great appreciation and delight. If one benefits another being, then again there is delight and joy. In this way it becomes an endless ocean of joy. Compared to this great happiness, it is not that enjoyable to reach liberation just for oneself. 

From Ringu Tulku Rinpoche: There is an old saying in India that goes something like this. If you want to be happy for an hour, have a beer. If you want to be happy for a day, go on a picnic. If you want to be happy for a week, find a project to work on. If you want to be happy for a month, get married. (Everybody loves that line.) If you want to be happy for a year, pile up some money. If you want to be happy forever, take the Dharma teachings to heart and practice them.

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

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Highway as the Path

With precision that was really freaky, I pulled into my driveway in San Francisco with the clock in the exact position it had two Fridays before when I pulled out of my driveway in Maine. I had gone the distance. It included breath biting moments of stomach churning panic, most memorably in the sleet and high winds both outside Chicago and just inside Colorado when I needed to get around speeding double barreled semis whose rear trucks could not stop fishtailing. Also hairy moments when the gas tank icon  flashed and not one sign of civilization beckoned over the horizon. But mostly the zigzag 3,500 mile crossing from sea to shining sea was flawless: no car break-in or vandalism, no speeding ticket, no fender bender or call to AAA, no soul scorching drive across the vast emptiness with Jesus signs that is Kansas. Nebraska was far less mind numbing. Instead of Jesus billboards, it offered rest stops with toilets.

The beauty of a home run like this is never having to go through an airport. Still, as the French say, "il faut soufrire pour la beauté." Even before I pulled out of my driveway, every cell of me dreaded crossing the interior of this massive continent knowing it involves crossing menacingly long, scary swaths of twilight zone with nobody out there. Nothing warm, cozy, familiar or inviting. No fresh food or good coffee. Just eerie desert emptiness garnished with an occasional battered pickup truck or Gas'n'Go whose idea of sustenance is every kind of chip, soda and candy in existence. 

America's flat out soulless stretches can make a woman afraid, very afraid not just of car trouble and foul food, but terrified to the core of all variations of lonesome road macho and that unique American version of highway robbery known as civil forfeiture. (Read all about it.) That terrified me when one remote highway in Nebraska suddenly sank from a 70 to a 60 mph speed limit, because I was convinced  I was in a cop trap. Any minute my car and all my things packed in it were going to be confiscated by a nasty predator in police clothes.  What to do? Stay at 70 praying hard to get out of there, or slow way down and sit in the car worrying--and waiting for a toilet-- longer?

I get why we call this alien world a flyover zone. I tried flying through it in my car. Truth told, I am a speed demon, a daredevil hellbent on exceeding limits. The sign says: 70; I say: ok 79. You'd think I'd be zooming through Samsara toward Nirvana the way I charge to appointments, parties and provisioning, determined to get where I am going and get going. I am a notoriously impatient driver who has made passengers scream in panic.  On this trip, I sometimes scared the hell out of myself, like when I discovered I was hurtling over the flat brown wasteland called Nevada between 95 and 100 mph.

I like believing my good luck in never being stopped, hit, robbed, waylaid or wetting my pants before I saw a restroom sign means the Force was with me. I like believing it rode sidesaddle to protect me because I chose to start this journey with a karmic reboot: a weekend of teaching and prayers at the monastery in Woodstock. There I was surrounded by dozens of people aged and teen, male and female, manicured and not, Indian and African and Chinese, who like me had driven for hours to get there and get from a visiting Rinpoche more of the Buddha's prescription for eradicating unhappiness. In the dining hall, I met an astonishingly well read, retired teacher from west of Toronto (a seven-hour drive); an every weekend Dharma teaching somewhere Chinese-American who drove five hours from the DC Beltway; a stately tall, gray haired woman from Boston's north shore, and an art history sylph from Vassar who had stubbornly dedicated five years to her dream project: combining her two passions into an about to open special exhibit featuring representations of Chenrezig/Avalokiteshvara/Kwan Yin, the great pan Asian deity of compassion.

The monastery experience of sacred outlook and shared aspiration for the secret of happiness fixed my focus for the rest of the journey. I kept noticing how everyone I came across was groping in their blind way away from discontent toward their illusion of happiness. It wasn't just silly me pushing myself through a grueling road trip because I feel insanely happy in Maine except in winter when my health gets threatened so I have to get out. There was the bony, middle-aged waitress at the farm to table bistro in Reno who, hearing I'd just driven over 3,000 to eat that wood grilled cauliflower, confided she'd moved there only a month ago to get out of Seattle's endless rain. "Finally, sun!" she said, turning her face toward the sky.  I smiled knowingly at the retired military officer in Colorado who was putting aside his Corvette and packing up his Airstream to spend time in Death Valley.

Then there was the Lake Michigan BnB owner who posted rules everywhere to regiment her guests' behavior to her liking. Guests were only allowed to arrive between 4 and 6 PM. Breakfast was served only at 9 AM and was what she chose to prepare--even when I couldn't eat most of it. Nothing was without a rule. The small bathroom sink had two posted: "Don't use the dark towels if you use cosmetics or toothpaste that contains peroxide." "Don't use the white towels when washing off makeup or lipstick."  I would have had to stay an extra day just to read every sign she'd put up.

A lone woman traveling long distance, a stranger in a strange land (how else would you feel when in Nebraska Caesar salad means iceberg lettuce with tomatoes, cucumbers and packaged croutons?), actually relies on the kindness of strangers. At almost every restaurant dinner, empathy translated into extra good service. The young waiter at an airport Doubletree Hotel Restaurant was so pleased I liked the roasted red pepper soup, he brought me a huge chocolate chip cookie. The chef/owner of a Midwest farm to table restaurant came out of the kitchen to sit with me after his waiter told him how amazed he was I knew the Robouchon potatoes were named for famed French chef Joel Robouchon.

The young woman in a silly pigtail Halloween costume behind the front desk of a downtown Des Moines hotel was so moved when I told her how back achy and weary I was after a 7 hour drive, and why i won't eat roadstop food, she left a gift bag of goodies at my door with this note: "I know you have had a long trip so we put together a little bag for you to have a good night and safe travels tomorrow."  The man with the pregnancy paunch standing in front of the elevator in Salt Lake City when I was going down to check out, asked if I'd had a good sleep. "Yes, thank you," I said. "Well that's good to hear," he said, "because making sure everyone in this hotel gets a good night's sleep is my job. I'm the engineer here. Is there anything I could help you with before you leave?" 

I caught myself reaching out to grasp at the one known in the middle of nowhere: voices on the radio. Twice or even three times a day, I frantically fiddled with the dial, desperate not to get cut off from my "friends."  "This is NPR news. I'm Lakshmi Singh." "I'm Robert Segal and I'm Audie Cornish."  "I'm Terry Gross and this is Fresh Air." I listened to the same rerun of Car Talk twice in a row because I had to change stations at state lines. At night, I clung to my iPad, surfing from one familiar newspaper to another, trying to feel at home thousands of miles from it. 

I felt a little less alone. But of course I was totally alone, hurtling along mind numbing interstates, connected to nothing and no one, affecting no spin of the universe, not mattering a whit in any way. Funny enough, that's exactly how the Buddha described reality for every one of us: all lone strangers, nomads blinding wandering the path to death by chasing our delusions.   

Midway through my 3,500 miles of driving, I began to realize road signage is actually an expression of politeness, a basic decency. Road signs are a guide to the unfamiliar. You don't realize how crucial this kindness of strangers is until you are at an intersection or off ramp and don't know where to go. Iowa showed especially great compassion with bright, simple signs almost everywhere for just about everything including how far you had to keep going downtown to get to the interstate. It was profound comfort to find somebody cared whether or not I got where I wanted to go. It was epithet deleted road rage to be in Colorado, the Rhett Butler state that frankly doesn't give a damn. Colorado can't be bothered posting detour directions at temporarily closed highway ramps, of which there were at least a half dozen. Perhaps even nastier, it posts signs for interstate rest areas and off-ramps just after you have passed them.

In spite of Colorado, I got where I was going, on time and without obstacle. Of course that was a happiness, yes indeed, until I came inside and put my altar back in place. That's when I realized my long, lonely fear strewn journey between two delineated points wasn't just a momentary car trip. How fast I flew down highways to get to the other side of the country; how slowly I poke along the Path to get to enlightenment. What a huge Yikes!

~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