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.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

You Have to Start Somewhere

 Last Friday was Losar. That kept me very busy. Tibetan New Year requires heavy cleaning: your house, your shrine, your body, your clothes and your mind. You don't want to dirty the freshness of a new year--at least not right away. 

The days leading up to Friday required lots of loud drum banging and praying to the remover of obstacles to banish leftover negativity lest it infect the bright, shiny year ahead. On the eve, I had to take down my entire shrine: change the seven rice bowl offerings, polish up the glowing statues (I squeezed lemon juice on them to get a sheen), dust photos and thangkas, and change brocades. I piled fruits and a cookie for sweetness. When I saw a glow radiate from my effort, I felt the jubilation of accomplishment. 

A huge tide of joyful wishes flooded my wi-fi. From around the globe, the year of the wood sheep rolled in on Facebook, WeChat, text message, telephone and email. Everybody's reaching out beyond arm's length felt like a huge embrace. In its warmth, I busily beamed around the world best wishes for a happy new year. Germany...Mongolia...Nepal...Canada...for a moment, the planet seemed to be a cozy neighborhood.

Friday was also Tet for the Vietnamese and the nominal Chinese lunar New Year that technically started about ten days before. It will be officially celebrated two weeks later with a glamorous parade staged by San Francisco's enormous Chinese community. Friday was for showing the love in stuffed red envelopes, red fruits piled on the shrine, and wearing something new that's red, color of good luck. It was the time for bananas--color of gold, those impossibly long clear noodles--symbols of long life or at least enough for the new year, and celebrating fish by ingesting their energy (i.e. eating some) because they only move forward. Those who retain traditional Buddhist devotion purify themselves by eating a decidedly vegetarian meal, to show their care for life. It's also a way of asking for more life themselves.

The rest of the world went on like none of this hullabaloo was happening. School, stock trades, mail--it was not a holiday. The Jews celebrate their New Year in autumn on a date that varies with the harvest moon. Roman Catholics and their Protestant cousins claim New Year in midwinter, always on the same day: January 1--  a relatively recent designation by the way. Ancient Greeks began their new year with the first new moon after the summer solstice, June 21. Before Julius Caesar, Romans started their year March 1, then during the Middle Ages most European countries acted like the year began on March 25, day of the Feast of the Annunciation. 

No one really knows where a year begins. Bengalis have a New Year different from the rest of Hindu India which uses the spring equinox as start. Persians use that day too. Nowraz always falls on March 21. Everyone eats sprouts. Thais celebrate Songkran mid April as a water festival that purifies, washing away the dirt of the old. Nepalis, Punjabis and the Assamese celebrate mid April as well.  Sometimes Tibetan New Year and Chinese New Year are weeks apart; sometimes Tibetans have two designated days, one known as Tsurphu Losar, designated by the monastery of His Holiness Karmapa. It's a mess.

 When you think about it, you realize we all mark several beginnings of a year: a school year that starts in September, a government fiscal year that can begin in July, a calendar year that begins in January. Jewish New Year Rosh Hashonah actually falls on the first day of the seventh calendar month because the calendar count itself begins on the first new moon of spring.  Yet years are tabulated from it. The dichotomy is said to be the compromise of early rabbis unable to unanimously agree on the most appropriate moment: when life sprang up anew or after the harvest when life was laid to rest, opening time for reflection and planning for the new.

You can see we just make this stuff up. There is no real New Year. We may cling to a calendar as very solid and secure-- so dependable, we can count on it, but a year is just a man-made invention. Just a thought. Like us, the ancients saw day folding into night, then breaking out again. They saw bodies born, change and disintegrate. Looking for something dependable as an anchor, they counted sunrises. Some measured by counting the changes of the moon. Others trusted to the varying angles of the sun. With everything seemingly circular, nobody found an absolute.  Where to begin counting in the circle is one issue on which everyone agrees to disagree-- so politely no one gets hurt!

New Year is a perfect example of what the Buddha meant by the impermanence and insubstantiality of everything, most of all our thoughts. Depending on your perspective, this is the year of the goat or the sheep or the ram. It is 2015 or 5775 or 4713. Does it matter? When you find yourself celebrating January 1 and February 19 and in late September and July 1 when your property tax year starts, you see how vested we are in a virtual reality, living in the realm of imagination.

As it happens, Losar is a time for trying to foresee reality with a little fortune telling. Asian calculations combine 12 earthly beings with 5 heavenly elements to create a 60 year life cycle.  So I looked up the prognosis for the year of a wood sheep. It is calm, cool and collected. Time to catch our breath from the galloping pace of events that came with the year of the horse. Time for courtesy and charity and community. Somebody who was as tuned into vibes from the real world as we are to Twitter feeds realized that what animates and energizes us ebbs after it flows. The Chinese system attempts to translate how the invisible affects us: the full speed ahead charge of the horse followed by low battery small focus of the lamb, which gives rise to the brazen creativity of the monkey...

I have grown more fond of Asia's New Year than of other ones. The timing just feels a lot more significant to the bones and heart than that ball falling through the snow in Times Square on New Year's Eve and all the other trumped up drunken revelry of Saturnalia. Winter's grip seems to be loosening right now: light lasts longer, leaves are trying to peek out. There is a letting go. Life is starting to feel brighter, new possibilities popping up like bulbs. Spring is always an official, new beginning, a second chance. I find the peace of inner balance comes from being in sync with reality like that. And the peace of inner balance makes one very happy for a new year.

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

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Truth Will Out

I have started referring to every new year of age as a new place I've never been before. As a tourist learning my way around, I have no idea what to expect, no inkling whether what's happening is normal or peculiarly me. And by the time I figure it out, I'll have crossed the border into an entirely new place. We are all nomads crossing through life.

Last month I passed a milestone into the home stretch. In this uncharted territory where I am now tenting, I am seeing everything distorted by the wide angle perspective of experience, aka age. It's quite the fun house view. complete with the realization that I'm going to step outside soon. So what the hell. I laugh a lot more at life's ironies and peoples foibles, especially my own. It's hilarious how I've been trying to kid myself all these years with the same habitual come-ons and cons. 

The world has been trying to kid me too, the man made world that is. But I am beginning to get wise enough to see through the cons and come-ons and comedy. The real world underneath is getting clearer  so I'm seeing things differently.

Finally, a major miracle: my thighs look thinner. Alas, it's because my waist has disappeared. 

Uncle! I give up. I can't change the world. It is even messier and nastier than it was in my youth--maybe even more so and without those shoulder pads sewn into everything. But I could change myself.  And  that did change the world around me-- into a more accommodating space. The world around me actually became peaceful only after I did.

Adjectives--like better and worse, good and bad, even up and down--are really judgment calls. Who am I to judge? What was horrific for the people of Tibet has been splendid for me; when the country was cracked open, I got their well hidden Dharma.  From it I learned, if I put my pinkie and ring finger up, I'm going to swear the ring finger is "big". But when I  put up my middle finger, I have to admit it's now small. I can't even be sure of a word like "green." Everyone sees color so differently, look how many colors we use just to describe ocean water: the Red Sea, the Black Sea, the White Sea, the brown Sargasso Sea, emerald waters, blue lagoon... .  Last week I bought a cotton tunic whose stripes I thought were varying shades of gray but in the bright light of my apartment window, I discovered those stripes were shades of blue. When I tell someone the restaurant was good, I am making a judgment call, not speaking truth.  Adjectives will get you if you don't watch out.

You may lose your mother but if you kept your first friends, those who liked you before there was any ulterior motive, you'll still have the feeling of being nurtured, guided, bonded and loved. Shared history makes family.

We all live in time zones not on the map. When I see the cost of medical treatment, theater tickets and restaurant meals these days, I feel like I've crossed a border into a zone my internal mechanism is not set for. I remember my grandmother screaming at me for being profligate when I told her a can of tuna cost me 27 cents; in her mind it was still .15. Now it's more than $2. I think we all get stuck in the values, culture and prices of our formative years, which become the time zone we continue operate in. I now feel  jet lagged crossing so frequently from one zone to another. I want my warm, cozy familiarity back.

Sacre bleu! Charles deGaulle was right: cemeteries are full of supposedly irreplaceable people.  By now, even those who were away on Mars and missed Celine Dion's song know the world does go on. It will without me too. 

At least, I understand the only way I can live on when my body dies is to be missed enough to become an attractive example of how to live in this world, a memory so fond someone fiercely guards it in their heart and brings the example to life. I didn't invent this idea. It's actually in the ancient Kaddish prayer: "The good live on in the acts of goodness they perform and the hearts of those who hold them dear."  

If somebody misses me enough to cry, that will be the real tribute, the award for my performance in this world.

I would like my epitaph to say: Here lies Sandy who never lied before.

Printing may be passé but imprinting is still huge. In so many hidden ways, we do become our mothers or our fathers, or else we marry them to keep the familiarity going.

Science has now confirmed that human beings require a lot of touching. Not touchiness. Just plain old hands on touching. Most people are starving. It's really funny to watch everyone thinking they're gonna be hugged by titles, awards, corner offices, nanosecond trades, lucrative contracts and twitter feeds. So much for the value of virtual reality.

Most little kids want to grow up to be firemen or fairy princesses. Why some kids dream of growing up to be total jerks beats me, but that is definitely what many do become.

Someone recently went viral saying there are no grownups. Yes there are. There are people who understand the entire world does not revolve around them, or end at the tips of their fingers and toes. There are people who can acknowledge their behavior affects others, that when someone doesn't respond the way you prefer, your own behavior may have something to do with that. In other words, adults are people who control their behavior because they realize it has consequences. In the inimitable worlds of the late Trungpa Rinpoche, they are mentally toilet trained.

Whoever said people don't want truth, they just want to be re-assured what they think is true was absolutely right. We all live inside a tent of our own thoughts. Our minds and actions get shaped by the beliefs we choose to grab and hang onto as we surf the waves of life. Truth is a cluster bomb that blows up our cozy home and the surfboard we store there, forcing us to flee as a displaced person into the lonely unfamiliar. You can see why most people don't want to go there.

Everybody is supposedly hunting for the meaning of life. It's the quest of quests: what is the meaning of life? Well, I have no idea...except maybe this new suspicion: taking some of that mean out of it.

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

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Monday, February 02, 2015

Driving Under the Influence

 A while back, in answer to an audience question, His Holiness the Dalai Lama solved one of the greater mysteries of our times: road rage. Asked why even perfectly patient, generous, compassionate Buddhist practitioners are apt to go ballistic behind the wheel, His Holiness said traffic messes with our most primal instinct: pacing. Our sense of pace, tightly tied to our primal sense of space, is the mark of our evolution to two legged walking, upright running, flight or fight responders. It is is lodged in our limbic brain, embedded in our sense of well-being, expressed as instinct. We all run on our own individual rhythm, a beat keyed to our personal energy level, at a velocity between Speedy Gonzalez and lazy boy. So on a freeway, anyone programmed to go 65 mph who suddenly gets brought up short by someone moseying along at 45 is destined to go ape in the true sense of that word. Their primal sense of forward motion has, His Holiness said, been thwarted.

I know that feeling well. I am a speed queen constantly cut off at the pass. An unending stream of dawdling drivers unwilling to acknowledge the exclusive privilege of the left lane-- even as they pass signs that say: Slower Traffic Keep Right, thwart an instinctual sense of movement honed keeping up with a grandmother who trotted even when she was 95. I have to work very hard to keep calm when I have to keep my foot on the brake going forward. Since I can't get past their car, I have to work extremely hard to get past other driver's selfishness to forgive them. 

Part of the reason I have a problem with forgiveness is that I understand it's these pokes who cause the mysterious sudden clogs that make you slam on the brakes and pray the car behind you does quickly too. Dawdlers cause others to slalom dangerously across lanes, putting other drivers in jeopardy, just to get around them. Crawlers cause accidents. California and New York highways are especially nerve-wracking, constipated as they are by sashaying egomaniacs hogging the left lane.

As much as I love that lane, I have no problem yielding its privilege to a car roaring toward my tailgate. It's not just that I want to steer clear of a fender bender. In my dreams slowpokes yield for me, so why not set an example and try to make dreams come true? More crucially, why torture someone trying to get ahead? Especially when I have no idea why. Maybe the passenger is about to have a baby? Maybe the plane is 15 minutes from leaving the runway? Maybe the driver is desperate to pee? Who am I to judge? I was once literally racing a potentially dying dog to the vet when I was abruptly brought up short by some gray-haired dick smooth talking a sweetie in his expensive two-seater top down. He was doing 15 miles per hour. Every time I flashed my lights or tapped my horn for him to pull over, he stepped on his brake to dead stop as though he owned the road. And while he was playing his dangerous game, my dog got closer to death. Who wants to grow up to be a jerk like that?

When you watch your mind while you are behind the wheel, you eventually understand driving requires your Bodhisattva best. A foot on the gas pedal means your survival actually depends on being mindful of others. You absolutely must take them into account and deal with should I put it....head on. On highways shared by Chinese who drive like they are on a two-wheel bicycle and Latino teens whizzing by with macho v...v...vroom to spare, you must give full attention to the moment if you want to get to the next one. You must give these offensives the best defensive driving. When you live among armies of the elderly, you have to realize they have nowhere to go and all day to get there. You could give them a heart attack making them rush, and anyway most of the time they really are so focused on staying at the wheel, they become oblivious to others.

I sometimes think in a car on the road everybody thinks they are the only body. Countless drivers sit in the cocoon of their vehicle, chatting away or contemplating their next move, completely oblivious to the cars around them. My particular favorites are those who, like the left lane loungers, never notice or just don't care there is someone else behind them. They slow to crawl while finishing a phone conversation or searching for something in the glove box or rummaging in the paper pile on the passenger seat. Never occurs to them to pull over. 

Some people leave two full car lengths empty between themselves and the car in front. So what that they've prevented the car behind from, say in San Francisco, pulling into the special and very short left turn lane, thus clogging up lanes of traffic behind. So what that they've thwarted others from making the light and not having to wait as long as three minutes for the next green at the five road intersection because, hey, they made it. Who else is there?

My real super favorites are drivers who suddenly see a parking space or a turn they forgot about and slam on their brakes as though nobody else is anywhere around. It's all about them. Just like my superduper favorites, the 20somethings whose sense of entitlement is so strong, they will--without blinker of course-- pull into a lane without even bothering to check if someone else is already right there in it. Twice now I've come close to collision.

The more I watch my mind, the more I see how the selfishness of other drivers makes me lose my mind behind the wheel. I want to scream: Hey! You are not the only person in the universe. But the Buddhist in me says to swallow the road rage and digest the insult. These people on the roadways of Samsara are not under the influence of Dharma, trying to get to Nirvana.  

Driving is great practice in confronting the foibles of others and surviving them.  It's the hard work of accepting that there are others. It's the challenge of understanding  their speeds, sharing the road, and having the generosity to get out of their way. An automobile is truly a vehicle/yana for a Bodhisattva.

~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