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, September 27, 2015
A Loony Tune for the Blood Moon
Tonight brings the "blood moon", sign of a super full moon eclipse in which instead of being blacked out, the moon is reddened by shadow. Last one: 1982, next one: 2033. So this is nothing new and nothing singular, yet certain true believers who don't question anything take a blood moon to be the sign of the apocalypse. No wonder our word "loony" comes from luna, the Latin and romance language word for moon. We don't need a blood moon to remind us of apocalypse. We've got the frustrated men of ISIS and the rest of their ilk in the Shabab and Taliban and Boko Haram down here bloodying up the Earth. Apocalypse is simply hell oozing from minds overwhelmed by anger burning out of control. I call it nuclear resentment. We don't do apocalypse in Dharma because we are busy trying to clear our mind of every sort of anger, knowing it leads to no good. We get loony in the Dharma over the "water moon", symbol of how life works. So here is one I captured through the bedroom window, sorry about screen interference:
Two moons! An actual moon that is actually reflected, reality and virtual reality mimicking it. Sometimes, as in this photo, it's difficult to distinguish one from the other: what is real and what we see of it. There is life's absolute reality and the relative way it gets reflected in our particular mind. This photo is precious because the reflection is near perfect. If the water had been kicked up by wind and waves--emotions and thoughts in the ocean of mind, it would have looked like something else altogether. So the trick is to understand the way our mind reflects reality: calm and accurate or jumpy and distorted? Do we see it as it is or as we want it to be or fear it will be. A water moon is a great reminder, a powerful symbol of how life works.
And by the way, Traleg Rinpoche in his teaching on dealing with this phenomenal world says there is absolutely no problem with getting angry. That's an impulse. The problem is hanging on to that impulse and enlarging into resentment, spite, jealousy and hatred that you keep accessible in your carry-on baggage. Sucking on your anger the way you might nurse a drink leads to the hell of apocalypse now. Very bloody. Very loony. Here's to a water moon.
I have been listening to a taped teaching of the late great Traleg Rinpoche on how to deal with what he calls "the phenomenal world." No superlative intended. In Dharma terms, phenomena is everything that appears: the moon, the mountain, the mall. In other words, the real world. Since we must deal with this real world all the time, Traleg Rinpoche explains that meditation is not a way to escape or avoid it, not a means of tuning it out but of tuning into it. Meditation means learning exactly what the phenomenal world is and how it works so we develop the skill to live properly in it.
His teaching seems simple yet is quite profound, so it will take time to digest and pass it on. But right away it yanked back old thoughts about the real world. That's all anyone ever talked about when I went to college: the real world. We all knew what that meant: the workaday paycheck reality waiting at the graduation door. But it turned out that wasn't all of it, wasn't the half of it as some people like to say.
Turned out that real world was just another virtual reality-- like the unnatural world called college. And people's reality was virtually different everywhere: New York City wasn't real to Topeka or Montana. Texas was surreal to Boston. Layer upon layer of made-up civilization had been overlaid with various slants and angles. What we were calling "life" was filled to its brim with additives, preservatives and cmo's: corporate manufactured occasions. So life's biggest question became not what does it all mean? but what exactly is the real world?
I don't have a perfect answer so you don't have to read on. I can't even pretend to have a hint. But what I do know is that last week, a month later than usual, the light changed. A signal. There is always a morning around the second week of August, this year, the second week of September, when I wake up and can't help but see the light has definitely changed. It cants so differently, everything looks absolutely HD clear and amazingly sharp, as if Life finally got the camera in focus. That soft silken blur of summer is gone; the air has crisped the way food does from extended heat. Summer's lackadaisical "whatever" suddenly gave way to autumn's decisiveness.
And the light withdraws noticeably earlier, which speeds up the daytime pace. Tomorrow is the equinox: the length of sunlight and darkness will exactly match. Then they will begin their inexorable push-me pull-you, lengthening and shortening before they meet again and go in reverse. It's almost like life is imitating the tech companies that constantly change software because they can't seem to get it just right. These patterns used to be a very big deal; our holidays are actually based on them. The changes are that palpable. But you can't detect this constant shifting in the virtual world of city lights and air conditioning where everything stays the same. And we stick our manufactured holidays on Mondays for more of the same meaningless same.
Headlines are shouting horrible news of heavy migrations every which way out of the Arab world. In the real world, the Canada geese are migrating south in huge honking Vs and sometimes huge swirling swarms of smaller birds escaping the northern cold like Syrians escaping barrel bombs can fill the sky above me. Adult loons have migrated from fresh water to the sea. Harbor seals have moved offshore. Restlessness is afoot. The original inhabitants of my land used to move from the sea to the mountains and back twice a year. We stay stuck in permanent houses and watch the world go by. Europe does not know to process all the desperate refugees just like everyone around me right now does not know how to hold back the tsunami of ripe tomatoes weighing down the vines. People are begging for ways to process them. I've spent much of this past week passing out recipes, running a class and eating a lot of tomatoes. Plus corn on the cob because its season is winding down and safe, non Round-up ready GMO corn on the cob won't be back in the real world for another 11 months. And maybe I won't be. I can once again quickly tell you which trees are oak, or maple or a birch that is not white because thanks to Mother Nature's assisted suicide, their leaves have begun to lose their sameness green. The oak is turning orange, the maple deep red and the birch yellow, a final shout before they die. The tulips that were so elegant in June are only buried bulbs now, those cheerful July daisy plants decapitated stalks. Even the annuals are looking tired from all that summer smiling. And I'm too tired to revitalize them.
In the real world, we humans are garden plants who morph from bright sprouts to sagging stems and eventually disappear. If you just look at yourself for a second, you discover impermanence is very real. You were a newborn, a teenager, a twenty-something with rip roaring hopes, and now you have graying hair, face wrinkles, veins that make your thighs look like a miner's map, and vines of hope that sag under the fruits of experience. Every seven years you are made up of totally new cells; in the real world, you are not yourself. Traleg Rinpoche says in this teaching, if there were no impermanence, if phenomena weren't insubstantial, there could be no change, no time, no progress, no us who have actually come quite late to the party. The inventor of the new always thinks the invention the be all and end all, the time stopper that will never fade away. In the virtual world, everyone works so hard to hold on, to make permanent and fast and binding what suits them in the moment. But then the moment passes and they're afloat in an onrushing tide, looking over their shoulder as they cling to what's past. That is the source of all our troubles.
The real world is kinder, gentler and more compassionate. It has no fix, nothing fixed, the fix is not in. It is a work in progress. It kicks out and takes in, calibrates and shifts, moves and shakes, updates and abdicates and moves on, creating endless possibilities and endless room for all of us to go with the flow, flow with the go. That, I believe, is how we are supposed to understand the phenomenal world, superlative intended.
I just traveled 12 hours two ways to spend five days from 8 AM to 5:45 PM sitting through what's called in Tibetan Buddhism "monlam." Monlam seems to be Tibetan for aspiration, but it is most often used, as in this case, to signify an extended period of public prayer. It turns out most of the selected prayers are aspirations, what you might call high hopes or perhaps demands of the deities with offerings and promises thrown in to sweeten the deal.
This one was the sixth annual North American monlam, a miniature of the grand monlam held annually in Bodh Gaya where the Buddha reached enlightenment almost 2,600 years ago. It was in Canada, outside Vancouver where a horde of Hong Kong Chinese reached emigration a dozen years ago. It starred my teacher, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche fresh from consecrating his rebuilt monastery inside the heights of Tibet, and featured 35-40 monks and nuns in ever changing regalia, lots of white khatas (scarves of respect), piles of red money envelopes and gallons of milk tea to lube voice boxes. Depending on time or day, there were also between 200 and 400 extras: the faithful, mostly the Canadian Chinese.
The program was hectic, starting every morning at 8 AM sharp with three prostrations, then everyone on one knee like the Buddha's original converts, taking the basic vows for the next 24 hours: no killing, no stealing, no intoxicant to blur the mind, no mischievous sex, no lying or slander, no denying the Buddha and the Dharma are refuge from the madness of the world. Seated back on the cushion or the precious few chairs the Chinese were unhappily required to provide the aged and disabled, we began rapid incantation of vows for compassion and steps to attaining ultimate wisdom, words written in India 2000 years ago. Some were in the Buddha's original Sanskrit, linking us to a remarkably long, unbroken tradition.
The monlam prayer book was 490 pages thick with a 120 page book addendum. All day long we hopscotched through its various prayers-- sometimes repeating 14 page ones the traditional three times to indicate we really meant what we prayed. We got a break for lunch and two short breaks for bathroom.
A very accomplished chant leader monk, umze in Tibetan, had been flown from India to ensure the authenticity of this effort, and another monk clacked wood when the staccato flow started to sag. It was all in Tibetan, the words transliterated in differing books into English and Chinese so everyone could recite with the monks and nuns, some of them not Tibetan either. Ditto the three Vedic visitors head to toe in white. The rhythm was so clipped and brisk, you had to keep your finger flying from word to word, your mind on the line in order to keep up. If you stopped to entertain a passing thought, look at your watch or blow your nose, you got left behind, hopelessly lost, sitting silent desperately flipping pages. You needed genuine undiluted nonstop mindfulness: unrelenting focus, total commitment to being in the moment, to now! Yada yada dada no stop keep it up yada yada dada and so forth and so on for two hours at a time for those who wander in samsara have minds that wander too.
A body can get very frustrated sitting hours on a thin cushion or hard metal folding chair and/or trying to speed read Tibetan mumbo jumbo. If you dare stop to look at the English translation below the transliteration so you can at least know what you are doing there, you lose the pace and the place and end up left behind and out. A big thundering drum with two hundred people chanting to its boom and everyone else who is distracted as well as the energetic Chinese ushers can see your lips are not moving because you blew it. My personal aspiration was to stop blinking, thinking and drinking (tea) so I could stay with the chant. Truly a challenge, a weird fitness sport I did not master.
It is also a long time to hold your seat and those heavy books that you cannot put on the floor or under your foot or butt because inevitably an old Tibetan woman will come by, remove them and scold you. No telephone, no texting, no talking to the person next to you who you don't know anyway. You are supposed to wait to sip your tea at a precise moment in the prayers that isn't in the book. You have to hold onto it and hope you've got the right bottoms up cues from the monks and nuns. Then you must find a place to put the cup so nothing spills.
You just have time to pee and get back or to eat and stretch, grab a coffee, count khatas or prepare red envelopes and get back. If you are gone too long, somebody else takes your seat, even when you leave those books on it. Impermanence is the shrugged rationale. At 6 PM you run somewhere for dinner, speed back to the hotel to stretch your body, check your email, clean your clothes and your body, then sleep so you can get up at 6 AM. You have to get dressed, fed, parked and seated before 8. Special program Saturday night. Huge crushing crowds in wind driven teeming rain. No time for tourism. Nothing but aspiration prayers.
The what am I doing? moments come all too often. Why did I spend all that money to fly here and stay here just to sit uncomfortably and mumble stumble for hours? The same money would have given ten days in Europe. Or I could be home eating fabulous food, swimming in the sea, savoring summer as it slides away and not spending this money. There it's hot and sunny; here it's raining with windstorms knocking out the power. Such resentments upend your chanting. They highlight failure and make you wonder why you bothered to subject yourself to it.
Naturally, you want to read the English translation to know what you're involved in. So naturally you go off course from time to time and discover all the prayers you are reciting for five expensive days are for all beings to be freed from their suffering, everyone to have joy, no one hurting, wisdom triumphant happily ever after. What do we want? Happiness for all! When do we want it? Now! For five days, you are begging the Buddha and his extensive retinue of active deities to get down here and do their thing and you mean this so deeply, you say it three times, offering to be first in line to help. I supplicate you to appear...I offer everything...for the benefit of all....
Finally it's over. No more stuck in a seat, no more speed chanting and terrible milk tea. You head to the airport listening to the news. Millions are migrating from Middle East terrors and horrors; the Arabs have mastered Machiavelli to the nuclear degree; millions are evaporating in the stock market and dying in ganged up Central America; more Americans died in gunfire. The Koreas are at each others' throat. The Chinese are bullying. The Republicans are lying. Democrats are tone deaf and blind. Income equality is beyond out of control. You ask yourself if anything you missed was important in any way? Was anything better anywhere? What could you have done?
And that's when you realize, as you hand your boarding pass to TSA, how precious and priceless and extraordinary it was to abandon all that agony and not add to it. You spent five full days just sitting still as non negative energy, praying with all you might that everyone gets joy and the world becomes a happy place. While all those Chinese spent all that time preparing and pouring lubricating tea, you were pouring positive ions on the fires of hell. I beseech you to come to this place so that all beings will have happiness.... What a revolutionary aspiration that is! How many people take five days off just to pray for that? How precious. How special. May all beings share the blessings and find happiness.
Author of How To Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Market, new edition published May 2011; and Veggiyana: the Dharma of Cooking, published September 2011 by Wisdom Publications. Founder and president of Veggiyana, a charitable effort to feed Buddhist monastics and schoolchildren in India, Nepal and Tibet. On Facebook as Prima Dharma Cook.
This is a blog of essays from the Buddhist perspective of Sandy Garson.
Visit my web site Yours In The Dharma, where I try to make sense of the bewilderment in daily life. I meditate aloud on how the teachings of my guru Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, the golden rosary of his Tibetan Kagyu lineage and the Buddha himself come alive in the headlines and heartaches to rescue us all from suffering.