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.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016


 A friend just wrote to say among the life shifting events of her hectic weekend, she got word a good friend dropped dead while on a Caribbean cruise. That loss overshadowed better news she wanted to share: the purchase of a fixer upper summerhouse for recent grand kids.  "So crazy," she wrote, "down...up...down. First death of a close friend."

I have been there, done that. Given how unscripted and un-guaranteed real life is, that my friend made it into her 70s without losing a friend feels miraculous and worth cheering, an up in the down. I lost my first friend when I was 28. He was 29 and married to my best childhood friend, who was 27. When he was committed to the hospital with terminal brain cancer, I was the one she called to come, the one who had to stand by when she broke down, who had to make the plans and drive the car and keep things going on both ends. Five months of down... down...down the rabbit hole never knowing what to expect or improvise made the funeral a relief. 

Six years later I lost my best friend, also to a fatal cancer. I was the one her husband called to come when the diagnosis was certain. He did not know how to deal with loss and didn't want to learn. "I only win. I've never lost a game or a job or person. I can't do this," he said. "I'm going back home. You come and be here for her."  For a year I was, faithfully shuttling back and forth between my life and Boston's Dana Farber Cancer Hospital, then the local upstate NY hospital where she finally died. It was a relief.

I lost my friends the long way. On short or no notice at all, death is much harder to wrap your spirit around.  The news is: you've just been robbed of closure. You'll never get the chance to tell them about that new restaurant or make amends or find out about their latest triumph. Whatever you wanted to say next time will torment your mind. I understand what my friend is trying to say.

The long way round has similar agony. On short or no notice at all, you're told the relationship is over. In too many ways, the person you related to is not that person any more. Something has come between you. Right there mourning begins. You've lost what you had. It's never going to back up and be the way it was. Everyday you have to face that. Everyday you improvise a new relationship while mourning the old one. You play the inevitable waiting game. The clock ticks, ticks, ticks. You do and do not want it to. Death is a relief for both of you.

Most people think funerals are to pay respect to the dead. In truth, funerals are to wake up the living. They exist to provide closure, especially when there's been short or no notice. Not just a chance to get out that goodbye or praise (eulogy), but more vitally a chance to have thrown in your face the indisputable fact your relationship is definitely over. Usually, right before your very eyes, it's buried or burnt to ashes. The late great master Dilgo Khyentse pointedly observed that when we cry over death, we're just crying like spoiled children who've lost something we wanted to keep. The dead has been released from all suffering; that should be good news we cheer.

As I wrote back to my friend, impermanence happens. Down...up...down...that's life unfolding. Actors come and go from our stage as the play changes acts. Sometimes the players change roles, sometimes they disappear completely from the visible story line. But we are still in it. We are still writing it. And they are still part of our makeup. Somewhere they've left a mark on us. There's up in the down.

We say goodbye and we say hello. Life flows like a river. It moves on. I did. You can. Hug your husband, call your kids and fix that new house for the grandbabies. Now or maybe never. A long time ago, I learned you can't know if there will be later. Death is the only reminder of that. So maybe it's a good thing.

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

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Saturday, February 13, 2016

A New Year Story

For many months, I had a large white box store plastic bag gathering dust on my bedroom floor. It often tripped me, but I told myself I'd deal with it later. And of course I didn't or I wouldn't be telling you this.

The bag contained clothes that came from concerted closet cleaning. Finding myself short of hangers for new stuff bought during January sales, I decided anything not worn in two years had to go. It turned out the game of musical hangers was lost by what hadn't been worn in at least five years. Actually, what went into the bag was between 15 and 30 years old: shoulder padded jackets, a silk shirt with gigantic Elizabethan ruffles, heavy winter weights nobody needs in California, and of course party pants I would somehow zip and button again. No consignment shop-- not even ones that professed to be vintage-- wanted this stuff.

So it was now out of the closet, but evidently I didn't want it out of my life. I kept it on the floor. I didn't want it there, but I didn't want to toss away elegantly crafted, classic designer clothes not made in China. I couldn't bear to see the quality and integrity they represented so easily ejected. So I just kept tripping over them.

Two weeks ago, I got a Eureka! jolt. I saw a soft news story about dust mites, microscopic creatures that nest in dust fuzz and eat human skin. The timing was, as Tibetans say, auspicious. I had been suffering so many sleepless nights of mysterious unstoppable dry coughing fits, asthmatic breathing and strange little bites, I'd started to suspect the problem was not going to be cured by medical intervention. It was environmental. Something in my bedroom was killing me. And now the dust mite exposé in the nick of time. Reading it made me recall when I was a teenager tested for allergies and dust mites hit the doctor's very short list. I laughed at him, certain being allergic to dust or its imaginary mites was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard.

I turned into a killer possessed. I spent a heave-ho Saturday moving furniture, disinfecting floors, wet wiping lampshades and window shades, stripping textiles and machine washing at the highest temperature anything not attached to anything else-- even a yak wool blanket and an area rug that said: Do Not Wash in a Machine. I was on a ladder. I was on my hands and knees. I was on a mission. I vacuumed, squeegied, squirted and strained to get to the high ceiling. Nothing was left unturned. I even wet-wiped the exterior of that white plastic bag on the floor and then for good measure kicked it out into the hallway.

That night, for the first time in over a month, I slept without waking to cough or catch my breath. It was miraculous. And all my own doing. I had destroyed a threat to my life. I felt cocky proud and powerful. I had become master of my universe. How clever I was. Then on the way to the bathroom, I tripped over the big white plastic bag of clothes still in the narrow hallway. Later, I told myself, I'll deal with that.

Later finally came this week, on Losar, New Year for Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhists. Its run-up and rituals are essentially about getting everything spic and span to enter the new year uncontaminated by the past, all super clean for a totally fresh start. Like me cleaning the hell out of my bedroom so I could breathe again, on the eve, I took apart my altar. I washed the surface and the floor underneath. I wiped the photos and thangkha. I polished the brass statues with freshly squeezed lemon juice until they glowed. I cleaned the seven copper offering bowls and two candle holders. I left nothing untouched, nothing impure to infect the energy of my new year--a monkey year. I was on a mission. This monkey wanted--make that needed-- a banner year. Anything to crush obstacles piled so high, I can't seem to pass GO.

To emphasize my hope for help, I greeted the New Year day with cookie and fruit offerings on the shrine. I got daffodils. I filled the seven offering bowls with new enriched rice.  I started to put the seven offering items back on top and realized I was putting "back." I was using last year's stuff, that was in truth the year before's and back even beyond that. I was hanging on. It was so easy. Besides, I liked those little things. How clever I'd been to have found such appropriate symbols, especially the little Christmas tree ornament apple for food and the miniature copper tuba as the offering of music.  Now they felt threatening: yesterday polluting tomorrow. Quicker than you can say Buddha, I jammed that old stuff in a Baggie and took off on a scavenger hunt. With ingenuity and a few dollars at the handicraft supply store around the corner, I pulled together seven brand new offerings for a brand new year, including a fridge magnet pretzel for food and a paper thin wooden guitar for music.  I sat in front of my new altar glowing with pride and power. Once again in challenge, I triumphed. I changed the world.

I said mantras and recited prayers to get off to a pure (as in undefiled by negative karma) start. I sat quietly, basking in thankfulness for this opportunity to start fresh and clean. I long ago discovered cleaning a closet or a bedroom or an altar is truly satisfying because you see the positive results of your effort right away. You won't die wondering if you made a difference. But by now I've been around Dharma long enough to understand cleaning closets, cleaning house, cleaning yourself and your clothes means you are clearing your mind. The physical work is just the manifestation of a mental catharsis that removes the cobwebs and vintage thoughts that always trip you up. Tibetan Buddhists are very clear that whatever is going on in your physical world--including illness-- is just the manifestation of what's happening in your mind. That's why it felt so good to seem so clean.

Not wanting to that feeling to end, I decided to make a day of it. Today would truly be a fresh start. I would stand at the door like a bouncer and let no old habits in. I sat at the altar in meditation, did a puja and then, no I wasn't going to sit around staring at the computer screen, no.  I'd join the world. I'd go out for a walk in the park.

I'm sure I would have if, as I headed for the door, I hadn't tripped over that bag of vintage clothes. This day of all days. Maybe that's why I finally got the message. We all kick aside things we don't want to deal with, hoping they will somehow evaporate on their own: the tangled relationship, the unspoken job grievances, the person not taken, the life not led. They never do, do they? They just hang around to haunt and trip us, to make us choke the way dust mites do. 

I grabbed the bag, grabbed my keys and left the house. I walked the same three blocks to the Goodwill Store I've walked many times, and was almost at the door when a tall, lanky, gray haired guy stepped out from the wall to ask me what I was delivering in my bag. "Nothing for you," I replied and kept walking. "Just some women's clothes."

"My wife could use some clothes," he said.

WTF? My trip to Goodwill had never been interrupted before. Was he a trick? Were those highly polished brass deities on my altar testing me? Was this day really going to be like all other days? Or not? I hemmed, I "ummed". I tried not to look at the man looking at me. I didn't like the thought of some stranger, some homeless woman wearing designer clothes I had been saving as valuable. My clothes. I didn't like the idea this guy was trying to get for free what he'd have to pay a few dollars for inside. Maybe he didn't even have a wife and was looking for stuff to sell to buy drugs.

Yoo hoo, Losar here, a voice said. What are you thinking?  Why are you thinking? Get with the program.

To make this new start new--extra-ordinary, I could be extraordinarily generous. I could remember to be as unbiased as the sun that shines on everyone without asking questions. I could be the Buddha by not discriminating, just seeing equality-- the Buddha nature in everyone. I could let go judging a guy in need who  wanted something for nothing.  I could let go of clothes I considered valuable even though they no longer had any real use for me. Hell, they weren't valuable at all, just in thoughts of time gone by, time that was not here now. They were choking my mind like dust mites. With a WTF shrug, I tossed the guy the white plastic bag, u-turned and walked back to my sparkling clean altar to dedicate the merit. 

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

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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

More Losar Advice for the Year Ahead

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

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Monday, February 08, 2016

Happy New Year of the Fire Monkey: Message from Dzongsar Khyentse

 Let Us Remember: A Message from Dzonsar Khyentse Rinpoche
Greetings to all who are celebrating the Monkey New Year,
Let us trust the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and let us trust the law of cause, condition, and effect. If we trust the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we are still Buddhists even if we play mahjong, eat meat, drink alcohol, or chain smoke.
Let us be kind and considerate. Do we like other people to be kind to us? Well, other people also like us to be kind.
Let us be generous, not just with money or diamonds but with our time and space and information.
And let us always remember the Buddha’s words that samsaric endeavours never end and are mostly fruitless. So let us not stress out that everything needs to be completed. We never know what will happen the next hour. So let us make the most out of this hour and this moment. If we are having a cup of tea right now, let us have it as if it is the last one in this life.
Do we want to be rich? Then let us learn to be content.
Do we want to be elegant and beautiful? Then let us be polite, confident, and kind instead of thinking Versace and Dolce & Gabbana will do it for us.
Do we want other people to listen to us? Then let us try not to use harsh words, and let us always begin our conversation with a smile.
Do we want our next generation to be happy and successful? Then let us teach them a different meaning of ambition, wealth, and goals:
Let us not spoil our kids, because if we do, they will grow up feeling so alienated and depressed.
Let us not push them to grow up so fast.
Let us not make our kids think that winning a competition is so important.
Let us try to eat at home at least once a week.
And let us not over-shop and fill our houses with things we will never use for years and eventually discard.
But most of all, let us parents do what we teach. We can’t teach our kids to be polite, gentle and likeable just with words. We have to be like that ourselves. Even seemingly minute things, like not talking loudly in public or on the phone and not jumping a queue, matter. Just as we don’t want others to do those things, others also don’t want us to do them.
And let us learn to do unplanned, spontaneous things at least for an hour or two once a week, because even planning a holiday ends up becoming a stressful chore rather than a real holiday.
Most importantly, let us remind ourselves not just to read these things, but to do them starting from Day One of the Monkey Year.
And every time we find ourselves doing one or more of these things, then let us reward ourselves by taking a short nap, listening to some music, reading one or two pages of a good book, and telling ourselves that with this stepping stone I will become a fearless servant of all sentient beings.
— Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse

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

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Thursday, February 04, 2016

Deja Vu All Over Again

For a week now, I've been wondering what to write here, and every time I immediately evade the decision by clicking elsewhere to read the latest diagnoses of our body politic. I find the nonstop punditry of this primary season a fascinating lesson in the Buddha's first great revelation, the "wonder of wonders!" Shakyamuni had discovered how all of us see the world our own peculiar way, through the prism of our own individual experience and fear.

We all spin our own narrative to connect the dots of happenings and since everybody's making it up to suit their perspective, there's never an agreement on what's going on. Ever had someone tell you that blue gray sweater you're wearing is really purple? The traditional analogy is a group of blind people touching an elephant: one will describe it only as its tail, another as its trunk, another as its enormous foot. Nobody understands there's a bigger whole there, an elephant in the room.

The Buddha would also say we are like spiders spinning that narrative as a protective web around ourselves. The way a spider's web is there to kill prey that nourishes it, our web keeps out and mentally destroys what we don't like. That's the origin of what we call spin.
Reality is as bespoke as a five thousand dollar Saville row suit. 

Naomi Klein says the real reason the right has to desperately deny climate change because their world view is stuck on the Bible page that says man has dominion over all the Earth. He can do whatever the hell he wants. Now unfortunately these folks have been confronted by Mother Nature exerting herself to challenge that dominion with enough is enough. In fact too much already. They won't accept that they are not masters of the universe with total control of it.
Another great Buddha insight is you cannot clearly--see the bigger picture, if you are self-referential, aka ego stricken, vested in yourself instead of others. That includes your God who is of course the best God and lives by Vince Lombardi's rule: "Winning is not everything; it's the only thing." Check out all that monotheistic violence in the MIddle East and ask yourself why cultures of many gods remain relatively calmer.

I've had maddening conversations with a man who believes others who don't behave or have the priorities of himself and his ethnic group aren't worthy of help or attention. He's so vested in himself as a Jew and supporter of fellow Jews in Israel, he actually threatened to walk out of my house if I made a lamb and chickpea dish whose origin was Palestinian. Oh my. Growing up is when babies discover a whole world beyond their fingers and toes, beyond Mother. What matters is whether that discovery threatens or delights. What matters is you can't give peace a chance if you don't give others a chance to exist too.

According to the Buddha, we humans can't see clearly and are self-referential because we are duo-fueled. Spin our narrative web, the web of samsara, we run on hope and fear. These two emotions are inseparable, like samsara and nirvana, meaning you cannot have one without the other. Fear is not getting what you hope for or getting what you hope you won't--getting what you want and not getting what you don't want. Since it is often fear of losing what you already have, it's attached to the hope you won't. Hope is getting what you want, and not getting what you don't. Unless you're on a diet, it's  about gaining or holding what you already have, so it's attached to the fear you won't. Since we live on a see-saw constantly flipping between them all the time, how can anyone be calm and clear-eyed?

All of these lessons have been easy to learn in political primary time. All the fear being whipped up by right wing demagogues, making all those people hope to be saved by them, all the fear manufactured by the Clinton machine to make Hillary the greater white hope, the profoundly realized fears of the American people evolving into intense hope for systemic change that is propelling Bernie Sanders. All that Super PAC establishment hope that threats to its hegemony can be bought out and swept away, the fear it won't showing in the mounting vitriol.
Yes, even the Koch brothers have hope and fear. The hope for power, the fear of losing it...the quest for control, the fear of losing it. 

The same great wellspring of both hope and fear, of course, is change. Impermanence. Nothing lasts, nothing even stays the same very long. That's not just frustrating, it's scary; the unknown, uncertain, unpredictable. Change is going into darkness after the sunshine of seeming certainty and there's nothing like darkness to launch fears and hopes to make it through the night. That's why we have a lifetime of excuses for circumventing change, like "I'll get to it tomorrow", "Better safe than sorry", and  "The devil you have is better than the devil you can't see." The political term for this right now is "incremental." 

The political term for people who fear change is "conservative," for people who aren't afraid of it "progressive." People who live in fear hope for change; people who's hopes have been met fear change. Thus Bernie v Hillary, Trump v Bush, Black Lives Matter v Muslims go home. What the pundits say, what the editorial endorsements say and what Hillary Clinton promises are pretty transparent shows of and pandering to fear of change. The  establishment is terrified the status quo that's given them status will not be permanent. Up will come down. Elites will change. They will be, as we say, out of power. Obviously, they've never heard the Buddha's teaching that change is always underway and on the way. Nothing is established.

Academics have differing opinions about what's going on, but they seem to agree the establishment is too self-referential, vested and to terrified of change to see a pressure cooker is exploding. People under their thumb are mad as hell and hoping for change that is not incremental. Like Mother Nature, they are saying enough is enough, too much in fact. An interregnum perhaps, a revolution underway, the impermanence of impatience is erupting in volcanic bursts of molten anger and hope that's cracking the concrete underneath them... . 

"Something's happening here, and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?" Black Power to Black Lives Matter, Joe McCarthy to Gene McCarthy and Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders, Paul Simon's old lyric: "I don't know a soul who's not been battered, don't have a friend who feels at ease, I don't know a dream that's not been shattered...." I don't want to be too self-referential or overtly political, but it does seem, at least on the Democratic primary side, we are witnessing the last battle of the original culture war: that violent clash between the consciousness raisers and the corporate fund raisers. The 60s was a clash of world views as Eastern thought entered Western minds. It's now embedded in many of them. Bernie Sanders looks like the last gasp of the 60s, one final attempt to upend me into we, and pass a torch that ignites younger generations to keep on keeping that amended vision.

Rethinking how the 60s brought us Zen and Dharma, yoga and Hare Krishna got me thinking the generation whose protests made it a crucible has never been acknowledged. Perhaps that's because corporate marketeers name generations as sales niches. What they call “the greatest generation” bought all their Harvest Gold appliances, Chevrolets and tract houses to make corporations great. Their kids, the Boomers, were so easily seduced by shiny shopping malls, dazzling stadium shows and Technicolor screens, so contentedly all-consuming corporate profits boomed. Now we’ve got complicated Gen X not sure if they want to shop til they drop so we quickly got Millennials who drop everything to shop for apps.

I am among the missing, the generation cropped out. As lost and culturally critical as the one born before World War I, my generation was born between 1928 and 1945—during the Great Depression and greater world war. Our cohort gave you Ben and Jerry, Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Martin Luther King Jr., George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Joan Ganz Cooney, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Brian Wilson and his Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, Hunter S. Thompson, Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Pema Chodron, John Kabat-Zinn, Andrew Weil, Lanford Wilson, Larry Kramer, Erica Jong, Alice Walker, Alice Waters, Marian Nestle, Jerry Brown, the murdered trio of James Earl Chaney and Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner, Jann Wenner, Adam Hochschild, Lorne Michaels, Bob Woodward, Daniel Ellsberg, John Kerry, Bill Bradley and Bernie Sanders.

Looking at those names, I see iconoclasts whose efforts continue to resonate through every aspect of American society. These are cultural game-changers who raised consciousness and rewrote the nation’s vocabulary: gonzo, organic, hippie, yuppie, feminist, dropout, sold-out, civil rights, folk music, spirituality, environment, holistic, sit-in, cop-out, wilderness, tofu, yoga, equality, Zen. They brought organic food, protest marches, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, Sesame Street, Saturday Night Live, long hair for men, free clinics, community gardens, tie-dye, the perils of nuclear power, the existence of native people, women in the workplace, meditation, midwives, vegetarianism, Earth Day, ecology, clean water, cleaner air, skepticism of spin, alternative medicine, Watergate, Question Authority. Om

This was the last generation to be drafted to die for this country, the first to fight for women in the workplace and womb, the first to take up Thoreau and Gandhi on their idea of nonviolent warThis was the first group to declare a generation gap—for which a Boomer clothing franchise was named, the first and last until now to be mad as hell, the first to come up with Plan B for America. If you want to know more about it, listen to Bernie’s stump speech.

It is not surprising corporate America feels so burned. The first generation to get mass access to higher education became the first to loudly question, even challenge established wisdom, institutions, and advertising claims. We actually heard Eisenhower warn against the military/industrial complex and saw General Westmoreland hiding body bags in Vietnam to pretend victory for the nightly news. We saw live the assassination of JFK and saw it left dead in the water unsolved, followed by two more assassinations, a profiteer’s war in Vietnam and the cover-up of Republican criminality. Some blew whistles of dire warning about all the bells and whistles.

My generation linked the spiritual idea of NOW to the political idea of later generations because we figured out human life and Earth had limits. We fought to make others understand that. Well-exercised power also had limits: just because you could didn’t mean you should. It was the first time that Bible page dominion declaration was questioned. It is not surprising its loud questioning and protest made subsequent governments reduce the commitment to higher education and critical thinking. As silent Calvin Coolidge said when he did speak up: “The business of America is business.” That was the core of the protest then, and seems to be its core again now.

So I see Bernie Sanders campaign as the 60s last stand. It has reignited the original culture war between the sales forces of “Buy now, pay later”, ”progress is our most important product”, “better living through chemistry” and the tie-dyed brigades of “Say what you mean and mean what you say”, “no additives or preservatives” “give peace a chance”, and “we shall overcome.” His rhetoric echoes that revolution's motto: If you aren’t the solution, you are the problem, his popularity Neil Young's words: "I'm looking for a heart of gold", his message: we shall overcome.

As I also said earlier, l am human so I connect dots based on experience and fear.  I can't pretend to be his spokesperson, so I have no idea if Buddha would ever feel the Bern. But I do. This final attempt to fight for my generation before we flame out reminds me of  the key line of Lanford Wilson's poignant play about us, The Fifth of July: "Just because we didn't succeed doesn't mean we didn't try to make a better world for you."

Of course, a good Buddhists knows "better" is in the eyes of the beholder. And that is in fact what this election is all about.

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

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