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.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

We are All on the A List

My beloved Rinpoche seems to spend most of his teaching time harping on the same simple point: now is the time to take up the Dharma as fiercely as you can. Don't wait; don't get distracted; don't make excuses. Just pass Go ASAP. Suffering will get you if you don't watch out. 

I flew to Vancouver for 48 hours to hear him teach a newly found pith instruction he boiled down to the same message. I reasoned, as I always do when he does this, Rinpoche couldn't get to the meat of the matter because he was speaking to a vast assemblage of ordinary people who dropped in for the weekend, not long term yogis privy to the secret esoteric practice instructions passed down through generations. What could an old man facing what could be his final public words say, but:  Please please practice.

Of course Miss Piggy wanted the heady stuff. I'm not a long term yogi, but I've been studying for 30 years and I flew a long way to learn something new. Disappointment made me fidget in my seat and tune out. I know. I know, my mind railed.  I've heard it 100 times: meditate, be kind, avoid negative thoughts and activity. You have this precious human life so hard to obtain: use it or lose it.  I'm sick of hearing about how amazing it is to be in a human body--especially when mine is falling apart.

Yes, you get old and start losing your parts: the eyesight, the hearing, the knees and hips, the eyebrows (never the hair on your legs of course) and tiny waist. You end up wondering why all the fuss about this human body that's got expiration dates all over it. This is the age of sustainable. It's so not. In fact, I've started to think of the diminishing form as the Buddha's dirty trick to finally make me realize the only thing that doesn't disintegrate or even grow old is the mind (notice how you always feel the same young in your thoughts?), so get on it now.

Still, gurus always remind us our mind is housed in our body, temporarily. Like a rental car we eventually return, it's a vehicle for getting around. The body is also sort of a gym in which the mind can strengthen through fitness training. Or warp. In other words, a mind needs a body. Some body.

A precious human body being nearly impossible for the mind to obtain is the first of four thoughts supposed to turn the mind to practicing Dharma. A student hears it early and often. It's sort of a scare tactic. The BOO! subtext is how the odds of being born, the mind's being reborn, in a human body --and one that's got all its faculties working to boot--are the same as those of a turtle popping its head up in the Pacific Ocean into a floating brass ring. The Universe's A list of somebodies is that short.

Humans make the list as the only beings with minds sharp enough to cut through the daze/days to the causes and understanding of how to eradicate suffering. We are the only creatures motivated by abstract ideas. Each of us is the agent of change we can believe in because we can believe in change. Since only humans realize it exists, only humans can effect it. We alone can free ourselves from the endless woes of the world. So hurry while you're in a human body.

I thought myself pretty inured to this same old, same old motivation coach line and left Vancouver grumpy about not learning anything super new.  So I feel obliged to confess it's been a surprise--or maybe Rinpoche's deliberate trick-- how activities since have ratcheted my usual precious human life ho hum up to Holy Cow!

A long hot summer has revealed beyond question the pathetic minority we human beings are. For one thing, I've been dealing with huge colonies of harmless black ants crawling everywhere, huger colonies of red ants digging up the sand under my brick walkway, spraying telltale flyers from swarming colonies of carpenter ants that would like to eat my house for lunch. And those damned fruit flies that mysteriously show up on the kitchen cabinets, those unswattable little buggers.

More annoying, I'm scratching the skin off my arms and torso where the toxic hairs of the hundreds of brown tail moth caterpillars crawling around the oak trees caused itchy rashes. These are not the four dozen tent caterpillars that built a huge cocoon in my sand cherry tree, causing me to saw off its largest limb. Then there are the earthworms I inadvertently disturb and damage trying to help a plant. And Buddha only knows how many white aphids are now munching on my drought stricken perennials, how many new almost invisible spider webs are being spun to catch them.

I joke that the way Tibetans give corpses to wild animals and birds to eat as a way of compensating for the animals they ate, I've given my live body to tiny creatures. I've gone through two tubes of 1% cortisone cream to stop the itching not just of brown tail moth caterpillars but mosquito bites, bigger black fly bites and the endless nips of "no see'ums", aka gnats, at night. The final insult was when I attempted to break up a huge seaweed clog on the ropes securing my dock and emerged from the salt water literally covered by hundreds of tiny tan wiggling worms that stung.

I don't want to know about the microscopic dust mites that live in the dust I pay dearly every two weeks to eradicate because they've eaten flesh off my face and triggered asthma. I don't count the bees buzzing around the purple lavender bushes and flamboyant red flower stalks of a Persian plant. I've lost count of the disgustingly voracious army of Japanese beetles trying to devour it, the dune roses and the sand cherry tree.  My garden is under siege, and me as an army of one is fighting a battle against hundreds of these little shiny savages. At least six dozen lie dead in the four day old trap, another two dozen in the jar of soapy water left out as a warning, yet every afternoon they keep coming like waves of a tsunami.

One groundhog who's eaten a quarter of my perennials, half my annuals and all my black raspberries. Two chipmunks hungry for my blueberries. A family of dreaded red squirrels, a fat gray squirrel always scurrying. A woodpecker whose sound echoes, a bald eagle mom and its baby learning how to circle, 18 Canada geese all in a row swimming by, a pair of ducks with three ducklings paddling behind, three great blue herons hanging around the shore at low tide alternating with a half dozen snowy egrets so regal on spindly black legs, a flock of terns diving for the huge schools of small silvery "bait" fish carried by the fast moving tide, the continual splash of bass breaking the water. I hear the haunting cry of an owl from time to time, just heard the raucous squawks a crow mob and watched five seagulls fighting over a clam dug up by one. Clams and blood worms under the salt water mud, snails and mussels in the seaweed, crabs and lobsters crawling along the bottom, green flies skimming the surface...

Amid all this body options, I ended up an A lister with access, the elite with an In. And you did too. In this world of infinite critters and pests and living bacteria, we got the precious, hard-won human body. And look at me wasting it to death, sitting around sipping coffee, checking email, soaking up the sun, running off to hot spots and worrying about its hair, even though I've been warned at least 100 times I could lose this opportunity next time around. Look how many disgusting creatures I could turn out to be.

The swarms of summer radicalized me. So I am sharing the news. Somehow somewhere in the past I --and you--did enough things good and right to not be a Japanese beetle (hedge fund managers only), sand worm, mosquito (insurance executives exclusive), aphid, carpenter ant or gnat. Whatever made us win the karma lottery, I--and you--better be doing it from now on so next time around we win again and get another human body--maybe even in a more elite situation. A body with all its working parts, that's "precious" because it's the only vehicle driving to immortality with no suffering. Now really is the time to think ahead and be kind, avoid negative thoughts and harmful actions. Now may be the only time left to focus on the Dharma and liberate ourselves forever from pain, distress, decrepitude and death. Life in the body we've got may not be the greatest, but it's going to be a helluva lot more horrid to be a cockroach, termite, leech or vole.

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

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Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Summertime...and the living isn't easy

Just before Independence Day, I saw headlines about medical scientists close enough to curing cancer, people were no longer going to die. Also gididier headlines that other scientists, blessed with Botox and ice, are close to extending human life spans to 150 years. By the end of this 21st Century, people will get closer to being eternal. A century later we should all be death-proof.

Like most grandiose schemes of grandeur, kissing mortality goodby does not seem to have been thought through.  I have yet to read how some mad scientist is working on the critical shelf life issue, changing the expiration date of ears, eyes, knees, hips and heart valves. I know the young disrupters and innovators and starter uppers don't want to hear from the worldly wise and experienced, but I feel it necessary to point this out because here I am less than half of that 150, and already two of those five have worn out. Contemporaries have plastic hips and knees. Organ by organ we are trading hardware for soft ware, turning into plastic. I no longer need the Buddha to tell me impermanence is a bitch. It is a weapon of mass destruction, but we are not going to win a war that abolishes it.

And why should we? Let's suppose folks two hundred years ago found a way to surpass death and make themselves permanent. Makes themselves the chosen. We would not be here now. Nobody would've made way for the new, the fresh, the flexible. Nothing but stagnation and paralysis.

That's why these efforts feel as reckless as Brexit. Resentful of their lot in life--in this case a four score and ten year expiration date shared with others, people want out. They're angry at limitation, angry at loss of control over their own lives. So badly do they want what they want that as with Brexit, they haven't bothered to consider the hard realities and consequences.This quest reeks of animosity toward the forward pressing hordes of younger, stronger folks with all their hipbones, taut skin and not-fading smarts. As i said, impermanence is a howler.

 A few weeks ago, or so I read, the octogenarian actress Vanessa Redgrave told an interviewer she was not afraid to die. In fact, she was looking forward to it. "Living is very hard," she said. "It will be easy to give up." 

A non-Buddhist has nailed it. Living is actually so hard, we should be glad to give it up. Let somebody else deal with it. Not even a life of vast privilege and vaster talent that brought more of it liberated Vanessa Redgrave from human suffering. Her adult daughter died abruptly in a skiing accident; her younger sister died of cancer; she went through divorce and probably sorrows and sicknesses her publicist did not let us know about. She's a reminder nobody escapes the inevitable suffering the Buddha pointed out 2600 years ago: being born into this erratic world, bodily sickness, the painful deteriorations of old age and death with its paralyzing fears. That's just for starters.

Over the long July 4th holiday weekend, I thought a lot about what Redgrave said because the weather was so heartbreakingly exquisite. The sky was spotless blue, breezes fluttered, flowers bloomed, and the sea was warm enough to swim in. Perfection was right here with fireworks. And right beside it in full bloom with its own fireworks was Samsara, a tidal wave of sadness flowing from phone calls, emails, kaffeeklatch and texts. 

On July 2 for no apparent reason any medical examiner can find, a 16-month-old two houses from mine abruptly died. The young parents are inconsolable and the 5-year-old does not know what to do. On July 1, an 85-year-old woman who lives alone and has no close family was told to report at 6 AM to the hospital for invasive testing that could provoke immediate heart surgery.  The woman is terrified.

A normally doting grandmother confided the daughter-in-law divorced from her son had been cited by Child Protective Services for beating up the 14-year-old daughter my friend so loves because this mother is incapable of managing anger. What to do? Another upper middle class grandmother who is the pillar of privilege is trying to reach the much younger children her morbidly angry and weird son beat up. Finally the mother walked, taking the kids with her. Another grandmother hinted how physically painful it has become to keep and keep up with her overactive six-year-old grandson for a month while his single mother tries to sort her life out. 

Cancer has returned to the body of the woman next door and the doctor says this time it's terminal. Meanwhile the chemo is killing her; some days she can't breathe. On July 1, I worked with three 7-year-olds. When i asked the sweet boy if he'd go to the office to ask for a photocopy, he stepped back, looked pained and whispered: "I can't. I'm shy." When I caught the more brazenly assertive and plumper of the two girls secretly stuffing herself with sugar, butter and whipped cream, her look defied me the way it did when she threw a plastic knife past my head toward the sink.

On July 4, I finally reached an old friend mourning for her 50-year life partner who passed in late May after a short, bloody battle with an exotic cancer. They had no children, just each other 24/7 all those years and suddenly she's all alone. I checked in with another friend who lost her 48-year life and business partner--same story, no children, together 24/7--two months ago and was struggling to establish her own life. Still no new job for a childhood friend who at 72 can't quit because she has no inner life and needs something to do, something to fill her time between grandchildren visits. I had a long phone conversation with another childhood friend in Manhattan who since she was forced to retire from her lawyer job has been a mess trying to figure out who she is and what she should do without a title and office. She has money, privilege, a husband, regular Botox injections in her face and a nice perch in midtown but she's bored, sad and scared.

Before the weekend, I had lunch with a young Sherpa woman graduated from community college in the US and totally on her own here, very unhappy that in the name of "efficiency" she doesn't get regular hours or a set number of hours per week at her paying job that pays erratically. After the weekend I had a long phone call from a friend in southern California, frustrated that he'd just lost 1/4 of his annual income because a competitor underhandedly underbid him on a big job, deliberately taking a loss to knife my friend. "Foul play," he grouched.

My French sister wrote that she couldn't go up to Paris for a weekend to enjoy the free concert tickets I offered her because she had to take care of senile parents and grumpy husband. A young friend working as a journalist in Europe was in tears after visiting a Syrian refugee camp, seeing how inhumane everything was.

A Dharma brother forwarded an email about the Chinese invading Sera Monastery inside Tibet and removing the nuns and monks trying to practice there.  An elderly Buddhist nun of Swiss origin wrote from her retreat in Nepal that the monsoon and the monastery were hell on her body. Also her visa was about to expire so she was forced to leave the country without a clear place to go. And I got a call from my six-year-old "granddaughter" saying she missed me so much and when was I coming back. I tried to invite her mother to bring her across the country for a week--a week the mother was searching for something to occupy the child--but the mother already had her own life too programmed. What to say? "I miss you too."

Not even on a physically perfect Independence Day could I be liberated from human suffering. And these people want us to live to be 150?!?

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

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.
Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy Garson All rights Reserved