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.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Trying to Share the Love

I just helped someone put together brochure copy for a morning meditation program a major organization in New York City has agreed to sponsor. The operative word had to be mindfulness so this secular institution could avoid the religious implications of "meditation." My friend came up with "contemplation."

I really wanted her program to succeed. I wanted lots of frayed New Yorkers to pile in and start their day with a pile of good news.  I wanted to make the marketing pitch meaningful as well as dead on honest. So I contemplated why I find Buddhism to be so precious, sacred actually, and how it changed my life. 

This brought me to the innovative way a Dharma brother of mine in San Francisco has, with our Rinpoche's blessings, started to present Buddhism: as the pure, unfettered love called Bodhicitta. No texts for study, no big untranslatable words to parse, no tormas to fashion or mantras to memorize. Just guided meditation on the endless streams of light and love pouring into us from the Buddha and his retinue of deities, and from all the great masters who came before us and spent their lives perfecting the idea we can all transcend our anguish.
Rinpoche's insight is that we are now living in heavy rains that have brought us all a tsunami of trouble. Everyone is struggling in some way. Matters keep getting worse. Everyone has been wounded one way or another with no way to heal. No place to turn... except... .Rinpoche sees the Buddha and his retinue along with the long lineage of those who brought us his message as a sheltering umbrella we can all get under.

So instead of meeting for 90 minutes to struggle over the meaning of ancient texts and treatises,  he wants his students to just sit there and feel the love. When you do, you walk away on clouds, nourished and buoyant. You wonder why no one ever told you this before. You want to share the love. Compassion arises. It's all bodhicitta, sometimes translated as "awakened heart."

It starts with the Buddha's vital, simple message. Contrary to monotheistic doctrines that insist you are a mess who needs God's help, the Buddha assures you are perfect just as you are. There is absolutely nothing wrong with you, nothing to hide.You don't need to rush out shopping for stuff to make yourself better. That kind of self-improvement improves nothing but some corporation's bottom line. Put the credit card away. You already have everything you need, You just need to discover that. 

The Buddha managed by contemplating how his life had worked out. Ever since he's been inviting us to a come-as-you-are party so we too can do that and come to see all the blessings we have. Chief among them is all that shit we're so busy hiding, all that scary stuff like failures and fractures and freakiness. They are actually the pile of manure that's going to make perfection grow, the dirt scrapers that can reveal the gold within you. If you dig in. After all, the symbol of Buddhist dharma is the lotus. This most beautiful flower on Earth can only grow in mud.

That's what contemplation practice actually is. Buddhist meditation is the insistent belief we are all worthy beings with access to unending blessings. The trick is how to sit still for a few minutes to find that out for ourselves. To help us, Buddhists back in the day created four images that are now widely available and wildly popular.

First there is the Buddha himself. Artists have very strict rules for how a Buddha is portrayed. He will often have a third eye or dot representing it at the top of his nose. This represents inner seeing, the result of contemplation. Often Buddha will be shown with his right hand reaching down to touch the ground. This “touching the Earth” mudra represents the Buddha’s assertion that he and all beings have the right to be here on Earth and receive all its blessings. He is saying: we all belong here and we all benefit.” Sometimes Buddha is shown in full meditation posture and sometimes with his right hand turned outward in front of his chest. You know what that gesture means, don't you? It's the STOP sigh. Here, it's the Buddha saying, stop being scared. I'm here. The hand gesture represents the Buddha dispelling our deepest fears. 

Next, Tara, or Drolma in Tibetan. She comes in many colors and many poses because she has so many ways of protecting us. Tara is the great mother who wants for each of us what any loving mother wants for her child: good health, long life, freedom from fear, and wisdom. She is always shown with her right hand extended in the gesture of generosity to indicate she grants all our requests. Of the 21 Taras, the two most widely popular are Green Tara and White Tara. Green Tara has her leg extended, some say, so she can rise up quickly to come to our aid. Both Taras have a lotus in their left hand, rising from their heart. This is a way of showing us their great compassion and wisdom. Tara is the great mother and protector of all Himalayan peoples. She is known as Kwan Yin in China and Japan.

Then Manjushri represents wisdom and he is always portrayed as a youth to tell us that wisdom is always fresh: it never ages, rots or gets stale. Manjushri is always portrayed with a sword because wisdom easily cuts through our ignorance and pain and slays it. He wants us to be that kind of warrior. Cutting through our delusions and illusions will give us clarity that we can wield like his sword to cut off suffering. Manjushri is a reminder that we are all born perfect with everything we need to be happy beyond suffering. We just need to borrow his sword of wisdom to cut through our despairs to reach this truth, the way a machete hacks away the weeds until the land is clear. Contemplation is the best way to do that.

And finally Sipaykhorlo: The Wheel of Life illustrates the overarching truth we learn from contemplating ourselves: how we make our own suffering happen. In the center are the three poisons that destroy our clarity and skill: passion or wanting, aggression or hating and ignorance or not caring. These are shown with animal images. Around them are the six realms of suffering actions propel beings into: the hell realm (red hot anger), the hungry ghost realm (constant thirst from never having enough), the animal realm (ignorance of karma and dharma or, in other words, cause and effect), human realm (destroyed by desires), the jealous gods realm (endless warfare and envy), the god realm (downfall due to pride and arrogance). And around these are the 12 interdependent links of activity that lead us into so much suffering. This is the uh-oh image, painstakingly crafted to show us the chain that enchains us in interminable suffering for the purpose of showing us how to break that chain and set ourselves free.

The Buddha wants us to be happy all the time. For 2600 years men and women have devoted their lives to contemplating and come away telling us we are okay, we are lovable, we are absolutely perfect. Now is a good time to tune in and hear them. Happiness is, as they say, an inside job.

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

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Thursday, August 25, 2016

In Praise of Puttering

Last week I tried to show a 9-year-old the huge bald eagle camouflaged in a dead tree across the inlet. I myself get ridiculously excited whenever I spot "big bird", but this child who had never seen America's national symbol before could have cared less. She looked up from her mobile phone game and quickly back with a barely disclosed ho hum, so what, why are you bothering me? I am still in shock.

I probably shouldn't be because her parents and only grandparents are all career-driven urban/ suburbanites who don't have pets, gardens, spiritual inclinations or the slightest curiosity about the natural world. They don't care where their food, electricity and water come from as long as they steadily get plenty. They don't care if they drive gas guzzlers; they can afford the gallons. They're in the driven multitude that commutes to the straight and narrow virtual reality of consumer culture and corporate career, stuck in that bubble of conformity, delegating the urgencies of life to strangers.

Not surprisingly, these are folks who lack hobbies, passions, spiritual strength, and most of all the urge to putter around.  I am quick to notice what sociologists of the 50s called outer directed people--those force fed food for thought by outside interests, or to put it another way, those always under the influence-- because I am so happy to tune out their noisy must-do world and quietly putter around listening to myself. Instead of the mad scribble of endless appointments and must-dos that is their and everybody else's calendar, mine is a symphony of blank spaces. This ode to joy means time doing what today's hyperactive, pay to play Tiger Mom culture absolutely loathes: live hands on. I mess around in the garden, the kitchen, the landscape, with boats and property, other people's needs and of course my mind--which seems to include all the decor shifting I do trying to get my place to feel more "right." I also sit around watching seabirds, searching the stars, checking world news, admiring the sunset or full moon and sometimes just listening to my breath. Puttering is me dealing with the real world.

You could say my career has been being alive as a human. I adopted this "lifestyle" after I spent my 20s burying a half-dozen family and friends who played strictly by conventional consume and career rules yet got rudely torn away before they did what they truly wanted. All that subtraction added up to a huge epiphany: "question authority." Instead of tearing between life and death like it's a 200 meter Olympic swim and getting helplessly blown away, maybe it was better to float and surf life's waves.

I suppose without knowing it, I was an earlier adopter of the Buddhist belief in giving up all hope for fruition, giving up all expectation of glory, focusing on the present moment. Those with whom I shared my reckoning thought I'd lost my mind, probably from the weight of too much tragedy. Or, as time went on, perhaps it was guts because I stepped out of the conventional straight line life and began floating from one experience to another, a nomad among the settled. My oldest friend, grandmother of that uninterested child, took to calling me "the wandering Bu..."

Frankly, there have been moments I worried about myself, especially after the financial road turned into a dead-end pile of rocks. Having my "space", as the counterculture used to say, made me a generalist in an era that increasingly prizes and encourages laser-focused specialization. Our culture has become a ferocious Tiger Mom hellbent on raising competent career professionals who never get time to learn how to be a human being, to find out what it feels like to be alive. 

Well, as life would have it, I'm now finding the oddest part of being the odd one out is being the only one among affluent and acculturated friends who has entered end times (old age) busily challenged, full of energy, packed with curiosity, and reasonably happy. The one who feels the most alive, the one in the best of health. (Dear Buddha, may I not be jinxed for saying this.)

Yesterday maybe for the fourth time, my college friend who's been a "wealth manager" for 30 years very defensively re-iterated that even though she's 73 and has enough money, she can't quit because her life would have no structure. "I like it," she said, "that I know where to be at what hour. Otherwise I wouldn't know how to fill my day when I get out of bed." I heard here the echo of an old boyfriend telling me even though he was over 70 and had had a heart attack, he couldn't quit being a hedgefunder because he was good at making money and that's all he knew how to do. 

Two years ago, my friend who became an attorney after her second child entered kindergarten was forced by age rules to retire from her government job. Giving up that long held position meant giving up a title that, as she put it, told her who she was: a lawyer. I pointed out in my best Buddhist way she was still a wife, mother, friend and grandmother, but that didn't assuage her in the slightest. Those positions were ordinary. They didn't grant elite status. "I need a way for people to define me, for me to really know who I am,"  is how she put it. For two years, she's been flailing as she tries to find out. She started taking guitar lessons but her young teacher didn't want to work with a "Florence Jenkins" and told her to go elsewhere. She signed on at an employment agency that forwards volunteers to non-profit institutions but can't find one that resonates with her because "I don't want to be around sick, deranged, or foreign people." Her interests are so limited, there's hardly a museum where she could be a docent. Monthly botox shots, a personal trainer every other day, and quarterly spa visits don't fill her time or define her enough. She's so unhappy.

My oldest friend was fired because of age. She lives in a huge, overly furnished house with two monogrammed cars, but she kept hunting down jobs and collecting unemployment. She got one for a year but lost it six months ago, so she's back on unemployment and interviews. "Can't you just quit?" I asked. "You're old enough and age is the issue." "I need something to do," she said. "I need a focus...and I like the extra money."  Meanwhile all her focus nowadays is overwhelmingly on her grandchildren whose lives she seems to be leading.

Even more weird is how all that time everybody thought I wasted has somehow made me the person everybody now wants to consult. Oddly, I am the one guiding the wealth manager through personal real estate ventures. I am advising the former lawyer on gluten free options for her celiac grandson and non profit NGOs she doesn't know about that could use her help.  Last year I was guiding her through the intricacies of dealing with condo management for redress and repairs. My oldest friend admired my herb plantings so I've helped her start her own. Her granddaughter wanted to come see me because when she was four, I taught her how to make jam and she just loved that. She loved it so much she walked out asking me what kind we'd make next year when she came back. We have been cooking up a storm one day a year and this year was no exception, except that the demand to make a lot of things we weren't going to eat struck me as more about resume building than the joy of cooking.

I have been on the phone and text messaging system with a bright young friend in San Francisco who has no clue how to handle vital property repair issues. I've recently helped a young friend in LA with the decor of houses he remodels to flip. I've had several rounds of coffee with a Fox News watching friend who needs to talk about a serious, secret family problem. I have been emailing a very successful college friend who lost her husband/business partner of 48 years because she keeps thanking me for the " unique good advice."

Twice in the last two weeks, I sat face to face with two other women whose lives were coming apart. To the one whose cancer had returned and was facing major disfiguring surgery--a psychiatrist, I explained how to focus the mind for protection and healing through the basics of Medicine Buddha practice.  For the grandmother who kept tearing up when she talked about what an awful mess she'd become--she can't keep up with her grandchildren since her hips are so bad she requires a walker and she knows her physical impairment comes from her terrible mental state because all her friends are dead and she feels so lonely--I sat at the restaurant table and taught her basic meditation breathing and the idea of fresh start.  I recommended books. Now someone is suggesting I help establish a Buddhist center for spiritual healing through Bodhicitta, Medicine Buddha and mind training skills. And I may do it because I see how many souls struggle and suffer when their humanity surfaces.

I have never considered puttering as sputtering, wasting time and "doing nothing." Cleaning my room and my clothes, moving plants around my garden, creating something edible from disparate ingredients in my fridge or discovering a dozen ways to deploy a can of chickpeas, doing crossword puzzles, watching the seabirds stalking the shore or dark clouds commandeering the sky have all been fitness training, cathartic ways of sharpening my perceptions, clearing my mind and honing my humanity. Last week someone shared on Facebook the idea that although we are living in an age of infinite information, we get no wisdom. I think that's because we're too focused on getting ahead instead of getting a head. People need to stop being afraid of life and just putter around in it.

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

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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