Archive for June, 2010

Buddhism and the Three Trainings

Buddhism and the Three Trainings

by Jeff Brooks

The objective of Buddhism is to put an end to suffering. The means to this end is through training in three dimensions of life. One is our ability to act in a wholesome and ethical way towards ourselves and others. The second is to develop a calm clear mind.  Both of those trainings are difficult to do, but both are appealing to many people. Right now many of us sense a need to conduct ourselves with dignity and honor and moral courage. And we can accept the need to learn how to get better at behaving this way – not just thinking it’s a good idea but having the strength and presence of mind and knowledge of what to do and what to avoid, to actually live up to our moral ideals. In Buddhist terms this is training in sila – personal conduct.

It is easy for many of us to see the benefit of having a calm, clear mind. We want an antidote to our hyperstimulated cultural environment, and to our turbulent inner environment in which our mind, reeling from relentless engagement with media and hurry, churns with thoughts and feelings and desires and gives us too little peace.  Training the mind to settle down and develop the ability to focus on one thing clearly and with stability for an extended period of time is the Buddhism training of Samadhi, or meditation.

The third training is less appealing to our intuition.  This is the training in wisdom, or prajna. It is the opposite of ignorance, or you might say it is the insight that comes and dispels ignorance.  A good thing since ignorance is the cause of suffering and an end to ignorance is the end of suffering. Super. Training in wisdom means understanding the way things actually exist. And that is where you  lose a lot of people, because we all think we understand the way things actually exist. No problem. It’s not the way things exist, we think, that is the problem, it is the fact that nice things that I cannot have exist, and crappy things I have to put up with exist. I know how they exist. That, we feel, is not the problem.

But it is. We do not notice the degree to which our minds fabricate our reality and cause us to suffer – because we act on the basis of beliefs about reality that do not correspond to the way things actually exist.

Here is an example:  People say China invaded Tibet. That the Chinese killed many Tibetans and suppressed Tibetan culture. Therefore the Chinese are bad or misguided. People say that Mao’s agricultural policies led to the mass starvation of 50 million Chinese. These policies were implemented by Chinese people. And they were resisted by Chinese people. And they harmed Chinese people. And of course the hundreds of millions of Chinese alive and prospering now may feel benefitted, in the long run, by these policies. The fact that you can redefine Chinese to be good and evil, harmed and helped, and so on infinitely, tells you that when you talk about the Chinese you are referring to something that is made up. It is a label placed on a concept that has nothing to correspond to it in reality. We are projecting a convenient fiction onto an imaginary object and changing the definition and the object as our mind shifts. We do this not just with the idea of the Chinese people but with every object our mind touches. This is not to say that objects do not exist. They do. It is not to say that objects do not have qualities, or that all existence is subject to our fantasies or whims. No way. And Buddhism does not say so. Buddhism teaches us that to see things as they are not as we project and define them we need to be kind and decent toward ourselves and others so that our minds can settle down sufficiently to allow us to see the process by which we filter and process our experience and impose our beliefs, assumptions and mental habits upon our perceptions, unintentionally.

Only in this way can we see reality as it actually exists, only then can we come face to face with our own mind and with the infinite body and mind of the Buddha: our own nature.

I will explain how very soon.

For now when you hear people talking about how black people are or how white people are you will know they are talking ignorantly.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at  His articles and books are collected at

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Dove Tale

Dove Tale

by Susan Downing

I think that a mama bird choosing a spot for a nest naturally looks for someplace as sheltered and quiet as possible, where she feels she can best keep both herself and her eggs, and then her  fledglings, safe and warm until they are ready to fly off on their own.  That must be what the pretty little mourning dove who nested in the pot of dead flowers beneath the carport and above the porch at my mom’s house was thinking.

My mom died a year ago last August, and the house has been empty since then.  The dove must have thought the location perfect – the carport would keep the rain and wind and hot sun off her, there were no tree trunks or branches for predators to climb up, the dead flowers and dirt in the pot beneath provided an almost ready-made nest, and there were no humans around.  At least not at first.  Poor birdie, she made her next just after we’d held an Open House and accepted an offer on the place.  She must have been surprised when suddenly human activity appeared where there had previously been none.  Mostly, it was my realtor, Suzi,  who went in and out, and whenever I’d see her, she’d give me dove updates: the dove was there, the dove wasn’t, etc.  Once or twice I saw the mama bird myself, and, like Suzi,  I would take care going in and out the front door, trying not to disturb her as she and her nest hung there,  just three feet from the door.  Suzi and I were concerned that the birdie would be scared off by the comings and goings at the house, that she might abandon the nest once it seemed not to provide the security and peace she must have expected.  But she remained.

Finally, last week, Suzi announced, “She’s got two eggs in the nest!”  This week I saw her myself again.  Our closing date is nearing, and I went out to move a couple of remaining furniture items from the house.  When I arrived my heart sank – a big truck was in the driveway.  Carpenters were doing repairs to the bathroom, and they had set up their work area in the driveway beneath the carport, less than 10 feet from the dove’s nest.  Power tools, sawdust, you name it.  I walked slowly up onto the porch and saw the dove perched on the nest, still as a statue. Avoiding eye contact.  Perhaps hoping that if she didn’t move or look at me, then I wouldn’t notice her?

I walked quietly into the house, greeted the carpenters and began moving the armchair I was planning to take with me. One of the carpenters so kindly offered to help, and as we were moving it out the front door, he nodded in the dove’s direction.  ”She must be terrified,” he said, and then added, smiling, “Look at the blue eyeliner.”  I glanced at her and saw that indeed, the light blue ring around her eye did look like some snazzy makeup job.  And I was happy – and relieved – that the carpenter was obviously taking care to disturb her as little as possible.  We talked about her resolve in the face of the challenges that all this carport activity presented.  All that noise, all these giant, terrifying creatures, and yet she did not abandon her post. Did not even show any fear.  Damned if she was going to desert those defenseless little eggs.  It was touching and inspiring.  And  very apropos for the whole situation, although I didn’t realize it until I was driving home.

You see, this was probably the last time I would be inside my mom’s house.  She’d lived there, on the bank of a lovely, quiet pond, for about 15 years, and our family had enjoyed many visits there, both on holidays and on just everyday occasions – for dinner, fishing on the pond, to take a stroll down to the garden with her.  And so, on this day, I walked through all the rooms one last time, taking my leave.  Looked out at the pond, glanced at the Rose of Charon we’d given Mom one Mother’s Day, and then drove slowly off.

About half way home I found myself in tears.  Inexplicably, it seemed at first.  After all, Mom died nearly two years ago, and my sister and I are thrilled the house has finally sold.  But of course, the house closing means closure, that very popular word which implies that things are over and done with and that somehow one can forget whatever event or chapter has presumably been closed.  When my initial surprise at the tears faded – but as they were still pouring down my cheeks – I realized that although I felt a little sad about passing Mom’s house on to someone else, I was also feeling sweetness.  And happiness. And gratitude, for all that my mom had brought into my life and allowed me to bring into hers.

She was a lot like that dove, I think.  For human and avian mamas are not so different from one another, I think.  They all try to find the calmest, most sheltered circumstances in which to raise their young.  Sometimes they succeed, sometimes not.  Sometimes they misjudge a nesting spot.   Although the dove’s nest started out as a healthy, blooming plant, once it was deprived of water and plant food, the blossoms faded and the plant itself died.  But then it acquired a new function, of holding those two precious, vulnerable eggs.  And although the nest was composed of dead matter and had lost its outward beauty, it still somehow provided protection and a suitable space for growth.  

I think my mom’s life was a lot like that. I know she did the best she could to try to find a good nesting spot that would support her future family, so that she could nurture my sister and me. And like the little dove, she made the best of a miscalculation: what must have at first seemed a beautiful garden-like spot in which to build her nest, gradually faded and lost its bloom.   But she stayed at her post, keeping watch over the two fledglings.  

 As I drove from my mom’s soon-to-be-no-longer-hers home to my home, I was moved by the reminder – in the form of the dove and her tale – of what I see as my mom’s own steadfast support of me and my sister as we made our way through life.  That dove is so her – tough and tenacious, protective.  Not showing any fear, even if she is scared on the inside.  What good would showing it do?  It would only distract from the important work at hand.  

I have at least a bit of that approach to life in me, and seeing the dove reminded me where I got it. And despite my tears, I was not mourning, but rather, grateful to my mom for her stubborn, non-nonsense strength and her protective maternal love, all reflected in one tiny and delicate but tenacious blue-eyelined bird. 




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What Happens in Vegas Permeates the Universe Throughout Space and Time

What Happens in Vegas Permeates the Universe Throughout Space and Time

by Jeff Brooks

The thousands of volumes of the Buddhist canon and the commentarial literature are concerned with, among other things, explaining why it is that we suffer.  The reason it’s such a hot topic is because if you know why you suffer you can stop the causes of suffering and use your time for things you’d rather do.  Seems like a good idea. So peering into the many pages there you will see that the Buddha explains that the chief cause of suffering is ignorance.

Not just general ignorance, like not knowing things. Not knowing that Carson City is the capital of Nevada is not going to be a major cause of suffering.  That type of ignorance –of specific facts or a lack of intelligence at accumulating knowledge – is secondary.  If that type of knowledge preoccupies you, according to scripture, you are aspiring to be like an eagle who can see so much from a distance, not aspiring to be a Buddha, who has the skill and knowledge to put an end to suffering for himself and others, forever.

Ignorance as a technical Buddhist term refers specifically to several classes of not-understanding. The most important of these kinds of ignorance is the lack of understanding that our actions have consequences. What we do and what we have done will influence the quality of our lives in the future.

Now if you happen to be elected to the Nevada state legislature and you don’t know enough to go to Carson City when the legislature convenes, then it might be a source of suffering for you. And if out of this secondary, lack-of-facts type of ignorance you end up in Las Vegas by mistake, then you may indeed be royally screwed.  But not just because you will miss the opening gavel of the legislative session.  No. It may be much more serious than that.  Because in Las Vegas you will encounter, again and again, on posters, billboards, t-shirts, and in the hearts and minds of your fellow lost, the wisdom according to The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority: What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.

That is a golden nugget of real, genuine ignorance.  It expresses the essential mistake that produces suffering.

I in no way mean to personally criticize the individual members of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, current or past. They may be good people.  They may love their children, pet their dogs, mow their lawns, give to charity, recycle religiously and eat as vegan as possible. Or they might intentionally, individually or collectively, be bent on enticing the world to drink to excess and boff their nearest suitemate. I would not know. I am no mind reader. I do know the effect of their slogan.

Because the only thing that stays in Vegas is the dough of the folks who go there.  What “happens” in Vegas is a totally different story. Just take a look at that verb. “Happens.” It’s passive. When things happen it implies that people didn’t do them. They just happened. There was no will involved. No volition. And by the way, no responsibility and no blame. What a deal!  But it is a false promise.

It is notable that this very expression appears again and again in interviews with criminal subjects. You interview a guy who you have on camera shooting another guy. You have eyewitnesses. You have blood, DNA, ballistics, clothing, the whole thing. You have no doubt. But the suspect will tell the story like this: “…Yeah, we were talking, there was an argument, and then the shooting happened…” Even if you know they did it and they know you know, they often won’t own what they did. They can’t get themselves to say “I did it.” They’ll say “it happened.” But it did not just happen. He did it.

And what happens in Vegas, like what happens everywhere else, happens because people do things, people make it happen. People doing things, and saying things and thinking things is “karma”—the Sanskrit for action, and for the result of action.  Karma does not just happen.

When you or I do wrong or right we see ourselves act and this perception plants a seed in our mind, it forms not only a memory but a karmic propensity which colors our future perceptions and which also will have a result in the future. If for example we frequently plant mental seeds of anger, by having angry thoughts, using angry words, doing angry actions, being attracted to situations and people that support our inclination to anger then we will frequently encounter an angry world.  It is not magic, it is logic.  It is easy to see it play out in our own lives.

To a great degree we choose what we do.  If we are passive, if we allow life to ‘happen” to us, we just gamble with life and ultimately, inevitably, we lose.

If we go to Las Vegas – or anywhere – and we lie, steal, cheat, engage in sexual misconduct, use intoxicants – those acts don’t stay in Vegas. We see ourselves do those acts and to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the seriousness of the act and to how habitual the acts are, we plant seeds in our mind which condition our future choices, the way we perceive ourselves, who we choose to hang out with, where we choose to hang out, and what we choose to do when we get there.

The idea that our actions do not have definite consequences is one of the classic definitions of ignorance, according to Buddhism. It is the mistake that leads us to easily condition ourselves to a lifetime of harmful acts. These acts are considered “wrong” because they cause suffering. The premise is that if you were not ignorant of the nature of things you would not do things that will ultimately harm you – even if the first contact with these things appears pleasurable. If you are acting on the basis of ignorance then you will easily be seduced by wrong acts – stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, violence – which appear to further your happiness but ultimately cause just the opposite.

If we had wisdom in our minds instead of ignorance, its opposite, we would not be so easily seduced by bad ideas. Ideas that confirm what we want to believe, that reinforce our ignorance, ideas which hold that indulging in pleasures that waste our brief and precious lives and time, our work, bodies and minds, and those of others, are simply innocuous entertainments. Bad ideas that say these acts will have no consequences. That you can cordon off your misdeeds geographically and leave them behind, in Vegas, or anywhere else. That you can take a break from living a decent life, and that afterwards you can go back to observing conventional mores, and no one will be the wiser.

Whatever we do stays with us. Yes, our bodies will decline and disappear. As will our minds.  No monument, work of art, scientific formula or masterful work of literature will last very long after we have gone. What will last is the effect we have on others. We all teach continually. If there are nothing but examples of ignorance around then that ignorance will pervade the culture and the world and echo through the generations, as human life declines and people suffer more and more. If there are examples of decency, dignity, purpose and maturity, then that influence will also spread out through space and time, unhindered, through the hearts and minds of people whose lives are uplifted by the example and whose suffering is dispelled by following in your footsteps.

So do what you do. But be guided by the knowledge that whatever you do will stay with you and ripple out through space and time, pervading the universe, forever.

Carson City is hot this time of year, sure.   But if you have made the decision to go there, even if only briefly, to vote to extend the underwriting of the Cash n’ Caymans Vacation Bond Issue for example, as I like to remind the legislators: be grateful.  There’s way hotter places.

Be cool.

Train well.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at His articles and book are collected at


What Business Plan?!

What Business Plan?!

     by Susan Downing

When I opened up Mountain Zendo and Healing Center a year ago, after having decided to expand my private practice, my small business owner friends and colleagues said that I should really have a business plan and set goals for the Center. How much income did I want to bring in? What was my target number of clients? What did I see as my income streams and what would I do to develop them so that they would produce the income I’d set as my goal?  Don’t worry, gentle readers – today’s post will not be an outline of a traditional business plan for Mountain Zendo.  For the simple reason that I never did that kind of business plan, and I probably never will, because I approach my work at the Center in a different way.

When people began talking to me about business plans, I always immediately stopped listening.  Back then, I didn’t quite understand why.  But now I do.  It’s because business plans force you to be all goal-oriented, to lay out a specific vision of what you want to achieve with your business.  And although I do have goals for my work at the Center, they’re not the kind that would make a Community Development grant-granting department feel comfortable  about parting with funds.  

First of all, I don’t consider what I do all day a business. I consider it a life’s work. I don’t want to say the culmination of a life’s work, because that sounds too finished, too much like a goal that has been met, like a completed project.  But I do feel that pretty much everything I have done in my life before I began doing healing work has contributed to what I am doing now and helped me get here, to our Center.  And I see my work here an an ongoing, ever-flowing, ever-deepening stream of activity motivated by clear intention and flowing out of a clear source, but a stream that just flows without flowing toward a particular point.  So, you may ask, just what do I think I am doing here?

Believe it or not, until a few months ago, I could not have fully and clearly articulated why I went into healing work and why I opened the Center last year.  You may find this ironic, given how un-business-planny I am, but I figured out the “why do I do this” question while attending a 5-part business seminar through BNI, a business networking group I belong to.  Our trainer for the seminar challenged us all to explain exactly why we do what we do.  I am a cooperative student, so when I went home that night, I sat down to do my thinking homework.  

It was easy to say that I do the work I do because I want to help people.  But I knew that answer was too superficial.  So I asked myself why I wanted to help people by doing healing work and teaching them meditation and other stress-relief techniques.  The answer that arose both surprised me and didn’t.  

I grew up surrounded by people who certainly meant well, and who, I believe,  did love each other.  But the weight of their individual personal unhappiness produced such stress and sadness and anger that they did not have the strength or reserves of love  to take as much care in their interactions with each other as I know they wanted to be able to take.  

And I see this same unhappiness, stress and near-depleted reservoirs of love in my clients.  To varying degrees, of course.  They all care deeply about the people around them and want to take care of them and show them love.  But they don’t have the strength to do it as effectively or consistently as they’d like.  They come to me feeling that their emotional, physical or spiritual reserves are running very low.  When they’re feeling that way, they’re not only unhappy and unable to live the way they want to live, but they also can’t be as kind and loving as they want to be to others.  They can’t take the kind of care with or of others that they’d like to.

And that is why I do the work I do: to help them be able to help themselves and take good care of others, too.  When people come to me, I feel like I am filling up their reservoirs of love with healing energy, so that they can not only feel wonderful themselves, but share that well-being and happiness with those around them.  And I see that process play out all the time with my clients: they come in feeling discouraged that they are not able to meet their responsibilities to themselves or others – whether personally or professionally – and when they leave, they are calm and relaxed, which means they are also feeling kinder toward everyone around them.  Which means they are going back out into the world in a frame of mind that is conducive to giving kind attention and love to those around them.

That is my business plan: I offer people loving energy, whether by giving them a Reiki session, or by offering them a calm, quiet space that they can use for meditation, or simply as a refuge from the depleting demands of their day.  

Last week in his blog post Jeff Brooks urged us to treasure what we have. And I sure do: it is an indescribable joy for me to work with every person who walks through the Center’s door.  If being in our space, or doing healing work, or talking with others who are there makes it possible for you to feel happier and, as a result, more loving to those you encounter, then I am happy.  Blissfully happy to have the opportunity to spend that time with you.  With no goal besides giving you some ways to feel that positive energy in and around you, and to take it with you and use it however you can.    

So, not a traditional business plan, perhaps. No quotas or numbers to reach.  Just the joy of doing what I do every day and seeing how it plays out for all of us who are involved.  So far, so good.