Archive for September, 2010

Sweet Worker Bees

Sweet Worker Bees

by Susan Downing

A couple of weeks ago when I was taking a walk near my house, I passed the squash fields owned by Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary.  Moving along the edge of the field, I noticed several small structures at the far end, surrounded by what looked like electrified fencing.  As I got closer, I recognized the structures as beehives.  I stepped off the road and made my way toward them.  Although the morning was still and I heard plenty of bugs and birds around me, I didn’t hear the dozens of bees that I soon noticed zooming in and out of the hives through the small openings at the bottom of each hive.

hives

Although I stood right at the edge of the fence, they paid me no mind as I observed them. Too busy, I guess.  Busy as bees.  And beautiful.  They were graceful and focused, every bit as busy as their name – worker bees – would imply.

After enjoying the bees’ dance-like movements for a few minutes, I took a look at the sign posted at the corner of the electric fence:  ”No Trespassing.  Honeybee Yard.  Do not disturb the honeybees.  Their pollinating work ensures your food supply.” I figured the fence would stop any honeybee thieves – particularly the ursine or illiterate – who weren’t deterred by the sign. The part about the bees’ work ensuring our food supply got me thinking.  Certainly, I’ve heard about the decline of American honeybee colonies, about the consequences that has for our crops.  But at this moment, I began to think of the bees in a new way.

electric fence

I have often heard the phrase “worker bees” used to refer to people who are exploited so that others can reap benefits at the expense of their labor.  The idea is that the worker bees are doing the real work, while their bosses sit back and smoke cigars, or something like that. And so, we tend to speak of being worker bees as something to be avoided.  But that’s not how I see them any more.

Here is one way I could explain what the worker honeybees do:  during the course of their short, busy lives, they make foray after foray into the wide world from the safe confines of their hive.  Alighting on flower after flower, they gather up tiny bits of nectar or pollen.  They take these tiny parts of that outside world back to the hive, either on their legs, in the case of pollen, or within their very bodies, in the case of nectar.  Then, back in their cloistered little home, the bees pass the nectar, which has mingled inside them with enzymes, to other bees who place it carefully within the honeycomb, where it changes in nature, through the enzymes’ action and enforced evaporation through the devoted nearby beating of the bees’ wings, gradually growing more viscous and sweeter, until it finally becomes the honey we know and love.

But here is another way I now like to think of their life’s work:  day after day they leave their safe little home and make contact with the outside world.  Gathering all the nectar they can, they return to the hive.  There, through force of will, tireless effort, and their internal resources, they distill and transform the raw material of the outside world into something of almost intoxicating sweetness.  And they go through this process not just for themselves, so that they will be able to eat, but also for all the bees – present and future, young and old – and for the queen. In this way, the worker bees are the ones responsible, through their continued honey production,  for making sure the bee colony will survive and prosper. I know they are insects and don’t experience our human emotions, but still I wonder: could they really produce something so fragrant and delectable if they took no joy in their work?

Instead of a ruthlessly exploited working class, these worker honeybees now seem to me akin to dedicated spiritual practitioners.  The latter, too,  take the material that everyday life offers them, wherever they may find it, whether it is a beautiful wildflower or a simple dandelion or a flower guarded by piercing thorns and bear it back within their very bodies and minds to whatever safe, nurturing contemplative place they have constructed for themselves.  Then, through some internal process that seems mysterious to those outside that literal or metaphorical cloister, they somehow manage to transform life’s unpredictable, ever-changing encounters into a sweetness of bearing, character, action, and thought.  But they don’t stockpile it greedily within their own minds, so that they never risk running low. Instead, whatever sweetness they manage to produce within themselves, they immediately take back out to the outside world with them, sharing it with all they encounter, so that they, too can taste the sweetness and be sustained and nourished by it.

And I doubt the hard-working producers of this intangible ambrosia ever feel like exploited toilers for others who, for whatever reason, are not skilled at its production.  Rather, I’m guessing they feel nothing but joy as they buzz around the world, gathering  the ingredients of their future honey from all encounters – positive, neutral or negative-  and then sharing what they’ve made of it all with the rest of us.  That’s something to aspire to, I think – working as hard to produce sweetness in our lives as the honey bees work to produce their honey, all for the joy of seeing others enjoy and be nourished by the fruits of our labors.

P.S. You can stock up on the honey produced by the bees in these photos by visiting beekeeper Sue Godard at Godard’s Red Hen Farm at 562 Sylvester Rd. in Florence.  They’re open daily 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.. The farm is beautiful, and their honey and apples are delicious!  You can reach them (the Godards, not the bees) at 413- 586-2575.

Comments (2)

Convenient Falsehood

Convenient Falsehood

by Jeff Brooks

The word karma means “action” in Sanskrit. And in Buddhism karma refers both to the actions we do and the results of those actions.

There are three ways we can create karma – three dimensions in which we can act: with our body, with our speech, with our mind. When we study the kinds of conduct which cause suffering and thus are to be avoided – killing, stealing, lying, engaging in sexual misconduct, using intoxicants – and when we study the kinds of things which cause an end to suffering and thus ought to be done: being generous, being ethical, not yielding to anger, being joyful about doing right, deepening our mental clarity and our understanding – we can see that physical actions, actions of speech, and actions of mind are all addressed.

Lying produces suffering. If it produced suffering instantly we would not need a teaching on the subject. We would simply not do it. There is no need for a grave prohibition against touching a hot stove. The suffering result of that is immediate. You will not be inclined to do it again. But with lying, like with using intoxicants or engaging in sexual misconduct, initially the act may produce pleasant results. But it is like licking honey off a razorblade – at first the taste is sweet, then the blood begins to flow. That is why we need a good explanation of why these things are dangerous, and why we are wise to avoid them.

We can see, often by personal experimentation as children or teenagers, that lying may persuade people at first, but that after a while they will catch on and mistrust the liar. And the very behavior that seemed to further our interests at first, now has just the opposite effect. Lies that may have fooled people now just keep them away and make them disbelieve the liar, even when she is telling the truth.

There is plenty of lying at large in our world. We take it almost as an accepted fact of life. We become savvy and suspicious and skeptical. Or we cease to notice it.

There are a quite a few typologies of lying, ways to analyze deceptive speech and to describe it. But there are three broad categories of untruth that we encounter frequently. The more aware of it we are the less we will be deceived and the less we will be inclined to engage in them, knowingly or otherwise, ourselves.

There is a time to lie. That is when breaking another prohibition will cause even worse harm. For example if a murderer jumps in the window looking for your family member who is hiding in the closet, according to Buddhism you are not supposed to tell the murderer Oh, he is in the closet. You can say Oh he ran off a few days ago. Saving the person’s life is more important than protecting your precious karma, less harm is done in this way. But that is kind of a rare exception.

Of the three main types of deception the first is willful lying. That is like the car thief who knows very well he stole the Escalade last Friday night but denies it when the detective questions him about it. Faced with surveillance video, fingerprints on the interior, and a confession by his partner, he makes a deal and confesses.

The second kind is the kind lawyers and advertisers and politicians and maybe a lot of us do from time to time. It’s a more wily kind of deception. It hints rather than states, it omits and twists, and deceives by clever redefinitions of terms. It’s harder to catch than willful lying, but just as deceptive and just as harmful.

When an advertiser says “You’ll love our prices” it’s barely noticeable as a piece of communication, never mind as a lie. But do you love a price? Could you use that word in the same way you use it for how you feel about your family?

How about the mutual fund manager who says: “Prudent use of margin when purchasing equities is an important part of a sound investment strategy in these times.”  Well “prudent” is a good thing. “Important” sounds like it’s important. Having an “investment strategy” is something that really together and wealthy people do. So the proposition has heft.  In case you are not totally sure, the sentence means borrowing money to buy stocks is a good idea in today’s market, if you do it right. Yeah. Jumping out of a plane in a category five hurricane is a good idea if you do it right. If you do it prudently.

This is why so many salespeople and politicians sound like they do. They don’t seem to perceive these techniques as deception. They seem to think they are just being smart. But if you notice the whole culture is damaged by the mistrust and disrespect of this type of deception.

In addition to willful deception and wily deception there is a third kind. It happens more deeply in our psyche. It is the story we like to tell ourselves about ourselves. We work hard to construct that story. It does not always adhere strictly to the facts. When we meet an actress who is a waitress acting like an actress and putting on airs we can say “you gotta be kidding.”   We are seeing evidence of her inner fiction. But it’s not just actress/waitresses who do this.

We often try to convince ourselves that what we want to believe is true.

The success of that effort will depend on two things: the quality of the psychological tools we have at our disposal and how far from the facts our inner story strays.  The mechanism by which this self-persuasion is undertaken is presented by Shakespeare in “Hamlet”, Act III, Scene 1.

I thought I would use his genius example to make the point.

It should help to understand this perspective if I explain a few things about Hamlet’s argument, line by line. When you read the whole monolog at the end it will be easy to follow Hamlet’s effort at self-persuasion, in its form here, as self-deception.

Start by understanding the cultural context that the subject uses to organize his world. He is a college student, with a privileged upbringing, from a prominent family, majoring in philosophy. He is home on vacation from college abroad but he has been trained in the medieval scholastic approach to philosophy. Analysis of a problem typically began, as in its classical antecedents, with a true or false test. A proposition would be presented starkly, then examined, reduced to its parts, elements confirmed or rejected, the structure tested for logical coherence until an irrefutable argument was attained. Scholastic philosophers, like the ones who trained Prince Hamlet, would start with a question like: Is God Perfect or Imperfect? That kind of thing. Hamlet posed his this way:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

He is standing, as it were, outside his own life, like the philosophy dons at school, addressing his life’s great question with cool, rational detachment. Except that in fact he is an emotional disaster, ready to snap.

He re-states his question, unpacking the simple binary proposition into more revealing parts. The first half of the question, what it is that being alive entails, really is:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

The inverted syntax can be misleading but he is equating “To be” that is, existing, with the inevitable mental anguish that he is experiencing and which, as a young, self-involved man, he believes is the inevitable condition that all people must live with. He attributes this anguish not to his own character or choices, by the way, but to “outrageous fortune” – his troubles are just bad luck. His mental anguish is quite real.

In case you don’t remember the story, his uncle just murdered his father and is sleeping with his mom. His dead dad came to him in a dream and ordered him to kill his uncle for vengeance and justice. Hamlet’s not doing it. He is freaking out instead. Freaking out, and thinking.

Because rather than “To be” there is always the possibility of “not to be,” of not continuing to live. He unpacks the “or not to be” this way:

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them?

Now you know people usually read this as a contemplation of suicide. It could be. But you can’t tell from what he says here that it is. Because he and his family are all warriors, they took power by force of arms, they hold power by force of arms, and in fact as the play opens the kingdom is threatened by an army massing on the border. So for Prince Hamlet to think of taking arms, against a sea of troubles or any other enemy, is no stretch.

He then contemplates this path of action – whether killing himself or killing his murdering, motherfuckin, thug uncle we don’t know, but he is thinking about what non-existence, in the form of death through violence, would be like.

True to the form of his scholastic training there are two opposing possibilities he considers. First:

To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d.

That is, if death put an end to suffering who wouldn’t want it? Sometimes actors blend the first two lines and it comes out “to sleep no more” but that is not what the script means. “No more” stands alone as a thought. It means to exist no more.

Next he considers the opposing case:

To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause:

What if death is not the end, he asks. What if there is an afterlife in which suffering goes on and is perhaps compounded. This is the standard Buddhist understanding of what does happen after death. We go on and inevitably, sooner or later, experience the consequences of all our actions. And the most influential consequence of all is of the projecting karma – the state of mind just preceding death. That is why suicide is considered such an extraordinarily intense cause of suffering.

The “coil” refers to the snake’s skin that he sheds or “shuffles off.” The mortal coil is a metaphor for the idea that the body is a temporary form for us but is not us; holding out the possibility that the soul goes on to suffer. Like the Buddhist concept of impermanence.

Hamlet’s inference leads him to the insight:

there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

A bare bodkin is a bare blade, and fardels are heavy burdens. He is saying: no one in their right mind would want to live and go through all the inevitable crap and injustice and irritation and unhappiness of life, if one simple act (of murder or suicide) could end the troubles forever. That is his logical, philosophy-student’s conclusion.

However as an observer we should not miss the fact that Hamlet is projecting his feelings, his inner torment, onto everyone. He is adopting the pose of a victim. He is identifying his suffering as the inevitable nature of life. He is assuming that he is examining a world which has fixed properties (suffering) from a fixed and objective intellectual standpoint. Neither is true. No such standpoint exists.  He has a perspective. It is one he constructed.

But he employs this idea set, consciously or unconsciously, to free himself from having to take responsibility for causing his own anguish, by inaction, or remedying his anguish, by action. Instead he strikes the philosopher’s pose, as if he stood outside the action of his own life.

The only rationale he has for continuing to live, the only one he can conceive of, is one of fear, the fear of what may lie beyond death. He cannot conceive of living with purpose beyond one’s own interests or comforts. Not duty. Not moral obligation. Not even God’s will. Fear is the only driver for his choice to live and he generalizes it:

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

Aside from being a dynamite source of movie titles Shakespeare has provided an interesting double entendre on the word conscience. He used it both in the modern sense – an inner moral compass – along with an archaic meaning of “self-consciousness.” So in that word Hamlet gets to conflate doing the right thing with doing the smart thing. How convenient. Being chicken is the right and natural thing to do. And not just for him, in his situation, but for everyone, in all situations. Or so he has persuaded himself.

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action.

So he identifies “thought,” an excess of philosophical reflection, as the source of his inaction. It is not. Good thought is damn handy. His pop probably could not have run Denmark without it.  But bad philosophy provides an excuse for many unwholesome choices (for a few examples see the 20th century).

It’s easy to tell that what is driving Hamlet mad, feigned or otherwise, is not that life itself is full of difficulties. It is not that he is “melancholy” which means depressed. It is not that he is crazy. It is not bad luck and it is not that he is “equivocating.” It is that he feels like a pussy. And he wants desperately to think his way out of his difficulties and his difficulties, perhaps for the first time in his young man’s life, are not amenable to solution by thinking.

He is on the spot. He needs to kick ass and take over. No one can do it but him.

The wonderful thing about this moment in the play is that it is so precisely articulated and so universal. Facing the decisive moment, the moment of truth, as a rite of passage to adulthood, and at every critical juncture of one’s life, is what defines us – hero or goat, each of us decides. We choose our path on the basis of our skill, courage and honesty.

The coda on this speech is an interruption of his train of thought, in which he conceals what he is thinking and feeling (“Soft you now” means “Be quiet.”) His inner ratiocination is stilled by seeing this cute girl that he loves.  (In this section the word “orisons” means prayers.)

- Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember’d.

In his last two lines, spoken to his beloved, in his imagination, he asks her to bear witness to his failings. It might be the first moment of sober maturity we see in him.

Here is the whole speech:

To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come

When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,

Must give us pause: there’s the respect

That makes calamity of so long life;

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office and the spurns

That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? who would fardels bear,

To grunt and sweat under a weary life,

But that the dread of something after death,

The undiscover’d country from whose bourn

No traveller returns, puzzles the will

And makes us rather bear those ills we have

Than fly to others that we know not of?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprises of great pith and moment

With this regard their currents turn awry,

And lose the name of action. – Soft you now!

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons

Be all my sins remember’d.

It is a reminder to all of us of the consequences of self deception; a reminder to take the path of honesty and courage, every moment. That is the Bodhisattva path.

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 “jbrooks882@gmail.com.”  His articles and books are collected at www.jeffbrookskarate.com.

Comments off

Accustoming the Heart to Love

Accustoming the Heart to Love

by Susan Downing

Not long ago one of my acquaintances was lamenting that she found it so hard to deal with certain people in her life: she felt they were treating her unfairly, and she felt very angry about that.  Even so, she didn’t want to just go ballistic on them: “I want to bring love to my interactions with them, but I don’t know how.”   I hear this a lot.  And the people saying it usually look dejected. They seem to feel they have already failed at compassion because they cannot instantly summon up love for everyone around them.  They ask me, “Why is this so hard? Why can’t I be nice to everyone?”  And  I reply, “Because we don’t naturally feel like being nice to everyone.”

I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t be nice and sweet and kind to everyone.  What I mean is that we don’t automatically come into this world filled with boundless compassion and love for everyone around us.  If you follow His Holiness the Dalai Lama, you may have noticed that he mentions love and compassion a great deal in his talks and in his books, too.   And he starts by pointing out that we are not born knowing how to love all beings.

This is really great news, I think, for a couple of reasons. Hearing this, we can take heart: we are not hopelessly hard-hearted; we are just, well, untrained.  We’re like a not yet literate child who listens as his parent reads him a book by making use of unintelligible – to him – black shapes printed on a page: he knows the parent has a skill he hasn’t yet acquired, but he doesn’t feel like a failure just because he was born not knowing how to read.  Even so, he will have to master that skill, because making his way through life will be really hard without it.  And he knows he’ll be able to make those squiggles work for him, because he has lots of people – at home and at school – to help him.

And that is the second point His Holiness always makes: although we’re not born loving all beings around us, we can learn to increase our capacity for loving others, gradually accustom our heart to love, so that little by little, it becomes not a conscious effort, but a habit of heart and mind.  And that’s great news, too, because not only can we learn to be  compassionate, His Holiness says, we need to learn that skill if we want to be able to live happily and help others do the same. He has gone so far as to say that if you want to study Buddhism and are going to concentrate on only one thing, focus on cultivating compassion (bodhicitta, as the Buddhists call it,) because according to Tibetan Buddhism,  you cannot become fully enlightened without it.

But how? I’m not going to say that it is an easy process, learning to love our fellow earthlings. If it were easy, we would all already be able to do it flawlessly, with minimal effort. It takes concerted effort and, like learning to read, tools and others with expertise to help us along.  Fortunately for us, Tibetan Buddhism has a whole series of meditative techniques that will help us cultivate compassion, even toward the most annoying coworker. Personally, I like the Seven-fold Cause and Effect instructions you can find in the Lam Rim, the Tibetan Buddhist teaching which lays out the path to Enlightenment, step by step. But what if you don’t practice Tibetan Buddhism?  Are you out of luck? Off the hook?  Not at all.  Here is a way you can begin to cultivate love and compassion in your very own heart:

Start with the folks you like and love, human or otherwise.   Be extra nice to them.  Every day.  Remind  yourself to do that when you get up in the morning.  Take care not to take them for granted:  tell your husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend or son or daughter or sister or brother or mother or father or friend how happy you are to see them, to hear from them, how much you appreciate their friendship, love, support, guidance, or help.  Make a point of doing something sweet for them, to appreciate them. It can be something small, such as pouring them a cup of coffee without being asked, or making sure the silverware is all straight when you set their place at the table. Or giving your dog an extra long walk even though you’re in a hurry, just because that’s what makes him happy. Or thanking your family members when they clean up the dishes after a meal, or when they have put in a hard day’s work for the family’s benefit.  Or giving them your full attention when you are having a conversation, or  calling out of the blue just to say hi and wish them well. Or just smiling at them for no reason other than to let them know you are happy they are part of your life.  There is no end to this list. You can make up your own additions  to it every day, and keep practicing.

And guess what?  Eventually, or maybe even a lot sooner than eventually, you will not have to remind yourself so often to act this way.  Little by little, as your heart and mind become accustomed to acting with attention, kindness and love, even with people who used to drive you crazy, you’ll become more and more skilled at it, like the child who starts out reading Sheep in a Jeep and ends up curled up in a chair one afternoon with Shakespeare.  He’s become word literate. And you’ll have become compassion literate.

Comments (1)

Little Pink Houses

Little Pink Houses

by Jeff Brooks

In T’ang dynasty China, in the golden age of Ch’an Buddhism, a monk would typically describe himself as “a man of no rank.”  When we read this description now, it may sound like a quaint holdover from feudal society, when everyone, from peasant to Emperor, had an official rank.

It might seem like an irrelevancy to modern Buddhist practitioners. Especially for people practicing in the Japanese Zen tradition where American and European teachers now own million dollar Zen Centers and require constant displays of personal deference by their followers; a tradition in which the patriarchs in Japan were supported by the military dictatorships of Shoguns and samurai, in which many Zen monks were indeed men of very high social rank.  

So we do not immediately understand that the description – a man of no rank – was not just a pose.  Sometimes contemporary scholars explain this phrase as sociological – in China in the ninth century there were legions of men from poor families with no real hope of economic success, no likelihood therefore of marrying or establishing themselves as men of any status, and in this Marxist interpretation, as a result of their economic alienation they turned to monastic life – for material support, for social position, for something to do.

There may have been such people. But it is a misunderstanding of the significance of the phrase “man of no rank.”  And it prevents us from learning what our ancestors knew and what, through their words, they are trying to teach us.

Our relationships with others are permeated with an awareness of rank. No less than in a feudal society, and in a way more so, because instead of having a fixed and titled social hierarchy, our status is undefined and requires frequent signaling. The pursuit of higher status, or the means to signal higher status, is a chief motivator of the behavior modern people.  

The size of houses, the choice of car, the school you went to or need to get into, what you do to get a job or a promotion, the restaurants people go to, who you know, where you travel, how you get there,  the TV and movies people choose, the events you attend, the tickets you buy, your clothes and web life, electronics and sports equipment, where you sit in the Zen center, all these concerns – and all the marketing that influences them – are intimately bound to the impulse to signify one’s status.  Status signaling may not be the only motivator – the pursuit of money, food, leisure, sex and the impulse to human kindness also may play a role – but in the modern world it is the most manipulated motivator.

In this respect we are not different from the medieval people who were so concerned with social rank.

In the practice of Buddhism we let go of it.

The Dalai Lama often says “I am just a simple monk. All I own is my robe and bowl.” He is serious about this.  As sophisticated and skeptical modern people, who are lied to by marketers, actors and public figures of all types, and so fear being gullible that we maintain a stance of ironic disbelief even in the face of the truth, we might think that because he is a head of state, with a big place to live, followers, comforts and a plane that he is just striking a pose or quoting.

He is quite serious. And he reminds himself and his followers of this fact frequently.  We might think this is an easy thing for him to say, because he actually has high status. But if it was so easy the other high status people might say it too. And I do not hear them say it.

What is easy is to become accustomed to and eventually addicted to the attachments and props that begin to cling to you when you are a person of high rank. And which are not really yours, which will preoccupy you and distract you and intoxicate you, and which inevitably will be withdrawn, leaving pain far out of proportion to the pleasure they once provided.

The Dalai Lama knows this. He has trained himself to see it clearly and to bear it in mind. It is how he manages to keep his composure when his country is stolen, his people are killed, his heritage which is the light of the world is obliterated – all the while vigorously countering the forces of ignorance and destruction.

To practice dharma we let go of all the stuff that clings to us, that preoccupies us, that distracts us, that taxes our power, wastes our life and forces us – with the false promise of pleasure and status – to lose our lives and miss the chance to put an end to suffering for ourselves and others forever. 

Japanese Zen teacher Uchiyama Roshi described “opening the hand of thought” as his meditation technique. As a thought arises we simply do not hold onto it. This may be a provisional technique, not a complete path to the end of suffering, as many have said. But whether or not it is, it is a necessary and brilliant way to create the habit of releasing our attachment to the stuff that clings to us and the stuff we learn to cling to as we move through life.

 

There are many old roads that wind through the forest around here. Some of them are barely visible tracks through the mountains. It looks like no one has walked them in a hundred years. They are like old memories. They seem to have no end. I walk along them.  I think maybe every person who walked this road before has vanished from the earth. I cannot meet them face to face any more. But I can walk where they walked. I can walk the way they did, years ago.

It makes me think of a poem by Basho. Basho was a medieval Japanese poet who wrote haikus. There are a lot of fussy boring haikus in the world.  And many fifth grade teachers ask their kiddies to write haikus, because haikus are short and most ten year olds can’t write sonnets. But we would be wrong to dismiss all old Japanese haiku as a pretentious arty hyper-aesthetic tangent to true dharma. While some express a writer’s pose of simplicity as authentic as Paris Hilton’s blue jeans, some will echo through time and space and mind so beautifully they will arise unbidden and unstoppable as we go.

The autumn wind

Along this country road

Goes no one

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 “jbrooks882@gmail.com.”  His articles and books are collected at www.jeffbrookskarate.com.

Comments (2)