Archive for October, 2010

Karma Burns

Karma Burns

by Jeffrey Brooks

The result of your past actions, your karma, flowers in the form of your life. Every perception every moment every sensation is a direct result of what you have done in the past.

If you have done wrong and you face it, recognize it for what it is and determine never to do it again, the bad results caused by what you did will eventually end.

If you do good and continue to do it the quality of your life will sweeten and good people will be drawn to you and corrupt people will not want to be around you.

Karma burns. So people who appear to have a pleasurable and easy life will soon lose that pleasure and ease if they fail to recognize the source of their pleasure and ease. If they recognize the source of it as their past good deeds then they will continue to bring blessings into the world and their lives can continue to bear the fruit of their past good actions.

If they ignorantly believe that they simply are better than everyone else and will always inevitably stay comfortable and rich and beautiful and therefore feel themselves to be free to engage in harmful acts then they will lose their comfort and ease and beauty and their lives will bear the fruit of their harmful acts. This is how elites collapse and empires fall and inheritances are squandered and democracy ends and youth fades and old age is wasted and seniors in high school become freshmen in college.

Karma burns. One angry word to someone you love can undermine decades of trust and consideration. So we must be constantly vigilant about what we do. And we need to be scrupulous in studying what to do and what to avoid.

Your mind according to Buddhism is pervaded by three poisons. These three poisons cause all your suffering. Eliminate them from your mind and you will put an end to suffering for yourself and others forever.

The three poisons are attachment, aversion and ignorance. Ignorance means not understanding how things work. Ignorance leads to attachment and aversion. Attachment means we try to get things in order to make ourselves happy without understanding that these things will fail to make us happy. Aversion means we try to destroy things we don’t like, believing that once they are out of existence we will be happy. Neither of these strategies work. They do not work because we do not correctly perceive how things exist and what it is that causes us to suffer. And the increased suffering caused by our failed attempts to get happy by acting ignorantly on the basis of attraction and aversion deepens our disturbance and our ignorance.

That is why in the traditional “Wheel of Life” painting, the one that is supposed to be posted at the door of every Buddhist temple in the world, we will find at the very center of the painting a graphic representation of the three poisons.

There they are depicted as a rooster chasing a snake chasing a pig chasing a rooster… in an endless accelerating circular race to nowhere. A race very much like the life many of us modern people live.

The rooster represents desire, because the rooster, just in case you have not run a farm recently, chases after every nearby hen at all times and would like to engage in fowl play with the nearest one even if they are not in love or have no long term commitment or even if he does not know the first thing about her. Like a rock star intoxicated by desire he just can’t help it and could not think of a reason why he should.

The snake represents aversion or anger or hatred because the snake, in case you have not wandered in a tropical paradise lately, is inclined to sink their poisoned fangs into any creature who strolls nearby. Just because.

The pig chases after the rooster and the snake, or in some paintings is shown with the snake and the rooster running out of his mouth, because the pig is so stupid and ignorant. Science tells us they do well on standardized animal tests but when you look at what they eat and how they lay about in anything, you can see how they could look a lot like ignorance.

Some people think they can get away with anything and if they are clever enough, it will have no consequences. Crooks think they can lie, steal and cheat all the time, that everyone does it, and that when they get caught they are being singled out for harassment.

People think if they could just have sex all the time, take drugs all the time, eat rich food all the time, then they will be happy. Pornographers, junk food makers, Hollywood distracters, and drug dealers believe that although they are infecting the lives of millions of people with poison and misery that because they have suffered they are justified in this act. They worship and propitiate false gods. Drug dealers may believe if they burn candles to the angel of death then the angel will like them, favor them, and protect them from their enemies. But it won’t.

These are ignorant acts. There is no happiness in them and no salvation in them.

There is permanent and complete happiness in training the mind to be strong, the heart to be kind and the mind to be clear and calm. There is no other way and there are no exceptions. To be in a position to read this good advice is the result of the enormous good karma that you have accumulated by what you have done in the past.

We need to use the small amount of good karma we have left to use in this life to create the causes for our own enlightenment: to put an end to ignorance and suffering for ourselves and others forever.

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.

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Epicenter of Joy

Epicenter of Joy

by Susan Downing

Last week was my big college visit trip to Minnesota with my daughter Emily, to visit Carleton and Macalester Colleges. Carleton, 45 minutes south of St. Paul, was our first call, and it seemed to take so long to get just to St. Paul, since we had to fly to Chicago and change planes after a long layover.  Sitting in Midway between flights, we wondered whether going to school in Minnesota would be worth it, if this is what it took!

Once in St. Paul, heading out of the airport in our rental car after a long day of traveling and prolonged sitting in airports, it felt so nice to be out in the countryside.  Looking down at Minnesota from the airplane, we’d been surprised at how hilly it was – the landscape was peppered with what seemed like tiny mountains, or big hills, or something in between, but each very distinct, as if someone had made mounds of dirt with their hands and plunked them down near each other.  And then grass grew on them, and then people began planting things to eat on the flat spaces in between.  So beautiful, because the green of the hills alternated with the rich dark brown of the fields, and here and there we saw what looked from the air like puddles shimmering, all of varying sizes and shapes, some round, some oval, some long and straight with an irregular offshoot on one side.  These must count in the total of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.  And then, a little further in the distance, the slowly meandering Mississippi River, also gleaming in the late afternoon sun.

Once in our rental car, after a brief while of driving on a large highway so brightly lit, so clear and open that it took us by surprise, we exited onto gradually smaller and smaller roads, and the lights along the highway gave way to deepening darkness and the expansiveness of a land so vast and open and a treeline so low as to seem startlingly non-existent.  The highway lanes seemed wider to Emily than ours in Massachusetts, but we decided it might be an optical illusion, because our view, unobstructed by trees, stretched out seemingly endlessly. “Now I see why people say it feels claustrophobic in New England,” Emily remarked.

As we drove gradually into night and approached Northfield, all was quiet.  Some trees now, along the roadside, one house with the porch light on and maybe a barn next to it.  And although once we entered town a series of construction-obstructed streets caused us to detour, when we finally found our destination and stepped out of the car into the October Minnesota evening, where fallen and drying leaves already lay beneath our feet, it felt fresh and alive.  A place where one could really breathe. It felt right and good and clear, and my lungs breathed in that air that felt perfect and somehow familiar, although I had never before been to Minnesota, despite growing up in the Midwest. I felt and sensed what the fuss about Minnesota was all about.  Well, honestly, I’ve never heard anyone ever really promote Minnesota, but if they were to do so, now I would understand why.

The next morning, when I met Emily on campus after her overnight visit, to take a tour of campus and meet with Carleton’s admissions folks, I was elated. I had felt almost breathlessly happy since the night before, when we’d neared town.  Later on, in the bed & breakfast place where I stayed, the thought suddenly popped into my head: I could live here. I could move here. Here felt like home to me. Never have I been in a place that seemed to me saturated with joy and capable of instantly causing it to arise in my heart in this way – so that I felt in the constant presence of great love, of bodhicitta.  I couldn’t wait to hear what Em’s reaction to this place was.   Almost immediately she exclaimed, “I feel so exuberant.  As soon as we got here, no, before that, I felt like I was home.” The same phrase, the same feeling, the same happiness.  We both felt it, instantly and strongly. And in every place we went on campus and in town that day, and in every single person we encountered, we felt this same bright happiness.  I saw it in the photos of some faculty on a bulletin board in one of the academic buildings – their eyes were simply shining.

And I wondered, and Emily and I kept asking each other: how could it be that both of us, arriving in this place we have never been, felt instantly at home, and our hearts filled to bursting with exuberance and joy?  How does an entire landscape, a huge expanse of land, become filled with joy?  In such a way that you can actually feel it come upon you as you enter that space and gradually fade as you leave it?  (For as we drove back toward St. Paul, the feeling in the air changed little by little…)  How can it be housed somewhere in the molecules of the air and the earth and every living being within that space?

In Northfield I felt as if I was standing at the epicenter of joy, as if the earth had somehow cracked open, releasing happiness into the air through countless miniscule fissures.  As we walked down the main street of town after lunch, Emily said, “Everyone here is so nice, it just makes you want to do something nice for everyone else.”  Exactly.   I can’t begin to explain it, but there is clearly something that exists in this place, in the very land, perhaps, like a well or a spring that draws to it the people who will respond to this beautiful natural life force and take it and use it to spread the joy they soak up to others.  And, as I said to Em, people who are not inclined to draw in this positive energy, who do not connect with it, will simply stay away – it will be too overwhelming for them.  And so, the exuberance becomes self-perpetuating.

If Emily ends up at Carleton for college next year, I know that she will both absorb that amazing Northfieldian exuberance and share it with everyone around her.  And although it would be so wonderful if we all were able to live in this epicenter of joy, we unfortunately cannot move the whole world to Northfield, Minnesota.   But what we can do is strive, every moment of the day, to find and nurture that joy and love within ourselves and then immediately share it with every being around us.  In that way we can make our own Northfield, first within our own hearts.  And as we pour that love out of ourselves and give it to others, we are becoming our own little epicenter of joy, one that is not fixed in any geographical spot, but will travel with us wherever we go, gradually growing and spreading until it is as vast as that evening Minnesota landscape, welcoming and embracing all who are drawn to experience and live within that joy with us.

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The Anatomy of Motive

The Anatomy of Motive

by Jeff Brooks

The day begins and thousands of impressions pour in through our senses. Some of them we notice, most of them we don’t, and a few get our attention for a while.

We sometimes don’t notice that we are choosing our experience. Not by conscious intention but most of the time by habit. We see what we usually see. Our experience meets our expectations and we do not notice our participation in creating the content of our reality.  

If we cultivate a frame of mind that says “same shit different day” that will begin to define our experience, no matter the content of the new day. If you are angry and habituate to being angry you will find things to be angry about. This may be obvious if you watch the news. The anger targets change, but the tonality of righteous rage does not.

It may be less obvious that if we are tuned in to the blessings and miracles that rise around us continually we will see more of them. We will not be like the lost gurdjieff traveling far in search of the miraculous, looking in strange places where it can never be found. We will not be like the poor boy wandering the roads of India in ancient times, begging for food, seeking his lost, half-recalled inheritance – only to discover his dad had sewn it into the lining of the coat he had been wearing during the whole course of his journey.

As we look around it is sometimes difficult to fathom how people can see what we see and see something totally different. It is perplexing and sometimes terrifying to note that people soak themselves in cruelty and poison and delight in it, or fail to see magnificence and bomb it.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, though lacking as a role model, could be pretty sharp when he had his thinking cap on. And I think he had it on when he wrote his famous note in the margin of his copy of Shakepeare’s Othello. Coleridge wrote the note to explain why Othello’s buddy Iago tricked Othello into murdering the person he loved the most, a person who loved him completely too. Iago’s act seems to be inexplicable, one of completely senseless evil. Coleridge scribbled in the margin of the play:

“The motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.”

He was describing the imbecilic Nietzschean delight in the exercise of power over another, which depends not for grievance or even gain on its selection of a target, but only on a convenient opportunity to act. Justification follows in logic – if the act is pre-meditated. Justification for the act comes after the fact, if the act is impulsive. But in neither case is the justification for the act the cause of the act.

The cause of the act is mental habit. What we can call a karmic propensity. A tendency to act based on long habit of acting that way.

There are people prowling the night looking for the bodies of strangers to have sex with. Does it seem the best type of life to everyone? Does it to them, after a while? But still some do it, and some do it when it brings misery instead of pleasure, and some do it till they die of it.

 

The call to hate appeals to many people who already have hate in their heart, and now have a convenient object toward to direct their pre-existing mental state. This feels elevating to them. They are filled with purpose. Their once formless and disturbing hate now gives them a place in the world.

Glimpse the grannies stuffing their social security checks into slot machines on the back wall of a convenience store on route 66 in the desert at midnight and you will see the force of habit in action.

Watch a nurse move through a children’s burn unit and see the care and kindness she pours into each baby and you will also see the force of habit.

It is a two sided force – what you see is the result of an accumulation of habit, and it is establishing a habit – forming the cause for future acts of the same kind.

The good news is we can change our mental habits, so we can determine the course of our life.

With an agitated mind it is difficult to change. Just like when you are riding fast in a car you notice it is much harder to change direction than when you are going slow.

Sometimes we change course by “hitting bottom” with a sudden shock that allows our mental filters to dissolve, the scales to fall from our eyes, as we have insight into the habits that are guiding us, gaining insight into the self-imposed cause of our suffering.

Sometimes we can change our mental habits without that terrible medicine. Sometimes the insight can come in quiet and stillness, in the presence of a teacher or a teaching which directs our mind to the path that puts an end to ignorance. A path which if we follow it scrupulously, leads to the end of suffering for ourselves and others forever.

The path is: treating ourselves and others decently, settling down and seeing clearly.

Those three parts of the path are treated in thousands of volumes of the traditional canon. They have been followed infinite times by living beings. And we do not have to study the whole library to find the trailhead. We can take the first step now. 

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.

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The Crutch of Serenity

The Crutch of Serenity

by Susan Downing

In early September, I found myself in an unexpected position – back in the classroom at Mount Holyoke College.  I taught Russian there for two decades, until 2008, when my position was cut as part of a series of budget cuts.  But it was a couple years before my job ended, that I started on the path that soon led me to Reiki and the practice and teaching I am doing today.

I always loved teaching Russian, so when Mount Holyoke offered me the chance to teach advanced Russian this fall, I was happy to be able to be able to go back into the language classroom.  But I was also concerned about the challenge of splitting my time between my healing work, meditation and Buddhist study ,and the language classroom.  Would moving out of my supremely placid Reiki world back into academia be jarring? You see, I have spent the time since I left Mount Holyoke cultivating a calm state of mind, and I am very protective of the circumstances that allow me to maintain it. So, I did not relish the prospect of having a chink appear in my armor of serenity.  But I was willing to take the chance and see what happened –  I knew I was going to be teaching my students some Russian, but I didn’t realize that I was going to have the chance to offer them something besides language instruction. And that they would give me something, too.

The very first day the course met – and it’s a course focused on oral communication – we began talking about what kind of movies the students liked. One of them mentioned a Russian movie she loves and asked whether I’d seen it.  I told her I knew of the movie but hadn’t seen it. She looked stunned.  How could it be that I hadn’t seen this wonderful movie?  I didn’t tell her that I hardly ever watch movies, that it is one way I safeguard my mind from mental disturbance.  That didn’t seem the right thing to say to students who are so gung ho about Russian pop culture!  And so I kept quiet, but I wondered.  Hmm.  How will this all work out?

After a couple of days of class, though, I stopped worrying about not having seen the movies my students were discussing – luckily I have five decades of movie watching experience, so I have seen many of the films they talk about.  And I realized that moving from doing Reiki sessions and working with my Reiki students in the morning to teaching Russian in the afternoon is not such a stretch.  I actually enjoy moving right from a healing session to the classroom in my happy, post-Reiki state.  Spending most of my time doing Reiki and meditation means that in the classroom I’m more focused than I used to be.  More patient. More in tune with my students’ state of mind.

But what’s more, last week I discovered a point of contact that runs through my healing work and meditation and study and my language teaching, uniting them and enabling me to bring something to my students, and insight I wouldn’t have been able to share with them before.  Here’s how it came about:

Since this is an advanced conversation class, the students spend the class time talking about topics they’ve prepared, and answering questions from the other students and me about those topics.  It’s not easy for them. So many words they don’t know!!  For the first few classes, they would often ask me “kak po-russki…” when they didn’t know a word or phrase, “How do you say it in Russian?” But last week, since I want them to learn the valuable skill of talking around the words they don’t know, I told them they could each ask me for only one word each class.  Think that was hard for them?  You bet!  It was as like throwing someone in a pool without a life preserver and telling them to swim. At least I think it seemed that way to them.  No linguistic life preservers. But that is not a bad thing. I explained it to them later this way.

What I have found, whether I am working with my clients and students, or on my own Buddhist and meditation practice, is that in order to progress, I have to be willing to challenge and push myself, and to allow those who guide me to push and challenge me from their side.  What this means on a practical level, no matter which practice I’m talking about, is that I willingly allow myself to go – and be pushed to go – outside my comfort zone, to inhabit a state of mind where I am not, at the moment, comfortable.  It is an unsettling place to be, because most of us have gotten the idea while growing up that if something makes us uncomfortable, then it is a bad, undesirable thing, a situation to be remedied, and we often linger in a state of upset about the situation until we somehow manage to shift it, so that we once again feel comfortable, safe, and stable.

In reality, though, it is precisely by allowing ourselves to inhabit that space of discomfort and working hard within it, without giving in to the mental disturbance we might feel, that we will be able to make progress and grow.  And that it’s the same process, whether you’re talking about experiencing healing work or doing a meditation or spiritual practice, or a martial arts practice, or learning a language.    Only when we are forced to consider a new way or a circumstance, and when we accept that challenge, are we taking advantage of the opportunity to grow in skill.  I’m not saying that process is easy or pleasant. Often it is not. But if we can consciously go through the process, with our motivation focused not on avoiding discomfort, but on taking advantage of the circumstances that have arisen so that we can hone our skills and insights, then what at first seems unpleasant and overly difficult, can come to seem like a wonderful, exhilarating opportunity.

And that’s why I threw my students into the pool the way I did: because I know they are capable of swimming and keeping themselves afloat.  Otherwise I never would have pushed them.  I’d never push beginning students that way. They would just get overly frustrated and drown.  Even when advanced students are in this metaphorical pool, flailing,  it may not look pretty at first,, but little by little their fear or anger at me for throwing them in fades and they are less and less distracted by that frustration.  And as that happens , they are able to concentrate on improving their stroke and varying their technique, and before long, they’re swimming around in that pool and actually enjoying it.

This process of consistently applying effort and not giving in to frustration can turn language learning into just as much a practice as any of the others I have mentioned. But it was only.  I told my students that it’s natural to feel uncomfortable working this way,  but that in order to progress, they’ll need to make their peace with the discomfort, push through it, and concentrate on the work at hand – to practice expressing themselves as best they can while trusting both themselves and me in the process.  I told them that my job is to both push them out of their comfort zone and support them, and that the way I do that will change as they grow stronger. Their job is to accept the challenge, trust me as their guide, and enter into the work sincerely and wholeheartedly.  That is what will help them progress with the language.

Or help any of us progress in any of our practices, and indeed, in life in general.

I am grateful to have the chance to teach Russian again,.  But I am particularly grateful to discover that my activity in all of these spheres – Reiki, meditation, Buddhist study, and language teaching – has converged in a way that I certainly never expected, bringing me new insights which I hope can benefit my language students.  I know my students are  already benefiting me: they are taking me out of my Reiki- and meditation-infused comfort zone and forcing me to use my tools in a new way.  And that is a real blessing.

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The Call of Heaven

The Call of Heaven

by Jeff Brooks

There is a time when we will hear the call of heaven. The time will come when we will no longer be drawn to the things of this world. We will be free.

There are such people around us now. You may not recognize them unless you are one of them. They may be rich or poor, they may be blind or lame, they may be living in another country, under an unfamiliar name but they are here on earth with us. Ordinary duties no longer hold them to this world. Only a trace of them remains.

When you see golden light in a cloudless sky you see the brilliant clarity of their world and it is incomprehensibly beyond any concern we may have. It is beyond any concern we may have for houses and cars, food and drink, life and death, status and pleasure, name and form.

“No longer held to this world by desire” means looking upon this landscape, this human world, this realm of desire, with equanimity and love, seeing its transience and its suffering and the inevitable end of its suffering.

“No longer held to this world by desire” means leaving this world.  Leaving the body behind in death or walking the earth a while longer, either way, there is no difference in the quality of mind.

Detached from desire but vigorous in loving action. Benefitting beings without fear or favor.

This is attainable by every being who wants this. This is nirvana.

Nirvana is sometimes translated as ‘extinction’ as in the extinction of a flame. This is misunderstood as ‘ceasing to exist’ or ‘going out of existence.’ This is an error. What ceases is not ‘you.’ What ceases is your mental disturbance, your error, your ignorance, your suffering.

What arises in its place is your Buddha nature. Your wisdom. Your freedom. Your true human life. This is hearing the call of heaven.

I hope you hear it.

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.

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