Archive for January, 2011



by Susan Downing

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever achieved in your life?   By which I mean the experience in which you had to persevere and triumph over giant obstacles – whether from inside or outside – if you wanted to reach your goal?  This is what I’ve been thinking of lately – the challenges we sign on for (or get even when we don’t consciously sign on for them) and the pain that always seems to come along as we work our way through them.  Specifically what I’ve been contemplating is how much pain we ware willing to accept to reach our goals.

The first time I remember consciously thinking about effort and pain and its benefits was when I was in labor with my daughter Emily.  I was in the middle of pushing her out into the world – which took three hours.  Lying there between contractions, I somehow had enough awareness to notice myself reflexively pulling back from the pain of pushing, which was different from the pain of the contractions.  It felt much stronger, perhaps because I was bringing it on myself.  When I pushed, it hurt more. And so I wanted to stop pushing.  Seems natural, doesn’t it, to have the impulse to stop doing something that hurts?

But at that particular moment of resting and waiting for the next contraction, I realized, my distress at the thought somewhat muted by fatigue, that there was no way to avoid the pain of pushing.  I knew there was no way forward without the contractions. But the other, couldn’t we dispense with that?  No.  I remember the moment when I realized that if that baby was going to be born, I had to willingly cause myself greater physical pain.  And once I’d gotten that insight, I was able to refocus my energies and overcome my natural tendency to run away from the hurt.  My ultimate goal, of bringing Emily into the world, took precedence over whatever discomfort I was feeling.

I’ve been thinking lately about various ways the tendency to run from what hurts has played itself out in my life.  Giving birth has been my most intense experience with physical pain, but for me, as for all of you, I have no doubt, instances or periods of psychological and emotional discomfort or pain have abounded.  Most of them have arisen when I willingly put myself in situations I thought would be pleasant, but which ended up bringing varying degrees of pain.  (And maybe you think, well, of course – why would we sign on for a situation we knew could bring pain.  Read on…)  Such as all my trips to the former Soviet Union.  I would always be so excited to go back – having forgotten in the intervening months or years between trips about all the really annoying aspects of being there.  So I would arrive, all perky, and then about a day later, I’d remember all the unpleasantnesses that had faded from my brain, and I’d say to myself, “Oh, shit.” Repeatedly giving childbirth is the same – you forget how painful it is until you’re in it again. And although you probably have that “Oh, shit” moment, what are you going to do about it?  Nothing.  You can’t not decide not to go through labor.

And that is my point.  No matter how unpleasant it sometimes became to be back in the USSR, there was never any question of cutting my trip short.  I would stay and deal with the unpleasant aspects because I was committed to a goal so important to me that I was willing to put up with isolation from friends and family back home (back in the days of no internet, we had to depend on super slow snail mail, and in order to speak with folks at home, we had to order a phone call long in advance) unfamiliar foods and customs, a language barrier and a winter colder than any I’d ever known, even in the Midwest.  There certainly were moments when I questioned why I had done this to myself. But I wanted to learn Russian, so I adapted and learned to deal.  And returned to the USSR – and then to Russia – time and again.  And with each trip my tolerance increased and I gradually learned to take everything in stride.  My last few trips have been punctuated by plenty of amused head-shaking on my part, but the “Oh, shit” moments are a distant memory.

I’ve been thinking about all of this lately party because I’ve instituted my own new practice regimen in solidarity with what my son Mike is doing in Marine Officer Candidates School.  (I wrote about this in my last post, “Human Candidates School”.)  And also precisely because Mike is in OCS, where every day he has to push through discomfort and pain, probably in dozens of ways that I can’t even imagine. I am sure that he has many “Oh, shit” moments.  I’m sure he has wondered many times what he was thinking when he willingly signed on to put himself in the hands of the country’s toughest military instructors for the ten weeks of isolated, intense training.

Certainly, Mike and the other candidates can choose to leave at any point after the first four weeks, but if they want to become Marine officers, the only way they can do it is by leaning into the pain of that training, by deciding that they are not going to exercise their natural impulse to run from suffering. Much the way I found, once labor started, that I had no other goal or choice but to see that process through to the end, and to use my dedication to that ultimate goal to fuel my resolve to get through it.   In cases like these, when the ultimate goal is clear, even though the actual process will be brutally demanding and the rewards clear and powerful, it can be easier for us to make the commitment to sticking it out, although the potential for suffering is very great, even assured.  Because we have a clear goal and keep it in mind at all times.

But what I’ve thought about a lot the past week or so are the times when we can choose to back off from pain or discomfort.  Well, let me rephrase that just in terms of myself, since I can’t speak for you.  Maybe I won’t take that walk today because I’m feeling a little tired, instead of pushing myself and realizing that I can keep to my program and feel invigorated, not depleted.  Or maybe I will pull a little back into my shell when I feel hurt by someone I care about – or by anyone at all – instead of remembering that there is no reason at all for me not to keep sending out love every moment, except for my own decision to focus on my discomfort instead.

I think it has always been hard for me to remember not to shrink back from pain in these little everyday moments, because before now I had not thought about how much these miniscule, momentary retreats distract me from my life’s goal of responding to every moment with  love and compassion.  One of the six perfections that would-be bodhisattvas like me train in is the perfection of patience, which most of all means not letting your buttons be pushed, not losing your cool or being thrown off course by discomfort or pain or others’ unkind words.    So for me, what seems very important now is to take my tolerance for discomfort, developed while overcoming the challenges I’ve faced while pursuing my big goals in life, and apply it diligently to every moment.  So that bringing kindness to every encounter becomes as vitally important to me as persevering in the USSR or in the delivery room.




Have you gotten enough advice lately? I have. I have also had plenty of input. I wonder if, like me, you are all set with insights, suggestions, hints, recommendations, people encouraging you to think what they think, and with charming or passionate pleas regarding what to do, buy, feel and want.

I’m just saying.

I notice a lot of people are just saying. They are just feeling desire for the things they want. Objects, status, ideas, people, etc. They are not too sure about how to get what they want, or to create the world they want to live in so they speak up.

Advertisers, politicians, entertainers, athletes, experts and opinionizers all raising their voices and sending their words and images our way, catching our attention and persuading us in that moment to engage with them, to dovetail our desires.

It has not worked though.

Because generally speaking the motive for all this speaking is not love for you. Most of the time most of them just don’t have the time to care too much if your life is better or if you find some peace, love and/or happiness in this cool and turbulent world. That, nothing personal, is your problem. Not that they might not like you if they met you or something, but as they speak out across the culture, our happiness is not really on the table. What they want is on the table.

That is why the messages are at once enticing and cold hearted. That is why the result of these public messages is a rush of attraction and connection followed by hollowness and disappointment.

If we move through this world bothering others we will be restless, lonely, frustrated and exhausted. Continuing along that path is death.

By choosing instead to follow a path, even if it’s a solitary path, of purposeful practice, we can have life instead. We need not tolerate the noise and meanness of the world. We need not engage with it directly, since trying to suppress it is like trying to calm an ocean by smashing down its waves.

By purposeful practice I mean be generous when you can help;

don’t get angry when you are provoked;

treat other people decently, and let them have your respect. Let what they aspire to matter to you;

let your mind settle down to a deep peaceful state that you can carry around with you; get so good at it you can move vigorously through the turbulent world at peace;

take joy in living your life, helping where you can and leaving people alone when you are through;

see deeply enough to understand that no amount of goods, power over others, or pleasurable experiences will ever create a single moment of happiness for you or anyone else;

that the only thing that can ever last as you pass through this life and as you pass through the portal of death is your kindness and decency.

We cannot do these things just because they seem like a good idea. We can only do them by cultivating them as skills, little by little, humbly beginning, now, recognizing our limits and, if we persist without skipping steps, becoming a hero in this world.

Having this practical purpose, to train ourselves to be free of suffering, so that we can help others find their way out too, will allow our hearts and minds to return to peace and to power. There is no other way to do it.

Among the powers that arise from this practice is the power to shut up. I will demonstrate that power 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 “”  His articles and books are collected at


Human Candidates School

Human Candidates School

by Susan Downing

Every morning now, starting last Saturday, I check the time when I wake up and see how much past 5 a.m. it is.  If it’s 6:00 a.m., my usual time to get up, I know that my son Michael has already been up for an hour.  How do I know that, since he is no longer living at home with us?  Because that’s what time they get them up at Marine Officer Candidates School down in Quantico, Virginia.

I remember that a year ago, when Mike was already training hard so that he would be able to meet the physical demands of OCS, he and I sat one night in the cold, in the car, in the driveway, talking about the similarities between our paths.  This was at a point when his friends were a little unclear about why he had decided on OCS.  It didn’t quite make sense to some of them that he could feel so strongly about wanting to do this, why he would willingly endure such demanding training in order to put himself in harm’s way. As he explained it to me, sure, he wanted a personal challenge, but just as much, he wanted to serve. He told me that so many guys enter military service because they feel they don’t have many – or any – other options, and he felt they deserved the best possible leaders.  He wanted to push himself, to train hard and well so that he could be one of those leaders.  It was a calling for him.

I got both what he was striving for and some of the challenges associated with the path he’d chosen, because of my own decision to take bodhisattva vows and devote my life to a challenging spiritual practice while living as a layperson. It is often difficult for people to understand why I consider it my calling to do my spiritual work, why I willingly place certain demands or restrictions on myself, why I work constantly to overcome my own ignorance (in the Buddhist sense) so that I can be a good guide and help others who want to travel the same path.

Certainly there are differences between what Mike is doing now – transforming himself  by throwing himself into an intense and isolated and totally unfamiliar setting – and the way I carry on my practice within the everyday, familiar world.  But even so, both my life of practice and Mike’s  training – and future service as an officer in the Marines – require steadfast moral and ethical behavior, discipline, and a willingness to take responsibility for our actions and their consequences. The way Marine officers train may look different from how those who have embraced  bodhisattva work practice, but both  paths can bring about profound transformation.  So,  Mike and I have a shared goal of challenging ourselves to achieve personal transformation so that we can become increasingly better equipped to help those around us.

And I know that neither is an easy road to follow, even if I can’t begin to imagine exactly what Mike is going through right now in his training. Reflecting on this fact before Mike left last week, I decided that I wanted to ramp up my own practice in some way, to show solidarity with the grueling training I know his trainers are pushing him through down at OCS. To show that I so admire what he and others like him are doing, that they inspire me to work harder on my own path.  But how?  I wasn’t going to set up an obstacle course in the back yard, or wade through the Manhan River breaking up the ice as I went, or shave my head!  No, but I did sit down and make up a more rigorous and disciplined practice schedule for myself, one which I am following for the ten weeks that Mike is in OCS, until we go down to Quantico for his graduation and commissioning in March.

This seemed like a good way to support Mike’s efforts and to make my own practice more demanding, while keeping him and the challenges he is facing present in my mind throughout each day.  In the week since I’ve started my own intensified practice, I have already gained some insight into myself and the myriad ways I pamper myself every day, cutting myself slack when I am tired or hungry or just plain lethargic and lazy. But knowing that Mike is down at OCS without the option of pampering himself at all snaps me out of the temptation to kick back.

Keeping to my own new schedule also helps me stay focused on the demands that face anyone who commits – with sincerity and dedication -  to striving to develop within themselves the ability to engage in brave, honorable, reasoned, compassionate,  and selfless thought, speech and action.  Which I think is an admirable goal for all of us, necessary for anyone wishing to be truly human.  Maybe we are not all down at Quantico at OCS, or part of an order of monks or nuns.  We don’t have to be.  Our own individual lives serve as our personal HCS – Human Candidates School.   There’s no special application process, no waiting for classes to begin. Anyone who wants to can step through the door and accept the challenge:  we can each dive right in, right now, and spend the rest of our lives polishing the skills of honor, courage and commitment.


The Crimson Tide

The Crimson Tide

By Jeff Brooks

Bear Bryant was the most winning coach in college football history. He was good.  He knew what was up. I am not sure he had much of a following among American Buddhists. There might have been some serene, flexible shaved headed folks in the stands at the ‘Bama games in the 70’s and 80’s thrusting themselves to their feet in exultation each time the Crimson Tide gained a few yards.  I never saw them. But it would have been as handy for them as for everyone else in this world who has ever considered themselves to number among the good guys to have heeded Coach Bryant’s urgent warning.

He told his players this:

“The will to win is nothing. Everyone has it. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”

He was talking to extremely motivated high performers about the competition they would face at the highest level of collegiate athletics. Naturally they would face people who had the will to win. That is how those people got to face them to begin with.

But what Coach Bryant instilled in his players was the present-time awareness of the impending challenge. And the fact that in the immediate presence of that challenge it would be too late to prepare. He made sure his players knew there would be no way to suddenly rise to the demand of that critical moment and somehow magically surpass anything you had ever done before.

This is the same as Dogen’s comment in the Tenzokyokun or “Advice to the Cook” “Prepare for tomorrow as the work of today.” That is, the future is something we need to deal with now.

You can’t magically be ready to feed a hundred monks who show up at your zendo without preparing to feed them.

There are such stories. It may be that a young mom will suddenly find it in her power to lift a car off her new born baby. But you don’t see a lot of that. You don’t see the moms saying no problem if the baby is playing in the street I will just go ahead and lift a car or other vehicle off the little fella in the event that one should roll on him.

And I would not count on pulling that off yourself. In competition. On the field of battle. On the street. Or in the most important event of our lives – at once unique and commonplace – our meeting with death. We cannot expect to meet the overwhelming demands of that moment without the will to prepare to face it, and to prevail.

We need to have that will now, and act upon it every day.

There are forces arrayed around us now that would take away our freedom and our lives. Materialists, filled with envy at those who seem to get their money for nothing and their chicks for free. Willing to do anything from enslaving people to poisoning the world to step up a notch and get more. The ambitious, who rage and conspire against those who seem lightly poised on the rungs of status above them. The lonely, seeking community with a group of imaginary ideal strangers, but disappointed, finding people close at hand inadequate.  The sybarites, tearing down the walls of devotion and the lives of children. The terrorists, delighting in the prospect of a crimson tide of their own making, delighting as it engulfs the cities of their imagined enemies.

They all excuse themselves or justify themselves or make themselves heroes by saying this is the way of the world. This is a provisional state of unhappiness for some that will lead, long term, for happiness for me and mine. That the strong will survive. That it’s you or me. Good or evil. And I will be the one to decide.

You are facing those folks.

But by far the most serious threat we face is from our own heart and mind. More dangerous than a world of tyrannies and poisons.

We cannot eradicate them. But we can face them with courage and skill and we can prevail.

We cannot do it by passivity, by saying I will do nothing, by hoping for the best. We cannot do it by engaging in the same mental poisons – envy, anger, desire – that are driving the destroyers. We can only do it by a kindness and strength which remain at the service of other beings and which is so powerful and skillful that it is not infected by agitation, madness, selfishness or the desire for revenge.

We can only accomplish that by consistent training in ethical conduct, clear mind, and deep understanding – of what causes the trouble around us and within us and how we can combat it decisively.

We cannot wait until the moment of death to prepare for it. We cannot wait until the moment of temptation, despair or distraction. Those moments will come. We will face enormous challenges. Unbearable delights and difficulties are in store.

For real. For you and for me.  We are in this together. We need to prepare.

And I can tell you what I learned from Coach Bryant and Dogen Zenji. The will to triumph over these challenges means nothing.

The will to prepare to win means everything.

One of the names of the Buddha is The Victor. He prepared to win for infinite eons and for the first part of his adult life. He was not mellow or easy going or just good with everything.

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