Archive for June, 2011

Ceaseless Practice

Ceaseless Practice

by Jeffrey Brooks

I live and die with the Buddhas and ancestors. They are my family, my friends, and my society.

Japanese Zen Master Dogen lived and wrote in the 13th century. He brought a fresh, simple Buddhism to Japan fromChina. It was based on practice not the superstition and elaborate ritual that infused much of the Japanese Buddhism of his day.

His writing was collected as “the Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma”, the Shobogenzo in Japanese.

Of the 95 essays in the long version, the section called Gyoji or Ceaseless Practice is the longest. In it Dogen says:

The Great Way of Buddhas and Ancestors invariably involves unsurpassed ceaseless practice. This practice rolls on in a cyclic manner without interruption. Not a moment’s gap has occurred in Their giving rise to the intention to realize Buddhahood, in Their doing the training and practice, in Their experiencing enlightenment, and in Their realizing nirvana, for the Great Way of ceaseless practice rolls on just like this. As a result, the practice is not done by forcing oneself to do it and it is not done by being forced to do it by someone else: it is a ceaseless practice that is never tainted by forcing. The merits from this ceaseless practice sustain us and sustain others.

We all encounter demons. They may take the form of venomous public discourse or a gang we meet while jogging quietly through a park. We may encounter them as we seek out distraction and gratification or while passively suffocating in alienation.

The encounter can come out of nowhere and take us by surprise. Or we can see it coming a long way off. Engaging with demons blow for blow is generally a mistake. We get caught in their misery and hatred and become like them. But sometimes, in the grave extreme of danger, it may be necessary to sacrifice our safety and life, to protect decency and decent people from harm.

Having a long or short life is not the most important thing. Dogen lived to be 53. The length of our lives is not up to us. The quality of our lives is.  As we practice we live out our own karma and create the conditions for our future.

There is no moment which is not a practice moment. We are all practicing something all the time. We can choose. We can prepare. We can condition our body and hearts and minds to use our lives for training. We can live our lives in the company of the Buddhas and ancestors. We can see the demon on the road, we can know what to do, and we can cultivate the ability to do it. We can live when it is time to live and die when it is time to die.

The morality of Buddhism is in conflict with the values of the modern world. Things which we are taught every day to accept as good and virtuous, Buddhism clearly explains, are the causes of suffering. We need to know which is true, which to engage with, which to avoid.

There were times and places when the leaders of society were concerned with the well being of the people. And those societies could grow and prosper in peace. People could work and enjoy the results and take care of their families.

There have been many times and places where this was not so. Selfish idealists did not respect people or regard them as valuable. These powerful elites were occupied with bigger things.

In those times, like these, Buddhism was a radical response to ignorance and oppression. Practice was the light on the path, the path, the traveler, the rest and the destination.

It is that now.

As Dogen wrote:

The underlying principle of this practice is that the whole universe in all ten directions receives the merit of our ceaseless practice. Though others may not recognize it, though we may not recognize it ourselves, still, it is so. … And, owing to our ceaseless practice, the Buddha’s Way rolls perpetually onward.

Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer.  He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.


Self-Reiki. It’s for You.

Self Reiki. It’s For You

by Susan Downing

Yesterday was the final day of the 21-day Self-Reiki Challenge I began for my Reiki students and friends three weeks ago.  Eighteen people signed on to give themselves Reiki for a minimum of ten minutes each day. I haven’t yet heard how many of the 18 actually did give themselves Reiki every day, but I’m guessing most people either did manage that, or at least came close.  After all, I motivated them by promising a prize for one lucky participant who completes the challenge… But I also noted, when I announced the challenge, that the real prize are all the benefits one receives from developing and committing to a daily self-Reiki practice. And in fact, I saw the challenge as a way to trick people into making a habit of giving themselves Reiki every day.

It’s so easy to get into the habit of doing Reiki for everyone but ourselves.  I’ve written about this in an earlier blog post (“First for Yourself, Then for Others,”) so I won’t repeat those points here.  But the reason I wrote that post in the first place is that I’ve gradually become aware of how infrequently most practitioners give themselves Reiki.  I’m sure part of the reason for that lies in the way most of us — including me — teach Reiki, especially Level I.  Level I practitioners are usually taught how to do Reiki both for themselves and for family members or close friends.

Maybe there are some teachers out there who tell their Level I students not to do Reiki on anyone but themselves, but I think that is a rarity.  And indeed, Level I does traditionally include instructions on hand positions for giving Reiki to others.  As a result, I think teachers and students alike tend to put less emphasis on self-Reiki during class. I know that’s happened in my classes: I want to take extra care to make sure that if my students are giving Reiki to others, even their family and close friends, then they know what they’re doing. So I place a lot of emphasis in my Level I class on having students practice that and receive feedback, both from me and their classmates.  I spend much less time teaching them how to do self-Reiki or how to make that into a daily practice for themselves.

And although I’ve been placing more emphasis on self-Reiki in my last couple Level I classes, it’s still felt to me like it wasn’t enough.  I’m feeling more and more strongly about the need for self-Reiki: if you don’t begin by developing a strong self-care practice, you won’t discover all that Reiki can do for you or benefit fully from it.  You end up taking care of everyone else, while not keeping yourself calm and stress-free, and that doesn’t help anyone! And so, I’ve decided to start offering a separate class, Reiki for Self-Care, so people can get into the habit of using Reiki to take care of themselves right from the start.

I came up with the idea for this class partly because I want to help people who are already Reiki-trained bring a focus on self-care into their lives.  But I also have clients and friends who would like to be able to use Reiki themselves, but don’t really want to go through a full Level I class at this point.  They are stressed out, or anxious, or can’t sleep, or have pain, and they need some tool they can use right away. This is certainly not the way Reiki is traditionally taught, but it seems to me that it’s time to move out of the familiar Level I, II and III framework and teach people to develop a self-Reiki practice so they’ll have consistent access to this powerful healing method. And you certainly do not need full Level I training to be able to set up and benefit from a self-Reiki practice.

So, my goal with this new, three-hour class is to teach people to give themselves Reiki (and the training will include a Reiki attunement) and help them plan how they’ll integrate self-Reiki sessions into their lives. We’ll actually spend time in class figuring that out! I want to do all I can to help people establish self-Reiki as a daily practice, because once you develop a commitment to sitting down with Reiki every day, you begin to build a strong and stable foundation of calm and well-being that flows throughout your daily life.  And then you also have a reliable practice to draw on more deeply when challenges arise, a practice to sustain you as you move through life.

That’s what this new class is all about — helping people bring Reiki into their lives and get into the habit of using it regularly, even if they’ve already had Reiki training. The bottom line is that I want to help as many people as possible develop an ongoing self-Reiki practice and start receiving the benefits it can bring, and adding Reiki for Self-Care to my class offerings is one way I can begin to do this.

(I’ll be holding the first Reiki for Self-Care class on Thursday evening, July 14th. You can find more details on my website.)


This Magic Moment

This Magic Moment

by Jeffrey Brooks

As times turn bad the need for practice becomes more obvious. This is the upside of current events.

When there is not enough money, when our status falls, when the orgiastic disregard for family looks vain instead of appealing, when intoxication through drugs and alcohol and the internet seem to be a dead end then it is possible to discover what really matters, what will really nourish and protect us.

There is no doubt that in times of hardship people succumb to despair, raiding, addiction and savagery. But people can also band together in a spirit of respect and shared values and recover their humanity through training.

It costs nothing. It delivers everything.

If people take your money for it they are fooling you. If your time with them is fruitless, and you have the same unsatisfactory life you had before, look elsewhere.

It’s good to come together with like minded people to practice. But you do not need a group to get started. It’s good to find a room that is simple, comfortable and quiet. But you don’t need to go to a Zen center or to a special meditation hall or to an officially designated place.

You can sit still and tall with crossed legs and eyes down. You can walk with calm dignity. You can conduct yourself with purpose and skill, energy and composure. You can study the sutras and learn the difference between truth and lies, between what helps and what hurts.

You can trade confusion for clarity. You can substitute the pursuit of the things which are disappearing by pursuing the skill and the will to help the people who need you. You can dwell in the midst of difficulty with equanimity. You can encounter unpleasantness with courage, secure in the knowledge that what you are doing is good and essential.

The difficult times we are facing are like an anarchist’s first visit to Mogadishu. They change their minds.

Armed with a life committed to practice no bribe will tempt you. No seduction, no distraction, no impulse, no intimidation will mean enough to you to dissuade you from your purpose.

But how do you get that purpose? How do we not feel distraction, despair, revulsion, attraction, overwhelmed by the mass of misery, disturbance and the fire breathing minutiae that commands the minds of modern men?

Stop and listen. See the river of poison flowing around you. Stay out of it. See the tenderness in the hearts of the people who need you. Go to them. See the generations of neglected, ignorant and abused people, filled with hatred, moved by the fever of destruction. Understand that they will suffer more than their victims will. Do all you can to save those who still can be saved.

Not sure how? Find your practice and do it. Sit still and walk and work and live it out. Learn the four noble truths. That everyone suffers. That there is a reason for that. That there is a way to put an end to that suffering forever. It has been figured out and taught, again and again.

And if it takes the blessing of difficulty and discomfort to set our feet on the path of practice then let’s take it as a blessing and get on with it. Our lives will end someday, that is sure. But if we waste this chance to turn our lives toward practice, there will be no end to the trouble.

Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer. He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.


Where’s MacDuffie Gone?

Where’s MacDuffie Gone?

by Susan Downing

There’s a school in old New England on Connecticut’s fair shore…

That’s the first line of “The Magnolia Song,” the MacDuffie School’s alma mater. But in the space of just a few minutes late Wednesday afternoon, a tornado flew up the hill from the Connecticut River’s suddenly turbulent shore and swept through campus. When MacDuffie students and faculty and staff emerged from the basement of the school’s main building to survey the scene, the alma mater’s opening no longer seemed to fit.  “It’s gone,” my daughter told me over the phone.

She told me about the campus trees – nearly all of them had been uprooted, while the ones that remained standing were stripped of leaves and branches.  Fallen trees were almost all they could see when they stepped outside. The alma mater’s title will clue you in that trees are a key feature of the school landscape, and indeed there were numerous magnolias on campus.  Hence the song’s next line, “Where among magnolia blossoms students con their lessons o’er…”

In recent times many of us have been amused by this line.  We also took the magnolias somewhat for granted, I think, at least until last fall, when MacDuffie was sold, and the community was told the school would be moving to a new campus in Granby.  When they announced the move, people wondered, How can we sing “The Magnolia Song” if the magnolia trees are all in Springfield?  And so, this year, the graduating seniors gave the school five new magnolia trees to be planted in Granby. These new trees were sitting just outside Rutenber hall on Wednesday, practically beneath the shade of one of the original magnolias.  “What about the new magnolias?” I asked my daughter yesterday.  “Gone,” she replied.  Blown away to who knows where, along with the magnolia from the song, “the tree they love so dearly.”

And so, Wednesday evening, it seemed to some at MacDuffie that they had lost their school not only once – back in the fall, when the sale was announced – but now again, in a very physical way.  With both the old magnolias, and the young ones meant to serve as a link between the new and old campuses no longer present, the careful plan to symbolically transplant MacDuffie Springfield to MacDuffie Granby was compromised.

This left me contemplating this question: Where do we find MacDuffie, now that the physical campus we all knew so well is nearly unrecognizable, and no one feels that the Granby campus is really MacDuffie?  I began looking, and this is where I’ve found MacDuffie in the two days since the tornado:

In the teachers and staff who took the tornado warning seriously and risked their own safety to shepherd the students into the basements of the school’s buildings.  Instead of taking cover themselves, they stayed on alert, making sure no one had been left out in the storm’s path. Thanks to their selfless acts of caring and protection, everyone came through in one piece, even if the buildings did not.

In the students who supported and comforted and calmed each other as the tornado passed over, and then, as they stepped out to view the damage.  In the midst of this crisis and afterward, they exhibited strength and resolve.  Later, they talked to me about wanting to spare all the other students who hadn’t been on campus from seeing the devastation.  “They shouldn’t have to see it like this,” these students said.  In that one afternoon, I believe they transformed from teenagers into adults, ready to take responsibility for the welfare of others.

In the mother of one student who, upon hearing the school was hit, set out for MacDuffie from her workplace across town.  What would normally be a five minute drive lasted three hours, as she crawled through snarled traffic, avoiding downed trees and wires, and finally crossing the last few blocks on foot when police would not let her drive any further.  And when, hours later, it was finally safe to take her own child home, she took two others, too, including my daughter, hiking through the dark across suddenly unfamiliar terrain and back to the car.

In one of the deans, the mother of an Army officer (both of them MacDuffie alumnae).  When the storms had passed and students were getting antsy to leave with their parents, she refused to let them go until the tornado watch had been lifted.  “No one got hurt,” she announced.  “And no one’s going to.”  So they  obediently sat.  It’s clear that mother and son share the same leadership qualities and protective instinct. We’re lucky they do.

In the seniors who spent the day after the tornado making a plan to present to the administration, to try to make it possible to hold the annual awards convocation, and in the parents who made it clear they would do anything that needed to be done to help make everything happen.

In the administration and teachers who spent untold hours keeping the community updated on the evening after the storm and then planning how to make sure graduation would continue as planned this coming Sunday, all the while dealing with insurance adjusters and tree-removal crews and myriad other details we cannot even imagine.  And this as their own cars stood smashed or dented in the parking lot, and as their own classrooms and offices stood full of broken glass and scattered debris.

In the family of a senior, who opened up their daughter’s graduation party tomorrow night to every single student in the school. They understood that the students needed a way to gather together and support each other and relax, too.

These are a few of the places I have found MacDuffie in the past two days. I know others will be able to describe where they’ve found it, too. It turns out MacDuffie is not gone at all.  If the physical devastation has shown us anything, it’s this:  we can see that the essence of MacDuffie lies not in the buildings or the trees on the Springfield campus. Not even in the magnolia trees that have vanished.    It lies within every member of the community.  That sounds kind of hokey, right?  But I think it’s true.  And maybe we had to go through this event in order to see that clearly.  So now, if some young magnolia trees do somehow make their way to the Granby campus, perhaps we can view them not as reminders of a Springfield campus reluctantly relinquished, but as symbols of our community’s steadfast commitment to each other, a commitment which doesn’t require any specific physical location in order to thrive.

And so, although there are no magnolias on either campus now, we can still sing the last verse of the alma mater at graduation, knowing that we do not need actual magnolias in order to feel we are at MacDuffie.

When in after years we gather in reunion one and all,

When the echo of our laughter floats through study room and hall,

When dear faces rise before us and past scenes we seem to see,

We will sing this song together, ‘neath the old magnolia tree.

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