Archive for September, 2011

Because Nothing Helps Except Having Practiced

Because Nothing Helps Except Having Practiced

by Susan Downing

You are living amidst the causes of death

Like a lamp standing in a strong breeze.

These are the words of Nagarjuna, a key second century Buddhist philosopher.  The Dalai Lama quoted these lines in one of his books that I was reading last week.  It was serendipitous that I was reading it just then, because it so happened that a close friend of mine, Neil McManus, died last week.

I met Neil’s wife, Heather, before I met him, but the two of them have flowed in and out of my life for many years, and during the past four, I have seen a lot of them: Neil was living with a host of debilitating medical conditions, and I would give him Reiki regularly.

In the Dalai Lama’s writing that I read last week, he talks about how best to prepare ourselves for going through death.  I was thinking about His Holiness’ words as I watched Neil move closer to death, as I saw Heather by his side every moment.  As the two of them were going through the process of Neil’s long illness, they have both been very conscious of wanting to use it as an opportunity to use it for spiritual growth. For them, that meant actively and willingly allowing themselves to come face to face with any and all difficult moments that arose in the process and not shying away from them.  Sometimes that meant – for Neil – bearing up under the physical pain that medication couldn’t alleviate and – for Heather – simply being by his side in the moments when she felt powerless to help in other ways.  Sometimes it meant not pushing away disturbing memories from the deep past that surfaced for one or the other of them.  Sometimes it meant recognizing their own strong desire for Neil to stay in this world, and working to loosen the grip of that desire little by little.

Almost every day of the last several years, they were aware of one question and strived to answer it: how do you go about gracefully letting go of a life with the person you love, to whom you’ve devoted your life? How do you allow that process to play out without kicking and screaming and fighting for it not to be so?  This was a very real challenge for Heather and Neil, because of how close they were. It wasn’t just because they’ve known each other for 29 years and have been married for nearly 13 of those, or because they loved each other deeply.  The fact is that when Neil became bedridden, Heather devoted herself to being his caregiver.  For years, day in and day out, she has been the one who has tended to his every need.  Bear in mind that several years ago, Neil lost the ability to communicate verbally, or to control his own movements, except on very rare occasions.  Even so, the two of them managed to maintain their strong connection, and Neil found a way to communicate, through love and thought and a syllable here and there, a squeeze of the hand.  And when the time came, when it became clear that Neil would die within a matter of days, they both entered into that final stretch with focus and composure.  Neil was at peace, and so was Heather.

What made it possible for the two of them to move through those last days and hours with such conscious awareness and calm?  The Dalai Lama says that at death, nothing helps except having practiced, because you can’t take your loved ones or your possessions or your body along with you as you pass into death.  Only serious spiritual practice can give you the peaceful mind you’ll need if you want to meet death with calm and equanimity – or if, in Heather’s case, you are helping someone another being move along that path.  And practicing is precisely what Neil and Heather have spent years doing, especially within the crucible of his illness.  Through prayer and meditation and good acts and unflinching analysis of their own acts and motivations, they both established a state of mind which supported and nourished them.  They developed a strong spiritual practice individually, but they also supported each other in this difficult and crucial work.  And at the end of Neil’s life, their joint efforts and practice gave them unimaginable benefits. Here’s what I mean by that:

On the morning before Neil died, I was sitting by Neil’s bedside, giving him Reiki, as Heather lay alongside him, her arms around him.  It was silent in the room, except for the pumping of the oxygen machine and Neil’s breathing.  At one point, I happened to look over at Heather.  Her eyes were closed, as were Neil’s.  Their faces were peaceful, almost content. I saw and felt their love and devotion to each other, their profound connection, their shared commitment to helping each other through this passage, each of them knowing that at a certain moment, Neil would have to move ahead on his own.  But they were both prepared for that leave-taking.

Writing of how it is that spiritual practice helps us at death, the Dalai Lama wrote: “If you do whatever you can at the present juncture to transform your mind, then even sickness and pain while you are dying will not disturb the strong sense of peace, firm like a mountain, deep in your mind.”

In Heather and Neil, I saw the truth of the Dalai Lama’s words come to life, even though they are Catholic, not Buddhist.  I saw how the fruits of their committed spiritual work enabled them to move through this process with grace and love and peace, so that they could spend the last hours of Neil’s life not tormented by the imminent loss, but rather, enveloped in the deep love they had shared for decades.

May we all be inspired by their example to take up this profound work now, while we still have the time and energy to do so, so that we may be equally well prepared for our own moment of death.

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School Safety

School Safety

By Jeffrey Brooks

The search for emptiness is like searching a school for a bomb.

You do not search a school for a lack of bomb. What would that look like? You would not know what to look for.

You could find a million things that are something other than bombs and still have a bomb in the school. Looking for a non bomb or looking for the lack of a bomb will not succeed in detecting the bomb or saving the people.

So you have to search for a bomb. You learn to identify them. You learn what they would look like and where they could be hidden.

You use all your investigative knowledge and training and technology to search for it. You search thoroughly, overlooking nothing. If you know what you are looking for and you do not find it in one room you can go to the next room and search for it there. If you do not find it in any of the rooms or other hiding places in the school you can conclude that the school is empty of bombs.

You cannot accomplish this if you look for non bombs or for the non existence of bombs.

Studying prajna paramita works like this. According to the Buddha, according to the Heart Sutra, training in the transcendent wisdom that frees beings from suffering, i.e. studying prajna paramita, requires us to see directly that even the five skandhas are empty of any self nature.

The five skandhas are the physical and mental elements that together constitute a person.

We examine one of the five skandhas, let’s say the skandha of physical form, and carefully look for a self nature in it.

If you have trained and practiced and know what a self nature would look like if one existed then you can look for one. You will either find one or not find one.

You can do the examination of the skandha of form properly and thoroughly, and you can be certain that there is no self nature in it. You can then move on to your inspection of the other four skandhas. You cannot examine the skandhas for non parts, non causes, non projections, or for no self nature. What would these look like? What identifying characteristics could they have? You cannot search for a negative. Not in a building and not in a mind.

You have to examine each skandha for a self nature.

People sit on their cushions for a lifetime and get nowhere looking for something that they cannot define or detect; or by just sitting there emptying their mind of content. When they finish meditation the content returns. Their thoughts and perceptions come rushing back in.

They may believe that they have had some spiritual insight by emptying their mind of content or making it very still. But they have not had insight into the transcendent wisdom that frees us from suffering.

By cultivating the clear, stable mind of samadhi, and using it to do deep analytical exploration, methodically, skillfully and completely, we can see directly the emptiness of the five skandhas. This is the method and the prescription for the practice of total and complete liberation through the practice of prajna paramita described in the Heart Sutra.

That is the instruction given in the sutra by the Buddha through a dialog between his most accomplished disciple, Shariputra, and the great bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.

I am using the example of searching a school for a bomb as a metaphor for searching our mind’s understanding of the five skandhas for the possible presence of a self nature. The bomb analogy is disturbing. I could have said searching a school for a lost baseball, book bag, or iPod.

But the urgency of the search for a bomb in a school is accurate.

The threat, if the bomb is undetected, is dire. The intensity of the search and the skill of the searchers are critical to the success of the search. The consequence of their success or failure is evident. That is why I use this metaphor.

The consequences of a detonation in a public place are horrible but they are limited. The consequence of not finding the self nature of the dharmas is inexpressibly worse. This may seem just pious hyperbole, but having studied the consequences of ignorant views and ignorant actions, it is easy to see the truth of it.

Failing to uncover the confused mental habit of belief in the self existence of dharmas is the ignorance that spins the cycle of endless suffering. The ignorance that creates wars and famine. The ignorance that motivates people to set bombs in schools.

Permitting this ignorance to remain in our mindstream is a disaster. Searching for it, thoroughly and skillfully, is the most urgent task and most wonderful opportunity of our lives.


Jeff Brooks has taught martial arts and Zen for many years. He studied in the US and on Okinawa. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as firearms instructor and defensive tactics instructor, and in criminal investigations.  He can be reached at  mountainkarate@gmail. com.

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Prairie Precept

Prairie Precept

by Susan Downing

When my sister and I were growing up in Northern Illinois, our mother often talked about wanting to go across the country in a Conestoga wagon. She’d grown up in Southern Illinois amidst the vast expanses of fields there, and something about that landscape called to her, drew her to explore it further.  My sister and father and I would always respond by remarking on the impractical nature of such an endeavor.  But the country isn’t open prairie any more, we’d tell her.  It’s full of highways, and where it is open, there are fences. How would you make your way?  It never occurred to me to think about what it would actually have been like to travel across the country in a Conestoga wagon.  I never thought about that until a couple of days ago when I stood on a path in an area of restored Minnesota prairie at the Carleton College Arboretum.

Some of you may recall from reading my earlier blog post, Epicenter of Joy, that when my daughter Emily and I visited Carleton last fall, I felt an unexpected and deep joy being on the land there in Northfield.  I read about the 800-acre Arboretum and for some reason, when we returned this week, to settle Em in for her first year of college, I could hardly wait to seek out the patches of prairie there.

When I did, I was amazed – prairie grass is so tall!  I don’t know what I’d been expecting.  Somehow I imagined it would be about 18” tall.  Why would I think that?  After all, it’s called tall prairie grass. But there I stood, on the edge of the path, next to spiky grasses that were as tall as I am.  Five foot tall, purple-tinged grass, with smaller, bushier plants and a multitude of wildflowers interspersed.

I made my way along a path through this prairie, and in the direction I was walking I could see no signs of modern civilization – no power lines, no houses, just the far off trees lining the edge of the field.  I heard cicadas and crickets and grasshoppers, and monarch butterflies kept flitting around me.  Then I saw a downy woodpecker land on the woody stalk of a tall flower that had already died.  Although I was only about 6 feet away from him, this woodpecker was oblivious to me.  He began pecking at that dried stalk, intermittently at first, and then with growing intensity and speed, the stalk swaying with each little peck.  He’d peck a few times, pause, move up to a different spot and peck some more.  I watched him do this for about five minutes, until he flew over to another nearby plant to continue his work.

I was mesmerized by that woodpecker, amazed by his persistence in the face of what seemed to me such a daunting task – drawing sustenance from such an unlikely source.  But clearly he knew what he was doing and knew that bugs could still be living inside that stalk.  Even so…

Seeing the woodpecker working so diligently prompted me to consider what it might have felt like for pioneers  – including some of my mother’s ancestors – who did venture across the open prairies in wagons.  So I stood right at the edge of the path and imagined myself entirely surrounded by this tall grass, these birds and bugs and plants and flowers.  I imagined having set off across this land with my family and a wagon and whatever provisions seemed necessary, but not knowing at all what we might find or what dangers faced us, whether from the environment or animals or illness or other humans or our own fragile health or state of mind.  That was a sobering thing to consider.  And for me, that tall, tall prairie grass was like a symbol of the difficulty of such an endeavor.  What would it be like to move through that grass, hour after hour, day after day, month after month, without any idea of what awaited or whether you were adequately prepared?

I couldn’t imagine wading through this grass for even one entire day, much less for as long as it would take to get to a spot, many hundreds of miles away, where you could take a chance and decide to settle.  And how would you choose such a place?  Would there be enough water? Would the weather turn out to be unsuitable?  But, stick a spade in the earth in the middle of the prairie to dig a spot where you can have a house and plant some crops, and you’re pretty much committed.  You don’t just up and move to another town if things aren’t quite right. Not after all that toil and perseverance against the backdrop of the endless prairie and all the devastating weather and threats that can roll in toward you from its edges.

And yet, standing there on the edge of that piece of prairie in Minnesota,  I felt inspired and at home.  Something about it called to me.  Its vastness? Its pristine beauty?  The possibilities and freedom it seemed to offer?  I’m not sure what it was, but I felt so moved by those who had trekked across it. And it occurred to me that  they had certainly exemplified Mikao Usui’s fourth Reiki precept: Just for today, devote yourself diligently to your work.  Of course they were not thinking about him – he hadn’t even been born yet!  But they were pursuing their own purpose with a fierce diligence.  What prompted them to head off along this difficult and dangerous path, with no guarantee whatsoever that they would reach whatever goal they held so deeply in their hearts? I’m sure that for each person who snapped the whip to start up the team of horses pulling their wagon, that goal and purpose was slightly different.  And yet, they shared the perseverance and focus that allowed them to move forward, instead of being defeated by the challenges that awaited.

I think of Usui’s fourth precept as the prairie precept now: you find a life’s purpose worthy of your devotion, and you move ahead with it, no matter what.  Each of us moves across our own, individual prairie, and the prairie’s landscape changes as we pass through it.  Maybe it’s a prairie of military service, or a prairie of beginning a new and exciting (but daunting) phase of life – as a college freshman or a new parent – or having a big transition come upon you unexpectedly, like the death of a loved one or friend.  But although these life events may appear different on the surface, they are alike in their prairie-ness: full of the unknown, of possible threats and dangers and challenges, but full also of the potential for great growth and joy and happiness and liberation as we throw ourselves wholeheartedly into the pursuit of this uncharted path together with others who are as committed to this life’s project as are we.

Thinking of the prairie, and moving through it, that way, I felt I had a better understanding of my mother’s desire to cross the prairie in a Conestoga wagon.  She was eager to find a larger purpose for her life.  Although she never managed to head West in a covered wagon, she did make her own pioneering journey when she headed to Thailand to join the Peace Corps after retiring from her career as an English teacher.  At the time, I didn’t quite get what that was all about.  But the other day, as I stood in the prairie, filled with a deep peace and joy and feeling of being at home, I did get it.  Thailand was her prairie.  I have the prairie of my spiritual path and my commitment to helping beings end their suffering.  As vast and challenging and unpredictable as it is, as tall as the metaphorical grasses are along this path, I keep moving ahead.  The prairie is where I feel I belong. It is my home.

May you find your own prairie and the strength and resolve to move across it to the joy that awaits you there.

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The Story of Our Life

The Story of Our Life

by Jeffrey Brooks

Three friends move across a forbidding landscape. Danger could appear anytime. They do not know what to expect or exactly what path to take, but they know that everything depends on their success. They need to save something – their town, their family, the world, each other, something.

It could be one hero traveling alone. He could have a sidekick.

It could be the Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, Blade Runner or Harry Potter. But that’s the premise for a compelling story.

And that is the premise for a compelling life too.

Children sit in the audience of the theatre or read the book or listen to the voice of someone reading the story to them and they are transported and filled with a longing to live that story out. To feel that challenge, that sense of purpose, that sense that their life and their actions are that important, and that the fellowship in which they find themselves is an unbreakable bond of affection and respect that will sustain them throughout their adventure and their life.

That is how we long to live which is why we love that kind of story.

Our habit of mind is structured the same way as that story. We place ourselves at the center of the drama of our life and world. We seek association of like minded others. We divide the world between what we want to get and what we want to eliminate. We move across the landscape of our lives to get what we want.

So the story fits our understanding of the shape of the world.

An ideal Buddhist, a Bodhisattva, has six things they need to do. These are the way they save beings and follow their path to Buddhahood. The six are generosity, ethical and moral conduct, not getting angry, joyful effort, meditation, and wisdom. The idea of joyful effort is at the heart of the success of the story. It is the engine that drives it forward.

These Bodhisattvas, like the characters in the story, do not sit passively on a pillow. They act. They act vigorously and they are into it.

That is “joyful effort.” It makes the story urgent and it makes our lives fulfilling and useful.

The social status of the character could be high or low. Henry V or Oliver Twist. Their sex life can range from Don Juan’s or Don Quixote’s. What matters to the story is their effort, and the urgency of their mission.

If you know that behind a door is a family held hostage, that negotiations have stopped and shots have been fired, as you hit the door with 20 of your closest friends, who have trained together for this moment and moments like it for months or years, who you know you can depend on, who know they can depend on you, in the knowledge that your cause is just and that lives depend on your skill and determination, then you will have a feeling of having a life that matters. Because it does.

If you hold in your arms someone who is dying, who has been sick for a long time, who has no one close to them, who smells bad, and they look up at you with a question, a question of why are you being kind to me, you can have that feeling too. It will be real.

There are no limits to the ways to achieve this or the number of us who can do it.

At a karate training this week with hundreds of people from around the world coming together to see old friends and to get new knowledge and to share their lives of training with each other you could see in the movement and the faces of the people their urgency and sincerity in practice. There were nurses and teachers there, and cops and military people, and people from all walks of life who were aiming their lives.

Some, maybe all, would put their effort and skill into the service of the people they would come in contact with in the months and years ahead. They might pull someone from a burning car, or inspire a student to work hard and succeed, have the vision to lead their company well, or to make good choices when the people around them need a peer to be a leader.

The opportunity to take skillful, risky action on behalf of other people moves us to a higher way of life. That is what makes it “an honor” to serve. That is not just a figure of speech or a boast. Making joyful effort as a bodhisattva or a public servant or a citizen, professional or family member, is what honor is.

To deprive people of this opportunity disables them, harms society and prevents us from fulfilling what is our deepest, most noble and most human aspiration.

When public policy is set to deprive working people of the value of their work and redistribute it to non working financiers or lifetime public assistance recipients then the humanity of all the people involved is reduced.

When public policy makes effort seem useless or equal to no effort, when skill is degraded and equal to lack of skill, when a mature ethic of self reliance and public service is denigrated and an infantile impulse to complain is rewarded, when honest people are prevented from acting in self defense and predators’ rights are privileged then we have a waste of human capital that exceeds whatever number we pick to estimate our national debt.

This circumstance places us right at the center of the story of our own life. If this is the inhospitable terrain in which we find ourselves, let’s move across it boldly and skillfully. Let’s join together with a few friends, or a few hundred, or a few million and get where we need to go, save who we need to save, never forget the urgency of our mission and never look back.

Jeff Brooks has taught martial arts and Zen for many years. He studied in the US and on Okinawa. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as firearms instructor and defensive tactics instructor, and in criminal investigations.  He can be reached at  mountainkarate@gmail. com.

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