Archive for October, 2011

That Undiscovered Country

That Undiscovered Country

By Jeffrey Brooks

“…To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream

ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death

what dreams may come…”

Most of us assume that we are our body and mind, and we assume and that our body and mind are material. That is what we are taught.

My high school biology teacher shared a fact with us, a fact I heard repeated many times when I was young: that all we are is 95 cents worth of chemicals.

Speak for yourself, I told him, in my 14 year old imagination.

If we believe we will simply go out of existence as the breath leaves our body and our mental activity subsides then what constraint on our behavior is there when we are alive? One can be decent or one can be corrupt and it all comes to nothing in the end. If my biology teacher believed what he told us young impressionable kids then he would be living his life for nothing much.

If you believe in the conservation of energy and the conservation of matter it is not a stretch to believe in the conservation of mind. That our minds are caused by the previous instant of our mind, not by brain chemistry or cells, and that while our bodies return to dust our minds stream on.

According to Buddhism the most important determinant of our next rebirth is the quality of our minds at the time of our physical death in this life. Next most important are the mental habits we form over our lifetime.

A materialist may deny this. He or she may yell and scream, eat, giggle and mate, sleep and crave and croak, but whatever they do they will do it while inhabiting an inexplicable nonsensical universe, a world of chance and injustice. Which is probably about as well as 95 cents worth of chemicals can do.

But what if everything matters? What if the things you value form your world? What if the mental habits you develop shape the life you are living now, touch the lives of the people all around you, and echo on for good or bad for all time?

Then you would use each moment well. Then kindness and courage would matter. There would be a reason to be honest and strong, to take care of others not just serve yourself, to choose not to participate in the cons and rackets all around you but to find a noble path to walk through life.

Then the quality of your life would be beautiful and admirable and something worth living.

The great Buddhist master Atisha was making the long trip from India to Tibet on horseback a thousand years ago. With good weather it could take months but he could not depend on good weather crossing the Himalayas.

Atisha was a great teacher when set out to revive Buddhism in Tibet, and he had many attendants, students and monks travelling with him. Atisha was a great practitioner as well as a great teacher and any time a mental disturbance would arise in his mind he would dismount, kneel on the ground and perform a brief ritual.

He was scrupulous in his mental awareness and made sure to settle his mind and remove the disturbance – the desire, anger or misunderstanding – that clouded his mind. He knew very well that each harmful thought that would arise, a result of infinite negative habits and mental disturbance, would plant a seed in his mind which would blossom and inevitably cause suffering in the future, and would increase in magnitude, unless it was completely eradicated.

He was able to do this karmic purification because he noticed the condition of his mind, he knew the difference between helpful and harmful mental states, and he was able to create a good mental habit to replace the harmful one.

Even though his retinue really wanted to get where they were going, warm up and have some tea, Atisha was the boss and if he was stopping every 30 feet on the road to Lhasa to do his prostrations and repentance then that’s the way it goes. But little by little, as the months passed, they began to pay a little more attention to the quality of their own minds. And understand how serious the consequences were if they left their minds uncultivated.

When I was in police academy training I aspired to be someone who could be of help in an emergency. I wanted to be sure I could do it well. At the beginning I did not have the skills to do it well. No one does. That is why they have academy training. The training makes demands on you which require you to change. The training makes physical demands on your body, so you get stronger and faster. It requires you to study, to memorize, to know the law and the rules and the procedures to follow, to perform skillfully and make good decisions under pressure.

The training requires you to learn that you can do more together than you can alone. Some of these lessons are easy for some and difficult for others, but everyone needs to learn them all to be effective and to pass the academy and to play the role you wanted when you started. Not everyone succeeds. With good instructors the sincere and able ones do.

My class had been on the firing range since 6 in the morning. It was an outdoor range and this was mid-February, with snow knee deep on the ground. We shot all day. Pistols, rifles, and shot guns. We stood and shot, kneeled and shot, proned out in the snow and shot, ran from barricade to barricade, drilled, reloaded, moved, and did it all again and again. We had limited days on the range and now, after 13 hours in the cold we were just about wrapping up training for the day.

If the Himalayas are colder than this, or have more snow or heavier winds than we had then those people must dress for it. Because we pretty well froze once the sun went down.

Dozens of boots moving up and down the courses of fire all day pounded the snow into a hard gray slush with thousands of rounds of brass shell casings embedded in it. The head instructor, who had our careers in his hands, who we respected for his skill and leadership, who could split a blade of grass with a rifle at a hundred yards using iron sights, who had seen it all and done it all himself over the course of his career, said “Okay, pick up the brass and let’s get out of here.”

We began. You have to pick up the brass after every time at the range. It’s always done. Because its cleaner, safer for the next shooters, and you can recycle it.

But this late, this cold, this tired, no one was thinking about it. Fingers were frozen but you couldn’t really grab the cartridges out of the snow with gloves on. There was less enthusiasm for the job than there might have been. People ambled around with their buckets, stooping now and then…

One of the guys, a little older than most, someone with experience, looked around at these young guys half heartedly filled their buckets with snow and brass and looked at me with an expression that said “There is a better way to do this.”

It might not seem that you could communicate that with an expression but we had worked together many times before and I knew what he meant immediately.

He set his bucket down by his left foot. He knelt down on both knees. He dug into the snow with both hands, and plucked out a frozen metal cylinder. He did it again and again. He cleared a few inches. A few feet. He moved his bucket over and did not look up. He continued.

He was not trying to take it easy, or get away as soon as possible. He was going to use this moment. He would do this like he would do any tedious job that was required of him.

He knew that if you are collecting evidence at a crime scene you need to be meticulous. If you are conducting an interview with a suspect, or canvassing a neighborhood, or searching a database it can take a long time and you have to pay attention the whole time. Because that is what it takes to do what we are asked to do every day. There are no shortcuts. Doing it right is the shortcut.

One of the guys saw him kneeling in the snow, bent over like that and asked him “What are you doing?”

The guy said “I am going to stay here as long as I need to to get this done.”

And everyone knew everyone was staying as long as it took to get it done. And all the half hearted efforts, all the guys who would stoop down and grab a cartridge and place it into the bucket and shuffle here or there, one by one, staked out a square of ground and kneeled in the snow and got it done.

If we are going to be of real service we need to be that meticulous. With our work. With our practice. With our lives.

If you are not paying attention to what really matters you will end up as 95 cents worth of chemicals.

Jeff Brooks has taught martial arts and Buddhism 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.


Friday Flowers

Friday Flowers

by Susan Downing

Friday, October 21

You may recall my earlier blogs about Northfield, Minnesota, in which I have described the joy that pervades that town and Carleton College within it and the prairie and farmland around it.  Well, this week’s post adds another chapter to my Minnesota tales, this one about a blossoming of a different type than that of the flowers I saw on the prairie there last month.

This is my daughter Emily’s first year at Carleton, and this morning, when she goes to her mailbox at the student center, she’ll find a small bouquet of flowers sticking out of it.  No, I didn’t manage to sneak out to Carleton and put them there.  Neither did the dozens of other parents whose children also found their boxes bedecked with flowers.  That was the handiwork of Judy, the owner of Judy’s Flowers in Northfield.

It turns out that there’s a tradition at Carleton (which I found out about on a parent email forum): every Friday morning, a local florist comes and sets up shop in the student center.  All day, students can buy flowers – bouquets or single stems – and surprise others with them, traditionally, by putting them in their mailboxes, with the blossom end of the bouquets facing outward. And parents can call up Judy and order a bouquet for their son or daughter. Here’s a photo of what the rows of mailboxes look like on a typical Friday:

Friday Flowers

This tradition works so well only because the student mailboxes at Carleton click closed, but do not lock. This seems so consistent to me with the whole atmosphere at the college.  In so much of the rest of the country, colleges wouldn’t think of having non-locking student mailboxes.  Locks keeps people from stealing things from each other.  But they also keep people from spontaneously and sometimes anonymously leaving each other surprises.

Em’s dad and I appreciate it so much that Carleton makes it so easy for us to brighten her day in this way.  I was also amazed to learn that the college contracts with two florists during the year – one comes for the first half of the year, the second for the second half. It seemed like such an unusual, but marvelous, way to arrange it: that way, instead of feeling they are competing, both florists get a lot of business and build a clientele.  And I could tell just from talking with Judy on the phone that she really enjoys being able to bring happiness to the students in this way.  The first time I called to order a bouquet, she told me what flowers she’d include, and then said, “I put the bouquet in the box and decorate it really nicely.  The flowers’ll be in there for her by 8 o’clock!”  And I did not even need to tell her Em’s mailbox number.  “We just check the list at the student center,” Judy told me.  Unbelievable.

Not surprisingly, Em was so happy with her flowers! And we continue to order bouquets, not every week, but often.  The first time I sent them, I wondered whether the kids who don’t find flowers in their mailboxes on any given Friday feel left out.  Then it occurred to me that the whole Friday Flowers tradition seems designed to bring joy to everyone, because even those whose boxes don’t bear flowers see the beautiful sight of bouquets in others’, and catch the blossoms’ scent. And so, no one who goes to pick up mail on Friday, or who even walks by that part of the student center, is left out.  That is so consistent with how they do things at Carleton.  They are a genuine community, sincerely concerned about building connections and bonds.  Friday Flowers is just one way they do this.

I got to thinking, then, how happy it makes me to think that when Em finds the flowers in her box today, she’ll not only be reminded of her dad and me and how much we love her.  She’ll carry that happiness with her in her heart throughout the day, and she’ll also carry that bouquet with her, and share its beauty and sweet scent with everyone around her.  And dozens – hundreds? – of other students will do the same.  And in this way a very natural and sincere sharing of beauty and joy brings together everyone who sees or receives or smells those flowers.

Not that the flowers create the bond between the students and everyone else at Carleton.  They are just a physical blossoming of the genuine warmth the people there feel for each other, of their concern for the other people who share their campus.  I find this Carleton tradition so inspiring – this simple act of shared beauty affirms people’s connection to each other. Friday Flowers is also a reminder of how powerfully and positively our simplest actions, when motivated by sincere affection, can affect not just the people to whom we make these sincere offerings, but everyone around them, too.  And I can tell you that this tradition is by no means limited to Carleton – I have my very own local Judy, a friend who, a couple of weeks ago, brought me a gorgeous bouquet of roses as thanks for a Reiki session. I put them in a vase in my living room, and every single person who came into my house during the time they were there commented on their beauty. I have no doubt that they felt this East Coast Judy’s kindness as they admired those flowers.

So, I’ll end by noting that we can all come up with our own version of Friday Flowers, whether it’s on Friday or another day, and whether it’s with actual flowers, or heartfelt words or loving thoughts, or small acts that will bring joy to those around us and help happiness blossom and burst forth like those bouquets that seem to have grown right out of the mailboxes at Carleton.


All the Rage

All the Rage

by Jeffrey Brooks

For him it was a river of doom. Not for me. For me it was a long driveway to a small trailer up a hill where his mom lived.  There were two places he would be. The other one had already been checked out.

It was a long driveway. We just rolled in slow about halfway up, lights out, and stopped under a huge poplar. Shut the engine and listened. Watched the lights in the trailer. Watched the shadows and grass. Opened the doors and stepped out into the evening air.

If this was where he came to it would have looked different to him than it ever looked before. It wasn’t a homecoming this time. It was goodbye.

We stayed still in the shadow of the tree and we watched and listened. Crickets.

Years ago I spent a few weeks in the desert, shooting all day every day. Every environment, dark and light, buildings and fields, roads and rooftops, smoke and strobes, a hundred scenarios, searching, running, waiting, hunting, driving. You could feel your skills really peaking by the end of the school. The lead instructor thanked us and commended us. Then he said but you know sometimes there’s a sniper on the roof and it’s not your lucky day.

I watched the roof.

There are special ways to knock on the door of a trailer at a time like this, because it’s easy to shoot through the walls from inside.

The door opened. It was mom. Her face tightened up when she saw it was us but she was pleasant and polite and invited us in. We asked if her son was there. She said no, she hadn’t seen him. Her hands were pressed together and she looked tense like she’d been through this before. Beneath her feet her grandson played, zooming his fire truck around under the kitchen table. He looked up at us, made sure we were looking at him, turned the little red light on top of the fire truck on, and zoomed his truck a little faster than before.

On the TV and on our radios there was news of people screaming at each other. Making demands, threats, and accusations. They were grimacing, mocking, sneering and clubbing each other for money and delight. Or sitting at home or sitting in traffic wondering what it was all about.

People like us drove through this maze of ugliness and greed every night and marked off the pools of blood and pieces of evidence, photographed the wounds, listed the missing items, interviewed the victims, found the witnesses, and identified the suspects who we held until they were released.

Thugs and bands of thugs attacked innocent people who were mystified and nauseated by their unexpected misfortune. They could hardly believe it was really happening to them even when the punches sent them reeling and the found themselves suddenly lying on the dirty ground. But, except in scale, how much different was it from the exploits of some of the so called great conquerors of history who swept across continents, rode from town to peaceful town, and killed and smashed and stole and laughed at the misery of their victims, victims who wondered what madness, what cruelty, would drive people who lacked nothing, to do such evil to them.

Stopping that is why we have a military and stopping thugs from preying on the innocent is why we have the cops.

But grandmom saw us differently. She saw us as people who could set her son free. Because, she explained, he was a good boy. He really was, she said.

He really wasn’t, from what we knew. We saw him on video at a convenience store being not good at all.

She thought back about how he used to be when he was the age of the little grandson under the table and what he liked, what foods and what toys, and what he talked about to her sometimes, not so long ago. She told us about him as if it was our decision, as if, if she could just get us to see him as she did, that we would understand, that we would just disappear back into the evening and the setting sun, leaving no trace, leaving everything like it used to be. The dust would settle on the driveway as we drove away, leaving her and her family in peace.

She was about 5 seconds into her story. We asked if we could just take a look around to be sure he wasn’t there.

When we heard footsteps on the porch we had only a second to turn to the door. It snapped opened and the doorway filled with a big fat red faced guy who was breathing hard. It was the uncle of the guy we were looking for.

He looked like he told himself he was a big man but he moved like a cat; like he told himself he looked strong and tough. He looked irritated and unhappy and uncomfortable and his face was contracted like he was at the end of his rope, like he was about to have a stroke. He shouted “Get out! “

“Sir, we are looking for…”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“An arrest warrant was issued…”

“No search warrant?” His eyes showed satisfaction in playing what he believed was his trump card. “Get out!…”

He said it as a threat, and he stood in the one narrow doorway, blocking our way. This kind of intimidation must have worked for him in the past, as he seemed accustomed to using it.

The little grandson hugged his fire truck and hid behind his granny, as far back as he could get. She looked down and froze.

Someone out there somewhere keyed a mic and we heard on our radios that the suspect we were looking for was spotted hiding in a field; the radios just barely audible while this guy was shouting.

He screamed at us and blocked the door. He let loose with a stream of hate that would blister your skin if you would be a target for it. I wasn’t. It blew by. But he went for it. Hated cops and hated all the people who tried to push him around…

I don’t know who he was talking to but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my partner either. He didn’t see us like we saw ourselves. He didn’t know a thing about either of us. He didn’t see us like the woman or the little boy saw us. Or like our co-workers, friends, family or anybody who knew us saw us. Not that they’d all agree either. But still…

The radio updated the status of the search of the field down the road.

We were done here. I communicated to Mr. Big that he needed to move out of our way and he did.

Everyone has their own impression of who it is they are speaking to: some of that impression comes from their own imagination and some of it comes from out there in the world in front of them.

People speak to each other as if they know each other but they often get it wrong. It’s no different for cops than it is for anyone else. Some assume we are heroes, some think we are villains, some see blue collar, some see buddies, some see rednecks, some see crooks, some think we are professionals, gunfighters and race car drivers, some think we are over worked and underpaid, and some think we hang out all day. You run into any or all of that every day and it changes from moment to moment. It takes some time to learn to spot who it is the person you are speaking to thinks they are speaking to. And that is a useful skill to have.

I knew a man who lived not far from here who came here from Tibet. There he had a large house and livestock. Here he rented a little room and worked bagging groceries at the supermarket. He would smile to each customer and gently and thoughtfully pack up their groceries in their bags.

Over the years his gentle smile faded. Under the harsh lights of the store, the repetition, the dullness of the work, the cold responses he got from the people he shepherded through his line, people who thought this kindness was an embarrassment or an intrusion or unsophisticated or simple minded, his gentleness and warmth disappeared. After a few years he looked as flat and businesslike as everyone else in his line. It was a sad sight to me. But little by little, after a while, his small polite smile returned.

Where he came from most of the people were poor. There was a lot of open land there. And you were always in the presence of the magnificent sky. He had learned how to be happy. Literally, there is a way to do it. Other people cannot make you happy. But you can do it. Through acting kindly. Through taking rudeness or even harsh treatment as an opportunity not to bust a cap in someone’s head, but to develop patience and equanimity – useful in facing the difficulties of life and death, and essential as a foundation for deeper practice.

What a wonderful opportunity he had at the supermarket to practice this, he decided. But not so many people appreciated what he was doing. He did not have a village or countryside full of people who understood the difficulty of what he was attempting and who admired the effort.

If you live in Manitoba it goes without saying that Canadians support and admire hockey. In the same way Tibetans support and admire Buddhist practitioners. While not every Canadian grows up to play pro hockey a lot of them get very good. And for many Tibetans the training and support they get in the art of happiness, the art of being a true human being, shows in their manner and in the results of their practice.

I wondered how that guy in the doorway found himself so angry, sad and separate from the world. What was the path? His wife wouldn’t speak in his presence, his grandson was terrified of him, his son was out threatening strangers in stores with murder for small change, he had a dozen disputes with his neighbors on the road over the years, and now the whole world around him seem to be arrayed against him and, he felt, they were closing in for the kill.

The wind stirred the leaves of the poplar tree and the crickets picked up steam. Out in the field half a mile from where we were we could see flashes of light in the corn. We quickly headed that way.

How did the transplanted Tibetan manage years of tender kindness to cold faced strangers? What drained it, and how did he manage to recover? Not by camping out in a public park, taunting the cops and demanding that strangers support him. Not by envying the wealthy or manipulating the resentment of the dependent or the poor, or forcing others by threats or intimidation to submit to his will. Not by assuming that happiness could be conferred upon him by someone else.

I can tell you the life paths of this Tibetan clerk and the uncle in the doorway began before they came into the world. We can assume that feeling distinct from the rest of the world is our mental habit from the beginning of time.

That separation happens in this life according to a common pattern that both of these men, and you and I, followed. But we build on our emergence as a separate person in very different ways, as we move through life.

The process starts as the infant recognizes that it is not the same as its mother. It felt like it was the same as its mother at one time, but instantly, after the physical separation, the infant has feelings of pleasant- or unpleasantness. Then it recognizes liked and disliked objects. Then it has spontaneous responses to those objects – it likes some and dislikes others – and it responds to those feelings with physical actions and vocalizations. At that point the infant, everyone at the start, including the checkout guy and the doorway guy, then senses that likes may be provided and dislikes may be withdrawn in connection with those actions. In other words mom will respond one way to crying and another way to smiling. And her behavior will teach the infant to use willed actions, not just spontaneous responses, to get her to provide what it likes and remove what it dislikes. Pretty soon the infant will learn to use willed vocalizations to symbolize and express desires: that is, the infant will learn to speak.

The sequence of the recognition of the distinction between self and other, that is the production of the unconscious mental habit of a belief in independent existence of objects and subjects, begins with the recognition of separate form or ontological identity (being physically and personally distinct from mom), proceeds to the recognition of separate knowledge set or epistemological identity (knowing and feeling things mom does not know), and continues to labeling, that is, a separate linguistic identity (I can reach across the gulf of separation between myself and others by using language.)

This labeling causes a bridge to form, at first between mother and child and then between one’s self and other people, constructed from expressive language. This development begins as an attempt to close the epistemological gap by informing the mother about the infant’s affective state. This is how the recognition of self and other forms. Then as we get older we differentiate more completely, creating a rich identity filled with special characteristics and boundaries.

Then we either reinforce the separation or reach across the gulf and connect with others. That depends on training.

For immature people, when language and gestures fail to bring happiness in from the outside world, the result is frustration, anger, and separation.

People who develop in a healthy way learn the methods by which we can mature and become happy. We can recognize the impermanence of things – our feelings, our sensations, our relationships – and by understanding impermanence and the mental disturbance that comes from attempting to attach our happiness to impermanent things, by understanding that in fact happiness comes from taking care of others, we can recognize that we are not separate after all.

Instead of making demands on the world we take care of it. Then we can proceed.

Unlike an infant, we need not be occupied by trying to get the world to serve us. We need not be preoccupied by trying to recover the sensation of the human womb from which we emerged.

Instead we are moved to reunion with what is called “the womb of Buddhas,” that is acquiring the understanding of prajna paramita or transcendent wisdom, from which we are really never separated, with which we are reunited, and as which we exist throughout all space and time.

That makes you happy. And it makes the people around you happy. Reinforcing the habit of isolation makes you unhappy and leads to death.

Crickets may feel flickers of happiness from moment to moment. I can’t tell. But they and other animals do not have the power to learn how to complete the path to happiness. People do.

All we need to do is have a chance to learn what to do and then do it. You don’t have to be a shepherd or a saint to do this. You can stay in a small house with your family and do it.

(Some details of the above events have been changed.)

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.


Patience Attains the Goal

Patience Attains the Goal

by Susan Downing

I had coffee this week with an old friend.  We’ve known each other for years, since our kids were little, and both of our families have weathered various ups and downs.  Luckily, we haven’t ever gone through rough times simultaneously, which means we’ve been able to be a support for each other.  The closest we came to joint hard times was that both of our mothers died within a few months of each other three years ago. But the fact that the deaths were so close together actually helped us – we were able to be better friends for each other, I think, because we each had an idea of what the other was feeling.  And it turns out that my friend – I’ll call her Terry- is now going through another difficult time, facing a loss of a different type:  her husband recently learned that his company is downsizing and he’ll lose the job he’s worked at for nearly all of his adult life.

While of course the loss has great financial implications for the family, even though Terry has a good job, what’s happening is about more than money. When I lost my college teaching job to downsizing, how it felt to me was about a lot more than finances, and I know it is for Terry, too.  It’s about having the vision of how you imagined you’d be living your life at this age suddenly upended, so that you’re left gasping for air.  It’s about feeling that your identity and your value and worth have been called into question.  Everything that you felt was solid and secure and predictable and reliable now seems unstable and in danger of crashing.

How do you respond when you come face to face with this kind of situation?  Do you panic and fall to pieces, or do you somehow manage to hold on and move through the crisis with some degree of presence of mind or calm?  The answer to that question has everything to do with how you’ve been living your life in the days, months and years leading up to the unexpected crash.  Terry and her husband, while I don’t think they’d describe themselves as religious, both have a spiritual practice that they have engaged in with varying degrees of intensity in recent years.  They both meditate – sometimes more often, sometimes less – and both find value and solace and inspiration in reading and reflecting on spiritual writings from a variety of traditions.  Somehow they are able to find a thread that guides them in their lives.  So, I was not surprised when Terry told me that she’d started going to church again when her husband learned his job was being cut.

What did she hope to find there?  She explained that when they first found out about the downsizing, she was really, really angry.  But she didn’t go to church to ask God to get her husband his job back.  She laughed when she told me that. She knew that wouldn’t work.  ”I went,” she explained, “because I didn’t want to turn into an angry, bitter old woman.”  Going to church, listening to the homily, reflecting on its meaning, meditating more frequently – these are tools she already knew how to use, tools she knew she could use so she’d have a shot at moving through this hard time without totally freaking out and filling her own mind and heart with poison.  Her husband is using the same approach.  It was an inspiration to hear her talk about all of this. And not because she is a saint.  She will be the first to tell you that none of this comes easily to her.  She knows her own potential for being overcome by anger and bitterness. But she also knows how much these feelings can harm her and those she loves, and she made a conscious decision not to let this happen now, not to be destroyed by these emotions.  What I heard in her words was her commitment – and her husband’s, too – to using their spiritual tools so that they can weather these troubles together, as a team, rather than be torn apart by tension and anger seething beneath the surface or recklessly tossed out against each other.

And they will be able to do this – they already are – only because when life was not overwhelming, they devoted the time and effort to developing the skills that are now helping them remain focused and calmer than they’d otherwise be.  Even though they both may have originally begun meditating or reflecting because past difficulties threw them off balance and they were looking for a way to do better the next time around, the point is that now it’s the next time around, and they are ready because they have a practice already in place.  Not that it is a cake walk, but at least they both knew what to do when they got the bad news. And they’re doing it.

Not all of us will lose a job, but all of us will have the rug pulled out from under us in some way, even if it is only at the very end of a long, happy life. So we all need to develop a way to prepare ourselves to make it through whatever comes our way.   I mentioned that Terry has put time into reading and reflecting on spiritual works.  I know that one of her favorite passages is this:

Let nothing upset you;
Let nothing frighten you.
Everything is changing;
God alone is changeless.
Patience attains the goal.
Who has God lacks nothing;
God alone fills every need.

These lines were written by Saint Teresa of Avila. Now, Saint Teresa didn’t just sit and wait for things to happen.  She wrote in great detail about the role we all play in our own spiritual progress.  And she was no natural saint, either, judging from what she wrote in her autobiography about the hard work of mastering one’s emotions and calming one’s mind:

“It is my intellect and my imagination, I think, that are harming me here.  My will, I believe, is good, and well-disposed to all that is good.  But this intellect of mind is so wild that it seems like a raving lunatic. Nobody can hold it down, and I have not sufficient control over it myself to keep it quiet for a single moment. Sometimes I laugh at myself, and am aware of my wretched state. Then I observe my intellect, and let it alone, to see what it will do; and miraculously – glory be to God! – it never turns to things that are really wrong, only to indifferent matters, and casts around here, there, and everywhere, for something to think about. I then become more conscious of the very great favour that God bestows on me when he binds this madman to the chains of perfect contemplation.”

I’d imagine that all of us who set out to practice meditation or prayer or contemplation feel something akin to what Teresa writes here.  And still.  ”Patience attains the goal.”


The Buddha Game

The Buddha Game

by Jeffrey Brooks

The two story twelve-room motel was on a hill half a mile from the interstate, but at 2 in the morning you could still hear a whoosh from a semi going by now and then. It was kind of a nice sound, this guy thought as he laid on his bed in the corner of the room. Nice to hear people out there doing something, going on their way. Nice to be in here, dry and warm with nobody bothering you in the middle of the night. His brother and sister sleeping in the next room, she got pregnant, they would take care of each other, doing whatever, this and that, you know. That’s what he would say to people if they asked what he did. This and that, you know. It was not a precise evasion, as if he was thinking of something specific and trying to hide it. He could work. He would work and for a while he worked, a while back. His brother had disability because he was shot during a burglary and couldn’t work anymore. His brother broke into this old farmer’s house one night when he was 17 and was looking around when the old guy shot him. He was lucky. He lived. It depends on your idea of luck but he was very positive about the outcome. He would tell you he felt lucky. And after he got out of jail he got on disability because he never could walk right after that shooting. That was in another state. Now the three of them lived the kind of life that would not work without a government subsidy, but they had one so they were okay. Okay. He was drifting off to sleep, looking out at the clouds when he heard a tapping at the motel room door. Maybe it was next door. The knocking kept up. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. It wasn’t next door. He took the 14” bowie knife from under his pillow, held it tight against his thigh, and answered the door.

He recognized the guy out there right away. He was there yesterday too. It was a skinny haunted looking guy in glasses standing there in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, looking in through the crack in the door like he was a plumber answering a midnight call from some clueless nitwit who couldn’t find a plunger. He had a look of purpose, and polite, barely concealed, irritation.

He said, “Can you help me out?” The smell from inside the room flowed out to him: old laundry, indoor cat, and weed.

The guy inside, in his underwear and T-shirt, with tired eyes thought, “This fool is showing up here in the middle of the night attracting attention.” He said, “What do you need?”

The guy outside pulled three ten dollar bills from his shirt pocket, pinned them between two fingers and handed them in through the door. He handed a little bag back out to the guy outside and closed the door.

The haunted guy in glasses was happy.  He didn’t look happy. He didn’t show anything. Just calm composure. Or that’s what he felt like he looked like.  Inside he was roaring out of control. Ready to scream. Ready to cry. Ready to dance into the sky. But he would wait. He had control. He would not eat one now. He would get home, cook up and find a good vein.

The door of his little truck was rusted along the frame and it squealed and clunked as he closed it. The truck runs just fine just fine, he said to himself. He started it up and with a throaty little roar headed slowly out of the motel lot and onto the main road home. Not speeding, not breaking any laws, not attracting any attention.

Except for our attention. We saw the exchange at the door.

We knew the place.  We pulled out behind him and followed his little rusted truck for a while in our new clean black unmarked car. He glanced in his rear view mirror and checked his speed and to himself he said “shit.”  We ran his license plate and confirmed that, yes, we knew him too.  We moved in closer and switched on the blue lights as he said to himself “fuck.”

He thought about how he wasn’t doing anything. Nothing. Especially compared to what he knew was going on out there.

We had him stopped on the side of the road near the bridge over the interstate. He had a license on him but it was an old one, you know, he just didn’t have time to renew it.  We asked him to step out of the car. Where he was coming from. What he was doing there. Why didn’t he know his friends names? Why was he visiting those friends for ten seconds and never going inside. If he minded if we took a look around inside. He said he had nothing to hide.

He thought he should be sitting inside his car. He should be sitting inside his house. He should not be underneath the monstrous sky at 2 in the morning standing still with the traffic rolling by on the interstate at 70 miles an hour, on their way, free to go, as if nothing was happening. He should be heading home. He was literally ten minutes from happiness. If that.

We asked him a few more questions. We had his dope. We had him in handcuffs.  He was under arrest.  He said, “This should not be illegal. I have my own money. I have the right to enjoy myself in the privacy of my own home. It’s my body and my life and my right to do what I want. This is bullshit. People have no freedom.”

As I am standing at the side of the road talking to a guy like this, I am also thinking about the limits of freedom. This guy did know a lot of people doing worse things than he was doing. While he was speeding along a downward arc and burning the investment society made in him, in his education, in his rehab, in his job placement, that his parents made in his body that they had looked after and bought things for, while he was squandering the blessings he could have offered as gifts of work or service for the benefit of other people, destroying day by day his own body, mind, life, dignity and hope for enlightenment, stealing and cheating wherever he could and then providing what little money he did get hold of to people who passed it on to the selfish, ignorant, lazy, clever and cruel, who passed it up the chain to tyrants. These tyrants think of themselves as businessmen. But they are not. Businessmen compete with each other by offering discount coupons or buy one get one free offers. Tyrants fill dump trucks with the heads of their competitors and dump them on a street. Not to compete but to communicate. To express what happens to someone who stands between them and what they want. Between them and what makes them happy.

His constricted mind understood his doping as his personal choice.  Like most libertarians, humanists, materialists, epicureans and sybarites he sees his choices as primarily a matter of personal freedom.

He really did know of many people doing way worse things than he was doing that night. He was sincere about that. And he would never share that information with us. Even if the information would protect innocent people from violation and violence. He didn’t withhold the information out of loyalty to the predators and thieves, or out of respect for them or fear of them, but because he was angry with us for standing in the way of his pleasure.

From the moment we are born our lives star us as we go in pursuit of what we want, what we think will make us happy.  We face obstacles. We get disturbed. And cleverly or stupidly we persist in our pursuit. Or we give up. That’s the way life stories go.

What is it we choose to pursue?

A great theme of human imagination, driving myths, literary narratives and the course of civilization has been the transformation of the fleeting delight of sexual desire or romantic love into the stable form of happy marriage. Marriage was for a lifetime. Family defined one’s place in the world, provided the way to survive, to pass knowledge and values from generation to generation, and was an atom of social harmony.

Now most marriages end, and many are conditional long before they do. From the beginning of time the next step on the path to adulthood was parenthood, but in the US nearly half of all children are conceived out of wedlock, or end their lives in abortion. Children who do get to live may naturally incline to independence and achievement, but many don’t find a way to follow through.

Here was one of them. No family. No education. No vision of how to be a man. He felt lost before he found his way to dope. He had a hard time staying with a job. The jobs were boring. He had conflicts with people. Living the drug life felt better. He would score and feel good. He knew what he was about. He knew who he could deal with. He knew what was up.

As he got older and his car rusted and the front seat filled with fast food wrappers and cigarette packs and the rear seat filled with scraps of metal, tools and knives, he followed his strategy. Get money. Get high. Crash.  And he had a philosophy to justify it and he shared his philosophy with me.

It’s hard to believe a human life can get so small.  Considering what we have to work with.

In game theory there is an idea called the dominant strategy. Life is like a game, not in the sense that it’s trivial, but in that it involves acts of will that are shaped by rules and directed toward goals.  We act continually, using our body, speech and mind to advance our position.  Pursuing what we choose to pursue.

In each moment we are making choices. And we act on those choices. Wisely or foolishly. Effectively or not, we face our obstacles and we find a means to proceed toward our objectives.

In some games players can find a dominant strategy. This is not the strategy that necessarily succeeds in defeating all the opponents every time; it is a strategy that has a better outcome than all the other strategies available to that player, given the rules of the game and the limits of the knowledge of the player.

In Buddhism our opponents are our mental disturbances – the anger, greed, jealousy and misunderstanding which distort our view and bring us suffering and death. Buddha was known as the Victor and as the Enemy Destroyer not because he defeated human enemies, but because he found the way to completely defeat his true enemies – these mental disturbances.

Buddhism is a practice.  It is the increasingly refined practice of three dimensions of human life: ethics, meditation and insight. The word practice derives from the Greek word praxis, which is literally translated as action. Action is the English word that also translates the Sanskrit word karma. Buddhism is what we do in order to fulfill our human potential, to follow the path the Buddha discovered and taught, and so become free of suffering.

Our dominant strategy at the beginning of Buddhist practice is to develop Bodhicitta. At any time, under any circumstance, when there is any question as to what to do, we default to our dominant strategy and develop sincere kindness and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of all other beings. Not a meek niceness, not a sentimental distant regard, but a real concern for everyone. This is something that needs to be cultivated, humbly and with energy, because it’s not so easy to do. This is the opposite of what a drug addict does. A drug addict is someone who acts only for their own immediate pleasure and rejects the interests of all others. Drug addicts all decline into misery. Bodhisattvas become free from suffering.

Cultivating Bodhicitta requires very skillful practice, because in the course of life there are times when compassionate concern may require command and vigor one moment, kindness and patience the next, and long periods of vigilance punctuated by sudden fury and followed by first aid.

We returned to the little hilltop motel later that morning and went back to the door we had been watching. We knocked. We let them know we had a search warrant and were going to come in.  A search warrant is a judge’s order directing law enforcement to conduct a search; the piece of paper tells the occupant that a judge has agreed that there is good reason to believe that crime is going on or that there is evidence of a crime inside and that it is in the public interest for the cops to check it out.

We knocked on the door and identified ourselves and waited, but the sky was dark and the bulb was gone from the light by the door and the guy inside gave way to a paranoid stream of imagination. I believe that this was the case, because it is unlikely, given his experience, that he would have burst through the door with that Bowie knife in his hand had he known it was us. A thief, a rival, a creditor, sure. But not us. Wouldn’t be prudent. And he knew that. With gun-lights and lasers dancing on his chest we illuminated his path back to reality. He changed his mind. The knife dropped to the floor.

The dominant strategy of Buddhism changes as you go deeper into practice.   From the cultivation of Bodhicitta, we shift the emphasis of our practice to the cultivation of insight into the nature of reality. True Bodhicitta provides us with the motive for the cultivation of insight. By cultivating a deep feeling of responsibility for saving all beings from suffering, we recognize that we need much more skill than we have as ordinary people. As ordinary people we can hardly save a few others from suffering, and then only for a little while. To save everyone we feel the utmost urgency to get to the point where we can really do it.

To really do it completely we need the depth of insight of a fully enlightened Buddha. There is no other way. And at some point we will begin to recognize that what we are seeing in the world around us – the suffering of beings, beings lost in ignorance, beings acting in a way that manufactures their own suffering and pulls their neighbors into it as well – is in a way a function of our own deep karma.  In this world we will be coming face to face with the reality of our own lives. A reality that is not separate from the reality of these infinite other beings we have vowed to save.

We recognize that without wisdom, without a true understanding of the nature of reality, a nature in which our own choices, our own actions, our own mind plays a pivotal role, there will be no end to suffering. By dedicating ourselves to putting an end to suffering for all beings, we then recognize the need for our own insight to be the focus of our practice.

This is a reason why the Buddha taught from multiple perspectives. This is the reason for the interpretive variety of the teachings of the Buddha. It is not that he changed his mind about a doctrine or revised his description of reality through the course of his career. It is not merely that he was tuning his teachings to the capacity of different students. But rather that for everyone, even people of the highest capacity, there is a need to change direction, change emphasis and change our hearts and minds as our practice matures.

In the first turning of the wheel of the dharma, the Buddha taught the four noble truths and taught the path of action – what to do and what to avoid – to put an end to suffering. The danger in this path is that it can lead the practitioner to lean too heavily on naïve realism. To address this, in the second turning of the wheel of the dharma, that is the second period of his teaching, the Buddha shifted his emphasis and focused on sunyatta – the emptiness of intrinsic existence of all beings and objects. This is a difficult subject to understand, and although some will, it is too easy for some practitioners to slip into the error of nihilism. In the third turning of the wheel of the dharma, to overcome both the nihilist habit and the realist habit, the Buddha gave practitioners a place to stand between the two extremes that was broader than the razor’s edge of the second turning. A much more secure foundation from which to deepen insight and practice the path of the Bodhisattva. Because most people do not reach Buddhahood even after a review of the full scope of the three turnings, we need to use these three different modes of teachings to modify and refine our understanding.  Just as a sailboat will tack into a head wind to go forward, adjusting the path of travel from time to time, but overall keeping a consistent heading, we as practitioners will note when we lean too far one way or the other and then use the teachings to correct our course and continue.

You cannot skip steps. If you skip over the cultivation of Bodhicitta and jump to some made up idea of wisdom, the likelihood of a good outcome is low.

Play the classic opening sequence, take the first steps on the path, take real refuge, cultivate good self control and build the foundation of Bodhicitta, and the dominant strategy will work. The strategy for the big game shifts from compassion to wisdom as the game develops, and the tactics shift from moment to moment as we become more vigilant in the recognition of our enemies and more agile in our response.

By practicing Buddhism in this way, we see that the game for lost and suffering beings plays out in miniscule fragments that are difficult for them to understand. While the bodhisattva’s game unfolds as seamless, continuous and infinite.

(The arrest described above occurred in the Northeast US some time ago. Details have been changed.)

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.