Archive for November, 2011

Vigilance

Vigilance

by Jeffrey Brooks

At first it seemed fine. The guy was going to come out of the door and we would make contact with him. No problem. Do it every day. There were only three ways out of the building and we had all of them covered. It was an office building. There were 50 to 100 people an hour going in and out of the building, except at 9 am and 5 pm. So we waited. And watched.

We did not know if he would come out of our door, or when. But he might come out any time. You couldn’t look away for more than a second. In a second he could disappear into the crowd on the street. And be gone.

This wasn’t the usual arrest. He was about to pull the trigger on a very big deal and many people would be hurt.

At first, watching that entrance was no problem. But unless you are trained to do this you will not be able to do it. People coming and going through an entrance are mostly very boring and your mind wants to wander away.

Some of the people coming and going are impossible not to watch. Your phone is on, it has to be, but you can’t look down to check it.

The world is swirling around you, your heart is beating, and your legs are cramped, and you have plenty of time to think, with a lifetime of dreams and regrets, fantasies and perplexities, and your mind would love to be absorbed by it all but you can’t let it. Not now. Not with what is at stake. So you keep your eyes on the door and your mind upon the deal.

You cannot pull off that level of vigilance just because you need it, just because you want to. No matter how sincere and motivated you are you have to train to do this.

Sitting in a meditation retreat in a cold mountain hut at first seemed not a problem. It was a great opportunity. After a few hours, more so after a few days, even in the pristine silence of the alpine slope, a world swirls around you.

Wind blows, water runs through the ravine, the wood stove crackles and then it cools and somehow a fly comes to life here in the dead of winter and performs swan lake in the rafters. Your heart is beating, and your legs are cramped, and you have time to think, with a lifetime of dreams and regrets, fantasies and perplexities.  Your mind would love to be absorbed by it all but you can’t. Not now. Not with what is at stake.

To get your mind to settle down is just the beginning. After a few days you are ready to begin to probe the quality of your mind. There is no way you can do this just because you want to. Just because you are persuaded that it is a good idea; even if you are persuaded that it is essential, you have to train to do this. You have to prepare.

I had memorized the face of the bomber we were looking for. His threats were real. He had the capability to do what he threatened to do. I looked at the images of his face again and again. A lot of people look sort of like him. But not exactly. I wondered if I would recognize him when I saw him.

It is possible to shoot a missile out of the sky from a thousand miles away. And the lead time may even be long enough to get a second shot. But if a thousand missiles are heading your way it’s a different story. You can’t afford to miss even one. You have to stop all of them or your city is cooked.

Master Shantideva wrote the classic “Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life” when he lived at Nalanda University in India 1300 years ago. 90% of it is about self restraint and ethics. And about practicing them, so you get better at them. That requires understanding of what to do and how to do it. But it also requires motivation. He explains in that book that if you were asked to walk across a room with a bowl filled with oil you would probably spill a few drops on the way. But if someone put a knife to your throat and told you not to spill a drop or you would be killed, then you would pay very careful attention to what you were doing, and by trying really hard you could get across the room without spilling a drop.

His point was not about being able to carry full bowls of oil. His point was that if you are motivated by urgency you will perform at a higher level and your ability will increase as you train. The urgency to succeed in the practice of ethical conduct and deep meditation and the insight that results comes from an understanding that you will be able to put an end to suffering for yourself and others. If you fail to achieve that in this life then, as you will learn, you will spend endless eons helpless in torment. If you are convinced of this then you will work very hard to be a spiritual hero.

In the ancient Indian Buddhist vow system that was taught at Nalanda in those days practitioners were advised, among many other things, not to destroy cities. That was included on the list of prohibited conduct, along with not killing, not stealing, not lying, etc. – conduct that was understood to cause misery for the person who does it as well as the victims of it – because many of the students of Buddhism in those days were high status people who had the power, if they wished to, to destroy cities. Or they were monks who were representatives and teachers of those powerful leaders.

Then, as now, there were many people who believed that it was good to destroy cities and kill all the inhabitants.

A contemporary example of this belief being the guy I was watching for at the side door of the office building.

And as I watched for him I saw so many people go by. Some were dull and some were beautiful. There were happy and sad ones, arrogant and humble, wealthy and broke, some were looking forward to a long and adventurous life, and some who looked like they’d had it.

And not one of those people deserved to be hurt for no reason. Not one of them, however you feel about their race or class or gender, deserves to be incinerated in thunder and heat, or torn from their family before they are ready, before they have made their peace, before they have said goodbye, before they have done what they needed to do in this world with the one short life they have, before they had their chance to go on their long mountain retreat and finally do go deep deep deep into their heart and mind and see the nature of reality for what it is and free themselves from suffering forever and maybe teach you and me how to do it too.

So I really watched for that guy. All day. I watched every face that came out of that door, hour after hour, long after it seemed fine, even when it was hard to do, and I made sure all the people in that city who never knew what they faced got the chance to go home, that day.

(Details in this police incident have been changed.)

Jeff Brooks has been teaching Buddhism and martial arts for more than 20 years. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a police instructor of firearms, defensive tactics, anti-terrorism and use of force; and in criminal investigations.

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Woman! That is Not a Squash!

Woman! That is Not a Squash!

by Susan Downing

A friend and I were talking the other day about the Thanksgiving dinners of our childhood, and I noted that card tables and folding chairs feature prominently in my memory of those family gatherings. But card tables played no role whatsoever in what is my most memorable Thanksgiving dinner to date – the one I cooked in Moscow in 2003.

That year I took a study group of 14 college students, plus my own two children, to Russia.  By the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we’d already been there almost four months, and everyone had settled in well to life in the capital: the students with their host families, my kids and I in our own cozy apartment.   Even so, I knew it might be a little bleak for everyone to spend the holiday away from their real families – especially since this is one that Russians don’t celebrate! – so I resolved to put on a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for everyone in the group.  This despite the fact that, not a single item usually found on a Thanksgiving menu is commonly found in Russian stores, aside from potatoes and, if you’re lucky, cranberries.  But if our time in Russia had taught us anything, it was perseverance and undiminished belief in the possibility of a good outcome, despite all indications to the contrary.

So, I began strategizing early to find the necessary ingredients, both in my neighborhood shops and in the three Western-style grocery stores I’d occasionally frequent, such as Seventh Continent.  Even though the latter boasted an impressive meat department, I knew I would not find a poultry case bursting with frozen 20-lb. turkeys.  When I stopped in one day and asked whether they carried turkeys, they said, oh, yes, we have German turkeys.  Well, close enough, I decided, so the Sunday before Thanksgiving, I went over there and bought three – you see, they were the size of our average roasting chickens.  But still, they were actual turkeys, and that’s what counted.

In the course of a series of other shopping trips I gathered nearly all of the remaining necessary ingredients.  Cranberries were discovered without too much trouble, plus onions and celery and white bread for stuffing.  I even found everything for a jello salad.  That was a real coup: it was important to me to make that, because my mother always made one for Thanksgiving, and I knew my kids would love it.  Potatoes – those were readily available at the outdoor vegetable kiosk on our street corner.  But really, aside from the turkeys, what I was most worried about was making pumpkin pies.  No canned Libby’s pumpkin in Moscow, I’m afraid, and I did not hold out much hope of finding an actual pumpkin to cook and puree.  We hadn’t seen any for sale at Halloween time, so I had steeled myself for the eventuality of making do with some variety of winter squash, if I could even find that.  But again, perseverance.  There would be a pumpkin-like pie.

So, just a few days before Thanksgiving, I was surveying the offerings at our vegetable kiosk and saw something that resembled a large greenish-yellow winter squash, although of a variety I didn’t recognize.  It would have to do.  I asked the saleswoman, “How much for that squash?”  She drew herself up tall and frowned at me, tipped her head from side to side as she chided me: “Woman!  That is not a squash!  It’s a pumpkin!”  She must have been surprised by how overjoyed I was at her correction and by how joyfully I paid for it.  As soon as I walked into our apartment, I proudly displayed the non-squash and told the story of its triumphant purchase to my overjoyed children.

The details of the actual preparation and serving of the dinner are a blur to me now.  How did we cook three German mini-turkeys with stuffing in an oven the size of a small baking sheet? Somehow.  How did we make pumpkin pies in a country with no pie culture?  Somehow – luckily, I’d brought disposable pie tins with me from Massachusetts! I even had plenty of cream for whipping – and after my first dismal failure at this in the summer, now I knew the trick: buy the 33% fat cream.  We would not be without whipped cream for our pumpkin pies!

Somehow we managed to set a table and find enough chairs in the apartment for the 15 of us who would be there – and without even one card table.  I still don’t know how we did that.  But we did.  And we found tablecloths and enough place settings in the china cabinet, too.  But the mashed potatoes.  That was where it seemed we might fail.  What it all

All the guests were assembled.  About five of us were in the kitchen doing final preparations, when it became clear that despite having found turkeys and pumpkin, I had not planned how in the world I would mash the potatoes.  I’d known there was no potato masher in my kitchen, but it hadn’t really seemed like it would be such a big deal.  Not until we were facing two gallons of freshly boiled potatoes armed with nothing more than a wooden spoon and a ladle.  All five of us took turns struggling with this mass of potato, without getting anywhere.  It was looking very bad, as if we might have a Thanksgiving dinner without mashed potatoes.  It had all come down to this: the unassuming Russian potato seemed to be standing between us and the success of our American Thanksgiving dinner.  But then, one of the students took up the wooden spoon with a determined look.  “Everyone go out in the other room,” she ordered us.  We went.  About fifteen minutes later, she emerged with a pot full of mashed potatoes.  How had she done it?  Somehow.  I don’t think any of us had every appreciated mashed potatoes as much as we did that day.  I know I hadn’t.

I also don’t think I had ever appreciated a Thanksgiving gathering so much.  It was a Thanksgiving dinner in a foreign country, with ingredients that didn’t taste quite the way they did at home, and we were all away from our extended real families.  And yet, over the previous four months, we had become a kind of temporary family, sharing the triumphs and difficulties of our days with each other, rejoicing in everyone’s happy moments and supporting one another during difficult periods.  I have often said that during that trip I felt like I had not two children, but fourteen. And I meant that in only a positive way. I told all their parents that I was grateful they’d lent me their children for those months. And though I was not by any means a replacement for those parents, my role was definitely parent-like. So, being able to provide all those kids with a taste of home on Thanksgiving was a real joy for me.

A couple of months ago, I came across the photo I’d taken of everyone sitting at the table that day, just before we began eating dinner.  Everyone was beaming. Some were raising a glass of wine or cherry juice. And the table was covered with food, and the potatoes were mashed, and the pies were made of pumpkin.

May your Thanksgiving dinner be joyous – wherever you hold it, and whatever the ingredients, and whoever sits with you at the table on that day.

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The Other Lives of a Cell

The Other Lives of a Cell

by Jeffrey Brooks

Although it was a while ago I remember the call coming over the radio vividly, because it was so odd. The flat voice of the dispatcher came on the air for a patrol unit to respond out to a convenience store, giving the name and the address of a familiar location in the area, because “the caller states she believes she found a body.”

How do you believe you found a body? People find bodies all the time. That is not unusual and it is not an unusual call to hear over a police radio. People die alone at home and a family member or a neighbor will find them. People get lost in the mountains in bad weather and disappear in the snow until spring and are found by a passing hiker. People get hit by cars or are thrown from wrecks, get mugged in the park, fall off buildings, overdose on drugs, get sick at work, collapse in stores, there is really no end to it. People find the body and call it in. It happens every day.

But in those cases those callers have no doubt about what they found. It may be shocking to them, or sad, or interesting, but there is no question in their mind about what they found. Like they say, you can’t be a little pregnant. You are or you aren’t.

Traditionally Buddhist monks would spend some of their training time in bone yards (in Tibet they couldn’t bury the bodies of the dead in the frozen ground, so they would lay them out to give the vultures a meal, and only the bones would remain) or monks would meditate through the night in cemeteries.

This was not to be morbid or to be tough. It was to come face to face with the pervasiveness of death, and in light of this, to treasure the extraordinary blessing of life.

They did not experience the pervasiveness of death and dying in their day to day life in the monastery. Some of us do, although we may not use it as skillfully as the monks.

When someone dies alone the death is referred to in police terminology as an ‘unattended death’ and usually is investigated as if it were a crime, just to make sure that no crime was involved. Then the investigator and the medical examiner will make a determination: ‘accidental,’ ‘natural causes,’ ‘undetermined,’ or ‘suspicious,’ ‘suicide,’ ‘homicide.’ Sometimes the investigation will continue.

The officer responded within minutes of that radio call and met the store clerk who reported that she might have found a body. The clerk was standing outside the store when the officer pulled up and, he noted in his report, she seemed scared.

She led him around the side of the building, past the gas pumps, past a row of six parking spots, past the employee entrance to the back of the store, to the dumpster. There, a few minutes before, she had been throwing out a black plastic bag of garbage as she was getting ready to close up for the night.

That bag of trash was sitting there on the ground, leaking something, in front of the dumpster. She pointed to the right half of the top of the dumpster. She told the officer that she had lifted it when she brought the trash out. That’s all she said. She backed up away from the dumpster.

The overhead vapor lights covered the parking lot with bright pink light but the officer took his flashlight from his belt and lifted the cover of the dumpster and saw the bottom of a baby’s foot sticking out from between the clear bags of bottles and the black plastic bags. He moved a bag and saw the rest of the baby.

He reached in to check for pulse and breathing. The baby was in rigor, stiff and cold. There is a specific set of procedures that are followed in a case like this. Call for medical and investigation. Secure the perimeter of the scene with yellow tape. Speak to people in the area. And so on.

The cause of death appeared to be suffocation, based on some distinctive hemorrhaging and other bruising. The umbilical cord was still attached. Based on the presence of rigor, the weather and other indicators the time of death was very recent.

The baby had been wrapped in a blanket, as if someone was putting it to bed. There was plenty of evidence that led to where the baby came from and who the mother was, and that led us to what happened, and why she did it.

If this mother had killed her baby just a short time earlier, it would have been legal. She could have gone to a clinic, for free, and had the baby’s spine cut by a scissor, or had lethal drugs injected into the baby by a licensed medical professional. That would have been her right as a mother, to choose, legally.

But she chose to kill the baby too late and now was looking at a charge of murder. Once that baby took a breath of fresh air and looked up at her, by law, she no longer had the right to choose. She felt trapped by the baby, as if her youth was being stolen from her. And she said she felt bad about it. She put it off too long. She was in denial. Hoping it would “take care of itself.” But that was not a sufficient defense, legally, to justify the killing.

Buddhist ethics teach us what to do to create stronger connections between people. The things we are taught to avoid are the acts which separate people from one another. It’s not arbitrary. It’s not old fashioned. It’s not designed to make people sheep. These ethical teachings are designed to reduce suffering, to provide a simple, peaceful life, and to allow us to create the conditions, for ourselves and others, in which we can live a decent and happy human life.

We are instructed to not kill people in order to get what we want. Also not to steal from them, lie to them, engage in sexual misconduct or use intoxicants. These five things cause us to suffer. But in modern times we have been taught that these are not just okay but they are good.

In the past sexuality was considered an energy that, channeled properly, would hold society together. The attraction of a courting couple, bonding a married couple, and guiding the mores and shape of a community which could, on the foundation of family units, work together for the common good.

Now many people consider this idea of sexuality quaint or imaginary or oppressive. They believe that sex is ‘just sex’ and you are either repressed or free depending on the extent of your sexual activity and adventures. The destruction of families and of our sense of community, the decline of mutual respect and the ability to work together for mutual good has been accelerated by the misunderstanding and misuse of sexuality.

In the last post I mentioned two key ways in which Buddhists infer the continuity of life, based on the theory of causality and the phenomenology of mind.

The intermediate state between death to rebirth is called the bardo. In this intermediate state our next rebirth is determined, according to our karma, that is according to our past actions and our state of mind at the moment of our death.

A person destined for a human rebirth has a mixed karma, the result of both good and bad acts, and this rebirth is an extraordinary blessing. If a being is destined for rebirth not in the human realm but in a suffering realm instead they will have no choice but to endure their suffering until it subsides. Under the conditions of the suffering realm they will be unable to form a stable thought or practice the virtuous actions it will take to put an end to suffering for themselves and others.

If a being is destined to take rebirth in a heavenly realm they will experience so much pleasure up there that they will not be able to practice virtues properly, and since they are not able to act in ways which will cause their happiness to persist, eventually, as the effects of their past virtuous action is exhausted, they will fall and take rebirth in a suffering realm.

Only by taking a human rebirth can we have the intelligence and clarity of mind that we need to understand and practice. And also, at the same time, have just enough difficulty and suffering to motivate us to take this life seriously and dedicate ourselves to putting an end to suffering for ourselves and others.

In the bardo, the intermediate state between death and rebirth, the being wants to come to life again. They want it with all their heart. Some beings are drawn to hate filled realms, worlds of battle, deception and torment.

Beings who are destined by their karma, their set of mental habits from their past actions, to take a human rebirth, look around the bardo realm and feel drawn powerfully toward a safe place, a place that is warm and secure and feels like love to them. There will be many choices for them but there is one unique place they are drawn to. They do not realize it at the time but this is the womb of their mother.

The baby was taken from the dumpster and transported to a cold and sterile environment. That little baby’s body was laid out, like a patient, etherized, on the stainless steel table, and examined for any possible cause of death. Every crevice and concealed place on the body is examined for bruising, punctures, injuries, stress, drugs.

I could not predict whether this young mother regretted what she did right away, would regret it years later, or if she would be pleased with her decision.

She was kind of dull about it. Maybe she could not share her feelings very frankly in public because she had a legal issue coming. Or maybe she did not have much of any feeling at all. Maybe she believed what she had been told, that the baby was not a person but just a bunch of cells, or just 95 cents worth of chemicals. Maybe she was confused about the different things people told her.

The karmic consequences of taking innocent life are serious, as are the legal consequences. The aggravating and mitigating factors are also very similar. For example (karmically as well as legally) if the killing is done with malice that is worse than if it is done accidentally. If it is volitional but without understanding that is different from not caring at all. If it is done of necessity, in self defense or in the defense of others, it is not considered a crime.

In cases where a person feels regret for past killing there is a way to remove or reduce the karmic consequences of the act. First the person will need to feel regret, based on an understanding of the significance of the act; second they will need to tell someone (someone who can understand how they feel and who understands the significance of the act) about the act that you have done; third you need to do something to save the life of another; and fourth determining not to repeat the act again. That is called the four forces. It is used to prevent the negative consequences of any mental disturbance or non virtue. It is what Master Atisha was doing each time he got down from his horse on the long ride through the Himalayas. This is the best way to assure that negative acts, words or mental states do not cause you or others to suffer in the future.

Some people who do wrong enjoy it, repeat it, and decline through the course of their lives. But not all. Some of us do wrong and then learn from our mistakes.

It is easy nowadays to meet a mother or a father, someone who was once young but is now getting old and no longer emphasizes partying and hanging out or ambition, and who, not having anyone important to them by their side, wonders, half in a dream, who that little baby might have grown up to be. We cannot abandon them.

(Some details in this police incident have been changed.)

Jeff Brooks has been teaching Buddhism and martial arts for more than 20 years. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a police instructor of firearms, defensive tactics, anti-terrorism and use of force; and in criminal investigations.

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Power-ful

Power-ful

by Susan Downing

During my childhood and schooling in Illinois, I often heard the tale of how Abraham Lincoln would read by firelight in his log cabin.  I even clearly remember an illustration from one book we read: it showed young Abe, lying on his stomach in front of the open hearth, a book propped up on the floor.  The drawing showed his face only in partial profile, but to me he looked contented and happy.  It seemed that nothing existed but Abe, his reading, and that cozy fire, all encompassed by a compact sphere of golden light.   Is it any wonder, then, that I recalled Abe and this illustration during this past week’s power outage, as I sat at my kitchen table, reading by the light of a semicircle of candles? Perhaps not. But what did surprise me was my own happy contentedness.

I do have to admit that this feeling settled over me only after the first full day of being powerless.  By then I had arranged my light source and figured out how to keep the house comfortably warm by boiling water atop my gas stove.  And I had also realized that we were in for the long haul: reports I’d received from friends and family outside the area made it clear that clearing the fallen trees and fixing the lines would take days.  So, with no electricity in sight, why not make the best of it and do some reading?

Of course, reading by candlelight is not ideal in some respects.  The light is weak, and it flickers a bit, so the eyes get tired straining to catch the words.  But that seemed a minor inconvenience.  As my eyes moved slowly across the book, I felt my world draw in, until nothing seemed to exist but the page, me and this tight, warm circle of light.  No sound of the refrigerator running, or the dishwasher, or even of trucks going by on the road.  Utter quiet.  Even the cats were asleep and silent.  And since I had only the candlelight, the other sights in my house that might have otherwise attracted my attention, distracting me, were lost in darkness. And I was lost in my reading.

The next day I was thinking about the still calm that had fallen over me as I read, and I got a call from a young friend (thank heavens for cell phones!) She told me that she and her sister and parents, who were also without power were staying warm thanks to their wood stove.  And she said they had passed the evening by reading aloud by candlelight.  When I asked what they were reading, she said, “Grimm’s fairy tales!” Then she remarked how peaceful it had felt, without all the usual distractions.  And said her sister suggested that once the electricity is back, they turn everything off for one hour each evening so they can enjoy that same peace.

But I imagine it is not just the darkness and the silence these folks have been enjoying, but also the time together.  The family time.  I know I enjoyed that myself, in a way, even though I don’t have any family in the area.  But my friend a few doors down came up twice for dinner during the outage, because I could cook on my gas stove.  Usually we get together like that only a couple of times a year.  It was fun to hang out and enjoy a meal together knowing that neither of us had pressing business afterwards – no emails  to read or TV to watch. And my weekly get-together with another good friend also had a different quality – since her power was already back on, she asked whether I’d like to take a shower.  I took her up on it and told her I felt so pampered by her hospitality and hot water!

Other people I’ve talked with this week also spoke about how great it was to be spending time with relatives who’d come to stay with them because they were the ones with heat.  A salesman in a store yesterday, who also lives in Easthampton, but whose power is still out, told me he’s really happy to have his kids and their children staying with him and his wife. He’d spoken with his daughters after the power went out.  “Why don’t you come home?” he’d suggested.  “There’s no electricity, no TV, and you can’t use the internet here, either, but we have the woodstove, and we’ll all be together.”  So they came. “Playing with the grandkids – it reminds me of when the kids were little,” he said, smiling.

It’s not just this kind of togetherness that I’ve noticed this week.  On Monday, when power had been restored to Northampton, I went to one of the coffeehouses with my laptop, so I could check my email.  The atmosphere in town was friendly, almost festive, and 99% of the people in that café had their laptops with them.  Even so, it did not feel like fifty people separately using the internet.  Each of us knew what had brought the others to that spot: none of us had power at home, so suddenly there was a common thread linking all of us.  We were all in this together.

Later that day, I took a walk, and on one of the roads, I passed a small truck whose door bore the words Long Island Power Authority.  The guys inside had the window down, so I walked over.  “You’re a long way from home!” I said.  They laughed and explained that they’d come to help get the power back up.  I thanked them and said how much I appreciated it that they were here.  “We’re happy to be helping,” they replied. “There are crews coming in from Texas and Illinois later today. We’ll get it up and running!”  And they did.  When I returned home from that walk, I saw a light burning in my kitchen!

Since my house now had full power, I immediately ran the dishwasher, put in a load of laundry and turned on my electric teakettle, happy to be able to make tea without heating water up on the stove.  But although I could turn the heat up – finally! – I set the thermostat lower than usual, and left most of the lights off, too.  That just felt better to me, somehow.

It was still two more days before my internet came back, and I was surprised to note that I really didn’t care.  I knew it would be restored eventually, but in the meantime, I had no desire to throw myself right back into the world of unlimited electronic communication and information.   When the power first went out, it was jarring to be without that connection to friends and the world at large. But ironically, it was precisely when that means of connecting failed, leaving us seemingly powerless, that so many folks turned to the warm power of direct human connection.  And it was through this kind of contact with friends, family and even strangers from near and far, that the circle of light offered by a few candles, which at first seemed tiny, faint, limited – and limiting – somehow managed to draw the rest of the world into its glow.

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