Archive for December, 2011

Joining Our Group

Joining Our Group

by Susan Downing

I don’t always stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve, but tonight I definitely will, because tonight I’ll be ringing in the new year with about 150 other people – at my son and new daughter-in-law’s wedding reception.

Before coming out to Omaha for Mike and Laura’s wedding, Mike’s dad and I had met Laura’s parents only once, when the now newlyweds graduated from college together.  Laura comes from a very large family – she is the oldest of 8 children, and her parents also have many siblings, so in the receiving like today after the ceremony, we met cousin after cousin after cousin, plus more aunts and uncles than we could count.

Our family, on the other hand, is small – Mike has only one sister, and both his dad and I have only one sibling each.  So, what a joy it has been to be so warmly welcomed by Laura’s parents and her brothers and sisters, to be congratulated by her aunts and uncles and grandparents.  And to realize that we are all family now.

That sounds, maybe, a little too cliched, but that is the way it feels to me.  As Laura’s mom and I got ready for the ceremony, we hugged each other, both of us expressing our joy at the uniting of our families.  And as we stood waiting to for Mike to escort each of us down the aisle in turn, we paused and silently clasped each other’s hands.  A lot was communicated silently in that moment between us – two mothers about to watch our oldest children marry.  I can’t speak for Laura’s mom, but I can say that for me, there is something both marvelous and bewildering about that, about seeing my first child set off with a spouse in this way. And so, it was so moving to be able to experience this event – through this simple maternal embrace – not as a separation, but as a blossoming and strengthening of a family.

The deacon who married Mike and Laura noted that by expressing their love and devotion to each other, they will serve as a beautiful example to those around them.  And indeed, they are already doing so – they have brought together all of us who were at their wedding today and all those on both sides of the family who were unable to attend but who are here in spirit.

A few years ago, long before Mike and Laura were talking about getting married, Laura came to visit us in Massachusetts.  After meeting her, my mom, who passed away just a couple of weeks later, announced to Mike and me, “I can tell she wants to join our group.” We laughed at her strange phrasing, and when Mike and Laura got engaged, I knew that my mom – a Midwesterner who always touted the supremacy of Midwesterners – would be thrilled that Laura would, indeed, be joining our group.  But now that we are in Omaha, it doesn’t seem so much like Laura joining our group or Mike joining hers.  It is a very natural coming together of everyone.  Maybe you could say that all of us are now Mike and Laura’s group.

What a blessing it is to be able to begin the new year as part of this new extended family that has blossomed along with Mike and Laura’s love for each other.

mike and laura1

I wish them – and you, too – all the very best in the new year.


Dharma Prayer

Dharma Prayer

by Jeffrey Brooks

We are always in the presence of enlightening beings.

Whether we notice them or not, they are always trying to help us, in any way they can.

The further we go in our practice the more we will see that the universe is one vast conspiracy aimed at putting an end to our suffering and the suffering of all beings forever. When we face pain we can remember that this experience is a result of my own past non virtue; this suffering will exhaust the seeds of suffering planted by me in the past; and I will now act in a way which will create the causes for happiness in the future.

If we place our emphasis on learning how to take care of beings and then take care of them, we we will be gradually freed from obstacles. When we place our emphasis on personal ambition we encounter greater and greater obstacles.

The enlightening beings throughout all space and time are not separate from us. They suffer when we suffer. They are joyful when we succeed. But they can only be of help to us when we know what to do with what we encounter.

Here is a start:

Every day as you wake up


I am fortunate to wake up

I am alive

I have a precious human life

I am not going to waste it

I am going to use all my energy to develop myself

To expand my heart out to others

To achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings

I am not going to get angry or think badly about others

I am going to benefit others as much as I can.

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.


A Pail of Sand

A Pail of Sand

by Susan Downing

Just for today, be kind to people.  That’s the last of the five Reiki precepts Usui Sensei taught his students nearly a hundred years ago, and that Reiki practitioners today, too,  strive to uphold. On the surface it seems like common sense – why wouldn’t you be kind to people?  But if being consistently kind to others came easily to us, Usui Sensei wouldn’t have needed to include it in his list of precepts.  Certainly we have all run across people who seem to delight in being unkind.  And we ourselves have all treated others unkindly at some points in our lives, sometimes through carelessness, sometimes through misunderstanding, sometimes to further or protect our own interests. Sometimes we’re unkind even when we have told ourselves that we will, from this very moment, be super nice to everyone all the time.  Unkindness can come in many forms.  It turns out that kindness can, too.

A few weeks ago, my daughter Emily told me a story about the day care children she works with.  Several little kids had been playing in the sandbox when one took a toy from the other.  The little boy who’d lost the toy promptly began crying.  Nearly inconsolable, he took refuge on Emily’s lap. As she sat comforting him, his tears continued to flow. But after a few minutes, one of the other children  - a boy Emily said is always sweet to everyone – walked over with a small pail full of sand and set it down next to Emily and the injured party.  Then he made several more trips, bringing another pail of sand each time.  Before long, the tears stopped, and a smile came to the little guy’s face.  A few minutes later he was back playing happily  with his friends.  And all because of a silent offering of a pail of sand.

Emily was struck by the effect of that simple act of kindness she’d witnessed.  Telling me this story, she remarked that everyone can use a pail of sand now and again.  She also lamented that as one gets older, disagreements or hurtful situations sometimes seem harder to remedy than they do when you’re three, when such a small gesture can make everything right again.  True, difficult life situations in adulthood can seem much more complicated than a sandbox tiff, but when you come right down to it, if we were all to use the same approach that sweet toddler did, everyone would be better off.  What I mean is this: the crying boy’s friend didn’t go whack the toy thief with the pail – there were adults present who could handle the infraction in an appropriate way and let the offender know that his actions were not acceptable and assign a time out .  Instead, he put his effort into showing kindness to his friend who was unhappy at the moment.

And the boy on Emily’s lap didn’t shove the pails away – he accepted them.  Really,  he responded to one act of kindness with his own.  Before I began studying and practicing Buddhism, I never used to think of accepting others’ offerings – whether of kind words or actions or actual tangible gifts – as a kind act in its own right.  It always seemed to me that the important thing was to offer such things to others, not to accept them.  But then, as I read about the acts of bodhisattvas, about how they constantly practice generosity, I understood that in graciously receiving a sincerely offered gift from another being, a bodhisattva is giving that being the opportunity to practice generosity.  In this way, receiving becomes a gift in itself, and a very necessary gift, I think. It completes a circuit that allows kindness to flow freely in two directions, between both parties.

I’ve been thinking of this the past week or so because my father told my sister the other week that Christmas gifts to him were strictly forbidden this year.  He has always told us not to make a fuss over gifts for him. I do think he truly does not want us to agonize over trying to find a good gift for him, and it’s true that in the past there has been lots of agonizing on our part, because it’s never been particularly easy to choose gifts for him.  But this year I found something a couple of months ago that I thought he’d actually like. So, I was particularly disappointed to hear about the moratorium from my sister.  As I thought about it, I realized that it was because it pained me that he seemed not to want to accept the sincere offerings of our gifts, for whatever reason.  I decided to broach the topic with him.  The phone conversation went like this:

“I heard that we’re not allowed to send you presents this year.”  (I said it with a smile.)

“That’s right.”

“I know you don’t want us to go to any trouble, but I have a dilemma.  I have something that I’d already gotten for you, before you issued the moratorium.  It was something I saw that I thought you might like.  What should I do?”

A pause.  ”Well….. if you already have it…… go ahead and send it along.” I think I heard a smile in his voice, too.

I hadn’t gotten into talking with him about bodhisattvas or about completing a circuit of kindness.  But I think he understood that I was just wanting to do something nice for him, and he decided he could see his way clear to accepting that.  I don’t think he sees that as any big act of kindness, but I do – I see it as a real gift, every bit as kind as that toddler’s pail of sand.


Language as Symbolic Act

Language as Symbolic Act

by Jeffrey Brooks

Buddha was known as the Enemy Destroyer because he fully defeated his true enemies: the mental disturbances and wrong views which chain beings to suffering. These are the true enemies of all beings.

Mental disturbances can be crude or subtle. Just as intoxicants distort perception so envy, jealousy, hatred and desire disturb our minds, distort the impressions we receive from the world around us, cause us to experience suffering and to behave in a way that perpetuates our suffering.

Sometimes we carry negative emotions from the past around with us. These produce a disturbance in our mind and we seek a way to relieve the disturbance we feel. If we are unwise about the way this works, instead of relieving our mental disturbance, we can make our situation worse.

Late one Friday night a call went out for a domestic disturbance. I went to the address and met up with another officer a few houses away. Even before we got to the door I could hear the shouts from inside. Screams of outrage and frustration, shouts and howls from people who had argued the same things a hundred times before, reaching their breaking point for the hundredth time. It’s a bad sound. Each volley would start “You said…” and crescendo from there… “How the hell can you…” “You can’t tell me…” These folks had practiced.

I looked through the small vertical window by the door and couldn’t see anyone but I could hear someone hit someone and someone cry out and go back at it again, and something went flying and cracked against the wall.

I said “Come on…” The officer I met was newly out of the academy. She did not want to go in. She said “No. We need to wait for back up. It’s an officer safety issue.” It was an officer safety issue. But then it was a citizen safety issue too, and I did not want to stand there while someone got killed. So I went in. She followed.

Inside we found five pissed off drunks who had probably never agreed on anything in their lives but suddenly came together, united in the conviction that I was not needed. Two of them were still shouting at each other and the others were grumbling at me. A busted cell phone was laying in pieces on the floor.

I just had to go for it. Get them all separated but keep them in sight. Sometimes cool heads prevail. Sometimes just keeping your composure in the midst of chaos works wonders. This was not one of those times. Perhaps I appeared nuts to them.  Somehow I was able to convince them that I was about to snap. One by one I persuaded them that it would be best if they would to go to separate corners until we all could talk. They went.

I picked one to speak to first. Through her tears, her mouth contorted by hurt and frustration, face flushed with memory and hate, I got a story. When another member of the party began to chime in, counter a statement, argue or comment, I told them they would get their turn shortly. This was not their time.

In a minute medics and more officers arrived, and each member of the group got the chance to tell their side of the story to their own officer. We conferred. We photographed injuries, took statements and collected evidence. The couple both went to jail. The rest called a cab.

The stories were venomous. They were each other’s victim. It had been going on for years. He said. She said. On and on. They had all been insulted, ridiculed, disrespected and cursed. They were outraged and they wanted to fight back. Against each other. Against us. Against whoever had disrespected them in the past. It wasn’t about the drinking, they agreed about that.

How was all that history going to be resolved? The cops come when society says it’s gone too far: when people injure each other and break their stuff.  The years of simmering and barbs and rage are a private matter. Until it boils over.

This fight is an example of crude mental disturbance. There are subtle forms that afflict us every moment. But, although we act on them, we rarely notice them because our minds are occupied and our understanding is limited.

Two of the vows we take as Buddhists, two of the “ten prohibitions” which, if we follow them, restrain us from acting on impulses which will perpetuate our difficulties, are to refrain from harsh speech and from divisive speech. Speaking directly, even sharply may be necessary. But speaking to wound people or to degrade them or to maliciously set people against one another is not.

If a therapist tells you to vent your emotions then you can help the therapist by telling them that you are not a pneumatic system. And venting does not work any better than bloodletting did, in the centuries when that was considered sound and scientific therapy. Hollering your angry feelings at people deepens those emotions, it does not reduce them.

To allow our minds to settle down so that we can observe the subtle disturbances we need to train to eliminate the crude ones. Then we can choose what we do instead of being slaves of impulse. As we remove more subtle disturbances we can begin to see how our mind works and examine the ways in which our mind participates in the fabrication of our experience. By continuing this process we eliminate both disturbing thoughts and wrong view – we too become Enemy Destroyers. We then can get the skills we need to also save others from suffering.

That couple that got arrested that night were in love when they got together a few years before. So in love they thought nothing else in the world would matter as long as they could be together.

But a few harsh words and a habit of resentment and hurt takes everybody downhill fast if you don’t know what to watch out for and what to do about it.

Government leaders use harsh and divisive speech to pit groups against each other. They inspire envy and resentment and produce mental disturbance in the mindstreams of the people that they lead.  Soon people who have lived side by side as friends and neighbors for generations or centuries are hanging each other and shooting each other.

All the great miseries of the last few hundred years were precipitated with harsh and divisive speech. That kind of speech produces mental disturbance and it also produces wrong views. Because although each individual has their own characteristics, flaws and virtues, people whose leaders persuade them to hate a type of person set that fact aside and attribute identical characteristics to every member of the group. So instead of having an undistorted view of an individual they project a mental fabrication upon that individual and hate them and want to kill them.

It’s happened in Europe, the Middle East and Asia and it is happening here. But no one has to fall for it. If we are aware of the poisonous nature of harsh and divisive speech and understand how to avoid getting caught in it. Then we are free to act as vigorously as necessary to save people from suffering.

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.


Just for Today, Devote Yourself Diligently To Your Work

Just For Today, Devote Yourself Diligently To Your Work

by Susan Downing

Mikao Usui Sensei’s fourth Reiki precept came to mind yesterday when I was watching the birds at my birdfeeder.  The chickadees would flit up, pick out a seed or two, and fly off to another part of the bush. But the red-headed woodpecker had a different approach: he would land on the feeder, extract a sunflower seed, then pound it against the railing to crack it, before flying off.  A couple of minutes later, he’d be back, and the whole sequence would repeat.    So much effort for one tiny seed.  And yet, he and the chickadees  persisted. Of course, it’s that effort that stands between them and starvation. Even so, these birds seemed to me to exemplify Usui’s fourth precept.

This precept has often been presented as “Do your work honestly” and “Be honest in your work.”  However, a Japanese speaker explained to me that the  Japanese words that are translated as “work” might more properly be thought of as meaning “calling, vocation, business, trade or profession.” The verb itself expresses the idea of “applying or devoting oneself assiduously.”  So, although Usui Sensei would undoubtedly have encouraged his students to work honestly, the essence of the precept lies in the idea of focused, devoted attention to a task.  For the birds I was watching, this was the crucial work of gathering food to nourish and sustain themselves.  Similarly, Usui Sensei encouraged us to devote ourselves not to just any work, but to what will nourish and sustain us – in other words, to our practice.

For Reiki practitioners, the fourth precept reminds us that when we commit ourselves to the transformative path that a Reiki practice offers us, we’re doing more than taking up a casual pastime. We’re expressing our belief that practicing can help us transform our lives and enable us to help others, too. Just as those birds know that they’ll never get through the winter and live to raise a new brood in the spring unless they focus on nourishing themselves now, we understand that our practice will bear fruit only if we approach it with diligence.

At the core of this process lies a commitment to doing self-Reiki, for it’s this part of our daily work which sustains and nurtures us and makes it possible for us to offer support to others. I’ve had students tell me that sitting down at the end (or beginning!) of a long day and giving themselves even ten minutes of Reiki can seem like a selfish luxury, given all the demands on their time. It’s certainly easy for any of us to fall into seeing things that way, especially when we’re talking about family, about people we love and want to take good care of.

But we are not really so different from the chickadees and the woodpecker I saw this week.  Although any babies they hatched this spring are out of the nest now, these birds need to pour everything they have into preserving their strength and health through the long winter, so that when spring comes again, they’ll have the energy to care for their new chicks.

When we humans put our energy into a practice that nurtures and sustains us – whether it’s Reiki, or meditation, or yoga or karate or prayer – we gain the strength and endurance to face whatever challenges come up.  But that’s not all.  When we devote ourselves diligently to the work of our practice, we ensure not only that we ourselves will be strong, but also that we’ll have the energy to take good care of all those who depend on us. When we practice inspired by this loving motivation, we grow stronger and happier, and as we do, it becomes ever easier and more joyful for us to give of our strength and happiness to others.  That’s what this practice is really about, what it is really designed to do for us and those with whom we interact.

I think that’s why the chickadees reminded me of the fourth precept, and why I found them inspiring.  At first glance, they seem to be just going about the business of making sure they get enough food. Certainly they’re not thinking about trying to benefit others. But in the simple act of eating at my feeder, and in their beautiful flight and song, that’s exactly they are doing: I get so much joy from watching them float to and fro, chirping brightly as they go.  And so, they take in the nourishment they need, but at the same time – naturally, without even trying – they sustain not only themselves, but me, too.