Archive for March, 2012

Make Good Fight

Make Good Fight

by Jeffrey Brooks

Buddhism places suffering at the center of its rationale because we do what we do in this life in order to avoid suffering and get happiness. But, Buddhism points out, because we misunderstand what causes suffering we act in ways that often make things worse.

Hamlet lists the things that cause us to suffer this way:

The whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong,

The proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of disprized love,

The law’s delay,
The insolence of office,

And the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes

This list, coming as it does in his contemplation of suicide, is powerful and moving. Not because it is the list of a 20 year old prince under pressure but because it is universal. In fact it is unlikely that a 20 year old would come up with this list. But it is likely that every adult in the audience would recognize these sources of suffering as a part of his or her experience.

If the antique language is unclear:

“The whips and scorns of time” means things that happen to you as you age: aches and pains and sickness and aging and death;

“The oppressors wrong” means being subject to tyranny, whether that tyranny is in the form of a king or a government or a boss or a dangerous neighborhood;

“The proud man’s contumely” is the condescension of arrogant people;

“The pangs of disprized love” is the suffering of unrequited love;

“The law’s delay” refers to the time when wrong is done to you or someone you care about, a time when we may seek redress from the courts. While we wait for the case to run its course, for months or years, the injustice stands and the delay seems interminable. And, in the course of life, when we witness the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper, and it appears that the only retribution that may come will come after all the parties have departed this world, the delay of justice can feel unbearable.

“The insolence of office” is the arrogant disregard of people of power for the interests of the people who come under their influence;

“And the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes” are the insults that people of merit take from people who have not earned their position, who do not contribute, but instead bear empty titles or live off the work and reputation of others.

That speech in Hamlet is powerful not because the prince pithily characterizes the bad behavior of Claudius, Polonius or Ophelia. It is because he describes what we all experience from time to time.

In ancient Indian Buddhism these experiences are listed as the Eight Human Sufferings:

Suffering of birth

Suffering of old age

Suffering of disease

Suffering of death

Suffering from separation from people you love

Suffering from meeting with people you do not like

Suffering from unfulfilled wishes

Suffering from having a body and mind

These are universal human sufferings which will cease only when our insight into what causes happiness and what causes suffering is complete. It is easy to see that this list corresponds well to Hamlet’s poetic version.

But it goes further, in the last two lines: This list includes unfulfilled wishes – the relentless dissatisfaction that characterizes human life and informs so much human ambition – and the fact that we exist in a temporary and conditional form, are also sources of suffering.

Classical Buddhism uses a lot of numbered lists in describing the world, like the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and so on. There are many of these lists and categories, so the numbers are a helpful aid to memorizing them.

There is another classic list, this one expressing a deeper understanding of the sources of suffering.

This known as the Eight Worldly Concerns:

Gain and Loss

Pleasure and Pain

Praise and Blame

Fame and Disrepute

This list points out that pursuing pleasure and status for its own sake may provide temporary pleasure but will inevitably fade and leave unhappiness in its wake. Our struggles to achieve these things for their own sake will make us stressed, cause harm to others, and will not bring satisfaction no matter how much status, money, monuments or achievements we accumulate.

We can and should work hard, and achieve what is worthwhile. If the motive for our work is to save beings from suffering, and we get the skills we need to do the job, then whatever we do will succeed.

With this understanding we can see that gain and loss, pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disrepute are all just the scenery along the road of life.

We cannot always assure the outcome of our acts. But we can assure our motives and make the most of our capacities.

And then we can know the answer to Hamlet’s great question: It is better to live.

Or, to paraphrase Mr. Miyagi: “Win or lose: Make good fight.”


Dharma Compass

Dharma Compass

by Jeffrey Brooks

As we navigate the vast ocean of our lives our senses continually come in contact with things: Things we like and things we don’t like and things we don’t care about at all.

These encounters disturb our peace. As we make a habit of chasing things we like and deleting things we don’t like we get agitated and unhappy.

If we have an overriding purpose that guides our actions and choices we may be able to navigate a course that is not based on responses to pleasant or unpleasant experience.  Instead we can set out to learn what  causes happiness and we get the skills we need to truly be of help to other beings.

One of the skills we need in order to do this is skill in meditation.

Buddhist meditation is different from other kinds of meditation. Its purpose is to train our minds to put an end to suffering forever.  Its methods are devised to achieve this purpose.

We sit in a calm stable posture. In a place that is not too cold or hot, not noisy or busy, free from bugs and wild animals, where it is not too hard to withdraw the senses from their objects of attention and turn our attention within.

Pleasant sensations like soothing music or words may calm our minds temporarily but when these sensations cease the calm vanishes with them.  So in Buddhist meditation we do not stimulate the senses.

There are two training steps in Buddhist meditation. One is to develop a calm clear mind: Mental focus so strong and stable that you can place your attention where you want it for as long as you want it there. Then we learn to use that attention to examine the nature of reality itself.

Gradually we learn to see our mind in operation, to see the flawed mental habits that cause us to suffer, and we learn how to eliminate those flaws.  We begin to do that through study, through the use of our ordinary intelligence and experience. Then we do it more deeply, in practice. Because the mental habits which cause our suffering are so deeply ingrained it takes a very calm clear mind to notice them.  Because they are subtle it takes sound explanation to recognize them, to see how they veer from the truth, to see why they cause us troubles, and what to do about them.

This is why Buddhist meditation is done in serene silence. Not to create a pleasant alternative to the agitation of daily life, but to provide a vessel where inner transformation can happen.

There is a third aspect of practice in Mahayana Buddhism:  training to care for all beings as the underlying motivation for everything we do. Developing that concern for others is a long and difficult training for most of us, due to the fact that our long standing mental habits cause us to encounter beings that appear as annoying and bad.

But training in it is possible and useful. It causes love to fill our hearts and our world.  And taking responsibility for others’ well being becomes the compass by which we navigate the ocean of our life.


The Calls of the Birds, the Stream, and The Heart

The Calls of The Birds, The Stream, and The Heart

by Susan Downing

As part of my Reiki practice I give myself Reiki every day, usually at bedtime.  But today, as I was out for a long walk in the late winter sunshine, I had a thought: why not do Reiki outdoors?  I was headed for a nearby wildlife sanctuary where I walk regularly, and although I have often sat and meditated in these welcoming woods, I have never thought to give myself Reiki there.  Time to give it a try.

I chose a place where I have recently enjoyed sitting for a few minutes, on a high bank overlooking one of the streams that flows through the sanctuary.  For some reason, I feel drawn to this particular spot.  I can see a couple of the bends of the stream and get a good feel for the water’s flow there, so it seemed like a fitting choice for some Reiki, too.

I sat down on the ground near the edge of the hill that sloped down to the water, took off my gloves, placed my hands, and closed my eyes.  The sun, which until now had been behind some clouds, emerged once again – I felt the warm light on my face, saw it through my closed eyelids.

As I felt the energy flow from my hands and through my body, I also moved in and out of awareness of the sounds of the life flowing around me: here and there a bird would call, leaves would shift, nudged by the breeze, and the water would speak up as it travelled on its own way.

A while later, when I opened my eyes, I glanced at the stream below.  The water upstream was just barely flowing, and then, as it rounded a small bend, passing over a muddy flat there, it picked up speed on a slight downgrade and came swirling to another turn where it found its way partly blocked by debris – a fallen tree, mostly submerged, except at its middle.  And that is the path this late spring water –  cold and yet still moving, looking the way jello that’s about to set up looks when you stir it – took as it made its way downstream.

As if this stream was engaged in its own challenge, one of moving its own liquid energy along its full course.  Not hurrying, allowing its speed to vary naturally, never trying to push any debris aside, but sometimes doing so all the same. Murmuring as it went, as if providing some commentary on this path to any who would listen, or simply to itself: “A little slow here.  We’ll take some of that loose mud with us. Whee! Around that tree trunk. Under this branch. Bubbles.”

How wonderful to hear that commentary, to sense what seemed like purposeful and joyful movement! And, turning my attention back to my hands, I felt a similar purpose and joy in the streams of energy that were flowing through my body, sending forth their own commentary:  Narrow passage here.  Follow this bend. Bumpy – but maybe it’ll open up. Hear that? Over there?  I’ll go check.

Meet you back at the heart.


The Sock of a Monk

The Sock of a Monk

by Jeffrey Brooks

There is so much to do. So much has been done.

Armies thundered across the plains, trailing excitement and terror. Where are those armies now? Cities rose and vanished. Empires spread and melted and fields filled in behind them. A mouse ran here and a lion ran there and now where they were there is something else. A tree grew tall and fell and returned to dust. A boy played behind a house. I think it was just a few years ago. Or a hundred. Or a million. Where is that boy now?

It seems that even the dust of all these things has blown away forever. It seems that in the place of all these things something else stands. Righteous and powerful, ridiculous or trembling, yearning or marvelous, peaceful or hideous, gracious or not, the forms arise and disappear endlessly throughout our lives and did before we appeared and will forever after we disappear. We can see that.

All these forms depend on what we do. All the joy or misery in the world and in our own hearts and minds and lives depends on what we have done and what we do now.

From a small wooden box a monk takes out his socks. He sits on a wooden chair and places his ankle on his knee. He brushes off the sole of his foot. The dawn just begins to warm the sky. A sock lies across his palm as he prepares to put it on.

For most of us nothing could be more pedestrian than footwear.

He puts on his sock. He touches it nicely. He looks at it. He is not thinking about much. He is not thinking about the sock, or anything else. But he looks at it and feels it in his hand and is pleased with it. He is not thinking that he once did not have any socks. That for years he tied torn shoes on to his feet to keep the feet warm and safe on the gravel outside.

He is grateful to be in that place and time.