Archive for Buddhism

Full Moon of Paravan

Full Moon of Paravan

by Jeffrey Brooks

If we would like to use the Buddha’s instruction to rescue people who are in danger we need to train consistently.

In martial arts we may train each day for an hour or two. To truly save people from harm we will need to devote at least that much time.

But that time is not deducted from the rest of our lives. In every moment is a moment of training. If we train well under controlled conditions, such as in the meditation room and the class room, then we can train well under more difficult conditions, such as in the flow of daily life, or during a special moment at the boundary between life and death.

Our minds crave objects. The technical term for this in Pali is “dhammatanha.” When our senses are not stimulated, such as in periods of meditation or waiting for a bus, our minds will prowl around for something to grab onto – fantasies, mental imagery, abstract ideas, intellectual systems, feelings or emotional states of mind such as anger or desire.

If we are unable to put down mental objects at will we will be unable to practice well. We will lack the presence of mind to deal with reality as it unfolds. And we will be unable to place our minds where we want them, at will. We will become off balance and preoccupied. In martial arts this can cause a lapse in attention or timing which will get us hurt. In our work as bodhisattvas it is a dead end.

We can practice a technique which will end the craving for mental objects. A calm, clear, luminous mind will arise as a result. Developing this gives us real poise and balance.  We can respond to conditions without hesitation or hurry. We never need to substitute rudeness for strength, or impulsiveness for spontaneity.

The technique is to place the mind on our breath as it enters our nostrils and moves over our upper lip.  As we experience some distraction, through our senses or through our craving for mental objects, we can return our attention to the motion of our breath. It is hard to do at first. If you persist it becomes easy.

Then we can easily practice it for a moment or an hour.  When you get good at it, you can place your attention where you want it, wherever you need it. Training in this way frees you to act skillfully, with no hindrance in the mind.

This provides a basis for your practice of the path to enlightenment. It is a first step. It is a practice we can do anytime and anywhere, along our path through life.

The Anapanasati Sutta, called “Mindfulness of Breathing,” includes the classical presentation of this idea.


Before He Reached Enlightenment

Before He Reached Enlightenment

by Susan Downing

Who was the Buddha?  Every day I think of him and give thanks.  I am so grateful that he gained enlightenment and gave us the precious teachings that we can use to make our way out of life’s sufferings.  And until recently, this was pretty much the extent of how I thought of him – as an enlightened being.

Sure, we know the Buddha was an actual historical personage, and we are told that when he attained enlightenment, he was able to see all his past lives.  These have come down to us in the form of the Jataka tales, and these tales show us that even in the lifetimes before he gained enlightenment, the Buddha was able to act with a degree of compassion and equanimity that seem unimaginable to us. (See Jeff’s post, “Hunting Trip” on this topic. )

Reading these stories colored my impression of the Buddha: I realized recently that I’ve always thought of him as someone who was pretty much immune to suffering, or who at least had a super-human tolerance for pain and suffering.  So it made sense to me that since the Buddha was free of suffering, he could teach the rest of us how to be free, too.

Then I was listening to a talk by the Dalai Lama in which he was discussing the qualities a suitable teacher.  (Jeff talks about these in detail in his recent post, “Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher.”)  It really struck me when His Holiness said that for any teacher to be able to teach us effectively about how to overcome suffering, he has to have overcome it himself.

That got me thinking about the Buddha.  As I noted, until now I’d only ever thought of him as an enlightened being.  But he didn’t come into that lifetime enlightened, having already overcome suffering.  It’s just that he apparently didn’t encounter it when he was growing up as a prince in a palace.  Accounts of Gautama’s early life tell us that his father, the king, took great care to protect him from seeing any suffering at all, much less experiencing it.  It wasn’t until curiosity about life outside the palace led Gautama to make a series of secret forays beyond the palace walls that he came face to face with the reality of human suffering – he saw the old, the sick and the deceased.  And it upset him! As the story usually goes, on his final secret visit to the outside world, Gautama saw a spiritual practitioner – an ascetic in saffron robes – and this vision inspired him to devote himself to the spiritual path.

I always viewed this series of events mostly as evidence of Gautama’s bodhicitta: he saw the suffering of others and was so moved by it that he resolved to find a way to help people overcome their suffering.  But after listening to His Holiness, it occurred to me that the Buddha couldn’t learn how to do this by studying the topic second hand.  He wouldn’t be able to judge whether he’d overcome suffering unless he himself had suffering to overcome.

So, here we have Gautama, living the luxurious life of a prince, with a beautiful wife and a newborn baby son, both of whom he loves deeply.  And he sincerely wants to find a way to help other people end their suffering.  And thus we’re told that he slips out of the palace one night under cover of darkness, without telling his wife, and goes off in search of a solution.

Now, I’ve never come across any discussion of what was in the future Buddha’s mind when he crept out of the palace that night, or what he experienced in the years between the night he left and the night he reached enlightenment.  The accounts of Gautama’s life that cover that period do little more than fill out the timeline with descriptions of the methods he pursued and ultimately rejected: years of study in meditation with the renowned ascetic teachers of that period, followed by 5-6 years practicing asceticism together with 5 other ascetics.

I began to reflect on what the Buddha’s life in that period might actually have been like, and suddenly I began to see him differently than I ever have before. I began to see him as a person like the rest of us, in the sense that he must have experienced suffering, too, and a variety of types of it.  Given that Gautama was not yet enlightened when he left his royal life behind, and given that he really loved his wife and son (and probably really enjoyed the palace life, too!) we can guess that this must have been a very difficult step to take.  Later on, when the Buddha taught the dharma and was describing the types of suffering we endure, one of those he listed was being separated from those we love.  We can assume that he himself must have felt that suffering very acutely, and that would have given him great motivation to find a way out of it.

Yet, he didn’t discover the solution easily or quickly.  During his years practicing asceticism, the emotional and psychological pain of being separated from his loved ones would certainly been compounded by the pain of hunger, the pain of living outdoors with no protection from the elements, and the pain of illness which he would inevitably have experienced.  It was only when he was quite literally on the verge of death from starvation and exposure that (as one of the versions tells us) a young girl convinced him to come to her village and accept food and shelter.  So, we can assume that Gautama also had a very good idea of the suffering one endures when facing death.

Now, once in that village, Gautama turned away from asceticism. We read in the accounts of the Buddha’s life that he did so because he realized that pushing his body to its limits clouded his mind rather than clearing the way for insight, as he’d hoped it would do.  And with a clouded mind, he was unable to continue his inquiry into the nature of suffering.  That explanation sounds so objective and technical in a way, as if the future Buddha was simply measuring the tolerances of a machine and how it would perform in certain conditions. But I am sure that he wasn’t sitting out in the forest, musing abstractly about his practice and thinking, “This seems like a method that might help people who are suffering.” Rather, I think he spent those years enduring the pain of his separation from those he loved, the intense physical pain of hunger and cold, and the fear of being set upon by wild animals.  And when he realized that asceticism could not help him overcome this terrible suffering, his own personal suffering, he gave it up and looked for another practice that would do so.

Finally he found it.  Then he set about teaching others to practice in a way that would allow them to end their suffering, too.  But he wasn’t able to do that until he’d experienced and conquered suffering, in all the forms it took between the time when he walked out of the palace and when he reached full enlightenment.

Realizing this, I feel so encouraged in my practice. I experience suffering, just as the Buddha did, and I’ve certainly travelled down some dead end paths, too, seeking a way out of it.  But knowing that the future Buddha made use of his suffering to gain insight, instead of being destroyed by it, inspires me to do the same.  He not only showed me how to do it.  He showed me it can be done.  And I am so grateful for that.


Nalanda University

Nalanda University

by Jeffrey Brooks

The monks attending Nalanda University were there for refuge.

They knew that only through their Buddhist training could they overcome sickness, old age and death. They could not escape them by hiding, by becoming powerful, by secret incantations or medicines, by prayer or philosophy or pleasure or by accustoming their body to grim austerities.

These monks had seen clearly that the only real refuge from human suffering comes from insight, in their own mind, into the way things exist.

The refuge they were seeking was not in the person of the Buddha. That person, that man, could not physically protect them from suffering and death. The Dharma, his words, written in books, could not act on their own to protect the monks. The Sangha, the community of monks who lived and studied and practiced together could not protect one another, ultimately, either.

But they knew that the insights that arose in the mind of the Buddha could protect them, completely, because these monks could study them and share them, because their minds and the Buddha’s mind existed in exactly the same way.

By studying the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, these monks would learn how to act and speak and think in a way that would create conditions in their lives that would enable them to pass through the gates of death and into a new life free from suffering forever.

And these monks knew the enlightened Sangha, the monks who had followed this way of life before and completed the path could guide this new generation by their example and their words to refuge; leading these monks to their own realization, and to the end of suffering.

These Three Jewels, the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, were the only true refuge from sickness, old age and death.

That is why these monks came to Nalanda University.

They came to learn what the Buddha taught, and Nalanda University was set up so they could live out the teachings in the company of like-minded spiritual friends, every day of their lives, or for as long as they stayed.

In India at the time it was widely recognized that the Buddha taught something no one had ever taught before. This meant that, for the first time in history, a human being had a way to put an end to suffering completely.

The Buddha taught that everyone suffers. King or slave, merchant or warrior, priest or farmer, everyone suffers.

He taught that the suffering has a cause. It is not random and it is not uncaused.

He taught that there is an end to suffering. We do not have to simply tolerate it or scheme and struggle unthinkingly in a vain effort to get out of it.

He taught there is a path to the end of suffering. He described a way of conducting our lives which will lead, inevitably and in every case, to the cessation of suffering.

These monks heard about it. They saw the suffering of people all around them. They wanted to learn what to do about it.

By the fifth century, about a thousand years after the death of the Buddha, Nalanda University had become the major center of learning for the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

The Buddha himself had taught at the place many times during his lifetime, when it was a mango grove, a seven mile walk from Rajagraha, the capital of Magadha where he lived. They say that five hundred merchants bought the grove and donated it to the Buddha and his followers.

Some of the Buddha’s most famous disciples, like Shariputra, studied there and departed the world from the place that would become Nalanda.

Over the centuries, as the advanced philosophical system of Mahayana was developing, the story goes, a group of 500 monks decided to create a center for study and practice at Nalanda. Their center rose and flourished and within a few hundred years, vanished.

King Ashok memorialized them in the second century, building a temple there, and supporting a community of monks. Nalanda began to grow again.

By the fifth century kings and emperors had supported the school continually for hundreds of years. The library contained tens of thousands of manuscripts – the entire Buddhist canon and commentaries, along with investigations into science and mathematics, medicine and geography, language and logic, astronomy and epistemology, the greatest collection of human wisdom ever written down – and soon there were more than 10,000 monks studying and living there, along with 2,000 teachers, from every country in the known world.

The foundations of eight huge monastery complexes and hundreds of monks’ cells are still visible there today. No more monks chanting though. No debates. No bells ringing in the Dharma Hall. Just the birds and crickets and the wind.

In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism the concern of practice extends beyond the cessation of one’s own suffering. The method goes beyond considering the condition of your own life, to concern with the lives of all beings. Your method of spiritual development is taking care of everyone, making everyone’s happiness your own personal responsibility.

This was as hard for those monks to do as it is for us.

But through training in kindness, in ethics, in deep mental clarity and insight, in a world that valued this training above everything else, they did it.

In the Mahayana tradition the training period may last for 20 or 30 years or more, and the intensity of practice pushes the intellect and the powers of reasoning, insight and observation, beyond normal limits. The monks at Nalanda were doing Olympic level competitive mind-training for a lifetime. They got good at it. They wrote down what they learned, and how they learned it.  Their research and practice deepened for 1,500 years. They have handed it down to us.

It was from Nalanda University that the traditions of Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti and Shantideva flowed. They were professors there. The logic tradition of Dignaga and Dharmakirti, the vast teachings of Asanga and Vasubandu and their successors brought Buddhism to the height of its development.

The conditions in ancient India were perfect for this.

Like the Himalayas, out of this place and time human capacity towered above anything that had been accomplished before or since.

After endless time, endless trial and effort, endless suffering people discovered where they could find true refuge, true human freedom. It was discovered by the Buddha and it was transmitted from master to student from generation to generation.

And like the Himalayas this uplift of human possibility was neither uniform nor permanent.

By the turn of the twelfth century, Buddhism was in decline in India. The tranquil atmosphere of ancient times was gone, and the concerns of people were changing.

Nalanda had received students from around the world, and Buddhist teachers had traveled from Nalanda to train monks at other Indian Buddhist Universities in Tibet, Kashmir, and Nepal, in China, and Korea, in Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, and Burma, in what are now Afghanistan and Kazakhstan, Greece, the eastern Mediterranean, and beyond.

The Muslim invasions of India had been going on for hundreds of years by the twelfth century. But now, as the contemporary Persian historian Minhaj-i-Siraj, in his history called the Tabaqat-I-Nasiri, reported: “thousands of Nalanda monks were burned alive and thousands more were beheaded as the Turkish General Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji tried his best to uproot Buddhism and plant Islam by the sword”… Minhaj-i-Siraj notes: The burning of the library continued for several months and “smoke from the burning manuscripts hung for days like a dark pall over the low hills.”

While a monk from Tibet was visiting Nalanda about 20 years after this destruction he wrote that one day about 300 Turks descended upon Nalanda and killed everyone left there, except himself and the abbot, who hid in one of the two remaining buildings.

Buddhism teaches that everything that arises from causes will cease to exist as those causes withdraw.

The causes for the birth of the Buddha and the influence of his teaching in India shifted slowly at first and then rapidly. The Buddha’s teachings were gone from India after the 13th century.

The Nalanda teachings, believed by many to be the greatest philosophical and religious achievement of human beings, were most completely preserved in Tibet, where the culture supported deep Mahayana practice for another six centuries after the destruction in India.

Then, when another tyranny overran the Buddhist institutions there in the 20th century, killing the monks and burning the libraries, the Dharma, led by the Dalai Lama, went back across the Himalayas to its former home, in India.

From there, when its Tibetan vessel was smashed, its seeds were cast out upon the wind and flew everywhere around the world.

I wonder what those Nalanda monks thought when they faced the swords and clubs and flames of Khilji’s men?

One account says that General Khilji believed he was attacking a fort when he slaughtered the monks and burned the libraries at Nalanda. There are some who do not believe this, and think it was just a way of explaining the violence. But he may not have needed to explain the violence, thinking it was entirely wise and proper to uproot and destroy all of this, a good way to make a statement about the futility of resistance, and in any event restraint was not commonplace in an invasion.

It is possible that he was being completely candid.  Maybe Nalanda looked like a fort to him. It had high walls and huge, elaborate stone buildings. He may have thought there would be no other purpose for buildings like these other than fortification.

Buddhism teaches that to a great degree our habits of mind color the world we see around us. He may have seen Nalanda as a fort, without being able to see what its inhabitants saw. He was accustomed to attacking, accustomed to encountering enemies, so that is what he saw when he got to Nalanda.

He assumed these strangers valued what he valued. After all people build what they value.

Once it was Stonehenge and the pyramids, to orient people in time and space, and make order in a random universe.

Then, when raiders raided farms and farmers wanted to hang on to their stuff, castles and fortified cities with high walls became the biggest building projects. It was what people really cared about.

After a while, when things settled down, in Europe it was cathedrals that were the biggest building projects; that’s where power was centered and life was focused.

Then skyscrapers, announcing corporate power to the world.

Then shopping malls.

Now hospitals are the biggest and most expensive construction projects in most of our cities. We build them as a refuge from sickness, old age and death. But we know, as those Nalanda monks knew long ago, that there is no way we can find refuge in buildings.

I wonder what those monks did when they saw the massed and mounted army riding into the ancient stone courtyard of Nalanda.

The monks might have been complacent when they saw their killers approach. No one had really ever attacked them before. They may have had the presumption of innocents, thinking, naively, that since they are nice and well-intentioned that the world will like them and be nice to them.

They might have been terrified and tried to hide.

They might have questioned their refuge vows and wondered what ancient, hidden karma could ripen as this horror.

They might have been immensely courageous, inflamed with outrage, in defiance lifted their bare hands to drag their murderers from their horses to the ground and rip the swords from their hands, and figuring what to do next.

They might have been unafraid of death; recognizing that their greatest challenge and the most important moment of their lives was unfolding just then, and with complete equanimity maybe they could see the truth that their life had arisen based on conditions and it would inevitably end when those conditions were withdrawn, and that more important than life itself was having compassion for their murderers who, they could see, were motivated by an inner blaze of hate and desire, and who would inevitably reap the karma in the fires of hell for their cruelty.

Maybe those well-trained monks left the world thinking that their murderers were lost, soon to suffer immensely and endlessly, for no purpose, while they, the monks, were triumphant, victors in a degree of self mastery that would take them through death to a rebirth of unimaginable peace and joy.

Who knows what they thought. And who knows the minds of those Turks? Maybe they were cruel and stupid. Maybe some were nice. Maybe they did what they had to do. Maybe they delighted in murder and forced submission. Maybe they believed that they were extinguishing ignorance and establishing the truth in the only proper way. We can’t know what they thought.

But we can say what the monks studied is something we would like to study. And we can say that the behavior of the murderers is something we would like to avoid. No problem.

And we can wonder what we would have done if we had been in Nalanda that day.

Would we have run off to hide, until things settled down?

Would we have protected the monks with our utmost skill and our last breath and drop of blood?

Would we have joined the attackers, wanting to be on the winning team?

Would we have become one of the monks taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha jewels, sure in our knowledge that that is the only place that we can find real refuge?

We do not have to speculate on this question. This is not a thought experiment.

We will have to make the choice, if not right now then very soon.


I Decide to Be Grateful

I Decide To Be Grateful

by Susan Downing

One thing we mothers do is carry our children within our body, as part of us, for nine months before we go through the process of passing those sons or daughters out into the world.  Although from this point on our children are no longer part of our physical body, they never cease to be part of us, not for a moment.

It’s not surprising, then, that since my son Mike deployed to Afghanistan this past week, I’ve come face to face with a host of disturbing emotions. Worry, fear, sadness – they all come up, and they’re all connected to a circumstance I’ve never experienced before. Sure I’ve worried about Mike in the past, but never as intensely as now.  So, when I felt the first wave of disturbance roll in last weekend, after his group had headed out, it was a big, strong wave.  But it didn’t take long for me to realize: yes, this is a new situation for me, and these particular negative emotions are more intense than I’ve felt before, but they are negative emotions, and I have a method for dealing with those.  It’s a decision making process.

When I feel a knot forming in my stomach or my breathing quickens or sadness begins to seep in, I have a choice to make.  I could allow myself to be taken over by them and become so distracted that all I feel is the disturbance, so paralyzed that I can’t think of or concentrate on anything else.  I could spend my days imagining all sorts of awful scenarios and whipping myself up into an emotional frenzy.  Or I can be grateful.

This is what I choose to do: I redirect my mind from fear or worry or sadness to gratitude.  Naturally, this is easier to do at some moments than at others. Sometimes I feel a shift in my mental state immediately. Sometimes after a few minutes.  Sometimes after a few hours. But it always shifts.  And each shift feels like a little victory over the disturbance in my mind that is trying to hold my mind captive. But I don’t have time to be distracted.  Nor do I want to be.  I have responsibilities toward others and I’m dedicated to carrying them out.  My practice helps me do that.

I’ll tell you some of the thoughts I use to redirect my mind, because although you may or may not have a son or brother or husband or other family member who is currently deployed, I know that you do have times when disturbing emotions threaten to take over your mind.  You can train your mind to focus on gratitude, too.

When worries crowd into my brain, I shift the focus of my thoughts: I think about how much I admire Mike for his courage and dedication. I focus on how proud I am that he chose to put himself at risk to help make it possible for others to live happier, more peaceful lives. I feel grateful that Mike, his fellow Marines, and others who serve in the military are serving for the sake of us at home as well as the people in the towns around them there.  I am grateful for my practice that helps sustain me and for Mike’s practice that helps sustain him.  I am grateful for the Buddha for reaching enlightenment and for giving the rest of us a path we can follow, too.  I am grateful to all who have preserved and taught and translated the dharma so that my fellow practitioners and I could have access to these life-saving teachings.  Finally, I am grateful for the circumstances in my life right now that challenge me to practice in spite of the challenges, and for the practice that enables me to make good use of those challenges to strengthen both my resolve and, in turn, my practice.

This is my practice, every day, sometimes every hour, as often as necessary: I decide to be grateful.  And I am.


Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher

Ten Qualities of a Suitable Teacher

by Jeffrey Brooks

At a public talk a Chinese woman asked the Dalai Lama about a matter that was very troubling to her.

She told him about some men traveling in China, dressed in the saffron and maroon robes of Tibetan Buddhist monks. These men called themselves “Dharma Rajas” or “Kings of Buddhist Teachings” and attracted many followers in China.

But, this woman said, these men were only interested in getting money from their followers and having sex with the female disciples.

The Dalai Lama had been speaking to his Chinese audience about practicing Buddhism today. He said that today people give great care to their bodies – meaning they seek comforts and pleasures and are very interested in clothing and appearance – but they treat the Buddha’s teaching as “something lower than the bones left over from their meals that they would feed to a dog.”

He does not speak this way to western audiences. But to Asian Buddhists, who have longer experience with Buddhism, he is frank.

The Chinese woman asked the Dalai Lama, “What can we do about corrupt phonies like this, who go around disgracing the Buddha’s teaching, and abusing the sincere people who come to them for help and understanding?”

The Dalai Lama was very direct in his response. He told her these followers have no one to blame but themselves. According to Buddhist teachings, he explained, it is essential for each of us who seek out a teacher to examine the teacher’s character and ability scrupulously for as long at it takes to determine, confidently, for ourselves, that this teacher is capable and good.

This is a very different response than she was expecting. She seemed to expect the Dalai Lama to swoop down on the phonies with his dharma squad, discredit them and announce forcefully that people should not study with them or follow them.

Instead he said it is up to each of us. We need to take responsibility for ourselves and our training.

This kind of careful evaluation of a prospective teacher is the opposite of what too often happens when people seek out training in martial arts and in Buddhism. It is normal for people find their way to a dojo or a dharma center hopefully but casually, by accident or by advertising, and, taking for granted that it’s all about the same, get seduced by a sales pitch.  Then, after putting a little time and money into the relationship, declare their teacher the greatest teacher and their style the greatest style and thus validate their path and privilege their judgment over all others.

This is commonplace, it is naive and it is corrupt.

It is common to all religions. It causes unhappiness, limits people’s intelligence, reduces their freedom, and it often leads to friction and even violence on the way to decline.

In the “Mitra Varga” or “Verses about Friends” it says

People degenerate by relying on those inferior to themselves

By relying on equals, they stay the same

By relying on those superior, they attain excellence

Thus rely on those who are superior to yourself.

If you rely on whoever is superior – thoroughly

And endowed with ethical wisdom

And exceeding wisdom

You will become superior even to those who are superior.

In the “Sutra Lamkara” it says

Rely on a teacher of Buddhism who is disciplined, serene, thoroughly pacified;

Has good qualities surpassing those of the students;

Is energetic;

Has a wealth of scriptural knowledge;

Possessing loving concern;

Has thorough knowledge of reality and skill in instructing disciples,

And has abandoned dispiritedness

We can understand through Buddhism that if we are deceived by a teacher it is a result of our own karma. That does not absolve the corrupt and abusive teachers or political leaders or radicals from the evil they do. But it does tell us that the responsibility is ours to choose well and to deal with the consequences if we don’t.

According to Buddhist teaching we now live in the age of decline. We live in the time when, 2,500 years after the historical Buddha came into the world, people no longer are able follow the Buddha’s teachings. Even though the teachings themselves are present in books and are as valid as they ever were, the cultural conditions have declined to the point where, according to sutra, political leaders no longer support morality, people are primarily concerned with sex and money, minds are disturbed and bodies are sick.

During this age of decline, according to sutra, there are countless Bodhisattvas, great spiritual practitioners, at large in the universe, who keep the teachings alive by manifesting the teachings, by living out the profound wisdom and kindness in them, who maintain a karmic connection with the Buddhas past and future, and work tirelessly to return to the world and by sharing the dharma, save beings from suffering.

In an age when it is not unusual to encounter people who believe that most of the world is your enemy, that happiness will come from sex and money, that whoever dies with the most stuff wins, that we should kill people to express our grievances, that lying is to be expected, that we should brutalize and enslave people who criticize us, that we should hide when frightened and placate our oppressors, it is difficult to practice well.

But despite all the imperfections of our age and the limits of our own lives, we do have some freedom even now. A few blessings, a clear mind, a healthy body, friends around us. A few moments of peace in the morning and evening for practice. The energy to do some good for someone every day.

One of these blessings is that we get to hear this: the Great Bodhisattvas are everywhere. Around us and within us. They will appear to us to guide us immediately, in infinite ways, as soon as we want them.

And that we can join with them right now.




by Jeffrey Brooks

The young fisherman stood on the deck of the boat and watched his home island recede into the ocean, sink down over the horizon, and vanish.

The wind moved their boat fast across the open water. Soon the time would come to cast their net over rail and into the sea. Down below the fish were swimming. All the men aboard the boat had seen the fish swimming together and eating each other as they swam in the coral at the edge of their islands.

Some fish gave up their lives so the other fish could live.

The fish these men would catch today would give their lives so the people at home could live. His father and grandfather and generations of fishermen since the beginning of time had risked their lives and sacrificed their lives so the people on the islands could live.

They couldn’t grow rice or potatoes in the sandy islands in this part of the sea. They couldn’t graze flocks of sheep or goats like they could in other places. Everyone at home depended on the catch these fishermen would bring back.

Sometimes storms would come. Sometimes the fish wouldn’t be there. You never knew, when you ventured out, what you would encounter.

Sometimes pirates would sail up and try to take the crew to sell as slaves, and take the fish for their own food, and take the boat to use for themselves. They would come on board with blades and hooks and you would have to be ready to kill them. The fishermen had blades and poles and hooks on board too, for fishing. They could be used against the thieves. But you had to know how to do it. You had to practice. Your life depended on it. The lives of all the people you have ever known depended on your safe return with a hold full of fish for them. And your loved ones would be unhappy if you disappeared at sea.

If the pirates did not come, if the typhoons didn’t blow, if the fish were running where they should be, then all would be well.

The young fisherman sat on the deck running the net through his hands. He looked for tears. The net had to be repaired every time they used it. And then cleaned and hung to dry at night. A little tear could become a big tear and the catch could be lost. A net left wet and dirty on the deck at night would be eaten by rats. If the net was sound then the weights and floats could be set just right to hold the net in position as it flew through the air and drew through the water.

The net was woven from cords made by hand from plants that grew on the island. The fibers were pulled from the stems of these plants. The fibers were twisted together to form strings. The strings were wound to form cords. The cords were braided to form ropes. The ropes were tied in intricate patterns of special knots at regular intervals to form the nets.

The young fisherman on the deck found a tear in the net. He pulled the frayed ends together and cut them clean. He spliced new cords to it.  Using his spike and needle he pulled the ends and wove the net quickly, evenly, with no billows or puckers or breaks. Just like he learned to do, on the beach back home, when he was a boy, when the old fisherman back from weeks on the water, unloaded the frayed nets on the beach for repairs at the end of the season.

When his father showed him exactly how to do it.

When his father told him “Do it well at first. You’ll do it fast soon enough.”

Now he did it fast. And soon enough it was done.

Together the crew wet down the net to soften the ropes, and spread it out on the deck. Together they lifted it up above the rail and one by one in rapid succession threw the net onto the pulsing sea, drops of water flying off each knot as the net flew through the air, in each drop a glimpse of the sunlight, and the boat, a small piece of the sea, in the air, flying up and then down, returning to the sea, mirrors of the weathered faces of these men, their ship, and the sky falling into the water with the net, and vanishing, only the six long lines leading from the boat to the surface of the opaque water hinting at what was below, where the net might be, and the droplets, like the moment, gone for good.

Each moment in our lives reflects all the connections we have to other people. If those connections are torn we can repair them. If there is a great tear then we can take time and work hard to fix the whole thing. If we ignore the small tears they become big tears. If we neglect this work then our whole connection to the rest of the world will be consumed.

Now there are many people tearing at our relationships with the people around us: indicting races, consigning nations to hell, substituting things for families.

If, in the olden days, the fishing nets were lost at sea, then the islanders were lost too. Now when our neighbors, our friends or our family members do not please us, we cannot afford to turn our backs on them.

Our only choice is to understand them, restrain them from evil as skillfully and vigorously as necessary, persuade them when we can, loving them when possible, and little by little, with courage and kindness, repairing the torn net we haul in at the end of each day.


From Daycare to Afghanistan

From Day Care to Afghanistan

by Susan Downing

My son Michael started day care when he was not quite a year old, and he spent every day of his first year in the company of either one or both parents, with a few hours here and there being tended by his grandmother, my mother.  At first, I didn’t feel totally comfortable leaving him with her.  Like all new mothers, I feared that my own mother, despite having far more child-raising experience than I, might not really be competent to care for my precious infant.  And so, when I was away from Michael, or Mikey as we called him then, and still occasionally do, I would always feel a little tug of anxiety.  As soon as I got home, I’d ask my mom for every possible detail of how the two of them had spent their hours together.  I didn’t want to miss anything. But gradually, after leaving the baby with her a number of times, I stopped worrying that something would go wrong in my absence and settled into a calmer frame of mind.

When Mikey started going to day care for a few hours a day, I didn’t cry at the door when we’d say goodbye the way he sometimes did, but in the course of the day, I would find myself wondering how he was doing: how long he’d cried after I’d left, whether he’d eaten enough, whether he’d napped, and so on.  And it didn’t matter that the woman who took care of the infants was the most wonderful care-giver you could ask for.  I would still sometimes worry.  After all, one hears horror stories about day care providers…  But before long, both of us grew accustomed to this new stage of life.  It got to the point where Mikey would barely wave goodbye, because he would rush off to play with his new friends as soon as we got to day care in the morning.  And I was also no longer plagued with worries about him.  We’d adjusted.

Almost 24 years have passed since those first day care days that were marked with tears and anxieties, and in these years, Mikey has moved through all the stages that come with growing up: from day care he went to kindergarten, from there to a new school in first grade, then a new class and new teachers and new friends each year, all the way up through high school.  Each new school year came with its own anxieties. Would the teacher be good? Why did they separate him from his closest friend this year?  How hard would AP English end up being?  Which colleges should he apply to, and where would he get accepted?

The day Mike’s dad took him out to Chicago to get him settled into his college dorm room was a tough one for me.  It was a little bit like leaving him with my mom for two hours, or dropping him off at day care for four hours or school for 6 hours, but it felt like a much bigger transition.  He’d be living far away, I wouldn’t see him every day, and I had absolutely no idea who all these people were he’d be living and studying with.  If something went wrong, getting there would be a lot more complicated and take a lot longer than driving down the block to the day care center.

But after the initial period of adjustment, once again, I settled into the new state of things. I think it was because by that time, I’d had 18 years of practice at making these transitions.  It wasn’t that I’d become casual about them or that I didn’t care what happened.  Not at all. It’s just that over time, with practice, I’d gradually and improved my ability to remain calm in the face of longer and more intense forms of separation.   I started out being able to tolerate that separation calmly for only a couple hours at a time before missing him or becoming a little worried.  Then I grew able to see him off peacefully for the morning, then for the whole day, then overnight, and finally, for the entire college term.

I was lucky that he moved from stage to stage rather slowly, because that gave me time to settle in after each transition, and find my equilibrium, instead of feeling constantly caught off guard.  If, say, he’d started day care one week and then I’d had to go away on a month-long business trip the next, I’m sure I would have been a mess, one giant bundle of maternal nerves and sadness.  But that isn’t the way it happened.

Certainly, one reason I was able to remain calm in the face of each of these transitions was my growing confidence in Mike’s ability to take good care of himself.  By the time he went off to Rome for the fall of his junior year in college, I trusted his good sense and intelligence enough that I was spared sleepless nights worrying about how he’d survive on the other side of the world.

But the other reason for my equanimity was that I’d had all those years of practice, repeatedly seeing him off and having enough confidence in his safety that I had been able to develop the habit of not worrying excessively.  Or obsessively.  I learned to redirect my mind, from worry to more positive thoughts.  It wasn’t that there was never anything to worry about, objectively. There was always something I could have freaked out about, had I chosen to: he lived in Hyde Park in Chicago, for heaven’s sake, and Rome is full of crime, and planes sometimes crash, don’t they, and what if he’s riding with someone who’s been drinking… There is never not a list of things that can go wrong.

That was certainly the case last year, when Mike was going through the Marines’ Officer Candidate School – followed by The Basic School and the Infantry Officer Course. All of last year, he was under more pressure than ever before in his life, in more danger.

And that’s precisely why I am so grateful that over the years I’d been able to develop that habit of not freaking out. Although we had less contact with Mike last year than ever before, because he was often unable to call home for weeks at a time, I got used to that, too.  The slight worry I felt at the beginning of the new stage settled down and I was once again able to approach the situation with calm.

I say habit, and I talk about developing that habit, because being able to respond with calm in the face of uncertainty is not something that comes naturally to us. It takes consistent practice and effort to develop such a habit.  When the Buddha sat down beneath the Bodhi tree, vowing not to get up until he was free of suffering and misunderstanding (see Jeff’s post from last week,) he was able to respond with calm and equanimity to everything he experienced that night because of his years of practice.  He hadn’t gone straight from the palace life to the Bodhi tree.  After leaving the sheltered life of the palace, he spent years training his mind and developing his insight into the world around him.  And that practice and insight enabled him to face the destroyer of worlds with equanimity.

Now, at first glance, seeing my son off – first to day care and then to each subsequent step on his path – may seem to have little in common with the path the Buddha followed.  But in fact, it is only a difference of degree of intensity.  The Buddha succeeded in part because he had developed the ability to hold his mind perfectly steady and calm in the face of distracting and destabilizing circumstances.  And although my level of equanimity can’t yet compare with the Buddha’s, I feel I am following in his footsteps: I engage in a practice that enables me to develop a steadily growing ability to meet the challenges I encounter in life without totally losing my bearings.

I described the transitions I’ve gone through with my son precisely because they are very every day transitions, familiar to all of us. And the calm it takes to make it through them without falling apart comes with continued, conscious practice.  Each time a new, more intense challenge comes our way, we have the chance to gauge how well we’re doing beneath the Bodhi tree of our everyday life.  But more important, we have the chance to make good use of each new challenge and strengthen our habit of responding with calm and equanimity.

Along with my whole family, I’ll soon have the opportunity to strengthen my calm and equanimity even more, because this fall Mike’s battalion will be deploying to Afghanistan for six months. And while he’s facing destroyers of worlds there, we at home will be facing our own version of them, supporting ourselves and each other by relying on the precious habits we began developing back when the biggest worry we faced seemed to be whether Mikey had gone down for his nap while I was out for the afternoon.


Facing the Destroyer of Worlds

Facing the Destroyer of Worlds

by Jeffrey Brooks

Buddha sat with his legs folded up on a circle of grass, shielded by the branches of a tree. After 17 years or three countless eons of search and preparation he decided not to move from that spot until he was completely free of suffering and misunderstanding.

There he sat. And before the morning star appeared he was confronted by three vicious enemies. These enemies were sent by dark forces to destroy his good, and the blessings he could bring to all beings forever. He knew the stakes when he sat down. He knew the enemies he would face before he faced them. He had faced these same enemies countless times before but never in the ultimate battle, never before in the most extreme form in which he would face them now.

He faced seduction. This might not sound like a big problem. It might sound very good. But to understand the danger of pleasure we only need to look around and see the effect that an addiction to pleasure has on the addict and the way in which people lose their opportunity for complete and lasting happiness by exchanging their lives for things that fade and leave only yearning and pain when they have gone.

He faced war. Vast armies appeared. He was surrounded. They launched spears and razor tipped arrows in his direction. The lure of war is the danger here, not the threat of death in battle. Sometimes people describe the difficulty he faced in this extreme of adversity as a letting go of his attachment to life. But there is also the attraction to battle that tempted him. The excitement of annihilating an enemy is nearly irresistible. All we need to do is look around and see infinite examples of people irresistibly drawn into conflict, seduced by the prospect of smashing their enemy and intoxicated by the results.

In all the great books people are fighting their neighbors. The Old Testament and New, the Koran and the Mahabharata, the chronicles of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, and in everything else ever written, people are setting each other’s teeth on edge and eventually it comes to blows.

We hear in the stories that people suffered injustice and exploitation. They overcame it. They want the generations to come to remember what happened to them and what they did about it. People want the world to know what they did to restore justice to the world. There is nothing wrong with that of course.

In the way the stories are told we can tell that some think they restored things to the state of primordial harmony that existed before their enemies disturbed it. Some speak as if they brought justice into the world for the first time, redeeming the world from perpetual chaos and bringing about a golden age.

But to us, after all this time, after all those stories, and all those wonderful lives expended and terrible lives extinguished, it looks like their victories did not stick. Their great battle was followed by another; another battle between brothers; another war between neighbors; and another and another; each taking precedence in the minds of the people who fought them over the dimming battles of the past, each new story told with fresh urgency, to the generations who followed.

If we feel comfort we might wonder why people keep fighting.

If we feel miserable and humiliated we might wonder why people would tolerate their misery like mice, without fighting back.

The Buddha remained seated, in equanimity. He did not get up. He did not drift away in his imagination. His blazing laser focus did not waver or fade.

This was not because he did not care about winning or losing. He did it because he had a broader perspective than an ordinary combatant or an ordinary lover or an ordinary person has.

It was as if he was sitting on top of the highest mountain in the Himalayas or on top of Mount Meru itself and could see the way in which everything, from his eyes to the horizon, from the highest heaven to the pit of hell, was in touch and connected to everything else.

He could see them move and transform. He could see without distortion that the boundary between life and death, the boundary between blessings and suffering, the boundary between past and present, the boundary between near and far were constructed by the movement of the mind.

That is how the razor tipped arrows turned into a torrent of flower petals. That is how the demons were banished and the search for salvation through physical experience was exposed for what it was in the light of that dawn.

Because his perspective was not limited by the idea that death was the end, or that you are your body, or that personal gain and loss are the measure of a life, he could see infinitely.

He could see how wonderful your family is, your tribe is, your band of brothers is, your race is, your religion is. He could see that building connections to the rest of the beings of universe is even more so. And that the only way that this connection can be made is by training your heart and mind to understand what you share with all these beings, and how they depend for their happiness on you.

He did not recommend tolerating their wrong deeds. He did not overlook the faults or shortcomings of the people he encountered. On the contrary. He saw clearly what was going on and did everything he could do to restrain harm, to protect whoever he could, and to further justice and kindness with skill and courage.

When we hear that “the greatest warrior is the one who conquers himself”: it is this battle, waged perfectly by the Buddha, we are hearing about. It is up to each of us to take on this challenge if we are serious about our cause.

When we say “he who knows himself and who knows his enemy will win every battle” it is precisely this knowledge, the insight achieved perfectly by the Buddha, which we are encouraged to seek. This does not mean to overlook tactical skill or practical battlefield knowledge. It means that may be necessary but it will not be sufficient.

We may never know what an oracle might mean by “Know Thyself.” But we can be sure of the possibility that is open to whoever among us achieves it.


In Mid-Spin

In Mid-Spin

by Susan Downing

Turns out that Mr. Spider was Mrs. Spider. (See my previous post, “Out of the Threads of the Past” for the story of how I came to be acquainted with this arachnid.)  I’d been watching the nightly web-building for nearly two weeks.  Some nights I’d seen a smaller version of my web-builder hanging out at the top of the web, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about.  So naïve of me!  Because at the beginning of last week, gazing out through the glass of my slider door, I noticed five tiny little spiders in the same spot where the big spider spun its nightly web.

These little ones were just like the big one, except super tiny. So small I could barely see them.  But once I did, all the details fell into place (with a little help from the internet.) Of course!  The big spider was the female, and the one hanging out above was the male.  Had I seen an egg sac around, I would have gotten the picture earlier.

For the next couple of days I delighted in watching the little ones.  At night they’d build tiny webs at the corners of mom’s.  (I wondered how they could possible eat anything that might fly into their webs, and then I learned that baby spiders feed on nectar at first.)  Like most young’ns I’ve known, these spider toddlers got up much earlier than their parents and took advantage of their temporary freedom to race around and play house. A couple of them would hang out in their own webs, while the others crept along remnants of their mom’s.  All of them seemed to be saying, Hey, look at us, we’re here on this web.  We’re cool! We know what we’re doing!  We’re tough! We’ll eat you if you get too close!

That phase lasted only a few days.  By week’s end, they were gone, off to explore the world on their own, I guess.  But Mrs. Spider was still there, spinning her nightly web, and Mr. Spider would make occasional appearances, too.

A few evenings ago, once darkness had fallen, I walked over to the slider doors and, as had become my habit, flipped on the outside light to see what Mrs. Spider was up to.  There she was, spinning the top anchor line for her web.  I turned off the light and went about my business.  When I returned a bit later to check her progress, I noticed that she was still working on that same line.  That was odd.  Usually she’d have her whole web done by now.  I leaned a little closer and noticed that she wasn’t moving.  At all.  At first I though she had just paused in her work, hanging from the line for a moment.  Then, leaning close to the glass to get the closest possible look, I saw that three of her little legs were curled up in the way you see dead spiders’ legs curled.

Aside from the curled up legs, she looked quite alive.  One front leg was gracefully, even elegantly, stretched out, lightly touching the web, while her back legs also still seemed somehow poised, in mid-step. In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider knows when death is approaching.  She tells her friend Wilbur the pig, “I’m done for. In a day or two I’ll be dead. I haven’t strength enough to climb into the crate. I doubt if there is enough silk in my spinnerets to lower me to the ground.”

Who knows whether Mrs. Spider sensed the end coming in some way.   It didn’t look that way to me. It seemed that she’d gone out as usual that night to build her web, and then, suddenly, death had taken her totally by surprise.  Or perhaps she had some unusual sensation, but just kept to her routine anyway.  As if denying the possibility that she might not complete her web that night.

Although I know that Mrs. Spider certainly didn’t engage in conscious reflection on her own experience of approaching death, it’s quite possible that she was aware that something was amiss, even if she didn’t express this the way Charlotte did.  And in keeping to her routine, denying the approach of death by spinning up until the very last second, Mrs. Spider seems a lot more like us humans than does Charlotte, despite the literary spider’s eloquence.  For when Wilbur the pig responds in a very human way to his friend’s announcement, with grief and denial, Charlotte says to him, “Come now, let’s not make a scene. Be quiet, Wilbur. Stop thrashing about.”

Who among us humans would be able to muster Charlotte’s sense of peace as death approaches, consoling our loved ones as they fall apart beside us?  It seems a rare achievement to me, to die without fighting it, to accept it as the inevitability it is.  Accepting a loved one’s death with equanimity is often more than we can manage, too.  It can also give us pause when animals die. And so I, realizing that Mrs. Spider had died, felt sad.  Partly because I had grown fond of her, but more because she seemed to unprepared for death, taken by surprise, and because this is the way we humans mostly die, too.

Before Charlotte dies, she enlists Wilbur’s help: she asks him to safeguard her egg sac so that her babies will not perish.   She tells him, “This is my egg sac, my magnum opus, my great work, the finest thing I have ever made.”  Wilbur carries out Charlotte’s last wish, and one fine morning, the tiny newborn spiders begin climbing out of this sac in a corner of the barn.

Given this joyful moment of new life at the end of the book, it’s easy to conclude that Charlotte managed to approach death with remarkable acceptance because she knew that she had done what she’d come into her life to do: to produce that egg sac.  But the young reader’s response to Charlotte’s death, and our responses to loved ones’ deaths, and whatever visceral response we have when we think about having to die ourselves some day – that grief or fear or denial is not something that will vanish as soon as we remind ourselves that the deceased achieved something in life that we see as valuable.  We use that reminder to distract ourselves from the very real grief or fear we’re feeling.  Because it can be too terrifying to think of death itself, of the moment when we ourselves can be unexpectedly taken by death.

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings called the Lam Rim (“Stages of the Path”) talk at length about death, its inevitability and its unpredictability:

“You will not get a message warning you, “Now prepare to die.” Death will strike suddenly one day and you will just have to leave whatever you are doing.  Even simple monks have to stop drinking butter tea, eating barley flour or noodles and go to their next life: this shows how uncertain the time of death is.

Grasping at permanence tricks you into thinking you have many years left, but the day will come when you will die.  People who will die from illness today are still thinking, “I will not die today.””

The Lam Rim makes such a big deal of the uncertainty and inevitability of death because knowing we’ll die, believing that we really will die, can prompt us to study and practice the Dharma:

The great risk is: before the tomorrow when

You were going to practice Dharma comes,

The time for you to die will come today.

So do not let your head be turned;

If you would practice Dharma,

Do it from today.

And His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his book Becoming Enlightened, explains the benefit such practice will give us:

“The fragility of life calls us to make a decision to implement spiritual practice right now.  Religion is not physical.  Although both physical and verbal virtuous actions are important, religion is a matter of mental transformation.  This means not just understanding something new but suffusing your mental continuum with this knowledge in order to tame your unruly mind and put it in the service of virtue.  This means that you must practice now. If you do whatever you can at the present juncture to transform your mind, then even sickness and pain while you are dying will not disturb the strong sense of peace, firm like a mountain, deep in your mind.”

The Lam Rim tells us that the Dharma is “your guide, captain and provisions for your journey when you die.”  It says that if we don’t practice, when we die, our death will be no different from that of a “stray dog in an alley.”

Or perhaps from that of a spider who perishes in mid-spin.

Now, the very night Mrs. Spider died, as she still hung there on the one completed strand of her web, a small spider busied itself weaving its own web in the corner.  But the next night, Mr. Spider took center stage, spinning a web right where Mrs. Spider’s had always hung.  And he’s been there every night since. There’s something comforting about that, I guess, a sense of familial continuity, just like the nice warm feeling I had when I watched the baby spiders begin their life of weaving.  But that’s not the essence of what I see in this story.

Mrs. Spider’s nightly spinning reminded me that we can transform our mind and our life by making good use of all that we learn as we travel through cyclic existence.  Her seemingly sudden death reminded me just how urgent it is to prepare for death by practicing and living out the Dharma.  That way we’ll be able to look back on a life we can be proud of, and we’ll also be able to leave the this life with genuine peace of mind, instead of thrashing about like a terrified moth unexpectedly trapped in one of Mrs. Spider’s webs.


New York, London, Paris, Munich

New York, London, Paris, Munich

by Jeffrey Brooks

In 1957 pop star Nat King Cole had a hit with his song “When I Fall In Love.” The younger brothers and sisters of the World War II generation were growing up and falling in love and learning how to make their way to adulthood.

He sang

When I fall in love it will be forever
Or I’ll never fall in love
In a restless world like this is
Love is ended before it’s begun
And too many moonlight kisses
Seem to cool in the warmth of the sun

When I give my heart it will be completely
Or I’ll never give my heart
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too
Is when I fall in love with you.

(All these performances are on You Tube. It’s hard to get what’s happening in the song just from the lyrics so you might want to check them out.)

The poetic couplet about the moonlight kisses, corny as it might seem now, shows that in the convention of this kind of song the intelligence and artfulness and tenderness of the singer matters.  With this, and through each verse, the lyric conducts a romantic persuasion beyond just yearning. The intention is a lifetime of committed love.

“The Way You Look Tonight” was written in 1936, but it was covered dozens of times by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the collegiate vocal quartet the Lettermen, who had a hit with it in 1961. This was the year of the Berkeley Free Speech movement, the post-beat, pre-hippie moment of Jack Kerouac and the Red menace.

But for most of the pop music-buying public this retro cover captured how they felt about love. In this song, still popular in the early 60’s, he rapture of romantic love was expressed as an appreciation of the qualities of a specific individual person.

They sang:

Some day, when I’m awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.

Yes you’re lovely, with your smile so warm
And your cheeks so soft,
There is nothing for me but to love you,
And the way you look tonight.

With each word your tenderness grows,
Tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose,
It touches my foolish heart.

Lovely, never, ever change.
Keep that breathless charm.
Won’t you please arrange it?
Cause I love you, just the way you look tonight.

(The Lettermen’s version is not close to the best but the fact that it was popular in 1961 matters here.  There are plenty of elegant versions to listen to.)

In 1967, one of the most popular songs of the year was the Motown hit “I Second That Emotion,” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. No need to take the pun in the title too seriously, because it was just for fun even then.

But if you are inclined you can see that the song is about following the rules and the title is a reference to Robert’s Rules of Order, one of the most beloved manuals of parliamentary procedure ever created.  (Debate could be halted by a motion from the floor requiring a vote on the matter at hand, only if the motion was seconded from the floor.  That was a way to prevent a lone individual from undermining the deliberations.) The reference would have been clear to citizens, students organizing student government or clubs, or anyone who had learned some of the ways in which human beings learned to work together even when they disagreed, instead of screaming or killing each other, like thugs.

This was just as the Great Society welfare programs were about to gut the family, depreciate men, valorize (and fund) multi-generational single motherhood; it was four years before Roe v. Wade, and it communicated a man’s right to choose, at least to take the responsibility to do the right thing. And it communicated the importance of self-restraint and a committed relationship to the kids who listened to it. And this was no prudish self-restraint. You watch Smokey Robinson sing this and you will see that he understands the suffering that inevitably follows the withdrawal of pleasurable experience. And he builds his insight into the hurt that comes from sloppy self indulgence and the psychology that produces it, verse by verse:

Maybe you want to give me kisses sweet
But only for one night with no repeat
Maybe you’d go away and never call
And a taste of honey is worse than none at all

Oh little girl, in that case I don’t want no part
That would only break my heart
Oh, but if you feel like loving me
If you got the notion
I second that emotion
Said, if you feel like giving me
A lifetime of devotion
I second that emotion

Maybe you think that love would tie you down
You ain’t got the time to hang around
Maybe you think that love was made for fools
So it makes you wise to break the rules

Oh little girl, in that case I don’t want no part
That would only break my heart
Oh, but if you feel like loving me
If you got the notion
I second that emotion
Said, if you feel like giving me
A lifetime of devotion
I second that emotion

And he mentions “breaking the rules” and he is referring to pre-marital sex or one night stands. These were soon quaint rules. There were strains on them.  Soon they ceased to be rules at all.  But for him and his millions of listeners, in 1967, this was a real issue and he had something to teach.

Then the deluge.

For example in 1970 Steven Stills releases “Love The One You’re With.” This was the year after Woodstock, dorms were full of weed, heads were full of acid, the streets were full of war protesters, and the stock market was rising like the morning sun.

It was the 1971 Crosby Stills and Nash version that everyone heard and learned and lived by. (At first it seemed like freedom. Ask anyone.)
Lyrics from: ]
If you’re down and confused
And you don’t remember who you’re talking too
Concentration slips away
Cause you’re baby is so far away

Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove
And eagle flies with the dove
And if you can’t be with the one you love honey
Love the one you’re with

Don’t be angry – don’t be sad
Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had
There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something to do

Turn your heartache right into joy
Cause she’s a girl and you’re a boy
Get it together come on make it nice
You ain’t gonna need anymore advice

In this case the poetic couplet – the rose in the fisted glove, etc. – isn’t coherent and isn’t even English. But it fit within the convention of stoned, Dylanesque obscurity. It was acceptable and it was not the part of the song anyone was paying attention to.

The same year, 1971, Carole King’s song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was a kind of anthem for listeners who thought it expressed what was in their hearts with utter honesty.

(It was a hit again a few years ago when it was covered by Amy Winehouse in a sincere sounding version she recorded just before she died at 27.)

It is a song full of longing and hope. It is stylish in a tin pan alley sort of way. But there is nothing more than hope in it. No volition. None of Smokey Robinson’s decision-making.  It presumes helplessness, as if there was nothing you could do but hook up and hope for the best. It has the intense yearning every gambler and drunk can relate to.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Tonight you’re mine completely,
You give your love so sweetly,
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes,
But will you love me tomorrow?

Is this a lasting treasure,
Or just a moment’s pleasure,
Can I believe the magic of your sighs,
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Tonight with words unspoken,
You said that I’m the only one,
But will my heart be broken,
When the night
Meets the morning sun.

I’d like to know that your love,
Is love I can be sure of,
So tell me now and I won’t ask again,
Will you still love me tomorrow?
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Naïve, self indulgent and without the benefit of either a psychology or social structure that could guide her to a healthy stable romantic relationship and life. If it was a one-time thing maybe she could learn from it. But it does not seem that that is how the song was heard or used.

Then came disco. In 1976 a hit song sung by a porn performer called Andrea True captured the moment: over the top sex, and musical performance with a strange, anesthetized affect. This song and this sound were the soundtrack for an era of cocaine and cruising, Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights:  The mention of ardent love for a particular person in pop music was gone. Intoxicated by massive amounts of anonymous sex, partiers had to crank it up with drugs and porn and that is what pop music described:

Ooh, how do you like my love
Ooh, how do you like my love
But if you want to know
How I really feel

Just get the cameras rolling
Get the action going
Baby you know my love for you is real
Take me where you want to

Then my heart you’ll steal
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more

How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
Ooh, how do you like my love

Ooh, how do you like my love
And if you want to know
What it means to me
Just hear the rhythm grooving

Get your body moving
Baby you know my love for you is true
Any time you want to
Do what you gotta do

More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it

More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like your love
Baby you know my love for you is real
Take me where you want to

Then my heart you steal
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more

How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like your love

A celebration of tab a and slot b. Not a hint of wit, or a gesture of seduction.  Nothing personal.

No need to trace the decline further: the generations that came of age in the 70’s and onwards were relentlessly advised by these values and examples. It is like that now, even more so.

Americans of the early and mid 20th Century lived through economic difficulties. They had to work hard to live and to maintain their dignity. This showed in their love songs, and the ideals they aspired to in their relationships. The songs were sweet at a time when life was hard.

The generations that served in WWII and the conflicts that followed understood that evil spreads if you don’t stop it, and they participated in stopping it.

Since then generations have come and gone who have been crippled by the comforts won by those earlier generations. While many have trained hard, studied hard, worked hard, and behaved with courage and decency, many have lost their way.

Subsequent generations believed they were wealthy enough to bribe their way out of difficulty; to appease tyrants and buy off discontents. They were wrong. Now the money is gone and the difficulties, the tyrants, and the discontents are stronger and more numerous.

People in the past few generations have been exploited by mass media; by producers who know they can pander to our weaknesses and desires – who know that we will pay and they will make money; they do this so they themselves can indulge, on a large scale, the same weaknesses and desires they have encouraged in all of us.

My generation was poisoned by the music we listened to and the values we absorbed. One of my professors, Neil Postman, wrote a book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” We have just about done it.

Contrary to what we were told, it turns out that people like to have a stable family to take care of and which they can depend on to take care of them, out of love, not out of contractual obligation, and not until something better comes along.

It is evident now that people want to have purposeful work, and have that work recognized and rewarded. We want to share our sense of purpose with our community and face the difficulties that arise together with others, and do it with courage and skill.

But to achieve this, good values and skills have to be taught and modeled, and they have to be learned.

If we neglect to create mature individuals, healthy families and communities then people will be unhappy. They will seek some way to overcome their loneliness and their uselessness.

A life of subsidy, pop music, movies, games and computers drain the life out of people, humiliate them, making them paranoid and angry.

They join gangs and become thugs that use violence on people weaker than themselves. They have affairs and become thugs that use sex without regard to others. They trick people and exploit them for money, through scams and advertising, as economic thugs.

As all these thugs, high and low, spread their values, our society declines. The connections between people dissolve. People get lonely.

Their minds fill with malignancy. Some will go looking for a target. Tall buildings. Movie audiences. Cities. Nations. There is no end to it.

Unless we put an end to it.

Let’s prepare now to do right: to act kindly when we can and courageously when we need to.

If decent people stick together, the thugs won’t disappear in a day, but they will never get a chance to take a second shot at stardom.


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