Archive for Buddhism

Out of the Threads of the Past

Out of the Threads of the Past

by Susan Downing

One night a couple of weeks ago, I happened to glance out the slider door that leads to my back porch.  Glimpsing something moving on the outside of the glass, I flipped on the porch light to get a better look.  It was a good thing that it was on the outside of the glass, because otherwise I would have really freaked out: a spider that looked just like a black widow except for being brown, was busily building his web.

Once I’d determined that, despite his bulbous abdomen, this fellow was a common orb-weaving spider, I stood there watching his progress for quite a while, long enough to see him complete enough of a web to catch a small moth and a tiny green stinkbug.  The next morning when I got up, there was no sign of Mr. Spider, his dinner, or his web.

The next night, he was back.  As he has been every night since then, with the same pattern of activity: build the web after nightfall, catch dinner and eat it.  But what happened to the web?  Why and how did it mysteriously (at least to me) vanish before the break of dawn each day?  The spot is pretty sheltered, and it seemed unlikely that it would be so fragile as to disintegrate within a matter of hours.  Was it an engineering flaw?

Until the other night, this seemed to me the most likely explanation.  I have observed Mr. Spider’s construction techniques, and I can tell you, those first few days, I was not surprised at all that the web didn’t last until morning. He would race helter-skelter, throwing anchor lines here and there, and then, in a breathless frenzy, connect them with other lines, using a pattern that seemed to have no rhyme or reason.  There were large gaps between the strands.  I was amazed that he caught any dinner at all those nights.

Then one night toward the end of the first week, when I turned on the porch light as usual to see what Mr. Spider was up to, I was surprised to see that in place of the crazy quilt webs of days past, he was methodically laying down a spiral of web atop the anchor lines.  Now this looked like a spider web! There were still a fair amount of space between the lines, but the whole effect was entirely different, both in the web that was taking shape and in Mr. Spider’s approach to the work: he was taking his time, step by step, carefully fixing each segment in place before moving on to the next.  By the following night, he’d tightened up the pattern, and his meticulous work paid off: a seven-course meal awaited him by the time I went to sleep.

But in the morning, again – no more web.  I was puzzled.  Certainly these new webs were sturdier.  Could they really not survive?  If he himself had taken it down, why on earth would he choose to do that and have to rebuild it again on each subsequent night?  It seemed so inefficient – a waste of time, energy and silk.

Evidently, I am not the first to be confounded by such questions, because the internet is full of discussion of whether spiders can learn to build better webs (they can!) and whether they rebuild them daily (some do, including my orb-weaving spider!) and why.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the last question:

Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location. Thus, the webs of orb-weavers are generally free of the accumulation of detritus common to other species.

It turns out that this process not only results in a new, pristine web every night, but has an added benefit: because the web silk is very high in protein, consuming it provides the spider with essential nourishment.  So, he feeds himself on the threads of his past web and then uses the energy he gains from them to consciously and carefully construct a new web.  A fresh start each time around.

One morning a few days ago, as I sat at my table, gazing out through the slider door from which Mr. Spider’s web had once again vanished, I began to see the webs and Mr. Spider’s approach to them as a metaphor for the process of moving through countless lifetimes.  With each new rebirth, the old life seems to be gone.  We may think we’re starting from scratch each time.  But we can’t say that about each of our lives any more than Mr. Spider could say that about each of his webs.  The past life is done, but its effects and usefulness are not exhausted.  We can make conscious, purposeful use of the elements of the past: we can begin to recognize the threads of unhelpful habits that have stretched from past lifetimes into this and learn to transform them, like spinning straw into gold.

And it isn’t only with each new life that we have this opportunity. We can see our missteps, nourish ourselves with the insights they offer, and then, every day, every moment, we can reweave the web of our life.


The Human Realm

The Human Realm

by Jeffrey Brooks

Some of the realms of existence are visible to us – the human realm and the animal realm – the others we can only imagine. But each of the realms of existence is governed by a specific state of mind. In the heaven realm the heavenly beings are beautiful and are governed by feelings of pleasure. They live in ecstasy, until the good karma they have collected by their past good deeds is used up, and they descend to rebirth in a lower realm.

The titans are powerful and are governed by envy.

The animals live by instinct and seek food and shelter.

The hungry ghosts are deformed and they are desperate for nourishment.

The inhabitants of hell feel only pain – physical torment, mental torment, and despair.

All these beings inhabit those realms due to the things they have done, said and thought in the past. And all will move to another realm when the karma that has cast them into their realm is used up. The hell beings will ascend, the heaven beings will fall, and all of us have inhabited all these realms, infinite times.

This kind of view was common to many religious traditions in India at the time of the Buddha.

To a modern, scientific person this all sounds made up. We are materialists by training and we believe in nature, science, politics, money and culture. We believe that life is constituted by cells; that consciousness is secreted by cells, and that when our body dies that’s that.

The idea that our world is constructed as the consequence of what we, personally, have done in the past, does not match what we have been taught. But it is worth checking out. It is worth checking whether the materialist worldview we have been taught is accurate. Because it is failing to bring happiness. It is producing a crop of envy, greed, depression, anxiety and despair; and the things we do to hold on to pleasure are causing endless trouble.

As human beings we are ruled by desire. We always want something. We are rarely satisfied. Our minds are disturbed by wanting things and our lives get used up trying to get what we think will make us happy. The attempt to find happiness in this way always fails. But the premise is rarely questioned. Instead of putting an end to desire we just pick a different object to pursue.

This insight underlies the full scope of Buddhist teaching.  The most sophisticated and potent philosophical expression in the history of mankind began with a warrior prince sitting in place and explaining to five yogis this: suffering permeates everyone’s experience; this suffering has a specific cause; since this suffering has a cause it has an end; and that there is a path we can take which leads to that end of suffering.

The Buddha spent the next 45 years of his life following up on this.


The Realms of Samsara

The Realms of Samsara

by Jeffrey Brooks

In heaven everyone is so happy to see you. They are delighted to catch a glimpse of you as you approach. They welcome you with tears of love. You feel the same toward them. The look on their faces, the grace of their bodies, the re-connection with people you love after not seeing them for a while, even if these are people you have never met before, or saw yesterday, is so wonderful.

That is how people feel about other people in heaven. That is how they got to heaven.

If you feel that way you will not hurt people or wish them ill or speak badly about them. You will act for their benefit, with their happiness first in your mind. And they will do the same for you.

The titans in their world, just below the heavens, can see the golden light streaming down through the clouds that block their view of the heaven realms. They can see the majestic mountains rising through the clouds. But they cannot see the tops of the mountains. And the mountains cast long shadows into their world. The titans know that up there everyone is happy and beautiful and serene and they just hate that. They want it. It is not fair. They do not know that it is a result of the past actions of the inhabitants in these worlds. That the mental habits of these people produce the conditions of their lives. They think that battle will tip the odds in their favor. So they take a break from contending against each other, and like Hollywood producers and movie stars, conspire together for a short time, against the people they envy. Then, for as long as their self-interests converge, they attack, sinking deeper into turmoil, calculation, conspiracy and exhaustion.

In the world of animals there is fellowship between a very few. A flock or a herd will travel together, but to all other species, all other flocks or herds, they feel no connection. To each animal, beyond their own tribe, all others are predators or prey, competitors or nothing.  To some degree they take care of their own eggs or hatchlings, and they mate. But mostly they eat others or are eaten by them, and most live their lives alone, occupied with the search for food and safety.

In the hungry ghost world everyone is isolated. Hungry ghosts live alone in a barren land, desperately hungry, goaded by thirst on an endless, fruitless quest for something to eat or drink. They are disappointed again and again, after crossing miles of blank desert arriving at the edge of what from far away looked like a lake they discover it was nothing but a mirage, now vanished, leaving them again desperate and unsatisfied. The karma that produces life in the hungry ghost realm is greed, and the selfish pursuit of things that cannot satisfy you, and being mean to others in order to get these things. People who are drug addicts or porn addicts or whose life is measured in money, whose unquestioned ideal is nothing more than “more” have a taste of the bleak obsession of the world of hungry ghosts.

In the hells there is no kinship, and no solitude. Any encounter with another person inspires instant, blazing hatred. On landing in the hells the being looks around and is immediately seized with overwhelming rage. The being will pick up anything they can find and start swinging and stabbing, trying to hurt or kill whoever they see. The others are doing the same to them. And that’s just the entryway. From then on, for as long as they stay, in each encounter, depending on the condition of their mind and the residue of the actions that brought them there, they will be tormented to a degree which is incomprehensible to people in this world. The karma that brings people to this condition is a radical separation from others, and cruelty toward them.

The human realm is very different. The karma that brings us here is very rare and good, but it is mixed.  Anything is possible. We can learn. We can discover that our lives are governed by our actions and that the conditions in which we place ourselves, the people we associate with, the things we value, and everything we do, think and say, form our lives.  We are free, not trapped by pleasure or pain, but free: We can learn. We can practice. We can choose. We can be heroes. We can save ourselves and others from suffering and protect them from harm.

These descriptions of the six realms of existence have a single through line – the regard for others. In Buddhism this is an essential part of our method.  Dedication to the well being of others is our path to freedom from suffering, and to freedom from the ignorance that creates suffering.

If we practice courage and kindness in this human world we will face difficulties. But we can bear even the greatest difficulties with equanimity if we know what to do and what to avoid; if our training is strong enough to do it; and if we understand the rewards of the path of a true hero.


Wonderful World

Wonderful World

by Jeffrey Brooks

I hear there are children who make a home for a caterpillar in a terrarium. They watch it spin its cocoon. They wait. They look at it every day. And one day the cocoon opens up. And out comes a butterfly. They can’t believe the miracle of this birth. They have never seen anything like it. They are amazed. They are delighted. They clasp their hands together and their eyes open wide and they look at each other without words not knowing just what to say, as if to say do you see what I see? There are times when we have our heads down. We have seen it all and done it all and we cannot see much besides perfidy and cruelty and pretense and lies. But there are times when I can’t find anything that’s not a miracle. A look out the window in the morning, or looking at the sky at night. Walking in the woods or sitting down at the table or looking at the face of a child or the eyes of someone you love, or look at anyone. Anyone. There are times when I cannot find anything that is not a miracle. Where did all this come from? Where will it all go? Sometimes I think I will miss it when I am gone but who knows what miracles are out there. Who knows what miracles we will find?


Thinking of You

Thinking of You

by Jeffrey Brooks

From a distance we can see how things fit together. From a mountaintop we can see roads connecting towns and cities, the sky, and the land rolling out beneath it.

From a distance the people we know look different. We see the ones we love with even more tenderness. We wonder about people we have hardly paid attention to before; about what they want and how they feel, what they have done, what they learned and what they think will happen next. And the people who caused us trouble, whose presence we felt as an affliction now seem to have no power at all.

It’s easier to let go of our grievances from a distance. In a movie, when the character looks down from heaven or from death or from the afterlife we see the world, through their eyes, from a distance. It is moving. The distance releases us from the narrow concerns of self interest and we feel uplifted and relaxed and we have to smile at the petty things that concern us so much day to day.

We see a painting of a mountain landscape framed in the foreground by the graceful arc of a blossoming cherry tree. We are reminded to look at the vast interrelationship between things, as we notice the beauty of what is close.

We see a painting of a luminous hillside framed by an arched window and the graceful shoulder of a girl.

Something feels good to us when we see our world from a distance. It’s like looking back over your life, after you have lived it. Or some of it. Or most of it. It looks different.

People go to the mountaintop for a reason. We need to overcome gravity to do it. It takes an act of will.

We need to actually do it; we cannot watch someone do it or hear about someone doing it, and expect the same result.

As we train ourselves in bodhicitta – the feeling of deep compassion for the suffering of beings which leads us to take responsibility to reach Buddhahood to save them – we learn to see the vast interdependence of things, from a distance as well as from up close.

As we train ourselves in wisdom we learn to see things and people and our own hearts and minds as inseparable from each other, inseparable from what we think, say and do,  inseparable from what we have done and from what we will do and from every one we ever knew or will know or will never know.

This gives us the freedom to do right and to work hard for the sake of others and to free ourselves and them from suffering and ignorance and loneliness.

We get a taste of this in the way the world looks from a mountaintop, in friendship, in family life, in brotherhood, in parenthood, in making someone else feel happy even for a moment, in forgetting grudges and forgiving fools.

We have all come so close so many times. But it’s easier to see from a distance.

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What Do Reiki Attunements Do, Anyway?

What Do Reiki Attunements Do, Anyway?

by Susan Downing

Everyone who receives formal training in Reiki receives what is called an “attunement” from his or her teacher.  Teachers give their students attunements are given at the beginning of each level of Reiki training (or sometimes more frequently,) and to an outside observer, it would look like the teacher is simply laying his or her hands lightly on the student’s head and then hands, while doing specific hand movements, or mudras. And yet, the effects can be very profound.  So, what exactly does an attunement “do” to or for the student? Since different teachers understand attunements differently, today I’ll share some of these views, including my own.

The standard answer, put forth by most Reiki teachers here in the West, is that the attunement enables students to practice Reiki by connecting them to the source of the energy they will then use in their healing sessions.  What doesn’t resonate with me here is that this view seems to imply that we can’t access that energy unless we receive an attunement.  I don’t believe that’s the case.

An explanation that appeals to me a bit more is that attunements initiate students into the practice of Reiki.  Pamela Miles describes it this way in her book Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide:  “Rather than adding something, I would say that the initiation process opens and strengthens what’s already there, what is already ours: the access to primordial consciousness that is our birthright.”  This is similar to how I explain attunements to my students. I say that although the energy you use when giving Reiki is already present within your body, when you receive an attunement, your awareness of this energy generally increases, so that you have the sense that suddenly there is energy flowing in you, energy you can use in Reiki sessions for yourself or others.

But here’s yet another way to think of what goes on during an attunement.  Reiki’s founder, Mikao Usui, was a Buddhist practitioner.  As part of his training, he would have received initiations from his teacher or teachers.   These initiations, often called empowerments, or blessings, in Buddhism, take place in a formal setting and involve certain rituals.  They formally mark the beginning of a student’s engagement with the given practice for which he or she is receiving the empowerment.  Sometimes this involves the students taking vows of some sort.  Following an empowerment, the teacher might sometimes take the students’ hands or place a hand on the student’s head.

The empowerment is a key factor in the student’s practice: it establishes a formal and conscious link between student and teacher and formalizes the student’s commitment to the given practice, a commitment to working with the teacher within that practice.  Even so, these empowerments don’t do anything to a student in the sense that they don’t literally enable a student to practice: with or without an empowerment, one could technically carry out all the practices associated with a certain training, assuming you could find out what they were! All the same, even if the empowerment doesn’t flip some “on” switch in the student, the student does experience an effect from receiving one.

For example, if you have received this kind of empowerment from a Buddhist teacher, you might have noticed that you experienced very strong positive emotions and even physical sensations during or after the empowerment.  Maybe you felt very happy, or full of energy, or maybe you felt even overcome by emotion.  Perhaps you felt an increased connection to the teacher who offered the empowerment, a feeling of gratitude and a strong motivation to practice, a sense that you had become part of some wonderful joint effort that includes not only you and your teacher, but all those before you who have engaged in this same practice.

So, although it would have been theoretically possible for you to engage in a given Buddhist practice without an empowerment, receiving the empowerment gives your confidence and motivation a big boost, connects you to the tradition in which you’re practicing, and assures you of the ongoing commitment of your teacher, so that as you move forward, you will be certain that you are learning and carrying out the practice correctly.

The responses to empowerments that I mention above are not only common among Buddhist practitioners.  They are also very similar to what Reiki practitioners experience following an attunement.  So, there is a very real benefit to receiving the attunements that Reiki teachers offer, even if we can’t always identify exactly what goes on during an attunement.

There is also, I hasten to add, a very real benefit to establishing an ongoing relationship with a Reiki teacher, one that will sustain and nourish you long after your given Reiki class has ended.  Although, as I noted above, it is possible to engage in various Buddhist practices on one’s own without receiving guidance or empowerment from a teacher, I feel strongly – and my personal experience with my own teacher has confirmed this time and again – that one is much better off working consistently with a teacher.   The teacher encourages you, helps you see where you are misunderstanding things, and points you in the right direction.  A stable connection with a teacher also helps keep your motivation and enthusiasm up during the inevitable periods when you feel you’ve hit a plateau or somehow gotten off track.  You can think of it this way: each moment of contact with your teacher becomes a mini-empowerment, a new blessing, whether it is formal, or ritualized, or takes place unconsciously in the course of study or a conversation.

This is exactly what your Reiki teacher can give you on an ongoing basis.  (And this is definitely the way I feel about my relationship with my own Reiki teacher.)  This, for me, is the real significance of the attunements that I offer my students.  Giving you an attunement doesn’t somehow magically transform you into a Reiki practitioner.   Anyone who wants to do self-Reiki can learn to do that by following a few easy instructions (see my last blog, “No Experience Necessary”.) And that is fine as an introduction, just the way it’s fine to pick up a book about Buddhism, read about the basic concepts and begin trying to put them into practice.  But once you’ve tried a little self-Reiki, if it resonates with you, then you should find a teacher and do some formal training, just as you would do if you wanted to learn to practice Buddhism seriously.  And this is where the attunements come in.  I always give my students attunements in my formal classes, because this is the point at which they have decided to make a commitment to practicing Reiki.  Giving my students attunements establishes the teacher-student connection and commitment and is encouraging and inspiring and motivating for the student.  It is a starting point on the student’s path of developing a regular Reiki practice.

So, somewhat paradoxically, you could say that Reiki attunements are in one sense unnecessary if you want to practice Reiki, but in another sense, absolutely vital if you want to establish a strong Reiki practice.

And I want to say one more thing about attunements. Receiving attunements is very joyful and inspiring, but giving them is even more wonderful. There is something so beautiful about marking and sharing the moment when a student makes that commitment to beginning a Reiki practice.  During attunements, it feels to me that all is possible for the students as they start off on their Reiki path. And even if I never see them again after the class ends, at least they will know, from experiencing the connection that is established with me during the attunement, that they are not alone on their path. They will always have somewhere to turn for guidance or for some shared Reiki, or simply for a conversation that will be a sweet blessing for us both.


Shut Up and Train

Shut Up and Train

by Jeffrey Brooks

ShutUpAndTrain (1)

Some people in the class wanted skills they could use to make their lives better. Some people were looking for approval. But it did not matter to me which they wanted in that moment, or what their motives were when they walked in the door. In that moment, in that class, I knew that the way they would get good was to train sincerely. The way they would get good that month or that year was to train consistently. Setting that as the requirement for the classes would mean that the people who wanted to get skill would get it, and the ones who merely wanted approval or status would disappear.

Long explanations of how to do techniques are not so helpful. Translating movement into language is inexact and inefficient, and it requires that the listeners then translate the instructions they have heard back into movement. It is more efficient to show a move and then ask people to copy what they see. After repeating the technique many times they become more focused, more fluid, more spontaneous, more in touch with the nuances of the movement. Then refining the movement becomes easy. No long explanation is necessary.

That is why I used to say, when I was teaching karate for hours every day for decades, that it’s best to just shut up and train. I was not commanding people in a condescending or disrespectful way. I was explaining the idea, just like I did here.

So when Sensei Reynolds painted the nine foot tall, three foot wide scroll of the words Damatte Keiko (Japanese for shut up and train) and hung the scroll in the alcove in the front of our dojo, it was not an affront or even a command. It was a reminder that the shortest path to mastery is practice.

Of course there is a time for analysis and reflection and theory. But these are like vitamins in our diet. Very small amounts are healthy and necessary.

Although the dojo no longer exists the scroll does, and the insight it represents continues to be relevant. Because, after training consistently for a time, without anyone having to say so, it becomes evident that the training period does not have boundaries.

We face the reality of our lives every moment. Not just during a training session but always. If our aim is to think, speak and act ethically, if we recognize the danger of permitting our mind and our life to be impulsive and self indulgent, if we learn the value of cultivating a calm, clear mind and an insight that penetrates the heart of reality, then every moment is an opportunity to train.

Then we do not need to freak out when we face difficulty. But what we can do, if we have trained well enough along the way, is to regard the difficulty as the reality of our life in that moment, and take responsibility for dealing with it, and face it, and resolve it or move ahead, with skill and equanimity.

We do not need to collapse into arrogance or wastefulness or self congratulation when things go well. What we can do is recognize the temptations of idleness, arrogance, greed, promiscuity and gluttony and behave properly, using our precious lifetime well, training ourselves to make progress in the good when we can.

We do not need to stand idly by when harm is done to us or others, as if having a weak mild nature that just goes with the flow is somehow good. Instead we can use our strength and skill to help where we are needed and the strength to withdraw when our service is done.

In this sense all of our life is training. And no amount of explanation, theorizing, or approval will substitute for genuine, wordless, skillful life.


Who’s Responsible?

Who’s Responsible?

by Jeffrey Brooks

History is not your boss. There may be trends beyond our control but our response to them will be within our control.

Western thought assumes a flow of history. In Christian teaching there is development to an end. There will be final war and final judgment. Western philosophy is thick with world-historical forces, teleology, the inevitable resolution of class conflict in a worker’s paradise, the end of history in liberal democracy, the return of the church or the caliphate.

Buddhism explains why this is not so. There is a cycle of events in Buddhism. Great epochs arise, endure, decline and dissolve again and again. They occur on a cosmic scale, in the course of a lifetime, and in every moment.

In each era, in each life, in each moment, there may be rise or fall. These changes in our condition depend on what we have done and on what we do.

So if we live in a decadent time we can still strive to be great, to serve and to be happy.

If we live in a time when decency is derided and virtue is crushed we do not need to be discouraged by this. We persist in learning what to do and then doing it. We will set an example, plant a seed, bring some happiness into the world, and experience the result of our goodness ourselves.

People may condescend to us because of our gender, or mock us because of our race, but we are not defined by our race or our gender or by other people’s treatment of us. We can respond to this as we choose, and persevere in equanimity and in decency despite the difficulty.

There are modern writers on Buddhism who talk about a “collective karma” of countries, races, and groups. I have never seen this phrase used in classical Buddhism in this sense. Each of us has our own karma. We will each respond to our experience uniquely, based on our habits and knowledge and strength.

Even if our economy surges and everyone gets their own giant house, cars and pool, each person will experience this uniquely.

Even if our city is destroyed, each of us still will have our own experience of this and will reap the result in our own way.

Buddhism teaches that there is a rise and fall of fortune for each of us and that it depends on our actions in the context of every cause and condition in our universe. The way out of the instability is to do right, see deeply, act kindly and so enter into the endless peace and freedom and virtuous action of Buddhahood. We can all do it.

This means we are free to live fearlessly and righteously in accord with or despite what swirls around us in the street, in the media, in the impressions we receive from our moment in history.


The Training That Gives Life

The Training that Gives Life

by Jeffrey Brooks

A central premise of Buddhism is that we create our own reality by the way we think, speak and act. If we act virtuously our lives become happier. If we act non-virtuously we suffer.

Virtuous actions are: treating others well, being generous, being patient, joyfully doing good, keeping the mind clear and stable, and seeing deeply into how things work. That is what we are taught to do with our time.

We are taught to not do the things that distract us, and which themselves cause us trouble: killing, stealing, lying, intoxication, sexual misconduct, splitting people apart, being lazy, being stingy, being angry and believing that our actions have no consequences.

These prescriptions are not special to Buddhism. Mature people everywhere know that what may feel good for a moment will soon turn to misery.

Following this advice allows us to experience inner peace and good relations with others. This is a natural state. What we enjoy about being on a team, in a family, in a squad, is the feeling that we are not separated from the other people. The more our lives are shared with other people, the more precious those people are to us.

Today many people live in a state of perpetual exile. Lonely, anxious, angry and afraid. This is a result of what they have done.  But, whether or not they see it, they are free at any moment to act kindly and rejoin humanity.

They might be reluctant to do this because they think they will be hurt or taken advantage of or thought foolish or will lose what they have.

But acting kindly is not the same as being weak.

American Zen and American martial arts both are permeated with the false and harmful teachings that came from generations of Japanese teachers who did not have a good Buddhist education, embraced an ethos of world conquest, and expressed their advocacy of suicide terrorism in words borrowed from Buddhism.

“The sword that gives life” and “If the enemy falls on your sword it is his fault” and “Treat your life like so much straw” or “Be indifferent to whether you live or die” are not Buddhism. In their writings, DT Suzuki, his teacher Soen, Yasutani, some of their American students and followers that spread out from the California Zen centers of the 60’s and 70’s, and some of their followers today, write and speak as if there is wisdom in these expressions.

In the safety of a dojo, where the worst that can happen will be breaks and bruises, wounded pride and delayed gratification, there may be some fascination with the bold sound of these expressions. But in the world of the military and of law enforcement, in the culture of people who are actually required to face danger, no one falls for this.

There may be a time when sacrifice is required by duty. And there are more important things in this world than staying alive. But to be indifferent to your own life, to instruct people not to care about whether they live or die from one moment to the next is not Buddhism and it’s not warriorship.  These Japanese Zen teachers were advocating that the young kamikaze pilots and front line troops believe in the same inverted values that the jihadi terrorists of today are encouraging their bombers and suicide bombers to believe.

There is a time to fight. But the motive must be just and the means must be in place. Placing loyalty to authority above all other virtues, filling your heart and mind with hate and teaching that it will only be relieved by killing, that blind obedience and team interest and the murder of innocents will be rewarded in the afterlife, has nothing to do with Buddhism.

There may be a time to fight. That may bring a moment of respite in a crisis. It will not be the source of lasting happiness or peace.

As human beings we can protect each other with our lives. By making our lives useful. Not by throwing them away. By being strong for each other and kind to each other. Then when danger comes we will be prepared to stop it. And when peace follows we will not descend into self indulgence but can continue to practice virtue, creating the causes of happiness and the end of suffering for everyone.

And as we live this way we see that the boundary of my self extends far beyond my body, my mind, and my stuff.


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.”


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