Archive for Law enforcement

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.

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Why Study the Works of Je Tsongkhapa

Why Study the Works of Je Tsongkhapa

by Jeffrey Brooks

If we carve out a half hour of peace in the midst of a busy day it can be very healthy and good. But if we are only spending the half hour trying to feel better then the effect of the time will dissipate quickly, will leave us longing for more peace and dissatisfied with the rest of what we do.

If we have a greater purpose, a purpose to which we apply our experience of peace in that half hour a day, a purpose which encompasses not only that practice period but our whole day and our whole life, then the effects of practice, instead of dissipating, will accumulate. Then we can have the life we want and put an end to suffering.

Staying sequestered in a monastic retreat setting, high in the mountains, surrounded by nothing but sky, light, rocks and trees, if you are prepared and can practice well, you can sustain a feeling of exaltation and profound peace.

You may sense that this is a feeling. You may see that although this is a good feeling, this is a feeling that can pass, because it is produced by conditions and which, when those conditions change, will dissipate. You may remember that down the mountain there are people who have never even imagined such a feeling. Who are trying to make themselves happy in a way which is inadequate, which is producing dissatisfaction, unhappiness, and suffering. You may want to offer these beings something to help them if you can.

You better know what you are doing. Because most of the beings you have all that compassion for have no particular interest in your assistance and are pretty sure they are on the right track already. And anyway, what makes it your business to butt in?

If we take Buddhism seriously and we study it we will learn what to do and what to avoid. We will be advised to avoid killing, stealing, lying, intoxicants and sexual misconduct and we will be advised to take care of other people, and see deeply into the way things exist.

If we study well, both the scriptures and our own heart and mind, we can learn that following this advice leads to happiness and ignoring this advice leads to misery. If you do see deeply, through persistent meditation and study, you can’t help but want to help other beings who do not know about these ideas and methods.

Example: One human may startle awake, open his eyes which are hurt by the light, with a pulsing headache behind them, and see inches away from his face a crumpled, open, half empty Fritos bag that says Good Fun! on it in happy, red letters.

He does not notice it and instead goes in search of the pipe he used last night or this morning or whenever it was, in the hope that there will be a little rock left in it, or at least some residue, just enough to get him going. His mind is feverish and he is in a rage. He finds the pipe. Lights it up. Nothing.

He gets in the car. It is filled with junk. He checks the mirror and backs out. He catches a glimpse of his face. To others he looks sallow and sunken with bad teeth and sores but to himself he just looks tired. He backs out. He rolls down to a subdivision he knows well. He used to know a kid that lived there. He rolls slow, looking in windows, looking at driveways, looking at doors. He knows what to look for. He pulls down a driveway and his car disappears behind a line of trees. He knocks on the door. If someone comes to it he asks for Jason. If no one comes he kicks it in or pries it open or walks around to the back and uses the slider. Whatever.

He walks in. He goes right to where he knows that people keep their stuff. Fuck them if they are so stupid to not take care of it, he thinks to himself as he goes through the closets and the drawers. And fuck them if someone is in here and shoots me because it would not feel any worse than I feel right now – a thought he has but not quite consciously.

He walks out with a bag in each hand and gets in his car and drives away with a billion bugs crawling under his skin.

It wasn’t always like this.

It used to be he would scope a neighborhood carefully. Watch the houses and watch which ones were empty when and for how long. He really knew his business.

And he would get high and he would be bulletproof and fearless and it was fuckin perfect and he would go out again.  He was untouchable. He would hit ten or twenty houses in a day or two and then party. Then he started getting sick. Then he got into a personality conflict with someone which was only about the money, not about anything else. Then his friends turned against him.

Then he got caught. It was totally unfair, because the time he got caught was a chance thing. Some people came home when he was inside and then the po pos was just everywhere.

“I didn’t even know they had that many cars. They could have talked to me. I never hurt anybody.”

It’s easy to feel sorry for a self centered predator if you would like to do that. Look how he grew up. Look at the songs he listened to and the games he played. Look at the people he surrounded himself with and look at a world that ignored what they thought, and tolerated the way they behaved, until it was way too late.

It’s easy to feel sorry for the people he preyed upon. Who restrained themselves when tempted, who were kind and generous when they could be, who took care of their children, regretted their shortcomings, and worked hard every day. Or who didn’t, but were scared to death anyway when they came home to their door kicked in and their precious things gone: people who are targets not only of addicts and thieves but of sophisticates who make points by mocking them and artists who make a living by shocking them; people whose decency is out of style at a era of social decline.

So what do you do? First train yourself thoroughly in what to do and what to avoid. And then, when you are ready, leave the training hall and see what you can do. Teach the ignorant, heal the sick, protect the innocent. Have a purpose that encompasses your training period and extends through every hour of the day and permeates every word every gesture every act every thought.

Then the exaltation of the mountaintop and the agony of the pit are united within your purpose and all of it will be available for the benefit of beings. But, according to Buddhism, you better know what you are doing.

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Language as Symbolic Act

Language as Symbolic Act

by Jeffrey Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some details in this police incident have been changed.)

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

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Vigilance

Vigilance

by Jeffrey Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Details in this police incident have been changed.)

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

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The Other Lives of a Cell

The Other Lives of a Cell

by Jeffrey Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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That Undiscovered Country

That Undiscovered Country

By Jeffrey Brooks


“…To die, to sleep;

To sleep, perchance to dream

ay, there’s the rub:

For in that sleep of death

what dreams may come…”


Most of us assume that we are our body and mind, and we assume and that our body and mind are material. That is what we are taught.

My high school biology teacher shared a fact with us, a fact I heard repeated many times when I was young: that all we are is 95 cents worth of chemicals.

Speak for yourself, I told him, in my 14 year old imagination.

If we believe we will simply go out of existence as the breath leaves our body and our mental activity subsides then what constraint on our behavior is there when we are alive? One can be decent or one can be corrupt and it all comes to nothing in the end. If my biology teacher believed what he told us young impressionable kids then he would be living his life for nothing much.

If you believe in the conservation of energy and the conservation of matter it is not a stretch to believe in the conservation of mind. That our minds are caused by the previous instant of our mind, not by brain chemistry or cells, and that while our bodies return to dust our minds stream on.

According to Buddhism the most important determinant of our next rebirth is the quality of our minds at the time of our physical death in this life. Next most important are the mental habits we form over our lifetime.

A materialist may deny this. He or she may yell and scream, eat, giggle and mate, sleep and crave and croak, but whatever they do they will do it while inhabiting an inexplicable nonsensical universe, a world of chance and injustice. Which is probably about as well as 95 cents worth of chemicals can do.

But what if everything matters? What if the things you value form your world? What if the mental habits you develop shape the life you are living now, touch the lives of the people all around you, and echo on for good or bad for all time?

Then you would use each moment well. Then kindness and courage would matter. There would be a reason to be honest and strong, to take care of others not just serve yourself, to choose not to participate in the cons and rackets all around you but to find a noble path to walk through life.

Then the quality of your life would be beautiful and admirable and something worth living.

The great Buddhist master Atisha was making the long trip from India to Tibet on horseback a thousand years ago. With good weather it could take months but he could not depend on good weather crossing the Himalayas.

Atisha was a great teacher when set out to revive Buddhism in Tibet, and he had many attendants, students and monks travelling with him. Atisha was a great practitioner as well as a great teacher and any time a mental disturbance would arise in his mind he would dismount, kneel on the ground and perform a brief ritual.

He was scrupulous in his mental awareness and made sure to settle his mind and remove the disturbance – the desire, anger or misunderstanding – that clouded his mind. He knew very well that each harmful thought that would arise, a result of infinite negative habits and mental disturbance, would plant a seed in his mind which would blossom and inevitably cause suffering in the future, and would increase in magnitude, unless it was completely eradicated.

He was able to do this karmic purification because he noticed the condition of his mind, he knew the difference between helpful and harmful mental states, and he was able to create a good mental habit to replace the harmful one.

Even though his retinue really wanted to get where they were going, warm up and have some tea, Atisha was the boss and if he was stopping every 30 feet on the road to Lhasa to do his prostrations and repentance then that’s the way it goes. But little by little, as the months passed, they began to pay a little more attention to the quality of their own minds. And understand how serious the consequences were if they left their minds uncultivated.

When I was in police academy training I aspired to be someone who could be of help in an emergency. I wanted to be sure I could do it well. At the beginning I did not have the skills to do it well. No one does. That is why they have academy training. The training makes demands on you which require you to change. The training makes physical demands on your body, so you get stronger and faster. It requires you to study, to memorize, to know the law and the rules and the procedures to follow, to perform skillfully and make good decisions under pressure.

The training requires you to learn that you can do more together than you can alone. Some of these lessons are easy for some and difficult for others, but everyone needs to learn them all to be effective and to pass the academy and to play the role you wanted when you started. Not everyone succeeds. With good instructors the sincere and able ones do.

My class had been on the firing range since 6 in the morning. It was an outdoor range and this was mid-February, with snow knee deep on the ground. We shot all day. Pistols, rifles, and shot guns. We stood and shot, kneeled and shot, proned out in the snow and shot, ran from barricade to barricade, drilled, reloaded, moved, and did it all again and again. We had limited days on the range and now, after 13 hours in the cold we were just about wrapping up training for the day.

If the Himalayas are colder than this, or have more snow or heavier winds than we had then those people must dress for it. Because we pretty well froze once the sun went down.

Dozens of boots moving up and down the courses of fire all day pounded the snow into a hard gray slush with thousands of rounds of brass shell casings embedded in it. The head instructor, who had our careers in his hands, who we respected for his skill and leadership, who could split a blade of grass with a rifle at a hundred yards using iron sights, who had seen it all and done it all himself over the course of his career, said “Okay, pick up the brass and let’s get out of here.”

We began. You have to pick up the brass after every time at the range. It’s always done. Because its cleaner, safer for the next shooters, and you can recycle it.

But this late, this cold, this tired, no one was thinking about it. Fingers were frozen but you couldn’t really grab the cartridges out of the snow with gloves on. There was less enthusiasm for the job than there might have been. People ambled around with their buckets, stooping now and then…

One of the guys, a little older than most, someone with experience, looked around at these young guys half heartedly filled their buckets with snow and brass and looked at me with an expression that said “There is a better way to do this.”

It might not seem that you could communicate that with an expression but we had worked together many times before and I knew what he meant immediately.

He set his bucket down by his left foot. He knelt down on both knees. He dug into the snow with both hands, and plucked out a frozen metal cylinder. He did it again and again. He cleared a few inches. A few feet. He moved his bucket over and did not look up. He continued.

He was not trying to take it easy, or get away as soon as possible. He was going to use this moment. He would do this like he would do any tedious job that was required of him.

He knew that if you are collecting evidence at a crime scene you need to be meticulous. If you are conducting an interview with a suspect, or canvassing a neighborhood, or searching a database it can take a long time and you have to pay attention the whole time. Because that is what it takes to do what we are asked to do every day. There are no shortcuts. Doing it right is the shortcut.

One of the guys saw him kneeling in the snow, bent over like that and asked him “What are you doing?”

The guy said “I am going to stay here as long as I need to to get this done.”

And everyone knew everyone was staying as long as it took to get it done. And all the half hearted efforts, all the guys who would stoop down and grab a cartridge and place it into the bucket and shuffle here or there, one by one, staked out a square of ground and kneeled in the snow and got it done.

If we are going to be of real service we need to be that meticulous. With our work. With our practice. With our lives.

If you are not paying attention to what really matters you will end up as 95 cents worth of chemicals.


Jeff Brooks has taught martial arts and Buddhism for many years. He studied in the US and on Okinawa. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as firearms instructor and defensive tactics instructor, and in criminal investigations.  He can be reached at  mountainkarate@gmail. com.


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All the Rage

All the Rage


by Jeffrey Brooks

For him it was a river of doom. Not for me. For me it was a long driveway to a small trailer up a hill where his mom lived.  There were two places he would be. The other one had already been checked out.

It was a long driveway. We just rolled in slow about halfway up, lights out, and stopped under a huge poplar. Shut the engine and listened. Watched the lights in the trailer. Watched the shadows and grass. Opened the doors and stepped out into the evening air.

If this was where he came to it would have looked different to him than it ever looked before. It wasn’t a homecoming this time. It was goodbye.

We stayed still in the shadow of the tree and we watched and listened. Crickets.

Years ago I spent a few weeks in the desert, shooting all day every day. Every environment, dark and light, buildings and fields, roads and rooftops, smoke and strobes, a hundred scenarios, searching, running, waiting, hunting, driving. You could feel your skills really peaking by the end of the school. The lead instructor thanked us and commended us. Then he said but you know sometimes there’s a sniper on the roof and it’s not your lucky day.

I watched the roof.

There are special ways to knock on the door of a trailer at a time like this, because it’s easy to shoot through the walls from inside.

The door opened. It was mom. Her face tightened up when she saw it was us but she was pleasant and polite and invited us in. We asked if her son was there. She said no, she hadn’t seen him. Her hands were pressed together and she looked tense like she’d been through this before. Beneath her feet her grandson played, zooming his fire truck around under the kitchen table. He looked up at us, made sure we were looking at him, turned the little red light on top of the fire truck on, and zoomed his truck a little faster than before.

On the TV and on our radios there was news of people screaming at each other. Making demands, threats, and accusations. They were grimacing, mocking, sneering and clubbing each other for money and delight. Or sitting at home or sitting in traffic wondering what it was all about.

People like us drove through this maze of ugliness and greed every night and marked off the pools of blood and pieces of evidence, photographed the wounds, listed the missing items, interviewed the victims, found the witnesses, and identified the suspects who we held until they were released.

Thugs and bands of thugs attacked innocent people who were mystified and nauseated by their unexpected misfortune. They could hardly believe it was really happening to them even when the punches sent them reeling and the found themselves suddenly lying on the dirty ground. But, except in scale, how much different was it from the exploits of some of the so called great conquerors of history who swept across continents, rode from town to peaceful town, and killed and smashed and stole and laughed at the misery of their victims, victims who wondered what madness, what cruelty, would drive people who lacked nothing, to do such evil to them.

Stopping that is why we have a military and stopping thugs from preying on the innocent is why we have the cops.

But grandmom saw us differently. She saw us as people who could set her son free. Because, she explained, he was a good boy. He really was, she said.

He really wasn’t, from what we knew. We saw him on video at a convenience store being not good at all.

She thought back about how he used to be when he was the age of the little grandson under the table and what he liked, what foods and what toys, and what he talked about to her sometimes, not so long ago. She told us about him as if it was our decision, as if, if she could just get us to see him as she did, that we would understand, that we would just disappear back into the evening and the setting sun, leaving no trace, leaving everything like it used to be. The dust would settle on the driveway as we drove away, leaving her and her family in peace.

She was about 5 seconds into her story. We asked if we could just take a look around to be sure he wasn’t there.

When we heard footsteps on the porch we had only a second to turn to the door. It snapped opened and the doorway filled with a big fat red faced guy who was breathing hard. It was the uncle of the guy we were looking for.

He looked like he told himself he was a big man but he moved like a cat; like he told himself he looked strong and tough. He looked irritated and unhappy and uncomfortable and his face was contracted like he was at the end of his rope, like he was about to have a stroke. He shouted “Get out! “

“Sir, we are looking for…”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“An arrest warrant was issued…”

“No search warrant?” His eyes showed satisfaction in playing what he believed was his trump card. “Get out!…”

He said it as a threat, and he stood in the one narrow doorway, blocking our way. This kind of intimidation must have worked for him in the past, as he seemed accustomed to using it.

The little grandson hugged his fire truck and hid behind his granny, as far back as he could get. She looked down and froze.

Someone out there somewhere keyed a mic and we heard on our radios that the suspect we were looking for was spotted hiding in a field; the radios just barely audible while this guy was shouting.

He screamed at us and blocked the door. He let loose with a stream of hate that would blister your skin if you would be a target for it. I wasn’t. It blew by. But he went for it. Hated cops and hated all the people who tried to push him around…

I don’t know who he was talking to but it wasn’t me. It wasn’t my partner either. He didn’t see us like we saw ourselves. He didn’t know a thing about either of us. He didn’t see us like the woman or the little boy saw us. Or like our co-workers, friends, family or anybody who knew us saw us. Not that they’d all agree either. But still…

The radio updated the status of the search of the field down the road.

We were done here. I communicated to Mr. Big that he needed to move out of our way and he did.

Everyone has their own impression of who it is they are speaking to: some of that impression comes from their own imagination and some of it comes from out there in the world in front of them.

People speak to each other as if they know each other but they often get it wrong. It’s no different for cops than it is for anyone else. Some assume we are heroes, some think we are villains, some see blue collar, some see buddies, some see rednecks, some see crooks, some think we are professionals, gunfighters and race car drivers, some think we are over worked and underpaid, and some think we hang out all day. You run into any or all of that every day and it changes from moment to moment. It takes some time to learn to spot who it is the person you are speaking to thinks they are speaking to. And that is a useful skill to have.

I knew a man who lived not far from here who came here from Tibet. There he had a large house and livestock. Here he rented a little room and worked bagging groceries at the supermarket. He would smile to each customer and gently and thoughtfully pack up their groceries in their bags.

Over the years his gentle smile faded. Under the harsh lights of the store, the repetition, the dullness of the work, the cold responses he got from the people he shepherded through his line, people who thought this kindness was an embarrassment or an intrusion or unsophisticated or simple minded, his gentleness and warmth disappeared. After a few years he looked as flat and businesslike as everyone else in his line. It was a sad sight to me. But little by little, after a while, his small polite smile returned.

Where he came from most of the people were poor. There was a lot of open land there. And you were always in the presence of the magnificent sky. He had learned how to be happy. Literally, there is a way to do it. Other people cannot make you happy. But you can do it. Through acting kindly. Through taking rudeness or even harsh treatment as an opportunity not to bust a cap in someone’s head, but to develop patience and equanimity – useful in facing the difficulties of life and death, and essential as a foundation for deeper practice.

What a wonderful opportunity he had at the supermarket to practice this, he decided. But not so many people appreciated what he was doing. He did not have a village or countryside full of people who understood the difficulty of what he was attempting and who admired the effort.

If you live in Manitoba it goes without saying that Canadians support and admire hockey. In the same way Tibetans support and admire Buddhist practitioners. While not every Canadian grows up to play pro hockey a lot of them get very good. And for many Tibetans the training and support they get in the art of happiness, the art of being a true human being, shows in their manner and in the results of their practice.

I wondered how that guy in the doorway found himself so angry, sad and separate from the world. What was the path? His wife wouldn’t speak in his presence, his grandson was terrified of him, his son was out threatening strangers in stores with murder for small change, he had a dozen disputes with his neighbors on the road over the years, and now the whole world around him seem to be arrayed against him and, he felt, they were closing in for the kill.

The wind stirred the leaves of the poplar tree and the crickets picked up steam. Out in the field half a mile from where we were we could see flashes of light in the corn. We quickly headed that way.

How did the transplanted Tibetan manage years of tender kindness to cold faced strangers? What drained it, and how did he manage to recover? Not by camping out in a public park, taunting the cops and demanding that strangers support him. Not by envying the wealthy or manipulating the resentment of the dependent or the poor, or forcing others by threats or intimidation to submit to his will. Not by assuming that happiness could be conferred upon him by someone else.

I can tell you the life paths of this Tibetan clerk and the uncle in the doorway began before they came into the world. We can assume that feeling distinct from the rest of the world is our mental habit from the beginning of time.

That separation happens in this life according to a common pattern that both of these men, and you and I, followed. But we build on our emergence as a separate person in very different ways, as we move through life.

The process starts as the infant recognizes that it is not the same as its mother. It felt like it was the same as its mother at one time, but instantly, after the physical separation, the infant has feelings of pleasant- or unpleasantness. Then it recognizes liked and disliked objects. Then it has spontaneous responses to those objects – it likes some and dislikes others – and it responds to those feelings with physical actions and vocalizations. At that point the infant, everyone at the start, including the checkout guy and the doorway guy, then senses that likes may be provided and dislikes may be withdrawn in connection with those actions. In other words mom will respond one way to crying and another way to smiling. And her behavior will teach the infant to use willed actions, not just spontaneous responses, to get her to provide what it likes and remove what it dislikes. Pretty soon the infant will learn to use willed vocalizations to symbolize and express desires: that is, the infant will learn to speak.

The sequence of the recognition of the distinction between self and other, that is the production of the unconscious mental habit of a belief in independent existence of objects and subjects, begins with the recognition of separate form or ontological identity (being physically and personally distinct from mom), proceeds to the recognition of separate knowledge set or epistemological identity (knowing and feeling things mom does not know), and continues to labeling, that is, a separate linguistic identity (I can reach across the gulf of separation between myself and others by using language.)

This labeling causes a bridge to form, at first between mother and child and then between one’s self and other people, constructed from expressive language. This development begins as an attempt to close the epistemological gap by informing the mother about the infant’s affective state. This is how the recognition of self and other forms. Then as we get older we differentiate more completely, creating a rich identity filled with special characteristics and boundaries.

Then we either reinforce the separation or reach across the gulf and connect with others. That depends on training.

For immature people, when language and gestures fail to bring happiness in from the outside world, the result is frustration, anger, and separation.

People who develop in a healthy way learn the methods by which we can mature and become happy. We can recognize the impermanence of things – our feelings, our sensations, our relationships – and by understanding impermanence and the mental disturbance that comes from attempting to attach our happiness to impermanent things, by understanding that in fact happiness comes from taking care of others, we can recognize that we are not separate after all.

Instead of making demands on the world we take care of it. Then we can proceed.

Unlike an infant, we need not be occupied by trying to get the world to serve us. We need not be preoccupied by trying to recover the sensation of the human womb from which we emerged.

Instead we are moved to reunion with what is called “the womb of Buddhas,” that is acquiring the understanding of prajna paramita or transcendent wisdom, from which we are really never separated, with which we are reunited, and as which we exist throughout all space and time.

That makes you happy. And it makes the people around you happy. Reinforcing the habit of isolation makes you unhappy and leads to death.

Crickets may feel flickers of happiness from moment to moment. I can’t tell. But they and other animals do not have the power to learn how to complete the path to happiness. People do.

All we need to do is have a chance to learn what to do and then do it. You don’t have to be a shepherd or a saint to do this. You can stay in a small house with your family and do it.

(Some details of the above events have been changed.)

Jeff Brooks has taught martial arts and Zen for many years. He studied in the US and on Okinawa. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as firearms instructor and defensive tactics instructor, and in criminal investigations.  He can be reached at  mountainkarate@gmail. com.

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The Buddha Game

The Buddha Game

by Jeffrey Brooks

The two story twelve-room motel was on a hill half a mile from the interstate, but at 2 in the morning you could still hear a whoosh from a semi going by now and then. It was kind of a nice sound, this guy thought as he laid on his bed in the corner of the room. Nice to hear people out there doing something, going on their way. Nice to be in here, dry and warm with nobody bothering you in the middle of the night. His brother and sister sleeping in the next room, she got pregnant, they would take care of each other, doing whatever, this and that, you know. That’s what he would say to people if they asked what he did. This and that, you know. It was not a precise evasion, as if he was thinking of something specific and trying to hide it. He could work. He would work and for a while he worked, a while back. His brother had disability because he was shot during a burglary and couldn’t work anymore. His brother broke into this old farmer’s house one night when he was 17 and was looking around when the old guy shot him. He was lucky. He lived. It depends on your idea of luck but he was very positive about the outcome. He would tell you he felt lucky. And after he got out of jail he got on disability because he never could walk right after that shooting. That was in another state. Now the three of them lived the kind of life that would not work without a government subsidy, but they had one so they were okay. Okay. He was drifting off to sleep, looking out at the clouds when he heard a tapping at the motel room door. Maybe it was next door. The knocking kept up. Tap tap tap. Tap tap tap. It wasn’t next door. He took the 14” bowie knife from under his pillow, held it tight against his thigh, and answered the door.

He recognized the guy out there right away. He was there yesterday too. It was a skinny haunted looking guy in glasses standing there in blue jeans and a flannel shirt, looking in through the crack in the door like he was a plumber answering a midnight call from some clueless nitwit who couldn’t find a plunger. He had a look of purpose, and polite, barely concealed, irritation.

He said, “Can you help me out?” The smell from inside the room flowed out to him: old laundry, indoor cat, and weed.

The guy inside, in his underwear and T-shirt, with tired eyes thought, “This fool is showing up here in the middle of the night attracting attention.” He said, “What do you need?”

The guy outside pulled three ten dollar bills from his shirt pocket, pinned them between two fingers and handed them in through the door. He handed a little bag back out to the guy outside and closed the door.

The haunted guy in glasses was happy.  He didn’t look happy. He didn’t show anything. Just calm composure. Or that’s what he felt like he looked like.  Inside he was roaring out of control. Ready to scream. Ready to cry. Ready to dance into the sky. But he would wait. He had control. He would not eat one now. He would get home, cook up and find a good vein.

The door of his little truck was rusted along the frame and it squealed and clunked as he closed it. The truck runs just fine just fine, he said to himself. He started it up and with a throaty little roar headed slowly out of the motel lot and onto the main road home. Not speeding, not breaking any laws, not attracting any attention.

Except for our attention. We saw the exchange at the door.

We knew the place.  We pulled out behind him and followed his little rusted truck for a while in our new clean black unmarked car. He glanced in his rear view mirror and checked his speed and to himself he said “shit.”  We ran his license plate and confirmed that, yes, we knew him too.  We moved in closer and switched on the blue lights as he said to himself “fuck.”

He thought about how he wasn’t doing anything. Nothing. Especially compared to what he knew was going on out there.

We had him stopped on the side of the road near the bridge over the interstate. He had a license on him but it was an old one, you know, he just didn’t have time to renew it.  We asked him to step out of the car. Where he was coming from. What he was doing there. Why didn’t he know his friends names? Why was he visiting those friends for ten seconds and never going inside. If he minded if we took a look around inside. He said he had nothing to hide.

He thought he should be sitting inside his car. He should be sitting inside his house. He should not be underneath the monstrous sky at 2 in the morning standing still with the traffic rolling by on the interstate at 70 miles an hour, on their way, free to go, as if nothing was happening. He should be heading home. He was literally ten minutes from happiness. If that.

We asked him a few more questions. We had his dope. We had him in handcuffs.  He was under arrest.  He said, “This should not be illegal. I have my own money. I have the right to enjoy myself in the privacy of my own home. It’s my body and my life and my right to do what I want. This is bullshit. People have no freedom.”

As I am standing at the side of the road talking to a guy like this, I am also thinking about the limits of freedom. This guy did know a lot of people doing worse things than he was doing. While he was speeding along a downward arc and burning the investment society made in him, in his education, in his rehab, in his job placement, that his parents made in his body that they had looked after and bought things for, while he was squandering the blessings he could have offered as gifts of work or service for the benefit of other people, destroying day by day his own body, mind, life, dignity and hope for enlightenment, stealing and cheating wherever he could and then providing what little money he did get hold of to people who passed it on to the selfish, ignorant, lazy, clever and cruel, who passed it up the chain to tyrants. These tyrants think of themselves as businessmen. But they are not. Businessmen compete with each other by offering discount coupons or buy one get one free offers. Tyrants fill dump trucks with the heads of their competitors and dump them on a street. Not to compete but to communicate. To express what happens to someone who stands between them and what they want. Between them and what makes them happy.

His constricted mind understood his doping as his personal choice.  Like most libertarians, humanists, materialists, epicureans and sybarites he sees his choices as primarily a matter of personal freedom.

He really did know of many people doing way worse things than he was doing that night. He was sincere about that. And he would never share that information with us. Even if the information would protect innocent people from violation and violence. He didn’t withhold the information out of loyalty to the predators and thieves, or out of respect for them or fear of them, but because he was angry with us for standing in the way of his pleasure.

From the moment we are born our lives star us as we go in pursuit of what we want, what we think will make us happy.  We face obstacles. We get disturbed. And cleverly or stupidly we persist in our pursuit. Or we give up. That’s the way life stories go.

What is it we choose to pursue?

A great theme of human imagination, driving myths, literary narratives and the course of civilization has been the transformation of the fleeting delight of sexual desire or romantic love into the stable form of happy marriage. Marriage was for a lifetime. Family defined one’s place in the world, provided the way to survive, to pass knowledge and values from generation to generation, and was an atom of social harmony.

Now most marriages end, and many are conditional long before they do. From the beginning of time the next step on the path to adulthood was parenthood, but in the US nearly half of all children are conceived out of wedlock, or end their lives in abortion. Children who do get to live may naturally incline to independence and achievement, but many don’t find a way to follow through.

Here was one of them. No family. No education. No vision of how to be a man. He felt lost before he found his way to dope. He had a hard time staying with a job. The jobs were boring. He had conflicts with people. Living the drug life felt better. He would score and feel good. He knew what he was about. He knew who he could deal with. He knew what was up.

As he got older and his car rusted and the front seat filled with fast food wrappers and cigarette packs and the rear seat filled with scraps of metal, tools and knives, he followed his strategy. Get money. Get high. Crash.  And he had a philosophy to justify it and he shared his philosophy with me.

It’s hard to believe a human life can get so small.  Considering what we have to work with.

In game theory there is an idea called the dominant strategy. Life is like a game, not in the sense that it’s trivial, but in that it involves acts of will that are shaped by rules and directed toward goals.  We act continually, using our body, speech and mind to advance our position.  Pursuing what we choose to pursue.

In each moment we are making choices. And we act on those choices. Wisely or foolishly. Effectively or not, we face our obstacles and we find a means to proceed toward our objectives.

In some games players can find a dominant strategy. This is not the strategy that necessarily succeeds in defeating all the opponents every time; it is a strategy that has a better outcome than all the other strategies available to that player, given the rules of the game and the limits of the knowledge of the player.

In Buddhism our opponents are our mental disturbances – the anger, greed, jealousy and misunderstanding which distort our view and bring us suffering and death. Buddha was known as the Victor and as the Enemy Destroyer not because he defeated human enemies, but because he found the way to completely defeat his true enemies – these mental disturbances.

Buddhism is a practice.  It is the increasingly refined practice of three dimensions of human life: ethics, meditation and insight. The word practice derives from the Greek word praxis, which is literally translated as action. Action is the English word that also translates the Sanskrit word karma. Buddhism is what we do in order to fulfill our human potential, to follow the path the Buddha discovered and taught, and so become free of suffering.

Our dominant strategy at the beginning of Buddhist practice is to develop Bodhicitta. At any time, under any circumstance, when there is any question as to what to do, we default to our dominant strategy and develop sincere kindness and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of all other beings. Not a meek niceness, not a sentimental distant regard, but a real concern for everyone. This is something that needs to be cultivated, humbly and with energy, because it’s not so easy to do. This is the opposite of what a drug addict does. A drug addict is someone who acts only for their own immediate pleasure and rejects the interests of all others. Drug addicts all decline into misery. Bodhisattvas become free from suffering.

Cultivating Bodhicitta requires very skillful practice, because in the course of life there are times when compassionate concern may require command and vigor one moment, kindness and patience the next, and long periods of vigilance punctuated by sudden fury and followed by first aid.

We returned to the little hilltop motel later that morning and went back to the door we had been watching. We knocked. We let them know we had a search warrant and were going to come in.  A search warrant is a judge’s order directing law enforcement to conduct a search; the piece of paper tells the occupant that a judge has agreed that there is good reason to believe that crime is going on or that there is evidence of a crime inside and that it is in the public interest for the cops to check it out.

We knocked on the door and identified ourselves and waited, but the sky was dark and the bulb was gone from the light by the door and the guy inside gave way to a paranoid stream of imagination. I believe that this was the case, because it is unlikely, given his experience, that he would have burst through the door with that Bowie knife in his hand had he known it was us. A thief, a rival, a creditor, sure. But not us. Wouldn’t be prudent. And he knew that. With gun-lights and lasers dancing on his chest we illuminated his path back to reality. He changed his mind. The knife dropped to the floor.

The dominant strategy of Buddhism changes as you go deeper into practice.   From the cultivation of Bodhicitta, we shift the emphasis of our practice to the cultivation of insight into the nature of reality. True Bodhicitta provides us with the motive for the cultivation of insight. By cultivating a deep feeling of responsibility for saving all beings from suffering, we recognize that we need much more skill than we have as ordinary people. As ordinary people we can hardly save a few others from suffering, and then only for a little while. To save everyone we feel the utmost urgency to get to the point where we can really do it.

To really do it completely we need the depth of insight of a fully enlightened Buddha. There is no other way. And at some point we will begin to recognize that what we are seeing in the world around us – the suffering of beings, beings lost in ignorance, beings acting in a way that manufactures their own suffering and pulls their neighbors into it as well – is in a way a function of our own deep karma.  In this world we will be coming face to face with the reality of our own lives. A reality that is not separate from the reality of these infinite other beings we have vowed to save.

We recognize that without wisdom, without a true understanding of the nature of reality, a nature in which our own choices, our own actions, our own mind plays a pivotal role, there will be no end to suffering. By dedicating ourselves to putting an end to suffering for all beings, we then recognize the need for our own insight to be the focus of our practice.

This is a reason why the Buddha taught from multiple perspectives. This is the reason for the interpretive variety of the teachings of the Buddha. It is not that he changed his mind about a doctrine or revised his description of reality through the course of his career. It is not merely that he was tuning his teachings to the capacity of different students. But rather that for everyone, even people of the highest capacity, there is a need to change direction, change emphasis and change our hearts and minds as our practice matures.

In the first turning of the wheel of the dharma, the Buddha taught the four noble truths and taught the path of action – what to do and what to avoid – to put an end to suffering. The danger in this path is that it can lead the practitioner to lean too heavily on naïve realism. To address this, in the second turning of the wheel of the dharma, that is the second period of his teaching, the Buddha shifted his emphasis and focused on sunyatta – the emptiness of intrinsic existence of all beings and objects. This is a difficult subject to understand, and although some will, it is too easy for some practitioners to slip into the error of nihilism. In the third turning of the wheel of the dharma, to overcome both the nihilist habit and the realist habit, the Buddha gave practitioners a place to stand between the two extremes that was broader than the razor’s edge of the second turning. A much more secure foundation from which to deepen insight and practice the path of the Bodhisattva. Because most people do not reach Buddhahood even after a review of the full scope of the three turnings, we need to use these three different modes of teachings to modify and refine our understanding.  Just as a sailboat will tack into a head wind to go forward, adjusting the path of travel from time to time, but overall keeping a consistent heading, we as practitioners will note when we lean too far one way or the other and then use the teachings to correct our course and continue.

You cannot skip steps. If you skip over the cultivation of Bodhicitta and jump to some made up idea of wisdom, the likelihood of a good outcome is low.

Play the classic opening sequence, take the first steps on the path, take real refuge, cultivate good self control and build the foundation of Bodhicitta, and the dominant strategy will work. The strategy for the big game shifts from compassion to wisdom as the game develops, and the tactics shift from moment to moment as we become more vigilant in the recognition of our enemies and more agile in our response.

By practicing Buddhism in this way, we see that the game for lost and suffering beings plays out in miniscule fragments that are difficult for them to understand. While the bodhisattva’s game unfolds as seamless, continuous and infinite.

(The arrest described above occurred in the Northeast US some time ago. Details have been changed.)

Jeff Brooks has taught martial arts and Zen for many years. He studied in the US and on Okinawa. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as firearms instructor and defensive tactics instructor, and in criminal investigations.  He can be reached at  mountainkarate@gmail. com.


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The Story of Our Life

The Story of Our Life

by Jeffrey Brooks

Three friends move across a forbidding landscape. Danger could appear anytime. They do not know what to expect or exactly what path to take, but they know that everything depends on their success. They need to save something – their town, their family, the world, each other, something.

It could be one hero traveling alone. He could have a sidekick.

It could be the Odyssey, The Three Musketeers, Blade Runner or Harry Potter. But that’s the premise for a compelling story.

And that is the premise for a compelling life too.

Children sit in the audience of the theatre or read the book or listen to the voice of someone reading the story to them and they are transported and filled with a longing to live that story out. To feel that challenge, that sense of purpose, that sense that their life and their actions are that important, and that the fellowship in which they find themselves is an unbreakable bond of affection and respect that will sustain them throughout their adventure and their life.

That is how we long to live which is why we love that kind of story.

Our habit of mind is structured the same way as that story. We place ourselves at the center of the drama of our life and world. We seek association of like minded others. We divide the world between what we want to get and what we want to eliminate. We move across the landscape of our lives to get what we want.

So the story fits our understanding of the shape of the world.

An ideal Buddhist, a Bodhisattva, has six things they need to do. These are the way they save beings and follow their path to Buddhahood. The six are generosity, ethical and moral conduct, not getting angry, joyful effort, meditation, and wisdom. The idea of joyful effort is at the heart of the success of the story. It is the engine that drives it forward.

These Bodhisattvas, like the characters in the story, do not sit passively on a pillow. They act. They act vigorously and they are into it.

That is “joyful effort.” It makes the story urgent and it makes our lives fulfilling and useful.

The social status of the character could be high or low. Henry V or Oliver Twist. Their sex life can range from Don Juan’s or Don Quixote’s. What matters to the story is their effort, and the urgency of their mission.

If you know that behind a door is a family held hostage, that negotiations have stopped and shots have been fired, as you hit the door with 20 of your closest friends, who have trained together for this moment and moments like it for months or years, who you know you can depend on, who know they can depend on you, in the knowledge that your cause is just and that lives depend on your skill and determination, then you will have a feeling of having a life that matters. Because it does.

If you hold in your arms someone who is dying, who has been sick for a long time, who has no one close to them, who smells bad, and they look up at you with a question, a question of why are you being kind to me, you can have that feeling too. It will be real.

There are no limits to the ways to achieve this or the number of us who can do it.

At a karate training this week with hundreds of people from around the world coming together to see old friends and to get new knowledge and to share their lives of training with each other you could see in the movement and the faces of the people their urgency and sincerity in practice. There were nurses and teachers there, and cops and military people, and people from all walks of life who were aiming their lives.

Some, maybe all, would put their effort and skill into the service of the people they would come in contact with in the months and years ahead. They might pull someone from a burning car, or inspire a student to work hard and succeed, have the vision to lead their company well, or to make good choices when the people around them need a peer to be a leader.

The opportunity to take skillful, risky action on behalf of other people moves us to a higher way of life. That is what makes it “an honor” to serve. That is not just a figure of speech or a boast. Making joyful effort as a bodhisattva or a public servant or a citizen, professional or family member, is what honor is.

To deprive people of this opportunity disables them, harms society and prevents us from fulfilling what is our deepest, most noble and most human aspiration.

When public policy is set to deprive working people of the value of their work and redistribute it to non working financiers or lifetime public assistance recipients then the humanity of all the people involved is reduced.

When public policy makes effort seem useless or equal to no effort, when skill is degraded and equal to lack of skill, when a mature ethic of self reliance and public service is denigrated and an infantile impulse to complain is rewarded, when honest people are prevented from acting in self defense and predators’ rights are privileged then we have a waste of human capital that exceeds whatever number we pick to estimate our national debt.

This circumstance places us right at the center of the story of our own life. If this is the inhospitable terrain in which we find ourselves, let’s move across it boldly and skillfully. Let’s join together with a few friends, or a few hundred, or a few million and get where we need to go, save who we need to save, never forget the urgency of our mission and never look back.

Jeff Brooks has taught martial arts and Zen for many years. He studied in the US and on Okinawa. His law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as firearms instructor and defensive tactics instructor, and in criminal investigations.  He can be reached at  mountainkarate@gmail. com.

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Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

by Jeffrey Brooks

Traffic was barely moving and the street was packed form curb to curb with drivers who were not where they wanted to be. Talk about postponing joy. These guys considered it cancelled.

A car sped up. A cab stopped short. Brakes squealed. Bumpers collided. A hood crumpled. A radiator hissed.

The drivers bailed out of their cars already sweating, with tempers hotter than the walls of the oven at Ray’s Original Pizza.

But there they were. Face to face. A pace apart, shouting with outrage, spitting bullets, faces contorted and red.

One had enough. He spun forward and with a furious round house kick he brought the blade of his foot within a half inch of the chest of the motionless cabbie in front of him. The cabbie sized the guy up in a nanosecond and smacked him down to the pavement.

I recognized the technique of the kicker instantly. In his tae kwon do class, with rules requiring light or no contact, the move would have scored him a point. Here the habits he developed for skillful sparring cost him a septum.

Another incident, this one in training:

Two guys are practicing together. One is an experienced martial artist, the other just a few months into training. The experienced guy had grown up in the country, doing hard physical work every day for years, before beginning his professional career. He had the even confidence of someone who has done what he needed to do. The inexperienced guy thought the world of himself and to him the rest of the world appeared in desperate need of special ed. This guy did not want to condition his body incrementally over time. He wanted to go for it. He decided he would teach the big ox a lesson. The new guy threw a massive punch, with his whole body behind it, at the center of the chest of the experienced man. The big guy leaned a shoulder back, letting the punch slip by. The new guy’s punch connected with the stationary forearm of the experienced guy, just below the big guy’s elbow. With a pop the arm of the new guy shattered and became useless.

Consistent training in martial arts is extremely valuable. There is no way to make the most of your skills, your body, your mind or your will without consistently training and sincerely challenging yourself every time you do.

But there are extremes to be avoided in training. One is assuming that because you know a technique and that it has worked time and again under the controlled conditions of the training hall that you are somehow inoculated against attack.

Another is the temptation to artificially ‘make it real’ and give or get a permanent injury – hands, feet, knees and brain are the big ones – which lead to disability not strength. The body is not designed to take injurious forces again and again. There may come a time when the risk is required, but day after day as the injuries accumulate the result of training will be the opposite of the one you hoped to achieve.

For many of us the experience of the street and our experience in the dojo balance each other, and correct the limitations of the other. The street keeps us from getting complacent by believing that outcomes are foreordained. The dojo provides us with a constant reminder that our skills need to be practiced to stay sharp.

I was out toward the edge of a little riot, moving back toward the center where the crowd was surging. I heard a scream and saw a guy with something in his hand running away from the scream and toward me.  I told him to stop. He slowed down. There was no doubt that he had just assaulted someone and took something from them.  I could not back off and call the police. I was the police. I told him to stop right there. He did. I told him to drop it now. He did.  I could see it was not his.

He was cool. He knew he was caught. Getting the first handcuff on him was easy but as I began to move his wrists together he started to tense up and turn. His friends or people who suddenly now considered themselves to be his friends were gathering around. I had radioed in but it was hard to relate exact locations. I needed to get this guy under control immediately.

You never know in advance how this kind of thing will go. In hindsight things seem inevitable. In the moment they are entirely fluid. Writing the report later in the shift you can describe the course of events in a logical narrative, explaining what you saw and heard and your rationale for what you did. You can convey the tactics and the legal requirements in a clear and reasoned sequence. In the heat of the moment, in the midst of chaos, violence, threats of violence, distraction and stimulation overload, all you can rely on is your training and your colleagues.

That this guy had hurt someone was clear. The victim came running up after him screaming. That he would continue to do this to other people was likely – from what I saw he was familiar with how to do this and it was not his first time. Would it have been compassionate of me to let him run off and tell the girl not to be so attached to her property, that it was only money, and to get new credit cards and ID? Would it have been compassionate of me to let this guy go on to prey upon other people, people who trusted him perhaps, people who are weaker than him or vulnerable for whatever reason at the moment at which they encounters him? Would it have been compassionate of me to allow him to collect the terrible karma that would come if he continued to steal, intimidate, injure and maybe kill some innocent people? What kind of life could he expect if he were not stopped from going down this path? Couldn’t I benefit him, his victim, and all the other potential victims he might harm over the course of the evening or of his lifetime, by stopping him decisively right now?

I thought so.

So I applied my knee to a pressure point I knew how to use very well and which I hoped would stun him. It did. I quickly got the other hand cuff on and several other officers assisted me in getting him to the back of the patrol vehicle.

There have been times when it went other ways.

The phrase used in martial arts training that refers to the openness to fresh experience is called “beginner’s mind.” This concept is sometimes misunderstood as making a virtue of inexperience or of ignorance. That is not right.

The “beginner’s mind” does not presume to know the outcome of a situation. A beginner’s mind responds spontaneously to shifting conditions. It does not rely on rote or autopilot responses and expect them to automatically work.

Some western Zen practitioners have taken this phrase up as a slogan to justify their non-trying and not-training. They miss the point. And under the pressure of life and death, the very pressure they pay lip service to every day in the Zendo, that approach proves useless.

At another point in Buddhist liturgy also it famously says that “life is like a dream, an illusion…” and so on. How is it that people can miss the point of this?

Buddhism never says that life is merely a dream, merely an illusion. As if it was nothing. As if it was meaningless. Quite the contrary.

It is like them. Life is like a dream or an illusion in that like them life arises and vanishes without a trace. Like them life continually changes. Like them life is contingent on causes and conditions. And like them conditions which we think may be permanent and unchanging are instead continually shifting, requiring us to rely upon our training, to always be strong, do right, and stay focused on our purpose.

That is the mindset of a sincere beginner. It is good to keep it.

Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer. He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.

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