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Model Home, Model Citizens

Model Home, Model Citizens

by Susan Downing

Lately I’ve been watching a recent Russian mini-series, a 22-part saga of the lives of several families living a fancy apartment building, beginning in Soviet times in 1924, and running up into the post-Soviet period.  I’d translate its literal title “The Building with the Exemplary Content” as “Model Home, Model Citizens.” This title doesn’t refer to an empty apartment potential residents can view.  Rather, it suggests that this building and those who inhabit it are exemplary role models of architecture and citizenry.  A variety of families moves in and out of these apartments, but the main family we follow is the Mirskys.  It is Dmitry – husband and father and celebrated architect – who designed this apartment building, this “model home.”

When Mirsky brings his soon-to-be wife Rosa to his apartment for the first time, in 1924, she is in awe of her much older husband’s art collection, which includes a Picasso given to him by the artist himself, as well as a Chagall and many other paintings by prominent Russian masters. These paintings play a prominent role not only in the later part of the series, when a cunning mafia band manages to steal them, but earlier, too.

Dmitry’s talents bring him to the attention of Stalin’s inner circle, and he is offered the opportunity to head up the work on Moscow’s most central architectural projects during the 1930s.  Although these projects run counter to his own creative vision, he tells Rosa that to refuse would jeopardize his future as an architect.  And so, Mirsky compromises his principles and accepts the position.  Nonetheless, he continues to be plagued by reservations, by doubts, by dissatisfaction, and by the fear that despite this compromise, everything will come crashing down around him.

He has good reason to be afraid.  We are now in the time of Stalin’s purges.  The Mirksys, along with their friends, relatives, colleagues and neighbors, are living under the very real threat that they’ll be targeted by government officials advancing their own political agendas or denounced by fellow model citizens looking to safeguard their own positions, arrested, and put in prison for a decade or two, their families left with little or no information about them.

The model home’s residents are all afraid, so afraid that, essentially, they can’t think straight.  So, they employ a variety of methods to try to both keep both fear and danger at bay. Some drink. Some inform on others.  Some steal.  Some compromise in other ways, both professionally and personally.  Others, like Dmitry, take refuge in a series of lovers.  Only Rosa (who, by the way, is just as afraid as everyone else) concentrates her energy on preserving her family, keeping her young son Borya close, and doing what she can to help others.

Manipulating others’ fear in order to advance his own career is a specialty of model home resident Gleb Ivanovich Chapaikin, who moves steadily upward in the government internal security structures, i.e., the KGB.  In the course of the series, he is directly or indirectly responsible for the arrests or deaths of more than 10 of the building’s residents and their relatives or colleagues.  And he’s friends with the Mirskys, particularly with the Mirskys’ live-in housekeeper Zina, who, in a fit of pique (over Dmitry’s rejection of her and his unborn child she’s carrying) pens a denunciation of Dmitry.

No matter that she regrets what she’s done as soon as she’s done it. She can’t undo it.  It’s 1941, and her denunciation leads to Dmitry’s arrest. When Rosa visits the prison to try to get news of him, she learns that he’s been sentenced to 10 years in prison without the right to correspondence. She returns home to her son Borya in the model apartment building (the housekeeper has fled to her home village) and begins to find a way to live, a way to sustain her family without her husband.

It’s now more important than ever for Rosa to avoid compromising herself, because with Dmitry in prison, it’s up to her to find a job and keep the family afloat. But that’s not all.  It’s wartime, and everyone in the building is affected: she and Borya have to evacuate to Tashkent; two young men in their building die fighting the Germans, one of them leaving behind a wife and baby; Chapaikin moves up the career ladder and feels pressure to enhance his status as his young family grows; the building superintendent uses a forged docuemtn to take over Rosa’s apartment and pays off some workmen with one of Mirksy’s paintings. So when Rosa and Borya return, the first thing they notice when they manage to get their apartment back is the blank spot on the wall. The painting is restored to them, but not without additional threats and heartaches and not before Dmitry’s brother is nearly sent away after making a false confession that he had stolen the painting.

In other words, Rosa, like everyone else, has been facing a long series of unthinkable challenges, and yet her devotion to her imprisoned husband and her son enables her (and thus, Borya, too) to stay afloat while those around them spin out of control in an ongoing cycle of betrayal and unhappiness.

It is now 1950. We see Rosa standing in her apartment, holding an official envelope.  She opens and finds an official letter notifying her that Dmitry’s sentence has been extended for 10 year.  Borya walks into the room.  When he sees his mother starting to cry, and asks what’s happened, she says to him,”Borya, our Papa is alive.”

We viewers realize that for 9 years, from the time Rosa and Borya found out Dmitry had been sentenced to his initial 10 years, they have had no news of or from him at all, until right now.  But for Rosa at this moment, there is no sadness.  No focus on the fact that her beloved husband’s sentence has been extended. He is simply alive, and right now, she can feel nothing but gratitude.

But that’s not all.   In the last episode, after Rosa’s own son, grandson and great-grandson all willingly sacrifice others’ welfare for their own personal or professional gain; after her great-grandson Mitya steals the prized Picasso and Chagall to pay off a debt to his fellow gangsters and is himself then killed by them to secure his silence, leaving his pregnant wife; after Chapaikin in a fit of conscience during a giant family dinner where all the remaining live relatives are in attendance, confides to Rosa that his own ambition led to Zina’s denunciation and Dmitry’s arrest and spills the beans about how Dmitry was the father of Zina’s daughter, whose own daughter and grandchildren Rosa has just taken in… After learning all of this, Rosa  simply says, happily, “I always said that I wanted a big family, and now I have one.”

Maybe it seems unbelievable or unrealistic that Rosa was able to muster the strength to cultivate and nourish and maintain her habit of gratitude and decency in the face of the distraction of terror or the lure of personal gain.  But she was able to, and she did it by developing a practice of sorts for herself: she learned how to consistently redirect her mind from focusing on fear to focusing on love and gratitude.  And she used this technique to move through all the horrible events of her life with her compassion and principles and relationships intact.  Rosa, it turns out, is the most model of model citizens, and the other characters in the series recognize and admire that in her.  And the youngest generation strives to emulate her.

As we all can.

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Before Eating

Before Eating

by Jeffrey Brooks

When we sit down to eat

It is good to pause and give a moment to the people who planted the seeds the food grew from or which fed the creatures who feed us

Some people paid attention to what they were doing, making sure they did it well, so the food would grow

They took care of the fields and the plants

And picked them at the right time

Then some people brought it to our area, from nearby or from far away

And some people put it out on a shelf for us to buy

And some one prepared it and set it out for us

And we can recognize our connection with them

And honor them

We can repay their efforts

By thinking of how much work goes in to providing us with something to eat

And how much benefit we receive by having this food

We honor them by using the nourishment and energy we get from our food

To take care of the beings who depend on us

The ones we know well

The ones we know a little bit

And the ones we never see

And will never meet or even hear about

But whose lives we touch in many ways, continually

By the quality of everything we do

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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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Dharma Prayer

Dharma Prayer

by Jeffrey Brooks

We are always in the presence of enlightening beings.

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

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

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

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

Here is a start:

Every day as you wake up

Think:

I am fortunate to wake up

I am alive

I have a precious human life

I am not going to waste it

I am going to use all my energy to develop myself

To expand my heart out to others

To achieve enlightenment for the sake of all beings

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

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

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

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Kinhin

Kinhin

by Jeffrey Brooks

It is human to have a long and vertical spine. Also it is human to walk on two feet, with your head high, your breath free to move and your gaze flexible and alive.

This is not the posture of mind or body we assume at a computer or a desk, in a car or on a couch. Do we feel, under those circumstances, less than human?

We may not be able to escape these settings completely. But we can recover our humanity sometimes, and we can remember who we are. As we do that memory will become more familiar to us, we can have our dignity and nobility back, and we can build a life as free people, not slaves to tools, desire and time.


Go to your back yard. Go to the roof top of your building. Go to a place in the park where you will not attract too much attention. Go to a churchyard, a museum, a basketball court, a cemetery, a mall, a quiet road, a tiny room, the hallway in the back of your office, the space between the couch and the TV in your living room.


Go there and quietly, without anyone noticing, place your palms together and tip your eyes down. Hold your left fist in your right. With your fists at the center of your chest and your elbows lifted, bring your life back to where you are. Where ever you are, leave the thoughts of what you did and what you need to do behind. Where ever you are, depart from all the things that you regret and want. Put your hands together and make your spine tall. Breathe easily under your belt and cast your gaze softly down. No one needs to know what you are doing. Take one step.


You can move forward one half step each time you take a breath. Let your mind settle down and be undisturbed by daydreams, distractions or desires. Not like a robot that is insensitive to the world. But as a human being who does not need to be caught by every impulse, sight or sound, or yearning.

Make your spine tall. Hold your head high on your neck. Breathe under your belt. Take another step. Rolling your body weight from the ball of the rear foot to the heel of the front there is a feeling of gliding forward, without sudden shifts of balance. You can do it at a slow pace. In an hour you might go once around the room.

You can go faster, at a normal walk, or you can go faster than that. But as you go your head stays high, your breath stays free, your mind unburdened by concern and unoccupied by objects. Just open the hand of thought and hold on to nothing that arises in the mind. If you become distracted return your attention to your spine and mind, tall and noble and human, and continue.

Do this for one hour each day. Or half an hour. Or for ten minutes. If you are too busy then consider making a change in your life. We all need a way in this age, to recover the humanity that is being leached away from us as we encounter more temptations and distractions, as we are encouraged to ditch our humanity for fun.

Do this for an hour a day at the same time each day. This is a practice. And it is a holy one. It is a practice because in order to fulfill the requirement of the form – the physical, mental and schedule demands it makes on us – we change our body, our mind, and the structure of our life. Because the result is good – that is by conforming to the demands of this practice our minds settle down, insights arise, we are encouraged to recover our humanity and to recognize the humanity in others – it is a holy practice.

Just doing something a lot is not a “practice.” Doing something which requires us to give up our bad habits, create good ones, increase our health, decrease our disturbance, and recover the dignity, decency, and nobility which are really ours, really us, is a practice. A holy and wonderful one. One worth doing. Starting now.

Jeff Brooks taught karate in Northampton, MA, daily from 1988 to 2009, and led Mountain Zendo from 1994 to 2009. He now lives in a vast ocean of mist covered mountains rising to the sky, working in law enforcement. He can be reached through Mountain Zendo or at “jbrooks882@gmail.com.”  His articles and books are collected at www.jeffbrookskarate.com.

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I finally did it!

Well, I’ve been wanting to start a blog for a while now, and I’ve finally done it.  Now you’re in for it!  Those of you who know me well know that I can be very wordy.  That’s what I mean when I say, “Now you’re in for it!”  Of course, you don’t have to follow this blog, but I hope you will.  I’ll post something more pithy soon!

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