THE ZEN MIRROR
Every Move You Make
By Jeff Brooks
Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt (Chapter 24) from Jeffery
Brooks’ new book, “The Rhinoceros Tale – A Practitioner’s
Guide to the Alchemy of Action,” now available in FightingArts.com’s
e-store. The book is a fresh perspective on karate and Zen which emphasizes
the importance of dedication to practice. Included too are new insights
and stories of Okinawan karate and Zen masters as well as stories - moving,
terrifying, humorous -- about the people who have made practice their
There are plenty of ways to explain the way we make choices, and how
our lives take shape. But none is as complete as karma. Karma does not
mean “fate”. That is the way it is sometimes used but it
is a misunderstanding of its meaning. Karma means action. It refers to
what we do, say and think, and the way our actions condition the way
we see the world and act in it.
Karma does not deny the function of personal psychology, but it does
place it in a meaningful and more explanatory context. Take the idea
that we make our life choices in an effort to overcome some early trauma.
This theory of psychological compensation explains very little. The reasons
why certain conditions came together to produce the initial difficulties
in the life of this particular person, the way that person responds,
their ultimate triumph over it or their failure to triumph, the happiness
or misery that results, the effect the example has on others, why similar
childhood conditions work out in very different ways in different lives
-- none of that is explained by an explanation limited to personal psychology.
Is neuroscience more illuminating? One glorious Saturday afternoon in
autumn a group of divorced soccer dads were standing around at the sidelines
during a game. Between plays they were discussing their divorces, their
finances, their fiancées, and the events that brought them to
their present state of affairs. It was a rare opportunity for communion.
They talked about how bad their first wives were. Their flaws. Their
tyrannical pettiness. The impossible situations in which they (the guys)
were placed. The emotional vacuum. The unfair either/or choices they
were forced into. The endless legal troubles. The expense. The kids.
One fellow explained that his troubles started with his amygdala. “It’s
primitive and powerful, and when that baby kicks in, forget about it,” he
said. He knew about his amygdala. It made him feel better and you can’t
blame the guy for clinging to that little almond-shaped gland while his
ship sank. But his understanding of it was a fiction. A useful way to
explain away free will and personal responsibility. A convenient fantasy.
Like the great puppeteer in the sky, the man behind the curtain, the
flat earth, or happily ever after. Here was the homunculus at the center
of his pre-determined universe. By selecting secretions as the explanation
he could take himself out of the game of his own life, and stand on the
sidelines for a while.
I have heard people offer that kind of explanation for the experience
of training. My reptile brain responds to stress by generating signals
cueing either aggression or flight. My neocortex censors these impulses
with memories the results of past aggressive action, say, and my limbic
brain is flooded with feelings about it. We seek a way to harness that
energy, to ameliorate the frustration, to streamline the mental activity
so all the parts work harmoniously, and add a dose of serotonin and endorphins
at the same time.
Now let’s say that this is true, as far as it goes, and understand
that we could create a much more detailed description of brain function.
It still would not explain why we do what we do. It may go some way toward
explaining how, but that is as far as this explanation can go, no matter
how detailed it becomes.
“How” is for science. “Why” is for metaphysics.
Buddhist teacher Michael Roach uses the example of two people in a car
that crashes. One dies. A kid asks why. An engineer or a doctor can answer
about the design of the car, the surface of the road, the angle of the
impact, the body of the victim. Which explain how. But why one died and
the other lived is not a question amenable to scientific analysis.
There are enough innocent sufferers all over the world, who’s
actions we might judge to be good or bad, who are young and old, rich
and poor, black and white, and so on, to justify putting real effort
into a search for an answer to “Why?”
This search uncovers four schemes that people use to explain events:
1. The inscrutable will of God. 2. Meaningless chance. 3. Mechanical
determinism. The operation of karma.
These are hard to test for truth simply by tracing the sequence of causes
that led to the result, because we do not have access to the full vast
constellation of causes for any event. However, we can test each one
of these explanatory schemes pragmatically. We can examine the results
a person will get if he chooses any one of the four as an assumption
on which to base life choices.
The four postulates are not equally successful in explaining what happened,
predicting what will happen, or in prescribing the actions that are most
advisable. They suggest very different ways of living.
Generally speaking, the first leads to submission. Programs of action
include supplicating, propitiating, and hoping for the best. Done in
an unhealthy way, this orientation can lead to passivity, dread and magical
thinking. Undertaken in a healthy way it can lead to giving up one’s
own egotism and dedicating one’s self to prayer and good works,
for the sake of peace in this world, and the hope of reward in the future.
The second (a belief that the world is governed by meaningless chance)
leads to pleasure seeking, impulsiveness, and alternating states of anxiety,
depression, yearning, hopelessness and an abdication of personal responsibility.
Dice hanging from the mirror, the pedal to the metal, asleep in the back
seat, when your number’s up your number’s up.
The third holds the assumption that our fates are foreordained and there
is nothing we can do but ride the train and see what station we arrive
at when we get there. It takes your life out of your hands and can make
you nervous or pompous or passive or all of those.
The fourth gives you both the responsibility and the means to take control
of your life and make of it what you want. If you act virtuously, you
have as happy a life as you can possibly have. Every action, of your
body, speech and mind, counts. Nothing is wasted.
My karma – the actions that I take now and the actions I took
in the past – constitute my life. Therefore I should, as well as
I can, examine my motivation for action, the quality of the action itself
and the results of each thing I do, say, or think. Then I can tell if
my action will bring happiness or unhappiness to me and to others.
Our actions affect the quality of our own lives, but we also teach as
we live. We influence everyone we come in contact with for good or ill.
We may never know how far our influence may continue.
If this were a simple matter of our influence on others working like
a closed, physical system, like ripples on the surface of a pond, or
echoes in a tunnel, our effects could be discounted because with each
new ripple, echo, or person influenced, a little of the initial energy
would be dissipated. And eventually the karmic energy will dissipate
and our effect will be gone. But it doesn’t work quite that way.
Karma is as likely to magnify as is to dissipate, depending on the conditions
of the minds it touches.
For example: You are riding along in your car and you accidentally cut
someone off, or they think you did, while you are changing lanes to exit.
They become enraged. They speed up, tailgate you, shake their fist at
you, give you the finger, curse at you and start chasing you down the
Their action will affect you. You can stay cool. When the enraged nut
pulls up beside you you raise your hands palms out, chin elevated, and
say Sorry, sorry, I didn’t see you. Then the guy says Watch what
you’re doing, asshole! and drives away.
Or he chases you down the exit ramp, you have had it up to here, you
get angry. You get out of your car, he gets out of his car, and fists
or chains or bullets fly, and one guy is dead and someone is arrested.
It costs a lot of money for the defense, a lot of time and emotional
energy and pain, and lots of lives are torn up.
This situation was in the news: two women, both young mothers, with
guns in their glove compartments, in Florida. They got mad, one got killed
on the side of the road, the other one is facing life in prison or a
And lets say you get cut off on the highway and it seems like the whole
thing is the other person’s fault. Thoughts of revenge overtake
you. Frustration, anger grows, you’re a raw nerve, and at the next
opportunity to have a confrontation -- or maybe you create an opportunity
-- you shout angrily, you behave angrily, you get violent, and the cycle
spreads and gets worse, gathering energy, involving more and more people,
until eventually the killing and misery, somehow, become exhausted. Whole
countries live with this.
Why was the first person able to drive away calmly, no big deal, where
the second person felt compelled to get into a confrontation over it?
The same conditions were present, with two completely different outcomes.
Luck will not account for it. What was the difference between these?
Which one would you rather be?
The difference was karma. Karma does not mean fate or chance or conditions.
It means action, in the present time, as well as the results of past
action, which have accumulated as mental seeds, formed mental habits
and predispositions and which bloom when the conditions are right.
We teach how to be all the time. Whether we intend to or not. People
see us act in a volatile manner, they will learn from it. If we are in
a position of responsibility or power then our actions will more likely
be noted and taken seriously. And imitated. And the results will come
to the person who copied you because of the actions you did, that they
saw, and that they copied. So we all have a responsibility that extends
far beyond our own lives. We can have a wonderful effect on people. We
will have some effect. We ought to take that responsibility seriously.
In the karate dojo and outside it. In the dojo we have an opportunity
to put this idea into practice every day.
About The Author:
Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt, US Shorin Ryu
Karate, has been the director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton,
Massachusetts since 1987 and director of Northampton Zendo since 1993.
He is author of The Rhinoceros Tale. His column Zen Mirror and other
articles appear on FightingArts.com.
FightingArts.com is pleased to announce its first
book: “Rhinoceros Zen –Zen
Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom,” by Jeffrey Brooks, a work
that portrays the dual paths and interplay between Zen and Karate-do.
and easy to read, it is full of insight and wisdom. It is a rewarding
read for any martial artist.
(Softcover, 300 pages, illustrated)