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Morning Practice

By Jeff Brooks

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from an upcoming book by Jeff Brooks on the Buddhist ethics of self-defense. His first book, “The Rhinoceros Tale - A practitioner's guide to the alchemy of action” should be available shortly on this site.

The custom of morning prayer and meditation is missing from our modern lives and this lack is harmful. By setting off in the proper direction in the morning we can change the character of our day and so our life. This should become part of our martial arts training.

It seems that in effect many of us prepare ourselves for our day by first having an alarm go off, either an electronic buzzer or the jangling sound of news, weather, shock jocks joking around or commercials with music and meaningless messages pumping into our ears. Then we further prepare our minds for our day by rushing through morning activities - getting dressed, having breakfast, traveling to the office, store or factory - which we do not pay close attention to and which actually seem to be an obstacle to get through on the way to the rest of our day.

This feeling of not doing what we are doing wholeheartedly, but instead just sort of getting through what we are doing in order to get to the next thing and the next thing on the schedule, is a mental habit that infects our lives, more and more if we let it. We lose our whole lives this way. We may lose them by failing to be fully present, mentally, at a moment of crisis, or slowly, by losing all the time we have. Our time just disappears and as it does the things we do are drained of meaning. You do not have to be some kind of tender, passive, pious, sensitive "religious-acting" person to appreciate and benefit from making a mental habit of doing exactly what we are doing when we are doing it with wholehearted attention, conviction and focus.

“When you plan, just plan and have your mind fully in the present action of planning, just as you would have it in the present action of doing whatever it is you are doing at that moment.“

An athlete, soldier, surgeon, pilot, musician and everyone else whose job is demanding must be able to be in the moment (even though the phrase "be in the moment" may be a cliché, itself deprived of its meaning by trivialization and casual overuse). To start the day with a morning prayer and meditation as part of our martial arts practice begins to condition the mind and aim each person's life toward a presence of mind, placing our attention on our present activity and so making life meaningful, more and more so as time goes on. In this way we can begin to condition our mind just as most of us practice to condition our body and perfect our techniques of our art.

By the way, living in the present moment does not mean living impulsively, living for immediate gratification or neglecting the future. Planning and preparing are essential functions for human life. Everyone from farmers to monks to generals to kings has to do it. It is no different for clerks, tradesmen, artists, business people, professionals, managers, parents, students or anyone else. But as Zen Master Dogen (13th century Japan) said in his essay on monastery life called "Tenzo Kyokun," or "Instructions to the Cook": "Prepare for tomorrow as the work of today." That is, when you plan, just plan and have your mind fully in the present action of planning, just as you would have it in the present action of doing whatever it is you are doing at that moment.

“It may be a subtle influence at first, but …the effect of the morning prayer, meditation and martial practice becomes profound.”

Morning prayer in the Buddhist tradition does not require you to praise, supplicate, or hope to receive benefit from an outside agency beyond your control. It is a full action in itself. When we place our minds in the attitude where we, for example, wish that all our actions throughout the day will benefit all beings, that wish itself has an effect on our mind and our actions and on the way we will see the world that day. It may be a subtle influence at first, but with practice and dedication in the production and sincere aspiration to pursue the benefit of all beings, the effect of the morning prayer and meditation becomes profound. The entire character of our lives change, and this helps to orient us in our transformative intention everyday, again and again. It helps bring us peace. It is also the “do,” or way of our art.

"No matter how you lead your daily life... if you never let compassion leave your mind, if you constantly keep in mind the thought of benefiting others, everything you do becomes work for the welfare of others."

- Lama Zopa Rinpoche

This constant self-reminder is essential for us as martial artists. The more vigorous our practice, the more relevant it is to our daily life, and the more practical the effect of the reminder is. If you are engaged in dojo practice, becoming stronger daily, with increasing influence on your juniors, training partners and the other people in your life, the effect of this kind of morning practice becomes more and more important as your martial arts career progresses.

If you are engaged in bringing your martial training to bear on others through law enforcement or the military, with modern methods, tactics and weapons in immediate practical application of your skills - then it is even more important to be vigilant about our motivation, the condition of our mind and the action of our body. This conditioning does not make us weaker or modify our ability to act decisively and forcefully. It enables us to think clearly, act wholeheartedly, and to know that what we do is correct.

Look for this upcoming book by Jeff Brooks:

The Rhinoceros Tale
A practitioner's guide to the alchemy of action

"An unforgettable account, crackling with energy and full of heart, of how one man discovers the twin worlds of the martial arts and Buddhist practice. This is the kind of book that can change your life." -- Philip Zaleski, Editor of Harper Collins' Best Spiritual Writing series, Author of Gifts of the Spirit and The Recollected Heart

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About the Author:

Jeffrey M. Brooks holds a Go Dan Fifth Degree Black Belt in Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, training in Okinawa, Japan and the USA. He is a practitioner in the Soto Zen tradition. He has an M.F.A. from NYU Film School and works as a speechwriter for public figures. He is founder and director of Northampton Karate in Northampton, Massachusetts, offering classes daily for adults and children since 1988. Through Northampton Zendo he leads meditation programs for the members of the karate dojo, the community, as well as special programs for prison inmates and youthful offenders. ( Brooks is a regular contributor to His articles and his column (Zen Mirror) provide Buddhist insight and perspective on life and martial arts training.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

meditation, morning meditation, Buddhist prayer, martial training, Zen and the martial arts, Buddhism and the martial arts, Dogen, Tenzo Kyokun, Instructions to the Cook, Lama Zopa Rinpoche

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