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Zen and the Martial Arts

The Zen Mirror

The KEN ZEN Ideal - Martial arts and Zen As One

By Jeff Brooks

Editor's Note: Jeff Brooks brings to this article his unique perspective -- a combination of police officer, karate instructor and Zen teacher.

Two a.m. on Saturday night is a funny time in this world. What was gonna happen is probably over and if it didn’t you have to deal with it and go home. But there are always some who want to take it into overtime.

The streets were wet and the mist was blowing in clouds. I was sitting with my lights blacked out on the side of the road when a call came for a complaint of a car blocking a road a mile from where I was. I drove over. The mist was thick and the streets were dark but as I rolled down the block I saw the body of a car turned sideways straddling the yellow line in the middle of the road. The windows were smashed in. Glass filled the car. The headlights were smashed too but one of the tail lights glowed like an ember, like the battery had been left on when the car was ditched, like the car had been sitting there for hours before someone reported it.

No blood. No bodies. No windshield smashed from the inside out by a head moving at high speed. No collision damage. But there was a plastic leg in the back seat. I doubted the owner hopped away. I called dispatch and ran the plate and got the phone number of the owner. I called the owner. Sorry to wake you ma’am. Do you own a – I described the car… She said she did. I asked where is it now? She said in the driveway. I asked if she lent it to anyone. She said no. I asked her to look in the driveway and see if it was still there. It wasn’t. She began to freak out. I told her I would bring the leg to her tonight and where she could find her car tomorrow.

I called for a tow truck. Pretty soon one of the three or four drivers who take the calls at this time of night, who I see most nights I work, rolled up. He waved and shrugged and hooked it up and towed it away to the impound lot. The rain fell and the mist rolled and there wasn’t even a piece of glass left the pavement.

As I warmed up in the cruiser a call for a burglar alarm, at a house, came over the radio. I drove to the address.  I watched the windows. I met another officer there. We saw an open door. We went in. It could have been blown open by the wind. But what are the chances of that?

We moved together through the house. Street light and moonlight in strips on the floors. Listening. Looking. It was a big house. Through the great room and the kitchen. Through the home theatre with deep seats that could conceal anyone who wanted to hide there. Up a stairway and down a hall with no cover or room to maneuver. Into the meditation room. High windows. An altar with pictures of sages and saints, cushions, pristine oak floors, and a shelf of books. 

Through the bedrooms, closets, under the beds, we looked in the attic, in the crawl spaces, in the basement, and as we moved from room to room we did it silently, carefully, slowly, with sharp awareness, mindful that the smallest sound or movement could be all the warning we would have of the gunshot. It could come from behind any door, around any corner, out of nowhere.  We knew that while usually it doesn’t sometimes it does, it is a sound that can split the universe in two, and you can die any time if your attention drifts for a second. And even if it doesn’t.

Every night when I go to work there are people who are in trouble. Wrapping their car around a pole or overdosing on heroin. Their door kicked in, their jewelry gone, or their children missing for hours. Or caught doing something they always do but hardly ever get caught for.

Cops, like bodhisattvas, are called to help. We help strangers every day. We risk our comfort and safety and convenience as a habit, as a job, as a way of life. We are trained to do it. Trained in the habit of service. Trained in the skills and methods that give us a chance to succeed.

When I go to work I do not go to further the interests of one group over another. I do not support corporate America over working people, or the nice over the irritating. I go to work to prevent harm.

I go to work to fulfill my oath to uphold the Constitution and my vow as a bodhisattva. The understanding in both of these worlds is that killing, stealing, lying, intoxication, and being ruled by impulsive sexual desire cause suffering, for yourself and others. As a dharma teacher it has been my job to persuade people that this is true. As a law enforcement officer, in the moment of crisis, it may be necessary to use coercion instead of persuasion to protect people from actual harm, and from the causes of suffering. We cannot say that one is spiritual and the other is not.

To be really at home in life we cannot hide in a home theatre and relegate spiritual life to a meditation room cordoned off from the rest of the world. Of course we do need a peaceful place to meditate and to think. But the actual practice of spiritual life cannot be defined and sequestered. It will spread to the other rooms of the mansion, and radiate out to wherever you are, throughout space and time, with no boundaries. This is the nature of our mind and our lives. We cannot be separate from it for an instant.

The five Buddhist precepts I mentioned correspond to five key areas of criminal law. The three trainings which comprise the Buddhist path – morality, mental focus, and understanding – are all fully expressed in the realm of public service as well as in dharma. The depth of philosophical exploration of the nature of reality and the function of karma – that is the ways in which ones own actions form ones reality – are not matters of study or consideration within the ordinary scope of professional service but the assumptions that underlie this profound philosophy and the conclusions that can be drawn from it are the operating assumptions of a life in public service. There is nothing off beat or unconventional about this, although it has not been explored too much in the west. It will be. Starting now. 

Three a.m. I see headlights through the fog, moving very slowly, drifting across the road and jerking back into the travel lane, nicking a curb and jolting forward. I get behind the car and watch. I call in our location and the license plate number. I turn on my blue lights and stop the car. I watch him for a few seconds. He might bail out of the car and run. He might stare at me through the closed window. He might ask me what’s this all about officer, while he tries not to slur his words or exhale his breathtaking booze breath.  He might start crying and begging for a break. He might tell me his daughter used to go out with the chief’s brother’s son in high school and how he knows all the cops in town. He might reach for a gun as he opens his window and try his best to shoot me. You never know. 

Am I mean for stopping him? Am I a prick who wants to get even with the world or boss people around? Do I have in mind that this guy may drift across the road into oncoming traffic and kill himself and someone else and that people addicted to drugs or booze or with a selfish disregard for their lives and the lives of others would be out maiming and killing and hoping for the best, condemning themselves and others to unimaginable suffering if they are not stopped – even if its late, and there are lots of places I might rather be? But that I have no way to complete my job in this world unless I do my part to take care of people, at least for a while, while I can?

These questions, and the answer I have come to, are not unique to me. In fact they are what men have done and have chosen to do since the beginning of time. My karate teacher, Shoshin Nagamine, was a great Zen practitioner as well as Chief of Police on Okinawa, and was an advocate of the seamless union of public service and spiritual practice throughout his career.

You might say that there are so many ways in which law enforcement falls short of the bodhisattva ideal and that the legal system is imperfect; and so many ways in which we human beings miss our chance to honestly live out our ideals.

According to Buddhism the system will not be perfect until we are. And it is explained exactly how we can be, if we practice properly and sincerely, right now.

Copyright Jeff Brooks and 2011

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About The Author:

Jeff Brooks is detective with the criminal investigations division of a mid size law enforcement agency in the southeastern US. His 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 throughout his career, and studied in the US and on Okinawa. He can be reached at

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Ken Zen, Zen, Law Enforcment

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