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Martial Arts: Religion, Philosophy, and the Martial Arts

The Buddha Game

By Jeff 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 two 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.) 

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About The Author:

Jeffrey Brooks, Seventh Degree Black Belt in Shorin Ryu Karate, was founder and director of Northampton Karate Dojo in Northampton, Massachusetts from 1987 to 2009, and director of Mountain Zendo from 1993 to 2009.  Both the Dojo and Zendo continue in their teaching and training mission under the next generation of leaders. Jeff Brooks' law enforcement career has included assignments patrol, as law enforcement instructor in firearms, defensive tactics and other disciplines, and as an investigator. He lives and works in North Carolina. He is the author of “Rhinoceros Zen – Zen Martial Arts and the Path to Freedom.” His column Zen Mirror and other articles appear on

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