by Jeffrey Brooks
Traffic was barely moving and the street was packed form curb to curb with
drivers who were not where they wanted to be. Talk about postponing joy. These
guys considered it cancelled.
A car sped up. A cab stopped short. Brakes squealed. Bumpers collided. A hood
crumpled. A radiator hissed.
The drivers bailed out of their cars already sweating, with tempers hotter than the
walls of the oven at Ray‟s Original Pizza.
But there they were. Face to face. A pace apart, shouting with outrage, spitting
bullets, faces contorted and red.
One had enough. He spun forward and with a furious round house kick he
brought the blade of his foot within a half inch of the chest of the motionless
cabbie in front of him. The cabbie sized the guy up in a nanosecond and
smacked him down to the pavement.
I recognized the technique of the kicker instantly. In his tae kwon do class, with
rules requiring light or no contact, the move would have scored him a point. Here
the habits he developed for skillful sparring cost him a septum.
Another incident, this one in training:
Two guys are practicing together. One is an experienced martial artist, the other
just a few months into training. The experienced guy had grown up in the
country, doing hard physical work every day for years, before beginning his
professional career. He had the even confidence of someone who has done what
he needed to do. The inexperienced guy thought the world of himself and to him
the rest of the world appeared in desperate need of special ed. This guy did not
want to condition his body incrementally over time. He wanted to go for it. He
decided he would teach the big ox a lesson. The new guy threw a massive
punch, with his whole body behind it, at the center of the chest of the
experienced man. The big guy leaned a shoulder back, letting the punch slip by.
The new guy‟s punch connected with the stationary forearm of the experienced
guy, just below the big guy‟s elbow. With a pop the arm of the new guy shattered
and became useless.
Consistent training in martial arts is extremely valuable. There is no way to make
the most of your skills, your body, your mind or your will without consistently
training and sincerely challenging yourself every time you do.
But there are extremes to be avoided in training. One is assuming that because
you know a technique and that it has worked time and again under the controlled
conditions of the training hall that you are somehow inoculated against attack.
Another is the temptation to artificially „make it real‟ and give or get a permanent
injury – hands, feet, knees and brain are the big ones – which lead to disability
not strength. The body is not designed to take injurious forces again and again.
There may come a time when the risk is required, but day after day as the
injuries accumulate the result of training will be the opposite of the one you
hoped to achieve.
For many of us the experience of the street and our experience in the dojo
balance each other, and correct the limitations of the other. The street keeps us
from getting complacent by believing that outcomes are foreordained. The dojo
provides us with a constant reminder that our skills need to be practiced to stay
I was out toward the edge of a little riot, moving back toward the center where the
crowd was surging. I heard a scream and saw a guy with something in his hand
running away from the scream and toward me. I told him to stop. He slowed
down. There was no doubt that he had just assaulted someone and took
something from them. I could not back off and call the police. I was the police. I
told him to stop right there. He did. I told him to drop it now. He did. I could see it
was not his.
He was cool. He knew he was caught. Getting the first handcuff on him was easy
but as I began to move his wrists together he started to tense up and turn. His
friends or people who suddenly now considered themselves to be his friends
were gathering around. I had radioed in but it was hard to relate exact locations. I
needed to get this guy under control immediately.
You never know in advance how this kind of thing will go. In hindsight things
seem inevitable. In the moment they are entirely fluid. Writing the report later in
the shift you can describe the course of events in a logical narrative, explaining
what you saw and heard and your rationale for what you did. You can convey the
tactics and the legal requirements in a clear and reasoned sequence. In the heat
of the moment, in the midst of chaos, violence, threats of violence, distraction
and stimulation overload, all you can rely on is your training and your colleagues.
That this guy had hurt someone was clear. The victim came running up after him
screaming. That he would continue to do this to other people was likely – from
what I saw he was familiar with how to do this and it was not his first time. Would
it have been compassionate of me to let him run off and tell the girl not to be so
attached to her property, that it was only money, and to get new credit cards and
ID? Would it have been compassionate of me to let this guy go on to prey upon
other people, people who trusted him perhaps, people who are weaker than him
or vulnerable for whatever reason at the moment at which they encounters him?
Would it have been compassionate of me to allow him to collect the terrible
karma that would come if he continued to steal, intimidate, injure and maybe kill
some innocent people? What kind of life could he expect if he were not stopped
from going down this path? Couldn‟t I benefit him, his victim, and all the other
potential victims he might harm over the course of the evening or of his lifetime,
by stopping him decisively right now?
I thought so.
So I applied my knee to a pressure point I knew how to use very well and which I
hoped would stun him. It did. I quickly got the other hand cuff on and several
other officers assisted me in getting him to the back of the patrol vehicle.
There have been times when it went other ways.
The phrase used in martial arts training that refers to the openness to fresh
experience is called “beginner‟s mind.” This concept is sometimes misunderstood
as making a virtue of inexperience or of ignorance. That is not right.
The “beginner‟s mind” does not presume to know the outcome of a situation. A
beginner‟s mind responds spontaneously to shifting conditions. It does not rely
on rote or autopilot responses and expect them to automatically work.
Some western Zen practitioners have taken this phrase up as a slogan to justify
their non-trying and not-training. They miss the point. And under the pressure of
life and death, the very pressure they pay lip service to every day in the Zendo,
that approach proves useless.
At another point in Buddhist liturgy also it famously says that “life is like a dream,
an illusion…” and so on. How is it that people can miss the point of this?
Buddhism never says that life is merely a dream, merely an illusion. As if it was
nothing. As if it was meaningless. Quite the contrary.
It is like them. Life is like a dream or an illusion in that like them life arises and
vanishes without a trace. Like them life continually changes. Like them life is
contingent on causes and conditions. And like them conditions which we think
may be permanent and unchanging are instead continually shifting, requiring us
to rely upon our training, to always be strong, do right, and stay focused on our
That is the mindset of a sincere beginner. It is good to keep it.
Jeff Brooks’ 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 for many years, and has studied in the US
and on Okinawa.