In His Own Country


A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. Mark 6:4

My friend and brother, Jeffrey S. Brooks (sometimes known as Jhanananda — that’s him above, doing what he loves most), also happens to be my meditation teacher.

I’ve been learning from him for about eight years now. We’ve done two nine-day retreats together, one in southern California and one in Gold Hill, Colorado. More importantly, he has patiently and attentively answered my questions over the years, drawing on his 40 years of daily practice to meet me wherever I’ve been.

Jeffrey is a controversial and sometimes polarizing figure, having long ago determined not to compromise the verifiable truth in his discoveries. This comes as a threat to some, and a turn-off to others — while a small and particular subset has discovered in Jeffrey someone who can truly be called “the real deal.”

I’ve participated on (and moderated) Jeffrey’s Jhana Support Group discussion board for many years now. He reeled me in from one of the many pseudo-Advaita boards out there, appealing to the fact that I’d been experiencing certain definable ecstatic phenomena over the years, and that none of the spiritual teachers I’d discussed them with would work with me around them. I was always told to put the ecstasies out of my mind, as they are a “distraction” and a “hindrance” to whatever goal they had in mind for me.

Jeffrey, on the other hand, had discovered that no less a personage than Gautama Buddha had actually taught his monks to not only give rise to, but rigorously and skillfully engage the ecstasies — known as “jhana” or “samadhi” in the original tongue. These teachings had only been available in English for a few decades, despite having been preserved in the liturgical language of Pali for about 2,500 years — and it was only during the past ten or fifteen years that the Sutta Pitaka had been packaged and distributed for the masses. Jeffrey had bothered to study these teachings (mostly the first three “baskets” of discourses, covering several thousand pages in English) in great and penetrating detail, such that he’d been able to “unpack” the instructions and apply them to direct experience as a contemplative.

As the Buddha’s actual teachings (contrary to the commentary-based system of practice that had evolved over the years, a non-ecstatic “dry” approach known in the West as “insight meditation” or “vipassana”) began to merge with Jeffrey’s contemplative perspective, he started to assert what he’d learned, discussing it openly in the meditation halls and sangha meetings of Tucson, Arizona. He would quote passages from the Discourses wherein the Buddha encouraged his disciples to work with the bliss, joy and ecstasy that emerged from their practice — despite the fact that most vipassana/insight instructors had been taught to repress, ignore and even demonize jhana/samadhi.

Jeffrey was told (in no uncertain terms and on many occasions) to stop talking about these things, as they were bringing “discord to the Sangha.” No one was able to argue with Jeffrey based on the evidence, which is right there for anyone to read and practice, so they resorted to character assassination and shunning. My friend, brother and teacher was systematically removed from the Arizona Buddhist community leadership positions he’d earned through the years. Eventually, he was forced to strike out on his own, bringing the Buddha’s actual instructions to those who not only hunger to learn, but whose personal contemplative experiences validate these teachings.

* * *

I’m aware that Jeffrey is sometimes regarded as indelicate or even arrogant. I understand that his way of communicating is often designed to provoke. There is something about Jeffrey that, for those who are attached to their own perspective and/or sense of authority, rubs them wrong.

The Jeffrey I know and love, however, is refreshingly self-honest and willing to listen, if only he is shown a modicum of respect for the time, work and attainment he’s accumulated. If he is shown disrespect… let’s just say that things may (or may not, depending on which way the wind blows) get “interesting.” In any case, one stands to gain a lot from associating with this walking encyclopedia of Buddhist knowledge and wisdom, regardless of the lens through which one views him.

The Jeffrey I know would literally do ANYTHING for the few of his students who have adopted a rigorous and skillful ecstatic contemplative practice — and he routinely goes out of his way to help total strangers who show just a little bit of interest in his teaching. Anyone who has read his journal entries over the years — which he posts online for anyone to read — knows what a loving person he is, having chosen to live a humble life on the verge of homelessness (his often-broken van forming the walls and ceiling of his monastery), giving of his time and energy to assist those who are less fortunate than him.

We in the spiritual milieu have a tendency to project a certain set of expectations onto our gurus and teachers. The honest among us will admit that these expectations are often met with grave disappointment, such as we find when this or that teacher is found to have transgressed sexual and/or authority boundaries that have devastated the lives of his or her followers.

Jeffrey made the decision long ago — and I know this from having talked deeply with him over the years — to wear his inner self on his outer sleeve. What you see is what you get with Jeffrey — no apologies, no holding back, no disseminating… but also no denial of his own shadow, which finds expression in his poetry, artwork and refreshingly open communication.

My attitude, having trodden the seeker’s path for 20 years now, is that I can feel deep appreciation over the lack of pretense when it comes to dealing with my meditation teacher. There is no beauty pageant here, no back-stabbing disciples climbing over dead bodies to get next to the Master. There is no intrigue at all, in fact. If you don’t call Jeffrey or write, that’s just fine — months or even years can slide by, and for him it is as though just a few days have passed, no problem either way. If, on the other hand, you find yourself in a particularly treacherous recess of the Dark Night, Jeffrey will spend hours and hours in communication, giving as much or little attentiveness as is needed — or he will set up a retreat with you in the wilderness areas of the American Southwest, availing himself fully to your spiritual unfoldment.

In this Internet Age, some personalities translate from analog to digital with more success than others. Other personalities are best shared in person, over the long haul, wherein the intimacy of teacher and student is allowed to transform concepts into attainments.

Jeffrey, with his YouTube talks and ongoing message board presence, is gradually making inroads into an American contemplative community that is thirsty for effective guidance. That we would all benefit more from spending time in person with this man is evident — although he would tell us that the most important thing is to meditate and study the Suttas, wherever we happen to be. I feel strongly that, in a just and spiritually-mature world, Jeffrey would be abbott of an Ecstatic Buddhism monastery and retreat center, where he and his teachings would be honored for their obvious truth and efficacy.

Unfortunately, we live in an unjust and spiritually-immature world, where teachers like Jeffrey are likely to be found in food lines or sleeping in busted vans.

* * *

Do I agree with every one of his conclusions?

No.

Do I still experience resistance to the sometimes-shocking nature of Jeffrey’s assertions?

Yes.

Do I feel sorry for those who would rather argue with (or otherwise denigrate) Jeffrey, rather than suspend their resistance long enough to fully understand where he’s coming from?

Yes.

I have learned, however, that Jeffrey (and, by extension, anyone who finds a practice home in Ecstatic Buddhism) is not here to win over the masses. He is here for those who “get it,” and who arrive at a moment of absolute commitment to this practice for the rest of their lives.

So far, it’s a short list of contemplatives, and I feel badly that Jeffrey continues to encounter such fierce resistance.

On the other hand… what’s the hurry?

We are, after all, mostly interested in getting back to the cushion.

Everything else flows from that place.

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8 responses to “In His Own Country

  1. My meditation experiences are as much about me, as the fact that I found no meditation teacher alive today who understood or supported those experiences. And, I was marginalized by every meditation teacher I sought guidance from. However, I found my meditation experiences were quite similar to those described by the major mystics.

    However, when people read about my meditation experiences, and how I was marginalized within Buddhism, and every other religion I participated in, then it tends to violate their beliefs and they often lash out at me with the erroneous belief that I am defensive, and/or prejudiced. However, Michael’s essay here shows, he too was misunderstood by every priest and meditation teacher he had sought guidance from.

    The point here is, if we do not exercise some critical thinking in our belief systems, then we are most likely just naïve followers of some deeply flawed philosophy. This is why I compare and contrast my philosophy to others, so that people do not go away with the erroneous belief that I am a follower of one of the many deeply flawed mainstream religions of today.

    It is not that I am defensive. It is that the naïve and dogmatic true believers of mainstream religion have been on the offensive to discredit me wherever they can. So, thank-you Michael, for posting one of the only positive third-person reviews of my work available on the web.

  2. Like Michael, I have been a student and supporter of Jeffrey/Jhanananda for several years, almost from the very beginning of his web presence. In my 20’s, I had by good fortune stumbled upon a Samadhi experience lasting all summer of 1972, at of a self designed retreat , but found like others, upon return to “real life,” no one was speaking or guiding such states. I was ever vigilant of any mention of mention of such things. Of course during that time, there were all kinds of people setting themselves up as Gurus, etc. but none addressed what I then knew. Being a woman didn’t help because established religions and other forms of spiritual inquiry are not very receptive to a female seeker, unless it is to exploit, especially during this time in history. So for almost 30 years, it was my secret. When the Internet came into existence, it was the first thing I researched and found Jeffrey and a few others talking about jhana and samadhi. I was enthusiastic to learn all I could. I attended a 10 day Teravadan retreat and was shocked and dismayed to find, after my talk with the teacher, a public ridicule in the meditation hall. I was simply asking what “Insight” was? Because I could no longer approach this teacher, I spent the last part of the retreat in an altered state of consciousness from the hours and hours of meditation, and on the verge of panic. It took me several months to stabilize my energies. Jeffrey was my rock and he, over the years, has helped clarify many many things regarding the mistranslations and warped teachings of the religious. I am forever grateful to him and his Work. He may not realize it but he is always being scrutinized by me and yet I have found him to be the real deal. He pulls no punches with the Priesthood or the True Believers. I honestly don’t believe he could do what he does without access to what might be called Divine Guidance. So here’s to you dear teacher and friend, sadhu, sadhu, sadhu. Love always, Jill

  3. This is a lovely essay! I only wish that Jhananda chose to be patient, attentive, self-honest, and willing to listen, in our discussion on the Dharma Overground, but instead he seems to have dropped out just when the debate was getting specific and (to me) interesting. I believe I’ve been respectful in all my interactions with him, but perhaps to engage his self-honesty and willingness to listen I must first accept what he says to be true, whereas the purpose of the discussion was for me to determine whether those very claims are true. I am glad that he has been a good guide to you and wish you the best.

    – Beoman

  4. Beoman, one person’s patient, attentive, self-honest, and willingness to listen in conversation can be another person’s character assassination. Also, I have many rigorous contemplatives with genuine contemplative experiences to guide, so participating on a forum of people who think that their meditation jungle gym is a religious experience, such as the DhO forum, happens to be a low priority of mine. So, learn some patience, and keep to the topic instead of flooding the dialog with questions without first acknowledging that we have completely different world views and do not yet sufficiently agree upon terms for me to feel comfortable about how you are understanding my responses.

  5. Of course we have different world views – otherwise I would be agreeing with you, and not questioning you. Now that I’ve officially said it, can we continue the debate? It is in the process of coming to agree upon terms – by me questioning the terms you use, e.g. “elimination of the fetters”, “6th – 8th jhana”, “cessation”, “cognitive” – that you have stepped out of the debate. I’m not sure how my questions were off-topic, given that I was questioning the things you were saying and/or linking to during the discussion.

    I’m not sure where you get that we think what we do is a religious experience. None of us think jhana is a religious experience. I am also not sure how you can ascertain so precisely that what we do is a meditation jungle gym, and what you do is attain jhana, since you haven’t even asked for our descriptions of exactly what we do when we meditate.

    I also fail to see the need for you to feel comfortable about our reactions, as it seems that one who has eliminated all anxieties would be beyond the need for such comfort. What do you lose if we misunderstand you? What makes you uncomfortable about that possibility?

    Anyway, if all you wanted to do was post your experiences without any discussion about them, you should have said so from the start, and I wouldn’t have questioned anything you said but instead just nodded, smiled, said “good work,” and been on my way.

  6. Setting all our differences aside – I would really be interested in talking about your experiences with OOBEs. I have no experience with those, so I don’t think we will have much conflict when talking about them. I haven’t met anybody who has as much experience with them as you, so I’d love to hear more details about it! I started a thread here about them, if you want to join in.

  7. Well, our debate has basically drawn to a close. In case you stopped visiting the thread, I want to bring your (and anyone following along’s) attention to a final post I made to attempt to look at the big picture and sum it all up. Thank you for participating – it was a very interesting and invigorating exchange.

  8. I am in a mainstream Buddhist tradition, albeit Nyingma which has a number of shamanic elements in it which appeal to me and look towards some of the ecstatic experiences y’all are discussing.My tradition provides me with the support I need at this time, but I have great respect and some strong leanings towards the path being discussed here. While I am saddened by people’s ridicule and rejection by teachers and other meditators, it should come as no surprise. People, lay and otherwise have always had a hard time accepting mystics and ecstatic people in their communities. Thus, we see a shaman living away from others in the village, although they were a vitally important part of it. In old Tibet where there were a lot of wandering yogis and yoginis. These folks chose not to live near or with people for a long period of time, both to protect themselves spiritually and to protect the people around them. Even the people accepting of them could only handle them for a short period of time. Escatics are intense and bring very challenging energy with them and most folks can’t handle it for long periods of time. I think we have to grant people that and allow then to interact with those energies when the time is right.
    There are no guarantees of affable companionship on the road to freedom. So many have fought the “call” to ecstatic experience, because it is a lonely path, divorced from “normal” community. That fight is a yielding of the ego, I think and it’s painful. But this fight and rejection by others pushes one towards one’s true path. Pushes us home to freedom.
    Be Well,
    Brian

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