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.
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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.
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Do I agree with every one of his conclusions?
Do I still experience resistance to the sometimes-shocking nature of Jeffrey’s assertions?
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?
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.