Buddhism and the Practice of Law

With the world being rife with so many ills such as famine and epidemic disease, economic depression, political corruption at home and abroad, bottom-line globalization, warfare, and natural disasters due to global warming and run-of-the-mill hurricanes, tidal waves, and twisters, we all have reason to get a bit confused and down in the mouth.

Attorneys who deal with individuals during their times of greatest conflict, as I do, have extra reasons to wonder at the human soul – what with friends and family at each other’s throats over money-focused lawsuits; con-artists defrauding innocent victims; lovers slinging mud at each other in child custody battles and filing restraining orders full of false allegations; corporate investors and CEO’s outright lying on the witness stand; people robbing, beating, and just plain killing one another in fits of desperation and rage; and politicians, judges, and lawyers fanning the flames or just turning away from all the injustice.

People have asked me why I am an attorney fighting the good fight when the mountain of iniquity is so enormous, and looming larger everyday. I could quote Ozzy Osbourne and say, “I don’t want to change the world, and I don’t want the world to change me.” But I won’t. Rather, I do want to change the world, but I remain conservatively optimistic about such a lofty goal. More importantly, my work is my meditation – a meditation similar to that which I feel while working in my little garden, pulling out crabgrass and thistle to make room for the daffodils and paperwhites, belladonna, and meyer lemon tree.

I know that I can’t help everybody who calls my me, and that at the end of the month, I too have to pay the rent, feed the dogs, and buy food at the market. Yet when I help couples find a peaceful path through divorce and custody disputes, businesses avoid costly litigation, a defendant in criminal court achieve a better alternative than jail or justly avoid a guilty verdict altogether, or a client find justice in the thick of a lawsuit in federal or state court, I not only accept the kind words, hugs, and high fives of people who are truly glad they met me, but I also feel a sacred sense of inner peace and a sense of having helped my community to be a better place to live.

I have been interested in Buddhism for a long time, and I find some inspiration for my law practice in the ethics laid out by the Buddha. I would not call myself a Buddhist, per se, yet I very much appreciate the Buddha’s teachings (or “Dharma”). The Dharma is very ethics-focused. It accentuates ethical thinking, ethical speech, and ethical actions – even social justice activism. It prizes concentration and perseverence, and to attain these attributes, the Buddha recommends meditative focus and forming alliances with others working towards similar goals to inspire and teach you along the way. Here below is a little primer on the Buddha’s teachings. As you read, you can see clearly where a social justice attorney might find such a philosophy meaningful and inspirational.

The Dharma is comprised of two main ideas – the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path. The word “Buddha” means the one who is “awake” or “enlightened” in Sanskrit, an ancient language from India. Thus, “Buddha” is a title, as the Buddha’s birth name was Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in Lumbini, Nepal around 500 BC, and he was a prince of the Shakya dynasty. You can read more about his life in various books and online articles. In Buddhism, while the Buddha is holy, he is not a deity or god, but rather the principle teacher of Buddhism, which does not focus on any particular divinity and thus is often called a philosophy rather than a religion.

Be that as it may, Buddha’s “Four Noble Truths” (rendered in their most simple form) state that life is full of suffering because we often do wrong things which will hurt us (Karma) and others; but we don’t have to go about life this way – rather, we can do right things and work hard to try to reach perfect enlightenment (Nirvana), which is seeing things as they really are and being released from suffering. Needless to say, that’s a hard goal to hit, but Buddhism is more about “process” than “product”, as Jackson Pollock might say.

Basically, Buddha’s “Eight-Fold Path” outlines these “right things” to do, which I summarize below in a very short-handed version (noting that the full version of the Eight-Fold Path has indeed 8 very long sections, full of verbose descriptions and examples):

(1) Think good – which means think in an ethical and logical manner. As explained by the Buddha in his teachings, “goodness” means kindness, empathy, compassion, helpfulness, and all that other stuff that makes up what we all know as right and good.

(2) Intend good – have a “good heart” and be resolved to do good.

(3) Speak good – don’t lie, be abusive, slander, falsely flatter, gossip, cause disputes with your words, or waste words with idle chatter. And, as Bob Marley says, “the truth is an offence, children, but not a sin.” The Buddha would simply likely clarify that by stating, it’s ok to speak true but offensive words to somebody, but only when conservatively proper and absolutely necessary. I particularly appreciate this whole idea of “speaking good,” along with the next one:

(4) Act good and Do Good Work – act legally and morally according to universally common understandings of both, e.g., don’t break any laws, and don’t lie, cheat, steal, kill, commit acts of sexual misconduct, etc; and work for social justice and the betterment of people’s lives, rather than being greedy and self-centered. One of my favorite sayings of the Buddha, relating to this idea of Acting Good, is: “He who hesitates is already lost.”

(5) Persevere, Focus, and Concentrate:
(a) To do good, you have to try hard, keep your eyes on the prize, and focus. In other words, keep ever-vigilant, ethically awake, and spiritually conscious.
(b) Avoid the 5 worst interruptions of Concentration: empty lust, anger, laziness, worry, and doubt.
(c) Find inspiration through the “7 factors of Enlightenment” – The enlightened person is deeply mindful; is able to tell the difference between different spiritual states of being; and is full of energy, passion, tranquility, concentration, and grace.
(d) Take Refuge in the “Three Jewels” – Find inspiration in the example of the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings), and a Community of persons seeking enlightenment. This last idea of forming a Community of like-minded social justice professionals, for example, motivated me to join the National Lawyers Guild and become a member of the San Francisco Chapter’s Board of Directors a couple years ago.

As an attorney working in the public interest and as a longtime student of Buddhist and other noble philosophies, I find myself meditating on concepts or feelings of justice, truth, and peace while writing long, persuasive legal briefs, arguing a client’s case before a judge, or even while examining a witness on the stand. Similar to the feeling I derive from my private practice of yoga or my long, meditative motorcycle rides through the back countryside of Northern and Central California, I find an intense and focused spiritual centeredness in my practice of the law – much like I imagine Charlie Chaplin’s character must have felt while he was wrenching various nuts and bolts inside that great and metaphorical Machine in his classic film, Modern Times, except without all the accompanying hilarity, of course.

There are a few variations on Buddhist philosophy. Here is a summary of three major variations:

Tibetan Buddhists
simplify the Dharma to 3 things by stating that it is essential to practice good thoughts, speech, and actions. They also emphasize the importance of having guidance in the process of doing these 3 good things by way of a guru (a spiritual guide) and by way of spiritual focus on a masculine deity and a feminine deity (god), as we are each comprised of both masculine and feminine aspects and must strive to enlighten our whole self. Tibetan Buddhists say, “Better to be a wild and silly monkey swinging from the vines in a jungle than a person who does not make another person who is greater than himself his teacher and guide.”

Tantric Buddhism, also known as Tantra, additionally focuses on a loving and deeply passionate relationship between true lovers as a way of attaining Nirvana, as each lover becomes the guru (teacher) and counterpart god/ goddess for the other.

Zen Buddhism focuses more on wild humor, mischievous but enlightening trickery, abstract poetry, creative passion, and a strong student-teacher spiritual relationship to help the student achieve the goals of Buddhism – think Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid, but more focused on a sacred and spiritual goal, rather than simply kicking butt and getting the girl. A particularly famous book on Zen Buddhism is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, which focuses on a more earthly “get your hands dirty” approach to Buddhism, rather than lofty and monastic notions of enlightenment which can often be confused by naive practitioners with a holier-than-thou practice of Buddhism. To learn more about Zen Buddhism, I very strongly recommend listening to audio recordings of the insightful and entertaining lectures of Alan Watts on the subject.

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