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Lions Roar : September 2016
ity. For, as the Five Remembrances says, My actions are my only belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. If I cannot remember this simple rule of karma, I can at least recall that every statement I make in court is contemporaneously recorded, often transcribed, and periodically appealed. One of my spiritual mentors, Bhante Buddharikkita, enjoyed laughing at the shared formalities within our chosen liveli- hoods—starting with the love/hate relationships with our robes. I understand how the black robe might intimidate and create distance, increasing perception of my size and power. But it also serves to remove some of my self from the equation. Just as we can’t pick out only the laws that suit us personally, we can’t pick a robe color meant to flatter us. Through my spiritual practice, I have discovered that the judicial uniform can be used to cultivate connection: my robe is another mindfulness tool, holding me accountable to my oath of office as well as to my dharma practice off the cushion. Immediately before I take the bench each morning, even when I’m rushing, I commit to a brief “robing meditation,” which returns my attention to internally cultivating nonself and externally communicating collective strength. I ground myself in the humbling impact of being cloaked in a symbol of the justice I am charged with administering. I take stock of present bodily sensations and thought formations and examine which of them may interfere with my faithful and impartial discharge of duties. Guided by my court training and the Vitakkasanthana Sutta, I then endeavor to either set distractions aside, relax their grip on my mind, or if all else fails, crush my egocentric mind with clenched teeth and open awareness. Finally, the robe is a great reminder that I am responsible for the laws I’ve vowed to uphold—even when it’s uncomfortable or the laws are not equitably drafted or equally enforced. Ten to fifteen thousand members of the public enter my courthouse each day, and most are suffering. None, except possibly the newlyweds, want to be there. People are distressed by the circumstances that brought them to court, and many are looking for someone to blame. A lot of that blame, justifiable or unjustifiably, is directed toward the bench, and very little of it is expressed through wise speech. Chögyam Trungpa, in his commentary on Atisha’s elev- enth-century mind-training teachings, claimed that “everybody is looking for someone to blame—and they would like to blame you . . . because they probably think you have a soft spot in your heart.” I have witnessed in my courtroom the transforma- tive impact of training the mind to drive all blame toward self. Defensiveness inevitably feeds newly tapped rage. I surrender my verbal weaponry in order to defend due process from coun- terattacks. When I am the first to concede or affirm the harm of someone before me, I’ve found that litigants listen more easily and treat each other more respectfully. Sometimes the energy shifts away from seeking retribution and toward problem solv- ing when I absorb unfair accusations. (Sometimes, nothing at all happens.) An entire field of research is now dedicated to this simple truth: if people have a voice and are treated with respect, they typically perceive the proceedings as fair and the system as just, regardless of the outcome of their case. Ironically, if I accept that sometimes the law “gets it wrong,” people are more likely to believe the law got it right. Like some monks and nuns, we trial judges are challenged to distance ourselves from and limit certain social and personal interactions—without succumbing to a sense of isolation. We are challenged to deliver instruction in a vernacular relevant and accessible to all without overstepping the training rules formu- lated for us. We are tasked to apply the Buddha’s teachings in wise speech and skillful means in highly visible settings. We are chal- lenged to uphold, privately, the same vows we’ve taken publicly. To do otherwise would undermine the integrity of the law itself. As I enter the courthouse, I am excited to meet each day’s challenges. Sometimes I transcend them. Sometimes I feel beaten down by them—until I remember to bring appreciative attention to the never-ending freedom to practice with the pain and difficulty before me. When I remove my robe at the end of the day, having stood witness to so much conflict and trauma, my heart is softened. I must remember that I always have the choice to “I never had a better understanding of the First Noble Truth,” says Gretchen Rohr, “than when I began sitting on the bench and witnessing as the 10,000 joys and sorrows arise and fall within all walks of life.” LION’S ROAR | SEPTEMBER 2016 68