Saturday, July 4, 2009

Buddhist Judging

I'm not a Buddhist, far from it, but I've been a fan of Buddhist writings on the practical aspects of spiritual practice ever since I encountered Zen In the Art of Archery by German philosopher Eugen Herrigel back in the sixties.

Recently Merry shared a Buddhist text that resonated with her. She observed that although the text deals with mastering the skill of meditation, it could easily apply to the process of mastering the skill of judging.

When you see that you've acted, spoken, or thought in a skillful way conducive to happiness while causing no harm to yourself or others take joy in that fact and keep on training.”

This thought intrigued me so much that I tracked down the quote to a recent article in the journal Tricycle by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, called The Joy of Effort.

As I read the article I substituted the work "judging" for the word "meditation" just to see what happened. Here's an example of the result:

"...the key to maintaining your inspiration in the day-to-day work of judging is to approach it as play—a happy opportunity to master practical skills, to raise questions, experiment, and explore. This is precisely how the Buddha himself taught judging. Instead of formulating a cut-and-dried method, he first trained his students in the personal qualities—such as honesty and patience—needed to make trustworthy observations. Only after this training did he teach judging techniques, and even then he didn’t spell everything out. He raised questions and suggested areas for exploration in the hope that his questions would capture his students’ imagination, so they’d develop discernment and gain insights on their own."

While this may seem a bit too facile, for me it reveals one key to learning how to become a good judge. While obviously important, technical skills such as knowing the law and practice are not primary, instead skills like patience, curiosity, humility and honesty need to take precedence.

Perhaps one of the most difficult traits to learn and practice in any court is integrity. In my view, some aspects of the structure of our court systems actively discourages personal integrity in judges. I'm not referring here to explicit lies, double dealing, or graft. Our court systems and rules of professional ethics are actually quite sensitive to these types of dishonesty. When I think about integrity in this context, I'm more concerned with avoiding the loss of focus that can easily creep into the work and degrade its quality. In any job that involves a lot of repetition, it's easy to become complacent once you have obtained the basic skills of the job. What happens from a practical standpoint is that attention to the specific facts of each case can suffer from time of preparation through trial. I have about 1000 cases currently pending in my docket with more being added daily. There's a constant temptation, even incentive, to cut corners.

Monk Bhikkhu offers the following good advice on this point, "And the key to this honesty is to treat your actions as experiments. Then, if you see the results aren’t good, you’re free to change your ways."

Furthermore, in a job like judging where social status plays a major role, it's easy to forget that the status of judge is an artificial one, created by our culture for a specific end. Being chosen for this job is not a statement about the qualities, good or bad, of the person who is the judge. Nonetheless it's always tempting to confuse the role with the person. Being treated with formal deference can lead one to believe that by being granted the power to make judgements, the judge has somehow have been endowed with these special powers based on superior personal traits. This is not the case, but it's easy to get confused when being addressed as "Judge" or "Your Honor" repeatedly on a daily basis.

In the end the key to applying Buddhist teaching to practical skill is to remember to avoid getting wrapped up in the "eight worldly concerns," i.e., gain/loss, pleasure/pain, praise/blame and fame/dishonor. A skillful practitioner of any art simply focuses on the joy of doing the work and rejoices in each of the many complicated steps required by the practice. Achieving or avoiding the eight worldly concerns is totally forgotten and on a good day the result is a heightened awareness of the present moment.

I think of this heightened awareness as "being in the zone." When I achieve this state I read with greater comprehension, write more clearly, smile more and ask better questions. It's virtually impossible to tell an effective joke or give an extemporaneous speech unless I'm in the zone.

Om mani padme hum

Just a reminder, both Merry & I have put up web sites where you can see archived posts and view Merry's terrific photo essays (most recently about the new St. Louis “Citygarden”). Check them out when you have the time at: and

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post!

    I certainly think you have a lot integrity.

    And speaking of Buddha – you might want to check out the Living Insights Center in Clayton.

    The center was started by Jack Sisk, a former corporate health attorney. Jack has created a series of sanctuaries for various religions / beliefs that is both sacred and fascinating.