Buddhism and Wisdom (and Lawyers)

As I wrote yesterday, I am in Malibu, where I am participating in the annual conference of Pepperdine Law School’s Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics.   The theme for this year’s conference is Wisdom Law and Lawyers.  I was very excited about this conference and not only to escape the winter cold of the Twin Cities or because some of my good friends are among the other speakers.

Yesterday morning began with a wonderful keynote address by Jonathan Burnside, who spoke about the relationship between law and wisdom.  The first panel of the morning addressed Practical Reason, Wisdom and the Law.

I spoke on the second panel of the morning on the subject of Religious Traditions and Wisdom.  My talk addressed the Buddhist understanding of wisdom and how that might speak to issues of law, lawyers and justice.  Specifically, I addressed questions such as: What does Buddhism teach about the nature of wisdom?  How, if at all, do those teachings relate to, or perhaps enrich, a Christian understanding of wisdom?  And how does a Buddhist understanding of wisdom impact our view of the law and the legal profession?

One of the reasons I was excited to be part of this panel is that, by and large, the study of law and religion is a field that has been dominated by discussions focused on the western religious traditions. Theologians and legal scholars have devoted attention to law and religion in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic contexts. Only recently have some scholars started focusing on law from a Buddhist perspective. (Indeed the first comprehensive book on Buddhism and Law was only published last year.)

One of the the points I made in my talk is that Buddhism embodies a preference for resolving conflict in a way that recognizes the interconnectedness/ interdependence of all beings. Rebecca French, who has devoted significant attention to Buddhist conception of law, suggests that the US legal system, which tends to produce winners and losers, gives “little thought” to the interconnectedness of people and how the decision affects all the individuals involved in the case.” In contrast, she writes, “Buddhists believe that you can’t have closure in a case unless all parties are in agreement with the decision, and unless the whole network of people affected by the case is compensated. From this process, you have a social catharsis; you have a feeling that society has been healed.” The Dalai Lama, speaking at a program on law, Buddhism and social changes several years ago, spoke of the need to employ reconciliation and mediation before going to court.  While I don’t think this is the only, and maybe not even the most important, thing Buddhism contributes to how we think about law and justice, I do think it is something worth thinking about.

I hope to share some more thoughts about the conference in subsequent posts.


God in the Ocean

Yesterday morning I flew from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, where we picked up a rental car to drive up to Malibu, where we’re staying for three nights in connection with a conference at Pepperdine Law School that I will be speaking at this morning.

I frequently joke about all of the ways Minneapolis is not like New York, things like the lack of good bagels.  But one of the things I miss most about living in the mid-west is not living near an ocean.  Minnesota may be the land of a thousand lakes but that is not the same as the ocean.

The first thing we did after arriving at our hotel (after the drive on the Pacific Coast Highway) was to walk along the beach.  Staring at the ocean – water as far as the eye can see, I breathe more easily and I feel, at one and the same time, a sense of calm and a feeling of awe.

I can find God anywhere, I know, but one can’t stand at the ocean and not see God.  I understand deeply what Frederick Buechner expressed about it:

They say that whenever the great Protestant theologian Paul Tillich went to the beach, he would pile up a mound of sand and sit on it gazing out at the ocean with tears running down his cheeks. One wonders what there was about it that moved him so.

The beauty and the power of it? The inexpressible mystery of it? The futility of all those waves endlessly flowing in and ebbing out again? The sense that it was out of the ocean that life originally came and that when life finally ends, it is the ocean that will still remain? Who knows? . . .

Maybe it was when he looked at the ocean that he caught a glimpse of the One he was praying to. Maybe what made him weep was how vast and overwhelming it was and yet at the same time a near as the breath of it in his nostrils, as salty as his own tears.

I think Tillich caught “a glimpse of the One he was praying to.”  Perhaps more than a glimpse.

[In his comment, my friend Richard reminds me Minnesota is the land of ten thousand lakes, not a thousand.]

How We Approach Decisions

Yesterday was a busy day.  In the late afternoon, I led a lovingkindness (metta) meditation sponsored by the UST Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation.  Earlier in the day, I led the sixth session of the program I am offering at UST Law School during this academic year on Discerning my Place in the World. In our prior sessions we’ve addressed a number aspects of discerning vocation, including getting in touch with our giftedness, identifying what brings us joy, prioritizing our values,  reflecting on our deepest desires, and growing in our appreciation that we are each individually called by God.

Yesterday’s session, and the next one (in March) are focused more directly on how we approach decisions, both drawing on learnings from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  Yesterday’s focus was on growing in internal freedom to make choices free from disordered attachments.

During my talk I spoke about three key meditations in Week 2 of the Spiritaul Exercises, all designed to lead to internal freedom for decisionmaking: Three Classes of Persons, Three Degrees of Humility and the Two Standards.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 34:52. The three handouts I refer to are from Joseph Tetlow’s Choosing Christ in the World.)

Lent Reading: Night

I mentioned in my post last week about spiritual reading during Lent that one of the first things I planned to read this Lent was Elie Wiesel’s Night.  I did – in a single sitting; I picked up the book and could not put it down until I was finished.

Night is the first book Weisel wrote (it was written in 1958, although I read a new 2006 translation of it), a book the New York Times described as a “slim volume of terrifying power.”  The book records Weisel’s experience of being expelled from his home and of the hell he endured in the Nazi German concentration camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

It is one thing to read about the Holocaust from someone who writes from a distance.  One thing to learn the facts and hear about the atrocities second-hand.  It is quite another to read the first-hand account of this man who was a teenager when he and his family were taken from their home to the concentration camps.  To listen to Weisel describe seeing babies thrown into flames, watching a young boy being hung in the square, hearing the cries of his father as he lay dying and not being able to go to him.

Is it any wonder that Weisel, who had been so devout in his faith before being dragged from his home, reached a point in the camps when prayer became difficult?  He describes a Rosh Hashanah in the camp, a day that previously had dominated his life, a day on which he had pleaded for forgiveness for his sins.  Of that day in the camp he writes

But now, I no longer pleaded for anything.  I was no longer able to lament.  On the contrary, I felt very strong.  I was the accuser, God the accused.  My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man.  Without love or mercy.  I was nothing but ashes now, but I felt myself to be stronger than this Almighty to whom my life had been bound for so long.  In the midst of these men assembled for prayer, I felt like an observer, a stranger.

Although he questioned where God was in this suffering, somewhere there, he knew God was there.  On the day he watched three men being hung, someone behind him whispered, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  Weisel writess that “from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is?  This is where – hanging here from this gallows.'”

I read an interview with Weisel that occurred about fifteen years ago. He was asked how he and God are doing these days.  He responded

We still have a few problems! But even in the camps, I never divorced God. After the war, I went on praying to God. I was angry. I protested. I’m still protesting—and occasionally, I’m still angry. But it’s not because of the past, but the present. When I see victims of a tragedy—and especially children—I say to God, “Don’t tell me that you have nothing to do with this. You are everywhere—you are God.”

This is a painful book, but it is a testimony worth reading.

So Shall My Word Be

Today’s first Mass reading from Isaiah is one that always fills me with solace, with peace.  We hear today the God’s promise to Isaiah:

Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

No matter how bleak things may sometimes appear, God’s plan will be fulfilled. God’s word shall do God’s will, achieving the end for which it is sent.  That is God’s promise.

Reading these words this morning reminded me of a passage in Evangelii Gaudium.  Pope Francis reminds us that“Nobody can go of to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. It we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents.”

Isaiah reminds us to have that confidence. The confidence (again in Pope Francis’ words that allows us to “see the light which the Holy Spirit always radiates in the midst of darkness” and to “discern how wine can come from water and how wheat can grow in the midst of weeds.”


Walking Through Lent With Mark

Yesterday was the first gathering of a six-session Lent Scripture Study at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes devoted to a study of Mark’s Gospel.

I opened the session by talking about why study and prayer with Scripture is not incidental, but is centrally important to our life of Christian discipleship.  Speaking of the emphasis the Church as placed, particularly in recent years, on our mission to evangelize, I quoted Pope Francis’s Apostolic Exhoratation, where he writes

The study of the sacred Scriptures must be a door opened to every believer.  It is essential that the revealed word radically enrich our catechesis and all our efforts to pass on the faith.  Evangelization demands familiarity with God’s word, which calls for dioceses, parishes and Catholic associations to provide for a serious, ongoing study of the Bible, while encouraging its prayerful individual and communal reading.  We do not blindly seek God, or wait for him to speak to us first, for “God has already spoken, and there is nothing further that we need to know, which has not been revealed to us”. Let us receive the sublime treasure of the revealed word. (par. 175)

In today’s session, I gave a brief introduction to Mark’s Gospel and then addressed Mark 1:1 – 3:3 – the preparation for Jesus’ public ministry and his early Galilean ministry.  After talking about Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the desert, I spoke about each of the three important categories of events in that section of Mark: the call of the first disciples and of Levi, several healings, and – already this early in Mark – some controversies with Jewish leaders and rejection by the Pharisees.  We had a lively discussion of each of these, as well as some time for individual reflection.

Here is the division of Mark’s Gospel as we will address it in our remaining five sessions.  If you are in the Twin Cities area, you are welcome to join us, even if you missed the first session.

Session 2 (3/1)            Mark 3:7-6:6a (Patrice Stegbauer will lead this session, while I am at a conference at Pepperdine)

Session 3 (3/8)            Mark 6:6b-8:30

Session 4 (3/15)          Mark 8:31-10:52

Session 5 (3/22)          Mark Chapter 11-13

Session 6 (3/29)          Mark Chapters 14-16 (Our seminarian Grant Theis will lead this session, while I am away giving a weekend retreat for St. Catherine’s University.)

I am suggesting to participants that they read in advance the passages we will be discussing at each session and to spend some time reflecting on these questions:

What did I hear in a new way as I read this portion of Mark’s Gospel?

What did I read that is particularly challenging to me?

What did I read that resonated most deeply? Or that gave me great consolation?

Even if you can’t join us for our sessions, these are good questions for you to reflect on.

Veronica’s Tale

Yesterday we had a retreat day for men and women at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Minneapolis.  Although we began and ended the day together for our introduction and opening and closing prayer, we split up for most of the time, with Deacon Thom Winninger leading the men and me leading the women.

I divided my time with the women into two sessions, one in which we looked at models of discipleship from among the women who encountered or walked with Jesus during his lifetime and the other in which we talked about more recent women who can inspire us.

The four women I spoke about in the first session were Martha, Veronica, Mary Magdalene, and my method was one of storytelling.  As I explained at the outset, there is a reason Jesus so often used stories to illustrate truths; stories, and the truths they reveal, often touch us at a deep place. We react to them with our heart in a way that is often much deeper than if were simply told the same truth. (I gave the examples of the difference between hearing the story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus simply answering the question “who is my neighbor” by saying “everyone,” and the difference between hearing the story of the Prodigal Son and simply being told, “God is always ready to forgive you.)

Although I used material from other sources to tell the stories of three of the women, I told Veronica’s story using something I wrote several years ago.  Since several of the women afterward told me how much they were affected by it, I thought I’d share it here.

So here is Veronica’s tale, a tale of a women who ignored social norms to be present to the suffering of another, who models a discipleship of compassion and presence :

We were in Jerusalem for the Passover. My husband’s family lived here and we often made the trip to spend the holy days with them. Although many of those visits meld together in my mind, this time was one I will remember all my life. I can hardly forget it. I think of it – of him – every time I notice the veil that I never wear anymore. Continue reading

Change of Heart

I posted the other day on the subject of Lent reading.  Here is another one to add to your list: Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer, by Jeanne Bishop.

Jeanne is a dear friend of mine and so I was treated to reading the manuscript of this book before it was published.  I was thrilled to open the mail earlier this week to find my signed copy of the actual book.  I immediately sat down and read it again.

The story begins twenty-five years ago, when, after a family dinner celebrating the pregnancy of Jeanne’s sister Nancy, Nancy and her husband returned home.  An intruder was sitting and waiting for them, gun in hand.  He shot and killed them.

As the title and subtitle of the book reveals, this is the story of how Jeanne moved to forgiveness and, even more, to compassion toward the man who murdered her beloved sister.  How she moved from not even being able to speak the killer’s name, to writing to him and visiting him in prison.  From being an advocate for life without parole for juveniles to advocating against such a punishment.  (The killer was a junior in high school when the murders took place.)  Her story is one of restorative justice and of Christian love.  It is also a story of the cost of discipleship, as some of Jeanne’s actions (such as testifying in favor of reducing the life without parole sentence of people like this killer) sometimes put her on the other side of the aisle of other family members and generated harsh (and sometimes vicious) criticism from others.

Jeanne says this in the opening chapter of the book:

This is the story of how God rolled away that stone [the stone over her heart], loosened the fingers that gripped that rock [the rock she wanted to throw at the perpetrator], till it thudded in the dirt – and grew in its stead the green shoots of transformation and new life, renewal and change.

It is my story, but it is also yours, because God who loves us all and wrought this miracle in my life has the power to transform yours as well, to lead you into places you never dreamed you would go

Jeanne is wonderful model of Christian discipleship.  I admire her greatly and am honored to call her a friend.

I don’t doubt you will find this a compelling story and one of amazing grace.  It would make for good reading during this Lent.

Pray For Those You Don’t Usually Think of Praying For

Most of us engage in intercessory prayer at least on occasion, if not on a regular basis.  In addition to whatever other forms our prayer takes – whether it is praying with scripture, centering prayer or something else – we pray for ourselves, others, the world.  When we are not praying for our own needs, the first thing we tend to think of is praying for the needs of our family and friends and others who are close to us.

The other day my friend Teresa shared a blog post that described a Lenten practice the author engaged in.  Before the beginning of Lent, the author takes her calendar and writes on one of the 40 days the name of someone she is “not too fond of” (a description that could cover a lot).  When that day arrives, she offers her prayers and petitions, frustrations, joys, and sufferings for the person’s intentions.

That struck me as a wonderful Lenten practice, indeed a practice for all year.   In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, chiding us that loving and caring for those who we love or are good to us is not enough.

Whether it is someone who has hurt you, someone who has done something to irritate you, someone who rubs you the wrong way, someone you are just “not too fond of”, why not find some time to pray for their wellbeing during this Lent.  I know I plan to do so.  I suspect that we may, as the author of the blog post does, find the practice to be a transformative one.

What Are You Going To Read During Lent?

The three traditional Lenten practices are prayer, almsgiving and fasting.  But those are not the only three practices from which we can benefit, both during Lent and during other times of the year.  One of the other practices which can enhance our discipleship is spiritual reading.

I read a lot.  I always have.  But lately most of my reading, while often spiritual in nature, is directly tied to projects I’m currently working on: an academic presentation I am making, a particular upcoming retreat I’m preparing for, a course I will be teaching.  Among other things, that means that it has been a while since I’ve read a work of fiction.  And yet there is so much fiction that can be spiritually and theologically formative.

I came across a post the other day titled 12 Fiction Books that Will Shape Your Theology.  The list includes some books I’ve read and others I have not, some I have heard of and others that were new to me.

One of the books listed – indeed, the first on the list – is Silence by Shusaku Endo, a Japanese author who converted to Catholicism when he was eleven years old.  Silence is considered by many to be his masterpiece and it has been sitting on my shelf for a while waiting for me to get to it.

So my spiritual reading during Lent will include  Silence.  It will also likely include some selection from The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.  It will also include some nonfiction, and top of that list is Elie Wiesel’s first work, Night.

What will be your spiritual reading during Lent?