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.


Wisdom of the Ages: Understanding Poverty

The final chapter of Rowan Williams’ Where God Happens, which I mentioned the other day, is a selection of sayings of the desert fathers and mothers put together by Laurence Freeman, who also wrote the introduction to the book. It is a wonderful collection of comments on important qualities including patience, modesty, humility, charity and discretion and offers a lot to reflect on.

One of the things Freeman talks about is the desert fathers’ and mothers’ understanding of poverty. The kind of voluntary poverty that is a virtue does not consist of merely depriving oneself of things. One can go without and be miserable about it, filled with a desire to possess.

The poverty that is a virtue is a freedom from material anxiety and the complications of ownership that allows one to “enjoy everything or be happy with nothing.” Poverty is not about what things one has or doesn’t have, but “of fundamental attitudes and nonpossessiveness.”

Developing a peacefulness of soul that seeks nothing takes a lot more work to develop than merely going without. And it is clear from Freeman’s discussion that the desert fathers and mothers understood that.

Aging With Wisdom

I recently read Lewis Richmond’s Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser, sent to me for review by Gotham Books. The author is a Zen Buddhist priest and meditation teacher and, although the book reflects his Buddhist experience and training, he has written a book that can be beneficial for everyone, regardless of their faith.

There is a lot to chew on in the text of the chapters. The book provides a good discussion of differences between genders in the aging process, discusses factors that encourage lasting happiness and healthy aging (including one I have discussed often as important for all of us – gratitude), and addresses important contributors to unhappiness – including, importantly, the tendency to engage in comparisons between the life we imagine and the life we actually have. (I think there is much truth to Richmond’s observation that “at the root of every discouragement is a comparison: things should be different, things could be different, and because they are not, I am disappointed, I am discouraged.”) All of these discussions benefit greatly from the inclusion of stories of people Richmond has encountered

Each chapter ends with instructions for a contemplative reflection designed to help in the aging process. The contemplations, each of which is “designed to cultivate some strength or talent or wisdom toward an aspect of aging,” should be accessible to everyone, regardless of the level or extent of their prior experience of meditation and contemplation.

Although not central to the value of the book, for those who are interested, Richmond also provides a good introduction to some basic Buddhist teachings. Like the contemplations, these are presented in a very accessible way.

The last chapters of the book provide a roadmap for a “A Day Away.” As someone who does an annual 8-day silent retreat and leads many weekend or day retreats, I can’t second strongly enough Richmond’s encouragement to spend “a day by yourself in spiritual retreat…to deepen and consolidate” the teachings and suggestions he presents in his book. These chapters will hopefully make the prospect less daunting, even for those who have not taken any time for such retreat in the past.

At a time when people are living longer, and when what we term “old age” can be decades, how we use the gift of the extra time is an important question. As Richmond observes, “Aging is beyond our control, but how we age is up to us.”

Jesus’ Amendment of the Great Commandment

Deuteronomy directs us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” However, when Jesus presents us with this commandment in the Gospels, he does so slightly differently. He commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.

This was a difference I had not focused on before my friend Mark Osler brought it to my attention in a talk he gave last week at the law school. Each of the four Gospels includes the reference to loving God with all our mind, a phrase that does not appear in Deuteronomy.

Mark asks, in a short paper he wrote (which he posted on his blog the day before last), whether it matters that Jesus added mind to what is engaged when we love God. His answer is, “Of course it does – it directs us to enter into an intellectual relationship with God, which puts us on the job of discernment and the expression of reflected wisdom.” Not an intellectual relationship to the exclusion of a heart-relationship, but in addition to.

For Mark, this is significant with respect to the the issue of rules vs. principles, something about which I’ve written before. He writes, “Rules require obedience. With Jesus, there is a new a clear challenge – the challenge that each of us use reason to be wise in applying God’s principles…The principle that we love our neighbor necessarily requires that we apply our reason before acting, while the rule that we shall not steal often (but not alwasy) can be followed reflexively.”

Part of our loving God is exercising wisdom, in not just blindly following rules, but taking the principles Jesus gives us and wisely (and freely) applying them to our lives.

My thanks for Mark for his thoughts on this subject.

Age of Integrity and Wisdom

Wednesday evening, I offered the reflection at a Taize prayer service at Summerwood of Chanhassen, an senior living facility run by Presbyterian Homes and Services. The service was amazingly well attended for a summer evening.

My theme was Age of Integrity and Wisdom, borrowing Erikson’s description of the state of life of those aged 65 and older as the “age of integrity” or the “age of wisdom.” In my reflection, I talked about the fact that part of this stage of integrity and wisdom is the ability to look back over one’s life in gratitude – examining how one has grown through everything one has experienced and realizing where God was in places we may not have noticed God’s presence before. I also talked about some of the functions and benefits of the look-back process.

You can listen to a recording of the reflection here. (The podcast runs for 9:54.) The readings that were part of our service, which I reference during my talk are here.

Everything is a Source of Enrichment

In his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, about which I’ve written before, James Martin quotes Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s statement that

Those who have abandoned themselves to God always lead mysterious lives and receive from God exceptional and miraculous gifts by means of the most ordinary, natural and chance experiences in which there appears to be nothing unusual. The simplest sermon, the most banal conversations, the least erudite books become sources of knowledge and wisdom to these souls by virtue of God’s purpose. This is why they carefully pick up the crumbs which clever minds tread underfoot, for to them everything is precious and a source of enrichment.

I remember reacting to the statement when I read it in Martin’s book, and I came across it again yesterday, when it appeared in my e-mail inbox as that day’s Silent Insight meditation for the day.

I think the reason the statement strikes me so much is that, even though I’ve experienced the truth of it, there are times when I ignore it.

There have been so many times when I’ve learned something from the most unexpected sources. A chance comment in a blog post written by a 12-year old. A single image in an otherwise pedestrian sermon. A word or phrase in an article I was skimming through. If we are open and humble, we can indeed “pick up the crumbs” anywhere.

Nonetheless, I know that there are times when I react with the judgment implicit in “Can anything good come out of Nazareth.” Where I don’t hear something because I’ve pre-judged the source or that I just don’t notice something.

If we truly believe we can find God in all things, we will be open to all of the things and people God will use to bring us to greater love and wisdom. I pray for greater openness and humility so I may pick up all the crumbs that are left there for me.

The Power of Illusions (and the Pain of Giving Them Up)

We live under all sorts of illusions. There are some pretty major illusions that we are all prone to as human beings. But there are also more personal illusions that are unique to our situation, relationships and experience. We may have an illusion that we are better at a particular skill or task than we really are. Or we may have an illusion that a situation will turn out a certain way. Or we may have an illusion that someone is our friend where he or she doesn’t see it that way.

The thing about illusions is that they seem so real to us. It may be very clear to a third party observer that what we think is reality is an illusion, but to us the illusion is the reality. That makes it hard to give up our illusions, to let them go. Even when the evidence starts to come in that suggests that what we thought real was not, we find ways to explain the evidence away. We hang on, convinced of the reality that we created (or that was created for us; often other people contribute to our illusions, intentionally or unwittingly).

But at some point, the evidence becomes too strong to deny. There comes a time when we are forced to admit that our perceptions were faulty, that what we thought was a reality (and quite often a very pleasant reality) was in fact a fiction. And, that admission can be – and generally is – incredibly painful.

Unfortunately, the fact that what we thought was real was an illusion doesn’t diminish the pain of loss. It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to rationally explain to yourself in that situation, “Well, you’re just giving up something you never really had in the first place.” The feeling of loss for what we thought we had is still very real.

Nonetheless, we have to face up to the reality, to abandon the illusion, to suffer the loss. In those situations, we shed our tears and we pray for the grace to let go. To learn from the experience, hopefully to see with clearer eyes as we continue our life journey.

The Gift of Wisdom

Yesterday was graduation at the College of St. Benedict’s, located on the same grounds as St. Benedict’s Monatery, where I am staying. So the Mass I attended was one of two graduation masses and included a reflection by one of the graduating students.

I was struck by the student’s reflection on the first lines of the first reading, which came from the book of Wisdom: “Therefore I prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded and the spirit of Wisdom came to me.”

The “spirit of Wisdom came to me.” That is, she said, wisdom is not something we take or get for ourselves. Rather it is a gift that we are given by God. Our task is not to try to become wise on our own, but rather to open ourselves to receive the gift from God through our prayer and attitude of receptivity.

There is a simplicity to what she said, but I think we sometimes need to be reminded of simple truths. All of us who have received the sacrament of Confirmation know that wisdom is a gift. It is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and we all had to memorize those.

But we tend to forget what it means to say something is a gift from the Holy Spirit. And I think both parts of the student’s reminder are important. On the one hand, wisdom is not something we can acquire on our own. On the other hand, to receive the gift we have to do some real work; we don’t get to just sit back and wait. We have to ready ourselves through our pray, through our desire, to be receptive to God’s gift of wisdom.

A Prayer for Wisdom

Today’s first Mass reading is from the Book of Wisdom. The passage describes Wisdom as pervading all things and having “an aura of the might of God and a pure effusion of the glory of the Almighty.” She is “the refulgence of eternal light, the spotless mirror of the power of God, the image of his goodness.”

The manifestation of God that is Wisdom is always presented as feminine and the Greek word for Wisdom is Sophia. Thomas Merton speaks of Wisdom as both the “Mother of all” and as “my sister.” He calls Sophia “God’s sharing of Himself with creatures.” He writes that Sophia’s

delights are to be with the children of men. She is their sister. The core of life that exists in all things is tgenderness, mercy, virginity, the Light, the Life considered as passive, as received, as given, as taken, as inexhaustibly renewed by the Gift of God. Sophis is Gift, is Spirit, Donum Dei. She is God-given and God Himself as Gift.

One of Joyce Rupp’s many wonderful books is one titled, Prayers to Sophia. Rupp explains in the introduction to that book that when she “prayerfully dwelt” in the widsom literature of the Bible, she came to a personal relationship with Sophia. That relationship is beautifully revealed in the prayers in her book.

Guidance is one of the prayers in Rupp’s book that I come back to again and again. One of the stanzas of the prayer reads:

Please gather your wisdom around me.
Guide me carefully as I make choices
about how to use my energy positively.
Place your discerning touch on my mind
so that I will think clearly.
Place your loving fingers on my heart
so that I will be more fully attentive
to what is really of value.

A useful prayer with which to begin our day.

Wisdom of Atticus Finch

I have always loved both the original book and the movie version of To Kill a Mockingbird (the latter of which has the additional advantage of some wonderful music). Atticus Finch, who puts himself and his children at risk by defending a black man accused of raping a white woman in Alabama, is a herioc figure, a man of integrity, courage and wisdom.

I watched the movie again the other night, for the first time in a long while. There is wisdom in many of Atticus’ comments to his children, but the one that stood out for me this time around is the line that “you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”

At one level this may suggest we can never really understand what someone else is going through if we haven’t been in their situation. But at a different level, it gives us some aid in being able to understand others a bit better. We tend to look at the situation of others through our own experiential lens. But, if before judging another’s position, action or words, we put ourselves in their shoes and look at the situation from their standpoint, we might judge less harshly. We might still disagree with what another holds, says or does, but we just might be a little more understanding and a little less critical in our judgments.