Your Voice

Zen principles provide valuable lessons for judges

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Steve Lachman

Steve Lachman.

In some cultures, it is honorable for monks to parade through the streets with their rice bowls, seeking handouts so they can live a life of religious purity, while bestowing good fortune to those who contribute. In the United States, we call such people panhandlers. Here, Zen Buddhism is seldom practiced by monks but instead by farmers, auto mechanics, teachers and judges.

For judges, much can be learned from Buddhism: being mindful of our actions, remaining pure of thought, by speaking and acting compassionately, and by performing our duties competently. When we climb to the bench, our work can be the embodiment of our true self.

What is Zen Buddhism?

Siddartha Gautama (563-483 B.C.) was a Nepalese prince who sought a solution to mankind’s suffering. Meditation brought awakening to the Buddha (“the enlightened one”). Buddha preached the dharma, the right way of living. By leading a pure life and obtaining enlightenment, or nirvana, one no longer endures the cycle of suffering, karma and rebirth. The idea of karma is that our actions generate an effect both in our current life and in future incarnations.

I don’t know whether reincarnation is real or what will happen to my consciousness upon my death. I like science and am loath to take things on faith. But here is an example of karma that makes me believe that the universe is connected:

The summer after my second year of law school, I clerked for a federal magistrate in Burlington, Vermont. One day while strolling along Church Street at lunchtime, I yielded to the urge to chase a pigeon. It flew off in a huff. Five minutes later, a pigeon (unclear if it was the same one) dive-bombed me, leaving a mess on my shirt. I have never chased another pigeon.

Practitioners of Buddhism follow five basic behavioral precepts:

  1. Do not harm living things.
  2. Do not steal.
  3. Do not engage in sexual misconduct.
  4. Do not lie.
  5. Avoid ingesting intoxicating and other harmful substances.

These rules make for a civil society. Most civil and criminal conflicts stem from violating them.

Buddhism is a religion in that it sets out man’s place within the universe. It neither excludes nor requires God for validity. It is also a practical framework for living: Buddhism outlines how to live our lives to become more enlightened. Growing up as an atheist and rather undisciplined, Buddhism gave a meaning to my life that theistic religions could not and it gave my life a structure. Personally, I evolved into Buddhism largely through reading authors including Shunryu Suzuki, Richard Bach, Philip Kapleau, Thich Nhat Hanh and Dan Millman.

The key to the dharma is to follow Buddha’s Eightfold Path: (1) right understanding; (2) right thought; (3) right speech; (4) right action; (5) right livelihood; (6) right effort; (7) right mindfulness; and (8) right attention.

Application of the eightfold path for judges

1. Right understanding. Buddhist beliefs can shape all we do, and we can be grateful for our life and the opportunities it presents. Professionally, we can view all litigants, court employees, attorneys, police, witnesses, defendants and victims with compassion, and view their circumstances objectively and without prejudice. “Justice” is a tool with which to help them all reach enlightenment.

2. Right thought. We are what we think. Reading or watching only unintelligent escapism at home is reflected in a simplistic and meaningless worldview and less thoughtful decisions in the courtroom. True awakening is an all-out mental pursuit.

3. Right speech. By speech, I mean both oral and written. The legal profession relies on words. Right speech enlightens. Most of our lectures to criminal defendants fall on deaf ears, but every once in a while, we plant a seed that grows into something wonderful—aspire to that.

Our speech gives the listener a window into our soul. Demeaning people before the court reveals arrogance. Blathering on reflects under-confidence and a lack of deliberation. Compassionate, deliberate speech paints the justice system as fair to all. Right speech is honest and economical—particularly in court opinions.

4. Right action. Our personal habits can’t help but carry over into our professional lives. There is no Chinese wall within us. If we practice right thought, our actions will follow suit. The Buddhist judge follows the five basic behavioral precepts I discussed earlier.

5. Right livelihood. There are three components to Right livelihood: Does our work make life better? Do we perform the work competently? Does the work foster balance in our lives? Our profession has the potential to improve life for most people. We are sworn to uphold the law, but because judges and legislators are not perfect, sometimes the law does not make life better. As a judge, you consciously decide how to reconcile your professional and moral obligations.

6. Right effort. Becoming the person you seek to be requires effort. As judges, we should manage our cases fully and promptly. We should devote our full attention to arguments and testimony. We assume management responsibilities in our own court system. We can contribute to the education of the broader bar and help colleagues.

7. Right mindfulness. Mindfulness has become a codeword for work-life balance, introspection and relaxation techniques. But in the Zen sense, it means being aware of your position in the universe in relation to the position of others.

Be mindful of the situations the people appearing before you face. The defendant may be a nervous wreck, or the attorney may be going through a divorce. And be mindful of your motivation, prejudices and limitations.

8. Right attention. Attention normally refers to the mental focus we attend to an item of consideration. And as judges, we give our full attention to any task in which we engage. In the Zen world, right attention refers more specifically to the focus we give to our meditation—the key to enlightenment.

To be a Zen judge, you must meditate. Although your ultimate goal may be enlightenment, put this goal out of your mind while meditating. It will only distract you from your practice. Zen is about being in the moment, not about seeking.

The beginner’s mind

We should enter our courtrooms every morning with what Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki called “the beginner’s mind,” a mind devoid of prejudice and habit. We faithfully honor the presumption of innocence of defendants, no matter how many drug dealers we have convicted before. We are patient with the argumentative attorney. We are unimpressed with our own power. We are nothing special.

A Zen judge lives in the present. The past informs us; it does not make our current choices. We can shape the future, but we do not live in it. Rising above habit and prejudice requires mindfulness.


The Buddhist knows there is no best. We are all just manifestations of being. Pounding our own chest, as pro football players so often do, signals that we need praise to complete us. Too often, judges are overly impressed with their own authority. As a magisterial district judge, I am on the lowest rung of the Pennsylvania judiciary. Still, people stand when I enter the courtroom. They call me “Your Honor.” It’s easy to think I am important. For judges higher on the judicial totem pole, that temptation is even greater. And yet, we all put our pants on one leg at a time.

Judges are blessed in their power to help people—to show them mercy and to protect the public. Judges are cursed with the power to hurt people—to make them fearful, to rule arbitrarily, to impose unreasonable burdens. Don’t be a tyrant judge who rules the court like a fiefdom or expects lawyers, staff and the public to genuflect before them. Don’t confuse obedience and fear with respect.

The illusion of free will

Buddhism’s view of free will is dualistic. On one hand, it acknowledges that all our choices are predetermined. Our genes establish our physical constraints and predispositions. Our parents oriented us with a life philosophy. Teachers and friends gave us knowledge and direction. The institutions in which we live shape our behavior. We face sanctions and rewards for different conduct.

But even though the outcome of our choices is predetermined, because we do not know those outcomes in advance, we still have free choices to make every day. We consciously choose our decisions and behaviors.

The people who appear before us are likewise governed by their history and environment. When we lose our temper at a litigant or an attorney (or our spouse), aren’t we really angry at past events over which we have no control? The predestiny of people’s circumstances highlights why we should judge without emotion. We issue orders to shape the future, not to punish the past. Temper should be wielded only as a tool to change someone’s future conduct.

With this understanding of free will, ask yourself: “Who am I?” Your sense of individualism vanishes because all your thoughts and actions are the product of events beyond your control. This gets to the heart of Buddhism. We are all part of a greater whole.

For judges who look to integrate their profession into a cohesive worldview, Zen provides an all-encompassing framework. Zen can make us better judges and better people. It also gives us a roadmap to the universe.

Before becoming a magisterial district judge in State College, Pennsylvania, Steve Lachman was a legal writing professor at the Pennsylvania State University School of Law, a litigator for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and a public defender in Pittsburgh. He also has a PhD in geography. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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