Michael Leizerman is a shoken student at the Buddhist Temple of Toledo, studying with Rinsen Weik, with whom he co-wrote The Zen Lawyer [published by Trial Guides, 2018]. When he tells me that the law is his Zen practice, I suspect at first it is one of those hyperboles Zen practitioners can fall prey to, but, in his case, it turns out to be a simple statement of fact.
At one point in our conversation we discussed the concept of “practice,” what it means to say that one “practices law” or “practices Zen.”
“Practice means ‘to put into action,’” he suggests. “To practice law is to put law into action. To practice Zen is to put Zen into action—to put reality into action. I’ve thought a lot about that word. Let me start with the ‘practice of law.’ There’s a little bit of humility in it maybe, right? That you can’t get it perfect, that you’re always practicing. On the other hand, I don’t like it if it’s seen as a means to an end, and that at some point the practice will result in the performance. The same thing with Zen practice. It’s a word we fall into, and I wish I had a better word. Sitting on the cushion is just living. Practicing law is just ‘lawing.’ But I don’t have better words, so, yeah, I think it’s a problematic word – ‘practice’ – and I don’t know what to do with that.”
I suspect his Dharma name – Hoshi or “Truth Warrior” – was chosen with care.
“There’s another word we use,” I say. “You identified Rinsen as your ‘teacher.’ You don’t call him your priest or your rabbi or your facilitator. He’s your ‘teacher.’ What does a Zen teacher teach?”
He spends a moment reflecting before answering, and then does so speaking slowly and carefully.
“For me, Zen Buddhist practice . . .” We both catch his use of the word and laugh. After shaking his head, he tries again. “Zen Buddhist ideas – I mean, language is problematic – is about a few things. One is combusting my life right now with intention, with compassion, with wisdom. To live my life right now in a meaningful way. Can I do that on my own? Sure. Maybe. There are ways in which it would be very arrogant of me to say, ‘I can just do this on my own and ignore thousands of years of tradition and what that might have to teach me.’ There’s a famous Jewish story of, ‘Oh, you go to listen to the rabbi’s talk.’ The other guy says, ‘No. I go to watch him tie his shoes.’ Right? There’s that kind of thing where there’s someone who I respect and can check in with.”
“Combusting your life? What do you mean by that?”
“I don’t where that word comes from, if it’s from the liturgy. I know I’ve heard Rinsen use it, and I use it regularly. I lead a Zen Lawyers Sitting every morning for the last couple of years, and on my altar there’s, of course, a candle, and I like the idea that the candle is burning, the incense is burning. So it’s a metaphor. How do I combust my life? Because our life is finite, like a candle melting away.”
He talks unselfconsciously about the importance of ethics. He has formally taken the “Precepts” – the ethical guidelines which Buddhists pledge to abide by – twice, first with the teacher with whom he worked before his met Rinsen and then again with Rinsen.
“What is the importance, to you personally, of those guidelines?”
“They have, for me, an increasingly concrete meaning. In undergraduate school, I studied philosophy. My wife studied philosophy. We both have taught jurisprudence at law school. We can get into conversations about Heidegger and Husserl and existentialism and whatever. You know, you can debate moral philosophy and probably find a way to justify about anything. So that’s the rational mind. Right? What do I use to guide me in everyday decision making? One of my chief complaints about the monotheistic religions is there’s no answer to that. The Bible doesn’t really tell me, ‘Should I take this case? How should I treat this person?’ If other people get that from it, fine. I don’t. So, for me, the moral component that ties into the vows I took is ‘to do no harm.’ If you want to get into the rational mind, it’s impossible to do no harm – do you want me to avoid stepping on the ants? – so, of course, it means to minimize suffering in the world. And I particularly like Zen Buddhism with its focus on being a bodhisattva, being in the world to help reduce my own suffering and to help others reduce their suffering, and to go in the world and actualize good for others. So every morning I meet this group of lawyers, and we say, ‘Today let’s go into the world as people and as lawyers and attempt to reduce suffering in our lives and reduce suffering in the lives of others. Do justice. Do good.’ For me it’s as simple as, ‘Is this reducing suffering? Is this doing good?’ Now you can say, ‘Ah, there might be short-term suffering . . .’ You can get into a whole utilitarian analysis. Set all that aside, and for me that’s the starting place. Am I reducing suffering? Am I doing good? Am I helping others?”