Law in Contemporary Society

[Empty Title]

-- By MohitGourisaria - 21 Feb 2010

This is not a spiel on how Tiger Wood’s “drifted away” from Buddhism. In fact, from the little I know, one cannot heal in counsel with the outside world. But that is not why I write today.

Each time I read a judge’s opinion, or try to make sense of some hallowed law review article, I have a sense that they are “empty.” This word cannot, for the present purposes, be understood with its Oxford Dictionary connotations. Thus, I shall do my best to expound its meaning through the lens of Buddhism. I do not propose that we interpret law using "Buddhist" principles of construction – such restriction in mental exercise should be, on the contrary, eschewed. Instead, by understanding (and applying) the law as a Buddhist would, we may further social and human progress while freeing ourselves from the suffering and anxiety that law can bring.

I must admit that most of what I write about is as incomprehensible to me, in its essence, as it may appear to you. Thus, I do not write from any point of vantage. Nonetheless, I have immense faith (sorry, no data) that an understanding of basic Buddhist philosophy can help us live as people who practice the law and not as "lawyers," as our egos would have it. The use of the word "ego" here, as you may have surmised, has unpleasant connotations. It stands for the idea that we are more than the conditions that produce us or that the self is something tangible or indestructible. It is an inflated sense of self-worth that makes us put a premium on our needs and fear anything such as failure (or death) that deflates (or demolishes) our idea of the self.

Let me open with what an Australian monk once said to me, "[let's not be] too bloody serious."

Law – a Channel for Freedom, Not Human Suffering

The study of law – just like the study of the Bible or the Quran – should lead to freedom. The texts of law are comparable to the dharma (teachings) of the Buddha. The only difference is that the Buddha, wholly bereft of ego, could admit that dharma fades away once one has begun to comprehend the conditionality of human suffering and thus, started on a path to freedom. The institutions of law, obtaining validity through the manifestation of their egos, espouse a sanctimonious notion of the law. And thus, there are deterministic labels – public interest, unemployed, utilitarian, conservative, and the list goes on. This labelling serves two purposes: first, it enables the higher powers to package us in convenient boxes so that our fates can be easily determined and their statistics favourably reported; second, it leads to our insecurity, which, as Arnold hints, is useful to any institution that seeks to manipulate.

Why then do we indulge in (even propagate) our own suffering? I do not know.

The first step to freedom is the recognition that we are in shackles. Frustration, disenchantment, and sorrow – which emerge after we cease to be ignorant – must lead the way. Then, there comes a belief, through knowledge, humility (sans entitlement), and self-awareness, in a path that leads to freedom from suffering. I do not speak of faith in an omnipotent saviour or in magical healing. This is a simple realisation that does not require reliance on any God or scripture, but rather a self-sought discovery of a personal path that will not follow an established doctrine (legal or otherwise), which attempts to inflate our sense of entitlement and ego. At last, then, comes the actual journey on that discovered path which emancipates us through the letting go of our delusions, our ego, and our labels.

The process described above cannot be categorised and imparted in convenient packages. Dr. King was emancipated on his own path and Mr. Brown found his freedom through his own devices. But their freedom is not our freedom.

The Law is Just a Boat that Carries us to, but is not in itself, our Destination

Q1. Why did we take simple, grade-enhancing [put name of major] courses in college? Q2. Why did we spend several valuable weeks (or months) studying for the LSATs? Q3. Why did we obsessively refresh our status-checkers while awaiting decisions? Because we wanted to become lawyers.

Once the Columbia acceptance came through, the journey was complete – an Ivy-League legal education with guaranteed lifelong luxury. Given the economy, the finish line has been stretched to the end of EIP (or maybe even 2L summer when offers are finalised), but the idea remains the same.

A legal education is seen as an end, and much is made of the three years we spend in law school. Law school is merely an opportunity – a boat that bears us in a transient journey from one shore to another – that has no utility beyond what it confers upon us – access to a farther shore.

We are not in law school. We are in life. [Professor Moglen] And law school happens to be a part of it for some of us. Once we have seen the larger truth, which may be impossible given our egos and entitlements, the law school phenomenon will become insignificant. Once it has become insignificant, there will be no need to incessantly refresh the webpage containing our grades, or to measure our self-worth in terms of numbers or percentiles.


Do not be lost in trying to grasp the “true” meaning of the lines above, for my words are vacuous, hollow, empty. The law, with its legalese and complex taxonomy, is similarly empty. Its worthiness lies in the effect it has upon our conscience and our actions. Where that effect is an amplification of the ego and the enlargement of our suffering, it must be shunted. There is no universal path to freedom. Each one of us must discover his own. Not all of us will be successful in this endeavour. In fact, for every free Brown that lives and dies, a thousand others, enslaved, will exist and then fade away.

“‘These children, this money is mine.’ The fool torments himself with such thoughts. One does not possess even a self of one’s own, how then children or money?”

Dhammapada (Verse 62)

[I would like to sum Nona's and Devin's comments, which helped me as I edited the piece to increase clarity. Both were concerned with the meaning of the term "empty" and how we can utilise our understanding of it in practical terms. Nona expressed confusion over whether the "Dharma metaphor [should be applied] to a SCOTUS decision" and how the notion of fading away should be understood. Devin wanted a more detailed explanation of Buddhist philosophy but I found this difficult to achieve within our word limit -- briefing a concept would be misstatement on my part.]


Webs Webs

r14 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:22 - IanSullivan
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