Do you have any wisdom to share with me?
Some of my greatest teachers have been within arms reach. The key is to know who are those teachers, to be open to new teachings, to have an idea of what teachings might be vital to receive and learn, and to welcome their teachings if they will share them.
A great teacher might be the proverbial Yoda: a seemingly obscure character, possibly eccentric (if not downright annoying as was Yoda when he rifled through Luke Skywalker’s pack), not the vision at first of a polished human giant, and not seeking any fame nor fortune. Sometimes the best teachings for practicing law and life come from seeking out teachers and their teachings — sometimes through deep seeking — rather than waiting for them to come to us and rather than shelling out a fee to hear them speak at a seminar. Ultimately, of course, everyone is my teacher.
One of my most essential teachers is Ram Dass. Certainly he already was wildly celebrated when I still was in my single digits. However, not until after finishing law school did I get much sense of him. At a local Vegetarian Society lunch, a very upbeat fellow vegetarian brought up Ram Dass and talked about how Ram Dass once departed from his guru’s home base to take care of some business in the city, ate a vegetarian feast, felt some guilt over topping off his luxurious fill with a cookie, and returned to his guru (Neem Karoli Baba) who asked through some apparent sixth sense how Ram Dass enjoyed the cookie.
Twelve years later, in 2003, I finally bothered to read Ram Dass’s Be Here Now in full, as a prelude to experiencing him at an appearance in Washington, D.C. The evening was electric, and when I finally met Ram Dass, ever so briefly, after patiently waiting in line after his talk, his spirit, inspiration, and teachings hit all the more home. Living many years with the aftermath of a severe stroke, he celebrates all the more the living of life without attachment to one’s body. In Still Here, written subsequent to his stroke, Ram Dass even includes discussion of turning one’s last breaths of life into a positive; Gandhi practiced the same, and the Dalai Lama writes of the same.
I lost touch with the man who brought Ram Dass front and center to me until seeing his business card on the bulletin board of the local vegan products store. Now he works in real estate. I called him, and found a man as upbeat and optimistic as ever, marrying capitalism with spirituality and compassion.
Not long after learning about Ram Dass, I met my now-vital mentor Jun Yasuda, who fasted at Lafayette Park — just two blocks from my law firm at the time — fasting on green tea for a month for peace during Gulf War I. She was at once soft-spoken and driven to spread the message and spirit of peace. Take your pick of my blog entries about the profound influence Jun-san continues having on me, and on helping me steer a more peaceful path as I battle in and out of court.
Because becoming a better lawyer calls first for becoming a better person, many of my vital trial teachers are not lawyers at all. When it comes to lawyer teachers, though, as I have said many times before, Steve Rench is my most valued trial law teacher, whose name is widely known among criminal defense lawyers, and who, through his own non-flamboyant, non-charismatic demeanor shows lawyers that a great trial lawyer can be taught, rather than just be born.
Most recently, just a few weeks ago during a trial lunch break in Washington, D.C., I went to investigate another client’s case. As I walked past Chinatown, I saw a wise-looking bearded man wheeling some of his belongings in a cart that city dwellers use to carry their purchases from nearby groceries to their apartments. I at first stereotyped him as possibly homeless, carrying his belongings place to place rather than leaving them at home; how disenchanting that I still do so much stereotyping.
Then I saw his face and eyes, and the cart disappeared. I felt compelled to ask him what I do not believe I ever have asked a new person on the street: “Do you have some wisdom to share with me?” Apparently unsurprised at my question, he asked what I was looking for. I told him that I already try to lead a t’ai chi life combined with the peaceful influences of Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhism (while not being a Buddhist myself), but had a feeling that he had more than that to share with me.
The man told me he would invite me to a meeting of Science of Spirituality in Takoma Park, which borders on Washington, D.C., and the city where our law firm operates, and is a place where San Francisco hippies will feel about the most comfortable in the Washington area. I at first started putting my guard up, wondering if I would learn that he was speaking of a distasteful cult (of course, the Trial Lawyers College, which I attended, has key hallmarks of a cult). Then again, I had asked if he had any wisdom to share with me, and he had.
I never heard back from the man, and it might take some doing for me to find where I wrote his name; perhaps he misplaced my contact information, too. I have not looked into Science of Spirituality other than to browse its website, which includes promotion of vegetarianism and emphasis that leaving one’s religious faith is unnecessary for joining the group (then, again, sometimes proselytizing promises are prevarications). Of course, one can learn much good from a person without subscribing to the person’s cults or spiritual paths. One of my closest friends who also is a vital teacher is an example of that.
In any event, the key is to find our essential teachers, including those who are still on earth, those who have already passed away and left their teachings in written or oral form or through their influence on others, and, most importantly, the teacher within each of ourselves.
Do you have any wisdom to share with me? Jon Katz.