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The power of silence and danger of verbal diarrhea, revisited

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What makes a lawyer in court, a lawyer’s client, a television interviewee or anyone else think that verbal diarrhea is preferable over covering the subject to the extent needed, and no more? As much as I oppose fishing and other activities for catching animals for food and sport, trial lawyer Terry McCarthy makes utter sense when saying — about cross examination — once you catch the fish, bag it and don’t play with it.

I have overtalked many a time, and probably even some of the greatest lawyers do it now and again. Hopefully by treasuring the power of silence, I will more often than not get it right.

A balancing act is involved between talking and talking during closing argument — and during oral argument, which does not require using up the entire allotted time if not needed — and having uncomfortable silences when trying to summon something to say. Of course, uncomfortable silences might be a cue that it is time to end the closing argument, or else the lawyer can share why the silence has arisen (e.g., "I am at a loss for words how to respond to the outrageous assertion by [opposing counsel] concerning [A, B and C]") so as not to lose credibility with the jury/listener, and so as to eliminate or reduce the listener’s irritation at the lawyer for forcing the listener to endure what might otherwise seem to be the lawyer’s plodding along to the listener’s torture.

Over two years ago, I cited excellent examples of the power of silence and simplicity in argument, through Count Basie, Larry Pozner, and Hamlet. Another great example of the power of silence is yogi Baba Hari Dass, who went silent many decades ago and communicates by a chalkboard hung around his neck. Such communication helped Baba-ji free himself from excessive verbal and written noise so he could focus on living the yoga life. This is very much the opposite of sending multiple daily text McMessages from a cellphone followed by McTwitter.

Now to this list of inspirations for the power of silence and spoken simplicity I add Beop Jeong, a septuagenarian Korean Buddhist monk who lives/lived for years mainly as a hermit in the mountains, turning out an average of one essay per month for publication to offset his general unavailability to the public.

In one of Beop Jeong’s infrequent returns to be among people, the story goes that a woman in mourning came to him. She poured her heart out to him. Instead of responding with words, he kept his full attention, mindfulness and compassion on her and on nobody and nothing else, including serving her food and tea. She felt more comforted by that than a whole bunch of words.

In Beop Jeong’s May All Beings Be Happy is talk about refraining from speaking about great new ideas right away, lest that weaken the ideas, or prevent them from further developing their full strength. Certainly, trial lawyers do not have the luxury of saving ideas for the next day if in the middle of a closing argument that must finish the same day. However, Beop Jeong’s lesson is a reminder that ideas that seem great at first blush are not always any greater than when we write down details of a seemingly great dream immediately upon awakening at 3:00 a.m. from the dream, only to realize at 8:00 a.m. that the writing was nothing better than gibberish.

I used to not understand the idea of the power of haikus, design minimalism, and feng shui. Now, I say hail haikus, the power of brevity, and the power of silence.  

ADDENDUM I: Google did not help me find out if Beop Jeong is still alive, although he sees birth and death as interrelated and unable to stand alone. In response to my inquiry about Beop Jeong’s current situation, a U.S.-based staffer at Korean book seller Han Books replied on January 19, 2010: "We hear that he is seriously ill, but haven’t heard that he’s passed away."  

The 2006 Wisdom House Publishing Catalogue talks of his having "lived" in the mountains:

"From the humble, solitary confines of his wood hut located somewhere deep within the Korean mountains, Beop Jeong stands as one of the most well known Korean Buddhist Masters. Beginning his literary career working withing Jogye Buddhist Order and writing in protest against the South Korean dictatorship of the 1960s, he would later leave everything behind to rekindle his life as a solitary mountain monk. Combining lessons for spiritual practice with a strident objection to the mundane values of the modern world, his works have maintained their popularity for over three decades, owing to the invigorating power they have in influencing the lives of his readers."

ADDENDUM II: After writing this blog entry, I went looking for my copy of Beop Jeong’s May All Beings Be Happy, and could not find it. It is not readily sold everywhere, but I tried nevertheless to exercise the same non-attachment to the book that Beop Jeong and Buddhism teach. Interestingly, I tracked this Buddhist book down to the area’s best bagel place — where I ate last weekend with my boy —  that is kosher for its religious Jewish customers. The juxtaposition reminds me of the many Jewish people who have added Buddhism to their lives, which is a topic covered in many parts of Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus, which was born from his joining several rabbis to Dharamsala at the invitation of the Dalai Lama, who wanted to learn more about diaspora survival of religion and culture.

ADDENDUM III: Thanks to a former student of Baba Hari Dass, who may be posting a comment here, for sending me an email about his encounters with Babaji going back to the early 1970’s, and for providing me the URL for the Hanuman Fellowship, which includes some of Babaji’s words, and some of his photos. 

ADDENDUM IV: Regarding my foregoing reference to Beop Jeong, one of his passages about silence in May All Beings Be Happy is in "People of Few Words," which includes the following: 

– "Trust goes to those who know how to treat silence carefully." 

– "If an idea comes to you, and you hastily speak of it, it does not ripen inside. Because of this, one’s insides remain empty. In order to allow the meanings of our words to ripen inside, we must be able to purify these meanings, waiting until they have passed through the filter of silence." 

– "The Buddhist sutras say, ‘When there are few words in the mouth, idiocy turns into wisdom.’ We must be able to endure the impulse to speak."