Utah chief justice finds his way as a Buddhist monk
Jarvik - Deseret Morning News
The robe is black, with a rope around the waist
and fabric that drapes voluminously through the sleeves. So
now, as Mike Zimmerman stands before his teacher and prepares
to sit, he must arrange the robe just so, folding and tucking
and folding some more.
He once was chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court.
In those days he wore a different black robe, but that was then
and this is now, and, as any Buddhist knows, then is not so important.
In those days he sat on the bench. Now he is sitting, cross-legged,
on the floor.
In his deep, serious voice he begins: "Goso
said, 'To give an example, it is like a buffalo passing through
a window. The head, the horns and the four legs have already passed
through, but the tail has not. Why is it that the tail cannot?"
In Zen Buddhism, this is called a koan
the kind of inscrutable paradox most famously expressed
in the question "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" There
are hundreds of koans, and according to the Zen masters
it's impossible to figure them out intellectually, the way you
might an algebra problem or a riddle. To really solve a koan,
they say, it is necessary to be the koan. Koan work,
they say, is a lifetime process.
His teacher sits on a mat in front of him
as Zimmerman begins his answer, an answer that takes into account
the symbolism of the buffalo, and the possibility of the relative
and absolute both existing simultaneously. "You're on the right
track," says his teacher. "But there's a very subtle thing that's
So Zimmerman begins again, noting that it
is impossible to separate personal liberation from the liberation
of all sentient beings. Yes, says his teacher, but there is one
"Where are we going if we go through the
window?" the teacher asks.
"Where is outside? Is there such a thing?"
"If we're going outside the window, the whole
thing is dualistic," says the teacher, a cheerful man named Daniel
Silberberg. "But the place the buffalo and the tail are is right
here. Wherever we're going, we're going together, and wherever
we're going, we're already there."
Zimmerman rises and straightens out his robe.
It is 7 a.m. There is no outside, but he goes there anyway. He
drives home. He puts on a suit and tie. He drives to work. He
retired from the Utah Supreme Court in 2000, and now he is a lawyer.
A Zen Buddhist monk who is also a partner in the firm of Snell
In 1994, less than a month after he was
sworn in as chief justice, Zimmerman's wife died of cancer.
Lynne Zimmerman was a vibrant woman who once served as press
secretary for then-Mayor Palmer DePaulis. In remarks at his
swearing-in ceremony, his voice breaking, Zimmerman said, "Whatever
good I achieve during my tenure as chief justice will be largely
attributable to what I have learned from Lynne."
In the weeks following her death, Zimmerman
would rise before dawn and sit on the front porch of their Federal
Heights home. As his three young daughters slept inside, he
would try to make his mind go blank, focusing on each breath,
in and out. He was new to meditation, but he kept at it.
Later that year, one of his colleagues
told him he ought to meet the new state courts' Alternative
Dispute Resolution director a woman named Diane Hamilton,
who was both a mediator and a meditator, a former rodeo queen
and a Buddhist. So Zimmerman wandered over one day and introduced
himself. Hamilton was a tall woman with smiling eyes and a picture
of the Dalai Lama on her wall.
Eventually, Hamilton began suggesting books
Zimmerman might want to read and would e-mail him Buddhist quotes,
which he would tape to his office wall. Later she gave him a
recording of the Buddhist teachings of Genpo Roshi, abbot of
the Kanzeon Zen Center International in Salt Lake City, and
eventually, a couple of years after Lynne's death, Zimmerman
showed up one evening at an introductory Zen class.
Hamilton likes to tell the story: The teacher
that night, Hamilton says, was a Polish monk, a woman with a
flair for the dramatic. "She comes in and she looks around and
she says, 'In Buddhism, there is no hope.' And Mike said he
went, 'Oh, thank God.' "
One might think that a man who had lost
a wife and was raising three daughters would be drawn to hope.
But Zimmerman says it was a relief to think of life as simply
the present moment. Everything is impermanent, the Buddha said,
and suffering as opposed to simple, pure pain or sadness
comes from wishing that things were different from what
they actually are. From being attached to an outcome.
Hamilton offers this example: the birth
of her son Willie, from her first marriage to Salt Lake artist
Tony Smith. Hamilton had practiced Buddhism intensively for
six years first at the Naropa Institute, later in India
and Nepal by the time Willie was born with Down syndrome
in 1989. Hamilton grieved, she says, but was also able to examine
her grief in a detached sort of way.
What she discovered, she says, is that
when she was in the moment, with her baby, there was no problem.
"I was grieving something else that didn't exist that I thought
I was going to get. I was fearful of what was coming, how he
would be treated, would I know what to do, what would happen
to his sex life. Everything that was causing suffering in me
had nothing to do with the here and now. The here and now with
Willie was always wonderful."
Hamilton knows many stories told by famous
monks, stories that illustrate the Four Noble Truths. But she
also has a favorite Willie story, from a morning when her son
was 12. "I'm trying to get off to work, and everybody's got
to do their job, and Willie's in the bathtub and I want to make
sure he knows what he has to do. So I walk in and say, 'OK,
Willie, I'm going to work now and I need to know what are your
jobs. What's your job?' He has a cup of water and he's going
like this," Hamilton remembers, pouring an imaginary cup of
water slowly in the air. "And he says, 'Now.' I just bowed and
walked away. Now. Right now. That's really the teaching."
Zimmerman and Hamilton were married in
1998. Last year they both took the vows to become Zen Buddhist
monks, and, as part of the ritual a symbolic letting
go of all their attachments their heads were shaved.
To be a Zen Buddhist monk in the West is
different from being a monk in Japan or China, where lay Buddhists
donate money so that career Buddhists can live a monastic life.
In the East, in fact, Zen Buddhists rarely even meditate. But
in the West, where essentially every Zen Buddhist is a convert,
lay people can become monks, continuing to live their regular
lives as they also seek, as Buddhists say, to understand the
nature of their own minds.
Zimmerman and Hamilton meditate every morning
"sit," as meditators say at home or at the Kanzeon
Zen Center. They attend classes on Monday and Thursday nights
and on Sunday mornings. Hamilton helps direct Genpo Roshi's
"Big Mind" program. Zimmerman is chairman of the board of the
Being a monk, Zimmerman says, shows a commitment
to both the practice and to the lineage. Buddhist teachings
could just shrivel up and die if it weren't for people being
committed, he says.
The center, located in an old house near
the corner of 1300 East on South Temple, is one of those hometown
secrets, more well-known in Europe than in Salt Lake City. It's
part of the White Plum Sangha, a Zen lineage founded in the
1960s by Japanese Zen Buddhist Maezumi Roshi. Maezumi was one
of just a handful of Japanese Zen masters who arrived in the
United States in the 1950s as, in effect, Zen Buddhist missionaries.
Maezumi Roshi, who died in 1995, has 12
direct lineage holders, each of whom studied under him. One
of them is Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi who as Dennis Merzel
was a California competitive swimmer and high school teacher,
and as Genpo Roshi (the title "Roshi" means "old master") established
the Kanzeon sangha in Europe and later the Kanzeon Zen Center
in Salt Lake City. The White Plum lineage, which Genpo Roshi
now leads, is one of the largest Zen lineages outside Asia.
The Kanzeon Center in Salt Lake City attracts Zen Buddhists
from around the world, who move to Utah to study with him.
One of Genpo Roshi's own successors is
Daniel Silberberg, a former psychotherapist from New York City.
On a recent early morning, as a room full of people meditated
upstairs, Silberberg led a visitor on a tour of the center,
beginning with the "ancestors' room" and its pouch containing
some of Maezumi Roshi's remains. Later, after Zimmerman and
Hamilton had delivered their koans to him, Silberberg talked
about the center. It seems very formal, the visitor observed,
remembering the way the people upstairs had bowed when they
entered the room, had bowed again before they lowered themselves
onto their cushions, had repeated a chant three times, had sat
with their backs straight.
Oh no, said Silberberg. "This is informal.
This is the wild version." In Japan, there would be more bowing
and chanting. But whatever formality there is, he said, "is
intended to express our appreciation for this practice. It's
not a gesture of authority but of appreciation."
Zimmerman was raised Presbyterian, in Illinois
and then Arizona. As a child, he had what he calls a "strong
religious impulse," but as he grew older, he says, "the sense
of mystery disappeared" for him. "One day I'm riding along in
the car with my parents," he remembers. "I had seven years perfect
attendance in Sunday school when I was younger and my mother
had headed the Sunday school, and one day I'm riding along in
the car when I'm about 15 and I say, 'What if Jesus isn't divine?'
" Later he explored Unitarianism, and after he and Lynne, who
was Catholic, were married they attended the Episcopal Church.
"Particularly in this community," he says, "you have to address
the question of 'Are you going to raise your kids something?'
Hamilton was raised LDS in Tooele. When
she was 17, seven of her classmates at Tooele High died, prompting
her to ask questions about suffering and meaning and the meaning
of suffering. What she liked about Buddhism, she explains, is
that "it works with the mind as an entry point to understanding,
as opposed to faith, or as opposed to a service-oriented path."
"There's no theology, because there isn't
a theo," says Zimmerman. "You just cut through to your own experience.
. . . It's very much a practice. It's not something where you
go once a week and hear a talk. Because you're not going to
get the insight without the practice. It's not about abstract
"It doesn't negate a God, though," says
Hamilton, who points out that there are Buddhist Jews, Catholics
and Mormons. Earlier, sitting in their kitchen, she and Zimmerman
had been talking about whether the fact that they met was accidental
or was something more akin to destiny. "There's something intelligent
at work" in the universe, Hamilton had asserted. "I don't know
if I would say it's 'intelligent,' " Zimmerman countered. "OK,
the universe isn't intelligent but you are?" Hamilton chided.
It was a good-natured exchange, but it's also clear that husband
and wife don't always see eye to eye on this God thing.
The experiential nature of Zen the
insights that come only through "sitting" is similar
to the mysticism of Christianity and Sufism, Zimmerman says;
and it's why it's so hard to explain without using metaphor
and analogy. Trying to explain Zen, he says, is akin to asking
someone to describe the taste of water.
Still, when pressed, he tries to explain.
Sit, morning after morning, with your own mind, just watching
your mind, he says, and eventually "the more you look at this
idea of self, you realize you can't put your finger on it."
The self is just an intellectual construct, he says, invented
by a mind that has trouble separating the self from everything
else that is experienced through the senses.
Accessing this sense of oneness
what Buddha called enlightenment, what other religious traditions
might call God has always been the challenge, notes Hamilton.
Some people use prayer or fasting or other ritual. And some
people use meditation.
Lose the sense of self and you become more
compassionate, says Hamilton. "So compassion is also a fruition
of sitting." And so is an ability to see a problem from different
perspectives. That's why meditation and mediation are, in a
sense, the same activity, she says. "They involve taking what
is two and discovering what is one."
A few days later, Zimmerman, Hamilton and
Willie drive over to the Zen Center for a class taught by Genpo
Roshi. In the upstairs meditation room they join 20 or so others,
who begin the session in silent sitting, and then listen to
Roshi discuss the finer points of Zen.
Our dualistic minds can't understand Buddha's
insight that we are all Buddha, Roshi says. Then he launches
into a discussion of "the unsurpassable mantra that clears all
Willie fidgets on his cushion but listens
as Roshi speaks and people ask questions. Then he raises his
hand with a comment of his own. "Some Buddhists like to think
a lot," he says. "And some Buddhists do what they like to do.
And some Buddhists have dog weddings." Willie is hoping that
his dog Ali can marry Roshi's dog Tibby.
Mike Zimmerman is sitting in his back yard
talking about the Buddha. The Buddha, he says, likened human
suffering to a person shot with an arrow. In this urgent and
painful situation, the Buddha said, humans ask the wrong questions.
They want to know who made the arrow, who strung the bow.
Who created the universe, what will happen
when I die these are not the important considerations,
says Zimmerman. The real question, he says, is "how to relieve
the suffering mind." He reaches over and picks up a dead, brown
leaf off the patio. Then he steps on it.
"You have to come to terms with loss,"
he says. "This leaf is not going to be green again. Get over
it. That's its life cycle. People die. They get old. They get
sick. That doesn't mean it doesn't make you sad. But to be sad
about what is is kind of an illusion." Not that grief
his own grief isn't real, he says. But to cling to it,
to cling to the idea that the thing that caused the grief is
unfair or wrong, as Zimmerman says, "from an existential standpoint,"
this is where humans get bogged down. The Sanskrit word for
suffering also translates as "stuck."
We are, each of us, not separate from each
other or the trees or the leaves, dead or alive. Deeply understanding
that is the challenge, he says. A man can grieve and be happy,
both. He can be a sitting judge, or a former judge who now simply
sits. In this moment, nothing else matters.