Sitting Judge:
Retired Utah chief justice finds his way as a Buddhist monk

By Elaine 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 eluding you."

      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 more thing.

      "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 & Wilmer.

      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 center.

      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 belief."

      "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 pain."

      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.