And for What?

The Abbot’s Letter

September 2020

“And for What?”

I think everyone knows of the college bribery scandal that was exposed in March of last year. Between 2011 and 2018, more than 50 prominent business people and well-known wealthy celebrities arranged to provide over $53 million dollars to influence their children’s admission into colleges of their choice. Bribes were paid, exam grades were inflated, and resumes falsely claimed that the children were accomplished high school athletes.Most of the accused admitted guilt and agreed to a plea bargain. At the sentencing for one of these defendants – as reported in an August 24 article in the San Jose Mercury news – the presiding judge went beyond legal opinion and strongly expressed his personal feelings. He told the defendant:

… you are an admired, successful professional, with a long-lasting marriage, healthy, resilient children, more money than you can possible need, a beautiful home … A fairy tale life. Yet you stand before me, a convicted felon. And for what? For the inexplicable desire to grasp even more.

The judge was a typical well-educated American legal professional. Born and raised in the Midwest, he was Ivy League-educated, spent two years in the Navy, and over 25 years as a corporate lawyer before being appointed as judge. He was said to be conservative. Nothing in his background indicates a Buddhist view. Yet he admonished the defendant about desire and grasping and how it turned a respected person into a criminal. From experience, this judge knew something about desire; he did not have to refer to Buddhist scripture. Still, his lecture reads surprisingly like Buddha’s first sermon, describing desire and the creation of suffering.

This episode in a court of law illustrates the importance of our own personal experience in understanding the realities of our lies. Following a Dharma talk at Haiku Zendo, when Suzuki-roshi was asked about his qualifications to be the teacher, he said:

I have some experience.

He did not say:

I have studied the teachings.

Buddhist teachings provide a guide to understanding – how to consider the events of our lives. But we cannot rely entirely on ancient texts to reveal to us the truth. To make this discovery, we cannot be passive. We have to actively engage ourselves in observing and reflecting on our feelings, behaviors, and experiences if we want to learn how to live according to our true nature, are concerned about the meaning of our lives, and want to understand how to avoid the traps of desire and suffering. Our experiences are our best teacher. The opportunity to quietly engage in observing and reflecting on them is the gift of our practice.


Les Kaye Calligraphy Signature

Les Kaye
Abbot of Kannon Do