A meditation on the inconspicuous Buddhists around us

by Petula Dvorak, The Washington Post, July 12, 2011

Washington D.C., USA -- I didn’t want to talk to anyone dripping with prayer beads, swathed in batik or floating along in gauze. No sandals, no peace signs and especially no beard braids.

Along with traditional Tibetan costumes, that brand of standard-issue Western grooviness is colorizing the khaki-leaning crowds of Washington, where the Dalai Lama has been conducting an elaborate cleansing ritual — the kalachakra — at Verizon Center all week.

One look and these folks make you go: “Oh, yeah. Dalai Lama. Here. Buddhists. Of course.”

But I was more interested in the folks who stop you in your tracks. “Buddhist? Seriously?”

Turns out there are more such Buddhists than you think here in the nation’s capital. I offer Exhibit A: Paul Feldman.

He was wearing Top-Siders, a New York Mets baseball cap, belted shorts and a polo shirt. I passed him by a couple times while scanning the crowd of thousands that was at the Capitol on Saturday to see the Dalai Lama speak.

I figured Feldman was one of the tourists stopping to watch the spectacle. But then he put his hands together and bowed in the Dalai Lama’s direction.


“I used to experiment with Buddhism a while back,” the 55-year-old told me. “I used to meditate a lot. It really helps when I do. Now I do it when I really need to, but not every day.”

I asked him what he does every day.

“I’m a lawyer. In Arlington,” he said.

Huh. Then again, any lawyer could use some inner peace.

Is Feldman a fluke?

Nope. A University of Colorado Law School student did a paper last year on Buddhist lawyers, and she finally had to cut off all the ones who wanted to talk to her from New England and the West Coast.

And there’s a Facebook page — albeit a quiet one — called Buddhist Lawyers.

They get all existential about their inner conflicts: “Do you find that practising law affects your practice of the dharma? I’m finding it hard to practise dharma in our profession,” one litigator wrote.

Phillip Boyce, 44, chatted about his struggle with the slam-crash-trash world of commercial litigation in New Jersey and how he “could not reconcile it with my Zen practice.” (Or, more specifically, right livelihood and “do no harm.”)

I caught up with him here. He still looks like a bruising New Jersey lawyer, with a rakish goatee and charcoal suit.

“It was extremely intense and highly combative,” he told me. “I was constantly surrounded by very greedy and extremely angry people.”

After some time in a monastery 11 years ago, he knew he couldn’t square his two worlds, so he quit litigation and moved to Virginia.

For a while, he ran a children’s camp called Kum-Ba-Ya (of course) in Lynchburg. Now he’s gone back to the law, but doing legal research and writing, not in-your-face litigating.

His move was pretty drastic. So I wondered whether every lawyer who wants to practice Buddhism should follow in his footsteps.

“No, it’s different for prosecutors,” he said. They get a pass because they’re crusading for justice.

And so I offer Exhibit B: Mary Aubry.

At the Capitol, she had on light summer clothes, a conservative sun hat — no hints of her spirituality. She is a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice. She also meditates one to two hours a day and teaches a class with the Insight Meditation Community of Washington.

And she’s certainly not the only power-meditator around.

“There are loads of PhDs, doctors, lawyers, people from the World Bank, the IMF, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, partners in large and mid-size law firms, authors, scientists, prosecutors,” she said.

When we talk Washington politics, we picture back-room deals and power bargaining over cigars. But maybe there are pinstripe Buddhists meditating right now on the debt ceiling.

We can only hope.

Tranquility comes in many forms.

Take for example, Meta Boyd. She wore Chanel white pearl ballet flats, a smart ponytail and crisp, white pants to the session with the Dalai Lama on Saturday.

She’s a Baltimore housewife who has been practicing Buddhism for 13 years. Of course, mom needs to find her inner peace.

With her was Kitty Beard, a 72-year-old school nurse from South Carolina, who looked like she could team up with the cafeteria lady and scare the begeezus out of the entire football team.

You never know who’s the Buddhist in the room.

And maybe that’s why Washington is the perfect place for a 10-day cleansing ritual. Seemed a little weird at first, right? Kalachakras in India, Switzerland, Los Angeles, New York all make sense. But here in Washington?

Turns out that monks in crimson robes felt right at home here, tooling around town on Capital Bikeshare wheels. And commuters rushing to work Monday learned to swerve around a guy in knee pads prostrating himself all the way down G Street NW. (Can’t wait to see how Tuesday’s monk dance will go over with the federal crowd.)

The Dalai Lama is cool with all the smash cuts. He told the crowd of thousands gathered at the Capitol dome Saturday morning that warm-heartedness and compassion are the ways to find inner peace.

And if there is too much suspicion, fear and distrust, life will be unsuccessful and unhappy.

“You’ll find it difficult to communicate with other people,” he said. And you’ll have feelings of “loneliness and helplessness.”

Sound familiar? Looks like Washington is just the place he needs to be.