the buddhist in the jury box

October 26th, 2010

We’re sometimes told that one key to an ethical lifestyle is to not take anything personally. That sounds like a good idea but practically speaking, your honor, I object.

State your:
Area of Residence


Marital Status

Spouse’s Occupation

Occupations of Adult Children

Previous Experience as a Juror

I studied the instructions posted on the courtroom wall. The judge said, “Pass the microphone to Juror Number 11.”

I told him where I lived, and then I said, “I’m a Buddhist priest.”


I like to think of myself as a good citizen, but let me come clean: I haven’t been upholding my civic duty for the last few years. When you are a full-time caregiver of children under school age, you are exempted from jury service. After that, you have to dodge and deceive to exempt yourself, and that’s what I’ve done for the last five years, vexed by the question of after-school childcare.

Then, as we expect of our civil society, the court came breathing down my neck with a high-dollar penalty. So I showed up at the criminal justice center downtown for a day of jury service. I hadn’t found a way to manage an unforeseen absence at home, but I did have an epiphany. I realized I could tell the truth about myself, and that alone might disqualify me from participation in our system of justice. Truth, you see, is the ultimate defense. It’s the defense of having no defense.

Maybe doing good would do me some good, I bargained.

It was 11:30 a.m. before I landed in a big courtroom with 40 other potential jurors, a charming judge, and two sides in a criminal case expected to last up to eight days. The judge warned us that with the late start, we might be required to come back an extra day before jury selection could be completed, and I began calculating the collateral impact at home.

Before anything could begin, we had to break for a 90-minute lunch.

You might think that a 90-minute lunch break is absurd given the overcrowded state of our judicial system. I would have agreed until I saw that it took nearly 30 minutes just to get an elevator down to the first floor. Loaded up, our elevator cab had descended only two of 15 floors before it was stopped and commandeered by peace officers.

There was a scene on the landing before us: a cursing woman with her elderly mother, making a screaming ruckus, encircled by a half-dozen bailiffs trying to corral them into the elevator. One of the officers said, “Wait! Here’s her son” and a boy who looked to be no more than 12 walked through the stiffened crowd, his arm around an even younger girl who was shaking with sobs.

The floor emptied and I took refuge on a cold bench where I sat down and cried my eyes out.


When the juror interviews began after lunch I was surprised at how diverse we were: a couple of computer guys, a CFO, a real estate agent, an insurance adjuster, a retired teacher, a secretary, a daycare worker, assorted entrepreneurs, sales and marketing types, a therapist, and a guy who said – as though it was the most obvious thing under the sun – “I’m a steel splitter.” The judge parried with each, teasing out the hidden biases.

And then he got to me. He was quiet after I told him my occupation and I thought, “He knows I’m a goner. He won’t waste a question.”

“There will be people in this courtroom who don’t share your lifestyle,” the judge said.

I laughed.

“I mean, they don’t live the way you do,” he continued.

I said, “I doubt that.”

He searched for a way to poke my sensibilities.

“There might be a witness, for example, who has blue hair. Can you be open-minded about that?”

I sat there, the only person among the 40 in the room without a hairdo, coiffed or colored, without a shred of style, without cosmetics, without an iPhone, the only one who looked different than anyone else, the only one who’d spent the lunch break crying for a nameless shamble of a no-count family shoved onto an elevator going down.

“Absolutely,” I said.


“Juror Number 11 thank you for your service, you’re dismissed.”

My truth telling was vindicated. I was relieved, not surprised or offended, but I still took it personally. I’ve never found a way to take things other than personally. When you realize that everything everywhere is personal, it changes you. Under the blue hair, we’re all one big red broken heart: riven by crimes for which there is no defense and never enough tears.

Karma is you, and you are karma. Take it very personally.

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  1. This was touching and hilarious on so many levels. 'There might be someone with blue hair??' Too much.
    "When you realize that everything everywhere is personal, it changes you". Yes, thank you for that.

    Comment by Lisa (Mommy Mystic) — November 11, 2009 @ 4:56 pm

  2. i'm totally taking this personally. ;-D all you can do is tell your truth, people will take it as they will.

    Comment by jenica — November 11, 2009 @ 5:48 pm

  3. lovely. I just had jury duty for the second time and never even made it up to get interviewed…no cases…just sat in a room reading a book and feeling unwanted. But still, love how you write about your day and experience.

    Comment by thisnewplace — November 11, 2009 @ 9:51 pm

  4. Not trying to kiss your cyberbutt, but its posts like this that will still summon me to read you three years down the line. And, with my attention span, that says a lot. But, please don't take my reply personally 😉

    Your Dharma cousin till the end.

    Comment by Anna — November 12, 2009 @ 2:41 am

  5. I don't have a cyberbutt, Anna, so you know I'm taking it personally on my fat ass. Thank you for coming all this way.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — November 12, 2009 @ 3:03 am

  6. I was thinking about this today – because our lovely mutual friend Denise gave me that book you link to with the "Don't take it personally" edict. I wonder whether he means "Don't assume that it is all about you"? Which is subtly but perhaps importantly different. Everything is and always had been personal, but it isn't about "me". Despite that, I want to tell you that I would have been on that bench weeping too. Because even when it isn't about me, sometimes I can't resist trying to make it about me… Ah yes.

    Comment by Marianne — November 12, 2009 @ 4:04 am

  7. As a former lawyer, now stay at home mom who also volunteers to teach immigrant applicants to take the citizenship test, I just wanted to say that it makes me sad to think that you would go into the experience expecting to be dismissed from a jury because you are a Buddhist Priest. It also makes me sad that you were apparently right. I was reading your column hoping to find out that you did get selected, (I know, I know the daunting task of child care at home makes that heresy). I was looking forward to reading what you would make of the experience. Selecting you would be in keeping with the worthy principles of our country. Teaching them to new immigrants always reminds me of what good ideas they were and still are, no matter how flawed the every day execution of them may be. (Sometimes it's really like teaching new things to my 3 year old son). I guess I'm just sorry that you have such an accurate disblief in how our justic system works. I've seen some bad, and some good in it, but I still want to believe that its principles are the best we have to help us all live together, as long the principles are followed. Your experience does make that a bit harder, though.

    Anonymous in Mpls

    Comment by Anonymous — November 12, 2009 @ 5:04 am

  8. I don't disbelieve in our justice system: it is what it is. For what it's worth, the CFO got dismissed, presumably because he knew too much about finance to suit the defense, the insurance adjuster got dismissed because he (probably intentionally) offered an opinion on the defendant's expensive-looking suit. It is a business of trading one bias against another, and ironic only in that the person with no bias was the first to go. The prosecutor struck me, presumably because I was his odds-on favorite to be soft.

    Justice is what it is: neither blind nor equal.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — November 12, 2009 @ 5:15 am

  9. It seems fitting to me, that in a legal system as broken as ours, an honest person speaking simple truths is the one dismissed from jury service.

    You are welcome on my jury any day.

    Comment by bruce — November 12, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  10. I would LOVE to know what that judge had in his mind when he was picturing "Buddhist priest."

    Comment by Mama Zen — November 12, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

  11. The judge asking the Buddhist priest if she could be open minded . . . well, duh! He obviously didn't know anything about Buddhism, did he?!

    You'll find people in this courtroom who don't share your lifestyle. What lifestyle? They won't be mothers? They won't be wives? They won't pick up their dog's poop?

    Too, toooooooo funny!

    Comment by Connie — November 12, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

  12. I am still laughing, a grand thing in my world!
    thanks. you are wonderful.
    peace,paula p.

    Comment by Paula — November 13, 2009 @ 3:20 am

  13. Hello! A friend sent me a link to your blog. You and I were on Jury duty at the same time. No Buddhist Priest or blue haired person in our box but I did realize how inherently flawed the selection process was. I enjoyed reading about your experience and am thrilled to discover your blog.

    Comment by corine — November 13, 2009 @ 5:13 pm

  14. This was simply perfect. Thank you!

    Comment by Judy Merrill-Smith — November 13, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

  15. I love that you thought to say "I doubt that" in response to the question. Perfect. I also love that you said "fat ass" in your comment above! LOL! Miss Karen, I am loving you more and more with each post. Can't wait to meet you!

    Comment by Emme — November 14, 2009 @ 4:39 am

  16. I love your blog. I am so happy I found it. Recently a friend sent me a MeMe award and I would like to pass it on to you. At first I thought it was corny but I must say I really had fun with it and it turned out to be cathartic for me in many ways. ( oh, this is not an ad) Just goes to show you can make something meaningful if you want to. And it can also just be for fun. Anyway, I thought this might be a nice way to introduce myself. You can go to my blog and pick up your MeMe award. (I love the line: we stop blaming the whipped cream)

    Comment by Donna — November 15, 2009 @ 2:19 am

  17. I admit I do strive not to take things personally, but I’ve also experienced moments when I reached the limits of my ability to do so ~ when choosing to take something personally has given me the key to freedom (freedom from doubt, angst, self-imposed pressure to downplay the way I was really feeling.)

    Comment by Swirly — October 27, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

  18. Our legal system can be a scary place, at least in part because most of the people who are there don’t want to be so it’s a building chock full of negative emotions. Anger, fear, sadness, doubt, confusion – I’m not surprised you sat down on the bench and cried. If I’m ever on trial I hope the judge seats an entire panel of Buddhist priests 🙂

    Comment by Katy — October 27, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

  19. I would want you on my jury. I know you would be fair, but beyond that compassionate. What’s missing in the justice system is compassion for everyone.

    Comment by suzi — October 27, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

  20. I’m not exactly connecting this story to the theme of karma just yet, but as a story — this was my favorite post of yours.

    Comment by Neil — October 28, 2010 @ 1:45 am

  21. I missed this before. I must consider this act to take every thing personally. Because dammit you are right, we are all one big broken heart.

    Comment by Chris — October 30, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

  22. I can do nothing but say your words back to you…

    the broken heart.

    Comment by Stacy (Mama-Om) — November 2, 2010 @ 4:50 am

  23. I loved this post (and all of the “fresher” ones I read before it, too. Just catching up a bit–too many days gone by with that annoying flame atop my head!!! I am also refreshing my meditation practice, which helps, too.)

    I felt such a kinship when you mentioned that you sat on the bench and cried. Once at an airport I DID get chosen, not for the jury, but for the random search. They took my camera, and I forgot what else they did–all just following their instructions, nothing “inappropriate.” Searching me. Searching me. Searching me. But as soon as I was allowed to go, I went in the nearest bathroom stall and cried.
    Now that I read your post, I finally know why! Six years and a child later. One big red broken heart.
    What a tenderness about it… a glow of love…

    Thank you.

    Comment by char — November 7, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

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