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Full Expression

Though illness stirs up long-held doubts, it prompts the courage to align my life and career with my mission as a Bodhisattva of the Earth. I’m Harold Rubinfeld from Lancaster, California.

Photo by Juan Carlos

Living Buddhism: You’ve said you feel that you finally fused your mission as a Bodhisattva with your work as a lawyer. Tell us about it.

Harold Rubinfeld: Well, I’ll tell you what, I thought it would never happen. I began practicing law and Buddhism around the same time, in the mid-’70s, but for very different reasons, with very different outcomes.

Those my age will remember the ’70s as a time of crisis and reflection. Watergate and the disastrous consequences of the Vietnam War, to name a few, were on the mind of the country as a whole. I suspected then, as did many of my generation, that philosophy and spirituality held answers to fundamental issues facing humanity. “Chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo for a hundred days,” a young man I met at traffic school told me. “You’ll definitely experience something wonderful.”

A few weeks into the challenge, chanting in my apartment with the windows open, I felt a delightful sense of oneness with my environment. Outside the birds were chirping, people were talking and the trees were rustling in a breeze. I didn’t experience any of these phenomena as outside my life but within it—it was as though my life had expanded to encompass much that lay beyond the limits of my physical body.

Anyway, it was, for me, unforgettable. But the best was yet to come. On the 100th day of my chanting challenge, I was invited to attend a lecture at UCLA, to be given by Ikeda Sensei, visiting from Japan. During the lecture, he said:

The basis on which people choose to operate will determine the success or failure of civilization in the future. Will we elect to flounder in the mire of selfish desires and greed? Or will we walk safely on the firm ground of enlightenment, fully aware of the greater self? The realization of the dreams, well-being and happiness of all depends entirely on our willingness to concentrate on the immutable, unchanging, powerful reality that is the Law and the greater self. We have arrived at the point where this decision must be made. (A New Humanism, p. 143)

In a moment in history in which young people felt that their country was floundering, many at the lecture, me included, left convinced that Nichiren Buddhism was a force capable of deeply transforming American society.

Did you perceive law in these terms, too—as a force for change?

Harold: Law, I’m afraid to say, was another matter—I practiced it out of a sense of duty to my parents and conformity with my peers. In law, I found myself frequently litigating cases I didn’t believe I should win, paid to prevail over people I felt I should be helping. Many days, I felt my job promoted in me a dog-eat-dog mentality, the opposite of what was promoted in Buddhist practice.

What I discovered a knack and love for was mediation. Negotiation, collaboration are ways of resolving issues with others, in which all parties gain something and come away with a deeper understanding of the other person—this, I felt, was how conflicts should be solved. But as lawyers like to joke, the only people making any money in mediation are those who teach mediation. Many people don’t want to mediate, to find a solution in which all parties leave feeling they’ve gained something. There are those who prefer to go for the whole pot, who are willing to pay top-dollar to win at someone else’s expense.

By 2007, I had almost totally left behind any kind of civil litigation, instead concentrating my practice in uncontested bankruptcy cases as well as working as general counsel for a small corporation doing Law and Motion matters that were rarely contested. I wasn’t doing harm, and I was doing some good, but I could never shake the feeling that I wasn’t maximizing my potential. But it was a compromise I got comfortable with. I’m a father and a husband, with bills to pay and people who are counting on me. And of course, as time goes by, you get older. The idea of doing something new seemed to me less and less feasible.

What prompted you to seek out the work you do now?

Harold: In 2015, my corporate employer did a restructuring; under new leadership, the nature of my work changed dramatically, becoming more adversarial and for a cause I didn’t believe in. But what was I going to do? Given my age and finances, I couldn’t just leave—I mean, at 67, who would take me? But at work my stress was becoming acute. I developed strange symptoms—in my jaw, in particular—tension and tremors that sometimes made it rather difficult to speak.

At the New Year’s gongyo meeting in 2016, I was asked to give an impromptu determination. I stood up and began making a very general one, about resolving the conflicts ongoing at work, when suddenly, my jaw seized up in the strangest way, making speech nearly impossible.

In the coming months and years, the episodes would come and go. Whenever they arose, I’d be assailed by the same feelings of frustration and disorientation. I didn’t do anything to deserve this! I’d think. And then I’d think again, Well, but maybe I did—what about all the people I’ve spoken to so badly throughout my career?

What did you do?

Harold: At work, I had the great fortune to use appearance attorneys, attorneys who appeared in court in my stead. For my health, I pursued medical help, of course, doing an unbelievable amount of research to get to the bottom of it. Eventually, I received a diagnosis of oromandibular dystonia and pursued treatment from doctors and specialists at the top of the field. I distinctly remember one doctor’s appointment, at which I began describing my understanding of my illness only to be stopped by the doctor, who called in several of his colleagues before asking me to proceed. When I finished, he said, “You know, Harold, the thing is, you know more about this illness than all the doctors in this room combined.” Frankly, at the end of the day, the discussions that seemed to make the greatest difference were not the ones I had with doctors, but with ordinary people, about Buddhism. Sometimes my speech would become impaired and I’d need to make odd faces in order to enunciate my words, but far from putting people off, they were often encouraged by the effort I made. I was pushing through the physical limitations of my illness, yes, but on a deeper level, I was overcoming a ton of inner doubt.

Who’d want to hear this from me? Or, Maybe I deserve this. Or, Will I ever overcome this?

Chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo enabled me to overcome these doubts on a daily basis. And day-by-day, the struggle to share Buddhism through the disadvantage of a neurological disorder gave rise to greater courage. It also gave me greater compassion for those who are disadvantaged in some way, who struggle to be seen and heard by society. And with greater courage and compassion came a desire, long-held but dormant, to pursue work in which I could fully express my vow as a Bodhisattva of the Earth to work for the happiness of all people.

The work you’ve now been hired to do.

Harold: Yes. I remember coming across the job description, which combined the principles of mediation, negotiation, collaboration and advocacy, all with one overriding goal in mind: the health and welfare of the clients, children. It was an opening at the Children’s Law Center (CLC) to advocate for children in need of a voice in the dependency courts. At first, my own inner voice, said, What are you crazy? You’re near-on 75! But I shrugged off the doubt. Better to fail giving all that I’ve got than give up without trying. I submitted my résumé and within less than two hours, they’d reached out to schedule an interview.

But what about your problems with speech?

Harold: And what about my age? My energy levels? These questions and more surfaced time and again throughout the interview process. But at every juncture, it seemed to me the universe was holding up a bright green light: Do it!

In the past year or so my speech has dramatically improved—in fact by the time of my first interview with the CLC, my dystonia was in almost complete remission. Meeting with the other lawyers, I thought to myself, My gosh, it’s like these people chant! I told them right out of the gate, “I know there will be adversarial aspects to this work, but I’m at a point in life where I won’t compromise my ideals; as long as I am convinced that I am promoting the welfare and protection of the child I will spare no effort to fight for the happiness of my client.

“Of course!” they said. “We feel the same.” Actually, their mission statement stresses that the ultimate aim is the happiness of the child.

“Why do you want to work here?” they asked.

I told them, “I think your mission is very much my mission.”

Amazing! When do you start?

Harold: My 75th birthday, as a matter of fact—June 13. Whatever your age, you have a mission. For me, following that mission has set me on this path as a children’s attorney. I feel I’m doing what anyone with their health and a sense of mission ought to: create as much value as possible. If I didn’t, I’d feel I was missing the opportunity to use the power of this Buddhism to its fullest.

Photo by Juan Carlos

From the July 2023 Living Buddhism

Bringing Forth Protection From Without

Statement on the G7 Hiroshima Summit, the Ukraine Crisis and No First Use of Nuclear Weapons