How not to be overwhelmed by the suffering consequences of my rulings as a judge

Mar 7, 2022



Ven Robina,


I have been struggling lately with some trauma issues from work; as you know I serve as a judge. Over the past few years I have become far more sensitive to the pain and suffering I see every day, and it has been giving me nightmares, panic on waking, and a dread of dealing with difficult cases. 


I have had two significant heart-opening experiences lately, becoming a grandmother and befriending (adopting) the victim of long-term sexual assault. As a result, dealing with cases involving child sexual assault, horrendous child pornography and violence have become increasingly difficult. 


Over the past few months two cases gave me most turmoil. Firstly I granted bail to two young men/boys aged 14 and 15. Within hours of release, they held the knife to a toddler while they raped her mother. Secondly, on refusing bail to a troubled young man he fought his way through the security and threw himself off a balcony in an effort to escape. Sadly, he broke his spine. Only 23 years old. 


I took myself off to a wonderful Buddhist therapist who has helped somewhat, and I will continue with this. She suggested a retreat, and I have been recommitting to my meditation and yoga practice and attending Dharma talks. It is a magical and healing place. 


However, symptoms have persisted – flashbacks, panic, hyper-vigilance, dread, anxiety. Whilst meditating, I am (relatively) calm and uninterrupted by obtrusive thoughts. I have been finding the visualisations and practices in Tong Len of particular help. I take comfort in the teachings particularly those relating to impermanence and attachment. Although this feels uniquely of external cause, even though at an intellectual level I know it is just a screwy reaction to external stimuli. 


I cringe a little at the karma talks, I cannot help but fear I am accumulating lots of negative karma for locking people up to a system I have little faith in. On the other hand, I continue to work with good intent, and that is all one can do in this crazy world at present. 


I was hoping you could suggest some particular practices or teaching that may assist.


I hope our paths cross in person soon. 


Kind regards,




Dearest H,


It’s so hard to know how to help people. And I can only imagine, in your job, the pain of seemingly making a wrong decision. But I think the point is we can only use the wisdom we’ve got, and do the best we can, and accept that we can’t make it all perfect. 


Such easy words, but what else is there!


You have to make heavy decisions every day, dealing with people’s lives in such a fraught way; I can’t imagine it, H.


But I think it’s wrong to think that you create negative karma by making decisions that don’t seem to bring good results. Technically, when they describe in detail the workings of the law of karma, the key factor that determines whether our actions are negative or positive isn’t the outcome for the other person; it’s the motivation behind our action.


So, your motivation surely is sincere and pure; you genuinely wish to help. So don’t stress yourself more than you need to by thinking that you’ve created negative karma; I would say certainly you haven’t.


The bigger learning from all this, of course, is that we have limited wisdom. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “Compassion is not enough. We need wisdom.” 


You often hear that Buddha says that we can’t really begin to help people until we have clairvoyance, until we can actually have enough wisdom to see the subtler conditions of the various people we interact with from the past and have the confidence to know how to help.


Not easy! I remember a story about Lama Yeshe. One of my friends Harry had found a doctor to help one of the young monks at Kopan Monastery, who was very sick. He happened to tell Lama and Lama basically said, leave it, don’t do anything. Harry, having faith in Lama, did just that: left it. The monk got sicker, eventually went back up to his mountains to his family, and died.


Sounds a bit shocking, right? As if Lama didn’t care. But the abbot at Kopan explained to Harry that because of Lama’s clairvoyance he could see clearly the various karmic causes of the illness and that if the monk had had treatment he would have been fine, but because he hadn’t finished the karma, his next life would be terrible. His getting sicker and then eventually dying – and, it seems, he died very well – he purified all the karma, and next life was fantastic.


Who’s got that kind of wisdom?


So we are limited. And all we can do is slowly, slowly, with our practice, grow the clarity, the wisdom to know how to help people, not just have the wish to do so.


Also, we must factor in the karma of the other players: the woman and child, the two boys who raped, the boy who broke his spine. We’re all in these interdependent scenarios together. 


Your assumption is that your actions were a direct cause of these results. I would suggest it’s not as simple as that. They had the karma to experience these things; you didn’t create that at all. They did. You were just a catalyst for the karma to ripen. You didn’t directly cause them, nor would an alternative decision have necessarily prevented them.


People think that if you stop buying fish, the fish won’t get killed. But that’s not factoring in the karma the fish created to get killed, or the karma of people to kill the fish. Demand isn’t the only cause of why fish die.


One year in Maine, all of a sudden four times more lobsters turned up to get killed: no one ordered them; they had the karma to be there, and to be killed. So they ended up with a glut of lobsters.


Perhaps you’re taking more responsibility that is reasonably yours for the consequences of decisions you make. It’s more nuanced than we think, I’d say.


Love to you,


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