The Buddhist Barrister, Cleaning Windows

One of the first books I read about Buddhism was The Buddhist Way of Life by Christmas Humphreys. I still have the copy I purchased at a small bookstore in Omaha Nebraska in 1969. The author was an important figure in Western Buddhism at one time and he was born on this day in 1901.

220px-Christmas-humphreysHumphreys (who passed away in 1983) was a British lawyer, writer and poet, and founder of an organization that later became the Buddhist Society of London, one of the oldest Buddhist groups outside Asia. Like many Western Buddhists of that time, he started off with Theosophy. During the 1920s when he attended Cambridge, he joined the Cambridge Lodge of the Theosophical Society, eventually becoming its President. His attention shifted to Buddhism after some interaction with W.T. Rhys Davids, the famous scholar of Pali and founder of the Pali Text Society and attending some lectures by early British Buddhists Allan Bennett (Ananda Metteya) and Francis Payne.

Then, as now, most lay Buddhists need day jobs, and for Humphreys that meant criminal law. He had a long and celebrated career in which he worked primarily as a prosecutor. He handled over 200 murder cases, including a number of landmark cases, and he was involved in the Tokyo war crimes trial and the 1950 trial of a nuclear spy named Klaus Fuchs. Later, Humphreys became a judge at the Old Bailey.

Humphreys with Suzuki and Edward Conze
Humphreys with Suzuki and Edward Conze

Christmas Humphreys knew most of the leading Buddhists of his time; he collaborated on translations with D.T. Suzuki, and Alan Watts was his protégé. He was prolific, he either authored or edited several dozen about Buddhism, and while his particular focus was Zen, the books he produced covered the entire field of Buddha-dharma.

What I was looking for when I bought The Buddhist Way of Life was a good introductory book. For me, it was not very useful in that regard. It is subtitled “An Invitation for Western Readers.” Maybe I was too young (16) to grasp it, or perhaps what I needed (but had not been written yet) was Buddhism for Dummies.  Nonetheless,  several thoughts presented on the first two pages formed impressions about Buddhism that are still with me today.

First is that Buddhism is not a religion per se but “a system of doctrine and practice built up by the followers of the Buddha about what they believed to be his teaching,” and secondly that “We do not know precisely what [the Buddha] taught.” And thirdly:

How do we contact Reality? Not with the intellect. The thinking, rational, daily mind for ever functions in duality, in the relative. By it we learn a great deal about the universe and the ‘matter’ – which has now been found to have, as the Buddha said, no real existence – of which it is composed. But this knowledge is entirely ‘about it and about’; it concerns the forms in which life is expressed, the garments of Reality; the life, the essence, the thing itself it can never know. The scientist, the philosopher, the psychologist, and all who work with the five senses and thought may fill the world with libraries of their invention and discovery; they will not, for they cannot, know.”

This “direct way” of the Buddhist is found in the practice of meditation and it is an intuitive way that cannot be fared by the intellect alone.

Well, here is gassho to another Western Buddhist pioneer, a man who helped many people open and enter the dharma door to Buddhism, and one of those persons was been Van Morrison who mentions Humphreys in this song from his 1982 album Beautiful Vision:


3 thoughts on “The Buddhist Barrister, Cleaning Windows

    1. In a work attributed to the 13th century Japanese priest Nichiren, but most likely composed by a Tendai cleric many years after Nichiren had passed away, it reads: “It is the same with a Buddha and a common mortal. While deluded, one is called a common mortal, but once enlightened, he is called a Buddha. Even a tarnished mirror will shine like a jewel if it is polished. A mind which presently is clouded by illusions originating from the innate darkness of life is like a tarnished mirror, but once it is polished it will become clear, reflecting the enlightenment of immutable truth. Arouse deep faith and polish your mirror night and day.”

      The way I interpret “deep faith” is for each person to simply practice the practice and teachings of Buddhism in whatever manner is best suited for them, but no matter what practice and try to implement it into daily life. That is how to polish the mirror.

  1. “built up by the followers of the Buddha about what they believed to be his teaching,” … ““We do not know precisely what [the Buddha] taught.”

    regarding your first 2 impressions – Buddha was teaching for ~45 years after his enlightenment (a relatively long period, compared to other “messengers”). I would say his core teachings are undoubtedly clear, atleast to most of his followers at that time, as the teachings were logically sound (no gods, beliefs, rituals, superstitions…just pure mind/suffering analysis) and differ quite a bit from existing religions/thoughts. He had lot of brahmin converts become his disciples, they are usually well educated, culturally advanced, and all they did all day long was to contemplate about god/ultimate (priestly caste). If buddha’s teachings were not clear, or precisely known, it would be very hard to get them to convert.

    I would argue no other religion has this kind of clarity in what the core message is, why its needed, what, how. And it (the core) hasn’t changed a bit in over the last ~2500 years, and I would bet it wont ever (if humans are smart enough to not let the wisdom die).

    Though there has been lot of branches, all of them agree on the core (4 noble truths / transcending suffering).

    That said, I agree the literal interpretation of some of the core teachings is lost in translation sometimes, and like everything else, heavily dependent on one’s level (or focus) of understanding.

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