With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and continued social unrest, longstanding issues of racial injustice in 2020 have taken center stage.

I thought Tuere Sala, a dharma teacher and retired prosecutor, might have something to say about all of this. Sala, a guiding teacher at Seattle Insight Meditation Society and the founding teacher at Capitol Hill Meditation Group, spent the first decade after picking up a Buddhist book practicing on her own, sometimes sitting in an Asian temple in Kansas City, other times sitting in the closet at home so that her sons wouldn’t know what she was doing. (Sala grew up in a Christian family in Seattle’s housing projects and says she didn’t know any Black people who meditated.)

Sala, who has now practiced for more than 25 years, trained in Spirit Rock’s Community Dharma Leader Program and until 2014 also worked as a prosecutor in public and private practice. She spoke with Tricycle in early July about her legal career and her impressions of 2020 so far.

You’ve said before that being a dharma (Pali, dhamma) teacher and being a prosecutor aren’t opposites but complementary. How so? Oftentimes the dhamma is presented in the West as a social justice-liberal view on life. A prosecutor has a more conservative kind of thought process, and politically the two would not line up. But these are just views and not necessarily connected to practice. Dhamma helps you be with whatever is arising, whether you’re standing in a courtroom or sitting on a meditation cushion.

There have been many situations for me as a prosecutor where I had to confront some really difficult pain. I remember one case in particular, in which the defendant, the person who had committed the crime, was very young. He did a stickup as a joke; he didn’t even have a gun. He came up against the man’s back and said, “Put your hands up, give me your wallet.” The victim, who was in the city with his son for a baseball game, was terrified; he was so traumatized by this event that he started having panic attacks all the time.

So you have this defendant who undertakes a joke but really does great harm—his act was, in fact, robbery in the first degree. You have this victim whose entire life has changed. As a prosecutor, you could say, “The kid had a difficult life. He didn’t mean this—can’t we just cut him some slack?” Meanwhile, the victim’s relationship with his son has completely changed—there’s now a rift between them, and the trauma is with them for the rest of their lives.

What I think the dhamma does is help a prosecutor hold the pain of both sides, which is a very difficult position to be in. I would say that the dhamma helped me to be a fairer, more responsible prosecutor.

What was the outcome of the case? Technically, the kid could have gotten a life sentence. We ended up reducing the charge and giving him some jail time and probation. The victim wasn’t satisfied. The defendant’s family wasn’t satisfied. This is what happens when two worlds collide.

And what happens to you after a case ends? Dhamma has helped me stay with my own values and make decisions based on right intentions and right views—doing no harm, being as kind as you can be, and living with some degree of restraint. These are the kinds of vows I live with, and that’s how I prosecuted.

“I think we should defund the police and then reset what it is that we want the police to do.”

Why did you retire? I think I was getting so deeply into meditation that I was losing even the sense of caring about prosecuting. It was time for me to leave that job, because I wasn’t as aggressive as I needed to be and I had less and less interest in what society did with criminal behavior.

Do you remember at what point your Buddhist practice became less of a secret in the prosecutor’s office? There was one judge who was very difficult to prosecutors; prosecutors would actually cry because of this judge’s behavior. And at some point, a colleague asked me how I could be in the courtroom with this judge. I said that you have to see the judge as a weather system. Sometimes it’s stormy, sometimes it’s bright and sunny, sometimes it’s just a little rainy or cloudy. But when you go outside and see a weather system, you never get mad at the weather. You may not like it, you may not want to deal with it, but you put your raincoat on. So when you go into the courtroom, just notice the weather and know it will eventually pass. The answer became helpful to that colleague, and people began to question me more and more about my life.

tuere sala justice
Chalk writing at a police reform rally at Brooklyn Borough Hall on June 9, 2020. | Photo by Demetrius Freeman

A rallying cry at protests has been to “defund the police”—to decrease large police budgets and reallocate some funds to community services. What do you think about that? I totally support defunding the police. In the States, we’ve pretty much gutted our public health services. Police officers are taught tactical solutions; they’re not necessarily thinking psychologically. If you call a cop, that’s what you’re going to get.

The only way anything is going to change is if the police budgets stop getting increased to accommodate all the things officers are required to do. If someone is holding a hostage at gunpoint, you need a [police] hostage negotiator. That’s different from having someone who’s having a psychotic break—you need a mental health or social worker to help that person settle down.

I think we should defund the police and then reset what it is that we want the police to do and what we want other service people to do. And I believe these police departments will be happy as hell that they don’t have to answer some of these social calls.

In the meantime, do you support de-escalation training for cops? No, I think defunding is the solution. Social service agencies deal with mentally ill people, angry people, violent people, drunk people, all kinds of people, and they can de-escalate the situation. You don’t have to have someone with a gun.

What about police departments offering meditation training? Meditation is different from de-escalation. Meditation is learning how to be present and aware of what’s going on and learning to be able to distinguish between your judgment about a moment in time and the actual experience. I want officers to learn how to be with discomfort and not get explosive; and to learn that they don’t have to respond by shooting someone just because they think they are in danger. Meditation to me is learning to de-escalate one’s own inner panic.

What has come up during our talk that you’d like to say? I’m hoping that at some point we won’t just treat the dhamma like it’s a liberal-minded yuppie hobby. We should treat it like medical help, just as we treat eating healthily, getting enough exercise, and drinking enough water. And I hope people see that I’m trained as a prosecutor and I can still practice dhamma. We can all practice stepping away from our impulses and assumptions. We would have less to fight about; the world is not as confrontational as we might think.

Are you hopeful that the momentum of change will continue? I’m pretty hopeful. The Buddha didn’t say “Fight your way to ease, and then you’re liberated.” No, no, no. What he said in the first noble truth was that there is suffering. If you’re ever going to get enlightened or to that level of release of suffering, you’ve got to start by acknowledging that there’s suffering here. And in some respects, that’s where I think we’re finally at. I have hope that change will happen, but it probably won’t be in my lifetime. But because I’m Buddhist, I believe I may be coming back.

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