Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Part I: The “Oy Vey” School Of Buddhism

(Picture courtesy of

This is the first of three postings about some of the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Judaism, following the lead of Rabbi Akiva Tatz’s recently-published “Letters to a Buddhist Jew”, although from a Chassidic point of view. It is inevitably over-simplistic and should be at least ten times as long – but it’s a start!

The late Tibetan Buddhist guru Chogyam Trungpa once quipped that he had so many Jewish students that they constituted a new sect: the “Oy Vey” school of Buddhism. For a people that has resisted conversion to other faiths for thousands of years, even on pain of death, the attraction of so many Jews to Buddhism – a religion that does not proselytize anyone -- is an enigma. (Maybe we could call this the “Enigma-pa” school of Buddhism…) And it is an enigma that Jewish religious leaders would be unwise to ignore.

For JuBus who question my credentials in tackling this subject, I confess that they are limited – but not totally lacking. As a child of the 60s, I read the mandatory Allan Watts and D.T. Suzuki books, and as a teenager, briefly attempted to pursue the life of a mystical hermit. In the summer of 1969, I found a battered lean-to on the south coast of Block Island and moved in with a volume of Chuang-Tzu, Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels,” and a beautiful hand-made candle – but neglected to bring along any food or water. The next day found me back in town, with a new appreciation of warm ginger ale. Several years later, I heard Chogyam Trungpa lecture on Tibetan art at Boston University, and encountered him again that evening at the opening of a related exhibit, which was in a gallery belonging to MIT. As we passed each other on the walkway to the museum, the guru looked at me, lurched as if he had seen one of those terrifying “wrathful deities” from the colorful thangka paintings inside, and with the assistance of two “gabba’im” clad in Burberry coats, disappeared into the night. I’m still not sure if the reason for this was my aura or the clear liquid he had been drinking out of a glass beer mug during the lecture.

Ironically, during the past ten years as a teacher of Chassidic thought, I came to learn more about Buddhism from two students: a retired English teacher, who practiced and occasionally taught Zen for more than thirty years; and an artist and college instructor, who studied Tantric Buddhism for some twenty years and lived for an extended period in a community in the mid-west. Both simultaneously maintained a connection with Judaism, primarily (although not exclusively) through the teachings of Rabbi Nachman.

Some readers may be surprise to learn that an estimated one-third of American converts to Buddhism are Jews, including many prominent teachers (e.g., Sharon Salzberg, Bernie Glassman, Sylvia Boorstein, Norman Fischer, Jeff Miller/Surya Das, Phillip Kapleau, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfeld, and Helen Tworkov, among others). Poet/academic Rodger Kamenetz, author of “The Jew in the Lotus,” coined the termed “JuBu” for such people – a term that some don’t mind and others find offensive. (My apologies to the latter. I’m just using the word because it has become standard currency.) From the JuBus I have meet and whose works I have read, they seem to be intelligent, highly-educated, and quite sincere in their spiritual quest. It is probable that more Jews have left the fold for Buddhism than for Christianity or any other religion, certainly in modern times. Why?

1. The most obvious reason is the widespread lack of Jewish religious education and awareness of spiritual models from Jewish tradition. However, this is only one part of the problem.

2. Even for those who had the good fortune to be exposed to some basics of the Jewish religion, the prevailing mindset of educated Americans and westerners subtly and often not-so-subtly militate against religious faith – especially faith in a minority religion like Judaism.

3. Moreover, most traditional Jews identify with the historical, creedal, and communal aspects of Judaism, but do not take it to be a spiritual path; i.e., a way of inner transformation. This “unspiritual” approach is a major turn-off to Jews who are seeking precisely such a path.

4. As one person told my friend, Rabbi Ozer Bergman of the Breslov Research Institute, “The ‘cover charge’ of Judaism is higher.” (Ozer replied that the drinks are much better.) It is undeniable that the rigorous minutia of Halakhah (Jewish religious law) are often forbidding to people who were not exposed to them during their formative years. To those of limited knowledge, Halakhah may seem burdensome and arbitrary, lacking in meaning beyond the “high-tech” legalism of the Talmud, compounded with a certain amount of common sense. A compelling spiritual and philosophical framework for understanding the primacy of Halakhah is lacking.

5. Although the existence of the Kabbalah and Chassidus is no secret these days, these arcane teachings remain relatively obscure in a practical sense. With rare exceptions, the local synagogue is the last place one would expect to find instruction in the mysteries of the Zohar. (The Dalai Lama mentioned this to the Jewish group that visited him in Dharamsala, India, about a decade ago, encouraging rabbis to make Judaism’s mystical teachings more accessible to the masses.)

6. Most importantly: Buddhism is particularly congenial to the mindset of secular, but spiritually-sensitive modern Jews. Existentialism helped paved the way for this with the concept of an absurd universe (Camus, Sartre, Beckett). The non-theistic, don’t-try-to-make-sense-out-of-this screwy-world posture of Buddhism seems kindred to the existentialist sensibility. They may not be identical, but are just a subway-stop away.

7. Plus Buddhism was popularized by Beat writers such as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg. A number of Jewish musicians, too, turned to one form or another of Eastern wisdom: Yehudi Menuhin, Phillip Glass, Leonard Cohen, Kenny Werner, etc. This gave Buddhism a certain prestige in intellectual circles, at a time when other faiths were widely regarded as obsolete.

8. Since Buddhists have never persecuted Jews, those who embrace this path do not feel that they are betraying their forebears. This observation has been made by leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement – which has actually welcomed Jewish-Buddhist teachers to their retreats and other events. (The same may be said for Hinduism, which in one form or another has attracted disaffected Jews, including counter-culture guru Richard Alpert / Ram Das.)

9. There is something about Buddhism that “strikes a chord” within many Jews. Which Jew who has suffered insult and exclusion, and which Jew who has any awareness of Jewish history, could disagree with the Buddha’s “First Noble Truth”: the truth of suffering as a given in life? (Of course, everyone suffers; I’m just underscoring the special familiarity with one type of suffering that is the shared experience of the Jewish people.) And Buddhism offers the hope of a way out of existential conflict through practice in the here and now, and not through the pole vault of other-worldly faith that secular Jews cannot manage.

10. In addition, there are points of commonality between Judaism and Buddhism. For example, both traditions encourage questioning and debate. And despite the icons and statues associated with Buddhism – no doubt a source of conflict for many JuBus -- both religions reject images and forms of the Ultimate, conceiving the Absolute to transcend all form and limitation (more about this in Part II).

All of this adds up to an extremely potent alternative to Judaism for the enormous number of unaffiliated Jews who are searching for a spiritual path. A Jew without Torah is like a fish without water. If we cannot find spiritual sustenance at home, inevitably we will go searching for it elsewhere.

The need for dialogue with Buddhist Jews has come to be recognized by a number of Jewish leaders, especially in the “Jewish Renewal” movement, which is associated with Reconstructionism. However, a few Orthodox rabbis are beginning to respond, too. One is Ohr Sameach’s gifted Rabbi Akiva Tatz, author of “Letters to a Buddhist Jew”, who explains Judaism as a spiritual path from the Lithuanian Mussar point of view. A teacher for the Jewish Learning Exchange in the UK, Rabbi Tatz has a website. Another is Rabbi Dov Ber Pinson of Chabad, who teaches and has written about Jewish meditation and other subjects that overlap with the primary concerns of Eastern religions. His Iyyun Institute has a website. An online resource that presents various Chassidic perspectives on meditation is Rabbi Tal Moshe Zwecker’s website. The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan paved the way for all this with his translations of classical Jewish mystical texts and original works; among them “Meditation and the Kabbalah”, “Chassidic Masters”, and “Rabbi Nachman’s Stories”.

Breslov, in particular, with its cultivation of the inner life, would seem to be a “natural” for outreach to Jewish Buddhists. In fact, several of my friends in the Breslov community or on its perimeter explored Buddhism intensively before becoming ba’alei teshuvah. (One can translate Tibetan, another can translate Sanskrit, and a third still remembers some Japanese.) All three still meditate – although not necessarily the same way as Buddhists -- and remain fully observant Jews, who have amassed extensive Torah knowledge. For them, there was surely a bridge between the two paths.

In the next posting, God willing, I will try to examine some of the major similarities -- and differences -- between Buddhism and Jewish mysticism.

- A link for comments will be provided after the third posting in this series. -

Rabbi Dovid Sears directs the New York-based Breslov Center for Spirituality and Inner Growth and has written a number of Judaica books, including “The Tree That Stands Beyond Space: Rebbe Nachman on the Mystical Experience” (Breslov Research Institute).