Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Part II: Comparing Jewish Mysticism And Buddhism
Since this is not an in-depth treatment of this subject, we have made few distinctions between different schools of thought in each of the two religions. However, the reader should know that they exist. In particular, some of the Buddhist doctrines mentioned below are not mentioned (or barely mentioned) in Zen Buddhism, which is rigorously experiential. And different Chassidic schools disagree about such things as the nature and role of the rebbe, and the degree to which the average Chassid should be involved in esoteric studies and practices.
The most conspicuous difference between Judaism and Buddhism concerns belief in God. While Judaism is the foundation of monotheism, Buddhists do not espouse belief in God (or for that matter, belief in multiple gods in the same sense as the polytheists of ancient Rome, etc.). They also define their creed as “anatman” – rejecting the Hindu belief in atman, Sanskrit for the “soul.”
According to ancient tradition, when the historical Buddha (fifth century b.c.e.) was asked whether or not God exists, he remained silent. This silence was interpreted in two ways: either he intended to demonstrate that God is beyond words, transcending all limitation and definition; or he considered theism and atheism as not germane to his doctrine regarding the path of side-stepping existential suffering through dismantling the illusory sense of self. For this reason, some Buddhists reject the definition of their path as a religion. Some also reject the notion that it is a philosophy, since the main thing is practice – as informed by a profound understanding of the workings of the human mind.
However one interprets the Buddha’s silence, the argument of theism vs. non-theism (we can’t say atheism, because he didn’t overtly deny the existence of God) is not necessarily the insurmountable theological problem between the two religions that it appears to be at first glance. We, too, assert that the nature of God is essentially unknowable (Shomer Emunim HaKadmon, 2:1, sixth principle). Aside from Divine Names and permutations of Divine Names, the kabbalists use various terminologies for God in different contexts: Ayin (“Nothingness”); Yachid Kadmon (“Primordial One”); Ein Sof (“The Infinite”); Achdus HaPashut (“Simple Unity”); etc. Buddhist philosophers, too, use various terms for the ontological origin of the universe and for the unitary essence of existence underlying all phenomena. In English translation, these terms include “Ground of Being,” “Absolute Reality,” “Emptiness,” etc.
When I emailed a friend in the Breslov community who in a “previous lifetime” had immersed himself in Tibetan Buddhism and recently received semichah (rabbinic ordination), he wrote: “It seems possible to me that the Buddhist ‘emptiness’ and the Jewish ‘Ayin’ may turn out to be the same…” (I guess we’ll have to wait and see on this one.)
The central issue is what one does (or “undoes”) in relationship to the Ayin / Ein Sof / Achdus HaPashut. There is a reason why prayer is the core practice of Judaism, and meditation the core practice of Buddhism. But we’re jumping the gun.
Dissolution of the Ego: Another possibly common-point is what Jewish mystics call bittul ha-yesh -- in American Buddhist language (at least back in the 60s), “annihilation of ego.” This denotes seeing through the illusion of the historically-conditioned self as a fixed entity, as well as the sense of self-importance and the need for self-aggrandizement – “proving yourself.” Both paths assert that overcoming the ego is the main prerequisite to spiritual awakening.
However, there may be a subtle difference here, too. As we will see in Part III, transcendence of ego in Judaism is not an end in itself. The Jewish mystic will put the “old coat” of personality back on in order to continue to perform his spiritual work in the world through the Torah and mitzvos.
Transmuting Negative Tendencies: Buddhism speaks of negative traits, known as kleshas (defilements), which each of us must strive to nullify: sensual desire, anger, laziness, etc. The kabbalists propose something similar, based on the “Four Elements” of earth, water, wind, and fire (equivalent to the Pali “mahabhuta”). Indolence and depression correspond to earth; sensual desire and covetousness correspond to water; worthless or harmful speech corresponds to wind; anger and pursuit of power or honor correspond to fire (Mishnas Chassidim, Masekhes Asiyah Gufanis, chap. 1; cf. Likkutei Moharan I, 4:8). According to Rabbi Nachman the fifth element is ego / self-importance, which is the root of the other four (Likkutei Moharan I, 52).
Compassion: Buddhism understands compassion to be a corollary of perceiving the interconnectedness and underlying unity of life. This is something that is vividly experienced by the Buddhist practitioner. Although Judaism sees man as the central figure in creation, it nevertheless asserts the kinship of all beings and calls upon us to respect all creatures. For example, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, taught: “In what way is a human being superior to a worm? A worm serves the Creator with all of his intelligence and ability, and man, too, is compared to a worm or maggot; as the verse states, ‘I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7). If God had not given you a human intellect, you would only be able to serve him like a worm. In this sense, you are both equal in the eyes of Heaven. A person should consider himself and the worm and all creatures are friends in the universe, for we are all created beings whose abilities are God-given…” (Tzava’as HaRivash 12).
And from the non-Chassidic camp, Rabbi Menasheh of Ilya wrote: “What am I in comparison to the many forms of sentient life in the world? If the Creator were to confer upon me, as well as my family members, loved ones, and relatives, absolute goodness for all eternity, but some deficiency remained in the world – if any living thing still were left suffering, and all the more so, another human being – I would not want anything to do with it, much less to derive benefit from it. How could I be separated from all living creatures? These are the work of God’s hand, and these, too, are the work of God’s hand” (Author’s Introduction, Ha’amek She’eilah). It seems that a “Litvak” might qualify as a Boddisattva, too.
Impermanence: Preceding the historical Buddha by more than a century (if not two), King Solomon spoke of earthly desires as “hevel havalim, vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). This concept is repeated again and again in the Rosh Hashanah prayer service (“What is a man’s life but a fleeting dream, a passing shadow, a vaporous cloud, a gust of wind, and a swirl of dust?” etc.). These expressions bear a striking similarity to the Buddhist description of the transitory nature of the phenomenal world and impermanence.
However, in Buddhism, impermanence is an encompassing perception of the nature of all things. This perception has a somewhat different “spin” on it in Judaism – where it is a way of underscoring the urgency of returning to God and engaging in Avodah (divine service), rather than pursuing vain and materialistic goals.
A notable exception to this is Rabbi Nachman’s teaching about the dreidel, the four-sided top with which children play on Chanukah. He conceives this as a “revolving wheel” or “wheel of transformation” -- a metaphor for the impermanence of all creation, which comes forth from the undifferentiated Divine Wisdom / Nothingness (see Sichos HaRan 40).
Equanimity: According to the Buddhist approach, equanimity and detachment are concomitants of impermanence. Jewish mystics also strive for such virtues. Says the Baal Shem Tov (Tzava’as HaRivash 53): “One should make himself as if he did not exist -- as the Gemara states in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: ‘The words of Torah cannot be fulfilled except by one who makes himself as if he did not exist (ayin)” (Sota 21b). Thus, it is written, ‘And wisdom from where (ayin) does it come?’ (Job 28:12). [Or: ‘Wisdom comes from nothingness.’] This means that one should consider himself to not exist in this world at all; so what difference does it make if he is important in the eyes of others?”
At the same time, equanimity in the face of praise and blame and the ups and downs of life is no contradiction to serving God with love and awe (ahavah ve-yirah). Through this level of Divine service, we transmute our most powerful emotions to the spiritual plane.
Life After Life: Another common doctrine is that of reincarnation (which Buddhists prefer to call “rebirth”). In Jewish tradition, this is known as gilgul, which might be loosely translated as “recycling.” The Zoharic literature and writings of the ARI and Safed kabbalists are replete with discussions of reincarnation, even into non-human forms such as animals, plants, and clumps of dust (may God spare us). As in other spiritual systems, gilgul is understood as one of Heaven’s ways of enabling the soul to become cleansed of evil and to attain perfection. The Vilna Gaon wrote an entire commentary on the Book of Jonah as an allegory for reincarnation.
Karma / Cosmic Justice: The determining principle behind reincarnation actually applies to all of a person’s circumstances in every lifetime and indeed, in every day. Buddhists and Hindus call it “karma,” which means a kind of cosmic justice reflective of one’s merits and demerits. The Talmudic sages call it the principle of “middah keneged middah” – “measure for measure.” One example is the Mishnah that describes how Hillel observed a skull floating down a river. He said to it: “Because you drowned others, they have drowned you. And ultimately those who drowned you will themselves be drowned” (Avos 2:6). This cosmic principle is democratic and non-sectarian; as the rabbis state: “ ‘Merit is given to the meritorious, and guilt to those who are guilty.’ This rule applies to all families of the earth” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabbah 16:1). (As a religious Jew, it is extremely difficult for me to understand how Buddhism can accept the principle of karma and remain non-theistic. If there is justice, there must be a judge. But maybe my thinking is too square to grasp the spontaneous “arisings” in Buddhist metaphysics.)
A related issue is that of what C.G. Jung called “synchronicity” – the “hidden miracles” of everyday life that bespeak another determinant of what goes on in the world beyond the causality of one-plus-one-makes-two. In Buddhism, these phenomena also fall under the rubric of karma, pointing to the transpersonal matrix that underlies the appearance of separateness. In Judaism they are understood as evidence of “hashgachah p’ratis,” vivid manifestations of divine providence that break though the seeming autonomy of nature like moonlight through the clouds.
Teacher-Student Relationship: Eastern religions, including Buddhism, put great emphasis on the relationship with one’s guru, or “teacher,” who may take on larger-than-life dimensions. Analogous to this, the Talmud states that one should seek instruction from a teacher who is “comparable to an angel of the God of Hosts” (Chagigah 15b). In the Chassidic conception, the “Rebbe” is a kind of guru, in that it is his mission to guide the Chassid on the path of spiritual growth.
Sometimes the master-disciple relationship takes on some strange forms. In certain schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the guru is a “spiritual friend” – whose compassion consists in driving you “crazy” (i.e., into new ways of perception). The Japanese Zen teacher also typically resorts to unusual behaviors to jolt the student into enlightenment. There were Chassidic masters who came up with similar strategies. One was the fiery Kotzker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgenstern, 19th century). In our generation, the late Reb Osher Freund of Jerusalem was famous for his often outrageous tactics to force his followers to let go of their spiritual props in order to find more authentic ways of being-in-the-world.
In Hinduism and other Far Eastern religions, the guru is variously perceived as an enlightened teacher, a channel for a divine emanation, or an incarnate god. There are even some divergent ideas about this in Buddhism. However, in Judaism the tzaddik (or in the Chassidic world, “rebbe,” meaning “master”) is never deified. God’s Oneness is absolute (e.g., see Rabbi Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, Rav Pe’alim, Vol. I, Teshuvah 1, for a clear and concise kabbalistic explanation of unity and multiplicity). Having purged himself of all desire and evil traits, the tzaddik is a channel or vehicle for Godliness -- but not a divinity unto himself.
Practice: Buddhism advocates silent meditation as the arena for spiritual work and existential discovery. To some extent, the Lithuanian Mussar schools cover some of the same ground through self-examination and contemplation, especially the path of the Alter (“Elder”) of Novhardok. The Piacetzna Rebbe, a towering 20th century Chassidic leader who perished in the Warsaw Ghetto, taught classical silent meditation (see “Inyan Hashkata,” appendix to Derekh HaMelekh, and his treatise “Bnei Machshavah Tovah,” translated to English as “Conscious Community.”) He also discusses meditative visualization, which plays a role in earlier kabbalistic meditation systems. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov discusses hisbodedus – secluded, improvisational dialogue with God and prayer in one’s native tongue – in surprisingly similar terms (as we will see in the next posting).
Yet assumptions about the nature of reality and purpose of life that condition the practitioner’s meditative experience, or are implicit in the meditative methods used, differ between the two religions. For one thing, Buddhism stresses dismantling the illusory solidity of the personality during meditation, whereas Judaism focuses on reconnecting with God. Thus, 18th century Zen master Hakuin experienced shunyata (“emptiness”) in meditation, while his contemporary, Chassidic master Rabbi Dov Ber, the Great Maggid, experienced the “Divine Nothingness.”
Enlightenment: In Judaism, this is the Da’as (literally, “knowledge”) associated with the Future World – which tzaddikim are privy to in this world, as well. The Talmudic mentions that certain sages were accustomed to bless one another: “May you see your World [to Come] in your life [in this world]…” (Berakhos 17a). According to Rabbi Nachman, this perception may come about in a sudden flash, without any prefatory concepts (Likkutei Moharan I, 21; however, one must make extensive spiritual preparations to be worthy of the divine influx). This sounds remarkably like Buddhist descriptions of the enlightenment experience. (Not being enlightened according to any school of thought, I couldn’t say if this is a mere parallelism, or if they are truly the same.)
The attainment of enlightenment in Judaism is bound up with the mystery of prophecy, which lies at the core of our religion. The Torah is the story of God’s dialogue with man. And although the age of the prophets came to an end long ago, to be superseded by the divinely-inspired intellectualism of the Talmudic sages (“chokhom adif mi-navi”), we anticipate the return of prophecy during the Messianic age. The Piacetzna Rebbe explains that prophecy does not only mean the obtainment of a divine message for the world, but the mystical experience in general – and on some level, this available even today (see Mevo She’arim, beginning).
Eschatology / End of Days: Buddhism describes an “End of Days” scenario characterized by a gradual process of global spiritual degeneration, after which a new enlightened being named Maitreya will renew the teachings of Buddhism and teach the path leading to Nirvana (cessation of illusion / bliss / immortality). At present, Maitreya resides in a certain heaven, awaiting his final rebirth in the world.
In Jewish mysticism, the soul of Mashiach is somewhat similarly described as being stored away in the heavenly “Garden of Eden” until God mercifully decides to confer it upon a great and awesome tzaddik living in the world. This tzaddik will then usher in the Messianic Age (Rabbi Chaim Vital, Arba’ah Me’os Shekel Kesef, 68a). The Mashiach will bring wisdom and peace to the world, return the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, and rebuild the Holy Temple. These events will be followed by the Resurrection of the Dead, Divine Judgment, and eternal bliss for the righteous (see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s translation of Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s “Essay on Fundamentals,” included in Derekh Hashem / The Way of God, Feldheim, pp. 385-390; there is a dispute among the authorities as to whether the souls of righteous non-Jews will share in the Resurrection or will remain in the World of Souls). Buddhism and Hinduism espouse a cyclic view of history, according to which the universe will eventually be destroyed, and a new cycle of creation come into being. Some kabbalists take this position, too (see Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Immortality, Resurrection, and the Age of the Universe, Ktav, pp. 1-15).
In addition to the points we have listed, Judaism and Buddhism possess many parallel traditions about angels, demons, disembodied souls, and spirits. And both religions believe in heaven and hell as afterlife experiences conditioned by one’s deeds in this world.
Yet as we have already noted, some major differences exist between Jewish mysticism and Buddhism. There is a Chassidic discourse that illustrates both the similarities and differences vividly: Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s “HaNei’or BaLaylah / Awakening in the Night” (Likkutei Moharan I, 52). We will take a look at this teaching and consider its implications in the next posting, God willing.
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