Friday, December 14, 2007

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Part III: Rabbi Nachman’s “HaNei’or BaLaylah / Awakening In The Night”

(Picture by Yaacov Kaszemacher)

Continued from Part II:

Basing his ideas on a Mishnah, Rabbi Nachman’s Likkutei Moharan I, 52 (“Awakening in the Night”), presents an overview of the main practice he taught his followers: hisbodedus -- literally, “seclusion,” but in this context a kind of improvisational prayer and self-examination, ideally conducted in the forests and fields or another natural setting at night.

First, the Mishnah: “Rabbi Chanina ben Chakhinai used to say: One who awakens in the night, and walks on an isolated path, and turns his heart to empty matters – behold, such a person forfeits his life” (Avos 3:4). The simple meaning is that if a person squanders his time and energy on vain pursuits instead of contributing to civilization, he loses his reason for existence.

While not disagreeing with this, Rabbi Nachman peremptorily turns Rabbi Chanina’s words inside-out and upside-down in order to teach us about the mystic’s quest. “One who awakens at night” is the intrepid Breslover Chassid who wants to practice hisbodedus / secluded meditation; “and walks on an isolated path” means that he heads for the countryside, away from human habitation, so that he won’t be affected by any of the thoughts and desires that still linger in the air; “and turns his heart to empty matters” means that he empties his heart of all negative traits; “such a person forfeits his life” means (by resorting to an elaborate word-play) that he becomes transformed from the state of a “Contingent Existent” to that of the “Necessary Existent” or “Essential Reality” -- which is Divinity.

Rabbi Nachman builds up to this point by asking how the materialist philosophers could come up with the idea of the eternity of matter – i.e., the mistaken assumption that the universe is a “Necessary Existent” – since even a false idea must begin with a grain of truth. In the course of explaining this mystery, he introduces the concept that by performing God’s will, the Jewish people become reabsorbed in the true “Necessary Existent,” which is God; and in so doing, restore all of the worlds and all elements of creation to the Divine Oneness, along with them. Thus far, the first half of the lesson.

“However,” Rabbi Nachman continues, “to attain this, to become reabsorbed in your Source – that is, to go back and become reintegrated within the Divine Oneness, which is the Necessary Existent – this can only be accomplished through bittul (nullification of ego). You must nullify the ego completely, until you become restored to the Divine Oneness. And it is impossible to come to a state of bittul except through hisbodedus…” Then he goes on to explain what hisbodedus is all about; how the spiritual seeker must get away from the world in order to commune with God, and in the course of hisbodedus work on each negative trait, one after the next, until he reaches the subtlest root of ego – and this, too, can be removed through hisbodedus. Upon achieving bittul, one immediately experiences the Essence of Reality, which is the Divine Unity.

Although their methods are different, Rabbi Nachman’s hisbodedus and Buddhist meditation share similar goals. Both intend to deconstruct illusory mental structures in order to reveal a transpersonal reality of an incomparably higher order of truth.

However, we must remember at which point in his lesson Rabbi Nachman turned off the “main road” to discuss the practice of hisbodedus: right after declaring the necessity of our performing God’s will. This remains our primary responsibility in this world. The attainment of self-nullification in the stillness of the fields through hisbodedus must be combined with performing the mitzvos – with bittul.

I once read that a contemporary Zen Roshi met a prominent figure in the Jewish Renewal movement, and asked what he should teach his Jewish students. The Jewish teacher replied, “Show them how to put on Tefillin in a Zen way.” This actually accords with Rabbi Nachman’s lesson -- if the “Zen way” corresponds to the bittul ha-yesh that is the goal of hisbodedus.

When it comes to self-nullification, there seems to be an overlap between the two paths. However, upon examining Rabbi Nachman’s lesson carefully, we also find two key differences:

1. The Mechuyav HaMetziyus / “Imperative Existent” of Judaism is not only the Buddhist “Ground of Being,” but the God of revelation Who, through the mystery of prophecy, gave Israel the Torah. God not only exists and creates, but commands and claims. Thus, much of Judaism is about service, instead of meditative absorption.

2. The primary task of Israel is to perform the commandments, which are God-given, and which in both a practical and mystical sense refine and transform creation.

It is true that Mahayana Buddhism in particular has a “this-worldly” side in its ethic of seeking the benefit of all beings (i.e., the Bodhisattva Vow). But this is not the same thing as the Jewish people’s performance of mitzvos, which are specific divine mandates, and not just “good deeds.” Some mitzvos called chukkim (“decrees”), like the ritual of the Red Heifer, completely surpass human understanding. The complex Jewish dietary laws also fall into this category, although the kabbalists reveal some of the reasons behind them. The task of studying the Torah and performing the 613 mitzvos uniquely rests on the Jew. On some level, as Jews, we all know this, and feel unfulfilled if we fail to accomplish our mission.

This is not meant to be a weighty burden. The holy ARI (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, sixteenth century) attributed the high spiritual levels he reached to “simchah shel mitzvah,” rejoicing in the performance of the commandments (see Mishnah Berurah 669:11; cf. Likkutei Moharan I, 24:2). Why did he feel this way? And why should we feel this way? For the simple reason that to a Jew who believes in God, the mitzvos connect the one who performs them with the One Who gave them.

The kabbalists describe the 620 mitzvos (613 Torah mitzvos plus seven rabbinic mitzvos) as “620 columns of light” (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Pardes Rimonim 8:3). (620 is the numerical value of Keser / Crown, the highest of the ten sefiros and locus of the Divine Will.) Chassidic master Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains this to mean that the mitzvos are actually spiritual channels by which we connect to the Divine Will at their root (Tanya, Iggeres HaKodesh, Letter 29). That is, we become instruments of the Divine Will and therefore bound to God in a manner that transcends the limitations of intellect. For one who takes this to heart, performing a mitzvah is a source of boundless joy.

Breslover Chassidism would say that we need both factors: bittul, which comes through hisbodedus, and the mitzvos, which connect us to the divine purpose in creation in the here and now – and which enable us to fulfill our unique mission as Jews. “Know Him in all your ways,” the Psalmist declares. This is the source of Chassidic joy.

The Mixed Blessing of Dualism: The metaphysical villain is dualism – estrangement from the Primordial Unity; yet dualism makes it possible for us to have a relationship with G-d and with each other. One of the meanings of the Torah’s story of how Eve was separated from Adam is that this alludes to how creation was “separated” from the Creator, all so that we might have a relationship. This is the positive meaning of creation. Dualism is not just an illusion or spiritual obstacle to overcome, but the necessary precondition for having a relationship. This, too, is the meaning of the Song of Songs, which is an allegory of the love between God and the Jewish people, who serve Him through the Torah and mitzvos.

Yet at the same time, dualism goes hand in hand with the ego, which blocks the road back to God and distorts our spiritual vision. How can we get out of this conundrum? Rabbi Nachman alludes to this problem and its solution in one of his thirteen mystical stories, “The Tale of the Seven Beggars.”

The Heart and the Spring: In this sub-plot of the tale, the third holy beggar materializes out of thin air at the wedding feast of two orphans, who are the story’s protagonists. He is the Beggar with the Speech Defect – whose apparent deficiency masks his greatest spiritual power. He claims that his parables and lyrics contain all wisdom – and the “proof” he offers is the testimony of the True Man of Kindness.

The Beggar with the Speech Defect goes around and gathers up all true kindness in the world and brings it to the True Man of Kindness, who presides over time. In the merit of the human acts of kindness he receives, the True Man of Kindness gives a new day to the Heart of the World, who gives it to the Spring, thereby sustaining the universe.

How so? On the top of a certain mountain, there is a stone, out of which flows a wondrous Spring. At the other end of the world, stands the Heart of the World, which longs and yearns and cries to go to the Spring. The Spring also yearns for the Heart. However, the Heart cannot go to the Spring – for if it came too close, it would no longer be able to see the peak from which it flows. And if it stopped looking at the Spring for even an instant, the Heart would perish; and with it, the entire world, which receives its life-force from the Heart. Therefore, the Heart stands facing the Spring, yearning and crying out.

The Spring transcends time. Therefore it only possesses the time that it receives from the Heart as a gift for one day.

When the end of the day draws near, they begin to part from one another with great love and wonderful poetry. Watching over all this, the True Man of Kindness waits until the last minute and then gives the Heart a gift of one more day. The Heart immediately gives the day to the Spring, and thus the world endures. Yet everything depends upon the Beggar with the Speech Defect, who collects all of the true kindness, in the merit of which time comes into existence. Therefore, all of the wondrous parables and lyrics are his, too.

This story, like all of Rabbi Nachman’s tales, has multiple levels of meaning, rooted in the mysteries of the kabbalah. On one level, the Heart and the Spring is an allegory about the primacy of our relationship with God, which is like a marriage. (This, too, is why Judaism is not a monastic tradition, but places so much emphasis on marriage. Indeed, the marriage relationship is called “kiddushin” or “sanctification” for two reasons: because each partner becomes “kadosh” or designated to the other; and because marriage is intrinsically holy. It is a spiritual relationship, which challenges us to get past our innate selfishness, to cease to be mere “takers” and become “givers.” The tale of the Heart and the Spring also indicates why the sculpted forms of the K’ruvim, male and female winged angels, hovered over the Ark of the Covenant in the inner sanctum of Holy Temple. Their embrace represents “unity in dualism.”)

We relate to God with the longing of the Heart for the Spring atop the faraway mountain. The “catch” is to realize that God is present on both sides of the relationship.

The vehicle for attaining this perception is hisbodedus. As third-generation Breslov scholar Rabbi Nachman Goldstein, the Rav of Tcherin, wrote:

“The perfection of hisbodedus is to attain deveykus – to cleave to God until you become utterly subsumed within the Divine Oneness. The word hisbodedus is a construct of badad, meaning either ‘seclusion’ or ‘oneness,’ as in the phrase ‘they shall be one with one [i.e., of equal weight]’ (Rashi on Exodus 30:34). That is, you must become ‘one with God’ to the extent that all sensory awareness ceases, and the only reality you perceive is Godliness. This is the mystical meaning of the verse, ‘Ein ode milvado . . . There is nothing but God alone’ (Deuteronomy 4:35). This, too, is why the Torah calls Israel ‘a people that dwells alone [badad]’ (Numbers 23:9). The destiny of each Jew is to attain complete unification with God, without any intermediary” (Zimras Ha’aretz, I, 52; translated in “The Tree That Stands Beyond Space,” p. 83).

In hisbodedus – if one succeeds in “breaking through” – one discovers that God stands on both sides of the relationship. In a sense, God davens (prays) to Himself.

If Zen master Hakuin, famous for his consciousness-altering koans (conundrums), were a Breslover Chassid, he might say that this is the “sound of one hand clapping.”

There will be a follow-up to this series about Rabbi Nachman’s teachings concerning silent meditation.


At December 14, 2007 at 8:43:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was reading an English transcription of a lecture by the Mechaber of Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh yesterday, in which he says: "How does one avoid destroying himself? He must live in a world without desires." This is not terribly distinct from the Third Noble Truth of Buddhism: "By stopping the cravings, the suffering is stopped."

I think the key distinction then is in the next step, the Eightfold Path versus Derech haTorah.

At December 14, 2007 at 10:16:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read through the first two postings and look forward to the next one on L"M 52. (Incidently, Rabbi Avraham Sutton has a great piece on this Torah).

I think the bottom line is practice. You mentioned a few sources, but none as far as I can see go into much detail about how to practice the meditation. The Piacetzner piece was not written by him, but related to us by students. We will never know what his talmidim actually did, nor was anything in detail written down to explain his meditative system more fully.

You see, that is the big difference between Buddhism and Judaism. In Buddhism, there is a wealth of material on how to practice, how to overcome problems, stages in the meditation process, etc., and there is very little in Yiddishkeit.

I read Rabbi Ozer Bergman's book on Hitbodedut and asked him via e-mail about the chapter on silence. He told me that he had little experience in that area of Hitbodedut. The same can be said about teachers of silent meditation in Judaism. Very few if any Rabbis practice meditation. A Jew cannot walk into a shul and get meditation instruction. Very few if any shiurim focus on meditation, let alone silence. Rabbis know Halachah, Talmud, Chumash (we hope), but what you are talking about here is not something a synagogue will offer. Hence Jews are running to Buddhist retreats and classes.

I live in California. There is no Habad meditation, no Breslov, nothing. I have found that the internet is not a good way to learn anything in depth, let alone by e-mail. Don't get me started on the Renewal movement. They have schools that have "produced" Jewish meditation teachers who have a very shallow understanding of Judaism, yet are "experts" in this area.

Which brings me to Buddhism and Judaism. Yes, there are similarities, but the difference is that Judaism demands learning (yes, some schools of Buddhism do, too) and commitment to do things such as mitzvot, Shabbos, Tefillin, etc. Most Jews run away from all that, and I admit it for me is a lifelong struggle. Would they do so if meditation was integral to Jewish practice?

We need to step up to the plate and start putting people out there who can reach the entire spectrum of Jews -- and teachers need to practice what they preach.

What you are writing about is so valuable! Thanks!

At December 14, 2007 at 10:34:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Now that Part III about Hisbodedus has been posted, I hope you see things a little differently. Although there are various forms of "Jewish meditation," prayer is the core Jewish practice and there is a wealth of information about the inner dimension of davenning, both from the Siddur and in Hisbodedus. Rebbe Nachman describes some profoundly transformative experiences in connection with Hisbodedus, which is a path for all.

Almost all of these Jewish meditative systems were developed and used by individuals of high attainments as paths to ru'ach ha-kodesh and certain high mystical perceptions. They were not intended for the masses. Ditto the Abulafian meditations, which could be mind-transforming and even dangerous. Only what the Rambam's son and colleagues were doing in the "Jewish Sufi" period prior to the disclosure of the Zohar was a meditative system for a wide audience -- and the prayer-meditation approaches of the various Chassidic schools, which still exist today, even if not in your community. In Breslov and a few other Chassidic communities, davenning is quite an intense, serious business, and if approached the right way leads to deveykus.

As the lesson "HaNei'or BaLaylah" states, Hisbodedus is a path of inner work, which is really a lifelong task. But many great people in and out of Breslov have followed it, and testified that whatever spiritual levels they reached were because of Hisbodedus.

At December 14, 2007 at 10:55:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great series -- very interesting. Another big difference between Judaism and Buddhism that you didn't dwell on is universalism versus particularism. I think a big reason a lot of secular Jews are attracted to Buddhism is because of all the stuff about alleviating the suffering of all beings. As you showed in your book Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition, there is a lot of this kind of thinking in Judaism too, but with a superficial exposure to Judaism one might well not see this. Even in the daily prayers nearly all the prayers are for the Jewish people, with the exception of the line in Ashrei we are careful to concentrate on ("You open your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing"), which sounds almost Buddhist. Of course, many if not most of the prayers we say are directly or indirectly a plea for the messiah and messianic age, which we believe will benefit the whole world. But on the surface things probably seem pretty particularistic, which to modern-minded people often translates as old-fashioned and selfish. Then Buddhism's emphasis on all living beings seems very attractive to people. One way Buddhism's universalism is expressed in its mysticism is in the feeling of compassion toward all beings. In Judaism too there are references to loving all people, and loving everything, but the emphasis is sometimes not as strong. As your book suggests, Breslov in particular has strong universalistic elements. But compassion for all life is elsewhere in Judaism and I think it's important to emphasize it. I particularly like this quote by the Ramak, a contemporary of the Ari, from his book the Palm of Devorah:

"[O]ne should instruct the entire world in the ways of life, helping
others to attain life in this world and in the world to come and providing them with the means to life. As a matter of principle, one should give life to all beings. [A] person should act as a father to all God's creatures. And he should constantly pray for mercy and blessing for the
world just as the Supernal Father has mercy on all His creatures. And he should constantly pray for the alleviation of suffering as if those who suffer were actually his children and as if he had created them. For this is the will of the Holy One, Blessed is He. Furthermore, his mercy extend
to all creatures, neither destroying nor despising any of them. For the Supernal Wisdom is extended to all created things- minerals, plants, animals and humans. In this way man's pity should be extended to all the
works of the Blessed One. He should not uproot anything which grows, unless it is necessary, nor kill any living thing unless it is necessary."

At December 14, 2007 at 12:50:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to be nitpicky, but "Know him in all your ways" is Proverbs 3:6. Is this phrase also in the Psalms?

At December 16, 2007 at 2:11:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There seems to be a fundamental difference between the way Judaism sees the concept of "awakening" and the way it is seen by other religions.
While they seem to talk about some sort of instantaneous revelation (awakening/enlightenment/satori etc.) that brings one to a higher level, in Judaism - especially in Chassidut - we speak about "Hit'orerut", which is a continuous, active process by which, from moment to moment, one becomes fuller with Simcha and closer to G-d.
Similarly, whereas most of the world strives to achieve "happiness" which seems to imply some kind of passive, stale plateau of self-fulfillment, in Chassidut we work on "Simcha", which is an active, growing, living state.

At December 17, 2007 at 8:19:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Atman, anatman, fatman, batman!

Who knows what they're talking about?

What is the "soul" anyway?

A "chelek Eloka mi-ma'al," a portion of Divinity from above...

Do you think you understand that?

Do you think G-d is made of pieces, chalilah?

Are you so worried, O Madyamika savants, that the soul is "fixed" and the essence of mind isn't fixed?

Is a "portion of Divinity" fixed?

The Infinite One is not an "it!"

So you would rather say "mind" than "soul"...

No doubt, because you know that everything comes from Chokhmah Ila'ah, Supernal Divine Wisdom.

But their are levels even beyond this -- RADLA, the Unknowable Beginning!

I never could stand philosophy.

I'm going for a walk in the snow...

At December 19, 2007 at 8:14:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Anon for catching the mistake about the pasuk from Mishlei. I plan to correct it on the version for the Breslov Center website.

At December 23, 2007 at 1:08:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contrary to what many people think, in Zen Buddhism there is both sudden and gradual awakening, depending upon the school of thought. The Rinzai teachings emphasize sudden awakening and the Soto school, founded by Dogen Zenji, teaches gradual awakening. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi in his landmark book, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind" describes this process as walking in a light fog or mist and not realizing that you are getting wet but at some point becoming aware that you are soaked through to the bone. Dogen Zenji also has an essay on continuous practice. In any case, in both schools of Zen, one brings one's practice into the world, into the marketplace. This is definitely not about sitting on a mountaintop in a static state of bliss or self-fulfillment. Instead, it is about going beyond small mind(constricted consciousness) into Big Mind (expanded consciousness) where compassionate action can arise in the world.

At December 23, 2007 at 2:25:00 PM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rabbi Sears:

I just wanted to mention that your articles you are posting on Buddhism vs. Judaism are amazing. Thank you so much for writing them. Please consider when you are done to collect them together, I would love to have a copy in one place. I have been thinking about this stuff for a long time and have never seen it discussed so clearly. I am taking a course now in something called "Zen Shiatsu", which is a form of alternative therapy, and felt very strongly that most of the basic conceptual underpinnings were in harmony with Torah.

It was quite sad to be in a room full of Jews in Jerusalem who don't recognize this at all! Anyway, I am thrilled to read your work on this. Thank you so much, again. We may not correspond too often (we did speak in Uman this past year if you remember), but I always love and appreciate your work and beautiful, refreshing perspective.

Thank you for the chizuk and the encouragement.

At December 24, 2007 at 6:40:00 AM EST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the information. My ignorance probably stems from my dabbling in Zen Buddhism in my youth, when I was in search of instantaneous bliss…:)
Still, please note that in the parable you bring, even though the process of getting wet is gradual, the awareness of it comes all at once.
It would be interesting to research the correlation between small-mind – big mind, and Mochin De'Katnut – Mochin De'Gadlut.

At March 15, 2008 at 1:48:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks so much for this posting. it is very important for more religious jewish people to create bridges to jewish buddhists.

part one had many very dry humorous phrases and images which i greatly appreciate. (have you seen the humorous "jewish haiku"?)

i think much more needs to be said about quietness. (joke and not joke)

actually, i think much more needs to be said about equanimity. it is discussed in the baal shem tov and reb nachman. i think if more jewish people in general knew of the value of silence and equanimity it would mean alot. (tehilim says "of You, silence is praise" (ps.65?)

in psalms 23,al me menuchot ynahaleni... by tranquil waters you lead me... what a beautiful meditative image to dwell upon, nu?

look at that: in lush meadows He lays me down, by tranquil waters He leads me, He restores my soul

to me, i probably need to write an article on this bs"d, this is an excellent place for jewish people, jewish buddhists to see that the jewish tradition has a great value for quietness, tranquility, nature and being meditative in nature.

who'd a thunk it? in the most famous tehilim of all is the simplest and perhaps most accessible way to simply be quiet and restore ones soul. mamash!! really!!!!

i think that the issues that jewish buddhists have with judaism need to be addressed and hopefully resolved. for example...given this tehilim, ps. 23, it shows so much potential for quietness meditation.

also, r' david zeller z'l, is probably the rav you quoted about putting on tefilin in a zen way.

zen vat du yu du?

vat u du iz let oneself be fully present in the moment...

i think simple connections to the pleasant, attractive aspects of buddhism is a great and effective way of helping jewish buddhists to reconnect with their souls.

At June 16, 2009 at 3:16:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.”

I strongly disagree to the above.
Buddhism is not a religion but a philosophy. A way of living. What is said of the belief in multiple G'ds is absolutely untrue. All these so called G'ds are emanations of G'd. Just like in Judaism we have many names for G'd. But we do not picture G'd in images, whereas Buddhism does. Maybe because by doing so they reveal the many faces of G'd.

BTW I am Jewish, not a Jewish buddhist of buddhist Jew.

At June 13, 2010 at 5:23:00 PM EDT, Blogger Unknown said...

I am a Jewish woman who has practiced meditation for 32 years as taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi during his life. There are no idols, it is not Hindu, there are hundreds of research books all over the world, done very scientifically. So no idolatry here as rumored.

I have developed a very penetrating and real relationship with Rabbi Nachman, through the chant NaNach Nachma Nachman Meh Uman, which came to me in a most marvelous way, even here in the midwest of the U S.

The transcendence developed through meditation gives so much life and power to the chant, and immediately I felt it's effect take hold in my life. I feel a strong connection for Rebbi Nachman I can't even put words to describe it. It took me exactly one night to feel I was truly receiving blessings from the Soul of Rabi Nachman, without traveling anywhere. This has come in the form of an opening into peace, to happpiness,qualities of silence and events that I have not previously experienced. Also I have developed a keen interest in the teachings of the Breslov sages. To Reb David Sears, I hope you read this although it is it is many years since you wrote this - I can only say I am grateful to you for the richness of your book Compassion for Humanity in the Jewish Tradition.

There is a Synagogue here in this University town of Fairfield Iowa , which has 160 members and hardly anyone attends. It is a town of people who practice meditation daily and love knowledge. I hope I can somehow use the knowledge you have given and some Divine Blessings from Rebbi Nachman to resurrect some interest in the rich tradition of Jewish knowledge, Jewish sages.
thankyou so much again and again - your book gives me the material I can present at the synagogue here. I hope I can meet you someday, God willing.
Kathryn Seranduc ( Chana)


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