The Jewish-Buddhist Encounter

Both faith communities have something to teach the other.

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For American Buddhism, few dates have more significance than Sept. 26, 1893. It was on that day in Chicago that Anagarika Dharmapala, a Buddhist priest from Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), administered a Sanskrit oath to Charles T. Strauss to formally convert him to Buddhism--making Strauss the first non-Asian to do so on American soil. Rick Fields, who in 1981 published a seminal history of Buddhism's development in America, described Strauss' background as follows: "…of 466 Broadway, a New York City businessman, born of Jewish parents, not yet 30 years old, long a student of comparative religion and philosophy."

The Jewish Attraction to Buddhism

Fields was also a Buddhist who came from Jewish stock. His book, How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America, was published by Shambhala Publications, the Western world's leading publisher of books about Buddhism. Sam Bercholz and Michael Fagan--also Jews--started Shambhala in 1969 in Berkeley, California, where they owned a metaphysical bookstore.

Clearly, there's something about Buddhism that's attractive to a sizeable number of Jews, who by some estimates account for as many as a third of all non-Asian Buddhists in North America.

Nor is the phenomenon restricted to American Jews. Young Israeli backpackers by the thousands are known for making their way to Asia's Buddhist centers (which is why Chabad-Lubavitch stages large Passover seders in Katmandu and Bangkok), and no less a Zionist icon than David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, was a serious student of Buddhist meditation techniques. In 2001, The Jerusalem Report magazine noted that Israelis are drawn to Buddhism because they believe it offers a serene respite from the tension and violence they have known in Israel.

 

Bernard Glassman (right)--a Jew who has embraced Buddhism--and other members of the Peacemaker Community meditate at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Photo: Peter Cunningham and the Peacemaker Community

For traditionally religious Jews, engaging in Buddhist practices is a violation of the prohibition against avodah zarah, idol worship, and Jews who become Buddhists are apostates. Jewish groups--ranging from Jews for Judaism to Chabad-Lubavitch and Hillel--spend considerable time and energy trying to convince Jews attracted to Buddhism (and other non-Jewish paths) that whatever they are seeking can be found within Judaism. The current popularity of kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) as a Jewish alternative to Eastern spiritual thought and practices may be traced in part to this counter offensive. The same may be said for the acceptance in some Jewish circles--notably among Jewish Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, and liberal Conservative groups--of Buddhist meditation techniques introduced by Jews who learned them in the Buddhist world.

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Ira Rifkin

Ira Rifkin is a national correspondent for Religion News Service based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.