The Jewish-Buddhist Encounter

Both faith communities have something to teach the other.

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Beatnik-era BU-JUs were largely involved with Buddhism's Zen school of thought, the primary Buddhist expression then established in the United States and elsewhere in the West. That changed in the 1960s, when Tibetan and Theravadan (from southeast Asia) Buddhist teachers began moving to the West in substantial numbers.

Peace & Love in the 1960s

The Sixties zeitgeist, with its emphasis on experimentation, "peace and love," proved fertile ground for Buddhism. In addition to Buddhist teachers gaining followings in the West, large numbers of young Westerners began traveling to Buddhist lands seeking spiritual training. Jews such as Sharon Salzburg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Jeffrey Miller (now known as Lama Surya Das), Sylvia Boorstein, Helen Tworkov, Bernard Glassman, Charles Prebish, Daniel Goleman, and Rick Fields were among Buddhism's leading popularizers.

One Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trunpa, a wildly eccentric figure, said so many of his students were Jews that they formed the Oy Vey school of Buddhism. (David Rome, his one-time personal secretary, later headed Schocken Books, once his family's business and the renowned publisher of seminal Jewish writers such as Franz Kafka, Martin Buber, Elie Wiesel, and Gershom Scholem.)

In recent years, Glassman--Brooklyn-born and with more of a traditional background than most Jews who embraced Buddhism--has combined his Zen and Jewish backgrounds by leading meditation retreats at Auschwitz and other Holocaust sites. Glassman is also a leader in what is known as Engaged Buddhism, a Western innovation that combines Buddhism's peaceable nature with the Judeo-Christian emphasis on working on behalf of social justice.

Dialoguing with the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is Buddhism's best-known personality and is considered by believers to be a reincarnated "enlightened" being. But his Tibetan homeland is under China's tight military control, and his people are politically and culturally oppressed, with many having gone into forced exile. Seeking to learn the secret of long-term Jewish survival in Diaspora--a situation he foresees facing his people--the Dalai Lama has entered into an ongoing dialogue with various Jews--secular, Orthodox, and BU-JUs; theologians, social scientists, and writers--in an effort to help his people.

This dialogue has led to groups of Jews trooping to Dharamsala for meetings, and the Dalai Lama attending a Passover seder in Washington, D.C., organized by the Reform movement. Rodger Kamenetz's well-received The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India (1994) is an account of this ongoing dialogue's earlier days.

There are some who argue that the Tibetan Buddhist-Jewish encounter serves only to make Buddhism more acceptable to Jews. For his part, the Dalai Lama has said that he does not seek to convert Jews to Buddhism, but that he considers it his "responsibility" to instruct all who approach him seeking Buddhism's spiritual insights. Such statements do little to assuage the concerns of Jewish parents, communal leaders, and religious authorities that Buddhism is one more threat to Jewish continuity in an age of assimilation.

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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.