The Jewish-Buddhist Encounter

Both faith communities have something to teach the other.

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.

Jews Alienated From Judaism

Of course, traditional prohibitions are generally of little concern to those Jews attracted to Buddhism, because most come from secular or liberal religious backgrounds in which the power of traditional sanctions has largely lost its authority. It’s fair to say that many who feel the pull toward Buddhism are profoundly alienated from Judaism and in search of a new spiritual home purposely far from whatever patina of Jewish culture they have know. But why Buddhism?

One major reason is Buddhism’s non-theistic nature. Buddhism says there is no God in any Judaic sense of the word, thereby making it easier for Jewish agnostics and atheists to embrace it without having to undergo a fundamental shift in their theological worldview.

Also making it easier is that Jews and Buddhists have no history of communal conflict, and that the charge of ingrained anti-Semitism has never been leveled against Buddhism.

Moreover, one does not have to formally convert to Buddhism to accept Buddhist thought or engage in the most common Buddhist practices, such as sitting or walking meditation. This allows those suspicious of any religious affiliation to in a sense have their cake and eat it too. It also allows those who remain connected to Judaism and Jewish culture to avoid the taboo of conversion while satisfying a desire for exotic spiritual exploration.

Additionally, comparative religion scholars note that Buddhism is perhaps the most psychologically attuned of the major religions. (Some even argue that Buddhism is more a philosophy or set of techniques for achieving psychological stability than a religious expression). For those contemporary Jews raised more in the company of Freud than Moses, this is yet another attraction to Buddhism.

Some observers also note that Judaism and Buddhism share an understanding of the nature of suffering. For Jews, suffering has been an unfortunate constant throughout their history, culminating in the Holocaust and infusing contemporary Jewish culture with a theology of suffering to the extent that even alienated Jews have imbibed it. Buddhism, meanwhile, anchors its vision of religious salvation in the question of suffering–both its cause and cure–teaching that putting aside expectations of desired outcomes alleviates spiritual suffering. The Jerusalem Report quoted one Israeli living in Dharamsala–the town in north India now home to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist political and spiritual leader–as saying: “It’s so Jewish, you see, to always talk about suffering, as Buddhists do.”

Charles T. Strauss may have been the first Jewish Buddhist–often referred to in Buddhist circles as “BU-JUs,” or, alternatively, “JU-BUs”–but it was during the 1950s and the era of the beatniks that the attraction of Jews to Buddhism first grabbed popular attention. Leading the way was poet Allen Ginsberg, who infused his often-outrageous work with Jewish imagery and Yiddish expressions (among his best-known works was Kaddish, about his mother’s insanity and death), while extolling Buddhist, and, to a lesser degree, Hindu, spirituality.

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.

Others, such as Kamenetz, argue that most Jews who dip into Buddhism eventually return to the religion and culture of their birth–although generally changed by the experience. Instead of condemning this spiritual wandering, Kamenetz argues, the Jewish community should emphasize its willingness to welcome home its prodigal seekers and the wisdom they have gathered. One such returnee is Rabbi Alan Lew, the ex-director of the Berkeley Zen Center, who since 1991 has led San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue. He recounts his spiritual development in One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi (1999), ending with his teshuvah, or return to Judaism.

Lew concludes his book by talking about how a decade of intense Zen Buddhist meditation “illuminated” his unconscious and enabled him to deal with “that pain” that kept him from growing spiritually. What surprised him, Lew wrote, “was how Jewish so much of this unconscious material was–how much of my unconsciousness was absorbed with the Jewishness I had held at distance for so long.”

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