Eight Jewish Glimpses of Buddhism

Why Did Bodhidarma Come To The West?

June, 2005

Alan Lew

On a recent August evening, Zoketsu Norman Fischer and I addressed an audience of Zen monks and summer guests at the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a Buddhist monastery high in the Los Padres Mountains of central California. Between Labor Day and Memorial Day, the monks of Tassajara are sequestered off from the rest of the world to do their rather rigorous practice, but during the summer months, Tassajara supports itself by operating as a resort, staffed by these same monks. During the 1970’s, Norman and I both lived at Tassajara as monks, but as the 70’s gave way to the 80’s, our paths began to diverge. Norman continued in his Zen practice, eventually receiving transmission as a Zen master and becoming the Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, a large institution which includes a city center in San Francisco, a residential farm in Marin County and the Tassajara monastery itself. I, on the other hand, became interested in Judaism, went off to study for the rabbinate at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and in 1991, returned to San Francisco as the rabbi of a large Conservative congregation there.

Shortly thereafter, reunited and still motivated by our mutual passion for both meditation and Judaism, Norman and I embarked on an exploration of what Judaism and Buddhist Meditation might have to say to each other about spiritual practice. We did day long workshops, we did week long workshops; we held classes, and gave talks, and in all of these settings we did straightforward Jewish spiritual practice — prayer, Torah study and Shabbat — in combination with the kind of meditation we had learned as Zen students. It was a fruitful exploration and eventually led to our establishing a meditation center together — Makor Or in San Francisco.

But it began at Tassajara in the early 90’s. That was the locus of the very first week-long workshop we ever held. We have been holding such workshops at Tassajara ever since, and every time we do, it has been our custom to meet with the Zen students of Tassajara to explain our project to them and to give them a chance to ask us some questions. At first these meetings were very small and quite informal. They were held in the afternoon and attended only by a few of the Tassajara monks, and sometimes, by a few of our retreatants as well, largely, I think out of curiosity. Nowadays, these events are quite formal and well attended. They are held in the evening, and most of the Zen students, resort guests and retreatants attend, quite possibly for lack of an alternative.

But the questions remain remarkably similar from year to year. I am invariably asked by the monks what lack I found in Buddhism that caused me to abandon my ten year of practice at the Zen Center to take up Judaism. When I try to wriggle out of the question by pointing out that I took up Judaism because I felt positively drawn to it and not because I had found some fault in Buddhism, they never buy it. Well then tell us if you find something lacking in Buddhism anyway, they insist, irrespective of your feelings for Judaism. And finally, invariably, I am reduced to telling the truth. The only problem I perceive in Buddhism, I tell them, is that it makes perfect sense. Life, on the other hand, does not make much sense at all. The chaotic pulse of Jewish spiritual practice in general and of Jewish spiritual angst in particular seems to me to be closer to the experience of actually being alive, and, therefore, more useful to me as a spiritual practice. This answer usually provokes laughter, to my great relief. I would rather people think I was telling a joke, than that I was insulting them, regardless of what the truth of the matter might be.

Norman tends to get a different kind of question, and one that he fielded on this recent August evening at Tassajara was quite typical. A very young Caucasian man with an elaborate Japanese-style top-knot sitting on top of an otherwise shaven pate, asked the following question: As a Buddhist, he said, he had studied the Five Skandhas, and other similar doctrines, all of which had led him to the conviction that all forms of personal identification were essentially empty. What then could being Jewish possibly mean to Norman after so many years of Buddhist practice? When I woke up this morning, I was a man, Norman replied. Yesterday morning when I woke up I was also a man, and the same for every morning I can remember before that. On the other hand, when I look inside, I don’t see men, and I don’t see Jews either.”


I find it ironic, that Buddhism, which points so clearly and so relentlessly to our capacity to diminish life by reducing it to categories and constructs of our own devising, has itself fallen victim to the Western mania for categorization. Is Buddhism a religion? Is it a philosophy? Is it a spiritual practice? All of the above, I think, and none of the above as well.

Like all religions, Buddhism has a body of rituals, a sacred literature, and even, a vow of exclusive fealty — fealty to the Buddhist community (Sangha) to that communty’s doctrinal holdings (Dharma) and to the archetypal progenitor of those doctrines (Buddha). As the saying goes, if it looks like a religion, and it smells like a religion, better not step in it. What Buddhism does not have is a God or gods, and this causes some to question whether it is a religion or not. But it does have a Buddha, (several in fact) and a whole host of Divine Beings, Bodhisattvas, Arhats, etc. And while on the one hand, many Buddhists insist that Buddha is not a god, but merely a human being who discovered the way to the extinction of suffering, on the other, Buddha is clearly an object of worship and veneration. People bow to him, pray to him, make offerings to him and have iconic representations of him on altars in their homes. And while it is said by some that Bodhisattvas are not divine beings, but rather, merely embodiments, manifestations or personifications of psycho-spiritual states such as Rigor, Compassion and Wisdom, one might argue that the same could be said of the Angels of Judaism and Christianity, or of the members of the various Pantheons of the world, whether Greek, Indian or Tibetan. I think there is some disingenuousness in Buddhism’s reluctance to have itself seen as a religion, particularly in America where this reticence sometimes seems calculated to assuage the discomfort of American Christians and Jews who might be in need of some reassurance that they are not being disloyal to their native religions by taking up Buddhist practice. Still, it isn’t clear. Buddhism has some of the hallmarks of a religion, but not others.

Another a more serious point of confusion on this question, it seems to me, is that Buddhism, which tends to be somewhat logical and methodical in its formulation, and which does not often fall back on articles of faith to sustain either itself or its followers, often resembles a body of philosophy more than a religion. Buddhism is not essentially about professing either faith in or obedience to any being or creed; rather it is, at base, a methodology for the amelioration of suffering, The essential doctrine of Buddhism, shared by the vast preponderance of Buddhist schools (but not all of them) is crystallized in the Four Noble Truths. The first of these is that suffering, Ducha, is endemic to all life, an inevitable consequence of being. Birth, death, and life itself all involve suffering. We don’t get what we want, or worse, we do get it, and it’s a terrible disappointment. We can’t have what we want, or we are averse to what we do have. We want what we can’t have, or we spasm in fear that what we do have will be taken away from us. And so it goes. The second noble truth asserts that all this suffering is caused by Tanna, or selfish desire. It is the desire of the self to be what it is not, or to have what it does not have, or to be in some experience other than the one it is presently in, that causes us to suffer in the first place. And this is to say nothing of the self that has all this desire. It is an illusion, a construct, an imposition on reality, and the real root of suffering might not even be desire, but the invention of the self that does all this desiring. In any case, no particular experience causes us to suffer; rather it is the desire to have some other experience, to have things be somehow otherwise which does. We might be sitting in meditation experiencing a pain in our legs. It is only when we are fixated on making this pain stop or go away, on having things be somehow otherwise, that this sensation we call pain becomes suffering to us. If, on the other hand, we were able to inhabit this experience quite deeply, to be deeply present with it, we might experience it, not as suffering at all, but simply as sensation — as waves of energy coming up from our legs. We suffer because we are averse to unpleasant experiences and wish we weren’t having them and so fail to see them for what they are.

So far the news from the front has been rather grim; suffering is inevitable, and it seems to be caused by desire, a mysterious and inherent tic in the human psyche. But the Third Noble Truth brings some good news. This tic can be extinguished! How? This is the burden of the Fourth Noble Truth, also known as the Eightfold Noble Path, a series of eight imperatives which if practiced together constitute the Way to the extinction of desire. They are; Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.

Having reached this point, I think, our confusion only deepens. Is this a philosophy or a practice; an epistemology or a way of living? And here is still more fodder for our befuddlement; this may seem like a sufficiently simple proposition — we do these eight simple things correctly and our desire is extinguished. But the sad truth is, there have been dozens of schools of Buddhism over the centuries, and the vast majority of them have differed precisely on the nature of this path; on precisely what constitutes right speech, and right action; right livelihood and right mindfulness etc. etc.

So Buddhism, which certainly looks like a religion at first, turns, on closer inspection, into a philosophy. But before we can pin this wonderful philosophy down, it morphs into a practice; a way of living. Yet as soon as we embark upon this way, it becomes so indistinct that it seems to fall away before our eyes.


And of course, one is obliged to ask; is it good for the Jews? How does Buddhism look from the Jewish point of view? Is it beneficial to the Jewish spirit or does it somehow threaten it? Are Buddhism and Judaism similar in their aims, or do they work at cross purposes to one another. On the one hand, one would have to say that the basic program of Buddhism — the amelioration of suffering — is not the basic program of Judaism. If I had to stand on one foot and say what the basic program of Judaism was, I would say it was the realization of the sacred in every moment of our lives–bringing the holy into every moment of our experience; realizing the image of the divine in the people around us, and the food we eat and the world we inhabit. One the other hand, could we ever say that Judaism is completely uninterested in the problem of human suffering? And would we want to say that its view of suffering is radically different from the Buddhist view? I myself would not say this. In fact, it seems to me that the very first story we tell ourselves (after we’ve set up the scenery of course), the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, is simply an illustrated version of the Four Noble Truths; the story of two people who have been given everything they want, but who seem to have an endemic need for the one thing they have not been given, an impulse which gives rise to a world full of suffering and death. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that if one does in fact realize the sacred in the moment of life, than one is far less likely to regard that moment as unsatisfactory and to wish to inhabit some other moment instead.

So there is some very fundamental consonance, but is there also a dissonance? This question is complicated by the incredible diversity of form in which the Buddhist spiritual impulse has expressed itself in the various times and places of its being. Buddhism has an exceedingly odd history. It burst upon India, seemingly out of nowhere, in the 5th Century B.C. E., took over India lock, stock and barrel, then slowly began to weaken there, and to move on to China — Why did Bodhidarmha come from the West? Who knows? But come from the West he did, and along the way, Buddhism engulfed most of Southeastern Asia and all of China as well. Eventually, it began to die out in China, and to move to Japan. Today, Japanese Buddhism is quite stagnant, and American Buddhism is on the ascendancy; young, vital and thriving, while the religions which have traditionally monopolized American culture look on nervously from the sidelines. I find this historical movement exceedingly strange, don’t you? Who is the director of this arresting pageant? Why did Bodhidharma come from the West, indeed? And what makes it all the more interesting, is that almost from the very beginning, Buddhism adopted an open and tolerant stance towards the home religions of the countries it found itself consuming. Rather than setting itself against these religions, it preferred to swallow them whole. In India, it certainly had an argument with Hinduism about the existence of Atman or self-nature (Buddhism was against it; believing the whole idea of the soul, or the self to be a reification, the mind’s imposition of pattern and meaning on a rise and fall of phenomena that had, in fact, neither pattern nor meaning) but it happily co-opted much of the Hindu Pantheon, and a host of Hindu rituals as well. Buddhism became both simpler and earthier in China after happily absorbing both Taoism and Confucianism, two of the simplest and earthiest religions on the planet. It adopted the former’s mysticism — a healthy respect for the bare-boned unknowable-ness of it all — and the latter’s clarity whole cloth. Then it moved on to Japan where Dogen Zen-ji, who insisted on the primacy of practice and the renunciation of all received ideas, turned all that wonderful clarity on its head.

This is to say nothing of the various colorations Buddhism took on in the smaller nations of Asia, like Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Viet Nam. Tibet provides one of the most striking examples of this phenomenon. The religion that preceded Buddhism in Tibet was the cult of Bon, a very colorful and ancient magical religion, based like many such, on the annual festive erection of a creation pole. Tibetan Buddhism is full of magic; magical incantations, visualizations of deities, Mantras, Tankas, prostrations by the thousands, and a re-incarnated religious hierarchy.

So when one asks the question of whether or not Buddhism and Judaism are compatible with each other, one has to first ask, which Buddhism? (And I suppose it might be useful to ask which Judaism as well.) If one is talking about the austere, value free mindfulness practice of Zen or Vipasana, it is hard to see a problem. In these settings, Buddhism has principally concerned itself with the cultivation of awareness. If someone wants to say that the cultivation of awareness is somehow incompatible or threatening to Judaism, I think they really need to take a closer look at what they are saying. On the other hand, a Jew might be forgiven, in my view, if he felt uncomfortable visualizing the host of heavenly and demonic beings Tibetan Buddhism asks him to visualize, or reciting its Mantras, or doing prostrations by the thousands, whether in the direction of a statue of the Buddha or not.


Although it must be said, that the question of the statue of the Buddha is not only a problem in Tibetan Buddhism, it is a problem (for Jews in any case) in virtually all forms of Buddhism, and the name of that problem is Avodah Zarah, or idol worship. Avodah Zarah is one of the great taboos of the Jewish tradition, right up there with murder and adultery as one of the three cardinal sins. This prohibition goes back to the second commandment; “You shall have no other Gods before me. You shall not make any statue nor any picture of anything in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the sea below the earth. You shall not bow down to them nor worship them, for I am the Lord Your God…”. One could and probably should entertain all kinds of ideas about the significance of this prohibition, but before, after and while doing so, it is important to acknowledge that the prohibition is against making a statue and bowing down to it. There is no particular belief either required or forbidden here, but rather, two prohibited actions; making and bowing. This, in fact, is characteristic of Classical Judaism and a major source of its early argument with Christianity; Judaism emphasizes the value of action, of concrete behavior over faith or belief (ironically, this is one of the strongest points of agreement between Judaism and Zen, especially the Zen of Dogen-zenji with its radical assertion of the primacy of praxis over belief.). Consequently, it is not very helpful to tell an observant Jew that it’s really all right for him to engage in a prohibited practice because it doesn’t really mean what he thinks it means. It isn’t the meaning of the act that is prohibited; it is the act itself. So it doesn’t really solve anything to tell an observant Jew that its all right for him to bow to a Buddha, since in doing so, he is not bowing down to a god, but rather, he is bowing to the Buddha — to the potential for awakening — within himself. It is the act of bowing to an image — a statue, or a picture — of anything in heaven above or on the earth below or on the sea below the earth, that is prohibited, not a person’s idea of what that act might mean.

And again, no one would understand this better than Dogen-zenji. In “Recommending Zazen For All People”, Dogen introduces his very detailed instructions for the act of sitting in Zen meditation with the following words; “Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.” Then follow seven paragraphs of detailed instructions in the act of sitting still, Dogen continues as follows; “Thus do not be concerned with who is wise and who is foolish. Do not discriminate the sharp from the dull. To Practice wholeheartedly is the true endeavor of the way.” So like Classical Judaism, Dogen is not concerned with any wisdom we might draw from the act, nor any discrimination we might make about it, nor any phrases or words we might apply to it; he is only interested in the act itself. The act itself — sitting — is the true endeavor of the way. The act itself causes the body-mind to drop away and your original face to appear. In the case in question, the act itself is refraining from bowing before an image — not any idea or understanding or words we might utter about that act.

Having said all this, I must also report to you, that there is a considerable gulf between my own beliefs in this matter — which I have enumerated for you in the preceding paragraph — and my actual practice. When I returned to Tassajara to do my first Jewish/Buddhist retreat in the early 90’s some twenty years after I had lived there, I felt uncomfortable about entering the meditation hall, precisely because in order to do so, I would have had to bow down to a large and beautiful statue of the Buddha. I am sure no one would have stopped me had I entered the meditation hall without bowing, but I felt it would have been disrespectful to do so, so I chose not to meditate in the Zendo at all, in spite of the fact that this halachic problem aside, I felt a great longing to do so. Some of the deepest moments of my life had occurred in that room. Sitting in a glowing half-light, in a large room full of people who have devoted considerable energy and commitment to the practice of sitting, with the ceaseless rush of the Tassajara Creek and the chirping of crickets in one’s ears, and the fragrance of incense in one’s nostrils, is, for me, one of life’s great pleasures. Nevertheless, I resisted this longing at first on Halachic principal. Halacha (Jewish Law) defined my practice as a Jew the same way sitting zazen had defined my practice as a Zen Buddhist, and my practice as a Jew prohibited me from bowing before an image. This was an image. End of discussion. We were meditating for several hours every day in our workshops out in a yurt that had no Buddha in it anyway, and that would have to be sufficient for me, and for a while it was. But we returned to Tassajara for these workshops year after year, and eventually, my longing got the best of me. After five years or so, I began to sit in the Zendo, bowing to the Buddha as perfunctorily as I could on my way in. How did I justify this? I did not justify it at all. I merely regarded it as an imperfection in my practice. There are 613 commandments. No one can perform them all. This would simply be one among many others that I wasn’t living up to. As much as I enjoyed meditating in the Zendo, the bowing bothered me considerably at first, but then less and less as the years went on, and lately, not at all. There is a famous Zen story about two monks, members of a sect which forbade the touching of women under any circumstances. On a journey together, they came upon a river where a recent flood had washed out the bridge that used to carry travelers cross it. A woman stood helplessly by the bank of river having no idea how she would get across. Without a moment’s hesitation, one of the monks picked the woman up, hoisted her on his shoulders and carried her across the river. He and his friend continued on their journey in silence, and after several hours, the second monk said to the first; “How could you touch that woman like that? It’s forbidden for us to do so.” “Are you still carrying that woman?” the first monk replied. “I put her down hours ago.”


Having begun with the second commandment, perhaps we should work our way back to the first; I am the Lord Your God, arguably not a commandment at all, but rather, a statement about the primacy of God in the Jewish spiritual hierarchy, and perhaps an imperative that it must be so for all who take up this practice in truth. But where does God stand in Buddhism, or is Buddhism fundamentally atheistic, as many believe it to be? In my experience of Buddhism, it is not atheistic at all; it is simply uninterested in the question of God, because it doesn’t see this question as being germane to the central concern of Buddhism, which is the amelioration of suffering. A disciple of Buddha’s once asked him whether God existed or not. Buddha replied with a parable. There was once a man who was shot with a poison arrow. A doctor came to treat him and immediately tried to remove the poison arrow, but the man wouldn’t let him. I won’t let you take the arrow out until you tell me who shot it, and what kind of poisons are on it, and in what province these poisons can be obtained. These are not questions that are likely to save you, the doctor replied. It is the same with your question about God, Buddha said. It is not a question tending towards enlightenment. Work out your own salvation.

But having acknowledged the Classical Buddhist indifference towards the question of God, I also must say that my own experience, like that of Thomas Merton and many other theists before me, is that the Zen meditation — an experience which carries one into a more primal kind of existence where the unknowable becomes both more palpable and more mysterious at the same time — only serves to both deepen and broaden my own sense of being in the presence of God.

In a passage from the Zohar [1] — an interpretation of Adam’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden — the Zohar turns a famous Biblical passage on its head. “And He cast out the man…” (In Hebrew, Vay’garesh et Ha-adam…) We usually read these words to indicate that God (the silent and invisible “He” of this sentence) cast out the man. But the Zohar points out that the Hebrew might also legitimately be read to suggest that that the man cast out the “et”. The Hebrew locative “et” has no meaning. It is simply a marker indicating the object of direct action. But precisely because it means nothing, and because it consists of both the first and last letters of the Hebrew Alphabet (like the famous Greco-Christian Alpha and Omega), in Jewish Mysticism, this “et” came to indicate the formless emptiness that contains everything and gives everything meaning and vitality, a concept very close to shunyata — the boundless, powerful emptiness that lies close to the core of Japanese Zen.

The force of this teaching, therefore, is that Adam was cast out of paradise — out of a direct relationship with the Divine — because he had lost touch with the Mystery; the unknowable emptiness that lies at the heart of all being. How does one get back in touch with this Mystery? Through another Mystery of equal profundity; the mystery of human presence. I used the phrase “the unknowable emptiness that lies at the heart of all being” advisedly. If Adam had lost touch with the “et”, with the Alpha and Omega, with the all-inclusive and fundamentally unknowable mystery of being, it was because he’d first lost touch with being itself. As meditation teaches us, we spend most of our time, not in being, but in ideas and language about being. But when we sit in meditation, when we focus our awareness on the actual experience of being present, on this present moment of breath and body, on the unmediated moment of being itself rather than some idea of that moment, the “et” of that moment, the inexorable and charged emptiness at its core, begins to emerge of its own accord. As Dogen-zenji would have it, the act of sitting in silence causes “the body-mind to drop away and your original face to appear.” What I would say, is that only in silence, only in the fullness and purity of simply being, only in the nakedness of existence, can we feel God to be present. And in my experience, there is no surer medium for this kind of silence, this naked being, than the kind of meditation I learned as a Zen Buddhist and still practice now.

Nachman of Bratslav, the great Hassidic Mystic, also focuses on the creation story and comes to a similar conclusion. Why did God use a different method for creating human beings, than for all the rest of creation, Nachman asks? [2] Why did God speak everything else into creation, but bring human beings to life by breathing the Divine Breathe into their nostrils? Because, Nachman asserts, the breath is a special connection between God and humanity, the medium for pure, unmediated being, the passageway to that realm of experience which is more primary and deeper and more complete than language and form. Like the “et”, the breath connects us to the thing itself and not to the idea or the word for the thing; the breath connects us to the present tense reality of the moment and not some formal representation of that moment. No wonder the Buddhist Sutra “On the Four Foundations of Mindfulness” begins with the suggestion that we focus on the breath. The Breath is the gateway to the transcendent — and although the Buddhists would never use such language — the gateway to God as well, to the infinite unknowable.

God lives in the moment of being — a moment that is, according to God’s own testimony, God’s very name, God’s own self-identifier. When Moses asks God for the Divine name at the burning bush, it is instructive first of all, to consider what God does not say. God does not say, ‘I am Vengeance’, ‘I am anger’, ‘I am hierarchical’, nor even, ‘I am male’: There are many very bad ideas about God in the Bible, most of them humanly generated. But here, I think, we find a very good idea. God replies, “ehiyeh asher ehiyeh” (Exodus 3:14), a cryptic phrase meaning, “I am that I am”, or “I will be what I will be”. The reason for this confusion of tense is that the verb “ehiyeh” means “to be in the present tense”, but it is rendered here in an odd grammatical form Hebrew Grammarians call the Present Perfect, a verb form denoting being in an experience of the present moment so intense and expansive that it includes both past and future being as well. “Ehiyeh” has the body of a Hebrew present tense verb, but its prefix is one usually found in future tense verbs and its suffix is typical of the past tense. This verb seems to indicate something like Aristotle’s absolute present moment a moment in which one is so thoroughly present one can feel the past still reverberating there, and the future continuously rising up out of it as well. In a passage from the Mishnah (Pirke Avot 2:13), the rabbis are asked to name the most important quality that a human being can have. One of the rabbis says, “a good heart”; another, “a good mind”. But my favorite response is that of Rabbi Shimon, who says that the most important quality for a person to have, is “ha-roeh et ha-nolad” — the capacity to see existence continuously being born out of the present moment; the future continuously rising up out of the present.

In short, the verb “ehiyeh” seems to indicate the Mystical moment, the moment of transcendent encounter, and most certainly, the moment that meditation carries us into. God lives in this moment, so to enter the present moment of our experience is to enter into encounter with God. It is to enter a realm beyond form and its chief implements, language and time. It is to enter a realm of absolute being and continuous process, a realm where our primary relationship is not to the name for the thing, but to the thing itself, and not merely to the body of the thing, but to the light around the body as well, to the radiance which expresses both mystery and meaning — and by meaning, I am not referring to the reason for this thing’s being nor anything else we might express about it in a sentence, declarative or otherwise, but rather to a sense of its perfection; its necessary and inevitable place in the Mystery of inter-being; its liberation from being a thing to begin with.

So when the Buddha deflects his student’s question about God, I don’t take him to be rejecting the experience of God at all. It isn’t the experience of God that he finds a waste of time; it’s the naming of God. It’s reducing the powerful emptiness of being to a word. It isn’t that he doesn’t care about the experience of God, it’s just that he doesn’t want us to get lost in what we call that experience.


In my experience, Buddhism and Judaism have the capacity to both challenge and nourish each other. They are not the same, but neither are they fundamentally incompatible. The question that young man with the top-knot at Tassajara asked Norman that August evening infuriated me at first. Remember that question? “As a Buddhist, I have studied the Five Skandhas, and other similar doctrines, all of which have led me to the conviction that all forms of personal identification are essentially empty. What then could being Jewish possibly mean to you after so many years of Buddhist practice?” What arrogance, I thought. How dare he use the technical language of one religious culture to dismiss another religion out of hand (a common distortion of Buddhist thought, by the way, particularly among those who are still in the early throes of infatuation with Buddhist ideology.)

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was responding to the common idea in our culture of what Judaism was, a view, by the way, shared by the overwhelming majority of Jews and non-Jews alike today. Most people view Judaism as an ethnicity, a culturally derived form of identification. And Buddhism really does challenge us to question identities formed on this basis. And I think that at base, I agree with Buddhism on this point. Such identifications, no matter how strongly felt, are, in fact, essentially empty. This is my experience anyway. Like Norman, when I look inside, I don’t see Jews; but I do feel myself to be possessed of a Jewish soul. I feel myself to be connected to the stream of spiritual consciousness from which the Jewish people have been addressing The Infinite for the past several thousand years. Is there a deeper manifestation of being than this about which not even this much could be said; one shared, at base, by all human beings whether they are aware of it or not? Probably so. According to Jewish Mysticism, the soul is not a single thing, but a graded continuum, on which five milestones — Nefesh, Neshamah, Ruach, Chiyah and Y’chidah — can be identified as we work our way up from our embodied being, to the Ein Sof, the witheringly unknowable realm of God’s essential nature. Close to the summit of this configuration, there is an irreducable radiance with no characteristics at all, Jewish or otherwise, but the recognizably Jewish gradations of soul offer a useful path for getting there. (On another path, these intermediary levels might have a different kind of feel altogether, and on still another, there might be no path at all — no levels, and nowhere to go in the first place.). But you don’t have to go nearly that far before a sense of Jewish cultural identity begins to fall away. That happens almost as soon as we “take the backward step and turn the light inward,” as Dogen-zenji implores us to do; as soon as we sit still, quiet ourselves, and let the truth of our inner life begin to emerge.

But if Judaism is not a culturally mediated identity, what precisely is it? I would say it is two things; it is an expression not of culture, but of soul, and it is a practice. Practice nourishes the soul, and the soul is infinite, enduring far beyond personal identity, cultural or otherwise. A Judaism grounded in soul and in practice — in spiritual practice, to put it more simply — can not be so easily waved off by some wisenheimer kid in a top-knot.


Coming to Judaism after ten years of Zen Buddhist practice, it was readily apparent to me that the missing key to American Judaism was spiritual discipline. In Zen, the fundamental discipline — the sine qua non of our practice — had been zazen; sitting practice. We arose to sit zazen at five o’clock every morning, and we sat for several hours a day (that is when we weren’t at the monastery or on a retreat, in which case we sat for much longer periods of time.) Sitting in a still and balanced position without moving for hours at a time is a difficult art, one requiring considerable discipline to develop. Watching the truth of our life arise without flinching or running away from it is an even more demanding discipline. Coming to Judaism after ten years of this, it was quite clear to me, that Judaism was essentially a spiritual discipline too — a practice as gratifying and as deep and as demanding as any on the planet. The problem was that very few Jews seemed to be engaged in this practice. People would say to me, “Judaism doesn’t feel very spiritual to me.” “Do you pray every day?” I would ask. “No,” they would say. “Do you study Torah regularly?” “No.” “Do you observe Shabbat?” “Not really.” The problem was that Jews by and large don’t practice the spiritual discipline of Judaism, yet they were disappointed — even angry — that Judaism doesn’t feel very spiritual to them. How spiritual would Buddhism feel, one might ask, without meditation? The lineaments of Jewish practice are defined by the mitzvoth — a series of obligatory behaviors which connect us to the will and the presence of God — but ours is an age that regards the word “obligation” primarily as a pejorative.

At Makor Or, the meditation center Norman and I founded together in San Francisco, we set about to practice not one, but two spiritual disciplines together on a serious, daily basis. Every morning at six a.m., we gathered to meditate together for an hour. Then at seven, we would go next door to my synagogue to participate in the rather traditional daily prayer minyan that took place there. Most of the people who came to Makor Or were either completely unfamiliar with traditional Jewish spiritual practice, or had been turned off by it at some point in their lives. Some were positively allergic to any manifestation of the Jewish religion — to Hebrew, to the synagogue, to rabbis. Yet meditation opened many of them profoundly to the endlessly rich experience of Jewish prayer. Sensitized by meditation to a subtler kind of awareness, they suddenly began to notice a kind of primal, non-verbal power lurking just below the surface of the prayer service — a realm of experience more primary and deeper and more complete than the language and form of the service.

Drawn by this unutterable silence at the core of the service, many of them stayed with it until they had figured out how to do the service; until they had taught themselves the language and the structure of the service, one day, one word, one section at a time. Discipline may have been the missing key to Jewish spiritual practice, but this unnamable, ineffable sense of soul at its center was the missing key to spiritual discipline. Without this sense, discipline was just an unpleasant stringency imposed from the outside; with it, it was simply the desire of a lover to be with the object of her love.

And as always must be the case with true love, it was a two way street. During the early years of Makor Or, I must admit that I was primarily interested in the effect that meditation had on Jewish practice, and that effect was profound indeed; meditation seemed to open people not only to the silent core of Jewish prayer, but also to the subtle way that the Torah communicates with us — words and phrases which may have been utterly opaque to us before, suddenly leaping up out of the page at us, illuminated as if by an inner light, and then mysteriously reappearing as we went about our lives — and in the not so subtle transformation from doing to being that took place at the end of every week as they began to take the practice of Shabbat more seriously. But as the years went by, we began to notice that Judaism was also having an impact on our meditation practice. Our meditation practice was value neutral to be sure — a daily dip into the blessed pool of emptiness — but prayer and Torah Study and Shabbat were beginning to leak back into our meditation, so that we were beginning to think of the mental and spiritual states we were experiencing there in terms of Jewish liturgy and Torah.

And God was beginning to leak into this practice too. There are several versions of Jewish Meditation abroad in the land at the moment. There is our version; the daily, disciplined practice of the same kind of meditation we freely admit we learned from Zen Buddhism, in co-ordination with the equally disciplined practice of Jewish Spirituality. Then there is a kind of retreat oriented, Vipasana style Jewish Meditation that tends to be practiced in combination with the emerging spiritual forms of Jewish Renewal. There are also attempts afoot to recast Kabalistic and Chasidic motifs in the form of visualizations and mantras and to make them the focus of sitting meditation. But it is becoming increasingly clear to me that what all these various experiments in Jewish Meditation have in common, and what finally distinguishes them from Buddhist Meditation, is that Jewish Meditation always seems to involve God in some way; for some meditation may invoke the presence of God, for others the discovery of the limitations of self, and the nascent suspicion that there is, in fact, something beyond; for some, God comes into meditation as an unnamable and empty sense of absence, , for others as a boundlessness; for some God is the object of skepticism, anger and disbelief, for others, exaltation. The relationship between God and Jewish Meditation is entirely unclear and utterly inescapable.


And finally, the $64,000 question; can one be a Buddhist and a Jew at the same time? I have spoken before hundreds of groups about meditation in a Jewish context over the last twenty years, and I believe I can count the number of times this question has failed to come up on the fingers of one hand. The problem is, it’s the wrong question. Can someone be both a Jew and Buddhist? Objectively speaking, of course they can and the simple proof of this is that many people are. In point of fact, some of my best friends are Bu-Jews, as it has become fashionable to call people who insist on holding onto both identifications simultaneously. But the better question would be, is it a good idea? Does it work to be a Jew and a Buddhist at the same time? And here, I’m afraid, the answer is somewhat more complicated. I think that what many Bu-Jews mean when they insist that they can and will remain both Jewish and Buddhist, is that they intend to hold onto to both an ethnically derived loyalty to the Jewish people, and their Buddhist spiritual practice, or to use that supremely annoying and insulting Bu-Jew rubric, “their Jewish roots, and their Buddhist wings.” Clearly, the “Jew” side of the Bu-Jew equation, represents to them some kind of communal, or tribal or family connection, while the “Bu” side is the sincere, spiritual part. There is in fact a strong communitarian and family impulse in Judaism, and although it is often mistaken by both Jews and non-Jews alike as a kind of tribalism, it is really an expression of Judaism’s insistence that the locus of its core spiritual impulse is both transpersonal and transgenerational. Judaism can not be practiced alone; it requires both a family and a community, because like Buddhism, Judaism has a clear sense of the limits and the fundamental emptiness of the individual, particularly in the spiritual arena. At the ceremony marking Norman’s ascent to the dharma chair as Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, a visiting member of the Japanese Zen hierarchy remarked with pleasure that he had never witnessed an installation ceremony before in which family and community had been such conspicuous elements. Norman had arranged to have several of the children of Zen center ask him questions as part of the installation, and before he spoke himself, he was introduced by his wife, who gave a lovely talk comparing Norman to a gorilla at the zoo she was particularly fond of. The Japanese dignitary saw all this as a salutary sign of the impact the American experience had had on Buddhism, but I said to myself, no! It’s a sign of the impact that Jews have had on Buddhism. Family spiritual practice — the celebration of Shabbat and Holidays, the family table, the responsibility of the family for the religious education of its children– has always been at the heart of the Jewish spiritual enterprise. There is no monasticism in Judaism. Jews have never put family life on one side of the ledger and spiritual practice on the other. For Jews, they are one and the same. Family and community are not merely roots; they are also wings, part and parcel of a rich and profound and ancient spiritual practice that has the capacity not only to ground us, but to help us reach for heaven as well. For what does it mean after all to fly in the spiritual sense, if not to go beyond the narrow bounded-ness of the self and to feel apart of something larger?

So can one be a Buddhist and a Jew at the same time? Should one be? I think that questions like this can only be asked from way back behind the evolutionary curve. Mcluhan is out of date; we no longer live in a global village. We live in a global apartment house, and the walls are very thin, and we can hear each other through these walls. We no longer live in a world full of hermetically sealed religions, each of them jealously guarding its own secrets from the encroachment of the other. The truth is, we never lived in such a world; we only imagined we did. We were always touching each other, influencing each other, changing each other far more than we cared to admit. But it’s not even possible to pretend anymore. We can hear each other through the walls! So how can religion be practiced in this brave new world of total and instant communication where exclusion and exclusivity, which once seemed so essential to the religious enterprise, are no longer even physically possible? I think that at Makor Or, we have unwittingly stumbled upon one answer to this question. The Vilna Gaon used to say that God gave a unique wisdom to each of the peoples of the world, and that the Messiah would finally come when all the people of the world got together and shared this wisdom. Each of us has a small but indispensable fragment of the whole. The disparate religions and spiritual paths of the world have a profound capacity to nourish each other, to provide each other with precisely what they are missing as separate entities. And because we can nourish each other, we must do so, but it is my experience that this kind of sharing works best when we are very clear about our primary spiritual commitment, about which path is being nourished and which is doing the nourishing. I believe in both the integrity and the particularity of paths. If we aren’t clear about our primary path, we lose discipline and fall into a kind of syncretism, and end up going nowhere. I am absolutely clear that my primary spiritual path is Judaism, and because of this clarity, I feel free to use a meditation practice I know very well that I learned from the Buddhists to nourish this path; to remind me that it is primarily a path of discipline, and to reorient me towards its forgotten inner dimensions. And my dear friend Norman is primarily committed to the Buddhist path, a commitment which gives him to the freedom to enjoy his passion for Jewish spirituality and to use the best wisdom Judaism has to offer to help him reform Buddhism once again so that it can take a firm root in its new western soil.

Why did Bodhidharma come to the West? Perhaps it was so that Buddhism could develop its own form of the Bar Mitzvah, and so that Jews could finally know what was really meant when God said “I am that I am! I will be what I will be.”

[1] Sefer Zohar, Bereshit, 53B (The Book of Splendor, Genesis, Page 53, Side B.)

[2] Likutey Moharan, Chapter 8. Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810), the great-grandson of the founder of Chasidic Judaism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, was himself one of two or three most influential figures in this movement. He was a tormented genius (many modern scholars see the mark of acute depression in the details of his biography) who rose above his suffering to propose a profoundly spiritual version of Jewish practice which continues to inspire today. Likutey Moharan is the primary collection of his teachings.