An Open Letter to Buddhist Jews

I’ve been writing mental drafts of this letter ever since my estranged husband gave our youngest daughter a stone Buddha and told her to pray to it every day. Was this odd of him? No. Just spiteful. Although we had agreed to raise our children Jewish, he and his siblings are natives of Thailand, where the state religion is Theravada Buddhism. We met and were married in Japan, where most of the population are Mahayana Buddhists belonging to the Pure Land sect. If my children become Buddhists someday, it will not be out of a hankering for the exotic, but an embracing of an authentic part of their heritage. I consider Buddhism as worthy a religion as Judaism. In fact, many of the born and bred Buddhists I know (including my children’s paternal relatives), understand menshlichkeit as well as any Jew (in Thai it’s called namchai, in Japanese it’s called omoiyari). But if my kids left the People of Israel I would fear for their very souls.

This is because of an impression I received time and again in my twenties during travels in northeast and southeast Asia:

The most selfish, isolated people in the world are Westerners who leave their own religion to adopt Buddhism. At the time I could not explain why Buddhism, a religion that teaches Selflessness and extinguishing the ego, seemed to have this effect on its Western proselytes (but not its native-born followers). Now I think I know why.

The explanation lies with the major difference between Buddhism and Judaism. That crucial difference is not the one to which theologians often point: that the ultimate center in monotheism is God, whereas the ultimate center in Buddhism is Nothingness (although Jewish mystics might not draw as clear a distinction as this when they refer to God as ein sof, or “that without end”). No, the real difference between Buddhism and Judaism is down here on the ground amidst the pettiness and practicality of fundraising and committee meetings and carpools. Judaism (like her daughter religions, Christianity and Islam) is a congregational religion whereas Buddhism is not.

The congregation is the heart of the matter.

Western individualism needs to be tempered by a congregation, just as the individual-centered spirituality of Buddhism needs to be tempered (as it is actually in every Buddhist country in the world) by either Confucianism or local animistic religions. It is Buddhism’s “partner religions” that teach the relationship ethics like loyalty, self-sacrifice and civic responsibility that the otherworldly privacy of a Buddhist path can neglect. In both Japan and Korea, the average Buddhist practitioner intermingles the group-oriented teachings and holidays of both Confucius and the local shaman-priest with his or her Buddhism in a way that Jewish converts to Buddhism do not. In Thailand, families make daily offerings to both their private Buddhist alter and to their “spirit house” said to provide shelter to the community’s spirits. This is how East Asians find a balance between self-absorbed spirituality and its noisy partner, team-spirit. Buddhism alone does not provide the balance.

Interestingly, Western converts to Buddhism, many of them Jews, have shifted the worldwide emphasis in Buddhism from rejection of this world to something called “engaged Buddhism.” Engaged Buddhism encourages “bearing witness” to the suffering of the world by visiting sites like Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Nanjing, or sites of ecological devastation. But bearing witness falls far short of giving actual physical relief to the victims of suffering in the way that Christian and Jewish liberation theology encourages.

A Buddhist might argue that I’ve missed the point. One of the teachings of Buddhism is that this life is about suffering and, thus, that letting go of the ideal of social change or messianic utopianism is one of the prerequisites to accepting the dharma of suffering. In answer to this, I reply that Buddha taught compassion for all living things. Bearing witness is only a way of expressing sympathy, not acting with compassion, or in Hebrew, chesed. You need to be part of a community to practice compassion. You can find community in a multi-generational family that practices Confucianism or a village that practices animism, but not in Buddhism alone. Judaism provides both spiritual teachings, and (for better and for worse), the messy human community called the congregation in which we must practice what we preach.

I exempt my children from the next message of this letter: I believe that some Bu-Jews (who, unlike my kids, do not have a Buddhist parent) are attracted to Buddhism because it is exotic. I, too, have been guilty of pursuing the great Other (in other ways). My temperament loves surprise, the new, the unusual and I will always believe curiosity is a virtue. But I have learned, as you will have to learn for yourself (so don’t take my word for it), that the Other is only a way-station on the path to self-discovery and communal discovery. In fact, if you are honest, the exotic becomes a delay or even an escape from true discovery.

This is a shame because many of the “exotic” practices that draw Jews to Buddhism can be found in our own tradition. However, they are not mainstream and you may have to go a little further to find the right teacher and the right Jewish community. Don’t make the mistake my friend Jerry did. He complained that the Hebrew used in prayer was so difficult that it made him feel alienated from the service. So what did he do? He decided to seek out a Buddhist teacher who has him reciting the Buddhist sutras, which are Sanskrit syllables neither Jerry nor his teacher understand. Go figure.

An example of what I mean by an “exotic” practice that is also an authentic part of our own tradition is meditation. Some congregational rabbis and Jewish retreat leaders have begun re-introducing meditation into daily and Sabbath prayer because, although it had fallen into disuse, it is an authentic form of Jewish prayer. There is evidence that some standard prayers like the Amidah were once recited as mantras for meditation. Both Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide by Aryeh Kaplan (Schocken Books, 1989), and Renewing Your Soul: A Guided Retreat for the Sabbath and Other Days of Rest by David A. Cooper (Haiper San Francisco, 1995) serve as good, informed introductions to meditation.

There is a rebirth in the dissemination and study of Jewish mysticism, kabbalah. It uses mandalas, such as the ten sefirot, to help explain reality. It is even said that the star of David originated as a kabbalistic mandala. Many of the teachings of Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, offer advice on finding internal peace and personal growth, much as a Buddhist teacher would.

One of the most important ideals that you can find in Judaism owes its re-emphasis to the large number of Jews who have studied Buddhism or other Eastern disciplines and returned to the Congregation. English-speaking Buddhists call that ideal “mindfulness” while in Hebrew it is traditionally called kavannah. Performing something with kavannah, or mindful intent, means doing it with spirituality, with piety, with sincere devotion.

The People of Israel, your congregation, loses much when it loses some of its most sensitive spiritual seekers to Buddhism. But I believe that you, too, lose out. You lose the chance to be engaged in a religion that is facing its most pivotal century now. While the watersheds of most of the world religions happened centuries ago, two of the landmarks of Jewish history, the Holocaust and the rebirth of the State of Israel, have happened in the twentieth century.

This means your people is enjoying a time of great promise while suffering great pain. Let go of egotistical self-absorption and think about this: perhaps no people in this century are in greater need of what are called in Hebrew tzaddikim or in Sanskrit, boddhisatvas, than your own. Boddhisatvas, in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, were saintly people nearing the final stage of Enlightenment or nirvana, who temporarily forsook their own personal spiritual salvation in order to help the rest of their community first. I hope that, perhaps, some Jews who have studied Buddhism return to the Jewish community, like boddhisatvas, to share their insights. By this I do not mean proselytizing. Just as Jews for Jesus is not really Judaism, Buddhist yiddishkeit is not Judaism, either. What I do mean are Jews who can confront modern Jewish institutions over their lacks: their lack of emphasis on our meditative tradition; their lack of emphasis on the mystical tradition; their lack of emphasis on kavannah.

As Hillel said, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” I think of those words when I think of the brilliant, beautiful Jews who have shorn themselves of their Jewish community to pursue a more solitary search for spiritual answers. Hillel’s criticism, though, could also be leveled at non-Buddhist Jews who are simply unaffiliated. It could even be leveled at some manifestation of the Jewish Renewal Movement (which should claim most of the credit for intelligent Jewish response to Buddhism). After all, it was Arthur Waskow himself in Godwrestling/Round II who quotes his kids’ criticism of the movement for its lack of continuity, i.e., the adults’ emphasis on the adults’ interests exclusively.

Why is there such a tendency by many Jews to drift from the congregation? Everyone has their explanations. But in the end, to do what needs to be done, to raise a child, to bury our dead, to support our people when they are in distress spiritually, physically and (here’s where those annoying High Holy Day fundraising appeals come in) financially, in short, to practice our personal spirituality where it really counts, it “takes a village.” In the modern world, the Jewish congregation provides that village in the earthy, imperfect way that a Buddhist monastery or retreat cannot.

Michele Kriegman is a freelance writer at work on a book called Orphans, Adoptees & Test-Tube Babies.
Illustrations by Julie Flather-Zeitlin.