Zen and the Art of the BuJu

Where the Roads of Jewish and Buddhist Practice Meet

Now and Zen: This Buddhist temple, photographer in 1973 in Tatung, China, evokes a way of life that some see as surprisingly compatible with Judaism.
Getty Images
Now and Zen: This Buddhist temple, photographer in 1973 in Tatung, China, evokes a way of life that some see as surprisingly compatible with Judaism.

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 08, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

I admit, I am a BuJu.

Of course, I am not alone. Not only do a disproportionate number of American Buddhist teachers come from Jewish backgrounds, but many Jews practice both Judaism and Buddhism, and many more practice a Jewish spirituality influenced by Buddhist-derived meditation practices and values. The integration of Buddhist technologies of contemplative practice within Western spiritual paths is a widespread trend, and has been written about by many smart people, including Sylvia Boorstein, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Rodger Kamenetz, Brenda Shoshanna, Jeff Roth, Jonathan Slater and Judith Linzer.

Sociologically, BuJus are yet another subgroup of the iSpirituality generation, those millions of Americans who draw upon multiple religious or spiritual traditions, mixing and matching not according to preference but according to pragmatism. What works? What sources of spiritual wisdom help me create a world, and a way of living in it, that brings joy, justice, insight, peace and compassion?

But philosophically, the BuJu fusion is perhaps more subtle. The Buddhism most Westerners practice is, itself, a contemporary reformation of an ancient set of traditions. Indeed, it was largely created by American Jews, and as a result reflects their values. It is less devotional, less ritualistic, and less formal than Asian Buddhist traditions — including the root traditions in which these teachers were trained. Cocreated by Westerneres, it is often inflected by psychology, and is largely oriented toward worldly, not monastic, lives.

The Judaism I choose to practice is similarly reformed — not Reform, but re-formed, re-constructed, re-newed. Judaism provides a language of the sacred, a rhythm to my life, and a shared community of meaning. It’s also the most familiar; I grew up with it, and as a result it feels comfortable and natural. Jewish practice has also given me ways to encounter what some call the sacred or holy aspect of human experience. This aspect is always available, but usually, the mind is busy going somewhere else. The hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said: “The world is full of light and mysteries both wonderful and awesome, but our tiny little hand shades our eyes and prevents them from seeing.”

In this context, Buddhist meditation is one way to cultivate wonder at, and gratitude for being alive; religious reminders, signs and communities are others. Really, it’s a two-way street. Religious practices such as the reciting of blessings, introspection, and time that’s ritually set apart can function as forms of contemplative practice. And conversely, meditation can enhance religious life. In Jewish and kabbalistic traditions, meditation was often used as a preparation for other practices — prayer and Torah study, for example. The quiet mind absorbs sacred text much more readily than the busy mind does, and the presence of mind that comes from mindfulness (not a traditional Jewish practice, though certainly a contemporary one) also enables a richer, juicier gratitude for life’s many blessings. Indeed, for several years this was my main intention for mindfulness practice, and the subject of my first book, “God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice.”

As my Jewish and Buddhist practices evolved, though, a further resonance began to arise, with non-self as the essential point. This was the focus of my next book (“Everything is God”): that the God understood by (parts of) the Jewish mystical tradition is not some deity that does or does not exist, but as Ein Sof, the Endless, everything and nothing. For example, when Moses asks how he’s supposed to describe God, he gets the reply, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I am that I am.” Take out the pronoun, and you get “It is what it is.” Of course, many Jews have much more anthropomorphic notions, of a creator God, a judging God, a God who prefers Jews to everyone else, and so on. But this more mystical conception is as traditional a Jewish notion as theirs, and I feel little need to justify it.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • It’s over. The tyranny of the straight-haired, button nosed, tan-skinned girl has ended. Jewesses rejoice!
  • It's really, really, really hard to get kicked out of Hebrew school these days.
  • "If Netanyahu re-opens the settlement floodgates, he will recklessly bolster the argument of Hamas that the only language Israel understands is violence."
  • Would an ultra-Orthodox leader do a better job of running the Met Council?
  • So, who won the war — Israel or Hamas?
  • 300 Holocaust survivors spoke out against Israel. Did they play right into Hitler's hands?
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.