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.
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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.
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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.


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