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Shmoozing the Dharma, Davening on the Sly

While fierce February winds howled outside as another week of winter’s deep freeze began, inside a meditation hall in Barre, Mass., 100 people sat silently, many wrapped in blankets. Some cross-legged and others in chairs were part of a weeklong silent metta retreat hosted by the Insight Meditation Society, based in this north-central Massachusetts town. Metta, an ancient Pali word for “loving kindness” (khesed, in the Jewish tradition), was the vehicle for the week-long meditative practice.

Metta practice is essentially a path to greater purification of the spirit. A practitioner offers a set of phrases of well-being to himself, a benefactor, a friend who is doing well, one who is not doing well, a neutral person, a difficult person and groups of beings, leading to wishes of well-being for all the beings in the universe and beyond. Its purpose is to make one’s heart friendly and open to the deep interconnectivity of all life. (Imagine if the Dalai Lama could get President Bush and Saddam Hussein to sit in metta mediation for a week, a day, an hour!)

The days of noble silence were augmented by “dharma talks” from the four teachers of this particular retreat. The special attraction was that two of the teachers, Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, helped found the center 27 years earlier. Both of these teachers travel the world espousing a Western brand of South East Asian Theravada Buddhism, which they were responsible for establishing and nurturing in the United States along with about a dozen other teachers, mostly of Jewish background.

Based upon the names listed on the bulletin boards for the various interviews offered during the week, I surmised that about one-quarter of the attendees were of Jewish origin.

This disproportionate number of Jews at a Buddhist retreat is not uncommon. Buddhism, particularly in this de-culturalized and highly psychologized setting, offers a tremendous opening to the exploration of our mind and its ever-changing terrain. The Insight Meditation Society teachers are dedicated to interpreting the traditional texts of Buddhism for our times and preach a morality akin to the teachings of many of Jewish ethics teachers. The dharma talks were very much like the “mussar shmoozen,” ethical talks, I experienced back in yeshiva. The cultivation of equanimity, loving kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy (known in Buddhism as the brahma viharas, one’s best home) are crucial in all of humanity’s march toward mentshlikhkayt, humaneness.

But like all encounters with other traditions, one finds that the value is as much in the differences as in the similarities. As a rabbi ordained in the chasidic tradition, I missed the devotional aspect that I experienced when I davened every morning in tallit and tefillin. (I found time for my daily practice after I completed my “yogi” practice, manual labor required of all the participants at the retreat. My task was cleaning a wheelchair-access toilet and shower.) I missed singing out loud. (I did a great deal of singing of the metta phrases inside my head and heart throughout the retreat). I missed dancing. This devotional practice, bhakti, is found in other schools of Buddhism and Hinduism.

Coming from a tradition of brachot, or blessings, it only took a day or two to get into the metta consciousness. By the fifth day of silence I found myself able to avoid the distractions of what the chasidim call “makhshavot zarot,” distractions, or hindrances in Buddhist lingo, for an entire sitting period of 45 minutes and a walking period of the same duration. (One alternates walking and sitting meditations from 6 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.) There were other times when the purification of the concentration practices of offering metta phrases brought up deep emotions and anxieties. These were par for the course, according to our teachers, who permitted us short interviews (five to 10 minutes) every other day.

Returning home in a Friday New England snowstorm, I became highly aware of what I had missed during the week. Besides the comforts of kith and kin, I missed the Aybishter, God, YHVH, El Khanun v’Rakhum, the font of loving kindness and compassion that is the ground of our being as Jews and as humans. My experience at IMS for the Buddhist retreat had been successful in re-igniting my closeness to the Mekor Hayim, the Source of Life. This is the power of silence, an atmosphere of loving kindness, a concentration of the spirit and the opening of the heart. One discovers oneself and one discovers the One.

It is, however, the absence of God in Buddhism that makes it so attractive to young Jews. Many have not been raised in homes where they were exposed to the Compassionate God of the world. This absence of God in American Jewish life is understandable. We are concerned, and rightly so, by excesses we witness, especially when God is so used and abused for so many nefarious aims. Buddhism is attractive to Jews because it doesn’t replace God with any human figure; the Buddha is seen as a model of an enlightened human being. It is also attractive because it is unabashed in its commitment, one that I believe Judaism shares, that we are also in the compassion business and that hate and anger are never resolved by more hate and anger. The only way to halt sinat khinam, needless hate, is by heavy does of khesed khinam, unconditional loving kindness.

Rabbi Moshe Waldoks is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion, an independent congregation in Brookline, Mass.

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