In the following article, Stephen Fulder, a student of Buddhism living in Israel, attempts to come to terms with his Jewish identity and searches for a way to integrate Judaism with his dharma path. In the process, Fulder brings new light to bear on some difficult issues confronting Jews everywhere. —Editors
Over the years of my spiritual wanderings, a constant companion on my journey was the questions,“Why do I need to go so far to seek spirituality? Can’t my ‘home-grown’ faith provide the transcendental wisdom that I have been busily seeking in the East?” But every time I turned to confront my Jewish roots, I found only uncomfortable and painful memories. My life as a Jewish child was a miserable combination of formalism—what hats to wear to synagogue—together with something vaguely racial, tribal, and familial, and without any recognizable spirituality. I was appalled by the authoritarian hierarchy, with a jealous God at the top of the pyramid who, according to the Bible, seemed quite happy with conquest and war. Worst of all, I found many contemporary Jewish people to be obsessed with nationalism, settling land and owning holy places—creating immense suffering for their neighbors in the process. Is this all there was to go back to?
I have now come to understand that the question is not, “Should I as a Jew abandon the Buddhadharma and seek liberation through my Jewish self?” Rather, “Can I recruit my Jewish self, along with everything else, to help me along the path towards realization of the truth?” I see that it is unwise to leave one’s Jewish background as a “dead area,” just as it is unwise to ignore other important facets of ourselves such as our mental formations or personality patterns. Doing so can create a nagging inner conflict that we push down and that holds us back—a “stain on the cloth,” as the suttas call it, that prevents us from taking up evenly the dye of the dharma.
In his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, and Reflections, Carl Jung wrote about a dream he had of an unknown girl with a strong father complex. The next day an intelligent and worldly young Jewish woman came to see him. She was suffering from long-term anxiety and distress. Remembering his dream, Jung asked the woman about her father, and then her grandfather. She told him that her grandfather had been a rabbi, a Tzaddik (a Jewish holy man). “It is said that he was a kind of saint and possessed second sight. But that is all nonsense. There is no such thing!” she added. Jung advised her that perhaps by turning her back on her faith and ignoring such a power, she had turned it against her. She was suffering the anxiety of a spiritual person leading a basically meaningless life. “You have your neurosis because the fear of God has got into you,” said Jung. This shocked her into returning to intensive Jewish study, and she was cured.
If we, as Jewish Buddhists, want to access the spiritual power within Jewish life, where do we begin? Our first task may be to work with any negativity we feel toward the memories of our early Jewish upbringing, or toward what we read in the newspapers today about Jewish xenophobia and extremism. Can we bring a compassionate mindfulness to these feelings? In a recent film by Claude Lansman, I saw the possibility of developing compassion for those aspects of Jewish life that are alien to me. In the film, Lansman interviews Israeli Jews about the ongoing political crisis. After listening to a right-wing Jewish woman settler rifle off justifications and political concepts, Lansman commented that, even though he really couldn’t understand anything she had said, a sense of her pain arose in him. “All I wanted to do was to hug her,” he said.
As I explore the possibilities for spiritual nourishment in modern Jewish life, I have struggled to come to terms with those issues that have troubled me. Much of Jewish life today, at least in Israel, is characterized by an intense attachment to graves of patriarchs, to Holy sites and ruins, and to Jerusalem and “The Holy Land” itself. I do not view these as pieces of real-estate that we Jews must hold on to at all costs. As traditional texts state, God is not specifically locatable in the Holy Land; He is everywhere. One of his names is simply “Place.” “God is the Place of the Universe, but the Universe is not his Place;” that is, the Universe is in God, not God in the Universe.
I have also found it useful to rethink my relationship to the Bible, viewing it as a kind of group history—a journal of our physical, historical and spiritual journey, similar to the Mahabarata for the Hindus. During the journey there is the receiving of revelation and then the constant struggle to manifest it in real life. Or perhaps we can approach the Bible as anatta, a rolling history carried out because of events and reactions, born of the conditioned mind with the creation of Adam, an interpretation accepted by the Jewish mystical tradition.
I have also come to appreciate some fundamental principles in Judaism that correspond very closely to those of the dharma, such as the prohibition against idolatry. Maimonedes, probably the greatest of all Jewish philosophers, taught that God is ultimate and undifferentiated. All human descriptions of God are essentially anthropomorphic and therefore idolatrous, as is the worship of inner states of mind, views, opinions, and beliefs. The prohibition against idolatry is so strong in Jewish life that some Jews feel uncomfortable meditating in front of Buddha images. In our retreats in Israel, we try to avoid such images. Perhaps Jewish Buddhists can offer this understanding to the Sangha as a whole, encouraging dialogue around the use of Buddha images. One of my tasks as a Jew and a Buddhist is to try to purify the idolatrous tendencies of my mind.
The Sabbath is another vital theme in Jewish life that resonates closely with Buddhist teachings. What we are reminded of by the Sabbath is rest, non-action, taking a break from the addictive busyness of being human. The word Sabbath is a translation of the Hebrew Shabat, which means “to sit, dwell or settle down.” In Buddhist terminology, it might mean “calm abiding.” We remember the Sabbath in recognition that God finished making the world on the Seventh Day. Looking more deeply, the Sabbath can be seen as honoring the emptiness, the stasis or ground of being upon which the world was created and to which it must return. On Friday night as the Sabbath begins, a poem is sung in which it is said that the Sabbath Day was first in the mind of God before the Universe was created and last in the mind of God when it was finished. The “remembering” of the Seventh Day is an active process, close to the sense of the Pali word sati, often translated as “recollection” in addition to mindfulness.
For many Buddhist Jews, the Sabbath might be a good entrance back into Jewish life, not only because it is probably the most important ritual, but because it is the most delightful. The Sabbath can be for us a day of meditation and of mindfulness, a way to honor the spiritual nature of Jewish life, inspired by Buddhist teachings. As the Buddha said, “Choose a place, perhaps under a tree, and setting your awareness in the here and now, enter into mindfulness.” It doesn’t have to be a physical place, like a monastery or a practice corner in which the room is cleaned and a meditation cushion carefully laid out. It can be a place in time. Perhaps we might consider the Sabbath as this place—a day of retreat that has been going on for thousands of years. A day to return to ourselves. A day to recollect the essential holiness of reality, as it is, at rest. We do not need to feel alone in our practice on this day because it is a family retreat day. One in which even the ancestors can join.