Moses, a temporal and spiritual leader retreats on Mount Sinai. 40 days intense confrontation with ultimacy. The result according to classical Jewish teaching was the 10 Commandments. Clear unequivocal and authoritative statements. It was a moment of extraordinary revelation, but it had its human dimension of anger and disappointment leading to the shattering of the tablets. Arguably the tone of Jewish life was set there, as a path of ethics, Mitzvoth (action), study and prayer. With God ever in the background. Several hundred years later Siddharta, a young and spoilt prince, fed up with the artificial and illusory world of pleasure and comfort of his courtly life, fled in the night on a quest to discover reality. After intense inner search and austere and deep spiritual practices he achieved Enlightenment under the Banyan tree at Bodhgaya in India. Now know as the Buddha, meaning the awakened consciousness, his teachings set the tone of Buddhist life for 2500 years, as a path of contemplation, a quest for Truth, and a development of human qualities of wisdom, awakening and heartfulness. There is no God in the background; instead the background itself is seen as sacred space.
These two mythologized histories typify the differences between the great religions. But at the same time, they may tell us why so many Jews and westerners in general are flocking to learn Buddhist practices. Perhaps we are tired of the Aristotelian and scientific materialism, perhaps uncomfortable with the solidity of the Jewish identity, perhaps suffering from the stresses of 21st. Century human being in essential conflict with the world, perhaps looking for experiences of the divine and not beliefs about it, perhaps overwhelmed by the tendency to see all of reality, including often God, as ‘thing’ not process, perhaps we need guidelines for a dimly felt inner quest, perhaps there is too much load of history on our shoulders, perhaps we need more silence….. Here Buddhism may offer an authentic and deep alternative way. Although it has to be said that it is not so much Buddhism, an alternative religion that offers this, rather the practice tradition within Buddhism. For Buddhism of course has its history of degeneration of the original teachings, for example into worship of golden statues, endless chanting of texts instead of practicing what they say, or the ceremonial folk religion as Chinese Buddhism is today. Thankfully, what has arrived in the West is mostly the practice tradition: the ‘naked’ core spiritual teachings without the cultural ornamentation. The millions of Westerners who learn Vipassana meditation, for example, do so without any evidence of Buddha statues or worship, and derive their instruction directly from the most ancient texts available (the Sutras). These texts are not themselves sacred, nor a history or a journal of a people, as the Torah. These texts are entirely instructional. A vast library of teachings about diving into consciousness, and what is to be found there. A road manual to liberation and awakening, with detailed maps. A teaching that, unlike the West, has developed in an unbroken line for 2500 years. This is a great attraction, in the sense that if you need healing you go to the best therapist, if you need a way to experience inner freedom, you go to the experts. And many do, and most feel that in this consultation they do not need to cease being what they are.
The teachings address head-on a crucial question: how can we meet the sacred when all we ever seem to meet is ourselves. We look up to God but do so behind a veil of our own thoughts, views, conditioning, and complexes, and often all that seems left is a constant discussion about impossibilities. Buddhist teachings do not say a word about God, and even the end of the road, nirvana, is couched in so many conflicting phrases (for example, ‘liberation’, ‘ending of suffering’, the ‘deathless state’, ‘beyond the beyond’ or ‘cessation’) that all that is left is to say that it is beyond ordinary experience and thus ordinary expression in language;. There is a disinclination to talk about it because that would make it just another object of mental processing, leaving you more or less where you are spiritually but with an extra load of beliefs and views on liberation. Instead the focus is on how. Means not ends. The process is about deconstruction of inner and outer reality, peeling away layers and layers of conditioning, complexes and confusions, until reality itself is revealed as essentially spacious, blissful, free and sacred. There is no need to look anywhere else. Start with the here and now. This body, this breath, this thought, this feeling. These are the entrance gates to the journey. Meditation, as it says in the famous Satipathanna sutta, starts by sitting still and focusing your attention on the objects of the senses. The process of purification begins there: “When the Doors of Perception are Cleansed, Everything Appears as it is: Infinite”. We learn that we are not truly in control, we learn that much of human suffering is due to the survival instinct and is inherent in existence of living beings, we learn that what we call ordinary reality is not the consensus (Maya) that we are conditioned to think it is, we learn that we can let go of an awful lot of baggage, and we learn that we can turn round and face ourselves, and when we do so we see mysteries and surprises, and there is the religious experience, nowhere else. “Enlightenment is an accident,” says a Zen remark, “All we can do is make ourselves accident prone”.
It should be said that for many people who learn some Buddhist practice, the purpose is not necessarily in ultimacy, but far more mundane and direct, and valuable nevertheless. A way to calm the frightful pressure of life, a way to meet silence, a way to reduce the verbiage and complications around human values, a way to come home to ourselves. And this certainly can help achieve a presence that we can take into our Jewish life, a more existential and experiential form of Yiddishkeit. For example Shabbat. Consider how it might be in the light of more inner stillness. What is the Sabbath a reminder of? It is a reminder of rest, of non-action, of taking a break from the addictive busy-ness of human beings. The prohibitions are not about using energy (no laws against jogging on the Sabbath) but against the addiction to transforming, creating and controlling the world around us by means of fire, work, building, and so on. The word Shabbat means ‘to stop’, ‘to dwell’, and to ‘settle down’. It is close to the Buddhist word of: ‘calm abiding’. It is coming to a stop and staying there. It also has overtones of release from slavery, of redemption from the daily grind. The day is acknowledged as a blessing and a gift, just like our freedom. On this day, all Jews have an extra soul. The task is to recognize it.
But if we look deeper, the Sabbath can also be seen as honoring the emptiness, the stasis or ground of being upon which the world was created and to which it must return. In the Lecha Dodi poem sung on Friday night it is said that the Sabbath Day was the first in the mind of God before the Universe was created, and last in the mind of God when it was finished. It can be a day of mindfulness, a vehicle that has been maintained for more than 2 millenniums as a ritual reminder of the empty nature of reality. As such it may be a wonderful way to start exploring the spiritual nature of Jewish life, inspired by Buddhist teachings, and with respect to both. As the Buddha said - choose a place; perhaps under a tree, and setting your awareness in front, enter into mindfulness. Perhaps some Jewish Buddhists might consider the Sabbath as this place.
Another example of an area where the Buddhist dharma (‘ teachings’, ‘Halachah’) might enrich our Jewish life concerns our identity as Jews and as particular selves. For many this question is the core of being Jewish but as such can be a difficult issue, and may not help us to feel the joy of Jewish life. It can be a heavy label, requiring constant analytic, doubting and judgmental self-examination, as well as endless comparisons with others. It can be confrontational Judaism, a strong identification with one group or another. Real insight throws the whole of the identity into question. A deeply honest and penetrating inner gaze reveals that identity is a hypothesis, a construct, and a fluid biography that remakes itself all the time. It teaches us to hold this identity more lightly, more tenderly, and as such liberates us from self-labeling. It helps us move from being a certain kind of Jew to living ‘Jewishly’.
The teachings of dharma invite us to explore the nature of our awareness, and to see Mind as the source of our reality; to come out of the ‘comfort zone’ of the known, the apparent, the assumed and the conditioned reality, and search for a deeper and unconditioned truth. The Mosaic teachings ask us rather to receive a teaching from outside ourselves, which on the way, solidifies and confirms our identity as Jews. These are two very different directions, typified mythologically by the two scenarios with which this article opened. Perhaps they can complement each other? Our Jewish history and identity can be seen both as a quest, in which the nature of this package is ‘unpacked’ and deconstructed to find a deeper teaching, perhaps via Kabbalah. Or it can be seen as a given, a source, from which our religious life draws inspiration and its unique flavour. Our history seen as quest for truth and sacredness, becomes more of a journal or a biography of a people. And like any journal it contains the great and the small, the wars and the insights, the Book of Judges and the Song of Songs. From this perspective, the language such as the God of Vengeance or of Compassion, are projections of our human Mind onto the sacred. The other perspective would say that this biography itself is sacred, and we are not projecting onto God, God is designing the biography in the way it is. A more sympathetic and wiser view of the way identity is created may be able to accommodate both of these without the need for complex and unsatisfying justifications.
Of course all is not easy in the balancing act of dancing within the two great religions. The problems arise more in the philosophical than the practical dimension. A theological conception of reality seems hugely different from a self-creation model of Buddhism, which is more like that of quantum physics. God’s providence, the kindness and compassion of God manifest in the world, seems very different from the Buddhist view which understands the kindnesses of the world as the result of tendencies for goodness which we throw out and which come back to us through the ‘like causes like’ nature of karma. The Creator seems very different from the ‘vibrant emptiness’ as the ground of being. On the other hand if we look carefully, we may often find that the differences are more that of a cultural language than an absolute difference. For example Maimonides uses the language of negatives to describe the divine, and describes Providence as invited by our wise understanding. Buddhists would not argue with this, and indeed there is a sense that Truth is one, but we may approach it by different entrance gates