In which country does approximately 0.05% of the adult population sit a silent meditation retreat every year, has meditation classes in one out of every two prisons, and has been running programs for mindfulness in the classroom for 12 years with the blessing of the Education Ministry? It is not an Eastern Buddhist country, but actually, Israel.
Life in Israel is intense, ridden with conflict, fast, somewhat anxious and yet throbbing with vitality. There is a cultural depth, whether it is in the ancient and rich language, or in the extraordinary historical narrative of the Jewish people. Perhaps this is linked to a long Jewish tradition of inquiry ever since Temple-based devotional practice ended with the Diaspora 2000 years ago. The address for devotion became the study and intensive exploration of texts. The basic cultural and religious value placed on investigation and intelligence may have contributed to the strong interest in the dharma in Israel, and many Buddhist teachers who come to teach here are impressed with the enthusiasm for practice and the rapid grasp of dharma concepts of Israeli practitioners. Yet there are other reasons. The suffering of life, its insecurity, anxiety and Middle Eastern violence are all on the surface. Here there is no sense of complacency and the comfort zone is often less than comfortable. Visible dukkha, as always, impels many to seek a refuge in the dharma as an authentic spiritual teaching. Besides, many secular Israelis find themselves squeezed between the iconic Holocaust narrative, the intractable conflict and militarism on the one side, and conservative and even extreme Jewish religiosity on the other. They have found in the dharma a spacious home not only from the intensity of daily life, but also the social pressure for constant self-definition.
Buddhist practice in Israel has a relatively short but dynamic history, somewhat like the country itself. In 1981, when I moved to Israel, there was no dharma practice to be found and absolutely no interest in Buddhism. It was as if the intense dramas of three great world religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, with great attachments and competitiveness within this small region, was more than enough. I found myself in Israel helping to establish an experimental village in the Galilee hills, based on the Ghandian philosophy of autonomous and ecological community. But I was also sitting a lot of retreats at that time, mostly Mahasi style with Sayama in the UK. Each time I had to fly there. Eventually, tired of the expense and trouble of travelling, in 1989 I started bringing dharma teachers to Israel, holding silent retreats in my house and later at the beautiful ancient Notre Dame de Sion Monastery in Jerusalem. The nuns offered warm and interested support. The early teachers were Christopher Titmuss, Stephen Batchelor, Lama Surya Das, Fred von Allman and Ursula Fluckinger. From these beginnings I founded ‘Tovana’ (The Israel Insight Society). Here is how Rohan Saxena, one of the founders, described managing retreats in those early days:
“I felt less like a manager and more an onlooker, privileged to observe the process of the retreat as it simply manifested itself naturally. It was an inspirational example of Sangha in action and of the Buddha’s insight that ‘deeds are done but there is no doer’........There was a lovely atmosphere of enthusiasm, idealism, and mutual trust and respect. I feel these qualities still characterize Tovana today.”
Today it is a large national organization serving thousands of practitioners. It holds around 40 retreats a year, many urban activities, classes and sitting groups in various parts of the country, and various special programs (e.g. retreats and groups for cancer patients; retreats and classes which combine Jewish teachings with dharma teachings; family retreats etc). Charles Genoud and Patricia, Yanai, Shaila, Stephen and Martine Batchelor, Kittisaro and Thanissaro, and especially Christopher Titmuss are regular teachers, together with 10 Israeli dharma teachers and many more mentors who teach classes and courses.
All of its retreats are entirely on a dana basis, which is quite unusual in the west. The accommodation and teachings are given freely, with the participants invited to support the teachings by giving what they can towards the end of each retreat. There is no patron, but Tovana manages to balance its budget in two ways. Firstly by keeping costs low. We use a youth residential education centre in Kibbutz Ein Dor which is very cheap per bed, but the conditions are rather simple – too much so for some. Secondly Tovana takes a lot of care to develop a dana culture within the Sangha. For example there is significant time given towards the end of each retreat for a dana talk and a silent ritual of donation. The emphasis on dana, a real alternative to the consumer society, an ‘economy of the heart’, has appealed to young people and on a practical level has allowed many young people who have limited financial means, to sit retreats. The average age of participants on retreat is probably less than 35. All of this has created a wonderful energy within the Sangha, and Tovana itself is largely run by 70 volunteers who are in committees dealing with course management, teacher invitations and relations, advertising, community classes and courses, volunteer relations, finance, etc. They are headed by a small group of 4 part time staff who work from home, mostly mothers with small kids. Each year, at least 200 volunteers manage and cook at the retreats. In fact the word volunteering has been dropped and instead Tovana talks about a ‘service retreat’, which is dedicated to enriching dharma in daily life, side by side with the silent retreat. A Sangha House in Tel Aviv has been donated for the use of Tovana as a centre for courses and events. Here is a comment from one volunteer:
“..it gives me a place where I can practice awareness while in action. The evening meetings with the teachers and the knowledge that support from the team is always available work together and brought me to a place where I know that everything that I find difficult is a source of important insights.”
Mindfulness in Education: Pioneering Programs
‘The Language of Mindfulness’ (Sfat Hakeshev in Hebrew) is a holistic, experiential, contemplative learning program, aimed for schools and educational institutes. It has been taught in Israeli schools since 2000, developed by Simi Levi, a dharma teacher and ex-Buddhist nun. It is supported by the Ministry of Education and at one time 20 schools were running the program. Teachers who study in the program are required to go through a significant inner process as well as learning techniques of mindfulness, which can take up to a year.
One teacher wrote: ‘It was beautiful to see how the children with concentration difficulties...went through a remarkable change throughout the year. They became more and more able to tune in, pay attention, listen to themselves and to others. As for myself, I’ve gained in my ability to be less reactive, less angry and explosive, to situations that were aggravating me in the past’.
As I write this, a meeting of all the main officials in the Israel Ministry of Education, including the Minister, are gathering to discuss the state of education. They were all invited to a workshop on mindfulness. The third most senior figure in the Ministry, Professor Ofra Maisels, Director of Education, put forward a statement saying that schools should provide time and space for contemplative training, and questions on the meaningfulness of life. ‘To listen to oneself is important and an answer to the level of distraction of modern life and to psychological health’, she said.
Tel Hai School in South Tel Aviv, which is in a poor and disadvantaged neighbourhood, has taken mindfulness teaching very seriously for the last 10 years. Despite the low socioeconomic status of the children, it came top of the country in the national school rating scale, which includes both exam results and also measures of well-being of both students and teachers. Professor Richie Davidson from Wisconsin, a pioneer researcher on meditation, visited the school recently and said that the depth, scale and commitment to mindfulness at the school was unparalleled.
The principal of the Golomb school in the same area, that also had mindfulness classes for many years said: ‘A new unexpected channel was opened up for me. I learned to listen to myself. The monthly session with the staff and us meeting and being together in a different way, brought much freedom and release. The teachers seem to be more at ease, more able to let go, give and receive.’
Meditation Classes in Israel’s Prisons
There are 28 prisons in Israel and of them 16 have ongoing meditation classes in a program that has been going many years. The program has been initiated and is still run by one person, Michal Warshavsky, who with great determination and compassion, has persuaded sceptical prison authorities in prisons throughout the country to include these classes. Classes are taught by Tovana’s dharma teachers and mentors. It’s always a challenge. Both teachers and prison inmates describe how difficult it is to meditate in prison - to find privacy, to deal with constant noise pollution, and at the same time to cope with the strangeness of disengagement. But it has made a real difference to the lives of many inmates. Here are some responses from prisoners:
"meditation gave me so much: calmness, self confidence, patience toward my surroundings, which is very important at prison".
"All my life I've planned to create a reality that would, as soon as I touch it, give me the needed security. Today I know that the hope that reality would be different from now, and that the 'new' reality would be the one to give me the feeling of happiness and joy, is an illusion, and only leads to stress, anxiety, fear and discomfort. Today I practice to be more relaxed in the face of every reality whatever it is."
"I became aware that the content of my thoughts is not forgiving toward myself, but the contrary - I have the tendency to be stern with myself, to judge myself, and 'you should' thoughts come to me very often. I wasn't aware ... that I don't love myself, and therefore how can I love others? see others?”
Dharma Inspired Peace Work
From the beginning, there has been a strong involvement in peace work and engaged dharma, as meditators experience compassion rising with their practice. It was decided to form a separate organization so as to keep Tovana’s character as a pure dharma organization, and so the Middleway charity was born. Its first program, called ‘The Transformation of Suffering’ were funded by the Oslo Accord’s People to People fund, and involved deep dialogue workshops between Israelis and Palestinians. These were 48 hour intensive meetings, each time with 15 Israelis and 15 Palestinians from all walks life. It involved Israelis sleeping in Palestinian homes, which itself was a memorable experience, unthinkable to most Israelis. The workshops did not involve any meditation, but were loosely structured around two ways to dissolve the conflict mind. One was first person dialogue and exercises to reduce the level of ‘selfing’ – of views, group identities, blame, guilt, etc. and also to increase the atmosphere of friendliness. The second, after building a sense of safety and ease, was one-to-one dialogues between Israelis and Palestinians, with deep listening to each other’ daily life suffering. Something irreversible happened there, as the humanness of ‘the other’ was realised, empathy established, enmity dissolved. The whole program came to an end with the second intifada when things got too difficult on the ground, and instead, we used the more visible form of the yatra, the silent peace walks. This has been written about in a previous edition of Tricycle (add reference). There are constantly new activities and projects going on, as Buddhist practitioners, seemingly with less fear, more compassion and more empathy, find themselves in places that others rarely get to. For example we established for many years a free holistic medical centre in a large Palestinian Village, Barta’a, which had lost its medical services behind the wall. Recently there has been a successful campaign to stop the uprooting of large numbers of Palestinian olive trees. Middleway has a name for non-violence and peacefulness, which is even recognized by the Israeli army which has given permissions to Middleway activists where other groups were refused.
Despite quite some effort, we have not managed to introduce dharma to the Palestinians in Israel or in the Palestinian Territories. There have been occasional courses for Arabs, not easy to arrange, but they petered out and were not sustainable. Palestinians and Muslims throughout the Middle East in general do not seem to have taken up the dharma in any significant way, and this may be because there has been little effort made into developing the language and the forms that suit the culture, the ‘archetypes’, the inner life and the community life. Once I was meeting 60 Palestinian Open University students in the town of Nablus. Noting my interest in meditation, they asked me if I could teach it to them. I started with a few words about awareness and attention, which fell rather flat. Then I gave some instruction on mindfulness of body and breathing, which fell even flatter. They were gazing at me with open eyes as if I was from another planet. I woke up suddenly to the fact that the whole dharma in the west is highly culture based, designed for the western modern educated, for example often founded on individualistic concepts of self, and psychological concepts of mind, none of which may be relevant in other cultures. I shifted track and asked them: ‘What are your images of silence?” “Oh!”, one answered, with some relief, ‘You don’t realise, we are people of the vast silent desert to which we go in our dreams. We know silence”. Another student offered: “Our houses have walls outside to shut out the noise and an inner courtyard with an olive or lemon tree in the centre, under which we sit quietly”. “We know the stillness of the date palm”, said another. Of course I used these images as an entrance to meditation and it worked well.
The stillness of the ‘khan’ as classic Arabic architecture also reminds us that the Israel Insight Society has no home, or centre, but is very community based. The vision of a retreat centre is of course there on the horizon, but at present is still just a mirage in the desert.
Dr. Stephen Fulder (Founder, Senior Teacher, Tovana), 1/12/2013