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Mount Sinai and Mount Fuji: The American Jewish Fascination with Buddhism

by Harold Kasimow

"Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? One who learns from all." --Pirkei Avot

"Hear the truth from whoever has uttered it." --Moses Maimonides

"The Dalai Lama taught us a lot about Buddhism, even more about menschlichkeit, and most of all about Judaism. As all true dialogue accomplishes, this encounter with the Dalai Lama opened us to the other faith's integrity. Equally valuable, the encounter reminded us of neglected aspects of ourselves, of elements in Judaism that are overlooked until they are reflected back to us in the mirror of the Other." --Rabbi Irving Greenberg

Martin Buber (1878-1965), the well-known Jewish philosopher of the twentieth century, wrote a fascinating essay on Zen Buddhism and Hasidism1) in which he tells the tale of Rabbi Eizik, son of Rabbi Yekel, who travels from Krakow to Prague in search of treasure. He ultimately discovers, after meeting with a Christian, that the treasure is in fact buried in his family's home in Krakow. Thus, it is a member of a different religious tradition who helps Rabbi Eizik to find the treasure in Judaism, to perceive more profoundly the depth and uniqueness of the Jewish tradition. That is precisely the point that Rabbi Greenberg, one of the outstanding rabbis of our generation, makes after meeting with the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama himself, whose strong commitment to nonviolence and belief that every human being "can develop a heart of compassion," has played an instrumental role in attracting many Americans, including many Jews, to the study and practice of Buddhism.

Since the end of World War II, a large number of American Jews have been attracted to the Buddhist tradition. While Jews make up only two percent of the American population, it is estimated that at least one-third of Western Buddhists in America are Jewish by birth. Moreover, many of the leading Buddhist teachers in America come from Jewish families, including Bernard Glassman, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Norman Fischer, Bhikkhu Bodhi, Natalie Goldberg, Thubten Chodron (Cherry Greene), Sylvia Boorstein, Alan Ginsberg, and Lama Surya Das (Jeffrey Miller), to name just a few. Ginsberg and Surya Das studied with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the most influential Tibetan teachers in America, who had so many Jewish students that he called his school "the oy vey school of Buddhism." I have also read that more than one-fourth of the professors teaching Buddhism in American colleges and universities were born Jewish.

What has drawn so many Jews to Asian religions, especially to the meditative schools of Buddhism? I believe the reason that so many Jews have turned to Asian forms of spirituality in the last fifty years has to do both with the way the Jewish tradition has been presented to American Jews and also to the appealing message of Buddhism that has been brought to the West in the past hundred years.

Clearly, many Jews turned away from Judaism because they found it difficult to accept the traditional supernatural Jewish concept of God. Already in 1940 Albert Einstein, in a paper entitled "God's Religion or Religion of the Good," called on religious leaders to have the courage to give up the God idea because he viewed the concept of God as a great danger to human freedom and responsibility. He asked, "Given the existence of such an almighty being, how can one hold people responsible for their actions and thoughts?" The idea that God takes away from human freedom is one that I have often heard from my students at Grinnell College, where I have been teaching courses on the world's religions since 1972. The idea of a personal supernatural God was also problematic to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist Movement in Judaism. Kaplan spoke of God as the "power in nature and in man which makes for man's this-worldly salvation." Kaplan's new concept of God diverges radically from any traditional Jewish concept.

The Buddhist tradition, on the other hand, is not concerned with a creator God. For the Buddha, speculation about the existence or nonexistence of God does not lead us to liberation. This may be the most radical distinction between Buddhism and Judaism. There is, of course, a great deal of diversity within the Buddhist tradition, but the forms of Buddhism that have enticed Americans, including American Jews, are not concerned with a Western notion of God. The meditation-centered Buddhist groups, which include Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism, all stress that we must save ourselves through our own power. For Western Jewish Buddhists, the Buddha, which means "the awakened one," was just a human being who attained enlightenment without help from any God or supernatural force.

The difficulty with a supernatural God is not the only factor that drove Jews to Buddhism. In the 1960s and 1970s a large number of American students, including a disproportionate number of Jews, began to enroll in courses on Asian religions in colleges and universities all over the United States. They were introduced to the fundamental Buddhist ideas and practices that many found very attractive. Central to all Buddhism is the idea that we can put an end to suffering. We can be liberated from suffering. The Buddha said, "I teach but two things--suffering and the release from suffering." It is true that the Buddhist tradition places a great stress on pain, on grief, and on sorrow, and especially on impermanence and death. But there is the promise that one can bring suffering to an end, that through the practice of meditation one will gain insight into one's own mind, which will lead to seeing things clearly and will bring an end to suffering. In one of the most widely used college texts, titled What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula claims that the person who attains enlightenment will be "the happiest being in the world, . . . free from anxiety, serene and peaceful."

The Jewish tradition has also been deeply troubled by the pain and suffering of humanity since biblical times. Perhaps there is no sacred text that has wrestled more honestly with the human experience of suffering than the Book of Job. In the Jewish tradition, we find numerous reasons for suffering. However, many of the traditional biblical and rabbinic responses have become totally unacceptable in a post-Holocaust world. In the end, suffering is really inexplicable. Suffering, according to Judaism, can only be overcome in the afterlife. The Buddhist promise to end suffering in this life, and its use of a special technique (meditation) for accomplishing this, seems to me to be a major reason why so many young Jews in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s turned to Buddhism.

For our book Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha, which I edited in 2003 with John and Linda Keenan, we interviewed Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. We asked him, "Do you think the Shoah [Holocaust] has somehow been a factor in Jews' being attracted to Buddhism?" He answered "Yes," and then went on to tell us how Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach responded to this same question: "Look--six million corpses can make you mighty angry at God. So we couldn't learn from our own people. But God is merciful, so he sent us teachers from the Far East, to whom we could listen." And Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi commented, "I think there is a deep truth in there."

There are radical differences between Judaism and Buddhism. Yet at the same time there are quite a few affinities, which may also have been a factor in creating an interest in Buddhism among some Jews. In 1961, U Nu, the prime minister of Burma, and David Ben Gurion, the prime minister of Israel, had a conversation with Edward R. Murrow (1908-65), the pioneering U.S. radio and television journalist, regarding the similarities and differences between Judaism and Buddhism. Ben Gurion said, "[Judaism] is similar and different. It is similar in that Buddhism wants people to live in peace, love each other, and help each other, to draw away hatred. This is almost the same as our Torah, which teaches that you should love your fellow man as yourself." David Ben Gurion, who had a deep interest in Buddhism and is said to have practiced Buddhist meditation, was certainly aware of the stark differences between the Buddhist and Jewish traditions. However, from this statement, it is clear that he saw Buddhism and Judaism as two similar paths in their aims of making human beings truly human and of creating peace in the world.

There are other Buddhist ideas that Jewish students have found very attractive, including the Buddhist stress on generosity and compassion and on the need to free ourselves of greed, hate, and jealousy; Buddhism's openness and respect for other religious paths; and its equality between men and women. The Buddhist idea that moved me and many of my students perhaps more than any other was the idea of the bodhisattva, the ideal person in most forms of Buddhism. The major characteristic of bodhisattvas is their great love and compassion for all human beings. The foremost Buddhist scholar of Tibetan Buddhism, Robert Thurman, calls bodhisattvas "Buddhist messiahs." Although there are major differences between the concept of the messiah and bodhisattva, there are also essential affinities. Like the Jewish messiah, a bodhisattva aims to create a world of earthly bliss and moral perfection for all of humanity. The bodhisattvas, therefore, make a vow to save all beings. They do not separate their own enlightenment from that of other beings. That is the meaning of compassion. For the bodhisattvas, there is no wisdom without compassion. A bodhisattva will not rest until all people are saved. The Tibetan tradition even teaches that the bodhisattva path entails treating all human beings as if they were our mother. Clearly, the aim of this ideal person in Buddhism is to bring about a complete transformation of humanity. The idea that we can be radically transformed, either through our own power or with the help of the "skillful means" of a bodhisattva, is certainly very attractive to many Westerners.

The doctrine of the bodhisattva, which is central to most branches of Buddhism, seems to me to be very similar to the central Jewish idea of tikkun olam, "perfecting the world" or "transforming the world," which also aims at the transformation of the human being. The stress in Judaism is on the perfection of the world, while in Buddhism it is on the perfection of the individual. But the goal is the same. The way of the bodhisattva reminds me of the statement by Rabbi Bunim, a great Hasidic teacher, who said: "Seek peace in your own place; you cannot find peace save in your own self. When a man has made peace within himself, he will be able to make peace in the whole world."

Like Rabbi Bunim, Rev. Nikkyo Niwano (1906-99), founder of the Buddhist lay movement Rissho Kosei-kai and of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, placed great stress on finding peace in oneself as a path to world peace. For Rev. Niwano, as for Rabbi Bunim, the way to peace is not by turning away from the world and all its pain, but by acting in the world to alleviate the pain and suffering of all human beings. He believed that all human beings have the potential to become bodhisattvas. His own path to peace was through religious cooperation, to which he devoted a good part of his life.2)

There are many other reasons that Jews turned to Buddhism. But to my mind the major reason was the failure of the Jewish community's teachers and leaders to fully present the spiritual dimension of Judaism during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. We must understand that the Jews had just experienced the most traumatizing event in their history, with the murder of one-third of the Jewish people in the world. It is no surprise, then, that the Jewish leaders devoted the bulk of their energies to the physical survival of the Jews and to the creation of the state of Israel. Moreover, the major schools of higher learning did not focus sufficiently on aggadah, that is, the spiritual aspect of Judaism, emphasizing rather the halakhah, or legal aspect of the tradition. They concentrated on the mind rather than the heart. Another issue in Judaism that was very troubling for many young Jews in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was the inequality between men and women in all branches of Judaism. For many women, Judaism did not seem to offer a meaningful spirituality.

In the 1950s, my teacher, Abraham Heschel, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, was just beginning to write his great works, arguing that halakhah without aggadah is taking the life element out of Judaism, that religion must be concerned with the inner life. But Heschel was ignored, even at his own school. It is little wonder then that some of the most spiritual Jews felt that Judaism was not nurturing their souls, that it was not really a serious spiritual path. And thus they turned to Buddhism.

The response of the Jewish leadership to this entire phenomenon has been mixed. There are some who believe that Buddhism and the other Asian religions are forms of idol worship, that even the study of Buddhism is problematic. They believe that Jews should study only the Torah, claiming that it contains all the knowledge that a Jew should be preoccupied with. Exploring other religious traditions, even if undertaken to enrich one's own spiritual path, is seen to be against the will of God. Other members of the Jewish community have realized that the study of Buddhism and the practice of some forms of Buddhist meditation do not lead to a negation of God, but to a more spiritual Jewish life. In spite of these very different reactions, and there are many more, all Jews believe in the unity of the Jewish people and are sad that many young Jewish men and women do not find spiritual fulfillment in their own tradition. Jews would be thrilled to have these young spiritual people return to Judaism, but at the same time many Jews are happy that they have found a meaningful life in Buddhism.

Lama Surya Das, who describes himself as a "Jewish boy from Long Island," claims that "Buddhism made me a mensch and brought me happiness" and further states that Buddhism helped him to "find my place in life and the universe."3) Like Lama Surya Das, many of the best-known Buddhist teachers in America, who were born Jewish, are helping many Jews to deepen their quest for the Jewish tradition. This is especially the case for Zoketsu Norman Fischer, who together with his friend Rabbi Alan Lew founded Makor Or, a Jewish meditation center in San Francisco, where they teach Jews both Buddhist meditation and Torah and Jewish prayer.

Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg, another well-known teacher of Buddhism, one who has remained within the Jewish tradition, speaks of her encounter with Buddhism: "The impact of Buddhism on my life as a Jew has been to give me a new lens with which to interpret and understand the sacred teachings of my people and more deeply apply those teachings to my life. To what end? To live with more awareness, more compassion, more wisdom, and more love."4)


1) See Martin Buber, The Origin and Meaning of Hasidism. Ed. and trans. by Maurice Friedman. New York: Harper and Row, 1960. Hasidism was a great eighteenth-century revivalist mystical movement in eastern Europe founded by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, known as the Besht.
2) See Nikkyo Niwano, A Buddhist Approach to Peace. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing Co., 1977.
3) Quoted in Jane Lampman, "American Buddhism on the Rise," The Christian Science Monitor, September 14, 2006, p. 15.
4) Sheila Peltz Weinberg, "The Impact of Buddhism," in Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha, eds. Harold Kasimow, et al. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003, p. 111.

Harold Kasimow is the George Drake Professor of Religious Studies at Grinnell College, Grinnell, Iowa. His latest book is The Search Will Make You Free: A Jewish Dialogue with World Religions.
This article was originally published in the January-March 2007 issue of Dharma World.

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