Another Jew in the Lotus

Goldstein, Kornfield, Salzberg and Schwartz: not a law firm, but, the founding members of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) where I was a member of the resident staff. I had moved down the road to the newer facility, Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, at the suggestion of my girlfriend with whom I was growing ever closer. It was here that I overheard a discussion between two of these teachers and a local rabbi, laying the groundwork for one of the first Buddhist-Jewish retreats in North America. This was in 1991, a year after the historical encounter between a group of rabbis and the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, which Rodger Kamenetz intimately described in his book, The Jew in the Lotus.

About the Jubu phenomenon: the number of Buddhist teachers and students with a Jewish heritage, are legion. The first American to formally become a Buddhist, was a Jew by the name of Charles Strauss in 1893 at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Besides the teachers of IMS, I’ve met several Jewish Buddhist teachers over the decades: Zen Master Bernie Glassman, Norman Fischer Roshi, Lama Surya Das, Sylvia Boorstein, and my current Zen teacher, Henry Shukman (whose father was Jewish).

My own personal connection to the Buddhadharma began in earnest when I met Roshi Philip Kapleau (also Jewish). The encounter I had with him in 1984 was spiritually and emotionally profound. Younger than my deceased grandfathers, but older than my father, he answered a need I was only just becoming aware of: a mentor who embodied the wise and loving spiritual elder. Although he could be a stern and demanding teacher, it was his loving kindness which I most clearly recall. I received jukai from him, the Japanese Zen ceremony wherein one takes refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; the three pure precepts (do no harm, do only good, and do good for others); and the ten cardinal precepts: do not kill, do not take what is not freely given, do not engage in sexual misconduct, do not speak falsely, do not cloud the mind with intoxicants, etc.

By the time I was in my early twenties, I felt quite alienated from the Jewish community of Chicago. My last intensely Jewish encounter in that decade, however, was quite profound. I read a notice of an evening lecture to be given by Rabbi Samuel Dresner z”l on the topic of Hasidism, upon which he had written several books. Rabbi Dresner, a close disciple of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l, was the rabbi of the synagogue of my youth. A quiet and serious man, he had black hair, piercing eyes and the mien of a scholar.

He told several Hasidic tales that evening, one of which described the search for the holy sparks which were released in the process of creation according to Lurianic Kabbalah. I was mesmerized by his storytelling which deeply touched my heart and soul. At one point I heard the loud rumbling of thunder which I felt throughout my body. Throughout his presentation I clearly saw his body outlined by a purple aura, an indication of his spiritual intensity. The only other time I saw such a thing was couple of decades later at a talk given by a Zen master in Denver.

It was at the end of the presentation, when I was feeling emotionally and spiritually sensitive, when I met a most unusual man. “Hello, my name is Reuven Gold. I’m just a simple Jew, but I have a song for you.” As he sang a beautiful niggun (wordless hasidic melody) I felt my heart opening and tears flowing out of my eyes. “Why don’t we go downstairs for refreshments, though there probably won’t be any mangoes or papayas…”

When we arrived in the social hall, I saw Rabbi Dresner in the distance. Shyly, I approached him and as soon as we made eye contact he called out, “Dougie! How are you? How’s your dad?” I meekly attempted to tell him of my spiritual seeking, saying that I too was searching for the holy sparks, but, I failed to convey my sense of urgency and longing to him in the midst of the large crowd surrounding him.

Perhaps that evening planted a seed which blossomed many years later on that day at IMS, when Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzberg, well known and highly regarded Jewish Buddhist teachers, were meeting with Rabbi Sheilah Peltz-Weinberg. I felt strangely agitated as I sat upstairs in my bedroom wondering what the hell they could be talking about? It was then that I realized that I was not finished with Judaism and I met with the rabbi a couple of times before she introduced my to her teacher, the renowned Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l, who was one of the presenters at that meeting with the Dalai Lama.

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Notes: z”l (zichrono l’vracha) and a”h (alav hashalom) are acronyms applied to those who have died, meaning respectively: “may his/her memory be for a blessing” and “peace be upon him/her.”

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The sound of a single Oy!

Zen Master Hakuin, who experienced great despair as a child, is known for his famous koan, “You know the sound of two hands clapping. What is the sound of a single hand?” This is widely misremembered as “the sound of one hand clapping.” Rabbi Alan Lew z”l (a serious Zen student for ten years before returning to Judaism and becoming a rabbi) even immortalized this in the title of his book: The Sound of One God Clapping. The sound of a single hand? Impossible! Silence? Stillness? God? Nothing? Something beyond duality of self and other? Self (atman)? Non-self (anatman)? Just sit with it until everything falls away and the sound of that single hand thunders throughout heaven and earth like Mount Sinai!

As a child I found my experience of life to be at odds with those around me. Highly sensitive and empathic, with an artistic temperament, I often experienced profound loneliness and despair. At night I would turn towards the wall of my bedroom and talk to God, wondering, “Why was I born? Where did I come from? How vast is the universe?”  Born in suburban Chicago less than twenty years after the holocaust, I was raised in a middle-class Jewish family. Thanks to my father’s influence, every Friday evening our family celebrated Shabbat around the dinner table. This was often the highlight of my week as we chanted the ancient Hebrew prayers over wine and bread by candlelight, evoking a sense of the Great Mystery.

In Hebrew School I was a rarity: there by choice I felt greater degree of engagement with Torah lessons than I did with my secular studies at public school. Even though I was learning to read (though not quite comprehend) Hebrew and gain a familiarity with some of the foundations of Jewish life, it was difficult to achieve any great depth of understanding in a mere six hours of instruction per week. I clearly recall wanting to ask my father to send me to Jewish day school, but I never got up the nerve. I did go to Camp Ramah, however, for a couple of years, and that gave me a deeper and richer Jewish religious experience.

Even though my Bar Mitzvah was an emotional and somewhat meaningful rite of passage, the subsequent divorce of my parents left me feeling anxious and insecure. Transitioning from the comfortably placid surroundings of the suburbs to the intensity of the city, brought me in touch with a much larger and complex urban world. One of my new high school friends who was spiritually sensitive and insightful, took me under her wing and we engaged in discussions about soul, spirit, invisible realms and other subjects of metaphysical speculation. Doubts about the existence of God and the relevance of religious tradition grew into an agnosticism which severely challenged my Jewish faith and identity.

My path as a seeker brought me into contact with Eastern religious literature, most notably, the Tao Te Ching and the Bhagavad Gita. While reading each of these classics, I felt the presence of something sublime and ineffable. Hungering for a deeper experience of the Tao led me to a life altering encounter with Zen teacher Philip Kapleau.

Even though I was a somewhat erratic Zen practitioner, I experienced a degree of awakening over the course of eight years. This had not, however, cleared up my neuroses and sense of suffering as I had hoped, but instead, rather threw it into sharper relief. At the age of twenty-nine years old, while living at a Buddhist retreat center in rural New England and in a relationship with a lovely, older W.A.S.P. woman, I found myself in the throes of a major depression as my latent Jewish identity came roaring back into life.