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.
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.”