Coming Home

Michael Stroud, unsure about how to be both a Buddhist and a Jew, talks with well-known Buddhists who have returned home to Judaism. They’ve found it fulfilling to practice both Buddhism and the religion of their birth.

Norman Fischer, sitting cross-legged on his cushion and wearing a kippa, or skullcap, is talking about the exodus from Egypt, the climactic moment when the Hebrews are cornered by Pharaoh. “They can’t go forward and they can’t go back,” he says. “It’s as if everything funnels down to that one moment and then”—Fischer’s arms suddenly sweep wide to part the Red Sea—“Liberation!” he shouts.

It’s a week before Passover on a bright, San Francisco spring day, and Fischer is helping lead a one-day retreat of sitting meditation and Jewish wisdom teachings at the Makor Or Jewish Meditation Center. Except for the Jewish teachings and the kippas, the retreat is largely indistinguishable from a one-day Zen retreat. This isn’t surprising, since Fischer is the former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and runs the Everyday Zen Center in Mill Valley across the bay.

I have joined several dozen Jews from a variety of backgrounds gathered in the small house that is Makor Or. I’m here, mostly, as a final step in vanquishing my lifelong notion that I need to decide whether I am a Buddhist or a Jew. It shouldn’t matter—I sit, I walk, I sing, I pray. I read Fischer’s Zen-inspired translations of the Psalms. There’s no conflict—although it has taken me up until now to realize that.

Fischer was never torn the way I’ve been. “I never felt that I rejected Judaism, or became a Buddhist,” he says. “I was ordained as a Zen priest, but I never saw that as switching. It’s really karma.”

My karma has led me from Hebrew School and a Bar Mitzvah in Redwood City to Ch’an retreats in Taiwan to Vipassana retreats in Marin County to Sabbaths in Southern California and back to Hebrew School—this time for my two children. I’m a tiny piece of an interesting phenomenon. Western Buddhism is chock-full of Jews: Roshi Bernie Tetsugen Glassman, Lama Surya Das, Natalie Goldberg, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Mel Weitsman, Dennis Genpo Merzel Roshi, Philip Kapleau, and on and on. So many Jews have taken to Buddhism that a term has been invented to describe them—“Jubu,” or occasionally, “Buju.” Their stories form a genre, ranging from The Jew in the Lotus, about a dialog between the Dalai Lama and a group of American Jews, to That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, Boorstein’s book about her dual identities.

Like me, some of these Jews have integrated Jewish and Buddhist practices into their lives. Others are committed wholly to Buddhist practice. None of them can escape their heritage, any more than blacks or Asians studying Buddhism can escape theirs. Not that some Jews don’t try. “In every person I know who has turned to Buddhism, there was both a sincere desire for spiritual gratification, and a desire to get away from Judaism,” maintains Alan Lew, Makor Or’s director and the rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom.

Lew spent years studying Zen. He was a practitioner at the San Francisco Zen Center and its Tassajara retreat facility, and the director of the Berkeley Zen Center. But as his practice deepened, he was startled to find Jewish “background noise” coming up in his meditation—Jewish imagery, phrases, childhood memories, desire for Jewish community. When that noise deepened into a core of Jewish identity, he decided to become a rabbi. He recounted his story in One God Clapping, a Bay Area bestseller.

Ten years ago, Alan Lew and Norman Fischer were key figures in my journey to making peace with my spiritual path. On a day of drumming rain, the two of them convened a daylong, Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in a giant yurt at San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm in Marin County. Dozens of us crammed into the tent to sit zazen, pray, do yoga, study Torah and read a sutra with a Zen abbot and a rabbi. No mix-and-match Zen prayers or Hebrew mantras. Just each tradition doing what it did best. I felt a sense of homecoming.

Why has being a Jew and a Buddhist been such a struggle for me? Some of it is undoubtedly cultural. Jews have a history of wrestling with spiritual issues, reaching back to the biblical tale of Jacob wrestling with God’s angel. The word “Israel,” or Yisrael, literally means “one who struggles with God.” The Talmudic practice of pilpul (“to dispute violently”) pits students against each other in spiritual argument. I don’t need the other students. My head pilpuls everything to death.

My father escaped Nazi Germany and my mother lived through the bombing of Britain. They came to the United States in 1948, two lucky European Jews who survived when millions didn’t. They settled in Palo Alto and brought my siblings and me up as thousands of post-World War II Jews did: immersed in temple life, festivals, Bar Mitzvahs and gatherings of Jewish family and friends. But there was little or no exposure to God or the rich reservoir of mystical Jewish tradition that the Nazis nearly extinguished when they destroyed Eastern European Jewry. I loved the social and ritual rhythms of that life, but when I began searching for spiritual answers at around 17, I turned elsewhere.

So did Fischer. His family kept kosher, went to services and developed its community around the temple. He enjoyed it. A rabbi was one of his mentors. Fischer used to lead prayer services. But when he developed a “religious impulse” to understand death and reality as a teenager, he began studying Zen, not Jewish thought. “It really seemed to me at the time that Judaism had nothing to say about those things,” Fischer says. “Judaism seemed more like a cultural system.”

Lama Surya Das describes a similar experience on Long Island. “I would ask a question in Hebrew School, and they would say, ‘No one knows. Be quiet,’” he says. “The parents wanted us to marry a Jewish mate, but the belief in God was erratic. I didn’t feel a burning devoutness in Judaism that I feel in my own Buddhist practice.”

Seeking my own truths, I started meditating at 17. A high school counselor thought Transcendental Meditation would be good for a high-strung kid like me. I loved it—especially my teacher’s guarantee that I would become enlightened if I just meditated twenty minutes twice a day for five years.

I stuck with TM through my sophomore year of college. But when TM-ers began talking about levitating and walking through walls, I decided to check out Zen. I settled on the Berkeley Buddhist Priory, an offshoot of Shasta Abbey, a Soto Zen sect in Northern California. I had a little altar in my room, sat for an hour a day and regularly attended one-day retreats. (I also regularly went to Shabbat, or Sabbath, dinners at my parents’ house and had an observant Jewish girlfriend.)

I loved Zen, but I still felt uneasy at times, wondering whether it was possible to be both Jewish and Buddhist simultaneously. My Zen teacher thought it was possible. “But you may become like the hiker who jumps from path to path on a mountain,” he warned. “You may not get to the top.”

After I graduated from college, I moved to Taiwan to study Chinese and Buddhism, and start my career as a journalist. I studied with Master Sheng-yen, a teacher of Ch’an Buddhism who divides his time between Taiwan and the U.S. I immersed myself in the life of his temple outside Taipei—meditating, studying sutras, working in the garden, sitting in intensive retreats called ch’an ch’i.

Sometimes, chanting the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit at 4:30 a.m., I’d have the strange feeling that I was actually chanting Torah. The sing-song cadence, the chanting unbroken by punctuation, the sense of revealed truth took me back to the years when I was one of my old cantor’s prize Torah readers.

When I decided to take the Buddhist precepts, I worried that I might be “converting” from Jew to Buddhist. I asked one of the Chinese nuns-in-training at the Taipei temple what she thought.

“Don’t the ten commandments talk about not killing, not stealing, not lying, not being promiscuous and not drinking?” she asked.

“Well, everything but the drinking part,” I replied.

“So how are you really breaking with your tradition? There’s nothing about the precepts that say you have to stop being Jewish.”

That was enough for me. I took the precepts.

After three years in Taiwan, though, I returned to the U.S. and decided to explore Jewish practice again. I was shocked how little the Jewish people I encountered knew—or cared to know—about Buddhism and my experience.

I contacted the rabbi I grew up with and told him about my Buddhist studies in Taiwan and my desire to learn Jewish spirituality. He was delighted. “You’d be surprised how many kids I talk to have also been involved in cults,” he remarked.

A Hassidic friend of my family proudly told me how he had hammered a small buddha into bits and tossed it off the Santa Cruz pier into the ocean. His rabbi had told him that the buddha, a present from his brother, was an idol that must be destroyed.

My most eye-opening experience with misinformed Jews, though, came in 1990, when an editor at a Los Angeles Jewish newspaper assigned me to write a story about the journey of a delegation of Jewish leaders to visit the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama initiated the meeting to discover, among other things, how Jews had managed to maintain their religion and culture after 2,000 years in diaspora.

The Dalai Lama and his Jewish visitors had plenty to talk about: the nature of existence and divinity, the shared longings of exiled Jews and Tibetans, the search for ways to make ancient traditions relevant to a new generation. Buddhism, I pointed out in my article, had been a magnet for some of the Dalai Lama’s Jewish disciples who felt their birth religion had no spiritual answers.

After reading my story, the editor-in-chief rejected it. “The idea of a Jewish-Buddhist dialogue is hogwash,” he said. “What does the Dalai Lama have to do with the Jewish community? I’m not interested in another story about bored, middle-class Jewish kids experimenting with Eastern religions. Our audience doesn’t care.”

But he was wrong. Three years later The Jew in the Lotus was published, becoming one of the signature books of the Jewish Renewal movement.

As for my parents, they were inclined to dismiss my meditation experiences as a youthful preoccupation that might now, since I was back in the States, give way to more important considerations like career and raising a family.

And they were right. For the ten years after my return from Taiwan, I focused on building my journalism career, getting married, buying a house and having two kids. Bitter at my early experiences upon returning to the U.S., I also stopped meditating and largely lost interest in a Jewish or Buddhist spiritual path for nearly a decade.

I can’t blame the Jewish community for my decision. I wanted to reintegrate into American life and I did so by throwing off my Asian-Buddhist accoutrements. My bitterness was a useful excuse to myself.

It’s easier for me in hindsight to understand and forgive my reception from other Jews. I returned to the U.S. at a time when aggressive, Eastern religions like the Moonies and the Hare Krishnas were recruiting Jewish kids. The Jewish community responded with groups like “Jews for Judaism” to rescue its “brainwashed” children. Listening to my stories of monasteries and monks with shaved heads, the Jews I knew painted Buddhism with the same brush.

Jewish assimilation and intermarriage in America were then, as now, a huge topic in Jewish circles. The Jewish adults I grew up with felt a post-Holocaust imperative to ensure the survival of the Jewish people at all costs. But that wasn’t a persuasive argument for me to study Jewish spirituality. What’s the use of a religion surviving into future generations if it has nothing to say?

I imagine many Buddhist practitioners born into Judaism can recite their own litany of misunderstandings from family, friends and community. Thankfully, some of them persevered when I did not.

Lama Surya Das took grief for his decision in the 1970’s to study at the feet of gurus in the Himalayas when his childhood peers were becoming doctors and lawyers. “Your mother gets ten years of grey hairs for every one year you spend in India, but don’t feel guilty,” one aunt chided him.

He’s also endured ribs from other Jews.  “Jeffrey, the goyim don’t need you. We need you,” the late Jewish folksinger Shlomo Carlbach once told him. An old sage Surya Das encountered while teaching in Israel admonished him: “Now that you’ve done all that”—that is, Buddhism—“come to Jerusalem and learn Hebrew!”

To their credit, Surya Das’ parents today have accepted his choices. His mother jokingly calls herself the “Mama Lama” and him the “Deli Lama.” His father likes to say, “Jeffrey is a better Jew than most Jews I know.”

Genpo Dennis Merzel Roshi’s mother was dismayed when he shaved his head. Later, she was at peace with his decision and spent the last years of her life at his Kanzeon Zen Center in Salt Lake City, sometimes joining in meditation.

Curiously, Merzel’s orthodox grandfather—the rabbi of a small synagogue in Venice Beach, California—was Merzel’s most ardent supporter. “Same thing, same thing,” he used to say, by way of comparing Zen and Judaism. When Merzel took shukei tokudo, or ordination, in 1977, his grandfather attended.

Sylvia Boorstein, who attended her first Vipassana retreat in 1977 after raising four children, says she encountered no resistance from her large, extended family. “No one ever said, ‘How could you do this Buddhist thing?’” she says.

It was only when she became a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California, that people began to question her about whether she was a “this” or a “that.” The question concerned her enough that she decided to go public about her Jewishness. At a teachers’ conference in Dharamsala, she recalls, she told the “whole Buddhist community” that she was a practicing Jew. “Nobody batted an eye,” she says.

Difficult as my own reception from the Jewish community was, I know it would have been far worse if I had “converted” to a religion that required me to renounce Judaism, such as Christianity. My parents tolerated my “Buddhist phase” because I still had Shabbat with them, went to High Holy Services and didn’t spout outlandish ideas. My father only rounded on me once I became involved with Judaism again, and began talking about Jewish mysticism. “Leave the God stuff to the Christians,” he told me.

Natalie Goldberg, author of Long, Quiet Highway and Writing Down the Bones, describes a similar reception from her atheist father, who thought organized religion was “malarkey.” He had no problem with her studying Zen with Katagiri Roshi in Minnesota. “He got nervous when I got back into Judaism,” she says.

Unlike Rabbi Lew’s rediscovery of Judaism on a meditation cushion, I ultimately rediscovered meditation in a Jewish temple. It was one of the revelations that helped me finally begin to let go of my obsession with being a “this” or a “that,” and focus on simply practicing.

In 1993, I heard from a friend that a temple called Makom Ohr Shalom in the San Fernando Valley was celebrating the installation of a new rabbi named David Cooper, who had previously studied Sufism and Buddhist meditation. I attended the ceremony and picked up his book about his experiences, Entering the Sacred Mountain.

I was touched by his account of his spiritual odyssey—particularly by how his retreats at places like the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, helped awaken in him a Jewish spirituality that led him to years of study in Israel, and finally to his ordination as a rabbi.

So I joined his synagogue. This time I felt a strong pull to spiritual practice. Cooper led retreats that included periods of Vipassana meditation and Jewish study and ritual. That was new. I was used to meditation taught by masters in robes wielding hsiang ban, or awakening sticks. I was not used to rabbis teaching dharma.

To my surprise, meditation helped Jewish practice come alive for me. The Jewish lifecycle is full of rituals, holidays andcommandments which are all powerful tools for “waking up” to the reality of life. So is meditation.

My time meditating at Makom Ohr Shalom brought me into contact for the first time with the work of Insight Meditation Society founders Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and Jack Kornfield. These three people brought the “bare attention” of Vipassana meditation to the U.S. after their studies in Asia, but they left the robes, the shaved heads and much of the ritual behind. That made the practice accessible to many Jews, including me, who might otherwise never have tried it.

Another such Jew is Sheila Peltz Weinberg, a reconstructionist rabbi in Amherst, Massachusetts. Weinberg didn’t go to IMS to study Buddhism. “I went out of curiosity about silence and meditation,” she said. “The teachers I was studying with had no interest in my becoming a Buddhist.”

Taken by the practice, she helped IMS’ sister organization, the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, organize a conference to explore how Jews could integrate meditative practices into their lives. She has since led many retreats for Jews—many of them with Sylvia Boorstein. As they’ve taught together, “the boundaries have gotten fuzzier and fuzzier about who is the Torah teacher and who is the dharma teacher,” said Weinberg.

Jews are open to the teachings, Boorstein says, because “mindfulness and loving-kindness aren’t parochial. The idea is fundamental to all religions.”

Rabbi and Sensei Don Ani Shalom Singer puts it this way—that Zen and Judaism are simply vocabularies for oneness and wholeness. “ ‘Buddha, dharma and sangha,’” he says, “is another way of saying ‘God, Torah and Israel.’”

While I believe that in my heart, I’ve never forgotten my Berkeley Zen teacher’s warning that practicing Buddhist and Judaism traditions simultaneously might slow my spiritual progress. Practically speaking, it can be very tiring to schlep from dharma talks to Torah discussions, from Vipassana sitting groups to Shabbat dinners—especially with kids in tow. By not “committing” fully to one or the other, am I fully deriving the spiritual benefits of either? As Lama Surya Das puts it, “Adding a little Buddhism to your life is good, no doubt. But I’m interested in a more transformative spirituality.”

That’s the danger of the Jubu phenomenon. Since The Jew in the Lotus was published, “Jubu” has become a fashionable label. There are Jubu Passovers, Jubu discussion groups, Jubu websites. I read an article in a Jewish newspaper several years ago in which a Jubu columnist bewailed the fact that her Jubu friends were spending too much time in their Buddhist pursuits. She called them “BuBus.”

I asked Natalie Goldberg how she reacts when someone calls her a Jubu, and was surprised at the vehemence of her response.

“I hate it,” she says. “I think it’s very derogatory. It’s like calling someone a Jewish princess. I really take offense. It has no idea of where I’m coming from. I don’t call myself a Jewish Buddhist. I say I’m a Zen person and I’m also a Jew.”

Goldberg’s years of sitting with Katagiri Roshi in Minnesota awakened a desire to understand Judaism, learn Hebrew, travel to Israel and meet Hassidic Jews in Jerusalem, stories she tells in her book Long, Quiet Highway. Today, she feels a deep connection to her Jewish roots, celebrating Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. She leads “liberation” retreats about “Jews waking up to be Jews.”

“I’m very proud of being a Jew,” she says. “I practice Zen very hard. Judaism is just who I am.”

It’s who I am, too. Goldberg’s is the best answer I’ve found to the koan of why I simultaneously live in two traditions. Perhaps my life would be simpler if I practiced solely as a Buddhist or a Jew. But it’s not an option. As it is for Norman Fischer, it’s my karma to be both. The point of spiritual practice, anyway, isn’t to make it to the top of the mountain. It’s to savor the walk going up.