Was one of the great Jewish masters of all time a confused Buddhist?
It is a truism that many adult Jews who are dissatisfied with the tradition of their upbringing turn to Buddhism. This trend gives us the felicitous word, Jewbu, which I think is probably spelled Jubu.
For the record: I don’t view JuBus, as some people do, as having betrayed Judaism. I think most of them are responding rationally to their experience, which has often been one of dry, legalistic, empty, superficial, put-me-to-sleep Judaism. If they didn’t seek something else they would be meshugge. I do wish that they might be enlightened (har har) as to the richness and stunning insight of Judaism by new teachers or new methods.
My last entry on the Torah Portion “Kedoshim” (see below) holds the promise that maybe Jubus are not just a 20th century phenom. Was Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who wrote so powerfully about the nothingness that underlies reality, actually a Buddhist dressed up as a Jew? Was this Chasidic master, in fact, the first Jubu?
The realization of nothingness is central to Zen Buddhist practice and Levi Yitzchak’s ideas brush up against some Buddhist principles (it’s hard to write about Zen without contradiction – can there be a Zen principle? Once it’s laid down as a precept, idea, belief or principle, it’s not really Zen…but all I have is language).
Again, Levi Yitzchak writes that we are holy in that we can become aware of our essential nothingness – “Know that you come from nothing” – and that Jewish practice (mitzvoth) raise our consciousness of the nothingness underlying our existence, and the transitory nature of our materiality.
Shunryu Suzuki was a Japanese born American teacher of Zen Buddhism, and a Soto Zen priest. Does he agree with Levi Yitzchak? The
In his Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he writes,
[I]t is absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form, and it has some rules, or theory, or truth in its activity…it is one existence, which has not form or color and it is always ready to take form and color. (116)
He also writes,
Without nothingness, there is no naturalness – no true being. True being comes out of nothingness, moment after moment. Nothingness is always there, and from it everything appears. But usually, forgetting all about nothingness, you behave as if you have something. (109).