A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, April 28, 2008

More Ado About Nothing

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.

A tangent before my real topic: the JuBu phenomenon is, I think, a babyboomer phenomenon. Of course, there are Jewish buddhists my age - and I'm all for it - but my generation's Judaism is characterized not by people turning from Judaism in search of something else, but in a profusion of new Jewish expressions, a reinterpretation of Jewish culture (sometimes with the annoying Generation-X ironic distance), an intense pride in Jewish folkways and an insistence on breathing new life into them. See, for example, jewcy.com, shemspeed.com, heebmagazine.com Most of this profusion is a a reengagement with Jewish culture, and not a religious trip. Anyway, back to the matter at hand....

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 Zen Temple he took over when he came to San Francisco had once been a synagogue. Hmmm…..

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).

There are essential differences between Judaism and Buddhism, to be sure. But it is intriguing that these two masters, separated by centuries, and writing about traditions separated by continents and history, use similar language to describe their understanding of the nature of reality.

1 comment:

  1. Rabbi Josh’s article “More Ado About Nothing”
    Since I have not studied Buddhism, I am not fully qualified to speak about it. Some of the sayings of Buddha seemed very true to me as a young man, but they seemed to me to be only common sense. All knowledge comes for our Creator, so I am sure He is teaching individuals in all religions, races and nationalities many truths. So far I find the best truth to be expressed in the Torah. The Torah explains many mysteries about the Lord and also the mysteries about ourselves.
    Levi Yitzchadh of Berditchev (a Buddist) wrote about nothingness that underlies reality. This truth is very close to an understanding of the spiritual nature of the Lord. God is all wise, powerful, good and knowing, but His is “nothing”. He is not “matter” or a “thing (matter)”. He encompasses all without end either geographically or time wise.
    The Lord is the ultimate in Perfection yet He is “nothing”.