The Jewish-Buddhist Encounter

Both faith communities have something to teach the other.

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Jews Alienated From Judaism

Of course, traditional prohibitions are generally of little concern to those Jews attracted to Buddhism, because most come from secular or liberal religious backgrounds in which the power of traditional sanctions has largely lost its authority. It's fair to say that many who feel the pull toward Buddhism are profoundly alienated from Judaism and in search of a new spiritual home purposely far from whatever patina of Jewish culture they have know. But why Buddhism?

One major reason is Buddhism's non-theistic nature. Buddhism says there is no God in any Judaic sense of the word, thereby making it easier for Jewish agnostics and atheists to embrace it without having to undergo a fundamental shift in their theological worldview.

Also making it easier is that Jews and Buddhists have no history of communal conflict, and that the charge of ingrained anti-Semitism has never been leveled against Buddhism.

Moreover, one does not have to formally convert to Buddhism to accept Buddhist thought or engage in the most common Buddhist practices, such as sitting or walking meditation. This allows those suspicious of any religious affiliation to in a sense have their cake and eat it too. It also allows those who remain connected to Judaism and Jewish culture to avoid the taboo of conversion while satisfying a desire for exotic spiritual exploration.

Additionally, comparative religion scholars note that Buddhism is perhaps the most psychologically attuned of the major religions. (Some even argue that Buddhism is more a philosophy or set of techniques for achieving psychological stability than a religious expression). For those contemporary Jews raised more in the company of Freud than Moses, this is yet another attraction to Buddhism.

Some observers also note that Judaism and Buddhism share an understanding of the nature of suffering. For Jews, suffering has been an unfortunate constant throughout their history, culminating in the Holocaust and infusing contemporary Jewish culture with a theology of suffering to the extent that even alienated Jews have imbibed it. Buddhism, meanwhile, anchors its vision of religious salvation in the question of suffering--both its cause and cure--teaching that putting aside expectations of desired outcomes alleviates spiritual suffering. The Jerusalem Report quoted one Israeli living in Dharamsala--the town in north India now home to the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist political and spiritual leader--as saying: "It's so Jewish, you see, to always talk about suffering, as Buddhists do."

Charles T. Strauss may have been the first Jewish Buddhist--often referred to in Buddhist circles as "BU-JUs," or, alternatively, "JU-BUs"--but it was during the 1950s and the era of the beatniks that the attraction of Jews to Buddhism first grabbed popular attention. Leading the way was poet Allen Ginsberg, who infused his often-outrageous work with Jewish imagery and Yiddish expressions (among his best-known works was Kaddish, about his mother's insanity and death), while extolling Buddhist, and, to a lesser degree, Hindu, spirituality.

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Ira Rifkin

Ira Rifkin is a national correspondent for Religion News Service based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval.