By: Bernard Starr, PhD



Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 6:06pm
“Jewish Dharma”
Column: Spiritual Psychology


Last year I wrote a column about Dr. Brenda Shoshanna’s “Kosher Zendo," a spiritual center that melded Jewish and Zen Buddhist practices. Many readers wondered how her Zendo called “Mishkan” could partner two traditions that on the surface seem to have little in common. After all, Jews are “people of the book.” Judaism is all about the written word (Torah), traditions, rituals, 613 commandments (mitzvahs) of dos and don’ts along with endless Talmudic discussion and exegesis of the meaning of “the word.” Zen Buddhists on the other hand just sit in silence (zazen) to connect with their “original nature.”

To answer the conundrum of how these two practices can share common ground and work in tandem, Dr. Brenda Shoshanna just published Jewish Dharma (Da Capo Press/Perseus Books Group, Sept. 2008).Her inspiring book written with love and passion for both practices details not only how Jewish and Zen practices work seamlessly together but how each enriches the other for a deeper more meaningful spiritual experience.

Zen immerses the practitioner in a higher consciousness that transcends conditioned beliefs and personal concerns. This consciousness called “emptiness,” or the ground of being, enables the profound truths of the Torah—and other religious and spiritual texts and teachings of all traditions— to leap forth from the shrouds of concepts and rituals.

Jewish Dharma will be a welcome gift to the legions of Jews who have embraced Buddhism and other alternative spiritual paths—particularly since it is published just in time for the Jewish high holy days of Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. Even non-practicing Jews experience a nostalgic call of return during the high holy days.

Upwards of one third of American Buddhists are reported to be Jewish. Many of these apostates drifted away from Judaism because of vapid or highly ritualized religious training that did not deliver the spiritual connection they hungered for; eventually Buddhism filed the gap. In the spirit of Tikun (healing) Jewish Dharma offers these seekers an opportunity to celebrate their roots along with their commitment to Buddhism.

Jewish Dharmais not just a descriptive or academic treatise “about” Zen and Jewish practices. It's an intimate first person account of Brenda Shoshanna‘s powerful personal experiences from childhood onward with Judaism, and later with Zen Buddhism, that speak with vibrant authenticity.

Brenda’s improbable journey begins in an orthodox Hassidic Jewish family and community in Brooklyn and eventually includes her Zen Buddhist spiritual community in New York and Japan. Unlike those who reject Judaism for another path, Brenda never abandoned Judaism. Her discovery of Zen Buddhism opened another rich spiritual world that posed no contradiction for her. On the contrary, she found meaning and beauty in both traditions, which expanded her spiritual awareness. She loved her Jewish family, Rabbi mentors and Jewish community; she also revered Zen practice and her Zen mentors and community (sangha).

Her extraordinary spiritual journey was not without bumps, obstacles, challenges and soul searching tests of faith. I interviewed Brenda to explore further some of the questions and issues raised by her book.

Question: Brenda, how does a Jewish girl growing up in the insulated orthodox Jewish world of Borough Park Brooklyn who loves Judaism, her family and community even get exposure to Zen Buddhism?

Answer: When I was 15 years old a history teacher in high school gave me something wrapped in a brown paper bag and said, “Take this home and read it. I know it’s just for you.” I hid the package under my arm, rushed home and when I opened it, there was a book in it by D. T. Suzuki entitled “On Zen”. That was the beginning. I couldn’t put the book down. For years I carried it with me wherever I went and read it over and over.

Q. Orthodoxy of any ilk is generally suspicious of “the other.” More so when the other is vastly different or alien. Did you have any of these feelings about Zen Buddhism.

A. When I first read the book I felt I had come home. I had no idea what much of it meant consciously, or what the koans were about but I was seized with a feeling of well being and happiness. Intuitively I felt that I’d found a jewel. I didn’t view this as another religion, or even as Zen Buddhism, just as a deep truth of life that I’d been waiting for.

Q. Why do you think that you were open to this experience when almost everyone from an orthodox community is not?

A. In my family everyone had extremely strong and different views about the way to be a good Jew, (including the very religious members). This made me wonder a great deal about what was the true way? I also saw, at a very early age, that there was a real difference between what people believed, how they spoke and the way they behaved. This troubled and confused me greatly. I longed for a practice which helped others become simple, honest and direct.

Q. How did your family react to your interest?

A. With the exception of a good friend at school, I didn’t speak much about it to my family or to those in the neighborhood. Later on, I spoke to others. By the time I actually found the Zendo and began to practice zazen (17 years later), it seemed natural and even inevitable to those who knew me.

Q. What do they think today?

A. My family is used to it. They have not seen it take me away from Jewish practice. In fact, the opposite is true. It has made my Jewish practice stronger, more vital and alive. And, at many times, I could not have continued Jewish practice without the support I received from my practice of zazen.

Q. Could you say more about that?

A. Zen practice and the support of the Zen community enabled me to cope with and survive the difficulties I personally encountered in becoming part of the more traditional Jewish communities. My personal values, style and way of life were often not in synch with the orthodox Jewish community and I experienced a great deal of judgmental rejection and pressure to conform. Therefore, I was very much on my own in this practice and deeply needed the strength, support, self acceptance and sense of true companionship I received both from zazen itself and from those practicing it, (the sangha).

Q. While you are artful in finding points of intersection between Judaism and Buddhism you also identify differences. For example, that Judaism is dressed in history, tradition, learning and many prescriptions for behavior while Buddhism abandons mind to be wholly in the present moment, naked and alone stripped of concepts. How can both represent truth?

A. Truth is one. These are simply different ways of approaching, different aspects of the one truth. There are times, of course, in our human life when we practice in relationships, with one another, and the mitzvot are exquisite guidelines and forms of meditation and mindfulness for doing so. They also are a direct link to bringing divine energy into our lives. In our relationships and interactions, simply remaining in the present moment, naked and alone, stripped of concepts is often not possible, and at times not desirable either. Those moments of being naked and alone, stripped of concepts are forms of practice, and describe times of deep insight, which bring clarity and strength. But then we must take this into our daily life.

Q. The main practice of Zen is zazen—sitting meditation. Is there anything like that prescribed in Judaism.

A. Jewish practice speaks often of meditation, the value of silence and listening for the still, small voice. There are also stories of Rebbes of old who sat for one hour, prayed for one hour and then sat for one hour again. This kind of practice was common and is supported by many passages in Torah. There are many, many forms of Jewish meditation and they are all enhanced by the silence, focus and concentration that arises as a result of sitting meditation.

Q. Why is it then that so many Jews, particularly the ones who have drifted away from Judaism, say they never heard of meditation in their religious education, or for that matter any genuine spirituality or spiritual practices in their religious instruction for their Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs— they recall only rituals and mechanical repetition of prayers. What’s wrong with religious education that it routinely performs spiritual bypasses?

A. Unfortunately, due in part, I believe, to the reaction to the Holocaust, a great deal of fear overcame the Jewish world and that rigidified much of the teachings. As a consequence much of what is in the Torah slipped into the background and was not emphasized. But in fact, meditation has always been at the heart of Jewish practice. So many young people deeply miss the spiritual aspect of the practice and therefore seek their spiritual nourishment in other traditions, such as Zen, yoga, etc. Then they become so involved in these practices that they forget about, and eventually get completely cut off from, their own original traditions. Bringing Zen meditation together with Torah practice, in my view, brings in the spiritual component and also allows us to see the power and beauty of Torah with new eyes. As we do zazen we become able to see how all of Torah can be viewed as a meditation, including that which may, on the surface, seem mostly mundane.

Q. Family and community are the centerpieces of Jewish life. Even prayer sessions require community—the minyan. Zen Buddhism comes out of a monastic tradition of individual practice and a loosely defined spiritual community. Doesn’t that say that these two traditions are quite different?

A. Actually, the spiritual community in Zen practice, the sangha, is considered to be one of the three treasures of Zen. The community is deeply needed and supportive. It can be said that the sangha is the spiritual family. Not only does the sangha gather to do sesshins (retreats) and daily sitting, but the energy and presence of others not only strengthens our sitting and determination, but once we are off the cushion, we gain much wisdom and growth through our interaction with sangha.

Q. Relationships are also central to Judaism. According to Jewish teachings everyone needs a soul mate or partner to be complete; and that requires reaching out. Zen Buddhism says that our original nature is whole, complete and perfect. To rediscover that nature you reach within—a solo journey to the inner depths of being. How can these two concepts of who we are work together?

A. Zen practice is not about concepts. It is about tasting the truth of your life for yourself. It is not a matter of matching concepts, but of directly experiencing who you are, where you are, where you are going and what your life is. For this reason it says, “Wash out your mouth before you speak about Zen.” Some Zen students have deep love relationships and soul mates. Others do not, just as in Judaism. The difference is that in Zen practice there is no strict rule of whether you should or should not. You are not judged one way or the other. From the Zen view, whether or not you have a love relationship you are and always will be whole and complete. Judaism views the matter differently. But in Zen practice, it is up to you to find out for yourself.

Q. Both Judaism and Zen speak to pain and suffering in life and the world. How are they the same and how do they differ in their understanding of those experiences.

A. One of the main focuses of Jewish practice is Tikkun Olam or healing the world. We are here to bring down divine energy and to repair the world. Our suffering arises when we do not follow our purpose for being here, become lost in the material world, distracted and thus separated from God. However, by following the mitzvot, by learning, engaging in prayer, charity and acts of kindness, compassion and wisdom our suffering is transformed into strength and we bring light to all. In this vein, Judaism also views any suffering that we undergo as a fixing, a balancing of soul and way of teaching us to make the right choices, and grow in righteousness and endurance.

Zen says that we are all affected by the three poisons, greed, anger and folly. Our suffering arises from them and from our karma of the past which has created them. Buddha said that we have all been shot by a poison arrow and that he was a doctor who had come to the world to pull the arrow out. Zen practice, which is also a practice of purification, is a direct way to pull out the arrow. It dissolves suffering and reduces the poisons in our lives. In zazen we take complete responsibility for our own experience, face it bravely, do not run away from it, taste it fully and learn to let it go. Over and over, we return to the present moment, to our precious breath, which heals all. These two ways of viewing suffering are not at all in conflict, but enhance and support one another. As we become calmer, clearer and kinder within, we are so much better able to do the mitzvot with kavanaugh (intention), sincerity and wholeness.

Q. You have found comfort, beauty and deep meaning in joining Jewish and Zen practice. Can other religions do the same?

A. I do not view Zen as a religion, but a practice. It is a practice of being fully human, fully awake, alive, kind and available to all. We can take these qualities and apply them to any religion or to cooking, gardening, swimming or simply living life to the fullest. Zen is not based upon beliefs, theories or theologies. It is simply the practice of making friends with yourself and with the entire world.

Thanks Brenda.

To learn more about Dr. Brenda Shoshanna and “Jewish Dharma” visit her website:
http://www.jewishdharma.com/ or send her an E-mail: topspeaker@yahoo.com

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(My recently published book "Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality and Psychology to be Truly Free" is published by Rowman and Littlefield (Oct. 2007) and is now available at Amazon.com,Barnes & Noble.com and other major book outlets.)
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Bernard Starr, Ph.D., formerly professor of developmental and educational psychology at the City University of New York, now teaches “Spirituality and Psychology in Film” at Marymount Manhattan College. In addition to his work in radio (“The Longevity Report”), he is a longtime contributor of commentary and opinion articles to numerous major newspapers and other publications. He is also the President of the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy and is the main United Nations representative for the Institute of Global Education that founded the Mucherla Global School in Mucherla, India. © Copyright 2008 by Bernard Starr.…………………………………………………..

(My recently published book "Escape Your Own Prison: Why We Need Spirituality
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