Rabbi Alan Lew, (1944- 2009) was the spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom. He was in the forefront of attempting to cultivate a spirituality bridging Judaism and Buddhism.
Lew’s coming of age as a Jew actually happened as he sought to deepen his Zen Buddhist practice. Disillusioned by the Judaism he’d experienced as a child, Lew was considering becoming ordained as a lay Buddhist priest. But he found himself unable to sew a priestly garment while on a retreat in the 1970s at Tassajara, a Zen center in Carmel Valley. As he meditated on that resistance, Lew said that “there was some sense of conflict between my being ordained as a Buddhist with my being Jewish.” It became a turning point, leading Lew toward Judaism, and ultimately to rabbinical school.
Lew seems to have a Buddhist view toward reality, its root metaphors without the religion itself. Life is a great sea of Being, an endless flow, we are all interconnected, and feel other people’s suffering. He formulates Judaism as mindfulness using the metaphor of “layered grid of awareness” as a bridge idea, both Buddhism and Judaism have a layer grid of awareness. Jewish prayer is about energy exchange and mindfulness.
That we are afloat in a great sea of being, an endless flow of becoming in which we are connected to all beings.” (This is Real, 16)
We die to the world every time we breathe out, and every time we breathe in, every time our breath returns to us of its own accord, we are reborn, and the world rises up into being again. (Ibid, 17)
Every spiritual tradition I am aware of speaks of a kind of layered mindfulness, a sensibility that works up and out of the body, to the heart and then to the mind and then finally to the soul. The Buddhist sutra On Mindfulness describes this kind of layered grid of awareness, and the Kabala, the Jewish mystical tradition, speaks of it too. According to the Kabala, we start out with our awareness in Asiyah – the world of physicality, the world of the body, our most immediately accessible reality. Then we become aware of the heart, yetzirah – the world of formation or emotion, that shadowy world between conception and its realization in material form. From there we move on to the world of pure intellect, Briyah, or creation, and then to Atzilut, the realm of pure spiritual emanation. (Ibid, 190)
I would visualize the words as an energy exchange – the words going up to God and God’s attention coming down. Prayer began bringing me to the same place my Zen practice had taken me… Before I prayed, I would study, in a prayer shawl and teffilin, sitting in half-lotus (One God Clapping, 154)
So yoga and directed meditation became part of the practice I offered at my synagogue. The meditation group changed the whole tenor of the Friday night minyan. Suddenly the service had great density and feeling… My goal was to help Jews deepen their Jewish practice with Buddhist-style meditation techniques, (Ibid 287)
Meditation and Jewish practice lead us to experience the oneness of all beings. We are all connected; each of us is created in the divine image, and other people’s suffering is our own. (Ibid 296)
But the first noble truth is that everything is suffering, and both Judaism and Buddhism insist that the only appropriate response to this suffering is to turn toward it, to attend to it. Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is “The Hearer of the Cries of the World,” and the Torah God is repeatedly described as hearing the cries of the oppressed. (Ibid 297)
I am used to the critique that Bu-Jews remove the religion from Buddhism and only leave the meditation However, I found in one review of Lew compare him unfavorably with Paul Williams, The Unexpected Way. So I read the latter work. Williams was a trained professor of Buddhism, familiar with the languages and the religion of Buddhism, who converted to Catholicism later in life. Williams study of Buddhism lead him to reject a religion without a theistic God, revelation, redemption, reward, and providence. He wrote a coherent, rational, and theological critique of Buddhism from a catholic point of view. The book was not one of those bad books for Jewish outreach kiruv that know neither Buddhism nor Judaism, and have little rationalism. This was a defense of theistic religion. Reading Lew in light of Williams, one is struck by the lack of any engagement with the theology of Judaism or Buddhism, beyond the metaphors. Lew comes off as more pragmatic than grasping the path of enlightenment, in either tradition. Or here is the debate in another context:
Rabbi LEW: It’s perfectly all right to use elements of one practice to nourish another, but you have to have a sense of what your central practice is, and you have to have integrity about following that path.
Nathan Katz practiced Buddhism for 15 years, and thinks there are irreconcilable differences between the two religions.
Professor NATHAN KATZ: I would say the fundamental difference between the two traditions is one is theistic and one is not. And even if you take the most esoteric, Judaic concepts of God, they still don’t reconcile with the Buddhist criticism of all concepts of God.
On the other hand, I just read Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. Knitter as a progressive catholic, ex-priest, boldly proclaims himself a syncretic who follows two religions. Knitter describes how his seminary students see it as adultery. Buddhism lets him give up the traditional categories of God, religious language, and revelation. The book harvests the last quarter century of American appreciation for Buddhism as a contribution for religion. Alan Lew avoided Buddha, Buddhist ritual, and Buddhist holidays and created what he called “Buddhist style” practices for import into Judaism. Knitter is not satisfied with Buddhist style and feels that accepting refuge in the Dharma does not conflict with being a Catholic.
Are there other solutions for Judaism? Are there other places to make the division between Judaism and Buddhism? For example, one of the sometimes readers of this blog who lives a haredi life in Brooklyn wants to write a book on non-dual Judaism from the sources of Judaism- Chabad, Rav Nahman, Nefesh HaHayyim, and Ramak. This would directly present Jewish thought, in a way that Lew does not. But at the same time, it would not reject the insights of seeing oneself in the Buddhist mirror. A Jewish theist who knows Kabbalah may not have to throw out the best that they see reflected elsewhere. Any thoughts?
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