Tag Archives: Buddhism

Meditation Conference

The organizers of the meditation conference assumed meditation was a means of sitting and saying a verbal focus which would lead to calm, well-being, and better health. They wanted to find out how this truth of meditation plays itself out in the religions and cultures of the world. Instead, they found themselves with over fifty experts on meditation techniques in Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism saying that this definition of meditation is not found in the traditional texts or traditional meditation communities. There was a feeling that Western people, in America and Europe, have an idea of meditation and speak of meditation as a know entity that was unknown to the academics in the field.

We felt that we could have used a panel session on where this idea of mediation came from and how in the last 35 years in has become part of Western religion and spirituality. In short, we pieced together that the theosophists and translators of the sacred books of the east created a version of mediation as psychology. In the 1970’s when TM and Zen became popular as well as reading the older works, then we get a flurry of books on “what is meditation.” By the 1980’s we can speak of the “meditation of poetry”, the “meditation of surfing” the “meditation of yoga” or the “meditation of Chabad fabrengen” A rightful possession of American spirituality that Americans wont let experts take away from them. Herbert Benson created the relaxation response and formulated meditation as a form of calm and healthy wellbeing. But this definition is not a traditional one. This was further removed from any tradition by psycho neurology that used its own definitions not accepted by any known religion- except contemporary spirituality. Even frum jews love to use the word when it does not correspond to anything in traditional texts.

So the conference ran as follows:

The calmness of meditation is claimed to be based on the Indic concept of Samadhi, but Samadhi is not calmness, rather a secession of emotions, desires, thoughts, and brain functions so one can transcend the world. Indian and Buddhism meditation is not about calmness and wellness- it is about pain and suffering and rubbing your nose in the inevitability of suffering. Zen is not very calm and includes sweat inducing koans, being hit by the Roshi, unquestioning tasks, and pain. Jewish texts on hitbddedut and kavvanah are about coming closer to God sometimes via ecstasy and emotional upheaval.

The modern definition takes out the purpose of meditation in India or China which is to either escape the world or seek enlightenment. And it has little to do with the Jewish and Islamic themes of God in the heart, or the Tibetan and Daoist alchemical techniques for longevity. After the presentation on vipassana, any vestiges of the opening premises were gone. Vipassana was originally the national ideal of Burma for a educated well cultivated approached to stoically wait for the British colonialists to leave. It was then modernized in the Vietnam War, but still little to do with the current practice of that name. There was little respect for the Dalai Lama at the conference with his promising this-worldly happiness and well being for those who meditate, when his own Tibetan traditions do not teach that.

There was a general consensus that most current practices performed in the west were recent. They were either from the term of the 20th century and involved modernization and Westernization. We find Buddhists reading William James and rediscovering new techniques in manuscript. Then there are new versions of the 1960’s. Finally, there was consensus that anyone claiming tradition and authority in the US teaching “meditation” in the modern sense was either a charlatan or a student of one. Trust those who either acknowledge they are doing something modern or those who don’t promise calm and well being. Everyone saw a decrease in interest in traditional forms of meditation since the 1990’s becuase everyone now knows that they want this new Western meditation – but they want it with a Yoga, Hasidic, or QiGong veneer.

From a Jewish point of view, this means that Ramak, Ari”zl, Chabad, and Rav Nahman all have versions of hitbodedut, hitbonenut, kavvanah, and yihud but there is nothing gained conceptually or linguistically by calling them meditation and they have little to do with any clinical calming technique. (it might have briefly made sense in the 1970’s when stolid religion was breaking down and the BT world was aiming in this realm.) The reliance of the Piesetzna and Menachem Eckstein on modern psychology is par for the course-as is Aryeh Kaplan’s reading of the Dover Publishing Co. books from the early 20th century on Tibetan and Chinese meditation. And sitting for mindfulness before davening is not Buddhist, not Jewish, not Indian but it is American new age spiritual. Sitting before davening has little to do with the Ramak or Ari”zl.

By the end we concluded that there is use for term like visualization, body techniques, or mental apophasis.
One can speak of a Jewish kavvanah of the Ramak as a form of visualization. But it does not share the formal aspects of sitting of the Zen tradition and it lacks the ending of mental facilities like Samadhi and it lack to goal to escape the world of most Buddhist practices. It does not have the mental requirements of Jnana. Yet, there is more to the analogy than just visions since it does take one to a place above the “pain of this world” creating some very weak similarity to Jnana and Samadhi. But the goal of daat and berakhah are very unYogic. One can also find close similarities to Sufis and certain out of context Daoist similarities.

Now what? We shall see if they get funding for follow-up conferences.

[Natan – I know that your approach disagrees. I have read your material so you don’t have to send it to me again as comments.]

Aleksandrov, Rav Kook, Buddhism, and Gentile Religion

I subscribe to the VBM shiur by Tamir Granot on the letters of Rav Kook. Currently, the discussion is a letter of Rav Kook to Shmuel Aleksandrov on the topic of modern philosophy and the wisdom of other religions. The shiur is entirely from Rav Kook’s perspective, I want to add a little background on Alexandrov and the give Alexandrov’s perspective.

The initial letter from him is in Samuel Alexandrov, Mikhteve meḥḳar u-viḳoret: al devar ha-Yahadut ṿeha-rabanut ba-zeman ha-aḥaron (Yerushalaim: M. ṿe-G. Aleksandrov 1931). The first volume of Mikhteve Mehkar from 1906 is readily available, but the 1931 second volume is missing from JTSA and YU, rumored by a catalog to be at Penn and seems to only really exist in the US at Harvard. However, it is available in several copies at JNUL. Most of the following is from Alexandrov’s letter.

Rabbi Shmuel Aleksandrov (d. 1941) had been a close friend of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook in Volozhin, where they both studied. Unlike Kook, Aleksandrov never left Russia, and became a rabbi in Bobruisk. Until his death at the hands of the Germans in 1941, Aleksandrov was a spiritual leader to many rabbis, particularly during the severe religious persecutions of the 1920s and ’30s in the USSR.

Aleksandrov propounded a grand theory of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, containing deep roots in the Kabbalah and Maharal. According to Aleksandrov, of the two trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, the former is an exclusively Jewish possession, i.e. Torah, while the Tree of Knowledge belongs to the Gentiles. Among its fruits are scientific-technical progress, philosophy, and art. Nevertheless, there exists a mystical exchange of the fruits of both trees. By giving to the world the fruits of the Tree of Life, Jews consecrate the Gentile world, while simultaneously Jews receive from the Gentiles the fruits of vital knowledge and ideas.

Among these ideas of the nations, Alexandrov especially seeks to find a place for the wisdom learned from other religions, specifically the idea of Buddhist nothingness. Aleksandrov claimed that one universal truth forms the basis of all religions; hence, the Buddhist concept of nirvana and Hasidic concept of ayin point to the same concept in different words. He made this assertion based not on the study of texts nor from encountering Buddhists, but rather from the conceptualizations of religion found in the writings of Schelling and Schopenhauer.

Alexandrov postulates a universal religion given by Moses and reiterated by Plato,that overcomes the abstract intellect knowledge of contemporary knowledge by incorporating emotional and psychological knowledge, and offering individual salvation.

Aleksandrov reinterprets the thought of his forefather the Maharal to suggest a complementary movement between Israel and the nations, rather than an antagonistic struggle. For Alexandrov, the dialectic of Israel and the nations, presented by Maharal, will be overcome at the end of days when all national differences will be abolished by the coming of the Messiah.

Rabbi Kook found this approach to concede too much to universalism. Rav Kook responded to Aleksandrov’s universal claims with a inclusivist claim that all truth is from Judaism, and in other places states that Jews can elevate the light in other faiths. Here, Rav Kook presents his view of God as not the monotheism of the philosophers, rather the light, the spectrum of colors, and Edenic watering of the Zohar. Rav Kook accentuates the Schopenhauer pessimism of Buddhism and states that even Buddhists want to get beyond the pessimism of this world. (Google Schopenhauer and Buddhism for more details). I don’t have a scan of Alexandrov in my computer but I will cite Rav Kook as in the VBM shuir and another paragraph from latter in the same letter. He writes:

Monotheism is a fabrication of gentiles, an imprecise translation, a sort of self-contradictory comprehensible infinity, and therefore can lead to nothing. This is not the source of the name of the God of Israel, the infinite, incomprehensible root of all existence, because He is the existence of the world who can be comprehended and spoken of only through the nuances of colors through many deeds and abundant peace, his profusion of love and courage. Israel proclaims, “This is my God and I will adore Him,” and can see these [colors], not the barren wilderness of Islamic monotheism, nor Buddhism’s negation, only the highest existence which brings joy to all and gives life to everything, revealed through the subjective revelation of all hearts who seek and comprehend him.

As for the reality of nothingness in the statements of those of Buddhist leanings, it seems that they mean the reality of the force which aspires to negate and nullify absolutely…Jewish consciousness, however, in the goodness of God’s knowledge, brings about a recognition of the absolute reality. …Thus we find that even this contradiction between Buddhism and Judaism is not absolute opposites, because reality as viewed without God is everywhere evil and bitter, and in its midst lies the longing for absolute negation, which will in the end be fulfilled.

Aleksandrov had observed that Jews throughout history acquired knowledge from the wisdom all of nations during the exile, and claimed that contemporary Jews can continue this process through study of Buddhism and other religions. Rav Kook, on the other hand, found all of religion in Judaism, minimizing any need to study other religions.

This debate played itself out in their differing concepts of religion. For Aleksandrov, an infinite inner core of the Divine resides behind the particular Jewish commandments; the current versions express the infinite by limiting it to concrete forms. In contrast, for Rav Kook, the commandments in their concrete particular forms contain an infinite essence that needs to be brought into daily life.
For Aleksandrov, Judaism and its commandments are themselves limits on the infinite Divine, while for Rav Kook the commandments are the very conduits of the infinite.

Once we move beyond the 19th century German idealism of the debate – what value does this debate hold for today? Any Thoughts?
On the subject of Buddhism and Judaism, here was one of my very first posts on this blog – The first Jewish reference to the Dalai Lama.

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

First Jewish reference to the Dalai Lama

Meoreot Zvi, published Lvov 1804, was a narrative of the events surrounding Shabbatai Zevi along with a description of his prophecies, visions, magic, and charismatic gifts used in generating a following.  The work is modeled after Enlightenment travelogues to the East with their vivid reports of distant lands combined with condescending evaluations of the foreign cultures. The author shows that he read such works and provides many parallels between Shabbatai Zvi’s actions and Eastern practices.

In the province in the sky, which is the great [Lhasa] valley in the land of Tibet next to East India is their great city Potala. There resides the great monk of all their idolatrous monks, called the [Dalai] Lama, who is father of impurity from which all the monks derive their way of crookedness from one of the spirits of impurity.

The mater is like this: The monks called Brahmins make a golem from clay in the image of a man with their magic until skin, flesh, bones, and veins. Afterward, they adjure it with (demonic) spirits of the impure spirit because of their crookedness. Then an actual living man literally appears and its appearance is like the golem made from clay by our [Jewish] masters of the names. [The Jewish masters of the name] do everything with the predetermined received skills; in contrast they adjure spirits of the false seven heavens. They are all experts in adjuring spirits of impurity, especially the face-spirit of impurity. By their oaths a face-spirit continuously appears illuminated, sometimes it changes and there will appear a continuous image of the previous (demonic) [Dalai] Lama, who had died.

At the time of a particular festival of theirs, the monks bear [the Dalai Lama] through the streets of the city in a throne sheathed in linens, with his face covered. His face does not appear to the masses, because he is holy in their opinion. When he dies they treat the incoming ruling Lama with the same authority as they did for the preceding Lama. The monks deceive  the masses with the image saying that their Lama is the living and eternal God, holy and awe-inspiring.

Any one of the masses that is at least worthy to drink from the urine of the Lama (which the monks themselves urinate) is sanctified with a special holiness. Those sanctified with the drinking of this urine are called holy and pure due to all types of holiness.

Thousands and tens of thousands go on pilgrimage to him from far and he prophecies the future for them, and the monks write healing amulets with his name inside. Even the emperors who rule over them, and every prince of the kingdom, must receive authorization for his rule from him or he will not be received as king over them.

I thank Prof. Zvi Mark for the reference. There are other digressions on Buddhism,  but this is one of the longest. The religious language used in the account reflects a mixture of Enlightenment, and Catholic ideas. The idea that ecstasies are either divine or demonic is an early modern Catholic language, depicting a world of exorcisms and possession. The mention of their impure spirit rather than the traditional Jewish discussion of their idols, their avodah zarah, reflects a source in a missionary travelogue.

As historic points, the 18th century Enlightenment actually entertained using the urine-cure as one of the wondrous cures available from the East. The description of the creation of a golem like figures in Tibet is readily available in Alexandra David-Neel, Magic and Mystery in Tibet, 1929.