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 Article: Zen and the Art of the Buju - by Jay Michaelson

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Arts & Culture
Zen and the Art of the BuJu

Where the Roads of Jewish and Buddhist Practice Meet

Article: Zen and the Art of the Buju - by Jay Michaelson Buddhist-temple-in-Tatung-1973

Now and Zen: This Buddhist temple, photographer in 1973 in Tatung, China, evokes a way of life that some see as surprisingly compatible with Judaism.

By Jay Michaelson

Published November 08, 2013, issue of November 15, 2013

I admit, I am a BuJu.

Of course, I am not alone. Not only do a disproportionate number of American Buddhist teachers come from Jewish backgrounds, but many Jews practice both Judaism and Buddhism, and many more practice a Jewish spirituality influenced by Buddhist-derived meditation practices and values. The integration of Buddhist technologies of contemplative practice within Western spiritual paths is a widespread trend, and has been written about by many smart people, including Sylvia Boorstein, Zoketsu Norman Fischer, Rodger Kamenetz, Brenda Shoshanna, Jeff Roth, Jonathan Slater and Judith Linzer.

Sociologically, BuJus are yet another subgroup of the iSpirituality generation, those millions of Americans who draw upon multiple religious or spiritual traditions, mixing and matching not according to preference but according to pragmatism. What works? What sources of spiritual wisdom help me create a world, and a way of living in it, that brings joy, justice, insight, peace and compassion?

But philosophically, the BuJu fusion is perhaps more subtle. The Buddhism most Westerners practice is, itself, a contemporary reformation of an ancient set of traditions. Indeed, it was largely created by American Jews, and as a result reflects their values. It is less devotional, less ritualistic, and less formal than Asian Buddhist traditions — including the root traditions in which these teachers were trained. Cocreated by Westerneres, it is often inflected by psychology, and is largely oriented toward worldly, not monastic, lives.

The Judaism I choose to practice is similarly reformed — not Reform, but re-formed, re-constructed, re-newed. Judaism provides a language of the sacred, a rhythm to my life, and a shared community of meaning. It’s also the most familiar; I grew up with it, and as a result it feels comfortable and natural. Jewish practice has also given me ways to encounter what some call the sacred or holy aspect of human experience. This aspect is always available, but usually, the mind is busy going somewhere else. The hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav said: “The world is full of light and mysteries both wonderful and awesome, but our tiny little hand shades our eyes and prevents them from seeing.”

In this context, Buddhist meditation is one way to cultivate wonder at, and gratitude for being alive; religious reminders, signs and communities are others. Really, it’s a two-way street. Religious practices such as the reciting of blessings, introspection, and time that’s ritually set apart can function as forms of contemplative practice. And conversely, meditation can enhance religious life. In Jewish and kabbalistic traditions, meditation was often used as a preparation for other practices — prayer and Torah study, for example. The quiet mind absorbs sacred text much more readily than the busy mind does, and the presence of mind that comes from mindfulness (not a traditional Jewish practice, though certainly a contemporary one) also enables a richer, juicier gratitude for life’s many blessings. Indeed, for several years this was my main intention for mindfulness practice, and the subject of my first book, “God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness, and Embodied Spiritual Practice.”

As my Jewish and Buddhist practices evolved, though, a further resonance began to arise, with non-self as the essential point. This was the focus of my next book (“Everything is God”): that the God understood by (parts of) the Jewish mystical tradition is not some deity that does or does not exist, but as Ein Sof, the Endless, everything and nothing. For example, when Moses asks how he’s supposed to describe God, he gets the reply, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I am that I am.” Take out the pronoun, and you get “It is what it is.” Of course, many Jews have much more anthropomorphic notions, of a creator God, a judging God, a God who prefers Jews to everyone else, and so on. But this more mystical conception is as traditional a Jewish notion as theirs, and I feel little need to justify it.

As heterodox as it may sound, I see very little difference between the nondual “was-is-will-be” (YHVH, the primary name of God) and the “way things are” that is the Buddhist Dharma. One of my Buddhist teachers said that the goal of meditation is to see all arising phenomena as Dharma, not as selves. Cause and effect, non-self; empty phenomena rolling on; no ghosts in the machine. These may seem like metaphysical principles, but having just gone through a very challenging period in my life these last few months, I can assure you that they have been the greatest refuge I have found in a very stormy sea. This is how God is always present, even with prophets in jail and saints in death camps, because the present is always present.

The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi said, “Let come what comes, let go what goes. See what remains.” In the Buddhist view, what remains is dharma, empty phenomena rolling on — the way things are. In nondual traditions, including Jewish ones, what remains is the All, the One, That Which Is.

Of course there are differences between these paths, and I’ve never been one to cover them up. I’m not interested in saying that Jewish practices can be equated with Buddhist mindfulness practice, for example, though they certainly can be adapted for that purpose if you like. Nor do I want to iron out any troubling creases in Jewish theology to make them Buddhist-kosher. I’d rather see these paths as equally human, equally partial perspectives, and appreciate the varying consciousnesses that brought them about.

One difference between the two paths is what each system takes as axiomatic. Generally, meditation begins from observable experience, from the ground up, whereas religion often begins from theology, from the top down. For example, the great kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero wrote: “Realize that the Infinite exists in each thing. Do not say ‘This is a stone and not God.’ Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity.” God first, then down to us. Yet in both cases, contemplative practice has roughly the same task: to see clearly, and thus see through, the conventional self, to get beyond its illusions of solidity, to both work with what is there (think: Yom Kippur), and rest beyond it.

In general, I find the bottom-up Buddhist path to this realization to be easier to communicate than the Jewish one, because it takes less for granted. Yet on an emotional level, I sometimes find the top-down approach more helpful. The notion of a God who loves — not just is — is one which may not be supportable by data, but which, on the level of the heart, provides an embrace, and an imperative. The mind is not the only locus of meaning, and within the heart I often find myself turning to the very You I can’t explain.

Another important difference is the purpose of practice itself. Different contemplative practices lead to different goals. You can get really juicy and loving with Sufi practice, but you might not get as much clarity into the workings of mind. You can get really quiet with Buddhist practice, but as a Westerner you might not have a way to sanctify the moments on your life cycle. Just as in physical fitness, you sometimes have to choose between cardio or building muscle, so in contemplative fitness, you sometimes have to choose to focus on love or insight, justice or contentment, clarity of thought or experiences of the sacred. All traditions have these values within them (some Jews argue that Buddhism is not focused on justice — tell that to the monks who brought revolution in Myanmar) but they don’t value the values equally.

For example, is Judaism really oriented toward “enlightenment,” toward awakening from the fundamental causes of suffering? Some forms of Judaism are. Most, however, could be described as being more interested in the well-being of society than in the individual’s attainment of enlightenment. While Judaism places great emphasis building a sense of Jewish identity, much Western Buddhist practice aims to deconstruct the notion of identity itself.

Personally, having studied and practiced multiple paths for decades now, it seems to me to be largely a matter of how one confronts certain fundamental questions, none of which we’ll ever finally answer, and indeed, which questions we even choose to ask. For me, some of the important ones are: Which movements of mind and heart bring fundamental, real happiness? Which help us live together in relative harmony with less suffering for others? Which bring us closer to love?

Jay Michaelson is the author of “Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment,” published by North Atlantic Books, from which this essay has been adapted.

Read more: http://forward.com/articles/187078/zen-and-the-art-of-the-buju/?p=all#ixzz2kbAn1E1D
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Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism [Paperback]

Jay Michaelson (Author)

This exploration of the radical, yet ancient, idea that everything and everyone is God will transform how you understand your life and the nature of religion itself. While God is conventionally viewed as an entity separate from us, there are some Jews—Kabbalists, Hasidim, and their modern-day heirs—who assert that God is not separate from us at all. In this nondual view, everyone and everything manifests God. For centuries a closely guarded secret of Kabbalah, nondual Judaism is a radical reorientation of religious life that is increasingly influencing mainstream Judaism today.

Writer and scholar Jay Michaelson presents a wide-ranging and compelling explanation of nondual Judaism: what it is, its traditional and contemporary sources, its historical roots and philosophical significance, how it compares to nondual Buddhism and Hinduism, and how it is lived in practice. He explains what this mystical nondual view means in our daily ego-centered lives, for our communities, and for the future of Judaism.

“One of the most widely read Jewish writers of his generation…Michaelson's deeply contemplative, thoughtful book will open the doors of the heart and mind to the possibility that what we have come to take for the “self” is just a way to label the way things look from a certain angle.”—Spirituality & Health magazine 

“[Michaelson] writes with clarity, passion, and a poetic sensibility.”—Jewish Week

“Jay Michaelson’s captivating post-secular musings present for the generation of the new Jewish culture a vision of expanded religious possibilities.”—Forward 

“Stripping away the barnacles of outdated concepts, Jay Michaelson aligns the best nondual thinking in Judaism with the best nondual thinking in other profound systems. Everything Is God is a timely and necessary contribution.”—Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, coauthor of Jewish with Feeling

“Jay Michaelson has written a poetic, detailed, and radical book expressing a Jewish language of oneness: not the oneness of a bearded man in the sky but the Oneness of a universe not divided against itself. He gives the reader a gift of self-beyond-the-self, a gift that cannot be owned but is well worth having.”—Rabbi Jill Hammer, author of The Jewish Book of Days

“This is an awesome, highly recommended presentation of crucial mystical concepts.”—Rabbi David A. Cooper, author of God Is a Verb

“Fantastic—a book that offers a compelling theology for thinking Jews! Read this book, and buy a copy for your rabbi as well.”—Rabbi Rami Shapiro, author of The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness

“Michaelson patiently explains, again and again, truths that are beyond words. He shares this treasure generously and passionately.”—Rabbi Jacob Staub, Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

“If my mind were not already God’s unstretchable Mind, I’d say the book is a mind-stretcher. And if the book were not already God, beyond even delight, I’d say the book is a delight.”—Rabbi Arthur Waskow, author of Godwrestling: Round 2

“Compelling . . . jolts us from an ego-centered illusion of separateness. The author’s language of oneness is certain to resonate with a younger generation of spiritual seekers.”—Jewish Book World 

About the Author

Jay Michaelson is a scholar and activist who has written extensively on spirituality, Judaism, sexuality, and law. He is the author of God in Your Body and the founding editor of the award-winning publication Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture. He is a columnist for The Forward, the Huffington Post, and Tikkun. He holds a JD from Yale University and is completing his PhD in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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January 2, 2014, 3:33pm - Jewish Forward
David Cooper, Father of BuJu
By Jay Michaelson

For nearly 20 years, Rabbi David Cooper has been among the pioneers of Jewish meditation. Through his bestselling books and popular retreats, Cooper and his wife Shoshana have helped to create the hybrid of Buddhist and Jewish meditation practices that is now commonplace at synagogues across the country. Love it or hate it, the “BuJu” phenomenon continues to grow, influencing clergy and laypeople, the religious and the secular, traditionalists and innovators.
Courtesy of Rabbi David Cooper

But now the Coopers are scaling back. This winter’s retreat will be their last at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center. There are no more books in the pipeline. And the Coopers are passing the baton to a new generation of teachers, which includes me.

Part of the reason for this quasi-retirement is simply that the Coopers are getting older, and it’s tiring to travel across the country and teach a hundred students at a retreat. But a primary motivation is Rabbi Cooper’s recent diagnosis of Lewy body disease, a degenerative form of Parkinson’s that can cause severe dementia. The diagnosis is a serious one, and, of course, bitterly ironic for someone who has spent his career teaching others how to develop and strengthen their minds. Yet for now, Cooper insists, “I’m really fine.” While the diagnosis is clear, the prognosis — how the disease will actually unfold — is not.

Perhaps even more remarkably, he is regarding the diagnosis as a gift. Cooper is positively upbeat about the lessons and transformations of the aging process — what rabbi and guru of the renewal movement Zalman Schachter-Shalomi calls “aging to sage-ing.” Cooper recently spoke via Skype with the Forward about the next steps in his life.

Jay Michaelson: So, first and foremost, how are you feeling — about the diagnosis, and about the decision to scale back on your teaching?

David Cooper: I’m really fine. It’s been a number of years that we’ve been talking about it — so now is a good time. I’m at a point where I like to spend a lot of my time in meditation, on my own personal path. Interestingly, once we got the diagnosis, I felt liberated. I don’t have to do anything anymore. I don’t have to come up with wise commentary anymore. There was this feeling that rolled through me, like I just had been given this greatest gift in the world: that you don’t have to do anything, you don’t have to go anywhere, you don’t have to write another book, you don’t have to do any of these things, you’ll do exactly what you want to be doing — and I’m still discovering what that is.

That is a remarkable perspective. Do you think your years of teaching meditation have prepared you for what may lie ahead?

Well, first, all of this is projection since I don’t have a definitive description of what this disease could lead to and how long it takes. But my whole life has been filled with activity and practice in such a way that I wouldn’t have been quite as clear and openhearted with regard to the diagnosis had I just led my former business guy’s life, running around working with candidates for Congress, for example. I feel very well-prepared as a result of all of the inner work that I’ve done to actually look forward to whatever the outcome is going to be with the diagnosis.

Obviously, your transitioning out of teaching also offers an opportunity to reflect. What’s changed in the 20 years since you began teaching Jewish meditation?

When we first started offering a seven-day silent retreat, the instant, knee-[banned term] response was, “It’s not Jewish.” Right off the bat: Being quiet like that, that’s not Jewish, that’s an Eastern thing that has nothing to do with our world here in the West. That, slowly, over time, has shifted.

How did you respond to that interest?

Well, people were spouting off wonderful teachings — but when we sat down to understand where a person was in their practice, there was often this gap between the beautiful descriptions of what life was all about, but without much actual experience coming through. The people who have stayed with us all of these years have gone deeper in their understanding on the practical level, and yet there’s still a long way to go.

One of the controversial aspects of your teaching has been the blend of multiple traditions within it. How do you respond to critics of that method?

Over the years, I have found it easier to be referencing East as well as West. There’s been more melding and merging together and more willingness for the different traditions to integrate with one another. Shoshana has become very strong in her understanding of the Theravadan Buddhist approach, and integrated it in such a way that it nurtures the Jewish approach. We don’t make as many distinctions as before — we’re looking for things that work. So we’re pulling on a lot of other forms of practice to nurture the Jewish world. And I found it works better when we put it all together, and don’t try so hard to make sure we’re quoting a rebbe instead of a rinpoche [a term for a Tibetan Buddhist teacher].

Where do you see all this headed? What’s the future for Jewish meditation?

We also have to be realistic. The people that I know who practice and practice eventually all realize somewhere down the line that wherever they thought it would take us, it didn’t. I used to go around the Western world and ask: Do you know anyone who’s enlightened? The answer was always zero. That’s very disconcerting. But if what we’re looking for is just a certain kind of tranquility, not trying to walk on water, then the practice really works beautifully. In my case, where I have benefited is being able to take a diagnosis that doesn’t sound too optimistic, and to see the benefits and possibilities that it opens up. And that’s not because of my personality, that’s because of the practice that I’ve done. There’s something there that allows me to see the world through different eyes.

Read more: http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/190242/david-cooper-father-of-buju/#ixzz2pNbJn0N8
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