In the process of researching a project about the lunar calendar, I typed the word “moon” into the National Library of Israel’s online catalog search bar. Alongside the many other images, to my surprise, I saw a beautiful picture titled The Kami and the Buddhas of Todaiji. I bookmarked the page on my computer, but soon forgot about it. A couple of weeks later, while looking through some of the NLI’s posters for a social media project, one image that I stumbled upon suddenly stood out to me: the Buddhist Shaka Triad.
I promptly emailed the NLI’s curator of the Humanities Collection to ask him how we came to possess these two lovely Buddhist pieces of art, and his reply shocked me!
In 1891, an upper-class and well-educated Englishwoman named Elizabeth Anna Gordon visited Japan for the first time at the age of 40, as part of a world tour she undertook with her husband, John. The visit left a strong impression on the couple, and Elizabeth actually ended up moving to Kyoto, Japan, where she lived until her death. During her years in Kyoto, she spent her time researching Japanese Buddhism and expanding her impressive collection of Buddhist art.
Elizabeth had an insatiable interest in many of the world’s religions, and despite the fact that she enthusiastically studied Buddhism in Japan and collected numerous Buddhist books and artworks, she was also a deeply devout Christian, as well as a stout supporter of the early Zionist movement. Elizabeth Anne Gordon’s name is listed in the annals of Zionist history due to the fact that she funded the Zionist Labor Histadrut mission in 1903 to the Lake Victoria region of Africa. They had come to scout out the area for what would later be known as the “Uganda Plan” – the failed proposal to create a Jewish state in Uganda.
As she grew older, Elizabeth made a decision in honor of her commitment to Zionism, to bequeath part of her Buddhist art collection to the National Library of Israel – then still known as the Jewish National and University Library. Once donated, these images sat largely unexplored in the Library’s vast collections until 1938. When a promising young researcher of Japanese art from the Hebrew University requested to borrow some Buddhist paintings from the collections, staff at the Library were alerted to Elizabeth’s bountiful artworks which had been, by now, almost completely forgotten. Some years after the exciting rediscovery of this collection, the NLI decided to create an online exhibition of 139 of these Buddhist paintings, which is of course what I had accidentally stumbled upon.
But my original question remained: What does Buddhism have to do with us, the Library of the Jewish people? As it turns out, a lot!
In September 1893, in Chicago, Illinois, a Buddhist priest from Sri Lanka named Anagarika Dharmapala met with the young Jewish businessman Charles T. Strauss. Reciting an oath in Sanskrit, Dharmapala converted Strauss to Buddhism marking the first non-Asian person to be ordained into the Buddhist Sangha (monastic order). Following this monumental event, Buddhist leaders started to seriously explore the potential for an American Jewish interest in Buddhism. Buddhist teachers began to travel to the United States, giving lectures to large audiences disproportionately made up of Jews, about the similarities between the two faith systems, and a significant trend of new emergent literature from Jews who had adopted Buddhist belief systems can be traced to those years.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the Jewish Buddhist movement really took off. With the hippy ‘peace and love’ mentality on the rise, and many modern Jews seeking a more spiritual path, lots of young American Jews turned to Buddhism. Jewish friends Michael Fagan and Sam Bercholz established the Shambhala Buddhist festival; Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg and Jacqueline Mandell-Schwartz founded the famous Insight Meditation center and movement; and even David Ben-Gurion espoused Buddhist meditation!
Buddhism is non-theistic, which is to say that Buddhists do not believe in a G-d, rather a set of values to live by. Judaism, however, is monotheistic and encourages belief in one G-d as well as a strict set of rules, both in the form of practices and prohibitions. It is therefore possible, according to some opinions, to follow both religions simultaneously: to believe in a Jewish G-d, keep the Sabbath and laws of kashrut, and also subscribe to Buddhist mysticism, traditions, and values.
For Jews in the 1960s who felt that their Judaism lacked the guidance or spirituality that they craved, one option was to turn to Kabbalah, the Ethics of the Fathers, or the philosophy of the Kuzari. Alternatively, they could look further afield and adopt meditation, Karma, and the Zen beliefs of Buddhism. Many Jews chose the latter.
Later in the 20th century, the term “JUBU” emerged, used to refer to the growing sect of Buddhist Jews. Chogyam Trunpa, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, actually said that most of his students were Jewish, and the Dalai Lama even attended a Passover Seder in 1997! Vipassana Buddhism retreats are extremely popular with Israelis who travel to India, many of the western visitors to the Dalai Lama are Jewish, and it has been estimated by the writer of the famous JUBU book, The Jew in the Lotus that “a third of all Western Buddhist leaders come from Jewish roots.” According to certain estimates Jews count for as many as a third of all non-Asian Buddhists in North America today.
So why do so many Jews feel at home in the embrace of Buddhism?
According to Emily Sigalow, author of American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change, it was “the practice of meditation really drew them [the Jews] in.” With meditation being one of the core tenants of Buddhism, it is easy to see why some people strongly feel that these meditative practices are what attract Jews to Buddhism. Meditation is encouraged in Judaism and was practiced in the days of the Bible by prophets and priests. The mind-body duality of meditation is echoed in the Jewish belief that our bodily practices affect our spiritual growth, and that through elevating the body we can elevate the soul. Hasidic Jews often practice meditation, and for many Jews, the chanting ritual of prayer three times a day is a strongly meditative exercise. With that in mind, it is clear to see why Jews seeking to connect to a higher force may pick the meditation-focused path of Buddhism. In Rabbi Alan Lew’s book One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi, he relates how Buddhist meditation “illuminated” his unconscious and allowed him to “grow spiritually” as he related “how Jewish so much of this unconscious material was.”
However, mediation is not the only practice common to both Judaism and Buddhism. Many of the 253 monastic vows taken by committed Buddhists share similarities with Jewish mitzvot, such as tzniut (modesty) and yichud (the idea that men and women should not be alone in private). Moreover, four of the five Buddhist precepts are bans on murder, adultery, theft and lying. If these sound familiar to Jewish ears, it may be because these are some of our own Ten Commandments. Both Buddhism and Judaism encourage long hours of textural study and a high level of both spiritual and worldly education. Both religions are averse to materialism, especially in the form of modern technology. Both schools of thought believe that humans are not in true possession of the world and thus are taught (via abstinence from greed in Buddhism and via charity in Judaism) to let go of some of what we consider to be ‘our own’.
It doesn’t end there! Both Buddhism and Judaism state that improper or frivolous sexual encounters are immoral, while tantric or muttar (permitted) sexual interactions, conducted in certain settings with certain limitations, are indeed a spiritual practice. Both religions encourage self-growth as totally central to their faith, with Buddhists believing that being a better person will lead them on an enlightened path, and Jews believing that the world was created in order for humans to sanctify it with holy acts. As such, both religions believe in mussar, or guidance from others, and share a desire to tame and refine one’s character. Both groups also have a strong focus on meticulously daily activities, prescribed in order to make sure that each moment of the day contains a measure of spirituality.
But perhaps the most comparable of these similarities is the shared focus on suffering. Judaism is a religion which has endured far more than its fair share of suffering in the course of Jewish history. Buddhism teaches that suffering is a core tenant of the world: it is the cause of evil, and only through liberating ourselves from worldly suffering can salvation be reached. Ruth Sonam, a Jew who has been practicing Buddhism for over 25 years in Dharamsala, Tibet says “It’s so Jewish, you see, to always talk about suffering, as Buddhists do.”
However, while certain practices of Judaism and Buddhism may appear similar, perhaps more significant are the spiritual similarities between the two. Buddhists seek an elevated understanding of the world, and go through a similar process to what in Judaism we call chochma (a spark of understanding), binah (a deeper exploration of that understanding) and da’at (an elevated consciousness as a response to that understanding, or what Buddhists would call samadhi). Understanding the oneness of the world is a mutual goal in both religions. In Judaism we do this through kavannah (divine awareness) which is used to connect our actions to G-d. In Buddhism, spiritual consciousness is a constant goal imbued in every practice, too.
The Buddhist belief in Karma (what you do will be done back to you) is comparable to the Jewish principle of middah k’neged middah, which embodies a similar idea that the good or bad you put into the world will be returned to you in kind. Furthermore, both Jews and Buddhists say that the difficulties that one may face in life are simply tests, sent to trial our strength and help us overcome something within ourselves.
Jews and Buddhists also share spiritual beliefs about death. In Buddhism, the tradition is that a person will be reincarnated repeatedly until they attain Nirvana, the highest form of consciousness. Some adherents of Jewish mysticism believe that a soul will be reincarnated eight times until it has grown to the highest spiritual level that it can achieve, and only then will it be at eternal rest in heaven.
Brenda Shoshanna says in her book Jewish Dharma, that the spiritual practices of Judaism and Buddhism are “two wings of a bird… Buddhism helps one understand what authentic Jewish spiritual practice is”.
All this being said, there is one primary reason that I think Buddhism holds a strong draw for Jews. Up until now I have been calling Buddhism a religion, but many Buddhists actually do not consider Buddhism to be a religion but more of a practice or philosophy. “Buddhism is ontologically not a religion. ‘Buddhism’ does not exist: it is a Western designation for the path and philo-praxis offered by Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni… to solve the existential problem of suffering through self-directed meditation” says Mira Niculescu in I THE JEW, I THE BUDDHIST: Multi-Religious Belonging as Inner Dialogue. The Buddha never mentioned G-d in his teachings and Buddhism is non-theistic in its beliefs. It can therefore be argued, that following Buddhism is no more Judaically forbidden than learning philosophy or dedicating one’s life to a pursuit such as sports.
Despite Jews having a history of conflict with most other religions, this is not the case with Buddhism, and importantly, one need not ‘convert’ to Buddhism in order to meditate, or follow the teachings of the Buddha. One can spend their entire life in Buddhist practice without ever taking a formal oath or covenant to become a Buddhist. So those who wish to remain Jewish and dislike the idea of converting to a different religion, need not do so to practice Buddhism. There is, moreover, no genetic lineage to Buddhism, so a Jew may practice Buddhism while still recognizing their Jewish ethnicity and even seeking to pass their native Jewish lineage to their children.
So, maybe on balance, it really is appropriate for the National Library of Israel, as the Library of the Jewish people, to have so much Buddhist art in its collections. After all, it seems that Buddhism is as Jewish a religion as you can get!