In the Land of Identities
by Venerable Thubten Chodron©
The title of the full-page article in the
major Israeli newspaper was, "My Name is Hannah Greene and
I'm a Tibetan Nun." Interesting, those are two labels I don't
usually apply to myself. "Hannah" is my Jewish name,
not one many people know me by, and I'm not Tibetan. At least
I was able to answer when the journalists began the interview
with, "What is your Jewish name?" The second question
had me stumped. "Are you Jewish?" they asked. "What
does being Jewish mean?" I thought. I remember discussing
it in Sunday School and somehow managed to pass when the rabbi
asked that on a test. Am I Jewish because my ancestors were? Because
I have dark curly hair (or at least used to before it got shaved
21 years ago when I ordained as a Buddhist nun), brown eyes, a
"noticeable nose" (as my brother politely puts it)?
Am I Jewish because I was confirmed and Rabbi Nateev no longer
had to face my persistent questions? Because I was BBG president
in high school? Because I knew the blessing of the wine (oops,
I mean grape juice): "Baruch atta I don't know elohaynu melach
But now I was stumped. I hadn't thought about
whether or not I was Jewish. I just am. Am what? The interviewer
tried another tact, "You're American. What does being American
mean to you?" I couldn't answer that satisfactorily either.
I'm American because I have an American passport. They looked
at me with questioning eyes. Am I American because I grew up with
Mickey Mouse, Leave It to Beaver, and I Love Lucy? Because I protested
the Vietnam War? (Some would say that made me un-American.) Because
I was born the grandchild of immigrants who fled the pogroms,
on a certain plot of land called "Chicago"?
How could I not know my identity? They were
puzzled. As my fifteen days in Israel unfolded, the issue of identity
became a recurring theme. I realized how much my views had changed.
I had been studying and practicing the Buddha's teachings and
thus had spent years trying to deconstruct my identity, to see
it as something merely labeled, not as something solid, not something
I truly was. So many of our problems -- personal, national, and
international -- come from clinging to solid identities. Thus
in Buddhism, we are not trying to find out who we are but who
we aren't. We work to free ourselves from all our erroneous and
concrete conceptions about who we are.
The Israeli woman at whose home I was staying
understood what the interviewers were getting at, "If there
were another Holocaust and you were arrested for being Jewish,
would you protest saying you're not Jewish, you're Buddhist?"
I was equally baffled. "There is so much suffering in the
world right now," I responded, "and I'd rather focus
on doing something about that than on thinking up and solving
future problems that I'm not even sure will occur." But for
her this was a real question, a pressing one. And another theme
of my visit was highlighted, the Holocaust.
"Your mother is Jewish. You could go
to the immigration office and within an hour be an Israeli,"
the interviewers and my host pointed out. "Would you want
to do that?" "What does being an Israeli mean?"
Everywhere I went people wanted to know my
identity, they cared dearly about the labels I attached to myself,
thinking that if they knew all the labels, they'd know me. This
is a land of identities. We went to Ulpan Akiva, a unique language
school in Natanya where Israelis can learn Arabic and Palestinians
can learn Hebrew. There I met some Palestinians, who said, "We're
Muslims. We hope you can come to our new country, Palestine, some
day." More identities. When they heard I follow Tibetan Buddhism
they said, "The Tibetans' situation is similar to ours. We
sympathize with them." This startled me because until then
I'd been involved in the Jewish-Tibetan dialogue, seeing the commonalities
of two peoples in exile trying to maintain their unique religions
and cultures. But, the Palestinians were right, their situation
is like that of the Tibetans, for both live in occupied lands.
I participated in a Jewish-Buddhist dialogue
in a Reform Synagogue in Jerusalem. The first part was interesting
for one rabbi and I began to discuss meditation. But then the
subject changed and the moderator asked, "Can one be Jewish
and Buddhist at the same time? Or must one be either a Jew or
a Buddhist?" The Orthodox rabbi on my left said, "There
are various Buddhist schools and yours may not be one of them,
but in general, Buddhists are idolaters." My eyes opened
wide. Being an idolater was not an identity I associated myself
with. The Reform rabbi on my left who was from America spoke next,
"I agree, Buddhist worship idols." I was stunned. I
knew that calling someone an idol worshipper was about the worst
insult a Jew could give someone, something tantamount to a Christian
saying to a Jew in public "You killed Christ." But these
people were nonplussed. The Orthodox rabbi furthest on my right
added his view, "The various religions are like the colors
of the rainbow. They all have their function. Many Jews are at
the leading points of new religious movements, and it must be
God's wish that there are many faiths." That was better.
He turned to me smiling and sincerely wishing me well, "But
remember, you're still Jewish."
By the time the moderator asked me to respond,
I was so shocked that I was speechless. "To me, Jewish and
Buddhist are merely labels. It is not important what we call ourselves.
It is important how we live, how we treat others." A few
people applauded. This was all I could say. I left the synagogue
feeling stunned and judged.
Before I got too into my karmic view of the
situation, I thought I'd better get some others' views on what
happened. I asked my Israeli Buddhist friends what they'd thought
of the dialogue. "Oh, it was great," they responded,
"We were afraid that the rabbis would be really judgmental
and argumentative, but they were more open than we expected. It's
remarkable that the two Orthodox rabbis came to the Reform Synagogue.
Many won't, you know." The moderator later told me that once
he'd planned a panel including an Orthodox rabbi and a Palestinian
leader. The rabbi refused to come, not because he'd have to talk
to a Palestinian, but because it was in a Reform Synagogue.
Some people from the UK who I visited in Clil
disagreed with the rabbis. They thought you could be a Jew and
a Buddhist, and they put them together in an interesting combination.
"We have a Jewish soul," one told me, "and we use
Buddhist mindfulness meditation to bring out the best of it."
Perplexed because the Buddha refuted the idea of a permanent soul,
let alone one that was inherently Jewish, I asked what he meant.
"We are part of the Jewish people. Our ancestors lived and
thought in a particular way, and this culture and this way of
looking at life are part of who we are." I wondered: Does
their perspective mean that if you're born with "Jewish genes"
in a Jewish family that you automatically have a certain identity?
That you cannot escape some fixed place in history as the descendant
of everything that happened to your ancestors before you even
As a child, I was aware of things in the Jewish
culture that I loved and respected, such as the emphasis on morality
and on treating all beings with equal respect. But I was also
acutely aware of how the Jewish identity was shaped by persecution
-- "we are a unique group and look at how many times throughout
history others have seen us as singular and persecuted us even
until death because of it." Somehow, from early on, I rejected
having an identity based on others' hate and injustice. I refused
to be suspicious of the people I encounter in the present simply
because of the experiences my ancestors had in the past. Of course
we are conditioned by the past, but that only establishes predispositions.
It is not fixed or permanent. Even as a child I wanted to have
a positive view of humanity and not be shackled by keeping history's
The Jews' most recent ghost that haunts them
is the Holocaust. During so many conversations, this topic came
up. It seemed to permeate almost everything in Israel. As a child,
I'd read a lot about the Holocaust, and it had affected me deeply.
In fact, it taught me many important values, such as the importance
of compassion, of morality, of being fair, of not discriminating
against an entire group of people, of sticking up for the persecuted
and the downtrodden, of living honestly and with a clear conscience.
Learning about the Holocaust had shaped many of the positive attitudes
that eventually led me to Buddhism.
But I could never -- either as a child or
now as an adult -- think that Jews had the corner on suffering.
In the Galilee, I led a the week-long retreat which centered on
karma and compassion. In one session, we spontaneously had a touching,
heartfelt discussion about the Holocaust. One woman shared her
experience attending a gathering of children of Holocaust survivors
and children of Nazis. When she listened to the children of SS
officers talk, she came to understand the deep guilt, suffering
and confusion they carry. How can you reconcile the memory of
your loving father who cuddled you with the knowledge that he
sanctioned the murder of millions of human beings? We talked about
the parallels between the genocide of the Jews and the more recent
one of the Tibetans by the Chinese Communists. As Buddhists, how
did the Tibetans view what happened to them? Why do we meet many
Tibetans who experienced atrocities and who do not seem to be
emotionally scarred by the experience? We also discussed, "Does
forgiving mean forgetting? Shouldn't the world remember so that
we can prevent genocide in the future?"
Yes, we need to remember, but remembering
does not necessitate keeping pain, hurt, resentment, and anger
alive in our hearts. We can remember with compassion, and that
is more powerful. By forgiving, we let go of our anger, and by
doing that, we cease our own suffering.
That night as we did a meditation on Chenresig,
the Buddha of Compassion, out of my mouth -- or rather, out of
my heart -- came the words, "When you visualize Chenresig,
bring him into the concentration camps. Imagine him in the trains,
in the prisons, in the gas chambers. Visualize Chenresig in Auschwitz,
in Dacau, in the other camps. And as we recite the compassion
mantra, imagine the brilliant light of compassion radiating from
Chenresig and permeating every atom of these places and of the
people who were in them. This light of loving-kindness and compassion
purifies the suffering, the hate, and the misconceptions of all
the beings -- Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, Nazis, ordinary
Germans who turned a blind eye in order to save their own skin
-- and heals all that pain. We chanted the mantra together for
over half an hour, and the room was charged. Very few times have
I meditated with a group that was so concentrated.
The next day a young man asked me, "Most
of the people who operated or lived in the concentration camps
died many years ago. How could our meditation purify all of them?"
Pause. "We are purifying the effect that their lives have
on us. By doing this, we let go of our pain, our anger and paranoia,
so that we can bring compassion to the world in the present and
the future. We are preventing ourselves from living in deluded
reaction to the past. We are stopping ourselves from creating
a victim mentality that draws others' prejudice to us, and we
are ceasing the wish for revenge that makes us mistreat others.
And although we cannot understand it intellectually, in a subtle
way we do influence all the prisoners and Nazis in whatever form
they are currently born in. We have to heal."
Heal? How do young people exposed to war heal?
"The whole country is the army," one friend told me.
"It's not possible to live here without being part of the
army. Everyone -- men and women alike -- has to do compulsory
military service after high school." What effect does that
have on each individual young person? Each sensitive young adult,
trying to find his or her way in this confusing world, I wondered.
I talked with another friend who had been
a commando in Lebanon and who now worked for the Israeli Friends
of the Tibetan People. He grew up on a kibbutz and became a commando.
"Why?" I asked. "Because it was prestigious and
society expects us to do the best we can. I was young and just
did what was expected
But I never killed anyone." He
said that last sentence twice. I asked about his experinece in
the army, how he dealt with the violence he witnessed, with his
own violence within, with his feelings. "You get numb. You
push your feelings down and don't think about them. Even now,"
he said with a pained voice, a smile on his face, smoking one
cigarette after another. Yes, he had grown numb. My heart ached.
Then, "But if I didn't do the work, who would? Others in
my country. I couldn't leave this work for others," he said
to me, an American who would have been drafted at the time of
the Vietnam War. Only I was a woman. In any case, even if I were
a man, I would have left the country rather than participate in
violence. From very young I eschewed violence. But I also had
some luxury that he didn't have. The Vietnam War wasn't near my
home; it didn't endanger the existence of my country. What would
I have done had I been born in Israel? How do any of us heal from
One day I went to the Wailing Wall to pray.
For a while I recited the mantra of Chenresig and visualized purifying
light healing the centuries of suffering in the Middle East. From
a Buddhist viewpoint, the cause of all suffering lies in our minds
and in the disturbing attitudes and emotions that motivate us
to act in destructive ways, even though we all long to be happy.
From my heart, I made strong prayers that all beings, and especially
people in this part of the world, be able to generate the three
principal aspects of the path to enlightenment -- the determination
to be free from the cycle of constantly recurring problems, the
altruistic intention to benefit all living beings, and the wisdom
that realizes reality. At this point I put my head to the Wailing
Wall in concentration, and then suddenly felt "plop!"
as something damp hit my cap. A bird had pooped. What was this
about? Recounting the episode to my friends later, they informed
me that it is said that if a bird poops on one's head at the Wailing
Wall, it indicates one's prayers will be actualized!