I Learned about Judaism from the Dalai Lama
In 1990, I accompanied a group of eight rabbis and Jewish
scholars to India for an audience with the Dalai Lama of Tibet.
He had asked us to unlock the mystery of Jewish survival in
exile for two millennia. I never imagined he also held a secret
that could help Jews.
Since his exile from Tibet in 1959, the XIV Dalai Lama, temporal
and spiritual leader of six million Tibetan Buddhists, has
often reflected on the Jewish people and our history: "Through
so many centuries, so many hardships, you never lost your
culture and your faith. As a result, when other external conditions
became ripe, you were ready to build your nation. There are
many things to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters."
In a painting at the main temple in Dharamsala, India, where
the Dalai Lama lives in exile, is a painting of the Buddha
seated before a pool of clear water. It was explained to us
that the pool of water was actually a pool of nectar. A pool
of nectar, clear but sweet. That became my overriding image
of the Jewish encounter with the Dalai Lama. Somehow, he made
us see Judaism more clearly and sweetly than often we ourselves
see it. In our dialogue with the Dalai Lama, we saw Jewish
tradition come to life. His eagerness to learn was infectious.
I watched his face as Rabbi Irving Greenberg explained how
in our prayers and customs, every Jew is to be reminded of
the exile: "At the end of every wedding, we break a glass.
Why? To remind people they cannot be completely happy. We
are still in exile, we have not yet been restored. When you
build a new home, you leave one little place unfinished. Why?
As beautiful as the home is, we are not at home." The
Dalai Lama nodded thoughtfully, "Yes. Always remind.
The points you have mentioned really strike at the heart of
how to sustain one's culture and tradition. This is what I
call the Jewish secret--to keep your tradition. In every important
aspect of human life, something is there to remind you: We
have to return, to take responsibility." He had grasped
a prime Jewish secret of survival--memory.
Memory came alive for me in another
way in Dharamsala. I felt reconnected with lost fragments
of my own tradition. The monastic's robe was like our own
The emphasis on ceaseless debate, common to both religions,
connected the Buddhist School of Dialectics to the ancient
rabbinical academies. One dawn I awoke to the chanting of
a young nun. Later I learned she was reciting an entire book
from memory, just as the first-century tannaim
had recited Mishnah before it was first written down. As Rabbi
Greenberg described the rabbinic sages at Yavneh after the
Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the old lamas
and abbots, I looked at their wrinkled faces and knew that
for them Dharamsala was Yavneh, and the time of supreme crisis
was now. We Jews know instinctively the agony of losing one's
homeland, being forced into exile, and surviving adversity.
"Always remind" was key advice, but we gave other
secrets as well. In a Friday night service attended by several
learned lamas, we shared the power of Shabbat, our weekly
holy day. Dr. Blu Greenberg, feminist author and scholar,
lit the candles and prayed. She thoughtfully substituted matzah,
our bread of affliction, for ordinary bread, in solidarity
with our Shabbat guests who may never return from exile. In
her session with the Dalai Lama, Blu, a grandmother, emphasized
the central importance in Judaism of home and family--a difficult
lesson for a religion led by celibate monastics. Blu's very
presence, and that of Joy Levitt, a rabbi who explained the
central role of the synagogue, added a vital element to the
dialogue. The Tibetan "side" of the dialogue was
The Dalai Lama wanted to know more
about the "inner life" of Jews. He wanted to know
what method Judaism provides for transforming the human being,
for overcoming disturbing emotions such as anger. For Tibetans,
this is not an abstract question. The Dalai Lama is leading
his people through its most difficult period in history, one
in which violence is a very predictable response. How he handles
anger is both a personal and political challenge. Although
the Chinese communists have driven him and his family into
exile, tortured and killed his people for nearly forty years,
he refers to them as the "so-called
I found the Dalai Lama, who describes
himself as "a simple Buddhist monk," to be a mensch,
a profoundly kind and a gracious man. From his behavior I
learned that humility could be powerful, receptivity dominating,
and kindness challenging. I learned the power of what the
Buddhists call "a quiet mind." In our first session,
he suffered a miserable cold, but for three hours of conversation
his interest and extraordinary power of concentration never
flagged. He also took time to greet each of us personally.
I felt a strange sensation when he looked deep into my eyes.
The Tibetans believe he can see into your past lives.
I felt personally challenged by Buddhist meditation, which
seemed to make its practitioners calmer, wiser, more capable
of dealing with difficult emotions. These were qualities I
had not found in myself. In our dialogue, the Tibetans wanted
to know the path and the goal of our belief system and how
it helps us overcome painful feelings. Until then I had never
thought to ask such questions of Judaism. For me, being Jewish
was wrapped up in our collective history, my family, my identity.
I had never before considered Jewishness as a spiritual path.
Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, a teacher of Jewish meditation,
addressed this problem when he told the Dalai Lama, "The
work of transformation, for us, is a holy path. But more and
more people who seek transformation don't go to a rabbi. They
go to a psychiatrist who will teach them not enlightenment
but self-satisfaction." Rabbi Omer-Man's presentation
on Jewish meditation and Rabbi Zalman Schachter's on Kabbalah,
the Jewish mystical teachings, came in response to the Dalai
Lama's inquiries about our Jewish "inner life."
I was surprised to learn that Judaism has powerful techniques
of inner transformation. But these ways are deep and hidden,
inaccessible to most of us. Historically, they were practiced
only by a tiny elite; consequently, Jews who are spiritual
seekers often go elsewhere when looking for a path.
I had this in mind when we addressed the sensitive issue
of Jewish converts to Buddhism. In North America, Jews are
disproportionately represented in Western Buddhist groups.
In Dharamsala, we met a number of Buddhist monks and nuns
who had Jewish roots. My own preconceptions about such people--apostates,
flakes, cultists--soon melted away. We invited all of Jewish
Dharamsala to a Shabbat morning service and spent hours with
them reading and discussing Torah. The Jewish Buddhists of
Dharamsala are extraordinary--witty, even radiant in some
cases, certainly not brainwashed zombies. Some still consider
themselves Jews, others do not, but all said they had found
something valuable in Buddhism that they had not been able
to find in Judaism.
This made a number of us uncomfortable. Professor Nathan
Katz later expressed to the Dalai Lama our sense of pain,
having lost such spiritually engaged Jews to Buddhism. After
a long pause, the Buddhist leader said he has never sought
to convert others, as all religions offer spiritual satisfaction.
He advises newcomers to stay with their own religion, pointing
out that some Tibetans are also investigating other religions.
In learning about Jewish mystical teachings, the Tibetan leader
said he developed more respect for Judaism because "I
found much sophistication there." He was particularly
impressed by kabbalistic concepts of God that emphasized human
responsibility and discovered that the techniques of Jewish
meditation and prayer were strikingly similar to Buddhist
meditation. Such esoteric teachings and practices, he advised,
should be made more widely available. He gave a parallel from
Buddhist history. Like Kabbalah, Buddhist mysticism or tantrayana,
as traditionally taught in India, had been given selectively
to very few students. Public teaching never happened. But
with too much secrecy, there is a danger that the tradition
will disappear. Therefore in Tibet, the esoteric teachings
were more widely taught.
The Dalai Lama did not think it good to pressure someone
to follow a specific religion. "Although your motivation
may be sincere, the result may not be positive if you limit
the right to choose and explore. If we try to isolate ourselves
from modernity, this is self-destruction. You have to face
reality. If you have sufficient reason to practice a religion,
there is no need to fear (losing people). But if you have
no sufficient reason, no value--then there is no need to hold
onto it." He had offered us extraordinary advice, and
a challenge. Could our leaders make Judaism more satisfying
and beneficial to Jews?
Professor Katz responded by criticizing some Jews' tendency
to define being Jewish mainly in terms of struggling against
"enemies who threaten you either with persecution or
assimilation. If we transmit to people only that you should
be on guard all the time, we are going to lose them."
Through my encounter with Buddhists,
I began asking different questions of Judaism. How does it
make my life better? How can I learn to bring blessings into
my life? How can I live up to the Jewish ideal of making everyday
life sacred? I realized how I had undervalued what was precious
in my own tradition, especially prayer and study. I was also
entirely ignorant of Jewish meditation, or the importance
Jewish prayer and daily life. My contact with the Tibetan
Buddhists deepened my experience of Judaism.
I am continuing my quest for inner
transformation, not in far-off India, but in my own home and
synagogue. I have been intensively studying Jewish and Buddhist
spiritual texts. Seeing Judaism reflected in a Buddhist pool
of nectar, I have come to realize that the religion of my
birth is not just an ethnicity or an identity; it is a way
of life and a spiritual path with its own deep claims on my
thoughts and feelings. If I could summarize the change, I
would say it has been a move from the exotic to the esoteric,
from the outside to the inside--not so much changing my Jewish
practices as deepening them. My wife, two daughters, and I
have for many years celebrated the eve of the Shabbat in our
home by lighting candles and saying blessings over bread and
wine, but now I am more mindful of our kavanah,
our intentions. When reciting the blessings, for example,
I try to keep myself attuned to the peaceful feeling of Shabbat
in body, mind, and soul.
Our prayers and ceremonies are vehicles to deepen that feeling.
I have learned to bring imagery and richness of imagination
to my prayer through meditation. Jews can learn from other
meditative traditions. Meditation, chanting, awareness of
the breath--things we usually associate with Eastern religions
are not foreign to Judaism. Most Jews are unaware of the vast
storehouse of spirituality that can be found in Jewish prayer,
in our mystical tradition, and in our Torah. The organizer
of our trip to Dharamsala, Dr. Marc Lieberman, put it well,
"I am rediscovering now in Judaism the voice of clarity
and wisdom, the voice that speaks to my heart because I have
a much clearer experience of listening to my heart through
For some, the journey to deeper
spirituality in Judaism has involved a detour into Buddhist
meditation. If we open the doors of our own meditative tradition
wider and clarify how Jewish prayer and study can benefit
us in our lives today, perhaps that detour will not be necessary
for the next generation. When my daughter Anya was bat mitzvahed,
I was proud of the rigor of her accomplishment, but even prouder
of the spirit she brought to her prayers. She understood what
she was saying. She worshipped with kavanah.
I think her generation already understands implicitly that
their task is to take Jewish spirituality to heart and deepen
it. Clinging to an external Jewish identity without growing
a Jewish soul no longer has meaning to me. The Dalai Lama
spoke from "a personal curiosity" when he asked
us about our inner life as Jews. It was a characteristically
Buddhist question, and one that has transformed me as a Jew.
Six years later, after the publication
of The Jew in the Lotus,
my book about the Jewish-Buddhist encounter in Dharamsala,
I went back to Dharamsala, the place where my life changed
drastically due to the dialogue between Jews and the Dalai
Lama. During that time, I was able to have a private appointment
with the Dalai Lama. Our meeting was extraordinarily intimate,
even though my wife, three translators, Laurel Chiten and
her film crew of six were in the room. He walked in, smiling,
bowed slightly as I bowed to him, and sat down. My friend
Dr. Marc Lieberman, the father of the Jewish-Buddhist dialogue,
introduced me, reminding His Holiness of the encounter with
the Jews and explaining that I had written a book about it.
Then it was up to me, "Your Holiness, people ask me why
I had to go all the way to Dharamsala to look more deeply
into my Jewish tradition. Why did I have to meet with a Buddhist
master to see Judaism more deeply?" I paused and then
added, "May I tell you a Hasidic story?" He nodded,
and I told him the story of Reb Yehiel, who dreams every night
of a bridge in Vienna where gold is hidden. Finally he journeys
to Vienna, and finds the bridge. A guard asks him what he
is doing and when Reb Yehiel explains, the guard laughs. "Oh
you Jews are such dreamers. I'll tell you what dreams are
worth. Every night I dream of a Jew named Reb Yehiel, and
behind his stove, under the floor, there's buried gold."
As I was telling the story, I was captivated by the Dalai
Lama's face. He reflects every nuance of your words. He chuckled
all along the way and then burst into laughter when I got
to the punch line. "So Reb Yehiel returned home, looked
behind his stove and found gold."
I said the story explained why someone might have to journey
far away to find a teacher who will show him what is already
close at hand. I added, "For me and for many Jews, you
have become such a teacher. By making us look more deeply
into Judaism, you have become our rabbi." Laughing, the
Dalai Lama reached for his head and said, "So you will
give me a small hat?" I promised to leave a yarmulke
for him, and then was silent. I had learned something from
transcribing the previous dialogue: always leave him time
to respond. During the silence, he is thinking. If you fill
it up with your own chatter, you will never get the benefit
of that thought. So I contravened forty-six years of my own
noisy cultural conditioning and let the silence hang.
Soon he replied, "All major religions can help each
other. Each tradition has some specialty or uniqueness that
can be very useful for other traditions. Sometimes the communication
is not necessarily through words, it can also be through close
feelings. If you found some little contribution from my part
to our Jewish brothers and sisters, I am very happy."
I told him his questions about the Jewish inner life had
been particularly helpful. Buddhists practice meditation and
he had asked to know the Jewish method for overcoming afflictive
states of mind. This had spurred Jews to look inward. The
Dalai Lama generously replied that he felt all traditions,
including his own are sometimes too focused on "external
rituals or ceremonies. Then they neglect the real end of spirituality--transformation
within ourselves." He added with a smile, "If you
make a short visit to a monastery, everything looks beautiful.
But if you listen to the story of what is happening, just
as with normal human beings, there is quarreling. That is
a clear indication that we are neglecting genuine transformation,
real spiritual development inside." Thinking about the
fights that so often go on within our own synagogues and between
denominations within the Jewish community, I had to agree.
I had the chance to present him
with a copy of The Jew in
the Lotus, an author's dream
come true. I was a little afraid he might be offended by the
title which plays on "the jewel in the lotus"--om
mani padme hum--the Tibetan's
favorite mantra. I had found that Jews often did not understand
the pun and some Western Buddhists were too pious to laugh.
But the Dalai Lama seemed to think it was hilarious. He touched
the book to his forehead in the Tibetan gesture of acceptance.
Before we parted, I mentioned that
at the next full moon, we Jews would be celebrating Passover.
According to the Talmud, there comes a time during the ritual
when we recall liberation not just of the Hebrews from Egypt,
but of every nation from captivity and slavery. Certainly
in my household we pray each year that Tibet will soon be
free. He was touched by this. The Tibetans see Jews as a people
with a secret for surviving in exile and remaining spiritually
intact. Right now, the Tibetans face a ruthless occupation
by the Chinese communists. Their culture and religion face
extinction. I told him, "Each year during the seder
ritual we say 'Next year in Jerusalem,' to symbolize our hopes
for spiritual wholeness and communal prosperity in the future.
At my seder
this year, my family will join 'Next year in Lhasa' to 'Next
year in Jerusalem.'"