Monday, December 8, 2014

Israel's Buddhist Community Makes Strides, One Mindful Step at a Time

By: Chad Weisman
Produced & Edited By: Andrew Davis 

         In Tzfat, the birthplace of Jewish mysticism, a Kazakhstani transplant named Shlomo Tal teaches the Judaic tradition to American students. He identifies as an observant Jew.
         “I try to follow all sides of Jewish Law,” he said. “But the way I practice it is an expression of the inner side of Torah, the Kabbalah.”
A Kabbalah bracelet. Western celebrities are often photographed
wearing them. Photo ©
         Interest in Kabbalah has grown in concert with the flow of Eastern culture into the fabric of Western life. Young Israelis, secular and observant, commonly seek spiritual experiences in Eastern lands, however the impact of this phenomenon is yet to be seen.
         Tal describes the “awakening of New Age [beliefs] in Israel,” as a fad. “It’s mostly people who don’t invest in spirituality, but treat it like a trend or cool thing. His own trip to India centered entirely on Jewish practice.
         “People that go for some type of spiritual experience are getting to know their soul and getting closer to our tradition, too.”
 Tal has not experienced any dissonance between Jewish meditation and Eastern techniques.

Jewish Buddhist
         The term ‘Jewbu’ (a portmanteau with obvious derivatives) was coined in 1994, 21 years after the death of Israel’s first prime minister. Though David Ben-Gurion never called himself a Buddhist, the self-proclaimed ‘Jewish Atheist’ was a noted student of meditation techniques.
A lotus, a symbol of Buddhism, peacefully sits on a pond.
Photo © National Geographic
Jews account for one-third of America’s non-Asian Buddhist population; yet Buddhists in Israel only amount to 0.1 percent of total citizenship.
         “You don’t see the real interest,” said Donna Peretz of the Community of Mindfulness in Israel (CMI). “I can’t say the Israeli mind is open to it.”
         Peretz adopted Zen in 1997 after a series of workshops conducted by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk. Mindfulness meditation has had a profound effect on her life. 
         “Buddhism has the solution and the way to help people see each other’s pain,” she said. “It’s a real value in Buddhism, listening and loving speech.”
         As a matter of doctrine, there is no contradiction between one’s Buddhist practice and pre-existing religious beliefs. Buddhism has power to disrupt divisions by facilitating the solidity of Being. On the battleground of “the world’s most intractable conflict,” it is easy to see how Eastern perspectives can become part of the conversation.
         “We are separated by names like Buddhists, like Jews, like Muslims,” said Thich Nhat Hanh. “We hear these words and we see a kind of image; we feel alienated; we don’t feel communication. They have set up many things for us to be separated from each other and make each other suffer.”
         As a young man, Baruch Shalev served in an elite Special Forces unit.
         “When someone comes to kill you or someone else next to you,” he said, “you cannot talk about love in that moment. You have a responsibility because life is precious, and it doesn’t matter who the other person is. All life is from God, Hashem [The Name].”
         Shalev was Ariel Sharon’s advisor on alternative energy after a long career in plastics and consulting. In retirement he is a full-time Dharma teacher.
         “If you sow incitement, you will have killing,” he said. “If you have education, coexistence and recognizing people’s well-being, then that’s what you will receive.”
         In the eyes of Ofer Cohen, a student of Daniel Waxman’s Zazen practice in Tel Aviv, “Compassion is what is common in Judaism and Buddhism. They are both real life beliefs; they present to the believer the actualization of belief in daily life.”

Spiritual Differences
        Buddhism and Judaism are not in perfect alignment. In 2011, Yad L’achim (an Orthodox Jewish group) declared the worldview to be in violation of the first three commandments. They decried the construction of a Tibetan Buddhist center in southern Israel.
        However such discrimination is uncommon in the State of Israel. Many, including Donna Peretz, embrace an understanding of Buddhism that helps them deal with the stress of life during wartime.
        “Every time the [attack] alarm went off I was panicking; I had anxiety. That’s when I used my mindfulness. I had a minute and a half to rush from my apartment to the shelter. During that [time] I was practicing mindfulness, breathing, and calming myself.
        “When I entered the shelter there was a young family with four children. The children didn’t know what was going on, and they were very happy to see me.”

No comments: