A study I found while researching my most recent book, Buddha or Bust, reported that some 30 percent of Americans practicing Buddhism come from Jewish backgrounds.
They call themselves Bu-Jews, or Bu-ish. I am among them, though I just call myself...Perry.
Except for one or two teeny weeny details - such as that Judaism invented the one-God theory while Buddhism invented the no-God theory (OK, maybe that's not teeny or weeny) - the two traditions share many ethical values and a profound intellectual analysis of what comprises "the truth," which may explain why some Jews have been drawn to Buddhism. Though it does not explain why, in turn, Asian Buddhists are not necessarily drawn to Judaism. Go know, as Jews say. Or, as Buddhists say: Go, know.
On Jewish holidays, these details particularly can get in the way as we Jews who also practice Buddhism wrestle with our own sort of theological schizophrenia. But now that I have studied Buddhism more deeply, I actually feel less conflicted about my favorite Jewish holiday, Passover, which begins at sunset on April 19 this year.
I have always loved Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), and not just because my name in Hebrew happens to be Pesach. (What can I say? My parents named me after Perry Como, their favorite Italian crooner at the time, and there is no Hebrew equivalent for Perry.)
I love ritual. Ritual is metaphor. Writers love metaphors. Passover is ritual. The ritual of family coming together to break bread, albeit unleavened bread. The ritual repetition of the story, invoking the ancient oral storytelling tradition by which almost everything we know was passed down from a time before Wikipedia. The ritual of the four questions, beginning with "Why is this night different from all other nights?" This reminds me that the Buddha encouraged us to maintain "sufficiently inquiring minds," to keep a beginner's mind.
Since my father's death, I've led our Seder (meaning "order") service, ever mindful that I am just sitting in for my old man and that a next generation will soon sit at the head of the table, though hopefully not too soon. In recent years, to add contemporary spin, I have printed various relevant pages from the Internet and read them at the Seder, often to the chagrin of my family. This year I am going to borrow some insights from a book I found (on the Internet, naturally) entitled Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists.
Just to show how ecumenical they are, they also publish Passover Ritual for Students of A Course in Miracles, The Internet Haggadah, and others. As Jews would say, who knew? As Buddhists would say, who is the "who" who knew?
The Haggadah (which simply means "the telling"), is the book from which Jews read at the Passover Seder. It relates the story of their exodus, an exodus from slavery in Egypt to freedom in "the Promised Land." And therein lies the most powerful association to Buddhism, which offers a methodology for attaining freedom from mental slavery - that is, freedom from negative thoughts that enslave us to a life of suffering. May we all arrive to such a promised land.
Haggadah for Jews & Buddhists offers "the Jewish people's journey...from despair to hope, from lack of insight into praise for the Divine, as symbols of our own movement along the same path: our own personal psychological and spiritual growth."
Even before beginning the official Seder, this Hagaddah for Bu-Jews tackles the key difference between the two traditions: how to define the "Divine." Part of the answer, it suggests, requires a "shift in the understanding of the nature of the Divine that most religions have been wrestling with for the past 75 or more years."
The "mental picture of an 'Old Man in the Sky' who looks down and intervenes in dramatic ways, is increasingly being supplanted with a broader, richer understanding of 'That Which is in and Through All Things' or a non-dualistic 'Creator.'" As you can read, defining the Indefinable, knowing the Unknowable, leaves even the author of this Hagaddah at a loss to explain. "Words are symbols of symbols that fail to capture the true nature of the Divine," writes the author.
Rectifying this difference between dualism (God over there, me over here) and non-dualism (we're all part of the same huge, infinite reality) is not easily explained even in Kabbalah, the most esoteric branch of Judaism. As Rabbi Michael Berg explains on Kabbalah.com, "Our purpose in life is to become like the Creator, thereby becoming one with it. This is based in the spiritual law that when two spiritual beings are exactly alike, they become one. Once we become one with the Creator, we are one with endless joy and happiness, one with fulfillment, for this is the essence of the Creator."
The Jewish mystics call it atziluth (no limits or boundaries) or ayn sof (infinite). The Buddhists call it shunyata, which Tibetan Buddhists define as "emptiness".
"If 'God' means truth or ultimate reality, then there is a point of similarity to shunyata," His Holiness the Dalai Lama once explained in a discussion with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (see Roger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus).
This Passover, I, Perry, Pesach, will pass over the similarities and differences between and among all religions as I pass the Matzah over to my daughter and to all future generations - whether Jew, Bu, or you. It couldn't hurt.