In 1990, Rodger Kamenetz, a secular Jew and English professor at Louisiana State University, accompanied a group of eight Jewish leaders to Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. This book, published in 1994, describes that interfaith dialog as well as his many interviews later with Jews who practice Buddhism, including Alan Ginsberg and Ram Das.
The Dalai Lama was particularly interested in how the Jews survived as a people in Diaspora during their thousands of years in exile. Tibetan Buddhists, now expelled from their homeland are facing the same dilemma.
The Jews were particularly interested in what the attraction was for modern Jews in Buddhism because there have been so many who have seemed to abandon their Jewish heritage.
The author writes well, so well in fact that he took me deeper into concepts than I have ever been before. There are a lot of facts in this book and a lot of theology. I have no background in philosophy, theology, mysticism, meditation or any spiritual practices. And yet I was able to follow most of it.
The Jews and Tibetan Buddhists have some things in common. Their monks study sacred texts and practice debate. There are some ancient words that are common to both religions. And on a deep spiritual level, they both practice meditation and visualization.
The differences are vast though. The Jewish tradition is rooted in the family. The Tibetan in a monastic tradition. The Jews believe there is one lifetime. The Tibetans believe in reincarnation.
When the question of the holocaust came up, the Tibetan answer was that it was karma for something bad they did in their past lives when they might or might not have necessarily been Jews. The Jews were shocked by this. They felt it was blaming the victim.
The big issue in the book was about spirituality, however. Modern Judaism is based on customs and traditions and ethnic identity. It is not based on the essence of spirituality which is reached in prayer, meditation, chanting and communication with something much deeper than self, and -- ultimately -- results in enlightenment.
I read this book slowly, each paragraph bringing up ideas I had never even knew existed before. It was an experience in itself to share the journey with the author who did painstaking research to pull this little gem of a book together.
Recommended for someone who wants to do some deep thinking about spirituality and its place in the modern world.
Kamenetz, Rodger. The Jew in the Lotus. HarperSanFracisco, 1994. This wittily titled book resulted from a dialogue between the HH Dalai Lama in Dharmasala and a group of American Jews, mostly rabbis, in the fall of 1990. They had been invited to offer insights on how the Jews have preserved their culture through repeated adversities from the destruction of the Babylonian captivity through the destruction of the second Temple by the Roman and the horror of the Holocaust. By 1945, 2/3 of Jews had been eradicated from the face of the earth and among them, as Kamenetz points out, 3/4ths of the teachers and mystical masters. This fact has left a great hole in the fabric of Judaism so that the person who is in search of Jewish profound teachings has had to go to other traditions in order to satisfy this need.
The first of the members of the group, Nathan Katz, gave a presentation on contacts between the Hindu/ Buddhist and Jewish traditions. On p. 69 we learn of the Sanskrit words found in the (Hebrew) text of the Torah. We hear of the Hebrew manuscripts in Tibetan monasteries in Kucha, Mongolia. He points out that the concept of shunyata appeared in the West in the zero of mathematics. Al-Buruni, the Muslim philosopher of the 9th century had drawn the parallel between shunyata, the unpronounceable Name and also, Aum. He also reminded HH that the Jews were the first refugees (in 70 CE) to find a refuge in India.
It was probably news, when this book came out in 1994, for a great many Jewish Buddhists (aka JUBUs) who in many Dharma centres make up 30% or more of members, to learn that there is a Jewish tradition of visualization, meditation and other such practices. Most had heard of the kabbalah but they also knew that its study was supposed to be limited to adult married men. Rabbi Zalman Schachter's presentation reveals what he perceives to be similarities between its teachings and vipassana meditation. He points to the Name AinSof (without end) as also known as Ayin or Void (p.86). From the mandala of the ten Sephirot through the idea of four worlds; from the angelology inherited by Jews from the Arabs through the symbolism of the two sexes, we see that tantrayana and mystical Judaism have a language and many techniques in common.
A fascinating section of The Jew in the Lotus is derived from talks the author had with such people as Ven.Thubten Chodron, Alex Wayman, Charles Rome who was secretary to Chogyam Trungpa R., Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass and many other prominent Jewish practitioners. Among non-Jewish Westerners who appear are Robert Thurman and Richard Gere.
The author, a poet, writes of his own voyage of discovery, too; of his relationship to his Jewishness, of his discovery of India and the inclusiveness of its culture despite its current infection by fundamentalism. ( The Ayodhya incident was just about to happen as the group departed). Though the author was introduced mainly to the monastic Gelug lineage, he is aware that, currently the most prominent, it is not the only one. He sees in the plight of the Tibetan people some parallels with the Jewish diaspora and shows us the Dalai Lama's concern over the tendency to assimilation of Tibetans born outside their homeland.
This book will be of great interest, certainly, to all Jews who are Buddhist practitioners and their concerned family members, but also to all readers interested in mystic traditions particularly those who have sympathy for the cause of Tibet.