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What are the main similarities of Judaism and Zen?

A main pillar of Jewish practice is Tikkun Olam, healing the world and the self. Like Zen practice, Jewish practice is one of purification so that we can dedicate our lives to bringing forth healing energies, and extending our compassion and understanding to all of life. In Zen this is called the Bodhisattva’s vow. Both practices tell us to offer ourselves completely, holding back nothing, to that which is most meaningful, not to get caught in the traps and snares of attachment.

In Zen practice, students work with becoming free of attachment and clinging. This is also a foundation of Jewish practice. The mitzvah of Avodah Zorah (Idol Worship), is an injunction not to worship false images of God. On a deeper level this means not to become attached or worship that which is fleeting or that which we have fabricated, or made ourselves. In the present day, people do not think they worship anything, least of all idols. But in Jewish practice we learn further that you worship whatever you put your trust in, what you turn to in a time of need. Is it money, relationships, status, accomplishments, teachers? Or you can also worship yourself and spend hours building up ego. This mitzvah teaches humility and helps let go of the false ego, with all its clinging, which brings such pain into our lives.

Zen practice is also focused upon dissolving the false ego and living in a manner which is simple, real, and without guile. It could even be said that the practice of zazen itself is the practice of dissolving false idols, images, attachments and discovering where our true support and strength lie. As we sit in zazen we are actualizing the mitzvah in many ways. We see for ourselves that one of the deepest causes of suffering is false attachments and creating all kinds of dreams, hopes and images that scatter our forces and take our true life away.

Zazen, Zen meditation, is a foundation of Zen practice. A Zen student takes time on a daily basis to sit. For this period of time she turns around, turns from the endless demands and distractions of life and faces herself. Teschuvah is a foundation of Jewish practice. This term has various meanings, but the central one is to “return.” When we do teschuvah, we turn around, also take our attending away from the endless demands, cravings and distractions of life and turn towards God. We re-orient ourselves in life, and live from a different perspective. When a Jewish practitioner does teshuvah (which must be done on a daily basis), she turns to prayer, mitzvot, and Torah. A Zen student turns within. Although there are external differences, the direction is the same. Each practitioner is returning home to the source of their existence.

Another great similarity is between the practice of the mitzvot and that of mindfulness. In mindfulness practice, an outgrowth of zazen, we pay careful attention to each moment, to what we are doing, where we are. We do each action with one hundred percent of ourselves and ultimately become very sensitive to what is needed in that moment. In the practice of the mitzvot, likewise, individuals must become fully mindful to where they are, what time it is, who is before them, and what mitzvah is required at this particular moment. Different problems arrive in our lives as an opportunity to do a mitzvah, rather than follow our own reactions, which are often unruly and not based on that which is beneficial for all. There are many other mitzvot as well, including blessings to offer, actions to take and to refrain to take upon specific occasions. Living in this manner produces intense mindfulness and prevents the practitioner from getting lost in fantasy or negative responses.

As mentioned above, Zen practice is based upon zazen. The Torah also directs Jewish practitioners to meditate, over and over again. A famous quote is, “Be still and know that I am God.” Another is, when God was asked how one could know Him, the answer came that He is “in the still, small voice within.” There are many forms of Jewish meditation, but in the days of old it is told that the sages used to sit for one hour, pray for one hour, and then sit for another hour. They did this three times a day. When asked how they could possibly have time to get their needs met, they responded that when they did this, all they needed was brought right to them.


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