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Why do Zen and Judaism complement each other?
Zen practice deepens Jewish experience and helps one understand what authentic Jewish spiritual practice is; Jewish practice provides the warmth and humanity that can get lost in the Zen way. The combination of zazen and Jewish practice has wonderful effects. As we sit in zazen, concentration grows, stray thoughts lessen, defensiveness dissolves, the heart opens. This deeply uplifts and enhances study, prayers and blessings. After study or prayers it is beautiful to return to zazen to deeply digest all that has gone on. The practice of zazen also greatly enhances and illuminates the practice of mitzvot. We become much more sensitive to the mitzvot, see the significance of it, and are actually enabled to do it in a way we could not have without the practice of zazen. For example, one of the foundational mitzvot is: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Most of us do not love ourselves or even have the vaguest understanding of what love really is. We mistake attachment, dependency, need, and possessiveness for love. As we practice zazen however, and as these aspects of our lives dissolve, we then become open and available to do this mitzvah with a full heart, with a new experience of love.
Jewish practice complements Zen practice as well. The warmth, wisdom and deep sensitivity of Torah can place Zen practice in a broader context and allow it to be more easily integrated into everyday life. It helps us practice zazen in the context of family, business, love, relationships, and also not to become involved in a fixed identity as a Zen student. Engaging in Jewish practice, with its demands that we have relationships, that our relationship partner is our teacher, also helps dissolve addictive relationships with Zen teachers, which can replace that which is missing in one’s life.
There are many traps in both Zen and Jewish practice. I have found that when both are undertaken, it is easier to steer clear of these traps and integrate all aspects of ourselves. An ancient Rabbi, Rabbi Baer of Radoshitz said, “It is impossible to tell men what way they should take. Instead they should find that which speaks to them, that which they can integrate and which is uplifting. For one the way to serve God is through the teachings, for another through prayer, for another through fasting, and for still another through eating. Everyone should carefully observe what way his or her heart draws them to and then choose this way with their entire strength.”
You were raised in an orthodox Jewish family. What does the Jewish community at large think about Jews who practice both Judaism and Buddhism?
The orthodox community has no regard at all for individuals who practice both Judaism and Buddhism. But, let me add to this, that other Jewish communities, such as the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal groups are open to this, accept, enjoy, and welcome it. I would also like to add that there are many forms of Jewish practice. It is very rare for an individual who practices Zen to also engage in Orthodox Jewish practice. Most do not know what it is. That is one of the purposes of my book Jewish Dharma, to show what Orthodox Jewish practice is and how we can do it along with the practice of Zen.