Interfaith Dialogue | Thubten Chodron http://thubtenchodron.org The Thubten Chodron Teaching Archive Fri, 18 Aug 2017 00:41:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 El refugio http://thubtenchodron.org/2016/01/tolerancia-religiosa/ Fri, 01 Jan 2016 22:12:05 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=71087

Al comienzo de una práctica de meditación, tomamos refugio y generamos la bodhicitta. El proceso de toma de refugio nos aclara quiénes son nuestros guías espirituales, de quién recibimos orientación espiritual y cuál es nuestro objetivo espiritual. Sin esta claridad, es difícil mantener una práctica espiritual y penetrar sus profundidades.

Generar la intención altruista de la bodhicitta nos permite saber por qué estamos siguiendo este camino. Esto también es importante, ya que el resultado de nuestra práctica espiritual depende de la motivación con la que lo hacemos.

Tomar refugio significa confiarle nuestra guía espiritual al Buda, Dharma y Sangha. Es decir, hemos examinado las enseñanzas budistas y estamos seguros de que son correctas y de que si las seguimos nos conducirán a nuestra meta deseada: la liberación o iluminación. Este es el significado de ser un budista.

Tolerancia religiosa

Como seguidores del camino del Buda, no debemos criticar otras religiones o hacer comentarios de intolerancia. La existencia de muchas religiones en el mundo no sólo es algo práctico, sino ventajoso. Cada religión está diseñada para ayudar a sus seguidores a cultivar la disciplina ética y un buen corazón. Por lo tanto, cualquier persona que practique con sinceridad las provechosas enseñanzas de su tradición, se beneficiará y contribuirá al bienestar del mundo. Dado que distintas explicaciones, simbolismo y prácticas benefician a diferentes personas, la existencia de diversos caminos espirituales permite que cada persona elija aquella que se adapta mejor a su persona.

Agrupar a la gente en categorías- “Él es un cristiano (budista, judío, musulmán, hindú o wicca)”- y pensar que de esta manera los entendemos, es ignorante de nuestra parte. No todas las personas que se identifican con una religión particular tienen los mismos puntos de vista o practican de la misma manera. Los místicos cristianos y los cristianos vueltos-a-nacer pueden tener puntos de vista muy diferentes de quién o qué es Dios. Algunas personas que se consideran budistas pueden orar a Tara como si fuera un Dios externo, mientras que algunos cristianos pueden ver a Dios como la vacuidad o compasión.

Iluminarse no depende de llamarnos a nosotros mismos “budistas”. Depende de lo que creemos en nuestro corazón y la forma en la que practicamos para transformar nuestra mente. Cualquier persona que genera la determinación de liberarse de la existencia cíclica, la aspiración altruista de la iluminación y la sabiduría que comprende la vacuidad, puede convertirse en un bodhisattva y un Buda. No importa como se llamen a sí mismos. Tenemos que ver lo que una persona cree y practica para poder evaluar si sus realizaciones son realizaciones correctas o no. Para ello, es esencial desarrollar la sabiduría discriminadora y la apertura.

Aunque la tolerancia religiosa es muy importante, eso no quiere decir que todas las religiones son iguales o que todas conducen al mismo resultado. No tenemos forma de probar que todas producen el mismo resultado. No hemos completado el camino budista, ni que decir de los caminos de otras religiones, para poder saber con certeza si estos diversos caminos conducen a los mismos o diferentes resultados.

Hay diferencias

En la década de los 90s, Su Santidad el Dalai Lama y el Padre Lawrence Freeman, OSB, un sacerdote católico inglés que organizó el Seminario John Main en el que Su Santidad habló sobre los Evangelios ante algunos monjes cristianos, se reunieron en Bodhgaya, India, para un diálogo interreligioso. El padre Lawrence llevó a un grupo de cristianos a Bodhgaya, y algunos budistas también asistieron al diálogo. Todos practicaron e intercambiaron puntos de vista juntos.

Un amigo que asistió al diálogo me contó que el padre Lawrence estaba maravillado con Su Santidad y en repetidas ocasiones dijo que sus dos religiones eran muy similares. En un momento dado, Su Santidad dijo, “No, sí hay diferencias. Es importante reconocer las diferencias y no sólo hacer que todo sea lo mismo. Cada fe tiene sus propias cualidades únicas, y tenemos que respetarlas por lo que son”.

Cuando decimos que todas las religiones conducen al mismo lugar, parece que estamos tratando de convencernos de que en el fondo, esas personas realmente creen en lo que nosotros creemos, por lo que no debemos desconfiar de ellos. Este tipo de pensamiento puede hacernos sentir que todo está bien.

En la historia anterior, el comentario de Su Santidad hace hincapié en que la armonía religiosa y la tolerancia no dependen de pensar que las creencias de los demás son las mismas que las nuestras, sólo expresadas con palabras diferentes. Más bien, podemos reconocer nuestros puntos de vista diferentes, e incluso debatirlos, y seguirnos respetando mutuamente y llevarnos bien. Somos conscientes de que los caminos de los demás los ayudan a convertirse en mejores personas y podemos regocijarnos de que ellos practiquen la religión que practican porque ese camino, su simbolismo y su estructura les ayudan. Si esas personas trataran de utilizar símbolos budistas, podrían no funcionar para ellos. Si trataran de adoptar puntos de vista budistas, podrían llegar a confundirse.

Cultivando la confianza

Antes de llamarnos a nosotros mismos “budistas”, apegarnos a esa idea y hacer alarde de la superioridad de nuestro camino, tenemos que investigar, “¿Mis puntos de vista en realidad corresponden a lo que el Buda enseñó?” Podemos decir que somos budistas, pero en realidad no sabemos lo que el Buda enseñó o no estamos de acuerdo con eso. Por ejemplo, algunas personas dicen: “Yo soy budista”, pero no quieren escuchar enseñanzas sobre los sutras pronunciadas por el Buda. Sólo quieren recibir bendiciones e iniciaciones de lamas de nivel alto. Creen que alguna fuerza o ser realizado externos les va a tocar la cabeza o a darles agua bendita y en su vida todo va a ir bien. Algunos no están interesados en la liberación o incluso en prepararse para las vidas futuras. ¿Estas personas tienen puntos de vista budistas?

Tenemos que ver dentro de nosotros y observar hasta qué punto estamos entrenando a nuestra mente en los puntos de vista budistas. Este entrenamiento no significa simplemente decir: “Lo que el Buda creía es correcto”, y luego seguir ciegamente lo que otros nos dicen que el Buda dijo. Hacer declaraciones de fidelidad al Buda no es una cualidad de un practicante sincero. Más bien, el Buda quiere que escuchemos las enseñanzas, reflexionemos en ellas, meditemos en ellas y las pongamos en práctica.

A través de reflexionar en su significado, entenderlas y aplicarlas en nuestra mente, vamos a llegar a entender cómo funciona nuestra mente. Por lo tanto, la fe y la confianza en el Buda, el Dharma y la Sangha provienen de examinar las enseñanzas y de la convicción de que muestran un camino viable hacia la iluminación.

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Religious diversity and religious harmony http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/06/interfaith-insights/ Sat, 18 Jun 2011 23:41:39 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=9352

If someone had told me when I was twenty years old that I would become a Buddhist nun, I would have told them they were crazy. Not only could I not imagine being celibate or curbing my attachment to pleasures of the senses, but also I thought religion was harmful. Having studied history in university, I learned that almost every generation in Europe had seen a war over religion. Millions of people have been killed in the name of religion throughout history, and I thought, “What use is religion if it causes harm?” Over the years, I have come to understand that the problem is not religion per se, but the disturbing attitudes in the minds of human beings that make them misunderstand the meaning of whatever religion they follow. The holy beings—Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Krishna, Moses and others—would be distressed by what beings with limited understanding have done and still do in their name.

One of the chief misunderstandings that we ignorant beings are prone to is “the sports team mentality” towards religion. We identify with one sports team or religion and then, juxtaposing it with another, think that ours has to be the best. We cheer for our religion, and try to convert others to it so that it will have more members. We think that the more people believe in it, the truer it must be. We put down other religions in an attempt to prove to ourselves that ours is supreme. This is a useless pursuit, one that leads to disharmony and even violence in society, and is contrary to the real intent of all religions. Born from fear, it is an activity that does not solve our insecurity but instead accentuates it.

This attitude of “religious patriotism cum fundamentalism” misunderstands the purpose of religion, and confuses sincere religious practice with religious institutions. While we can measure the number of people who call themselves Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or Christians, we cannot measure the depth of understanding and experience of any of those people. Being religious is more than attaching a certain label to ourselves; it is transforming our minds and hearts so that we become better people. Being truly religious occurs in our hearts—no one else can see this with their eyes. Religious institutions, however, can be seen and measured. We must ask ourselves, “What is my purpose? Is it to be religious or to promote a religious institution?” Religions have their source in mystical experience; religious institutions are the creations of imperfect human beings. They are designed to facilitate religious practice, but whether religious institutions are successful in doing this depends on the human beings who are their members. One can be deeply religious and not belong to any religious institution. Similarly, one can promote a religious institution and not have any feeling in one’s heart for the lofty principles that religion advocates.

His Holiness touching his forehead to the head of a Catholic monk.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama believes real religion is compassion. (Photo by Christopher Michel)

All religions are for the purpose of human happiness. They all teach ethics and compassion and stress harmony among people. Philosophically there are differences, and while recognizing those, we can still appreciate the similarities. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once said that he believes the real religion is compassion. We experience the compassion of others from infancy throughout our lives. Without the kindness and efforts of others, it would be impossible for us to sustain our lives alone. Developing our compassion enables us to live harmoniously with others and eventually to experience a peaceful death. People from all faiths agree with this. We experience compassion naturally simply by being a human being. However, our knowledge of doctrines such as creation or karma is learned later on.

Sometimes people ask, “Wouldn’t it be better if there were only one religion in the world and everyone believed in it? Then there would be no fighting among the various faiths.” While we may be initially attracted to this idea, from a Buddhist viewpoint the multiplicity of religions is necessary and desirable. First, it would be impossible to make each and every human being believe in the same philosophical or religious tenets. People clearly have different ways of thinking and different tendencies, and there is no way to make all of them hold the same beliefs. Second, it would not be beneficial for only one religious system to exist in our world. Because people have different inclinations and attitudes, a variety of religions is necessary to ensure that each person can find one that serves him or her best. Diverse systems of thought and practice inspire people. As long as a person endeavors to live ethically and harmoniously, which religion he or she follows—if any—is irrelevant.

Are they all one?

We sometimes have difficulty accommodating the fact that there are so many different religions, and find comfort in thinking that they are all essentially the same—they are like different paths up the same mountain or like surveying many valleys from the same mountain top. Many people believe that the founders of each religion had the same mystical experience of reality. The words describing an experience are never the same as that experience. They are simply approximations, human attempts to convey in words what is by nature inexpressible and inconceivable. Thus many people postulate that the founders of the various religions selected words from their respective cultures to describe mystical experiences which were essentially identical. Later generations, however, focused more on the words than on the experience, and that is the source of philosophical differences among religions. In comparing Christianity and Buddhism, for example, some people speculate that the Trinity in Christianity is another formulation of the three kayas in Buddhism. Others say that God the creator is the equivalent of karma, or that God the ultimate is the equivalent of Dharma—the true path and true cessation of suffering.

Although some of these theories may be correct, we ordinary beings are not capable of discerning this. Differences in philosophical approach clearly exist among religions. For example, Christianity speaks of an everlasting soul, while Buddhism talks of the lack of a permanent, singular, independent self or soul. By practicing according to the philosophy of one system will one generate the same mystical experience as practicing according to another system? Only a person who has followed both systems to their ends, gaining direct realizations of both paths, could discern this through his or her own experience. Only then could one ascertain for sure whether the two religions originated from and point to the same experience of reality. For those of us who have not gained direct realizations of our own religion, let alone of other faiths, it is presumptuous to say that they lead to either the same or to different goals. We must simply remain content to say, “It’s possible that all religions point to the same mystical reality, but I don’t know.” Intellectual speculation on this point may be interesting and may soothe our anxiety by making all religions “right,” but it is superfluous to religious practice and spiritual experience. While we live in a state of dissatisfaction, confusion, and suffering—a point all religions agree on—what is most important is for us to practice according to our faith and transform our hearts and minds into compassion and wisdom.

Fortunately, for religious harmony and interreligious dialogue to occur, it is not necessary to conceptually juggle the different beliefs to make them the same. We can accept the variations in philosophy and even rejoice in them. Hearing views different from our own strengthens our ability to investigate. It challenges us to have a deeper understanding of the philosophy we study. It also calls us to explore what is true, rather than to be waylaid by simply repeating the words of the religious texts without understanding or experiencing their deeper meaning.

The value of interreligious dialogue

What, then, is the value of interreligious dialogue? How should it be conducted? The purpose is to benefit people, not to debate and arise victorious. When we approach dialogue with an open mind, respect and willingness to learn, we benefit others and are benefited in return. However, if we or the other party lack this attitude, then it is better not to discuss religion. For communication to occur, there has to be a sincere wish to listen, not simply to speak. If this is missing, it is best to excuse ourselves from the conversation. Were it to continue, the discussion would degenerate into an issue of power, not spirituality, with one party trying to dominate or convert the other. Genuine interreligious dialogue occurs in an atmosphere of mutual respect and genuine interest. It is a sharing of spirituality that inspires all parties. Someone once observed, “When philosophers and theologians meet, they argue. When spiritual practitioners and mystics meet, they smile.”

Through my experience of talking with people of other faiths, I have learned about the similarities and differences in religious practice. In terms of the similarities, first, the chief obstacles to any form of spiritual practice are materialism and attachment to pleasures of the five senses, praise and reputation. All spiritual people agree about this. We can only cultivate ourselves spiritually to the extent we understand the disadvantages of being distracted by and attached to external pleasures. The mind that craves more and better—be it more or better material possessions, fame, approval, or pleasure from the senses—has limited energy to direct toward the cultivation of ethical conduct, love, compassion or wisdom. All spiritual traditions emphasize letting go of our worldly attitudes.

Second, there are similarities in life style. In the chapter, “Spiritual Sisters,” two nuns—one Catholic, the other Buddhist—discuss the challenges of living without financial security, remaining celibate, and living in community. Although our philosophical beliefs differ, we understand each other’s life style and practice at the heart level. This theme is also taken up in Sister Candasiri’s account, “Love Unbounded,” the story of two Theravada Buddhist nuns who stayed in an Anglican nunnery.

Practitioners of various faiths also share similar experiences. For example, they must ride the ups and downs that occur in spiritual practice. Many years ago Sister Kathleen England came to visit our Buddhist monastery in France. She had been a Catholic nun for over fifty years and worked in the Vatican. At first, we had some “conflict” because she wanted to learn about our practice but we wanted her to tell us about hers! Finally, after we each had a chance to listen to the other, I asked her, “How have you handled the crises that arise during practice? How do you deal with those ‘dark hours of the heart’ when you are filled with self-criticism or doubt?” She gave invaluable advice: “When we go into crisis, it signifies not that we are backsliding in our practice, but that we are ready to grow. Our previous understanding, which worked for a while, is no longer sufficient. We need to go deeper, and we are ready to do so. That is why the crisis occurs. It is an invaluable time for growth, because as we work our way through it, we come to understandings that we were not able to have before.” What I learned from Sister Kathleen has enabled me to remain a Buddhist nun all these years.

Another experience that people from differing religions may share is that of preserving their religious practice and culture when they live as a minority in a foreign land. Because thousands of Tibetans have been living in exile in India and elsewhere since 1959, they have become intrigued by the Jewish people’s experience of preserving their religion in the Diaspora. In recent years, mutually beneficial dialogue has occurred between Jews and Tibetan Buddhists. Tibetans have learned ways to preserve their unique religion and culture through family rituals and community activities while living as a minority in other countries. Meanwhile, Jews have had a new look at meditation and mysticism and were encouraged to spread the teachings in their own tradition on these topics. These themes are elaborated upon in Rodger Kamenetz’ article, “What I Learned About Judaism from the Dalai Lama.”

People from various religions can learn a great deal from each other’s practices. For example, His Holiness the Dalai Lama often praises the social work that Christians undertake in society: the schools, orphanages, homeless shelters and hospitals they set up and work in, and the aid they give to refugees and to the poor. He encourages Buddhists to learn from the example of their Christian brothers and sisters and to engage in projects for the benefit of society at large. On the other hand, he says that Christians can learn meditation techniques from Buddhists. In Buddhism the methods to calm and focus the mind are described very clearly. These can be practiced by people of any faith and applied to their own religious system. They can also be practiced by people who have no particular faith and simply seek to quiet their minds and eliminate stress. Thus, dialogue with people from other religions can show us practical ways to better live according to the principles of our own religion.

Interreligious sharing helps us to become more open-minded. It also sharpens our abilities to investigate and to examine ourselves and our beliefs. Spiritual people want their limited views to be expanded. They seek to have their ignorance removed; they want their capacity for understanding and acceptance to be stretched. Interreligious contact presents this possibility. However, what happens if we are not prepared for this and the dialogue instead causes defensiveness or confusion about our own practice? Seen from the proper perspective, this too presents an opportunity for growth. For example, when we talk with a person from another religion and find ourselves becoming defensive, we must examine our minds. Have we fallen into the trap of subtly competing with the other person to prove one religion right and the other wrong? If so, we need to let go of our “sports team mentality” and remind ourselves of the real purpose of our conversation. No one else can make us feel inferior: this attitude arises from our own competing mind. When we cease this, then there are no winners or losers.

Are we defensive because we worry about the other person liking and approving of us? Has our religion become part of our ego-identity so that if our religion is criticized, we feel misunderstood and rebuked? We have to question our need for external validation of our beliefs. Why do we need other people to believe the same thing we do in order to feel secure in our beliefs? We may have forgotten that people have different aptitudes and temperaments and will therefore see things differently. If we have checked the foundations for our spiritual beliefs and have confidence in them, there is no need to become defensive because others disagree with them.

But what if we have not examined our beliefs deeply? What if the other person asks a question that we do not know the answer to and we become confused about what to believe? What do we do if interreligious discussion causes our ignorance to become evident or doubts to arise in our mind? Although this may initially feel uncomfortable, if could be valuable for our practice. When we do not know the answer to a question or cannot explain it clearly, we are motivated to ask our teachers and spiritual friends for more information. It addition, we need to spend more time reflecting on what we already know in order to understand it properly. When we listen to teachings, we sometimes think we correctly understand the entire topic. In fact, we may have understood the words, but because the meaning is multi-layered, we need time to explore it in depth. It is unrealistic to expect ourselves or others to be able to “know all the answers.” Doubt or confusion can be helpful stimulants arousing us from complacency. We do not need to be afraid of these things. We simply need to deepen our practice, researching the answers to questions and reflecting on their meaning.

As we mature in our own spiritual development, interreligious sharing becomes a way to deepen and enrich the practice of our own spiritual tradition. Thomas Merton, the American Cistercian monk who pursued contact with the East and its religions said it beautifully:

I think that we have now reached a stage of (long overdue) religious maturity at which it may be possible for someone to remain perfectly faithful to a Christian and Western monastic commitment, and yet learn in depth from, say, a Buddhist or Hindu discipline or experience. I believe that some of us need to do this in order to improve the quality of our own monastic life and even to help in the task of monastic renewal which has been undertaken in the Western Church.1

Merton saw inter-monastic dialogue as occurring in three stages, preverbal, verbal and post verbal:

The “preverbal” level is that of the unspoken and indefinable “preparation,” the “predisposition” of mind and heart, necessary for all “monastic” experience whatever… The monk must be wide open to life and to new experience because he has fully utilized his own tradition and gone beyond it. This will permit him to meet a discipline of another apparently remote and alien tradition, and find a common ground of verbal understanding with the other. The “post-verbal” level will then, at least ideally, be that on which both meet beyond their own words and their own understanding in the silence of an ultimate experience which might conceivably not have occurred if they had not met and spoken. I would call this “communion.” I think it is something that the deepest ground of our being cries out for, and it is something for which a lifetime of striving would not be enough.2

Some of the deepest interreligious contact I have personally experienced has been along these lines. During the Jewish-Buddhist dialogue that occurred in 1990 in Dharamsala, India, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man and I met each morning and meditated together on the porch of his guest house, in the cool morning air. Although we spoke a little before or after, the deepest communication occurred during the silence.

Another time, I went with a few Buddhist monastics to visit a Catholic monk who was a hermit in the mountains of Spain. We had heard that he had once met with the Dalai Lama and we wanted to speak with him. He had no idea we were coming, but when we finally found his hut, he welcomed us in. On his altar were the white scarf and picture of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, that the Dalai Lama had given him. He suggested we meditate together first, and for about an hour while the late afternoon sun shone into his hut, we did. Having concluded our meditation, all of us found that speaking was unnecessary; what we had to say had been communicated without words and our hearts were full.

Yet another example occurred during a visit I paid to Mt. St. Mary’s Abbey, near Boston. I had met two sisters from this Trappistine order in Dharamsala, India the year before, during His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s annual spring teachings. I relished our discussion over lunch, in which we spoke of qualities to look for in people who aspire to a monastic life, how to train them so as to actualize their potential, and how to live together in a monastic community. Then, I discovered, much to my surprise, that they had arranged for me to give a talk about the development of love and compassion to the entire community of 54 cloistered nuns. This audience was alive with feeling and each word we spoke reverberated on many levels and in many ways due to the intensity of their practice of love and compassion. We could speak honestly and unabashedly of how our self-centeredness would sabotage our compassion or how our anger would unexpectedly appear and waylay our love. As we discussed ways to tame our disturbing attitudes and enhance our positive ones, our feeling of common purpose—to transform our minds and become more loving—was palpable.

Such experiences indicate to me that although there may be philosophical differences among religions and although they may or may not lead to the exact same ultimate goal, there are commonalties that are mutually enriching. For example, true practitioners of all faiths seek to cultivate qualities free from the self-centered ego with all of its wants, needs and opinions. They believe that lasting happiness for themselves and others comes through this internal cultivation, not through accumulating material objects. They know that a simple lifestyle emphasizing non-attachment allows for the development of impartial love and compassion for all beings, and they engage in daily self-reflection and religious practices so that their spiritual qualities will be integrated into their lives.

Making peace with our past

The audience for this book is diverse. Some people who read it will be Buddhist, some Christian, some Jewish, some Muslim, some Hindu, some of other religions, others of no religion. Similarly, some will be Westerners, some Asians, some Africans, some from other countries. Therefore, it could be helpful to look at issues that might arise for various people when they consider contact with people of different faiths.

In recent years, many Westerners have become interested in Buddhism and other “non-Western” religions. Some of them have negative feelings toward the religion they learned as children. This could happen for several reasons: a religious teacher or leader misunderstood them or unfairly disciplined them; religion was forced upon them by parents or teachers; they disagreed with the sexism or other prejudices displayed in the religious institutions; they found so-called “religious people” to be hypocritical, elitist, judgmental or closed-minded. If we encounter another religion that better meets our needs, it is all too tempting to give vent to previous frustration and see everything from the religion we grew up in as negative. However, it is extremely important to make peace with our past, not to reject it. If we stereotype an entire body of practitioners and judge them, we have become closed-minded and prejudiced. Such resentment and bias obstruct our practicing our new faith. When we have this type of “negative loyalty” to something from our past, we often reenact the very thing we disapprove of. Although we may think we are free from the influence of something because we have rejected it, in fact that thing may have a great hold on our mind because so much of our energy is tied up in disliking it.

Thus, having a negative attitude toward the religion we learned as a child blocks our spiritual development. It is also unrealistic, for despite the things we do not like or disagree with, we did learn many good things from our childhood religion. For example, it instilled in us many ethical principles that enable us to live in harmony with others. It taught us the value of love and compassion. It encouraged us to believe that something was more important than our self-centeredness. It taught us that there is another kind of happiness besides the short-term happiness we receive from pleasures of the senses. All these things laid a foundation in us for further spiritual training, and thus in part helped us to connect with the spiritual beliefs of our new religion. When we think deeply, we realize that we received benefit from our childhood religion, even though it may not be the one we choose to practice as adults. We must avoid painting anything as all good or all bad. Thus, it can be helpful for Westerners who have become Buddhists or converted to other religions to reflect upon both the strong points and the weaknesses of their religious up-bringing so they can reach some emotional and philosophical resolution regarding them. Kabir Saxena in “Dharma Masala” describes with love and respect the benefits he received from his Hindu and Christian roots, and how they nurture his present spiritual practice as a Buddhist.

Such a process could also be helpful for Asians who grew up as nominal Buddhists or Hindus and later became Christians. I felt sad when living in Asia to meet some Asians who had become Christians who had thrown away beautiful Asian religious art—some of it quite old—because it had images of “heathens.” If we convert to a religion that came from another part of the world, it is not necessary to dismiss or destroy the beauty and value of our own cultural heritage. Asians do not need to become Western to practice Christianity. Similarly, Westerners do not need to become Asian in culture to practice Buddhism or Hinduism, nor do they need to become African in culture to practice Islam.

Coming out of the closet

While living in Singapore, some educated Singaporean Buddhists told me they were hesitant to tell their colleagues at work that they are Buddhist. In Singapore, some people think that if one is Christian, then one is more Western and modern. Therefore, some Buddhists think that if others know they are Buddhist, others will look down upon them as “old-fashioned.” Also, because some Christians in Singapore are evangelical, the Buddhists fear meeting with unpleasant pressure to attend church or read Christian literature. Indeed, aggressive religious propagation is unfortunate and damaging to harmony in society. However, that need not make us embarrassed about our religious beliefs or upset with people who are unskillful.

Similarly, some Westerners are shy about telling their colleagues or family that they are Buddhist. Unlike the Singaporean Buddhists, these Westerners do not fear being considered old-fashioned. Rather, they are concerned that others will think they are different or strange. Although Western culture seemingly promotes individuality, there is tremendous pressure to conform and to do, think, or believe like others. Westerners fear that they will not be accepted or approved of if they do not share the same perspectives as the group.

It is difficult to practice our religion if we lack confidence in it or in ourselves. Embarrassment over telling others we follow a particular faith could come from a couple of sources: first, we are not sure about what we believe and why; or second, we are attached to our reputation and fear losing friends. When we have not spent time thinking about our beliefs or if we do think about them but still have major doubts, then interreligious exchange could appear threatening to us. We harbor fears: “Maybe I will not know the answer to a question,” “Maybe I will inadvertently misrepresent my religion,” or “Maybe I will respond incorrectly and the other person will refute it. What will I I believe then?” When asked a question that we cannot answer with assurance, we can simply reply that we do not know but will research it. There is no need to feel humiliated or insecure because every teaching is not clear in our minds. After all, we are not yet enlightened beings!

We must look closely at our attachment to reputation and to being liked by others. Will others really ostracize us if we have different views? Why is others’ approval so important to us? If others have different views, does that mean ours are wrong? Is the only basis for friendship having the same religion? Many of these fears are projections of our minds. If we are kind to others and try to communicate effectively with them, they surely will respond positively to us no matter what our religion. If, due to their closed-mindedness, others remain aloof, there is nothing we can do. It is not necessary that everyone likes us or approves of us. We do not need external validation to be sure of our spiritual path or of ourselves. We need internal confidence that arises from contemplating the truths of our own faith and applying them to our lives.

Equanimity and self-confidence are the antidotes to embarrassment or insecurity about our beliefs. We cultivate equanimity by remembering that reputation is simply others’ opinions—thoughts in their minds that can change very quickly and are not reliable. In addition, people will always have a variety of opinions, some agreeing with ours and others not. It is legitimate for diverse beliefs to exist. Human contact and warmth come through sharing the experience of being human beings, not through holding the same philosophies. Self-confidence is developed by remembering that we—and others—have an enlightened potential. We may not be totally wise or compassionate now, but we can become that way. This awareness of our internal goodness and potential is a more stable basis for self-confidence and self-esteem than other people’s opinions of us. If we are aware of this, we will not be disturbed by what others think of us, but will continue to relate to them with a kind heart.

It is possible that the opposite happens, that is, that we become critical and impatient with people who have worldly values or who do not share our faith. We must look at where such intolerance comes from within us. Why do we insist that everyone be like us? Could insecurity be fueling our intolerance? To be kind-hearted, it is not necessary that people identify themselves with a particular faith. We must avoid becoming attached to labels, for this breeds the “sports team mentality.” Relating to people with an open heart and respecting them is what all genuine religious leaders prescribe. We are neglecting the meaning of the teachings if we fall prey to a self-righteous, judgmental attitude. Since each person has the Buddha nature or potential—or to put it in Christian words, since each person is the creation and image of God—he or she is worthy of our respect.


  1. Asian Journal, p.313 

  2. Ibid 

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Exploring world religions and Buddhism http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/06/recommended-interfaith-reading/ Sat, 18 Jun 2011 23:14:13 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=10772

Aitken, Robert and Steindl-Rost, David, The Ground We Share. Triumph Books; Liguori, Missouri, 1994.

Boorstein, Sylvia, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist. HarperCollins; San Francisco, 1996.

Dharma, Karuna and Kerze, Michael, ed., An Early Journey: The Los Angeles Buddhist-Roman Catholic Dialogue. Los Angeles, 1991.

Hanh, Thich Nhat, Living Buddha, Living Christ. Riverhead Books; New York, 1995.

Indapanno, Bhikkhu Buddhadasa, Christianity and Buddhism. Bangkok.

Kamenetz, Rodger, The Jew in the Lotus. HarperCollins Publishers; New York, 1994.

Kamenetz, Rodger, Stalking Elijah: Adventures With Today’s Jewish Mystical Masters. Harper; San Francisco, 1997.

Khema, Ayya, Jesus Meets the Buddha. Jhana Verlag; Uttenbuhl, Germany, 1995.

Lama, Dalai, The Good Heart. Wisdom Publications; Boston, 1996.

Merton, Thomas, The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. New Directions Publishing; New York, 1973.

Mitchell, Donald W. and Wiseman, James, ed. The Gethsemani Encounter. Continuum Publishing Company; New York, 1997.

Walker, Susan, ed., Speaking of Silence. Paulist Press; New York, 1987.

Yeshe, Lama, Silent Mind, Holy, Mind. Wisdom Publications; Boston, 1995.

One may also wish to subscribe to the Bulletin of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, Abbey of Gethsemani, 3642 Monks Road, Trappist KY 40051-6102.

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Dharma masala http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/06/interreligious-upbringing/ Sat, 18 Jun 2011 22:46:30 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=9611

If, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama has remarked, the world’s religions are like various nourishing foods, then I was born into a family matrix resembling a veritable feast, the tastes of which have permeated my life hitherto.

Photo of Venerable Saxena, smiling.

Venerable Kabir Saxena (Photo courtesy of Tushita Meditation Centre)

However, neither parent was religious in any overt sense. My English mother would have called herself agnostic. My grandfather, perhaps in reaction to his father, a renowned preacher (of whom more in a moment) was, broadly speaking, a humanist. As a child I remember playing table tennis with him on the dining room table in his Golders Green home (a Jewish neighborhood of London), while he held forth on one of his favorite themes—the awful crimes against humanity perpetrated in the name of religion. While the ping-pong ball was noisily struck back and forth Grandpa would entertain me with descriptions of real and alleged burnings, fryings, hotplates and other sundry acts of former religious personages and inquisitions. He would always, however, remind me later that, in fact, he loved the authorized version of the Bible for its magnificent, moving language. This was not the sole means of moving the heart at Grandpa’s. I would consider the evenings spent with him listening to Mozart and Beethoven on BBC Radio 3 as religious in the sense of aiding the process of linking up again (“re-ligare”) with a source of strength and joy within. These are perhaps the earliest memories I have of transcendent feeling (albeit at a far lower rung of experience than that of the yogis or saints, but very significant and nurturing nonetheless).

My great-grandfather was the Rev. Walter Walsh, whose photos and voluminous sermons dotted Grandpa’s shelves, as they do now our living room in a New Delhi suburb. Brought up in a strict Scottish Presbyterian tradition, it took him years of painful reevaluation and logical reasoning at university before he felt he had emerged from the dark tunnel of his rigid doctrinal cocoon of an upbringing. He went on to become the foremost radical preacher in Dundee at the Gilfillan church, which, to this day I am told, maintains a healthy alternative line in sermons. Rev. Walsh communicated with many of the great religious and philosophical thinkers of his time, including Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi in India. His weekly sermons were liberally sprinkled with quotations from all the major religions as well as from mystical traditions like Sufism. He founded the Free Religious Movement for World Religion and World Brotherhood, and it seems as though he aroused some interest in India: “I have many eager friends in India who are palpitating with earnestness and self-devotion towards the same great cause of universal religion and universal brotherhood,” he wrote.

In a series of moving lectures given in the first decade of this century, Rev. Walsh feels “the religion of the future will not be sectarian, but universal.” A noble hope, that often seems a forlorn one, except that there is hope contained in the statement he then makes, which resonates well with the hopes and needs of today, that “for the religion of Jesus we must now substitute the religion of humanity.” What the world wants, states Rev. Walsh, is “the union of all who love in the service of all who suffer.” How wonderful it would have been had the altruistic Reverend undertaken a journey to the Potala with Younghusband’s expedition. My mother would then have brought me up a Buddhist.

I have never undertaken an extensive reading of my great-grandfather’s works but knew enough about him by the time I was in my mid-teens to benefit from his example of a man of God who in his inner process never forgot the service of humanity. It means a lot to me today when, at the age of 42, I sit and write in the grounds of the former Senior Tutor to His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama above the Indian hill station of Dharamsala and ponder the value of the Tibetan Buddhist thought transformation teachings with their emphasis on courageous great compassion.1

This crucible of my youth didn’t consist only of a Western radical Christianity tempered with a universal humanism. I am half Indian by birth and my Indian father’s clan provided another fascinating complex of ingredients that were to prove by no means insubstantial in their effect on my mental development.

My father was a staunch socialist with an intellectual’s antipathy towards the machinations of priesthoods. He changed later, but as I grew up with him, the atheist in him was still strong. Dad’s father was in the Ministry of Defense under the British and then in Independent India. What I remember of him is his increasing blindness and incessant recitation of mantras on his rosary. Like Tiresias, outer loss of vision was compensated by an inner fortitude that, for me at least, appeared calm, strong and at peace with the often tempestuous goings on of the Saxena household. If he were the quiet contemplative, grandmother was the pujari, or ritual priestess of the household. In between scoldings, complaints and many small acts of kindness, she would do her daily puja at her shrine in the kitchen. In India, as no doubt elsewhere, the spiritual and food and beverage departments often coincide. (pahle payt puja, first the offering to the stomach, as we say in India.) Only after that follows puja, or offering, to the deity. After all, didn’t Gautama have to eat delicious rice pudding before he could meditate powerfully enough to attain Awakening?

I don’t suppose for a moment that these are in any way dramatic influences on my spiritual development. And yet this context of practice, however unsophisticated and workaday, did, I believe, leave its leavening imprint. To say that the ritual actions and altar of my grandmother generated a sense of the sacred within me may not be an exaggeration. I was not yet ten years old, very impressionistic, and it was important for me to ascertain that adults didn’t just talk, eat, look after us and issue reprimands but also had some kind of communication with an unseen world that wasn’t totally explicable through its symbols. The gaudy posters of gods and goddesses took on a fascination for me, an almost erotic quality that I recall with amused interest.

Festivals never were as important for my family as for many others in India, but were observed nevertheless, with varying degrees of enthusiasm by all the family. During visits to the Kali statues in the local market-place at Dussehra, I found that there were beings with more heads and limbs than I had and this has proved an invaluable piece of information since!

I also learned that dissent and non-conformity are as acceptable as belief. Father’s elder brother had books of all types, and nourished his spirit through poetry. How well I remembered him berating me: “What, you don’t know the poetry of Tennyson!” Another uncle was outright disdainful of all matters religious; another was an exemplar of generosity, bringing sweet jalebis home more evenings than not.

One aunt was into Aurobindo and both she and another aunt were into duty and the fulfilling of obligations that were considered “karmic” and therefore unavoidable, however distasteful or unfortunate they appeared to me.

From my teens onwards I was always reminded of my namesake, the great poet and mystic Sant Kabir (1440-1518), whose works have touched the hearts of millions of Indians, both Hindu and Muslim. Friends and guests as well as family would recite couplets that illustrated the sensitive and observant humanity of Kabir as well as his ecstatic experience of a personal god within that was not dependent upon temple or mosque for its realization. Kabir’s tolerance, as well as his critique of the spiritual sloth and hypocrisy, left their marks and echoed to some extent the sentiments of Rev. Walsh. I love the story of Kabir’s death. It’s said that Hindus and Muslims were arguing over how the body should be given its last rites. When they removed the shroud they found the body transformed into flowers which they evenly divided up and disposed of each according to their religious tenets.

Throughout my early adulthood I experienced again and again how poetic and musical experience in the Indian tradition was infused with a deep sense of the sacred, a process that could stop the chattering mind and awaken the heart; induce a special feeling and sense of participation in life that is hard to describe in words. The Buddhist chanting I so relish now has its antecedents for me in the hymn-singing at school in England, where the magnificent organ produced sounds that stirred and reached parts of oneself that daily routine left untouched. When, through a surfeit of adolescent rebelliousness and self-importance, I stopped joining in the congregation’s vocal invocation of God’s mystery and glory, I was left the poorer, at a time when the healing power of sound would have helped restore my wounded and damaged teenage self, as it heals me now.

The transformational quality of sacred sound was for me brought home in a very powerful way on an OXFAM-organized drought relief project in central India in 1980. A local village mukhiya, or chief, was known as a bit of a scoundrel and I disliked him intensely. I was inspired to sponsor a recitation of the holy Ramayana during the festival days commemorating Rama’s holy deeds and was happily surprised to witness the effect the chanting had on the participants and myself. The mukhiya sang with great gusto and devotion. He himself appeared to change, as did my perception of him, in a kind of blessed moment when the objections of the mind were drowned in the elevated feelings of the yearning heart.

All this said, however, I am certain that the most powerful formative influence on my later mental development and adoption of Buddhism was the Bhagavad Gita, (c. 500 B.C.), of the Hindu tradition, a crowning ornament of Sanskrit literature and inspirer of countless generations of Hindus and Westerners alike. Henry David Thoreau in his Walden had this to say of it: “In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita… in comparison with which our modern world and its literature seem puny and trivial.” Most of its main themes inspired me in my teens and have proved to be of utmost import to me as a so-called Buddhist at the end of the twentieth century. These themes are as follows: yoga as harmony, a balance between extremes; the weight given to tolerance, as in the idea that all paths lead ultimately to God, salvation; joy as an attribute of the true spiritual path; the supremacy of the path of detached action without concern for a reward; the central importance of a serene wisdom beyond the violence of the senses; and last, salvation through the wisdom of reason.

I find most of these themes reflected in the other classic that informed my formative years—the Dhammapada—as well as in much of the Dalai Lama’s writings. Take reason, a factor that attracted many, including myself, to the teachings of the Buddha. The Gita says,2 “Greater than the mind is buddhi, reason.” For those who think Buddhism is largely ritual and devotion, His Holiness sets the record straight: “At the heart of Buddhism and in particular at the heart of the Great Vehicle, great importance is placed on analytical reasoning.”3

The serene wisdom, joy and control over the senses extolled in the Gita were clearly manifested in my first serious Buddhist teachers. Furthermore, the sublime thought of bodhicitta—the awakened heart striving for complete enlightenment for the benefit of all suffering beings—was a marvelous progression from and expansion of a beautiful line in the Gita: “(The yogi) sees himself in the heart of all beings and sees all beings in his heart.”4 Such a being, according to the Upanishads, “loses all fear.”5 These kinds of spiritual insights, though only “paper insights,” still had the power to feed my thirsting teenage mind as they do today, except that now I read mostly Buddhist literature and hear teachings from Buddhist masters alone. Is this narrow-minded? Not, I think, according to the broad-minded vision of the Gita: “For many are the paths of man but they all in the end come to me.”6

Buddhists are often annoyed at what they see as Hindu inclusivism in the Hindu notion, for example, that Buddha was the ninth avatar or incarnation of Vishnu and therefore was a Hindu. So what if Hindus say this? Doesn’t it actually lead to greater harmony and acceptance of Buddhism by Hindus? Perhaps if they didn’t feel this way there’d be no room in India for Buddhism and I would be writing this in the mountains of New Mexico rather than in the Himalayan foothills. So I actually am growing fonder of this approach of the Gita. It is a little like Buddhists showing respect and appreciation for Jesus Christ by regarding him as a great bodhisattva, a being inexorably headed towards complete Buddhahood for the sake of all beings.

Some writers7 have powerfully attacked aspects of Hindu belief as representing a “defect of vision,” a “negative self-absorption,” Hindus as being fascinated by “the stupor of meditation,” and the religion itself as the “spiritual solace of a conquered people.”8 There is much in what such writers say, but I myself have not been influenced by these narcissistic, rigid streams within the modern practice of Hinduism and have been well-guarded against the stupor of meditation by the excellent advice of my highly-qualified spiritual friends and teachers.

However, many people question the validity and ability of religion to respond creatively to the challenges of a world that our grandfathers and grandmothers would hardly recognize. A good friend of mine recently wrote to me, concerned that Buddhism still represented for him an “escape from involvement.” He wrote this, despite many years of receiving my letters that detailed our extensive work in the larger community and in our inner community, which was peopled by a multitude of troublesome and helpful characters. Obviously the prejudice runs deep. Why? There’s a lack of skillful and meaningful spiritual instruction worldwide—and almost no scope for mind-transforming practice—the kind of inner work that produces the likes of Milarepa, the Kadampa masters,9 and some great teachers in this very century. Even where valid spiritual literature exists, it tends to fossilize on bookshelves in the absence of authentic guides who can show us how to actualize it in our lives. This is where I feel very fortunate in having met the Buddhist tradition and its exponents—here were living embodiments of what the Buddhist scriptures spoke of. By contrast, I never met a living embodiment of the Gita from the Hindu tradition until much later when I encountered Baba Amte and his selfless work for the leprosy-affected,10 and Baba wouldn’t call himself a religious person, just a humble servant of others who finds it painful that people can find so much interest “in the ruins of old buildings, but not in the ruins of men.” It is of great importance to me that His Holiness the Dalai Lama met Baba Amte at the latter’s project in the early 1990s. I see it as a vindication of the union of the good heart and consecrated action that has always been the balm for this suffering world. Both the Dalai Lama and Baba Amte have emerged spiritually victorious in unbelievably adverse circumstances. They are my icons, the courageous examples I aspire to emulate in my life, beings who fully manifest the meaning of these inspiring words of St. John of the Cross with which I wish to conclude: “Never fail, whatever may befall you, be it good or evil, to keep your heart quiet and calm in the tenderness of love.”11


  1. See especially Lightening the Heart, Awakening the Mind, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Harper Collins, 1995 

  2. The Bhagavad Gita: 3:42. Translated by Juan Mascaro, Penguin, 1962. 

  3. Beyond Dogma, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Rupa & Co., 1997. 

  4. Bhagavad Gita: 6:29. 

  5. The Upanishads, pg. 49, translated by Juan Mascaro, Penguin, 1985. 

  6. Gita: 4:11. 

  7. See especially V. S. Naipaul’s India: A Wounded Civilization for an interesting, if controversial, discussion of Hinduism’s atrophying and progress-hindering effects. Penguin. 

  8. All quotes from Naipaul, op. cit. 

  9. Great ascetic practitioners of the eleventh and twelfth centuries whose pithy instructions embody the essence of the mind training or thought-transformation teachings of Mahayana Buddhism. 

  10. Baba Amte’s main project, Anandwan, is approximately one hundred kilometers south of Nagpur near the town of Warora in India’s Maharashtra state. Described by His Holiness the Dalai Lama as “practical compassion, real transformation; the proper way to develop India.” 

  11. From his Spiritual Letters, quoted in Mascaro, Upanishads, op. cit., pg. 37. 

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Islamic-Buddhist dialogue http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/06/buddhism-meets-islam/ Sat, 18 Jun 2011 22:34:28 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=9596

A Buddhist monk and a Muslim priest, sitting together.

Buddhists and Muslims have lived in close proximity for many centuries. (Photo by Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement)

Buddhists and Muslims have lived in close proximity for many centuries in India, Central Asia, and the Malaya Peninsula, extending as far as Indonesia. As with any two religions sharing a geographic area, at times their relationship has been stormy, at times peaceful. A portion of the Tibetan population is Muslim, and they lived together peacefully for centuries with the Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet prior to 1959. Now that His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government are in exile in India, His Holiness is seeking dialogue and contact with Muslims of many countries in an effort to promote mutual understanding and growth. While Buddhist dialogue with some other religions has been going on for some time, to my knowledge the dialogue with Muslims is at its initial stages. Therefore, at this time it is most important to establish common links, both philosophically, and in terms of examining social problems. Once this groundwork is laid, deeper spiritual exchange can take place.

Common links with social issues

As a student of His Holiness, my involvement in Islamic-Buddhist dialogue has developed gradually over many years. In my travels around the world lecturing on Buddhism, I have visited a number of Muslim countries. Initially, I did not directly engage Muslim audiences. Later, I entered into specifically Islamic-Buddhist dialogues when I became more aware of the potential for Islamic-Buddhist cooperation in dealing with some of the more pressing social issues that Muslim and Buddhist communities share. For example, the president of the Indian Ocean republic of Mauritius and I discussed the problem of drug abuse among unemployed, disheartened youth in Tibet and how his religious community was dealing with a similar issue in Mauritius. We shared common concerns about the problem and agreed on the importance of religion for instilling a sense of self-worth, community support, and ethics for uplifting those who have been affected. In Zanzibar, which is 95% Muslim, I met with local leaders and learned of their modest success in using Islam to help those who wish to break their heroin habit. When former addicts are kept busy with ritual washing and prayers five times a day, they do not have much idle time to fill with drugs. This example gives much food for thought in terms of the possible benefits of such physical activities as prostration for ethnic Buddhist addicts.

In Egypt, I visited Cairo University twice, where I met with professors and students of various faculties. One year I lectured on “The Impact of Buddhist Thought on Asian Political and Economic Development” at Cairo University. They were particularly interested to know how Buddhist principles contributed to the economic success of the “Asian tiger” nations so that they can use Islam to support a similar phenomenon of Egypt’s becoming an “African and Middle Eastern tiger.” They also sought to understand Asia and its religions in order to form better political and economic links with the region. They do not wish to be isolated under the misconception that all Muslims are fundamentalists or fanatic terrorists and were very interested in dialogue. They asked me to write a paper on the basic Buddhist teachings in a manner readily understandable to Muslims that was published in English and Arabic as one of their Asian Monograph Series which is distributed throughout the Arabic speaking world. To further Buddhist-Muslim understanding, we decided together that I should prepare a series of monographs on the history of the interaction between the Muslims and Buddhists in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Since then, I have met with many distinguished Egyptian, Jordanian, Iraqi, Turkish, and Uzbek scholars of Islam who have been enthusiastic about this project and generous in offering their help and sharing their insights.

In this series I hope to dispel some misunderstandings about Buddhist-Muslim history. Just as modern journalists and political analysts are quick to suspect a Muslim fundamentalist hand behind terrorist acts in the world, historians of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent have often had similar presuppositions. Throughout history, Buddhist monasteries and temples in these regions have been destroyed or naturally fallen into disrepair and abandoned for various reasons. Sometimes, economic conditions or natural disasters caused their closure, and other times they were sacked for their wealth or destroyed in wars for territorial gain or control of the lucrative trade along the Silk route. Yet popular histories attribute the decline of Buddhism and its monasteries in the area primarily to Islamic holy wars or jihads. In the future, it is important, especially in history textbooks for schools in Buddhist and Muslim countries, to present an unbiased, more objective account.

In Mafraq, Jordan, I visited and lectured on Buddhism and Tibet and their relationship with Islam at the Al al-Bayt University. This international university was founded to broaden mutual understanding among all seven sects of Islam, and between Islam and other world religions. The president of the university had been to Japan as the keynote speaker and co-organizer of a conference on Buddhist-Islamic understanding. He expressed interest in hosting such a conference in Jordan in the future. In addition, he is building a Buddhist section in the university library, which is generating more and more interest in the subject, and asked me to prepare a book list. The president offered to admit two Tibetan students to the university each year for training in Arabic and Islam. He preferred Buddhist monks who could do M.A. research on a comparison of Buddhism and Islam, but would also admit Tibetan Muslims who would wish to learn more about their religion to the B.A. program. His Holiness was extremely pleased by this offer and has asked his office to arrange to find appropriate candidates.

Common links in philosophy

In Turkey, I met with a group of professors of Islamic law at the Ilahiyat Islamic Theological Faculty of Marmara University in Istanbul to discuss the views of Islamic law towards Buddhism as a way to support Buddhist-Islamic religious harmony. In the Tibetan context, this is especially important due to the large influx of Hui (Chinese Muslim) settlers in Tibet in recent years. Since the seventeenth century, a community of Muslims has lived in Tibet. They were well-integrated into the predominantly Buddhist community and traditionally enjoyed special legal privileges granted by the Fifth Dalai Lama. However, the current strained situation in Tibet with the large population transfer from areas of Han China has produced understandable tensions.

The professors felt that, according to Islamic doctrine, there is no problem in establishing peaceful relations with Buddhists. They cited three reasons for this. First, certain modern Islamic scholars have asserted that the Prophet Dh’ul Kifl—the “man from Kifl”—mentioned twice in the Qur’an, refers to the Buddha, with Kifl being the Arabic rendering of the name of Buddha’s native kingdom, Kapilavastu. The Qur’an stated that the followers of Dh’ul Kifl are righteous people. Secondly, al-Biruni and Sehristan, two eleventh century Islamic scholars who visited India and wrote about its religions, called Buddha a “Prophet.” Thirdly, Kashmiri Muslims who settled in Tibet from the seventeenth century married Tibetan Buddhist women within the context of Islamic law.

I returned to the Ilahiyet Islamic Faculty of Marmara University, in Istanbul, a year after the initial meeting. The interview I had given during my previous visit to this university had been published in a popular magazine of the local Islamic fundamentalists, read in Turkey and throughout the Central Asian Islamic republics. The teachers were extremely enthusiastic in establishing an Islamic-Buddhist dialogue, and we discussed such issues as creation, revelation and the source of ethics. Islam asserts God not as a person but as an abstract creating principle, and some schools of Islamic theology assert that creation has no beginning. Speaking of the clear light mind as the beginningless creator of appearances, and of Buddha as a revealer of higher truths, we had a good basis for lively and friendly dialogue. I was touched by their interest in dialogue with Buddhists. In addition, the Municipal Government of Istanbul will sponsor an international, interfaith dialogue conference in 1997 and has requested His Holiness the Dalai Lama to send a representative.

Historically, Islamic law has accepted Buddhism as a “religion of the Book.” Because “Dharma” was translated as “law,” and “law” referred to “book,” Buddhists as “people of the Dharma” were understood to be “people of the Book” throughout medieval Central Asia. Islam tolerates all “people of the Book,” which is defined as people who accept a creator God. This leads to some interesting discussions on the meaning of “creator God.”

For example, the primarily Muslim state of Indonesia officially permits five religions—Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism—on the grounds that they all accept a creator God. In this regard, Indonesian Buddhists posit Adibuddha, the primordial Buddha of the Kalachakra Tantra, as the “creator.” I had several interesting discussions with Buddhist monks in Indonesia about the issue of God in Buddhism. Since Adibuddha can be interpreted as the clear light primordial consciousness, and since all appearances of samsara and nirvana are the play or “creation” of that mind, we concluded that it could be said that Buddhism accepts a “creator God.” The fact that Buddhism asserts Adibuddha not to be an individual, separate being who created the universe, but something present in each sentient being, can be seen as a theological difference concerning the nature of God. That is, Buddhism does accept a “creator God” but with its own unique interpretation. As the Muslims say, “Allah has many names,” and many Christian, Islamic, Hindu, and Jewish thinkers assert that God is abstract and present in all beings. Establishing this allowed for a comfortable dialogue with Islamic theologians to ensue.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has had contact with Islamic leaders around the world for many years. In 1995, I accompanied Dr. Tirmiziou Diallo, the hereditary Sufi religious leader of Guinea, West Africa, to Dharamsala to meet with His Holiness. In the days prior to the audience, Dr. Diallo and I discussed further the meaning of “people of the Book.” He felt it refers to people who follow the “primordial tradition.” This can be called the wisdom of Allah or God, or as I suggested to him in Buddhist terms, primordial deep awareness. Thus he readily accepted that the primordial tradition of wisdom was revealed not only by Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, but also by Buddha. If people follow this innate primordial tradition and wisdom, they are “people of the Book.” But if they go against this basic good and wise nature of humankind and the universe, they are not “of the Book.”

In this sense, then, he found it acceptable to say that Buddha was a “prophet of God.” Adibuddha, as the clear light mind, is not only primordial deep awareness, but the creator of all appearances. In this way, Adibuddha can be said to be a “creator God.” Similarly, because Buddha spoke about the primordial deep awareness, he can be said to be a “prophet of God.” For Westerners who became Buddhist after leaving the Judeo-Christian tradition they grew up in, using this language to describe Buddha may seem strange. However, when we remember that one word can have different interpretations and definitions in various traditions, this use of language could make sense. Practically speaking, it enhances the prospect of interreligious dialogue, which is so necessary in our day and age.

Dr. Diallo was very happy with this discussion and cited a hadith (personal saying of Mohammed) enjoining his followers to seek wisdom all the way up to China. Dr. Diallo himself followed the principles of this hadith. He attended the last day of His Holiness’s discourse on Shantideva’s (Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life), including the Avalokiteshvara empowerment His Holiness conferred. He was especially moved by the bodhisattva vows. In Sufism there is also a total commitment to seeking the perfection that is beyond words and serving all creation.

On the last day of his visit, Dr. Diallo had a private audience with His Holiness. Dressed in elegant white robes, the majestic African spiritual leader was so moved upon first being in His Holiness’s presence that he began to weep. Without asking his attendant as he normally would, His Holiness personally went to his anteroom and brought back tissue which he offered the Sufi master to wipe his tears. Dr. Diallo presented His Holiness with a traditional Muslim headdress, which His Holiness put on without hesitation and wore for the remainder of the audience.

His Holiness opened the dialogue by explaining that if both Buddhists and Muslims remain flexible in their thinking, fruitful and open dialogue is possible. The encounter was extremely warm and emotionally touching. His Holiness asked numerous questions about the Sufi meditation tradition, specifically concerning the West African lineages that emphasize the practice of love, compassion and service. Dr. Diallo had been living in exile for many years in Germany after a communist takeover of his country. Thus there were many things in common that the two men shared. Both His Holiness and Dr. Diallo pledged to continue the Islamic-Buddhist dialogue in the future.

The main aim of the Islamic-Buddhist dialogue, as I have experienced it, is educational—for each to learn more about the other’s beliefs and cultures. The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, in Dharamsala, India, has taken a leading role in fulfilling this aim. They have begun a program to exchange journals and books with the various universities in the Islamic countries with which I have established contact. Likewise, they are establishing programs of cooperation with institutions in the Central Asian Islamic republics to conduct further research on the history of the interaction between Buddhists and Muslims in that part of the world. The prospects for increasing contact and cooperation between Buddhists and Muslims are vast. They have the potential to lead to more understanding between religious practitioners as well as to more political stability in areas where the two groups live in close proximity.

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In the land of identities http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/06/healing-israel-jewish/ Sat, 18 Jun 2011 22:13:01 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=8450

The title of the full-page article in the major Israeli newspaper was, “My Name is Hannah Greene and I’m a Tibetan Nun.” Interesting, those are two labels I don’t usually apply to myself. “Hannah” is my Jewish name, not one many people know me by, and I’m not Tibetan. At least I was able to answer when the journalists began the interview with, “What is your Jewish name?” The second question had me stumped. “Are you Jewish?” they asked. “What does being Jewish mean?” I thought. I remember discussing it in Sunday School and somehow managed to pass when the rabbi asked that on a test. Am I Jewish because my ancestors were? Because I have dark curly hair (or at least used to before it got shaved 21 years ago when I ordained as a Buddhist nun), brown eyes, a “noticeable nose” (as my brother politely puts it)? Am I Jewish because I was confirmed and Rabbi Nateev no longer had to face my persistent questions? Because I was BBG president in high school? Because I knew the blessing of the wine (oops, I mean grape juice): “Baruch atta I don’t know elohaynu melach haalom … “

But now I was stumped. I hadn’t thought about whether or not I was Jewish. I just am. Am what? The interviewer tried another tact, “You’re American. What does being American mean to you?” I couldn’t answer that satisfactorily either. I’m American because I have an American passport. They looked at me with questioning eyes. Am I American because I grew up with Mickey Mouse, Leave It to Beaver, and I Love Lucy? Because I protested the Vietnam War? (Some would say that made me un-American.) Because I was born the grandchild of immigrants who fled the pogroms, on a certain plot of land called “Chicago”?

Venerable looking at birds in a cage.

In Buddhism, we are not trying to find out who we are but who we aren’t.

How could I not know my identity? They were puzzled. As my fifteen days in Israel unfolded, the issue of identity became a recurring theme. I realized how much my views had changed. I had been studying and practicing the Buddha’s teachings and thus had spent years trying to deconstruct my identity, to see it as something merely labeled, not as something solid, not something I truly was. So many of our problems—personal, national, and international—come from clinging to solid identities. Thus in Buddhism, we are not trying to find out who we are but who we aren’t. We work to free ourselves from all our erroneous and concrete conceptions about who we are.

The Israeli woman at whose home I was staying understood what the interviewers were getting at, “If there were another Holocaust and you were arrested for being Jewish, would you protest saying you’re not Jewish, you’re Buddhist?” I was equally baffled. “There is so much suffering in the world right now,” I responded, “and I’d rather focus on doing something about that than on thinking up and solving future problems that I’m not even sure will occur.” But for her this was a real question, a pressing one. And another theme of my visit was highlighted, the Holocaust.

“Your mother is Jewish. You could go to the immigration office and within an hour be an Israeli,” the interviewers and my host pointed out. “Would you want to do that?” “What does being an Israeli mean?” I wondered.

Everywhere I went people wanted to know my identity, they cared dearly about the labels I attached to myself, thinking that if they knew all the labels, they’d know me. This is a land of identities. We went to Ulpan Akiva, a unique language school in Natanya where Israelis can learn Arabic and Palestinians can learn Hebrew. There I met some Palestinians, who said, “We’re Muslims. We hope you can come to our new country, Palestine, some day.” More identities. When they heard I follow Tibetan Buddhism they said, “The Tibetans’ situation is similar to ours. We sympathize with them.” This startled me because until then I’d been involved in the Jewish-Tibetan dialogue, seeing the commonalities of two peoples in exile trying to maintain their unique religions and cultures. But, the Palestinians were right, their situation is like that of the Tibetans, for both live in occupied lands.

I participated in a Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in a Reform Synagogue in Jerusalem. The first part was interesting for one rabbi and I began to discuss meditation. But then the subject changed and the moderator asked, “Can one be Jewish and Buddhist at the same time? Or must one be either a Jew or a Buddhist?” The Orthodox rabbi on my left said, “There are various Buddhist schools and yours may not be one of them, but in general, Buddhists are idolaters.” My eyes opened wide. Being an idolater was not an identity I associated myself with. The Reform rabbi on my left who was from America spoke next, “I agree, Buddhist worship idols.” I was stunned. I knew that calling someone an idol worshipper was about the worst insult a Jew could give someone, something tantamount to a Christian saying to a Jew in public “You killed Christ.” But these people were nonplussed. The Orthodox rabbi furthest on my right added his view, “The various religions are like the colors of the rainbow. They all have their function. Many Jews are at the leading points of new religious movements, and it must be God’s wish that there are many faiths.” That was better. He turned to me smiling and sincerely wishing me well, “But remember, you’re still Jewish.”

By the time the moderator asked me to respond, I was so shocked that I was speechless. “To me, Jewish and Buddhist are merely labels. It is not important what we call ourselves. It is important how we live, how we treat others.” A few people applauded. This was all I could say. I left the synagogue feeling stunned and judged.

Before I got too into my karmic view of the situation, I thought I’d better get some others’ views on what happened. I asked my Israeli Buddhist friends what they’d thought of the dialogue. “Oh, it was great,” they responded, “We were afraid that the rabbis would be really judgmental and argumentative, but they were more open than we expected. It’s remarkable that the two Orthodox rabbis came to the Reform Synagogue. Many won’t, you know.” The moderator later told me that once he’d planned a panel including an Orthodox rabbi and a Palestinian leader. The rabbi refused to come, not because he’d have to talk to a Palestinian, but because it was in a Reform Synagogue.

Some people from the UK who I visited in Clil disagreed with the rabbis. They thought you could be a Jew and a Buddhist, and they put them together in an interesting combination. “We have a Jewish soul,” one told me, “and we use Buddhist mindfulness meditation to bring out the best of it.” Perplexed because the Buddha refuted the idea of a permanent soul, let alone one that was inherently Jewish, I asked what he meant. “We are part of the Jewish people. Our ancestors lived and thought in a particular way, and this culture and this way of looking at life are part of who we are.” I wondered: Does their perspective mean that if you’re born with “Jewish genes” in a Jewish family that you automatically have a certain identity? That you cannot escape some fixed place in history as the descendant of everything that happened to your ancestors before you even existed?

As a child, I was aware of things in the Jewish culture that I loved and respected, such as the emphasis on morality and on treating all beings with equal respect. But I was also acutely aware of how the Jewish identity was shaped by persecution—”we are a unique group and look at how many times throughout history others have seen us as singular and persecuted us even until death because of it.” Somehow, from early on, I rejected having an identity based on others’ hate and injustice. I refused to be suspicious of the people I encounter in the present simply because of the experiences my ancestors had in the past. Of course we are conditioned by the past, but that only establishes predispositions. It is not fixed or permanent. Even as a child I wanted to have a positive view of humanity and not be shackled by keeping history’s ghosts alive.

The Jews’ most recent ghost that haunts them is the Holocaust. During so many conversations, this topic came up. It seemed to permeate almost everything in Israel. As a child, I’d read a lot about the Holocaust, and it had affected me deeply. In fact, it taught me many important values, such as the importance of compassion, of morality, of being fair, of not discriminating against an entire group of people, of sticking up for the persecuted and the downtrodden, of living honestly and with a clear conscience. Learning about the Holocaust had shaped many of the positive attitudes that eventually led me to Buddhism.

But I could never—either as a child or now as an adult—think that Jews had the corner on suffering. In the Galilee, I led a the week-long retreat which centered on karma and compassion. In one session, we spontaneously had a touching, heartfelt discussion about the Holocaust. One woman shared her experience attending a gathering of children of Holocaust survivors and children of Nazis. When she listened to the children of SS officers talk, she came to understand the deep guilt, suffering and confusion they carry. How can you reconcile the memory of your loving father who cuddled you with the knowledge that he sanctioned the murder of millions of human beings? We talked about the parallels between the genocide of the Jews and the more recent one of the Tibetans by the Chinese Communists. As Buddhists, how did the Tibetans view what happened to them? Why do we meet many Tibetans who experienced atrocities and who do not seem to be emotionally scarred by the experience? We also discussed, “Does forgiving mean forgetting? Shouldn’t the world remember so that we can prevent genocide in the future?”

Yes, we need to remember, but remembering does not necessitate keeping pain, hurt, resentment, and anger alive in our hearts. We can remember with compassion, and that is more powerful. By forgiving, we let go of our anger, and by doing that, we cease our own suffering.

That night as we did a meditation on Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, out of my mouth—or rather, out of my heart—came the words:

When you visualize Chenrezig, bring him into the concentration camps. Imagine him in the trains, in the prisons, in the gas chambers. Visualize Chenrezig in Auschwitz, in Dachau, in the other camps. And as we recite the compassion mantra, imagine the brilliant light of compassion radiating from Chenrezig and permeating every atom of these places and of the people who were in them. This light of loving-kindness and compassion purifies the suffering, the hate, and the misconceptions of all the beings—Jews, political prisoners, gypsies, Nazis, ordinary Germans who turned a blind eye in order to save their own skin—and heals all that pain.

We chanted the mantra together for over half an hour, and the room was charged. Very few times have I meditated with a group that was so concentrated.

The next day a young man asked me, “Most of the people who operated or lived in the concentration camps died many years ago. How could our meditation purify all of them?” Pause.

We are purifying the effect that their lives have on us. By doing this, we let go of our pain, our anger and paranoia, so that we can bring compassion to the world in the present and the future. We are preventing ourselves from living in deluded reaction to the past. We are stopping ourselves from creating a victim mentality that draws others’ prejudice to us, and we are ceasing the wish for revenge that makes us mistreat others. And although we cannot understand it intellectually, in a subtle way we do influence all the prisoners and Nazis in whatever form they are currently born in. We have to heal.

Heal? How do young people exposed to war heal? “The whole country is the army,” one friend told me. “It’s not possible to live here without being part of the army. Everyone—men and women alike—has to do compulsory military service after high school.” What effect does that have on each individual young person? Each sensitive young adult, trying to find his or her way in this confusing world, I wondered.

I talked with another friend who had been a commando in Lebanon and who now worked for the Israeli Friends of the Tibetan People. He grew up on a kibbutz and became a commando. “Why?” I asked. “Because it was prestigious and society expects us to do the best we can. I was young and just did what was expected … but I never killed anyone.” He said that last sentence twice. I asked about his experinece in the army, how he dealt with the violence he witnessed, with his own violence within, with his feelings. “You get numb. You push your feelings down and don’t think about them. Even now,” he said with a pained voice, a smile on his face, smoking one cigarette after another. Yes, he had grown numb. My heart ached. Then, “But if I didn’t do the work, who would? Others in my country. I couldn’t leave this work for others,” he said to me, an American who would have been drafted at the time of the Vietnam War. Only I was a woman. In any case, even if I were a man, I would have left the country rather than participate in violence. From very young I eschewed violence. But I also had some luxury that he didn’t have. The Vietnam War wasn’t near my home; it didn’t endanger the existence of my country. What would I have done had I been born in Israel? How do any of us heal from war?

One day I went to the Wailing Wall to pray. For a while I recited the mantra of Chenrezig and visualized purifying light healing the centuries of suffering in the Middle East. From a Buddhist viewpoint, the cause of all suffering lies in our minds and in the disturbing attitudes and emotions that motivate us to act in destructive ways, even though we all long to be happy. From my heart, I made strong prayers that all beings, and especially people in this part of the world, be able to generate the three principal aspects of the path to enlightenment—the determination to be free from the cycle of constantly recurring problems, the altruistic intention to benefit all living beings, and the wisdom that realizes reality. At this point I put my head to the Wailing Wall in concentration, and then suddenly felt “plop!” as something damp hit my cap. A bird had pooped. What was this about? Recounting the episode to my friends later, they informed me that it is said that if a bird poops on one’s head at the Wailing Wall, it indicates one’s prayers will be actualized!

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The meeting of Sri Lankan and Tibetan monks http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/06/theravada-meets-mahayana/ Sat, 18 Jun 2011 21:41:57 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=9524

Two smiling Sri Lankan monks.

Various Buddhist traditions can learn so much from each other and, by cooperating together, can benefit others. (Photo by Jason Jones)

Few Tibetans have ever really talked to Buddhists from other traditions, due to travel and language constraints that existed in the past. Now, these obstacles in meeting and communicating can be overcome. Various Buddhist traditions can learn so much from each other and, by cooperating together, can benefit others.

In the autumn of 1990, Venerable Dhammaratana, a Sri Lankan monk who began the Buddhist Library in Singapore, and four Singaporeans visited. I arranged for them to meet with both Geshe Wangdak, the abbot of Namgyal Monastery, and Geshe Sonam Rinchen, a teacher at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives.

Venerable Dhammaratana is incredibly open minded. He requests teachers from all Buddhist traditions talk at the Buddhist Library. When he met Geshe Wangdak, he asked if the Tibetan Tripitaka had been translated into English, because it’s the most complete collection of all Buddha’s teachings. How’s that for shattering preconceptions about Theravadas not accepting Mahayana teaching? He also related that archaeologists have found statues of Chenrezig and Tara as well as Prajnaparamita Sutras in Sri Lanka.

Venerable Dhammaratana said that the Chinese bhikshuni ordination came from Sri Lanka. It subsequently died out in Sri Lanka and now there’s some talk of bringing it back from China. Conservative factions say that’s not the same lineage. However, he finds this silly and thinks eventually those people will have to concede.

The Buddhist Library conducts talks and prayer sessions. In addition, there is a Buddhist choir for teenagers, a Sunday school for children and a counseling service. A Buddhist Welfare Society will open soon, begun by the Buddhist Graduate Fellowship. Such things are unheard of in Tibetan society. Historically they have no tradition of social services because in pre-1959 Tibet, families were close-knit and people in a village helped each other. Geshe Sonam Rinchen was happy to hear about these activities. He said that the lamas used to do a lot of counseling. People would come to them with their problems and conflicts, and the lamas would usually smooth things over. If they couldn’t they prayed to the Triple Gem, “Please give the right answer, otherwise I’d be misleading these people,” and threw the dice! Geshe-la made an interesting comment: sometimes the lamas were so good in smoothing over difficulties that the Tibetan or Chinese government would give them a title and a position. The lamas thought this was nice, but in fact the government was manipulating and controlling them.

Tibetans would ask the lamas, “Which day should I plant my crop? Who should plant the first seed: a man, woman or child? What direction is auspicious to plant first?” To this, Venerable Dhammaratana commented, “They’re just like the Chinese! In Singapore when they ask us to bless their house, they also ask, ‘Is my furniture arranged auspiciously?'”

All in all, Venerable Dhammaratana and the Singaporeans had a great time in Dharamsala. When I saw Buddhists from Tibet, Singapore, Sri Lanka, USA and UK speaking together, it gave me a sense of the universality of the Dharma, and how vast the message of the Buddha spread in our world.

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The origin of “The Jew in the Lotus” http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/06/interfaith-jewish-buddhist/ Sat, 18 Jun 2011 18:51:56 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=7647

Cover of the book 'The Jew in the Lotus'.

The Jew in the Lotus explores the histories and commonalities of Judaism and Buddhism.

I was living and studying in Dharamsala, India, in 1990, when a group of rabbis and Jewish leaders (mostly from USA, one from Israel) came for inter-religious discussion with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and various Tibetans. As a JuBu (Jewish Buddhist), I was interested in their visit and spent as much time with them as I could during their brief stay. The Jews’ talks with His Holiness weren’t open to the public, but I heard they went very well. The Jews were affected by His Holiness’ presence, humor and sincere interest. From his side, His Holiness appreciated the Jews’ energy and commitment to their faith. He even mentioned the other day that he liked the Jewish idea of human responsibility: God created the world, but humans are responsible for improving the situation on earth. People can’t wait for God to do everything. We have to do something to help others.

I attended many other activities with the rabbis. First was Sabbath dinner, to which they invited the older geshes and lamas. There was a lot of joy and festivity as they welcomed in the Sabbath: the Jewish men faced Jerusalem — which, from India, was westward, towards the setting sun. They danced and sang, while the geshes sat there. Later, one of the lamas told me that since the Jews were facing the sun when they danced, they thought they were worshipping the sun! Though I laughed when hearing this, it pointed out that we should never presuppose we understand what others are doing. Clearly dialogue is needed!

The lamas loosened up later during the after-dinner discussions. In the group I was in, talk centered around how to keep a culture together while in exile, as both the Jews and the Tibetans have this in common. The Jews described their educational system – Jewish schools, Sunday schools, after-school activities – and the importance of taking care of the youth as a means to transmit the cultural heritage. This is very important for the Tibetan community to do as so many of their youth know very little about Tibetan culture and religion. Many youths love blue jeans and rock music and would like to go to the West to earn a good living. Although the Tibetan community has done remarkable things such as establishing the Tibetan Children’s Villages, a lot more needs to be done if the culture and religion are going to continue for a long time. Since Tibetan culture and Buddhism are being suppressed in their own land, it’s up to the exile community to keep them intact.

Several JuBus were at the Sabbath dinner and for us the service, singing, and prayers were like a flashback. I would hear different melodies and think, “Oh, I remember that.” Alex Berzin even recalled the words of many prayers. “It’s amazing what you remember from when you were eleven years old!” he said.

The next morning informal discussions between the Jews and Western Buddhists occurred in the garden. The conversation ranged from anger to meditation to what our parents said when we became Buddhist. Some of the rabbis were in the Jewish mystical tradition and did meditation, which interested the Buddhists very much.

Initially, I wasn’t sure how the Jews would react to so many Buddhists who grew up Jewish. One rabbi assured me that he respected my decision to become a Buddhist nun. In fact, as he did meditation from a Jewish perspective, he wanted to deepen it by learning meditation from the Buddhists. As a result, we met several times and I gave him some instructions on Buddhist meditation. The last day we meditated on the Eight Verses of Thought Training together with the visualization of light flowing into oneself and purifying selfishness and ignorance. After the meditation, he had an incredible look on his face: the meditation had touched something very deep within him.

One of the Jews later commented to HHDL about his sorrow in seeing so many Jews become Buddhist. His Holiness the Dalai Lama responded that Buddhists don’t proselytize and that people have different dispositions and so must find a religion fitting for them. He also told them that if they keep their meditative and mystical traditions hidden away, they will lose people who are inclined towards those practices to other religions.

The Jews also met with young Tibetan scholars and leaders. This meeting was in English, which made communication much closer (with the geshes, everything had to be translated).

While the young Tibetans described the persecution of Tibetans by the Chinese communists and their personal experiences of Tibetan identity in exile, the Jews nodded their heads and tears came to their eyes. They understood so well the suffering of persecution, prejudice and trying to keep one’s cultural and religious identity while living in countries which had other cultures and religions. There was a sincere wish on the part of the Jews to aid the Tibetans.

The young Tibetans were also open about the obstacles they face not only from without, but from within the Tibetan community: the bureaucracy, the conservatism. I appreciated their honesty and their efforts.

This inter-religious and inter-cultural contact was enriching, and I wish our world had more of it. It would stop a lot of prejudice and hatred. When I go to the States next year, I’ll visit many of the Jews, and one rabbi even asked me to give a talk at his seminary!

My personal reaction to the Jewish-Tibetan dialogue was interesting. I came to see that I’m neither a Jew nor a Tibetan culturally, although I am a Buddhist. I understand the Jewish culture because I grew up in it and understand the Tibetan culture because I’ve lived many years in it. I’ve lived with Chinese also and feel at home with them. However, none of these are my cultural group. This has its advantages and disadvantages: everywhere I’ve lived in the world I’ve met kind people and have felt comfortable. On the other hand, no place is really home, with “my” people. I see good points and bad points in both Western and Asian cultures and values, and am somehow trying to incorporate the best of both into my personal life.

Read more about this historic dialogue: Judaism and Buddhism: What I learned from the Dalai Lama, by Rodger Kamenetz

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What I learned about Judaism from the Dalai Lama http://thubtenchodron.org/2011/06/jew-dalai-lama/ Sat, 18 Jun 2011 13:52:45 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=8093 The Jew in the Lotus.]]>

His Holiness with palms together.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama (Photo by kris krüg)

In 1990, I accompanied a group of eight rabbis and Jewish scholars to India for an audience with the Dalai Lama of Tibet. He had asked us to unlock the mystery of Jewish survival in exile for two millennia. I never imagined he also held a secret that could help Jews.

Since his exile from Tibet in 1959, the His Holiness the fourteenth Dalai Lama, temporal and spiritual leader of six million Tibetan Buddhists, has often reflected on the Jewish people and our history:

Through so many centuries, so many hardships, you never lost your culture and your faith. As a result, when other external conditions became ripe, you were ready to build your nation. There are many things to learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters.

In a painting at the main temple in Dharamsala, India, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, is a painting of the Buddha seated before a pool of clear water. It was explained to us that the pool of water was actually a pool of nectar. A pool of nectar, clear but sweet. That became my overriding image of the Jewish encounter with the Dalai Lama. Somehow, he made us see Judaism more clearly and sweetly than often we ourselves see it. In our dialogue with the Dalai Lama, we saw Jewish tradition come to life. His eagerness to learn was infectious. I watched his face as Rabbi Irving Greenberg explained how in our prayers and customs, every Jew is to be reminded of the exile:

At the end of every wedding, we break a glass. Why? To remind people they cannot be completely happy. We are still in exile, we have not yet been restored. When you build a new home, you leave one little place unfinished. Why? As beautiful as the home is, we are not at home.

The Dalai Lama nodded thoughtfully:

Yes. Always remind. The points you have mentioned really strike at the heart of how to sustain one’s culture and tradition. This is what I call the Jewish secret–to keep your tradition. In every important aspect of human life, something is there to remind you: We have to return, to take responsibility.

He had grasped a prime Jewish secret of survival–memory.

Memory came alive for me in another way in Dharamsala. I felt reconnected with lost fragments of my own tradition. The monastic’s robe was like our own talit. The emphasis on ceaseless debate, common to both religions, connected the Buddhist School of Dialectics to the ancient rabbinical academies. One dawn I awoke to the chanting of a young nun. Later I learned she was reciting an entire book from memory, just as the first-century tannaim had recited Mishnah before it was first written down. As Rabbi Greenberg described the rabbinic sages at Yavneh after the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the old lamas and abbots, I looked at their wrinkled faces and knew that for them Dharamsala was Yavneh, and the time of supreme crisis was now. We Jews know instinctively the agony of losing one’s homeland, being forced into exile, and surviving adversity.

“Always remind” was key advice, but we gave other secrets as well. In a Friday night service attended by several learned lamas, we shared the power of Shabbat, our weekly holy day. Dr. Blu Greenberg, feminist author and scholar, lit the candles and prayed. She thoughtfully substituted matzah, our bread of affliction, for ordinary bread, in solidarity with our Shabbat guests who may never return from exile. In her session with the Dalai Lama, Blu, a grandmother, emphasized the central importance in Judaism of home and family–a difficult lesson for a religion led by celibate monastics. Blu’s very presence, and that of Joy Levitt, a rabbi who explained the central role of the synagogue, added a vital element to the dialogue. The Tibetan “side” of the dialogue was all male.

The Dalai Lama wanted to know more about the “inner life” of Jews. He wanted to know what method Judaism provides for transforming the human being, for overcoming disturbing emotions such as anger. For Tibetans, this is not an abstract question. The Dalai Lama is leading his people through its most difficult period in history, one in which violence is a very predictable response. How he handles anger is both a personal and political challenge. Although the Chinese communists have driven him and his family into exile, tortured and killed his people for nearly forty years, he refers to them as the “so-called enemy.”

I found the Dalai Lama, who describes himself as “a simple Buddhist monk,” to be a mensch, a profoundly kind and a gracious man. From his behavior I learned that humility could be powerful, receptivity dominating, and kindness challenging. I learned the power of what the Buddhists call “a quiet mind.” In our first session, he suffered a miserable cold, but for three hours of conversation his interest and extraordinary power of concentration never flagged. He also took time to greet each of us personally. I felt a strange sensation when he looked deep into my eyes. The Tibetans believe he can see into your past lives.

I felt personally challenged by Buddhist meditation, which seemed to make its practitioners calmer, wiser, more capable of dealing with difficult emotions. These were qualities I had not found in myself. In our dialogue, the Tibetans wanted to know the path and the goal of our belief system and how it helps us overcome painful feelings. Until then I had never thought to ask such questions of Judaism. For me, being Jewish was wrapped up in our collective history, my family, my identity. I had never before considered Jewishness as a spiritual path.

Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, a teacher of Jewish meditation, addressed this problem when he told the Dalai Lama,

The work of transformation, for us, is a holy path. But more and more people who seek transformation don’t go to a rabbi. They go to a psychiatrist who will teach them not enlightenment but self-satisfaction.

Rabbi Omer-Man’s presentation on Jewish meditation and Rabbi Zalman Schachter’s on Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical teachings, came in response to the Dalai Lama’s inquiries about our Jewish “inner life.” I was surprised to learn that Judaism has powerful techniques of inner transformation. But these ways are deep and hidden, inaccessible to most of us. Historically, they were practiced only by a tiny elite; consequently, Jews who are spiritual seekers often go elsewhere when looking for a path.

I had this in mind when we addressed the sensitive issue of Jewish converts to Buddhism. In North America, Jews are disproportionately represented in Western Buddhist groups. In Dharamsala, we met a number of Buddhist monks and nuns who had Jewish roots. My own preconceptions about such people–apostates, flakes, cultists–soon melted away. We invited all of Jewish Dharamsala to a Shabbat morning service and spent hours with them reading and discussing Torah. The Jewish Buddhists of Dharamsala are extraordinary–witty, even radiant in some cases, certainly not brainwashed zombies. Some still consider themselves Jews, others do not, but all said they had found something valuable in Buddhism that they had not been able to find in Judaism.

This made a number of us uncomfortable. Professor Nathan Katz later expressed to the Dalai Lama our sense of pain, having lost such spiritually engaged Jews to Buddhism. After a long pause, the Buddhist leader said he has never sought to convert others, as all religions offer spiritual satisfaction. He advises newcomers to stay with their own religion, pointing out that some Tibetans are also investigating other religions. In learning about Jewish mystical teachings, the Tibetan leader said he developed more respect for Judaism because “I found much sophistication there.” He was particularly impressed by kabbalistic concepts of God that emphasized human responsibility and discovered that the techniques of Jewish meditation and prayer were strikingly similar to Buddhist meditation. Such esoteric teachings and practices, he advised, should be made more widely available. He gave a parallel from Buddhist history. Like Kabbalah, Buddhist mysticism or tantrayana, as traditionally taught in India, had been given selectively to very few students. Public teaching never happened. But with too much secrecy, there is a danger that the tradition will disappear. Therefore in Tibet, the esoteric teachings were more widely taught.

The Dalai Lama did not think it good to pressure someone to follow a specific religion:

Although your motivation may be sincere, the result may not be positive if you limit the right to choose and explore. If we try to isolate ourselves from modernity, this is self-destruction. You have to face reality. If you have sufficient reason to practice a religion, there is no need to fear (losing people). But if you have no sufficient reason, no value–then there is no need to hold onto it.

He had offered us extraordinary advice, and a challenge. Could our leaders make Judaism more satisfying and beneficial to Jews?

Professor Katz responded by criticizing some Jews’ tendency to define being Jewish mainly in terms of struggling against “enemies who threaten you either with persecution or assimilation. If we transmit to people only that you should be on guard all the time, we are going to lose them.”

Through my encounter with Buddhists, I began asking different questions of Judaism. How does it make my life better? How can I learn to bring blessings into my life? How can I live up to the Jewish ideal of making everyday life sacred? I realized how I had undervalued what was precious in my own tradition, especially prayer and study. I was also entirely ignorant of Jewish meditation, or the importance of kavana–intention–in Jewish prayer and daily life. My contact with the Tibetan Buddhists deepened my experience of Judaism.

I am continuing my quest for inner transformation, not in far-off India, but in my own home and synagogue. I have been intensively studying Jewish and Buddhist spiritual texts. Seeing Judaism reflected in a Buddhist pool of nectar, I have come to realize that the religion of my birth is not just an ethnicity or an identity; it is a way of life and a spiritual path with its own deep claims on my thoughts and feelings. If I could summarize the change, I would say it has been a move from the exotic to the esoteric, from the outside to the inside–not so much changing my Jewish practices as deepening them. My wife, two daughters, and I have for many years celebrated the eve of the Shabbat in our home by lighting candles and saying blessings over bread and wine, but now I am more mindful of our kavanah, our intentions. When reciting the blessings, for example, I try to keep myself attuned to the peaceful feeling of Shabbat in body, mind, and soul.

Our prayers and ceremonies are vehicles to deepen that feeling. I have learned to bring imagery and richness of imagination to my prayer through meditation. Jews can learn from other meditative traditions. Meditation, chanting, awareness of the breath–things we usually associate with Eastern religions are not foreign to Judaism. Most Jews are unaware of the vast storehouse of spirituality that can be found in Jewish prayer, in our mystical tradition, and in our Torah. The organizer of our trip to Dharamsala, Dr. Marc Lieberman, put it well:

I am rediscovering now in Judaism the voice of clarity and wisdom, the voice that speaks to my heart because I have a much clearer experience of listening to my heart through meditation.

For some, the journey to deeper spirituality in Judaism has involved a detour into Buddhist meditation. If we open the doors of our own meditative tradition wider and clarify how Jewish prayer and study can benefit us in our lives today, perhaps that detour will not be necessary for the next generation. When my daughter Anya was bat mitzvahed, I was proud of the rigor of her accomplishment, but even prouder of the spirit she brought to her prayers. She understood what she was saying. She worshipped with kavanah. I think her generation already understands implicitly that their task is to take Jewish spirituality to heart and deepen it. Clinging to an external Jewish identity without growing a Jewish soul no longer has meaning to me. The Dalai Lama spoke from “a personal curiosity” when he asked us about our inner life as Jews. It was a characteristically Buddhist question, and one that has transformed me as a Jew.

Six years later, after the publication of The Jew in the Lotus, my book about the Jewish-Buddhist encounter in Dharamsala, I went back to Dharamsala, the place where my life changed drastically due to the dialogue between Jews and the Dalai Lama. During that time, I was able to have a private appointment with the Dalai Lama. Our meeting was extraordinarily intimate, even though my wife, three translators, Laurel Chiten and her film crew of six were in the room. He walked in, smiling, bowed slightly as I bowed to him, and sat down. My friend Dr. Marc Lieberman, the father of the Jewish-Buddhist dialogue, introduced me, reminding His Holiness of the encounter with the Jews and explaining that I had written a book about it. Then it was up to me, “Your Holiness, people ask me why I had to go all the way to Dharamsala to look more deeply into my Jewish tradition. Why did I have to meet with a Buddhist master to see Judaism more deeply?” I paused and then added, “May I tell you a Hasidic story?” He nodded, and I told him the story of Reb Yehiel, who dreams every night of a bridge in Vienna where gold is hidden. Finally he journeys to Vienna, and finds the bridge. A guard asks him what he is doing and when Reb Yehiel explains, the guard laughs. “Oh you Jews are such dreamers. I’ll tell you what dreams are worth. Every night I dream of a Jew named Reb Yehiel, and behind his stove, under the floor, there’s buried gold.” As I was telling the story, I was captivated by the Dalai Lama’s face. He reflects every nuance of your words. He chuckled all along the way and then burst into laughter when I got to the punch line. “So Reb Yehiel returned home, looked behind his stove and found gold.”

I said the story explained why someone might have to journey far away to find a teacher who will show him what is already close at hand. I added, “For me and for many Jews, you have become such a teacher. By making us look more deeply into Judaism, you have become our rabbi.” Laughing, the Dalai Lama reached for his head and said, “So you will give me a small hat?” I promised to leave a yarmulke for him, and then was silent. I had learned something from transcribing the previous dialogue: always leave him time to respond. During the silence, he is thinking. If you fill it up with your own chatter, you will never get the benefit of that thought. So I contravened forty-six years of my own noisy cultural conditioning and let the silence hang.

Soon he replied:

All major religions can help each other. Each tradition has some specialty or uniqueness that can be very useful for other traditions. Sometimes the communication is not necessarily through words, it can also be through close feelings. If you found some little contribution from my part to our Jewish brothers and sisters, I am very happy.

I told him his questions about the Jewish inner life had been particularly helpful. Buddhists practice meditation and he had asked to know the Jewish method for overcoming afflictive states of mind. This had spurred Jews to look inward. The Dalai Lama generously replied that he felt all traditions, including his own are sometimes too focused on “external rituals or ceremonies. Then they neglect the real end of spirituality–transformation within ourselves.” He added with a smile, “If you make a short visit to a monastery, everything looks beautiful. But if you listen to the story of what is happening, just as with normal human beings, there is quarreling. That is a clear indication that we are neglecting genuine transformation, real spiritual development inside.” Thinking about the fights that so often go on within our own synagogues and between denominations within the Jewish community, I had to agree.

I had the chance to present him with a copy of The Jew in the Lotus, an author’s dream come true. I was a little afraid he might be offended by the title which plays on “the jewel in the lotus”—om mani padme hum—the Tibetan’s favorite mantra. I had found that Jews often did not understand the pun and some Western Buddhists were too pious to laugh. But the Dalai Lama seemed to think it was hilarious. He touched the book to his forehead in the Tibetan gesture of acceptance.

Before we parted, I mentioned that at the next full moon, we Jews would be celebrating Passover. According to the Talmud, there comes a time during the ritual when we recall liberation not just of the Hebrews from Egypt, but of every nation from captivity and slavery. Certainly in my household we pray each year that Tibet will soon be free. He was touched by this. The Tibetans see Jews as a people with a secret for surviving in exile and remaining spiritually intact. Right now, the Tibetans face a ruthless occupation by the Chinese communists. Their culture and religion face extinction. I told him, “Each year during the seder ritual we say ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’ to symbolize our hopes for spiritual wholeness and communal prosperity in the future. At my seder this year, my family will join ‘Next year in Lhasa’ to ‘Next year in Jerusalem.'”

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Buddhism and Judaism http://thubtenchodron.org/2010/03/jewish-buddhists/ Fri, 19 Mar 2010 20:24:49 +0000 http://thubtenchodron.org/?p=8602

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, in an article entitled “Next Year in Jerusalem – Teaching Children the Story of Their People” which appeared in The Times of April 8, 2006, describes a meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of American Jews he had invited to visit him in Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama, the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, wanted to learn from them “the secret of Jewish spiritual survival in exile.” This interests him because since the 1959 occupation of Tibet by the Communist Chinese, the Tibetan people have been faced trying to preserve their faith and identity outside their own homeland. He also wanted to know about Jewish meditation and the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism).

Each member of the group had received a copy of the Buddhist scripture known as the The Dhammapada (The Way of Truth). This booklet contains 423 sayings culled from sermons given by the Buddha. The Dhammapada was the first Buddhist scripture to be translated into a foreign language. The English translation given to the group was by a senior Sri Lankan Buddhist monk, the late Venerable Dr. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Mahanayaka Thera (1896-1998).

The Chief Rabbi mentions in his article that the Jewish group’s visit is described by Rodger Kamenetz, a member of that group, in his book The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India. In addition to talking about their discussions with the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans, Kamenetz speaks about meeting many “JuBu’s,” (Jewish Buddhists/Buddhist Jews) who are students of Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhist Publication Society

Bhante Nyanaponika sitting in a chair.

Nyanaponika Bhikkhu (Photo by nyana_ponika)

The phenomenon of JuBu’s has been researched and written about, and more is yet to be learned about and from them. One of the earliest JuBu’s was a German Jew, Siegmund Feniger, born in 1901 in Hanau, near Frankfurt, whose interest in meditation and Buddhism took him to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). In 1936 he was ordained as a Buddhist monk whose ordination name was Nyanaponika Bhikkhu. He mastered Pali, the language in which many Buddhist scriptures were recited and in which the Buddhist Canon was first written down in the first century B.C.E. Later on he began the task of translating selected sermons of the Buddha into English, to make them available in low-priced, booklet form. This modest enterprise, started in a small attic room in the central hills of Sri Lanka, is now the world famous Buddhist Publication Society (BPS). Venerable Nyanaponika Thera became a legend in his own lifetime and served as the President of the BPS until he passed away in Sri Lanka on October 19th 1994. He had spent 57 years in robes as a Buddhist monk. His successor, who continued translating, editing, and publishing Buddhist books at the Buddhist Publication Society was Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk, who was also born Jewish. Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote “The entire Buddhist world, and in particular the English and German-reading followers of Theravada Buddhism, will forever be indebted to Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera for his life of selfless service in transmitting the wisdom of the Buddha to humanity.”

Why so many JuBu’s?

The question is often asked: why is there such a disproportionately large number of Buddhist leaders, teachers, monastics and practitioners who are Jewish? One reason could be the greater availability of suitable material on meditation and mysticism in Buddhism than in Judaism.

The best known book to discuss this is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist by Sylvia Boorstein. The author explains that her Buddhist practice has made her a better Jew, and that by allowing her Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) to show, she has become a better Buddhist.

A classic book on Buddhism and Judaism is Harold Heifetz’s Zen and Hasidism published in 1978. A wonderful recent book is Letters to a Buddhist Jew, by Rabbi Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb. This book evolved from a correspondence between Orthodox Rabbi Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb, a JuBu who was seeking a path back to Judaism. Rabbi Tatz attempts to answer the questions many disaffected Jews have asked for decades. David Gottlieb also explains why some Jews are attracted to Buddhism.

Buddhism and Judaism in England

Personally speaking, I find this exchange between Buddhists and Jews invigorating. Since my days at University, I have studied Judaism, especially with Rabbi Reuven Silverman at Manchester Reform Synagogue [Jacksons Row]. In June 2000, I accompanied the Sri Lankan Abbot Venerable Pidiville Piyatissa and Venerable Nagama Hemaloka of Ketumati Buddhist Vihara, Oldham, to the synagogue, where they provided an excellent lunch dana to the monks. Thanks to Rabbi Silverman, I was able to meet his teacher Rabbi Hugo Gryn from the West London Synagogue, where the Dalai Lama once spoke. Theravada Buddhist monks from the London Buddhist Vihara and Amaravati Monastery have also spoken at the West London Synagogue. The Daily Telegraph described Rabbi Gryn as “Britain’s most beloved Rabbi” in his obituary, and even the journal of the London Buddhist Society, The Middle Way, published two obituaries of him (one by the author) in its November 1996 issue.

Bibliography on Buddhism and Judaism

Bhikkhu Bodhi (Editor), Nyanaponika a Farewell Tribute: Life Sketch, Bibliography, Appreciations and Selections from the Writings of Venerable Nyanaponika Mahathera [Siegmund Feniger] (1901-1994) (Kandy, Sri Lanka, BPS Buddhist Publication Society, 1995) (ISBN 955-24-0130-5)

Sylvia Boorstein, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist (Harper Collins, 1998) (ISBN 0-06-060958-3)

Norman Fischer, Jerusalem Moonlight: An American Zen Teacher Walks the Path of His Ancestors (Clear Glass Press, 1995) (ISBN 0-93142-546-8)

Harold Heifetz, Zen and Hasidism (Theosophical Publishing House, 1978) (ISBN 0- 8356-0514-0)

Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India (Harper Collins, 1994) (ISBN 0-06-064574-1)

Harold Kasimow, John P. Keenan and Linda Klepinger (Editors), Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians and the Way of the Buddha (Wisdom Publications, 2003) (ISBN 0- 86171-336-2)

Rabbi Alan Lew, One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi (Jewish Lights, 2001) (ISBN 1-58023-115-2)

Brenda Shoshanna, Jewish Dhamma: A Guide to the Practice of Judaism and Zen (Da Capo Press, 2008) (ISBN 13-978-1-6009-4043-9) (www.jewishdharma.com)

Rabbi Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb, Letters to a Buddhist Jew (Targum Press, 2005) (ISBN 1-56871-356-8)

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