20 April 2011
From Zen Koans to Zen Cohens


Zen Koans are an integral part of Zen Buddhism. They are questions or riddles that cannot be understood by the rational mind or through rational thinking. It is only by intuition that the answer becomes accessible. Oftentimes, the person who solves the Zen Koan becomes instantly enlightened.

Here, I offer you a reflection of some famous Zen Koans as seen through a Jewish lens, what I call Zen Cohens.

Reframing Zen Koans to Zen Cohens

Zen Koan: Zen Master Unmon said, “The world is vast and wide. Why do you put on your robes at the sound of the bell?"

Zen Cohen:  Mrs. Sylvia Unmonowitz said: "The big world is going to pass you by while you lie in that bed, and Ben Goldberg from across the street is already done with medical school. It’s time to study for the bar exam. If you don’t get up and dressed when the alarm goes off, how are you going to become a hotshot lawyer?” 

Zen Koan: A monk asked Kegon, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” Kegon replied, “A broken mirror never reflects again; fallen flowers never go back to the old branches.”

Zen Cohen: A son asked his mother, “How does an enlightened one return to the ordinary world?” The mother replied, “Oh, so now you’re too good for us Mr. hotshot? You never call, you never write, and now my heart is broken. It can never be fixed. Well, maybe if you marry that nice Susie Birmbaum and give me grandchildren I can forgive you. And I want you to use your fancy law degree and sue our neighbors because they have refused to do anything about their old tree branches that are falling over into our yard.”

Responding to Zen Koans through Zen Cohens

Zen Koan: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

Zen Cohen response: On Broadway, they call that a flop! 

Zen Koan: What did your face look like before your parents were born?

Zen Cohen response: Was this before or after the plastic surgeon showed up? (and I swear, no one can even tell you had work done).

Ponder these questions.

Meditate on their meanings.

Go have a nosh.

Namaste B'Shalom,



Posted by emfrankel at 8:10 PM | Link | 1 comment
12 April 2011
Technologically Challenged


Let me tell you about the first time I used email, years ago. My husband, Steve, kept telling me about it, and all of the reasons it was going to change my life. I had my doubts. It seemed complicated. If I needed to talk to someone, why couldn’t I just pick up the phone? One of life’s pleasures, I insisted, was finding a letter from an old friend in the mailbox and reading it over a cup of coffee. Steve insisted I was missing the boat and better get on board. “Email,” he repeated the way Mr. McGuire told Benjamin “plastics” in The Graduate.  (and thank you to Google for refreshing my memory on the details).

Well, I finally agreed to try email with my dear friend, Ellen Reifler. It went something like this. 

I dial Ellen on the phone and she picks up. 

Me: Ellen? I say excitedly. “I just sent you an email.”

Ellen: “Oh goodie,” she replies. “I’ll hang up and go see if I can get it on my computer and read it.”

A few minutes later my phone rings and I pick up.

Me: “Hello?” I answer

Her: “Hi. I just read your email and now I sent you one.”

Me: “Okay, let me hang up and I’ll read yours and send you and email and call you back…”

You get the point? Steve looked at me like I was insane…but I was quite proud of my email usage at that point.

Fast forward and now there’s something called facebook. I didn’t understand it. I kept asking my kids if they had “befriended” a particular person. And they kept telling me you don’t “befriend” someone, you “friend” them. I thought befriending sounded kinder – more loving and compassionate. But, as I’ve come to understand, that is not only incorrect word usage, but also not the point. Still, I wasn’t about to enter the world of facebook. My understanding of the way facebook worked was that if you’re at a great party, instead of enjoying the party and being in the moment, you’re taking pictures of said “great party,” and posting them on facebook along with status reports of all that’s happening at the party which is apparently so much fun, that instead of really engaging in the fun, you’re posting about the fun that every else is missing. 

But okay, eventually I realized that even beyond stalking your own kids on facebook (if they accept your friend request in the first place) it does have its good points. You can connect with old friends, keep up with what is happening in their lives, and, let’s be honest, kind of act like a “fly on the wall” as you click around on the pages of old flames, old rivals and those who wouldn’t give you the time of day back in high school.

And I learned how to set up a website (with a few or more shouts to Steve to come help me with this or that), and a blog (which I now can post without any help at all).

I still didn’t get this whole Twitter thing though. Do I really need to tell people, in a 140 characters or less, what I am doing at any given moment? Isn’t tweeting for the birds? Plus, as you can see, I’m not so succinct. As Steve likes to tell me, I can’t make a long story short, only a short story longer. He may have a point, and I did have to cut 30,000 words from my novel, Syd Arthur, with my editor.

So yesterday, with the help of Steve, our daughter Allie, who was visiting this weekend, and her boyfriend, Tom, I agreed it was time to enter into this phase of social media. I’m trying to keep up with all this technology, but I still harbor fantasies of living like a hermit in a cave, meditating and seeking enlightenment. I’ve harbored this fantasy for years, and the other month, while on a pilgrimage in India in the footsteps of the Buddha, I did, in fact, get to meditate in the very cave where the Buddha meditated. But now that I’ve mastered email and facebook and blogging, now that I Google things all day, I realized that after my meditation was over, there was no WiFi in the cave, and how was I going to know who got voted off of American Idol? 

Anyway, I digress, which is something I won’t be able to do with an allotment of 140 characters on Twitter. So maybe Twitter has a point. But I did figure out a way to tweet with double that allotment.  I have two Twitter accounts. You can follow me @EllenFrankel as well as @SydArthurBook. See, this way I can tweet as me (on @EllenFrankel) and as Syd Arthur, the main character in my novel, @SydArthurBook. That way, I really get 280 characters worth of thought…

So if anyone out there is reading this, send me an email, or a message on facebook, make a comment on my blog, or follow me on Twitter…and if all else fails, just pick up the phone and call me, or send me a letter via snail mail. I am hopelessly technologically challenged, but I am trying...

Namaste B’Shalom,




Posted by emfrankel at 1:59 PM | Link | 3 comments
08 April 2011
Confessions of an American Idol Wannabe


So here’s the setting. Both kids are away at college, and my husband, who now works at home, is away on a business trip. Karma, our dog, is here, but as long as I offer her doggie treats, a yard to play in, and some cuddle time, she lets me do my own thing.

And so what it is I do when I have an empty house and a bit of time? I’d like to tell you that I sit for longer periods in meditation, or that I use Rosetta Stone to learn Italian, or even that I find a new recipe and cook some wonderful Italian dish. It would be nice to report that I write, study the Torah, or finish spring cleaning (or even start spring cleaning).

But that would be a lie.

I’m not shy, as anyone out there who knows me can attest.  But for some reason, it is only when no one is home and the house is empty that I let my virtual inner Self, the one that is maybe twenty-five years younger than my real inner Self, out. And what does she do? She belts out songs on the staircase where the acoustics make her/me sound really good. Okay, pretty good.  Well, good enough.

I sing show tunes (I’m especially fond of Something’s Coming from West Side Story, and At the Ballet, from A Chorus Line), and songs from great female vocalists like Carole King, Melissa Etheridge, the Indigo Girls, and Alanis Morissette. I sing loud and proud as if I’m entitled to take my place on Broadway or at a concert featuring these legendary female musicians.  

But I don’t just sing. I perform. To an adoring audience that I imagine is watching me from the living room. And they are in awe. In awe, I tell you, in awe. It is as if I’m their next American Idol.

But because I’m neurotic, and even in fantasy can’t really imagine things going so brilliantly well, I also conjure up the judges from American Idol. Not the nice judges that are on the panel of American Idol this year: Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson who seem to be having a love affair with every contestant in this 2011 Idol season. No, I imagine Simon Cowell, the judge of all judges, asking me in his English accent, “Do you really think you can sing?” But then I remember no one is home, and Simon is just a figment of my imagination, so I carry on and hopefully carry the tune.

Why is it I can sing from the top of my lungs when I'm alone - in the house or the car- but typically clam up when people are around? Well wait a minute. That’s not really true. Sometimes I sing in front of a lot of people. Sometimes on the weekend my husband, Steve, and I, stop in Fantasy Island, a Chinese restaurant about five minutes from our house. We don’t go there to eat. We go there for the bar and karaoke. And after I’ve had a few beers, or that extra glass of wine (you know, the one you think you probably shouldn’t have but have anyway), I put my name down for a turn to sing.

I’ve found that Build Me Up Buttercup is always a crowd pleaser.  I stand there with the microphone in hand and the TV prompter with the lyrics, and for a few minutes, it is as if I’m back in my empty house, standing on the stairs and singing my heart out.

But then there is the real applause from the very real (versus my imagined) audience, where everyone gives me nice smiles, thumbs up and high fives. Could be my rousing rendition of my version of the Foundations classic hit that I just sang. Or, it could be that they too, had that extra glass of wine or bottle of beer and they are in an overly enthused state. Either way, for that split second, I am a budding star. Ryan Seacrest is telling America the Idol number to call or text if you want to vote for “Ellen.”

So, that’s my confession. That’s how I amuse myself in the privacy of my own home, when I allow myself my “fifteen minutes of fame.”

I understand that since I’m not really a contestant on American Idol, the pretend votes I’m counting on don’t really count.

So, in lieu of your vote for me as the next American Idol, how about going on Amazon and checking out my new novel, Syd Arthur…you know, to write a novel you don’t even need to sing on key, and to read one, you don't have to carry a tune either.

Namaste B’Shalom,




Posted by emfrankel at 2:34 PM | Link | 1 comment
04 April 2011
The Power of Passover for Jews and Buddhists

This year the Jewish festival of Passover, the most widely observed Jewish holiday, begins on April 18th at sundown. Passover, or Pesach, commemorates the story of the Exodus when the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is celebrated for eight days, with a Seder marking the first two nights. The themes of the Passover Seder that hold great meaning for Jews can also be both significant and meaningful to other groups who are oppressed. The similarities between the Jews of Egypt over 3,000 years ago, and the Buddhists of Tibet today are a case in point. Here are five examples of the commonalities these two groups share, and the way in which the Passover Seder can serve as a source of both hope and inspiration for freedom today.

Oppression: Both Jews and Tibetans have shared a history of oppression. In Biblical times, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt subject to the dictates of Pharaoh. Since the 1950 occupation of Tibet, the Tibetans have become enslaved by the Chinese occupation. During the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Dalai Lama – the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans, found his life in danger and fled to Dharmasala, India where he has remained with his government in exile ever since. All told, 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of the occupation.  Just as Moses tried repeatedly to negotiate with Pharaoh, so too has the Dalai Lama, for over five decades, sought to negotiate with the Chinese while holding fast to his philosophy of non-violence in moving toward an Autonomous Tibet.

Exile:  The Passover Seder speaks of the yearning of a people in exile for their homeland.  For most of Jewish history, Jews have lived outside of Israel and longed to return to the Promised Land, described as the land flowing with milk and honey; the land that is both sustaining and sweet. They have had to figure out how to keep a people, a culture, a religion and a tradition alive while being scattered and living outside of the land that defines their physical and spiritual home. This is also the task of the Tibetans. For the past fifty years, the Tibetans in Tibet have seen the destruction of over 6,000 monasteries while losing their land. Public teaching of Buddhism is forbidden, and it is illegal to have a picture of the Dalai Lama, who is their revered spiritual leader. They have been made a minority in their own homeland, and are restricted from practicing Buddhism. For those living in Tibet, they are experiencing a spiritual exile in the midst on an ongoing cultural genocide. For the Tibetans who have fled, they are living a physical exile.

Hope: In 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort to free Tibet through non-violent means. That same year, he turned to the Jewish people to ask them the following questions: What is the secret of your Jewish spiritual survival in exile?  In his 1994 book, The Jew in the Lotus, Rodger Kamenetz chronicles the trip to Dharmsala between a group of Jewish scholars and His Holiness the Dalai Lama with a major intention of the journey being to dialogue about this very question. A great insight from this weeklong meeting dealt with the importance of keeping one’s people, tradition and culture alive while in exile through memory and story telling. Growing from the similarities of the Jewish memory of slavery and oppression in Egypt, and the current restrictions on religious freedom today in Tibet, a special Passover Seder was held in 1997 in Washington D.C. with the Dalai Lama in attendance along with rabbis and U.S. dignitaries.  In a letter to those who had gathered at the Seder, the Dalai Lama wrote, “In our dialogue with rabbis and Jewish scholars, the Tibetan people have learned about the secrets of Jewish spiritual survival in exile: one secret is the Passover Seder. Through it for 2000 years, even in very difficult times, Jewish people remember their liberation from slavery to freedom and this has brought you hope in times of difficulty. We are grateful to our Jewish brothers and sisters for adding to their celebration of freedom the thought of freedom for the Tibetan people."


The Re-Telling:  The Hagaddah is the religious text used during the festival meal, which sets order to the Seder. Hagaddah means, “telling,” and refers to the commandment to tell your children about the Jewish liberation from bondage in Egypt to freedom. Memory and story our central to our lives. It is through the retelling of stories, whether individual stories, family stories or stories of a people, that we live again, allowing our past history to help define and redefine ourselves today. Stories carry power, wisdom and energy. After experiencing the Passover Seder the Dalai Lama stated, “Yes, always remind. Telling one’s story strikes at the heart of how to sustain one’s culture and tradition. This is the Jewish secret…”


Freedom: The Passover Seder is both a story of history, and an experience of where we are today. Just as both Jews and Tibetans can look at the external story of oppression and the hope of freedom, so too does the Seder offer the opportunity for each participant to look deeply within themselves to see where they may be living in slavery or bondage, and how they can transform those places of constriction to places of expansion within their own hearts and minds. The Passover Seder traditionally ends with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem,” remembering the yearning of the exiled to return home. Adding the words, “Next year in Lhasa,” speaks to the yearning and hope that soon the Tibetans in exile will be back in their homeland, and the Tibetans still living in an occupied Tibet will be able to practice their Buddhist tradition freely.


In so many places today, we have seen the struggles of people across the globe to move from oppression to freedom. While there is much work to be done, sometimes it is the stepping back, the sitting together with family and friends over a meal to recall our past, reclaim our deepest values, and re-ignite the flame of hope that burns inside. This Passover provides an opportunity for Jews and non-Jews to come together in the spirit of hope and freedom.  Together, it is possible to experience the “OM” in shalOM” and to experience the blessing of peace.

Namaste B'Shalom,



Posted by emfrankel at 10:38 AM | Link
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