What’s with this whole Ju-Bu thing?

The story of the Jewish Mother and the Guru is famous in Jewish and Buddhist circles. Shlepping her shopping bags full of chicken soup, challah, kugel, rugelach, and banana bread, this mother has traveled over land and over water, by plane, train and bus all the way from America to Nepal. She knocks on the monastery door, desperate to see the guru. Finally a monk answers, and she asks to see the guru. The monk sends her away to complete the necessary training and pass many rigorous tests. Eventually she comes back, still shlepping her shopping bags.

Now that she has fulfilled the requirements for entry, the monk allows her in, accompanies her through the monastery, and opens the shrine-room door to reveal a forty-foot Buddha with the guru seated on a golden platform beside it. He will allow her to utter only five words to the guru. Parking her shoes, she ascends the long staircase to the golden throne, puts down her shopping bags, looks the guru in the eye and says: “Nu, Sheldon, come home already.”

*Excerpt from: A Jewish Mother in Shangri-La by Rosie Rosenzweig Shamabala Publications 1998.

What is a Ju-Bu?

A Ju-Bu (sometimes called a Bu-Ju) refers to someone with a Jewish background who practices some form of Buddhism. It can refer to someone who practices both spiritual traditions, to someone who considers himself/herself a Buddhist but was born Jewish, or to someone who considers himself/herself Jewish, but has an interest in Buddhism. The terms was popularized with the publication of Rodger Kamenetz’s book, The Jew in the Lotus where, in 1990, he accompanied a group of eight rabbis and Jewish scholars to Dharamsala, India, to meet with His Holiness the Dalai Lama for an inter-religious discussion. 

So who was the first American Jew who became a Buddhist? (This could be a possible Jeopardy! question, and I want to be ready.)

In 1893, Charles Strauss became the first recorded American Jew to become a Buddhist following the World Conference of Religions of the same year. 

And then?

After World War II, the Beat generation emerged. The United States was in the midst of the Cold War with anti-communist mass hysteria, while industrialization led to a booming economy and a materialistic mindset. The Beat generation, with influential writers and thinkers such as Allen Ginsberg (a Jew from New Jersey) challenged the Judeo-Christian materialistic ethos. Aspects of the Beat culture included experimentation with drugs and sexuality, a rejection of materialism, and an interest in Eastern religions including Buddhism with Zen being the most influential school of thought during this time.

So, tell me more… 

In the 1960s there was a new wave of interest in Buddhism, and Jews made up a significant portion of those seeking the Dharma (Buddha’s teachings). There are two major reasons for the spread of Buddhism during this period.  The first can be traced to 1965, when changes were made to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which opened the doors to Asian immigration allowing a new wave of Asian Buddhists and clergy to move to America. As a result, Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist teachers from Southeast Asia began teaching in the West in sizeable numbers. The second reason relates to the strong counter-culture emerging, especially the hippie sub-culture who was seeking an alternative path from what they considered the hypocritical and repressive Judeo-Christian traditions, along with the conformity and materialism of society.

While Buddhist practitioners and teachers were moving to the West, large numbers of Western Jews began traveling to the East for spiritual training. Many prominent Buddhist teachers in the West, who were born Jewish, emerged, including, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and, Jack Kornfield, founders of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Masachusetts; Larry Rosenberg; founder of the Cambridge Meditation Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Sylvia Boorstein, co-founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Northern California; and Jeffrey Miller (aka Lama Surya Das), who established the Dzogchen Foundation and Centers. Pemba Chodron, who was born Jewish and named Deirde Blomfield-Brown, became a fully ordained Vajrayana Buddhist nun and popular writer and Thubten Chodron raised in a Jewish family, became a Buddhist nun and helped organize the first International Nun’s Conference. Helen Tworkov, Bernard Glassman, Charles Prebish, Daniel Goleman and Rick Fields are also famous Jews who became Buddhist leaders, teachers and writers in the West. Then there’s Richard Alpert, better known as Ram Dass, who considers himself a Jewish-Buddhist-Hindu. He was born into a Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts and authored the contemporary spiritual classic, Remember, Be Here Now.

Sam Bercololz and Michael Fagan - both Jews - started Shambhala Publications in 1969, and the majority of the board of directors of Tricycle: A Buddhist Review Quarterly Magazine, were born Jewish. Fifty percent of the ten Buddhist abbots to take charge of the Zen Center in San Francisco over the last half of century were born Jews. 

So many Ju-Bus; who knew?

You’re right. In fact, the number of Jewish Buddhists amazed Chogyan Trungpa, a famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher in the West and founder of Naropa University. In the 1970s, he used to say that so many of his students were Jews, that they could form the Oy Vey school of Buddhism.

And it’s not only American Jews who are interested in Buddhism.  A large number of young Israelis set out for Asian Buddhist lands and centers. In fact, Chabad-Lubavitch offers large Passover Seders in Kathmandu and Bangkok. And, get this, David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was a serious practitioner of Buddhist meditation and philosophy. 

It’s like a who’s who in the Ju-Bu yellow pages. Who else will I find there?

Glad you asked!!  Along with all the people mentioned above, here’s a list of famous Jewish-Buddhists: 

Goldie Hawn

Jeremy Piven

Leonard Cohen

Steven Seagal

Doug Fieger

Garry Shandling

Robert Downey, Jr.

Norman Fischer

Adam Yauck aka MCA (The Beastie Boys)

Jake Gyllenhaal

Why are so many Jews interested in Buddhism?

It is estimated that approximately 30% of all Western-born Buddhists are of Jewish heritage. Here are some reasons why Jews are attracted to a Buddhist path: 

*Many Jewish seekers find that the Judaism they grew up in lacked a spiritual dimension with which they could connect. While many Jews today can identify with the communal, historical and cultural aspects of Judaism, the spiritual dimension for many is severely lacking. Today, more and more rabbis are acknowledging this problem. They maintain that there is a deep spiritual practice within Judaism (through mystical Judaism and the study of Kabbalah) but that it has been too inaccessible to the majority of Jews given the way Judaism is practiced in most synagogues across the country.  Seeking this missing element, Jews who are looking for spiritual connection often find it in Buddhist philosophy and meditation practices where mindfulness and connection with the spirit are central and accessible.

*Buddhism is non-theistic in nature taking the concept of God, in a Judaic sense of the word, out of the equation for Jews who hold a belief in God, as well as for atheists and agnostics. Thus, Buddhism holds a wide appeal for many types of people. 

*Jews and Buddhists have no history of conflict, nor is there an assumption of anti-Semitism among Buddhists, making exploration of this path more comfortable and acceptable to many than, say joining a Christian or Muslim group.

*Unlike other religions, it is not necessary to convert to Buddhism to be a serious practioner following a Buddhist path. While some formally take the lay Buddhist precepts, they can remain in their religion of origin, if they so desire. This makes it easier for people to follow a Buddhist path while still identifying, if they so choose, as a Jew. 

The 5 precepts for lay Buddhists:

  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from sexual misconduct
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech
  • I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness

*Jews and Buddhists share an understanding about the nature of suffering. The first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is: There is suffering…

Jews have experienced this throughout their history culminating in the horrors of the Holocaust.  Since WWII, Jews have struggled with the aftermath of this genocide. Buddhism offers a spiritual path and philosophy to understand both the causes of suffering and a way out of that suffering. 

Moreover, Buddhists and Jews have come together in inter-faith dialogue to discuss how to keep one’s culture and religion alive amidst exile from the homeland. The meeting in Dharmasala, India in 1990 was a case in point. The Dalai Lama and Tibetan community met with rabbis and Jewish scholars to explore what it takes to survive as a people of community and faith in the Diaspora. The Tibetan people are living in exile from Tibet, their homeland, just as Jews, for thousands of years, lived away from Eretz Yisrael. While the Jewish leaders could share the importance of what they’ve learned – The emphasis on education within Jewish schools, Sunday school/Hebrew school, after school activities and the importance of nurturing the young as a means to transmit the cultural heritage (L’dor va Dor – from generation to generation), the Tibetan Buddhists also taught the Jewish visitors what they need to survive.

When one of the Jewish leaders told His Holiness the Dalai Lama that he was sad that so many Jews are becoming Buddhists, the Dalai Lama said that Buddhists don’t seek converts (something else the two faiths share) but that people have different dispositions that influence their spiritual path. He added that if Judaism continues to keep their meditative and mystical teachings hidden away from the majority of Jews, they would continue to lose people seeking such a spiritual connection to other traditions that offer easier access to these practices. And it’s true. Despite the existence of the Kabbalah, these ancient teachings continue to remain relatively obscure in a practical sense, and Jews rarely are taught the mysteries of the Zohar in their neighborhood synagogue.

*Both Buddhism and Judaism encourage questioning and debate. In addition, with Buddhism grounded in a psychological understanding of humans and their behavior, it offers a philosophy to understand oneself, others and the world while keeping an opening and questioning mind. 

*The fact that Buddhist practices such as meditation are useful in the here and now, regardless if one follows another religious belief system, allows Jews to incorporate Buddhist ideas/techniques to a greater or lesser degree as they deem fit. 

*The Dalai Lama often says, “My religion is kindness.” For those seeking an accessible spiritual path that offers ways to transform starting in this moment, Buddhism is a welcoming spiritual path to Jews and others.

Can you recommend some Ju-Bu books?

Of course. First, I think you should read my new book, Syd Arthur, because I spent a long time writing it. It offers a look at how a middle-aged Jewish suburban woman discovers a Buddhist path and in the process, discovers not only herself, but also a new relationship with her Jewish roots. Okay, self-promotion over (though in Buddhism the notion of a self is questioned, so I guess I should just say promotion over). 

Other Ju-Bu books you should take a look at:

Zen Judaism: For you, a Little Enlightenment, by David M. Bader 

That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist: On Being A Faithful Jew And A Passionate Buddhist, by Sylvia Boorstein

The Jew in the Lotus, by Rodger Kamenetz 

One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path Of A Zen Rabbi, by Alan Lew

A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la, by Rosie Rosenzweig 

Letters to a Buddhist Jew, by Akiva Tatz and David Gottlieb

Thanks, I learned a lot about Ju-Bus and now I need a little nosh and a nap…

Okay, thanks for checking in…

Namaste B’Shalom,