Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Roshi Bernie Glassman
Edited by Netanel Miles-Yepez
ZALMAN SCHACHTER-SHALOMI, better known as Reb Zalman, was born in Zholkiew, Poland, in 1924. His family fled the Nazi oppression in 1938 and finally landed in New York City in 1941. He was ordained by the Lubavitcher Hasidim in 1947. For fifty years, he has been considered one of the world’s foremost teachers of Hasidism and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), holding posts as professor of Jewish Mysticism and Psychology of Religion at Temple University, and most recently as the World Wisdom Chair holder at Naropa University. He is the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, the founder of the Spiritual Eldering Institute, and an active participant in ecumenical dialogues, including the widely influential dialogue with the Dalai Lama documented in the book The Jew in the Lotus. He is the author of Paradigm Shift, Spiritual Intimacy, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, and Wrapped in a Holy Flame. Reb Zalman currently lives in Boulder, Colorado.
BERNIE GLASSMAN is a Roshi of the Soto Zen Buddhist lineage, a student of Maezumi Roshi, and is widely known for his influential books Bearing Witness and Instructions to the Cook. He is the founder (with Roshi Jishu Holmes) of the Zen Peacemaker Order (1996), which bases itself on three principles: plunging into the unknown, bearing witness to the pain and joy of the world, and a commitment to heal oneself and the world. He is a close associate of Reb Zalman.
What follows is an edited excerpt from a dialogue that took place at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish renewal retreat center in Accord, New York in the Summer of 1997 called “Torah and Dharma.”
Part one of this dialogue deals with the ecumenical relationship between Judaism and Buddhism, the modern phenomenon of “hyphenated spirituality” and “Jew-Boos.” Part two will look at Hasidic Jewish and Zen Buddhist tools of transformation.
From time to time, people come to me and say, “I would like to have a connection with Judaism,” or “I’d like to convert to Judaism. But, I don’t want to give up ‘citizenship’ in the non-Jewish tradition I belong to now. After all, it was through this tradition that I have learned to appreciate Judaism; can I also be Jewish?”
I feel it is very important to be advocates for people in this situation. There are very few people alive in what they are doing today, who don’t have some kind of a hyphen, whether it be an African-American, a Hindu-Scientist, a Sufi-Jew or a Jewish-Buddhist; there is a little hyphen there, whether it has to do with the martial arts or Gurdjieff. What they are saying with this hyphen is that they need more than one “phone system;” they want to be able to call on strength and resources from more than one place.
But, Jews also need to ask, “What is it to be Jewish?” Usually, rabbis will immediately turn this question into “Who is a Jew?” and start by saying, “If the mother was Jewish, she or he is Jewish. But, if only the father was Jewish, she or he isn’t.” Well, genetics tells us that this is way off base; each parent gives half of the genetic information, so it doesn’t make any genetic difference whether it was the father or mother. Nevertheless, one needs to understand how much of their quotient — of who they are in the world, and what they feel good about — is Jewish. This is the real question that hasn’t yet been fully integrated into the rabbinic legal structure. So, it is necessary to be aware of the equality of the parents’ endowment, as well as the socio-cultural integration with Jewish life.
Why do you think Divine Providence took Judaism where it did? I have a feeling that after the Holocaust, we had to send out for “vitamins.” And, these have come back to us from other religious traditions. They have also come from Jews who have become involved in these traditions and from people who have become converts to Judaism. These things are the dowry of hyphenated spirituality. If you want to survive in our world, you have to lower your tissue-rejection response a little, because otherwise, you will have allergies to everything, and this wouldn’t be good for the future.
I am pleased to have Glassman Roshi on both sides of the Buddhist-Jewish hyphen. I think that we would not have missed another hasid in Williamsburg as much as we would have missed a Zen Roshi named Bernie; a Jew with a remarkable life-story, and one who has what is necessary to be both, and more. I believe our Mother Earth, the Shekhinah1 puts her children in good places, and if you really trust Divine Providence, you’ll know this is the way it is supposed to be.
Yes, the hyphen is important. I don’t believe that we can make one religion that is the best of everything. That doesn’t make any sense to me. We are all very different. What does make sense to me is that we each practice in the “well” of our respective traditions, and go deep into that well. There are so many wells. Reb Zalman’s well2 is but one well in Judaism, and I am attracted to that well over the other Jewish wells that I knew when I was younger. So, people studying in Reb Zalman’s tradition have to go deep into that well.
In Buddhism, and even Zen, there are also many wells. I have one kind of Zen. Not everybody who is interested in Zen will be happy with me. They will come and find that it is not in the mountains, and that is not what they read in the books! It is a different kind of practice, but it is my kind of practice.
We have to find the wells we are most suited to and go deeply into them. We can’t just make one big well; that doesn’t work. I think that as we go through our practice, it is important for teachers like Reb Zalman to show us the entrance to their wells so we can visit one another, and learn from one another. We can learn what compliments our well and create adjoining wells!
There is a rabbi who is studying with me, and Judaism is his well, but he is also a Zen teacher, and that is another well. It is just that he has adjoining wells. So, if I study with Reb Zalman, it is separate from my Zen study.
In my own life, when I ask how the idea (that other religions were also interesting) entered into me, I think it must have been when I was about four years old and my baby-sitter in Vienna took me to church:
Papa and Mama weren’t supposed to know about this, but my baby-sitter needed to go to church to light a candle, so she took me along. I remember how she introduced me to those beautiful statues, “those terrible idols,” and I was so fascinated by them. All the while she is telling me — “This is St. Anne, she was Jewish. Here is St. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, a cousin of Jesus, and they were all Jewish.” She was talking to me about mishpachah, about family, and that interested me.
As a child, I had a funny notion in my head; all women are Catholics, and all men are Jewish! I would walk by a church and see ladies with babushkas (scarves around their hair), holding candles, and I would think, that’s what Mama does at home before Shabbat! And, in shul,3 I only saw men. So, to me, it was very clear — men are Jewish and women are Catholic. But, I always wanted to know what they did in church; I was fascinated by the smell of incense around a church.
Later, after I had been exposed to various religious traditions, I got to reading books on Zen Buddhism, books by D.T. Suzuki and collections of stories, like Paul Reps’ Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. With Suzuki, I had the feeling that Zen was only dry, hard and cutting, but in the stories, I felt a wonderful caring and concern that did something to me; they reminded me continually of analogous hasidic4 teachings and stories:
A Zen patriarch is going around collecting money in order to print the sutras. And, in order to print those plates, it’s a lot of work, and a lot of money is needed. So, he gets the money together, and Oy!, there is a flood. So, he compensates the victims of the flood with that money. And, nebbukh!, now he has to go collecting again. Finally, he has the money together again, and there is a famine! So the money goes to help the people in the famine. Finally, he gets the money together for a third time, and he prints the book. But those who know of such things say, “The first two editions of the book surpassed the third!”
This kind of teaching-story has a lot in common with hasidic stories; they always make you want to live that life. And my contact with the Zen stories made me want to learn to “sit” in meditation. And, I’ve had some wonderful experiences “sitting.” It is wonderful to hear the katsu5, and to ask, “Are you aware of what you are doing, or are you just sitting like a behemah, like an animal?” So, I made myself little katsu ornaments, including a little bell that hangs in my car so that every time I hit a pot-hole, it rings and I can be mindful of a mitzvah that can be fulfilled with consciousness alone. I have a wonderful fascination and love for that kind of “awareness.”
When I read the Dhammapada6 and translated these sutras into Hebrew, it was very interesting, because they sounded to me like Pirkei Avot, “the Ethics of the Fathers” in Jewish literature. They seemed so close that you could easily sneak one into the other, just as you could easily sneak a hasidic story into a Zen collection, or a Zen story into a hasidic collection, and you wouldn’t know the difference — just change the names and references:
There was a Rebbe, Reb Mendel of Vurka. In his community, they knew him as a shotek, one who is silent. He didn’t talk much. His father was a disciple and colleague of the Kotzker Rebbe, and one day, his father, Reb Yitzhak of Vurka, takes Reb Mendel with him to visit Reb Menachem Mendel Kotzker, who says to him, “Young man, where did you learn the mystery of silence?” And, Reb Mendel began to open his mouth . . . and said nothing.
This kind of interchangeability tells us that what we are dealing with here is generic religion. There is such a thing as “no frills” religion, the basic transformative technology of a tradition. In Sanskrit it is called upaya,7 “skillful means.” These are the means that bring people to greater awareness. And, on top of those basic structures of skillful means, each tradition has added a flavor to give them their particular taste. That is their ethnicity, it is all that is Japanese about Zen. Some people are attracted by the ethnicity of different religions — the garb, the foods, the beads, the statues — but that is not the essence, the heart-essence is not in those elements. These are the things that help the “medicine” go down.
I remember many gatherings where I was sitting with my teacher, and the question would come up, “What is Zen primarily about?” And, what would come to me was that it was about “learning how to serve.”
If you study the texts, there are really two stages; climbing up the mountain and descending the mountain. Realization is concerned with climbing the mountain — we all have realizations. Actualization is descending the mountain — that is the endless path.
In working with the homeless and addicted people, I have studied how the “12 steps”4 do their work. The very first thing is to get past the denial stage, to be able to say, “I’m an alcoholic. I am always going to be an alcoholic.” I cannot do a program for six months, or a year, and be done with it; it is a lifetime practice. In Zen, the student has to come to the same place of saying, “I’m addicted to myself.” That is always going to be the case, it is part of human nature. It is not bad or good, it is just part of human nature. It means that I will always be dealing with a dualistic realm. I will be involved in a practice that happens to be endless, because I am a human being.
But, what is going to be moving me toward the state of Oneness and of service as a natural state? Let me give you my favorite example:
Imagine that I have an illness that causes me to think that my right hand is separate from “me,” and my left hand is separate from “me.” They are different. The right is Abraham and the left is Sarah. Abraham and Sarah feel that they are individuals, completely separate. They go along doing different things, and they may even do some studies in which they have learned that they really are one body, all part of Bernie; they intellectualize that, but they are not working and living that way.
So, what happens when they really think of themselves as separate? Imagine, someone comes over and offers money. Abraham reaches out for the money, and Sarah gets jealous and upset. Or, perhaps Sarah catches on fire, and Abraham looks and says, “Oh, shall I help Sarah? Maybe I’ll be sued, they’ll think I started the fire if they see me!” Maybe he helps, maybe he doesn’t. All that goes on because they think they are separate. This may go on for years. Then, they get involved in spiritual practice, something happens and they say, “Hey, we are one.” Now, they think that they are one, and this is another problem.
Imagine if you went around all the time thinking, “Oh, this is me, my stomach is me.” You function as if you are this one whole being. If one hand gets money, the other hand doesn’t get jealous. That notion now seems absurd; it doesn’t arise as it did before. If the hand is on fire, it is automatic that you would do something, it is not a question of thinking. It is automatic to take care of it the best way possible. But, you may make an error in taking care of it. The hand may get gangrene, and you may have to cut it off. So, taking care is not always looked at as being soothing. Some things may seem very drastic, but you do the best you can to take care of what is going on in that one body. If you are doing that, still thinking, “I’m doing this because I am one body,” there is still a certain sickness. Eventually, that sickness has to fall away, and you just do it.
Zen practice, at its base, is that we feel that this is all one being — we are all one. Ordinarily, we aren’t aware of that. And, until we realize that, we will not act accordingly. Even intellectualizing it doesn’t mean we act that way. How deeply we realize it is what is important. When we see a room, how brightly it is lit determines how well we see the room. What position do you see it from? From where I am, I can’t quite see Reb Zalman. I see a foot. So, I have a certain perspective. Now, if I move, I have a whole different perspective and can see Reb Zalman.8 In Zen practice we try to move people around so that we can see the oneness of life from different perspectives; to see how much of it is a part of you. That is the hardest part. We are so conditioned in our lives that the conditioning has to be moved, and that is a slow process.
When I first encountered Buddhism, I was at a loss about what do I do with the fact that there is no God in Buddhism. But, later, in the sixties when people were exploring psychedelics, I explored them also. And, I got to a place at one point where I felt a merging with the Divine Mind, and there I realized that God was an atheist; God didn’t have a God! When your mind gets out of “two-ness” and into that “one-ness,” there is no God; there is only “I Am That I Am.” So, then, you come to a pivot that flips very fast between “full” and “empty,” “emptiness” and “fullness,” and the questions fall away:
In 1975, I was in Boulder, Colorado teaching at the Naropa Institute9 (then in its second year) when I got the news that my father, of blessed memory, had died. They had taken the body to Israel so there was no point of me sitting shiva,10 doing my mourning, anywhere but Boulder. Before long, the news got around, and all the Buddhists of Jewish families from Naropa came out of the woodwork and helped me to make a minyan so that I could say Kaddish for my father. Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kornfield were among them. And, before I said the first Kaddish, remembering Allen’s poem, Kaddish (a poignant work for me) — I asked him to read Psalm 49. He read what you read in the house of a mourner, “What can you do about death — a brother can’t save you, how could a stranger save you. Everyone, in the end, ‘drops the body’ and goes into the grave; just recognize that what you share with animals is this life and death.” It is really a stark psalm. And, he read it as if he had written it himself. It was very powerful.
Then, I say my first Kaddish and I get to the Aleinu prayer. In the usual translation, a part of this prayer reads, “It is our task to give thanks to the Creator of all, to ascribe greatness to the Lord of Creation, Who has not made us like the Nations of the earth, and has not set us up like the families of humankind. He has not put our part with them, nor our lot with all their masses. For they bow down to emptiness and void and we bow down to the King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.”
But, just then, as I was, saying this prayer after the Kaddish, I saw two tunnels. With one eye, I saw a tunnel going out into the universe where “they bow down to ‘emptiness and void,’” in a Buddhist context, with the Buddhist definitions of Emptiness, shunyata. And, the prayer was no longer saying that they bow down to “vain foolishness,” narishkeiten, to “stupid things,” but to Emptiness in the Buddhist sense. “And we, bow down to the King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” Then, for a moment, these two became one vision for me, and once again took me right back to the center of knowing, “It is there. It isn’t there. It is there. It isn’t there.” I was “out” and couldn’t go further with the prayers for a while, but when I recovered, I finished the prayer with a new understanding, “On that day the Lord will be One and God’s Name will be One.”
I often get asked about the “God issue” in Buddhism. The Buddha called for “noble silence” on certain issues — God and life after death were two of those issues. He was a very practical person. Buddhism does not deny this or that, it just doesn’t discuss certain things. As a teaching, it stresses not knowing. I think this relates to the realm called Ain Sof (“infinite nothingness”) in Judaism.11 Zen training pushes you to the point of constantly letting go of the ideas you have, not “getting rid” of them, just of letting go of the attachments to them.
We have a famous koan12 — “What is life? What is this? What is that?” Then, “What is the source of that?” These push you towards letting go of any kind of concept you might have of “What is that?” You first experience this “nowness,” and then you have to let go of any kind of insight you might have had about it. That is pushing you into Ain Sof, the Infinite Nothingness, into the unknowing. For me, a major revelation of this came when I was working with some Buddhist nuns:
They had been working with me in koan-study, when I heard them talking about a koan in terms of God. And, I found myself thinking, “After all these years of training, they are still talking that way?” Then, the very next thought was, “What arrogance on my part. If I really believed in the state of unknowing, how can I be judging — who am I to be judging?”
That really opened me up and allowed me to work with people.
The only place where the Buddha Shakyamuni really talks about “denial” of God is in terms of himself. He said, “No one should make statues of me because you will start revering me as a kind of god-figure.” So, he put a ban on the creation of images of himself. And, for about 400 years, there were no Buddhist images. But people need those images to make things concrete, so over time, images entered into Buddhism. For us, they are seen as manifestations of qualities. Thus, we have bodhisattvas of love, compassion, and wisdom.They are the representations of aspects of ourselves. I compare them in my studies to the s’firot in kabbalah, they are sacred qualities.13
Kannon, (also called Quan Yin and Avalokiteshvara) the name of the bodhisattva of compassion, literally means, kan, “contemplation,” “concentration,” and on — the sounds of the universe. So Kannon is “contemplation of the sounds of the universe.” Contemplation is becoming, hearing the joys and sufferings of the universe, the “sounds,” and becoming that. This is the bodhisattva of compassion.
So, I don’t see a conflict with Judaism on this issue.
The Sh’ma of Judaism14 — Sh’ma Israel Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, “Hear Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” — is so amazing to me, because in Buddhism, the sutras all start with “Listen,” or, “Thus have I heard.” Many times we change it to, “attention.” “Attention sanga.” Sanga is Israel. And we say it like this, “the absolute is the relative.” This is the message of the Diamond Sutra chanted everyday in Buddhism.
1. The Shekhinah is the Divine Presence.
2. From the early 1960s, Reb Zalman has addressed himself to the masses of disaffected Jews who have found their own religious tradition bereft of spiritual depth in the wake of the Holocaust. He set out to find Jewish youth “where they were,” and to show them depths and options within Judaism previously unavailable to them. His success was based in his liberal acceptance of people exploring alternate paths of spiritual awakening (from LSD to yoga) and his legitimizing of alternate possibilities within Judaism (from rabbinical ordination of women to the acceptance homosexuality), and not least on his making available to them the deepest teachings of Jewish mysticism and meditation.
3. The synagogue or prayer-house.
4. Referring to the Hasidic movement in Judaism, begun by Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov (1698-1760), was a mystical pietist movement focusing on joy in service and the direct experience of spiritual realities.
5. A Zen roshi will shout “katsu!” to bring the students to attention.
6. An early Pali work of Buddhist teaching.
7. The full term is Upaya Kaushalya.
8. See the note prefacing the dialogue.
9. The Naropa Institute was founded in 1974 by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It became Naropa University in the year 2000.
10. Literally meaning, “seven,” for the seven days one is in official mourning.
11. Ain Sof is a technical term for Jewish mysticism, kabbalah, designating the highest reality, God, as Infinite Nothingness, without thing-ness, a reality we cannot “know about.”
12. A koan in Zen refers to a (usually) short statement (often paradoxical) given to a student to meditate upon. Part two of this dialogue with deal with koans in detail.
13. S’firot in the kabbalah are divine attributes which are the archetypes of all modes of existence.
14. The primary creedal statement of Judaism said twice a day by every Jew.