In the middle of a Buddhist meditation retreat, my mind filled with a peace I had not known before – completely restful, balanced, alert, joyous peace – and I said, "Baruch Hashem" (Praise God). The next thing I did was say the Hebrew blessing of thanksgiving for having lived long enough, for having been "sustained in life and allowed to reach" that day. The blessings arose spontaneously in my mind. I didn't plan them. My prayer life in those days was a memory rather than a habit, but the blessings felt entirely natural.
These days when students report experiences of their minds free of tension – clear and balanced and peaceful – I usually say something like: "This is great. This is an insight into the third Noble Truth of the Buddha. The end of suffering, an alert and contented mind, is possible, in this very lifetime, remembering your whole story, remembering everyone's whole story. The mind can hold it all – with equanimity, even with joy." I rejoice with them and for them.
I am grateful that I know two vocabularies of response. I think of one as my voice of understanding and the other as the voice of my heart.
One More River
I have discovered that the questions most asked of me by Jews are "how" questions. I am recognized as a Buddhist. I am also – and have become much more open about this part in the last few years – an observant Jew. Not only more open, but also more observant. Because I am a Buddhist. Because I have a meditation practice. So the questions now are: "How did that happen?" "What is your practice?" "Do you pray?" "To whom?" "Why?" "Do you also do metta (lovingkindness) practice?" "When do you do that?" "Why?" "What are your 'observances,' and why do you do them?" "How do you deal with the patriarchal tone of Jewish prayers?" "What is your relationship to the Torah?" "To Buddhist scripture?" Most of all, "How can you be a Buddhist and a Jew?" And, "Can I?"
The answer to the "how" questions requires that I tell my personal story. Certainly not my story as a prescription for anyone else, but to explain how my Buddhism has made me more passionately alive as a Jew. And how my renewed Judaism has made me a better Buddhist teacher.
When I realized the degree of personal exposure that telling my story would require, I became alarmed that I was going to rock the boat. I had been quietly enjoying a private life as a Jew and some new, pleasant recognition as a Buddhist teacher. I had been accepting invitations for some years to teach Jewish groups, and although I had worried initially that they would be hostile about my Buddhism, they weren't. They invited me back. Then I worried about the Buddhists.
"What if the Buddhists get mad at me for not renouncing Judaism?"
Clearly, this was my issue, not anyone else's. No one is mad at me. I've been announcing myself, regularly, at Buddhist teachers' meetings, and it causes no ripple at all. I feel anticipatory alarm, I tell my truth, and it is completely a nonevent.
Recently I was one of twenty-six teachers meeting with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India, to discuss how we are teaching Buddhism in the West. As part of the preparation for our meeting, we each answered the question, "What is the greatest current spiritual challenge in your practice and teaching?"
I thought, "Okay, this is it! These are major teachers in all lineages, these are people I respect and who I hope will respect me." And I said my truth: "I am a Jew. These days I spend a lot of my time teaching Buddhist meditation to Jews. It gives me special pleasure to teach Jews, and sometimes special problems. I feel it's my calling, though, something I'm supposed to do. And I'm worried that someone here will think I'm doing something wrong. Someone will say, 'You're not a real Buddhist!'"
It was another nonevent. I think – I hope – that was the "One Last River to Cross." I never did ask the Dalai Lama if what I'm doing is okay. It had become, for me, a nonquestion by the time we got to our meetings with him.
My particular group discussed "Lay and Monastic Practice in the West," and I did say, "I am a Jew, and monasticism is not part of Jewish tradition." I'm not entirely sure of the context in which I made that remark. It may not have been completely relevant to the discussion. Perhaps it was prompted by my desire to make sure I made my declaration publicly, in Dharamsala to the Dalai Lama, just in case that might emerge later as "one more river."
The three-hour return taxi ride from Dharamsala to Pathankot was occasionally hair-raising. Indian taxis are truly dangerous. Accidents, fatal ones, are common. I was sitting in front with the driver, trying to maintain some composure in the face of many last-minute reprieves. As we passed through one particular section of narrow mountain road, there were a few swerves that brought the taxi very close to the edge.
My friend Jack Kornfield was sitting with Steve Smith and Heinz Roiger in the backseat.
Jack said, "I hope you are saying protection mantras, Sylvia."
I said, "Of course I am."
He said, "Are they Jewish mantras or Buddhist mantras?"
I said, "Both."
Jack laughed. "Good."