Dharma - Israeli Style

The following article is from the Winter, 2000 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

by Bhikshuni Thublen Chodron

For the last several years, young Israeli travelers have flooded to India, so much so that one can find Israeli food at most restaurants in Dharamsala. What draws them to India? All young Israelismen and womenmust go into the army, and most find the experience stressful, to say the least. As a result, when their active service ends, many want to enjoy India's pleasures, which often include a meditation course at Tushita Meditation Centre or Goenka's Vipassana Center in Dharamsala, or Root Institute in Bodhgaya. It was young Israelis that I met in India who first invited me to teach the Dharma in Israel in December 1997. Since then, I have returned twice, and another visit is planned for 2000.

Israel is one of the last places I'd ever expected to find myself teaching the Dharma, for a couple of reasons. One is personal: although I was raised Jewish, I have had very little contact with Jews (except for the JuBu'sthe Jewish Buddhistsin Dharamsala) since the mid-seventies. The second is social: I hardly expected the tough Israelis with their strong Jewish identity to be interested in other forms of spiritual practice. But as often happens in life, I was wrong.

What draws Israelis of all ages to investigate the Dharma when they live in a land of many religious traditions? Because Orthodox Jews in Israel have become stronger politically and socially in recent years, many secular Jews feel alienated from their own religion. The Orthodox assert that either one practices their way, or one is not a proper Jew. Most people are not attracted to the Orthodox traditions, and other forms of Judaism, including the esoteric Kabala, although present in Israel, are not prominent. Thus many people find themselves in somewhat of a spiritual vacuum.

Many Israelis are drawn to the Vipassana meditation taught by Goenka, where they are brought back to their own raw physical and mental experiences. Here, they find little ritual and basic teachings free from cultural trappings and religious expressions such as bowing, refuge, and so forth. This is the largest Vipassana group in Israel, although some Insight Meditation Society teachers have also visited and conducted retreats. Other Israelis are drawn to the mindfulness practice of Thich Nhat Hanh, with Thay's gentle and compassionate style of teaching. Others find the teachings on patience, love, and compassion in the Tibetan tradition inspiring.

As a nun in the Tibetan tradition, I talk mostly about those latter topics when teaching in Israel. Israel is a hard country to live inthe people are still in shock from the Holocaust and recent wars. Army life adversely affects them, for at a young age they are faced with violencetheir own and others'and the very real possibility of being killed either in war or by terrorists. In their hearts, Israelis are kind and very much want to live in peace, but fear of being harmed motivates much of their politicsor at least it did until the election this spring. In addition, like most people, they don't understand how patience and compassion can be a viable motivation for correcting injustice or interceding when in harmful situations. This is where the Dharma perspective is so valuable. The teachings on the four immeasurablesequanimity, love, compassion, and joytouch their hearts, and the bodhicitta and thought transformation teachings found in Tibetan Buddhist teachings give them a systematic method to open their hearts.

People want to learn meditation, such as breathing meditation and meditation on patience. However, practices that look more religious, such as prostrations, visualization of the Buddha, and mantra recitation don't initially go down well: Judaism strictly prohibits idol worship and for people new to the Dharma, the sight Of older students and myself bowing in front of the altar with Buddha images pushes buttons. To help them go beyond their preconceptions, I must explain that we are not idol worshipers, that the statues and pictures are to remind us of enlightened qualities and it is to those qualities that we pay respect, not to the material of the statue. It is like carrying a photo of our family when we travel. When we take it out and feelings of affection arise, those feelings aren't directed at the photo, but at the people they represent.

It is easy to misunderstand others' customs if we just look superficially and project our own meanings onto them. For example, during the Jewish delegation's visit to Dharamsala in 1990, the rabbis invited some Tibetan monks who did not speak English to come. The event began with prayers ushering in the Sabbath. Since Jerusalem is west of Dharamsala, the rabbis faced the setting sun as they welcomed the Sabbath through prayers and dancing. Later, we asked the Tibetans how-they liked the event. Why do the Jews worship the sun? they queried.

I also explained that if Tibetans visit the Wailing Wall, the holiest site in Judaism, they could easily think that the Jews were worshiping a wall. The Tibetans might ask, Why do they pray to a wall? Why do people from all over the world fax prayers to be put in niches in a wall? How can a wall protect them from suffering?

But changing symbols can be difficult for people, especially when those people have been persecuted many times and in many places for their symbols. As one man said, At least the Wailing Wall is our idol, not someone else's. However, I found on retreat that Israelis were generally willing to try a visualization meditation at least once, and their own experience of the meditation opens them to seeing its value. After that, they can better understand the discussion about symbols and how they are used in Buddhist practice. And when left to decide for themselves if they would like to learn prostrations as a purification practice, many older students do and find it beneficial.

images

It is easy to misunderstand others' customs if we just look superficially and project our own meanings onto them.

Several fledgling Dharma groups exist in Israel now, and the Tibet support group, Israeli Friends of Tibetan People, is quite active. His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Israel in November 1999, and Dharma books are slowly being translated into Hebrew.

My motivation in going to Israel is not to convert people into Buddhists, but to give them helpful tools that they can use to make their lives happier and their country more peaceful. Along that line, in addition to the regular seminars and retreats open to the public, my Israeli hosts have arranged meetings with a wide variety of people. I have had the opportunity to speak at a hospice, a drug rehab center, a center for the physically challenged, a high school, the university, alternative medicine institutes, a cancer support group and an AIDS support group, in cities, and in kibbutzim. In addition, I try as much as possible to meet people of other faiths, which has included rabbis, a group of Orthodox women, a Muslim Sufi leader, a Bedouin woman, and a Greek Orthodox priest. This has also led me to two moving visits to the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. If this can contribute in some way to world peace, I'm happy. ä_æ

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