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What do Buddhists and Jews Have in Common? A Lot

Taken from my 2014 New Voices article which you can see here:

Judaism and Buddhism. The former is a monotheistic faith built on faith God, the Torah, and the idea of free will. Judaism emerged in the Levant around 3,300 years ago. The latter is a nontheistic and monastic religion that originated in India around 563 BCE. Its tenets are the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who stressed that detachment from suffering is necessary to reach Enlightenment. What could these two religions that emerged at different times, in different places, and under different circumstances possibly have in common? To quote Gabe Weinstein– a lot!

In order to understand their complex relationship, we must first delve into the fundamental question of Buddhism: What is “Suffering”?

Suffering in Buddhism

In Buddhism, there exists a “self” in every being called “Ātman”. Ātman is an essence of things that does not depend on others; it is intrinsic. The non-existence of that is selflessness. Meditation is necessary to neutralize the sense of individuality. Purity is attained when one unites with the impermanent nature of the universe. The world is constantly changing and fluctuating, as are the souls of living things. Resistance to change inevitably leads to suffering.

Buddhism believes in Four Noble Truths about reality:

1.  All life is inevitably sorrowful
2  Sorrow is the result of cravings
3. Sorrow can only end when cravings are stifled, or stopped
4. Careful discipline and moral conduct are necessary to end cravings. This culminates in a life of concentration and meditation, as demonstrated by the Buddhist monks.

Suffering is caused by the attachment to aggregates or cravings. Separation from those things creates selflessness, or Anatta. Salvation occurs when one abandons his or her desires and lets go of the personality/ego/individual. In Buddhism, there are also Five Aggregates:

1.  Form or Matter (Materialism)
2.  Sensation or Feeling
3.  Perception, Cognition, or Discrimination
4.  Mental Formations or Impulses
5.  Consciousness or Discernment

Buddhism overall stresses the abandonment of cravings to attain selflessness. Buddhists follow this creed to reach nirvana, the complete liberation of the self. There are two schools of thought within Buddhism on how nirvana is best achieved:  Theravada Buddhism believes that we must relinquish all cravings to become pure, whereas Mahayana Buddhism believes that it can be attained through discovering the underlying reasons for our attachments, and that we have a duty to help others release themselves from their suffering.

All agree that if we are to overcome our suffering we must first become aware of our cravings. Through discipline and meditation, we can use that awareness to change our attachments to those cravings and ultimately relinquish suffering. Much of Buddha’s emphasis on detaching oneself from the world to achieve Enlightenment runs counter to the teachings of the Torah and the fundamental Jewish concept of free will.

Judaism and Free Will

To understand free will and its relationship to Judaism, look to Deuteronomy chapter 30, verse 15, which communicates God’s gift of choice: “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil.”

According to Rashi (1040-1105 CE), the renowned French rabbi and ubiquitously-referenced Torah commentator, the above verse explains that choices bear tangible consequences: “Each one [life or death,] is dependent upon the other: If you do good, you will be granted life, while if you do evil, you will receive death.” For Jews, then, suffering is the product of bad choices, not cravings. We thus rise and fall under the cumulative weight of our thoughts, words, and actions. Deuteronomy 30:19 explains this concept and its consequences in further detail, as well as God’s preferred choice for God’s chosen people:

“This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life, so that you and your offspring will live.”

Rashi’s commentary for this verse is divided into two parts. In the first part he explains that God called upon the heaven and earth as witnesses because they exist forever and will testify against individuals overtaken by evil, people who have repeatedly made choices causing suffering.

In the second, he explains that, although the choice between good and evil should be a simple one, God wants us to choose life in spite of the numerous alternatives. That decision, in turn, has ramifications that can affect the fate of the world as much as your bloodline (“so that you and your offspring will live”).

Finding Common Identity in Self-Control

In spite of Buddha’s efforts to explain suffering and those of the Jewish people to emphasize free will, many people are unaware of life’s daily existential struggles. In the face of adversity, many of us do not comprehend or respect ourselves as individuals. Consciously or unconsciously, we are caught up in our personal circumstances and, as the influence of selfies suggests, in the ways we project ourselves in public. When we try to assimilate by hiding the undesirable parts of our identity (as individuals and as a culture), we often abandon the qualities that make us unique. We also do things we naturally dislike just to fit into something bigger than ourselves. As we hide behind this mask, we lose ourselves in self-imposed delusions. Such false projected identities can destroy our true selves and leave us feeling manipulated, violated, and worthless. This can be avoided by living an authentic life, breaking away from external sources of identity. In life, we all have roles.Though we often identify ourselves by labels such as interests, locations, nationalities, and professions, these roles are actually separate from the things that truly make us who we are. In order to find our true “selves,” we must break away from tangled labels and false roles. We must also become aware that we have the capacity to make choices through free will, and that these choices have tangible consequences for ourselves and those around us.

According to Buddhism, only by becoming aware of these truths can we follow the Noble Eightfold Path to enlightenment. Its eight steps require wisdom, ethical conduct, and concentration:

1.  Right view
2.  Right intention
3.  Right speech
4.  Right action
5.  Right livelihood
6.  Right effort
7.  Right mindfulness
8.  Right concentration

This Buddhist idea is also a Jewish one (see Tefillin) giving us the responsibility to control our thoughts and actions. Judaism teaches us that we can improve ourselves and our worst circumstances if we take the initiative to change them.

A Fourfold Song

In the 1930s, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) wrote about a Fourfold Song (here split into parts):

1.  The Simple Song—There is one who sings the song of his own life, and in himself he finds everything, his full spiritual satisfaction.
2.  The Twofold Song—There is another who sings the song of his people, Israel. She leaves the circle of his own individual self, because he finds it without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis.
3.  The Threefold Song—There is another who reaches toward more distant realms, and he goes beyond the boundary of his people to sing the song of humanity. He aspires toward humanity’s general goal and looks forward toward their higher perfection. From the source of life he draws the subjects of his meditation and study, his aspiration and his visions.
4.  The Fourfold Song—Then there is one who rises toward wider horizons, until he links himself with all existence, with all God’s creatures, with all worlds, and she sings Israel’s song with all of them. It is of such a one as this that tradition has said that whoever sings a portion of song each day is assured of having a share in the world to come.

When these four songs are sung simultaneously, their combined harmony is an enlightenment greater than the individual songs themselves:

The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of man, the song of the world all merge in [God] at all times, in every hour. And this full comprehensiveness rises to become the song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel, in its full strength and beauty, in its full authenticity and greatness…”

The Buddhist concept of enlightenment relates to its Jewish counterpart—that the person is only spiritually complete if cultivated as an individual (the Simple Song). Only spiritually complete individuals can contribute fully to their people as an appendage of God (the Twofold Song). Some of those spiritually complete individuals might find those contributions unsatisfactory; they devote themselves to all of humankind (the Threefold Song). Those unsatisfied with that devotion link themselves with the world, with the universe, and sing the Fourfold song. Ultimately, as Rabbi Kook wrote, it is the person who simultaneously sings them all who sings the comprehensively holy Song of God, the voice of the Jewish people.

While Buddhists are encouraged to detach themselves from the physical world, the Torah encourages the opposite. Jews believe God has chosen us to engage and ultimately sanctify the physical aspects of the world by taking action. Because all righteous actions are choices, and choice requires thought, we must always think positively about ourselves, our lives, and our roles on earth before we act. As the Nazis proved during the Holocaust, hatred is as much a thought process as it is a rampant cycle of habitual actions.

In light of these revelations, we Jews should cultivate ourselves as individuals along the Eightfold Path, taking responsibility for our choices along the way, protecting our inner holiness from desecration by external forces (such as assimilation and persecution) as much as from erosion by internal ones (such as negative thoughts and deviant urges). Only by attaining fulfillment as individuals can we participate in the Fourfold Symphony of God.

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