Beside Still Waters - Selections
It’s a No-Karma Event
by Sylvia Boorstein
It was a Sunday afternoon in 1993, at the last session of a five-day conference where seventy or so Western Buddhist teachers had discussed a wide range of topics related to teaching Buddhism and Buddhist meditation in America. The final question we were all asked to respond to—each of us, going around in turn in a circle, in not more than one minute per response—was “What do you, personally, want to say about your own experience as a practitioner? What has your practice done for you?”
I was seated halfway around the circle from where it began, so I had some time to wonder, and maybe even worry, about what I would say, but the man sitting just to my right set me up for a response like a volleyball shot. I couldn’t not hit it. He said, “I feel so grateful for my meditation practice, and for the Dharma, the Buddha’s teachings. I love my work as director of a Buddhist peace organization. I consider myself so lucky. I often think, ‘I started out a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn, and here I am now….’” Then I said, “I also am very grateful for my meditation practice. And for the Dharma. It changed my life. I also consider myself lucky. And I also started out a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, and I still am one.”
I had imagined my “confession” would be noticed. No one had ever, in all of my practice years, suggested that I would need to repudiate Judaism in order to continue serious practice, or even to become a teacher, but I thought I might be challenged about whether I was a “real” enough Buddhist teacher. Perhaps my concern came from so often hearing my Buddhist friends contrasting what they remembered as the unsatisfactory religious education of their childhood to their adult Buddhist meditation practice, saying things like “Dharma makes sense!” Perhaps I thought I’d be called upon to prove that being a Jew made sense.
The next day I phoned my friend and teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and told him the story of my “coming out.” I said, “The surprise was that no one said anything at all. It seemed singularly non-noteworthy.” He replied, “That’s because you are clear about who you are. That made it a no-karma event. It left no trace.”
It’s not true that over the years of my teaching there have never been any questions about the “two religions” issue. Mostly they are questions from new students. “How can you be both a Jew and a Buddhist?” “Do you pray?” “To whom do you pray?” “In what language?” “Do you believe in God?” “If you recite Buddhist Refuges doesn’t that automatically make you a Buddhist?” “Do you bow to images of the Buddha?” Since I am more comfortable now than I was ten years ago about who I am and what I do, the questions seem reasonable—the reflections of normal curiosity and sometimes of concern (Is this syncretism?)—and I don’t mind giving direct answers. I will do so, in this chapter, later on. But I’d like to tell my story first, because I think it’s more important. It’s the story that answers the questions that were asked on that long-ago Sunday afternoon: “What has been your experience with practice? What has it done for you?”
Here is my story: I was born in 1936. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a traditionally observant Jewish three-generation household. My parents—college-educated, politically liberal, passionate Zionists—attended synagogue services only on special holidays but respected the kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) of my grandmother, who lived with us and who did the cooking. I was an only child and only grandchild. My parents enrolled me in an everyday-after-school folkschule, where I learned to read and write Yiddish (which we spoke interchangeably with English at home) and sang songs in Yiddish and in Hebrew—courageous songs of partisans in the Warsaw ghetto and patriotic songs of Zionist pioneers in Palestine. I also went to a Zionist summer camp. I loved the folkschule. I loved the summers at camp. I still remember the words of the songs we sang.
I also went regularly with my parents to the Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood where we all ate Lobster Cantonese. Lobster isn’t kosher, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. And my mother lit candles every Friday evening. The family Seder (Passover meal) was always at our house. We changed all the dishes for Passover, the whole family helping to wrap the regular dishes in newspaper and unwrap the Pesach plates (special dishes used only for that eight-day period). Then my father rolled the barrel of wrapped plates down the stairs and into the garage. I spent every Saturday morning with my grandmother at the East Third Street Shul (synagogue), and I loved that too. I had, throughout my childhood and adolescence, an intermittent (and secret) prayer life, but I didn’t think of it as an expression of my Judaism. It was an expression of me. Being a Jew was something I just was, part of a clan. My parents liked the clan, and I did too.
I grew up. I went to college. I married a man from a nominally more observant, intellectually less liberal family, and we moved together to Kansas, where we joined a synagogue (because joining a new congregation was like getting a new dentist—something you just did when you moved to a new town), abandoned (with practically no discussion) our kashrut practice, and without a second thought took jobs that required that we work on Saturdays. And we both taught Sunday school in our new congregation every week.
Twenty years later, in 1977, I attended my first mindfulness retreat. By that time, I’d been living in California for fifteen years, and I had four children, a doctorate in psychology, and a full-time psychotherapy practice. I’d been very active in peace organizations during the 1960s, and had anyone asked then about my “spiritual path” I might have described it as social action…if I had understood the question. I was a member of the local Reform congregation, but my membership was, again, something I did because I lived in the community. I somehow always remembered when it was Friday, and I always lit Sabbath candles, but religion was not central to my life.
In the 1970s, my friends began to talk about “altered states of consciousness” and “the mind/body connection” and “spirituality.” Herbert Benson had written The Relaxation Response about Transcendental Meditation (T.M.); the Beatles had become followers of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; and Richard Alpert left his teaching position at Harvard, took on the name Baba Ram Dass given to him by his guru in India, and wrote Be Here Now, which became a counterculture bestseller. Meditation was in.
Benson, in his book, had minimized the religious roots of T.M. and had emphasized the health benefits—such as lowered blood pressure and stress-reduction—of meditation. Ram Dass talked about freedom, liberation, Enlightenment. And there was the promise of special “powers” that came from meditating—E.S.P. (extra-sensory perception), telekinesis (being able to physically move items just by thinking about them), miracle cures. There were conferences—I attended several—at which presenters did amazing things like starting stopped watches, bending spoons by willing it to happen, and sticking pins, even large pins, into and sometimes through their arms to show that they felt no pain. The conferences were called “The Mind Can Do Anything” conferences. Those were heady times. We were excited about what seemed like an amazing breakthrough in consciousness.
I went on my first mindfulness retreat because my husband, returning from his own first retreat experience, told me, “This is great, Syl. You’ll love it.” I did not want special powers. My blood pressure was fine. I wasn’t looking for a new religion. I was anxious, however, experiencing an intensification of my lifelong habit of fear—a condition I imagined was related to my increasing awareness, as my children began to grow into their adult lives, of how fast life moves along and how fragile and tenuous were all of my connections to everything I loved. I was also feeling depressed and more or less resigned to the fact that I would live out my life navigating between bouts of morbid anxiety and my dependence upon wonderful things happening between those bouts to sustain me. I didn’t imagine I could be any different.
Little did I know. Two things happened at that first fourteen-day retreat that I think committed me to a life of mindfulness meditation practice. The first was listening to my teachers talk about Dharma, what the Buddha taught. It was a great relief to me to hear, presented as the main subject for consideration, the fact that life is difficult. By its very nature. That one of the chief difficulties is its fragility. That it is true— just as I had been thinking, and lamenting—that all of the connections on which my happiness is based are temporal, tenuous, subject to change. And it certainly felt true, as part of my experience, that struggling to have things be different from how they are was the cause of my suffering. I’d known that before, but the idea that I might change my habit of struggling—that was new. Here were teachers who said that practicing mindfulness—paying attention, continuously and calmly—could change habits of mind. They promised that mindfulness—seeing things clearly, in the moment, without struggle—would establish peace of mind, the end of suffering. Although at the time I didn’t understand how the instructions for meditation related to seeing everything clearly, and I had a headache for most of the two weeks I was on that retreat, I felt hopeful.
The second important event of that retreat happened on the last night, after we had ended retreat silence, when I phoned my husband in California to confirm my travel plans for the next day. In the course of the conversation he needed to tell me that my father, then only sixty-five years old and in otherwise fine health, had been diagnosed with an incurable cancer. I loved my father a lot. He lived near us. I spent time with him almost every day. I felt terribly sad when I heard the news. But I did not feel demolished. I had not thought, prior to that moment, that the two weeks of meditating had “done anything” for me. Mostly I’d been sleepy, or confused, or my body had hurt. I’d hung in from 5:30 in the morning until 10:00 at night, steadfastly moving my body through the alternating rounds of sitting and walking meditation that made up a continuous schedule interrupted only by meals. I’d persevered, encouraged by the message of the teachings, and also because I am by nature diligent at whatever I set about doing. I realized, in the moment of that phone call, that not feeling demolished by alarming news was a new experience for me, and that the thought “I am so sad, but somehow we’ll manage” was a new thought. I did not, in that moment, say, “I am beginning, right now, a life of practice.” But I did.
Two big changes have happened to me over the years of my mindfulness practice. The first is that my habit of worrying has been very much diminished. It’s not altogether gone; I think it is too much a part of my biology to disappear completely. But it’s mostly gone. Enough gone to be a great relief. And, when the habit starts, I recognize it as a habit. I’m less likely to take it seriously. And I’m reasonably compassionate with myself in my suffering. Paying attention, mindfulness, at least attenuates habits, and it certainly changes responses to habits.
Also, I’m happier. I’m happier in part, I suppose, because I’m less stressed. I’m also happier—and I’m sure this is from paying attention— because life itself looks more interesting to me. I notice, quite apart from the idiosyncratic ways in which my particular life unfolds, the ways in which life is continually unfolding, and I keep being amazed.
I think of my own calmer nervous system and happier mood as generic benefits of mindfulness. It happens to most dedicated practitioners. (For those people whose principal hindrance might not be worrying but instead perhaps anger or lust, for example, those habits lessen for them.) The second big change was the arising in me—quite spontaneously and without my wishing it—of an impulse to begin religious practice as a Jew. This happened incrementally, over time.
I noticed, to begin with, that I was saying blessings. It started with blessings of thanksgiving for the experience of a genuinely peaceful mind. Then I discovered that I was saying a blessing of thanksgiving for having awakened again each morning. And blessings of gratitude as I began to eat. They were blessings that I remembered from my childhood but had not said in many, many years. Then I noticed that I was remembering both my parents daily, by saying the Kaddish prayer for each. Had I been following traditional observance at the time, this is something I would have done in the year following each of their deaths. On retreat, I began to recite from memory liturgy that I recalled from my childhood, or perhaps from my inconsistent synagogue attendance as an adult. This reciting pleased me and also settled my mind. I realized that the very saying of prayers, in a dedicated way, was a concentration practice, and the fact that I liked what I was saying made it all the better.
Then, for some period of years, my meditation practice, especially on retreat, was characterized by unusual, and often strong, energy sensations in my body. I’d feel filled with light, as if light were radiating from me, and I would think: And God said, “Let there be light!” Or I would feel my ability to think dissolving, “washed away” in a torrent of energy, and afterward as I remembered the experience, I would think: That was the Flood .As different energy states came and went, and as I realized that my spontaneous way of labeling them was with captions for scripture stories, I began to imagine that I was having the same energetic experiences that serious meditators everywhere have, and that the people who wrote the scripture stories had been people like me, long ago, sitting alone, meditating, and creating a narrative that people could relate to, to communicate their experience. I thought, Taoists who had this experience I am having of being divided down the middle probably imagined the yin/yang interplay of dark and light, form and inverse form. If I were a Taoist, I would be thinking that these experiences I am having are yin/yang images. I am remembering the Adam and Eve story because I am a Jew.
I began, over the next several years, to read scripture, now as an adult. By and by, I synchronized myself with what I knew was the parshah (weekly Torah reading), and sometime later I joined a Conservative congregation, the nearest one to my home, where I now attend services regularly. I became, once again, kashrut observant. It just all happened. Really, it came from being mindful, from paying attention to what I needed to do next, to what felt meaningful.
So, the answers to the questions:
- It isn’t, for me, about being a Jew or a Buddhist, or a Jew and a Buddhist. It’s about being a person paying attention to what works for me to keep my mind and heart peaceful, my life meaningful.
- I do pray.
- I generally do not think about a “to whom” when I pray. Prayer, when it is happening, is what my heart feels like doing. And, when I do feel that my prayers are directed, it is the connection that feels good to me, and I don’t think about “to whom.”
- My communal, liturgical life is primarily in Hebrew. I understand what I am saying. I don’t speak Hebrew well, though, so English is the language of my spontaneous prayer life. Saying metta, prayers for the well-being of all beings, is part of Buddhist practice. I have a practice of saying metta prayers. I say them in English.
- I trust that it is a lawful cosmos and that the inherent nature of the human heart is goodness. I think of the noblest capacities of human beings as God-given attributes.
- I think of the formal Refuges (“I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha”), which I teach as a Buddhist teacher, as being that tradition’s way of reaffirming the ability of human beings to live compassionate, caring, peaceful, happy lives. I am happy to honor that tradition.
- I do not have a bowing practice.
Every year in February, I teach—along with several of my Buddhist teaching colleagues—a month-long mindfulness retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Each of the teachers takes one day a week away from the center. I leave on Friday afternoon and come back on Sunday morning. Last February, one of the retreat managers tacked a neatly folded note for me on the message board: “Congregation Beth Ami called. They just wanted to be sure you remember you’re reading Torah this Saturday. And, do you know which chapters?” I laughed when I read this and thought, “This is a completely no-karma event!”
How to cite this document:
© Harold Kasimow, John P. Keenan, and Linda Klepinger Keenan, Beside Still Waters (Wisdom Publications, 2003)
Beside Still Waters by Harold Kasimow, John P. Keenan, and Linda Klepinger Keenan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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