Featured Articles

A Jewish Buddhist Refuge Vow

I’ve been practicing meditation since 2004. I’m aware of the major benefits that my practice and study have had on my life, and I feel good about taking refuge in the Three Jewels — the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. For the past few months, I’ve been planning on taking my Buddhist refuge vow this weekend at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York. I felt like I was ready, and that it was the right time.

But with Passover this week, I’ve come down with a serious case of cold feet and am thinking about putting it off, or maybe not doing it, period. I’ve been wishing that Passover were not so close to this refuge vow ceremony — I don’t think I’d be questioning this decision so much if Passover were some other week.

Why? I ask myself. Why should Passover make a difference?

Or rather, why is this week different from all other weeks? (Ha ha. Jews will hopefully get that joke.)

Passover in particular has always meant a lot to me. When I was a kid I used to take over leading the Seder. I even drew my own Haggaddah with crayons, complete with illustrations of the ten plagues. I loved hearing the story of Passover, telling the story, sometimes even putting on a Passover play with my sister. It was a big deal. Even today I love Passover. I love going home to Long Island to celebrate with my dad. I bake macaroons every year. Last year I wrote a personalized Haggaddah for our family to use (because I was bored of the Maxwell House Haggaddah we’d been using for ages), which made me feel more connected to the holiday than ever. 

But really, my memories of Jewish holidays are tied to memories of family togetherness, a time before my parents got divorced, before my sister and mother had cancer. During all that upheaval, we barely ate meals together. When we did, meals were rushed, usually takeout. Or casseroles the neighbors dropped off. We ate off of paper plates. Everyone was tired and busy, understandably so.

But before all that, we lit the Sabbath candles and all sipped a cup of Manischewitz on Friday nights. We tore pieces of fluffy challah bread, and my dad made French toast the next morning with the leftover challah slices. We sang songs. We prepared nice meals and ate them on nice plates. Dipped sliced apples in honey. Sat on the wood floor of the kitchen spinning shrill light-up dreidels. Got dressed up to go to temple. There was a warmth and dignity and comforting familiarity and ritual to it all. It made sense. It was simple. Even on the more serious holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur. It was all so simple, and we were all so happy — at least, that’s how I remember it.

What Passover has stirred up is my fear that if I take my Buddhist refuge vow, that I won’t be Jewish anymore. Teachers have reassured me that you can be both Jewish and Buddhist, that there is no conflict there. But still I’ve been feeling anxious, asking Jewish Buddhist friends questions ranging from “Am I dishonoring my Jewish ancestry?” to “Can I still be buried in a Jewish cemetery?” As if when I die, a rabbi will Google me, find this blog post, and tell my family I can’t be buried in the family plot.

After investigating my feelings further, I finally realized that what I mean by “Jewish” is “connected to happy memories from my childhood, a time when things felt stable.” That is what “Jewish” has always meant to me. Which would explain why my connection to Judaism faded in my teens, even before I started meditating. It wasn’t that I ever left Judaism for Buddhism. It was that I was growing up, and my view of Judaism did not fit in with what was happening around me.

In fact, I spent so much time worrying over the past few days about being a Bad Jew that on the night before Passover I forgot to do two things:

1)    Bake macaroons to bring to my dad’s Passover Seder

2)    Meditate

When I realized this, I laughed. Then I went to the grocery store and bought coconut flakes and sweetened condensed milk and baked macaroons at midnight. Then I meditated.

And I also realized that being Jewish means a heck of a lot more than the idealized view of it that I’ve been holding on to. Regardless of whether or not I take refuge this weekend, maybe it IS time to renounce that old relationship, and let a new relationship to Judaism develop, alongside my relationship to Buddhism. Nothing has to be lost. But a lot more can be discovered.

Vote for this article to appear in the Recommended list.

Comments

cartoon

I'm also reminded of this cartoon I saw once. It was something to the effect of this little old Jewish lady traveling to the Himalayas to meet with this Buddhist hermit who had been living in a cave at the top of a mountain. When she gets there, she says to him: "Melvin, this is your mother. It's time to come home!"

adding on with appreciation for this thoughtful discussion

Hello.

Emily, thanks for this timely post. Karen, thank you for bringing it to my attention (as I'm on the ShambhalaNetwork listserve, too, where there is a themed list: Shambhala Vision, Jewish Practice, Buddhist Practice) . Ethan, thank you for hosting here; I've been mindful of your work, and today just joined this list.

And Nancy, thanks for the review of the meaning of refuge from the Vidyadhara, Trungpa Rinpoche.

I tried to find the text not seen in your post, Nancy, at the link, and didn't see it there either...possibly because Rinpoche's work gets morphed occasionally. But, I'm pretty sure in the original, he includes the suggestion...taking refuge means that...if you're taken to the hospital, and it may be terminal (what brought you there), and you're asked to select the religion....you put: buddhist.

I had occasion to share this story with my rabbi about 3 years ago. I did this because I had been diagnosed with bladder cancer, and was facing just such a sort of consideration. Over the last dozen years, having been affiliated in the Jewish community...as compared to near 40 years with the buddhist community...I found my recent affiliation somewhat stronger, and did call the rabbi...about something or another...I can't really recall what it was. Fact was...although I might have legitimately either signed the hospital form as Jewish or buddhist...my near term "spiritual friend" was a rabbi, really.

This did follow some research. I'd asked a senior student in our Shambhala community, Larry Mermelstein, if it mattered if the body was buried or burned at death. I recall him being curious to know what a lama would say. And, I had the opportunity to query a lama several years ago now in DC. I was able to affirm that....following death, it really didn't matter, burial or cremation...it didn't matter. Following this, I was more at ease to consider that my family (my wife is neither Jewish or buddhist) might find a burial place, consistent with Jewish custom.

Most recently, I have been trying to find where this 57 year old man might target study the integration of things important...at least in these 2 traditions. Ethan...I think I found positive affirmation in your fairly recent webinar on visualization in buddhist practice. I had, as you had, found a natural progression in the use of tonglen in mahayana practice, as a building block for visualization practice. Likewise, what is understood in vajrayana buddhism as normative behavior..to engage in visualization as a part of typical practice...is misunderstood as what I have been trying to argue for several years as a part of Jewish practice.

Fact of the matter is...and one place where something like this may belog is with the folks responsible for the Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion...is that the liklihood is that most of religious practice could be positively tranformed with a better understanding of how visualization practice might assist core practices in all major religions where texts are engaged in liturgy and ritual.

Then again, we probably shouldn't forget the fundamenal value of sitting practice, making an important difference between having our practice being "cranked up" versus authentic.

But, if, as we have it in Jewish practice, we are going ahead and reading texts as the basic part of the main practice..better to be exposed to at least what you might be productively doing, vs. having no idea what you are doing at all. I guess I tried to say as much at a site I've left until I might have some time to update: jewbu.org.

Well, that's a long way to say hello. Many thanks again and hag sameach to everyone celebrating what remains of this special week of passover. More than passover, I DO look forward to Shavuot, where I've found a community that does engage in the practice of staying up all night. It's actually traditional Jewish practice.

Fact is, I don't think it will be easy for any practicing tradition to give "props" to another tradition. But, that is not to say that dialogues like this shouldn't evolve, and border patrols be created to look after where folks are minding the margins. After all, Shambhala itself would seem....inherently...to be concerned with just such spaces. Hopefully this will become apparent to everyone...but it is certainly apparent to me.

Yashar Koach to all, and cheerful dharma practice during Pesach,

Ira Zukerman
DC

Thanks for struggling out loud!

Thank you, Emily, for struggling with these complex issues out loud! They resonate very strongly with me. I know that my own relationship with my faith background has more to do with my personal history (friends, family, food..) than it does to do with any kind of christian dogma. Still, the power of those memories has a lot to do with shaping the present moment for me, and my current encounters with Buddhism. For those sorts of reasons, I don't think I'll ever not be a Seventh-Day Adventist, in some way or other. It's very encouraging to read your story of facing down similar issues with mindfulness and courage.

Thanks

I'm glad it resonated, Kris. Thanks for sharing your struggles here, too. It's reassuring to know that other people are having similar questions.

Respect

Emily, Your questions and struggle are familiar to me. I became involved with Shambhala around 2003/2004 as well, and have been involved and practicing meditation since then. At the same time my Jewish roots led me to explore my family's lineage in a deeper way - resulting in a much more traditional Jewish practice in my life these days (Shabbat, Kashrut, etc) and a continued relationship with my Shambhala Buddhist lineage (I participated in a windhorse retreat this past fall). Like another commentator (Karen) on this thread, I also have thought about taking refuge vows - but have not for several reasons. The first is that I came to the conclusion that although I have a thoroughly Buddhist influenced world view, I came to accept that Judaism was my primary path of practice in this lifetime. In a certain way of thinking, Judaism is my Vajrayana path. This allows for me to understand my Jewish practice in ways that I find focusing and helpful. For example the strictures of the Passover holiday, or Kashrut in general, are ways to increase mindfulness and awareness. The same is true for Shabbat, which is essentially a day long meditation retreat every week. Another thing that may be important to say is that our Jewish lineage has a lot to say about "vows". Of course, vows is an English word - but Judaism takes vows very seriously. An example that may be familiar to you is the prayer that starts off Yom Kippur "Kol Niderae" or "All vows" where we ask forgiveness for those vows that we are not able to keep. Knowing this made me take a deep breath and pause when it came to taking the refuge vows. As you progress along the Buddhist path there will be other hurdles. Prostration practice for example, or Vajrayogini practice. Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself, but it's something I've thought about quite a bit. My conclusion for now is that Judaism (or Yehadut in modern Hebrew or Yahdus in Yiddish which sounds the best to me) has analogs to all of the practices that are provided in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and that until I dig deeper into the lineage I was born to, and find that it is lacking something that Buddhism has, Yahdus will continue to be my core lineage. All that said I continue to find Shambhala inspiring and powerful and I am incredibly grateful that meditation and the Dharma are a part of my life. Good luck! and חג שמח!!!

And to you

Thanks Evan. I like what you said about Shabbat being a day long meditation retreat every week. I think that is a great way to look at it. I haven't ever observed it that way (busy New Yorker that I am, haha), but it would be great to try. Happy Passover to you. I hope you're enjoying some matzah :)

Well

Well done, lady. You pulled it off big time.

Paul

Couldn't have written this

Couldn't have written this without your encouragement, Paul. Thank you, friend <3

Been there, not done that

Dear Emily,

I came THIS CLOSE to taking Buddhist refuge vows with Judy Lief, who I admire & respect...all the conditions seemed coincidentally conducive...but when I got into the final interview, I realized that taking refuge in Buddhism was taking on a cultural religious tradition (which has its own history and integrity) and claiming it as my main or even my only refuge. I decided to go eat lunch instead. (And the Jewish humor in this choice has always leavened [!] the memory of this moment, which otherwise felt fraught and intense with import.) The Shambhala framework, as Trungpa outlined it, has always seemed to me to be more welcoming -- I think the Sakyong is emphasizing it now (& even offering Shambhala vows as analogues to the Buddhist ones!) because it opens the doors more deliberately to people of all upbringings, with fewer of the conflictual worries that you're talking about. The Daiai Lama insists he's not trying to make people become Buddhists; Trungpa encouraged people to explore their religions and cultural traditions of origin. Yet there's still this idea that if you study & appreciate Buddhism, taking vows is sort of an automatic next step. At least, I've wrestled with that myself (especially given that the changes in the "Shambhala Buddhist" curriculum now require refuge vows in order for students to move forward, at moments where they didn't used to be required before). I keep wrestling (and think it's cool that the word "Israelites" means "those who wrestle with God), trying to find peaceful ways for the two traditions to coexist in my mind/heart. One way has been to think about God non-theistically, and otherwise to reinterpret Jewish liturgical ideas in terms of frameworks that feel sensible to me from Shambhala. (It turns out that this way of thinking is not foreign at all to Judaism -- it just depends where you look.) And another is to agitate for a greater awareness of the diversity of religious communities of origin, within the Shambhala/Buddhist community -- not many members were brought up with meditation as a family practice, and I think it's odd to act as if religious backgrounds have no bearing on what happens after we walk through the Torii gate. (Even if a particular person isn't interested in exploring the richness of religious heritage, there's the question of how one's original exposure to religion & spirituality affect one's interaction with what one finds in Buddhism & meditation altogether.) This is super-long, but it's really important to me, & I'd like to direct you to a group on the Shambhala community website that is for discussing Ju-Bu stuff, plus I have a blog which is, as of right now, no longer such a secret. :-)

It is Passover. You are free! You can choose absolutely as you wish. One practitioner told me, years ago, that the vows are about committing to your own one true path, meaning your absolutely unique way through the Buddhist path. (I didn't buy it, actually -- it seems a bit tricky, & I think the refuge vows imply individual commitments to a common Buddhist path -- but I think that our own lives involve finding our true paths nonetheless.)

I'm getting a bit convoluted here, at the end, because I have no real conclusion myself. :-) But I've been walking on this path for a while, & I'd be happy to meet up & chat sometime if you'd like to chew on it together.

Love,
Karen

Karen, thank you so much for

Karen, thank you so much for this incredibly thoughtful reply! Lots to consider.

Respectfully

I disagree with this definition of what it means to take refuge. Too bad if it was presented that way.

If you read Chogyam Rungpa on refuge

"When we take refuge we commit ourselves to the Buddhist path. This is not only a simple but also an extremely economical approach. Henceforth we will be on the particular path that was strategized, designed, and well thought-out twenty-five hundred years ago by the Buddha and the followers of his teaching. There is already a pattern and a tradition; there is already a discipline. We no longer have to run after that person or this person. We no longer have to compare our lifestyle with anybody else's. Once we take this step, we have no alternatives; there is no longer the entertainment of indulging in so-called freedom. We take a definite vow to enter a discipline of choicelessness—which saves us a lot of money, a lot of energy, and lots and lots of superfluous thinking.

...
So taking refuge is a landmark of becoming a Buddhist, a nontheist. You no longer have to make sacrifices in somebody else's name, trying to get yourself saved or to earn redemption. You no longer have to push yourself overboard so that you will be smiled at by that guy who watches us, the old man with the beard. As far as Buddhists are concerned, the sky is blue and the grass is green—in the summer, of course. As far as Buddhists are concerned, human beings are very important and they have never been condemned—except by their own confusion, which is understandable. If nobody shows you a path, any kind of path, you're going to be confused. That is not your fault. But now you are being shown the path and you are beginning to work with a particular teacher. And at this point nobody is confused. You are what you are, the teachings are what they are, and I am what I am—a preceptor to ordain you as Buddhist persons.

...
The discipline of taking refuge in the buddha, the dharma and the sangha is something more than a doctrinal or ritual thing: you are being physically infected with commitment to the buddhadharma; Buddhism is transmitted into your system. At that particular point, the energy, the power, and the blessing of basic sanity that has existed in the lineage for twenty-five hundred years, in an unbroken tradition and discipline from the time of Buddha, enters your system, and you finally become a full-fledged follower of buddhadharma. You are a living future buddha at that point."

http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=2417

Also

Refuge vows are NOT AT ALL any requirement for moving along the Shambhala Path. 

The new vows are the Shambhala and the Enlightened Society Vows. They are the required ones for Shambhala.

Oh! Please say more...

I'm happy to learn that I don't know the whole story...I thought that Buddhist vows were required to, for instance, become a Director (and maybe even an MI).  Maybe a more complete way to ask this is:  is there any point in the path now where Buddhist vows are required (as distinct from Shambhala vows)?

Mmmm...I think it was Werma.

I am vaguely remembering that Werma practice used to be accessible from along a Shambhala-only path, and now one gets to it through Vajrayana first?  But I am just going on a whiff of memory...

That used to be true

As I understand on the refuge vows and bodhisattva vows in traditional Tibetan Buddhism will always be offered in the Shambhala tradition, but the commitments required to go further along the path are and will become the Shambhala specific - the Shambhala and enlightened society vows. So we will offer EVERYTHING, but only Shambhala and Enlightened Society are required for the tantric practices such as Werma.

It depends on who's offering the vows, but I strongly believe that becoming Buddhist by taking refuge does not necessitate laying down another tradition. It is a commitment to practicing Buddhism, and taking responsibility for one's own awaking (hence the nontheism). I am not sure why it has to be viewed as a comparison at all. I remain firm in my belief that Buddhism is NOT (or does not have to be) a religious designation in the "choose one" category. It may push one to deepen one's relationship to Judaism, but no one should feel that becoming Buddhist formally means "unbecoming" Jewish or anything else. As long as you realize that no one is going to save you from your own path to awakening. That part seems key.

Striving for subtle distinctions, which may or may not be useful

So...something about my particular refuge vow interview inspired me to see the ceremony as being a formal doorway into (Tibetan) Buddhism as a specific tradition (whether one calls it religious or not), and not just a declaration of my commitment to a path of meditation as a practice of awakening.  Was this delusion?  I thought it was an important recognition of the integrity and history of the (Tibetan) Buddhist path, as its own thing, distinct from Shambhala, for instance -- if they were really the same, there would be no reason for having Buddhist vow ceremonies -- and distinct from the studies & practices of Judaism.  While both may manifest a Buddhisty view, they use different symbolic imagery and cultural language to activate it.  I(t) also felt like the vows would be a recognition of my wish to build a lifelong relationship with that culturally specific (Tibetan) Buddhist heritage of practice and study.  This isn't necessarily exclusive, but I gathered that it would help if it were (see Nancy's post quoting Trungpa).  Coming closer to the ceremony helped me realize that I understand Jewish and Buddhist/Shambhala views in terms of each other.  So I figure my path is an in-between one, braided (like challah? :-).  But I worry that it is unwise to think of it this way, because there is beneficial (perhaps essential) humility in walking along an established, predetermined path.

I think of the vows as acknowledgements of wholeheartedness as well as lifelong commitment.  I'm equating wholeheartedness with exclusivity (as if it were a monogamous relationship or marriage).  That kind of devotion can certainly deepen the relationship to a dharma tradition (as it can to a person)...and if the vow isn't about deepening the relationship to a specific set of teachings, if one foot is out...why do it?  I have the sense that Shambhala vows aim more toward committing to awakening as such.  Or maybe the differences are just semantic, & I'm more confused than I know.

Again it's all about interpretation

It is definitely a commitment to studying and practicing Buddhist principles for the rest of one's life. How this integrates with other things we do is a matter of interpretation. I believe it's up to each individual to make that integration very personally. 

Again, I think it's possible to "take up" or take refuge in the 3 jewels without rejecting other traditions. It all depends on view. What actual practices we engage in is a matter of practicality and time management.

I don't think the term JewBu would be so omnipresent if this dilemma wasn't resolvable, though. :)

Maybe this helps?

I don't know if these are helpful, but they seem to be from the Shambhala website:

Shambhala Vow
Enlightened Society Vow

Something I had to look up:

Drala Principle
Sakyong Wangmo

Stuff about Shambhala:

Wikipedia

The videos on the Sakyong Wangmo seem to clarify for me where the Shambhala lineage tends--definitely toward ritual and chanting and guru honoring--from what I've gathered, this is particular to Tibetan and Tantric Buddhism, though I only have a few measly years of study and may be not entirely correct.

Not for me, but the stuff that comes before the ritual and Tibetan stuff was (is) very worthwhile for me.

synchroncity

searching for info about nancy's comment on "mark of refuge", this article from our blog appeared in the google search!

http://theidproject.org/blog/jerry-kolber/2010/12/21/refusing-refuge-vows

also Hipster Buddhist

interesting

it's interesting that the two people who've written for the IDP blog about struggling with the vow are Jewish, and that the term JewBu is recognizable. I've known some very active Catholics who follow a Buddhist path (Thich Nhat Hahn writes a lot about the parallels between Buddhist and Catholic theology), but there's no CatBus. I have fond memories of my ethnic Catholic Easter traditions, and I am, on some deep level, culturally Catholic, although not practicing, but I never felt any conflict between that and refuge. I probably haven't told my mom, the Eucharistic minister, but I'm not hiding it. she knows I'm Buddhist.

interesting...yet not thoroughly surprising

JewBu has such a great rhyme!  :-)  But seriously, I think it has become a recognizable term in part because of numbers -- American Buddhist sanghas are statistically well-peopled with practitioners who were born into Jewish lineages.  So the term is a funny way to acknowledge this identity category.  The Wikipedia entry for it shows that there are many definitions (& spellings) of JuBu...a subject for proto-Talmudic disputation?  ;-)  Also, I think there's something compelling (& potentially more confusing) when the identity category gets connected to genetic coding (which it isn't always, necessarily -- you can be a Jew by choice -- but being part of a religious tradition by birth is a circumstance that doesn't apply in the same way to any of the other groups we've named) -- how can/must I be accountable for a tradition I didn't ask for?  Especially one that has such a campaign to keep its members?  And what if I don't like everything about it, anyway?  I think that the "BuJu" phenom is in part an attempt to gloss over some real (and sometimes troubling & difficult) existential questions with humor, especially when it feels like there's some sort of unresolveable conundrum.  Might as well chuckle at the basic absurdity of the categories & history & stuff we humans cook up.  :-)  (Funny, too:  the terms allows for it all to be light & absurd while still being somehow on the table...)

I can't speak for any other

I can't speak for any other JewBu's, but I think part of the struggle I'm having is that because of the history of persecution of the Jewish people, I feel it is important for me to help carry on the lineage of my ancestors. That's just something that I think gets ingrained in Jewish kids in our religious education (if you go to Hebrew school or study for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.) That throughout history so many people have tried to eradicate Jews that it's up to us to keep the traditions alive. If we take our freedom to be Jewish for granted, we may not have it one day. (I'm not saying this is entirely rational, but it is deeply emotional.) 

makes sense

thanks, EMily

CatBu!

I guess if I follow my Dad's line, I'm a JewBu.

If I follow my Mom's, I'm a MethBu. Wait, that doesn't sound right. :)

BUUdhist

as I'm now a Unitarian Universalit Buddhist, I am a BUUdhist. but I think MethBu wins the best title.

MethBu

When are we going to start a show called "Breaking Bad Buddhist." ?

Tweeting this one!

That's how I show my compliments to the author!

Beautiful post

thank you for sharing. it's interesting to look at how memories shape our perception of who we are now.
You don't have to give up anything to take refuge in the Three Jewels, just commit to looking more closely at the true meaning of your identities.
Nancy
PS They do talk about a "mark of refuge," though. Mine is a tattoo of a lotus.

very thoughtful post

I took my Refuge Vows without question, and a few years later was offered the Lay Vows (Five Precepts) and really hesitated about whether or not I was truly ready to commit to them. Ven. Robina urged us not to take them or not to take any of them that we weren't ready for, and I was surprised she didn't think we "should" or "shouldn't" do anything at all. It enabled me to look deeper and a bit more clearly at my choices. (I only took four of the five vows, BTW).

Your consideration and exploration of this decision, and your desire to understand your intentions and motivations, inspire and remind me to do the same in all situations. Whether you take vows or not, you're using Buddhism for the highest motivation; to understand your mind and your heart. Thank you!

Thank you, Kim. That is very

Thank you, Kim. That is very reassuring! I really would love to hear Ven. Robina speak. Will she be coming back to IDP this year?

letting go and new beginning each moment

Thank you for the wonderful offering Emily,

i'm reminded that everything changes. Identity can seem very solid sometimes; the flow of discovery in each moment is a new relationship to ourselves and others.

many bows,
Joren

new beginning each moment

Thank you for your words of encouragement, Joren!

Site developed by the IDP and Genalo Designs.