For a Jewish, middle class, Montrealer, I've spent a lot of my life in the company of the Buddha.
When I was three years old, my parents embarked on an exodus across the Middle East and Asia. Bohemian, non-conformist and free-spirited, they travelled across eight countries over the course of a year in a VW van with my brothers and me in tow.
This trip changed the trajectory of my life. About 15 years later, I immersed myself in the study of Asian religion and philosophy at university. I aspired to become a professor. Despite six years of higher education, including a post-graduate fellowship in Asia, academia was not my destiny. But this has not changed one life-altering fact: I have had an 18-year on-again, off-again relationship with the Buddha. He's been by my side during the ups and downs. I never practiced Buddhism, but I have been a student of the religion for half my life.
My formal relationship with Buddhism began at McGill University. On my first day, socializing in the student lounge, I struck up a conversation with a PhD candidate in Asian religions. We were discussing what drove us to dedicate our degrees to something so impractical and esoteric. She told me it was an academic exercise. I explained I was learning it for life. And then, as though taking a pin and pricking it in a balloon, she said, "Don't expect to walk away from this changed. You won't." I fell silent.
This article is my long overdue comeback to that doctoral student (now a professor, I think), and my humble offering to you. Contrary to the PhD student's point, I did learn transformational lessons from the Buddha that I have applied to my life. I share them here in the hope that maybe you will be touched by the wisdom too.
1. Be curious, not complacent. The historical Buddha was a Prince named Siddhartha Gautama. His father sheltered him from human suffering until the age of 29. When Siddhartha escaped the confines of the palace walls, he encountered -- for the first time -- an old man, then a sick man, then a corpse. The stark realities of the real world -- of aging, disease and death -- sickened the Prince and inspired his quest for awakening. The takeaway? Comfort will never set the world on fire. Curiosity might.
2. Let it go. No one waltzes through life without enduring pain and pitfalls. Buddhism had its earliest roots in a desire to annihilate the reality of suffering. I adopted the mantra, Buddhist detachment, as a form of passive resistance to when life throws me lemons. Please do not confuse Buddhist detachment with becoming numb, cold or uncaring. Au contraire! My mantra is a way to cultivate an attitude of mindful non-attachment without sacrificing heart -- more on this in point #4. When you realize every reaction, thought, object and situation is temporary, you can more easily let it go. Clinging, the Buddha taught, is a foolproof recipe for unhappiness.
3. Differences are illusory. It does not matter if you are Buddhist or Jewish, female or male, rich or poor, "us" or "them," we are all one. The Buddha used the image of two bundles of reeds leaning against each other to explain this dynamic. The reeds can only remain standing as long as they are propped up against each other. If one bundle is removed, the other will fall. All people and things are mutually supporting and interconnected. As the 13th century Buddhist monk Nichiren wrote, "If you light a lamp for another, your own way will be lit."
4. Start a revolution in your heart. Given our interconnectedness, compassion is a natural consequence. In Buddhism, the highest embodiment of compassion is the bodhisattva, a being who stands at the threshold of enlightenment, but who turns back until all other sentient beings have realized enlightenment too. I have been obsessed with this concept since I learned it in graduate school. The bodhisattva teaches us to strive to be radically kind. The best way to overcome selfishness, loneliness, isolation and suffering -- according to Buddhism -- is to focus on the needs of others. Be like the bodhisattva -- or at least try.
5. Nurture your nature. Soon after the Buddha's Enlightenment, he had a vision in which he saw humanity as a bed of lotus flowers. Some of the flowers were immersed in mud, some were emerging, and others were at the point of luminously blooming. Our potential -- like the lotus -- is to rise above the murk to achieve a state of unparalleled purity. The world is filled with suffering -- or mud in this metaphor -- but in cultivating wisdom and compassion -- you can connect to what Buddhism calls your Buddha-nature. The point is that everyone can become a Buddha!
It is a fact of the human condition that we're attracted to that which is foreign and exotic. I used to joke that I know more about Buddhism and Hinduism than I do about Judaism. I'm not alone. By the 1970s, there were enough Jewish Buddhists in America for Allen Ginsberg's guru, Chogyan Trungpa, to talk about inaugurating the Oy Vey school of Meditation. Today, it is estimated that 30 per cent of all Western Buddhists are of Jewish heritage.
As David M. Bader, author of Haikus for Jews, writes: "The Journey of a thousand miles begins with a single Oy." After my 18 year immersion in the study of Asian religion, I have been experiencing a renaissance in my own faith. I do not know where my new Jewish journey will take me, but I do know that I have learned enough along the way to realize that learning is never purely an intellectual exercise. The more I learn, the deeper I understand the imperative to get outside my head and into my heart.
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