- Fulfilling Mitzvot through the Practice of Lovingkindness and Wisdom
Since it has been more than forty years since I last wrote a paper in comparative religion, I have chosen not to attempt a scholarly paper. Rather, after a biographical sketch, I will discuss examples of Jewish texts that underpin my choice to pursue a path that includes practices drawn from the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, and explain how I plan to teach these practices within traditional Jewish settings.
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a Jewish family that identified with the Conservative movement. When I turned five, I was sent to a modern Orthodox yeshiva. For three and a half hours each morning, first five, then six days a week, I studied a comprehensive Jewish curriculum—taught in modern Hebrew—which included Bible, commentaries, Talmud, history, grammar, and the laws and customs of Ashkenazic Jewry. At fourteen, I left the yeshiva to attend a nondenominational Christian prep school. This seemingly radical change in schools and religious traditions occasioned no significant intellectual conflicts or spiritual anxieties. By fourteen, I sensed that religion was something people were born into; it was one of the cards life dealt you at birth.
My sophomore year at Emory University saw the beginning of my interest in Buddhism. I began to practice Sōtō Zen sitting (zazen), and, in my readings, stumbled upon the koan Mu, which occupied my attention in and out of meditation for several years. I became a religion major and was particularly interested in modern Japanese religions. However, my advisor discouraged me from pursuing this interest in graduate school and suggested I build further on my strong traditional Jewish education, which is how I came to Hebrew Union College in 1972 to pursue a PhD in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies.
It was at that time that I began to practice Transcendental Meditation, and, subsequently, the TM Sidhis program, a practice that took, on average, three hours per day, and four and a half hours on days when I did group practice. Not finding a job teaching Bible led me to library school, after which I returned to Hebrew Union College in 1977 to work as a librarian. I became involved in interfaith community outreach, and lectured, led Bible study groups, and conducted Passover seders at local [End Page 27] churches, toward the goal of enhancing interfaith dialogue and understanding in the community. At this time I was fortunate to become friends with Paul Knitter, then a professor at Xavier University.
In 1997, after twenty-five years of dedicated twice-daily practice, it became clear to me that I was "attached" to my TM meditation program and that this attachment was hindering my growth. I put my TM Sidhis practice aside and went back to zazen. Soon, I became associated with the Dzogchen organization led by Lama Surya Das, and trekchö became my basic practice. As a member of the online "three-year mandala program," I received a cassette-based education in various Tibetan meditation practices, which included my first experiences with visualization, as part of Tara and Machigma practices.
In 2001, I learned of many unfilled requests sent to Hebrew Union College by small congregations asking for students to lead High Holidays services, so I volunteered. For the past ten years, I have served as the High Holidays rabbi at Congregation Tikkun Olam in Woodstock, Illinois. The phrase tikkun olam, often translated as "repairing the world," has become popularized in Jewish culture over the past two decades.
In 2003, a friend sent me a teaching tape by Lama John Makransky on loving-kindness practice. My immediate gut reaction was that everything else I had done for thirty-five years was preparation for this teaching. I attended several courses in which Lama Makransky taught practices to cultivate innate lovingkindness and wisdom, and in 2007 I was privileged to attend the week-long course in which he taught his then forthcoming book Awakening through Love: Unveiling Your Deepest Goodness. Since then, I have attended other courses taught by Makransky under the aegis of the Foundation for Active Compassion. Within the realm of Ati Yoga, I think it...