Nigatsu-do temple in Nara, Japan, Ink on paper, 2006 © Rami Avraham Efal

Walking in Each-other’s Temples

Conversations on Buddhism & Judaism, Cultural Humility, Universalism & Ancestry, and the Sense of Choice in Lineage and Heritage

The painting at the top was painted at one of the oldest wooden temples in Nara Japan, in 2006. I was traveling across the country for six weeks to explore Zen Buddhism and to research a graphic novel I was writing and drawing, the Lantern and the Wave.

After losing my camera, I was drawing and painting incessantly to keep an imprint of my travels. I was stopped dead in my tracks at a joining of outdoor hallways at Nigatsu-dō temple (二月堂, “The Hall of the Second Month”) in the city of Nara, home of the oldest wooden Buddhist temples in the world. My senses were overwhelmed by the convergences of perspectives — the vanishing points (an architectural/draftsmanship term used for the point at which receding parallel lines viewed in perspective appear to converge) describing each hallway, staircase, deck, balcony — vanishing points that, geometrically and categorically, all rest on one horizon. I took out my brush and pad and painted. I took a deep breath and leaned into this sense of overwhelm, of complexity. Join me.

As a practitioner of Buddhism since 2005 and at one time recognized as a dharma holder in Bernie Glassman’s Zen Peacemakers lineage, I have been in an ongoing conversation with this adopted spiritual lineage and practice; how I show up in Buddhist circles; how I offer teachings, and how I relate to art I create that was inspired by Buddhist and Asian cultures. How do I visit a temple? When does it become my own? Is there such thing as a ‘right’ to which a temple I can gain entry? In essence, this entire article is exploring karma — a particular expression, me and mine, as expression of infinity.

To add more converging lines of context, I write this in English, an assimilated language for me that affects the shape and tethering of my thoughts. It is also a partial response to a local, American-centered “woke” intersectional discourse of power dynamics and identity politics. In the tantric practice of transmuting poisons, this is a conscious dive into an exploration of such identities and narratives, to find space, add space, and inquire into their ultimately unfixed nature. It envelopes my Hebrew ancestral heritage & Israeli upbringing, the ongoing cross-cultural bearing witness practice that I inherited from Bernie, deep ecumenist Judaism as taught by Rabbi Zalman Schecter Shalomi z”l, personal counter-racist efforts as a US citizen, counter-colonialist efforts as a white European descendant of Israeli nationality, and as a practitioner of Buddhist teachings.

The Buddhist teachings, vows, training, and acknowledgments I received directly were, mostly but not exclusively, offered by western Non-Asian teachers. I am tremendously grateful for them daily. The challenges to which this essay respond are in no way a criticism or a calling out. They are an attempt to respond to those who challenges me to examine myself, in order to be a more skillful person.

The first draft of this essay was written as a ‘formal’ statement of intent, in January 2021. I have repeatedly revised it as this conversation is highly alive in me. I have and will continue to invite a growing intersectional circle of peers to review and discuss, including Buddhists of Asian descent. I have learned that some of the content below may be emotionally triggering (t/w: assimilation, ancestral trauma, gender inequality, cultural appropriation) and I offer it with care.

Appropriation to Appreciation

I have inherited transformative Buddhist teachings and practices from mostly male and often uncredited female ancestors from culturally Buddhist countries such as India, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Burma, Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, and more. They changed, and saved, my life. I acknowledge that I and many others joined Buddhist communities as adults who were not born into a family that practiced Buddhism in a way that was embedded within a broader regional or national culture.

On the other hand, I find that calling out people or actions as ‘cultural appropriation’ doesn’t really acknowledge the depth of interconnection and shared karma that exists between the two cultures. It closes the conversation in a dualistic way of right and wrong, instead of bearing witness into a field of nuance.

My Polish and Hungarian grandparents’ families were killed in the European Jewish Genocide in the 20th century. This holocaust disrupted & dislocated the remaining communities, and eradicated a generation of Jewish mystics, severing the lines of mind-to-mind transmission that lasted for millennia.

These ancestors have withstood centuries of persecution themselves. As a response to such ongoing trauma harking to the first Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, forces within Judaean and then Jewish communities, dynasties and political structures have systematically dismissed at best and excommunicated at worst, those who offered or practiced the mystical teachings of Judaism. Jewish authorities withheld access to these practices from most, and especially women and those who do not identify as men.

In light of this setbacks, I find that I owe a debt of gratitude to Asian spiritual traditions, particularly Buddhism, their supporters, and holders of their lineages for rekindling these spiritual embers in me, and in my non-Asian spiritual teachers, and especially in those of Jewish heritage that have adopted Buddhism.

Being of Jewish Ashkenazi descent and a citizen of Israel, I am also a citizen of the United States and therefore participate in its arc. Each cross-cultural transmission of the Buddhist teachings, starting from India, held in it a power dynamic between the cultures that have passed it on and the cultures of those who received and adopted it. I acknowledge that today, the Buddhadharma (the teachings of the historic Buddha and subsequent extrapolations) is transmitted to the United States and Europe in a complex context. It includes ‘Western’ white-dominated powers which waged wars and inflicted trauma on Asian nations and Buddhist populations, such as the US war in Afghanistan, Vietnam, the Korean War, and the only nuclear bombings on Earth at the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. White European colonists, whose skin color and internalized supremacy I and others have inherited, have profited from Asian riches, and at its worst, regularly exploited indigenous, women-identified, and LGTBQAI+ populations. Misunderstandings of the core Buddhist concept of no-self often renders it amoral, dismisses systemic oppressions, and erases its impact on individuals and communities. And still, I witness Asian teachers, priests, and scholars generously share the overflowing bounty of their traditions.

I really appreciated visiting the ‘ancestors room’ in Zen centers — a room showcasing photos, paintings, relics or gaki plaques with the Chinese letters spelling the name of an ancestor. On their memorial days, these plaques would be presented or acknowledged. Prostrations may be made to them. That felt good. When I trained at Zen Mountain Monastery, I helped design the statue used on the alter for Mahapajapati, Shakyamuni Buddha’s aunt and surrogate mother who is held as the originator of the women nun lineage. The monastery began chanting the women’s ancestors, that felt powerfully healing.

Some Buddhist spaces, in Europe and United States and founded by or handed to Buddhists by choice from their Asian teachers may feel mixed to me. On one hand, they don’t assume to be anything they are not, like a tone-deaf blackface would be inexcusable in 2022. On the other hand, some are stripped of their indigenous/ancestral roots in a way that may not honor power-deferential between the Euro-American white members and the members of nations and cultures from which these teachings originated from.

While I was the executive director of Zen Peacemakers International, I was once in a dilemma. During a peak in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya by Myanmar’s military regime, some of our community members proclaimed that “as Buddhists,” we must be outraged, call out the Buddhist regime that is inflicting the killing.

Hm. As Buddhists. Fellow Buddhists? Better buddhists?

Something felt off to me. There was a sense of self-righteousness I did not feel well with — especially because it comes from ‘us,’ inheritors of this Buddhist practice. What do we know of the cultural complexity there? At the same time, How could I be silent? Is there another way to voice this outrage? I reached out to connect with a Burmese friend and peacebuilder. On a Zoom call one morning in Massachusetts, evening in Yangon, I heard how it felt to her, on the ground. I bore witness. That was how I expressed outrage then.

When I reflect on my own Jewish ancestral lineage, I imagine I would feel awkward or even outraged had it been ‘offered’ to me by those whose power have affected, or even harmed Jewish people in history. A European Jewish leader and friend shared with me how their community had celebrated the growing number of Jews-by-choice who previously identified as Christian and come from Christian ancestry. Only now the latter compare themselves to the Jews-by-birth and claim to be ‘better Jews’ based on their observance — ignoring the history of crusades, inquisition and other expressions of aggression and trauma between the two communities. For the particular pair of spiritual paths at hand, Buddhism and Judaism, I want to bring attention as to how Buddhist teaching is offered back to those of buddhist descent.

I witnessed with discomfort hearing westerners claim that “Buddhism is not a religion,” or dismissing the devotional aspect of Asian Buddhist communities, elevating the meditation practices instead, which in Asia is mostly associated with male monastics. In my own relationship with Judaism, I found that devotional practice is the heart of the personal bond with my ancestors. I witnessed in me the challenges in reclaiming these aspects following my family’s history of genocide, secularization, and assimilation. So I aim to honor the devotional, religious aspects in those of Buddhist cultures, and to speak out when Buddhist and all ethnic, devotional, religious aspects of any culture are diminished.

I have held romantic ideas about Buddhist lineages and have been ignorant of the inner power dynamics within Asian Buddhist communities, especially about gender inequality and abuse. Speaking with a Thai Buddhist nun, I learned that I have prioritized ideas and practices that are markers of such power (male monasticism & patriarchy for example,) without knowing the impact they have on present-day Asian Buddhist descendants, especially those who identify as woman or not as cis-men. While Buddhist teaching and practice have shaped my mind and, frankly, saved my life, I am aware that my relationship with practicing Buddhism is in no way equal in karmic investment and weight to those whose lives, and the lives of their relatives and communities, have been shaped by Buddhism, for better and for worse, for centuries.

As I bear witness to the Buddhist teaching continuing its 2500-year unfolding around the planet, I bear witness to its ongoing adaptation. True to impermanence, the form of Buddhist teachings shifts too. Buddhist ancestors adapted expressions of the dharma according to their cultures & eras. Buddhism changed when it passed from Indian to China, and on and on. From these I draw an important question-insight, is my ancestral lineage of Judaism subject to impermanence? Can Judaism too expect to shed and shift? How could it not?

Reb. Zalman z”l celebrated that in this era all Jews are Jews by choice, no longer under the yoke of obligation — and that we are living in a post-ethnic reality. I imagine he intended to give permission to people to reclaim full ownership over their spiritual path — a (Jewish) path which was paved by obligation and law. But are people free to choose one’s ancestral lineage? spiritual lineage? Am I? How does post-ethnicity address the epigenetic science, the study of how intergenerational trauma / trans-generational trauma exists and is passed on, in our bodies? What happens when the psychological/intellectual sense of self assumes to be “post-ethnic,” or “-by-choice,” but the body very much still carries the effects of one’s collective ethnic trauma?

This is where things get … interesting.

Reflecting on identity and conversions are colored by the language we use to review it. Whoever first used the English word ‘conversion’ for the Hebrew giyur may have added an extra layer of confusion. The English word for conversion means to convert from one substance to another. Perhaps it was not intended in such a way?

When I reflect on the arc of how I have related to ‘being’ ‘Jewish’ — When I took my Buddhist vows and received a Buddhist name, I had not for a moment considered myself ‘converting’ any part of me to ‘another’ ‘thing.’

My body is the outcome of my ancestors’ bodies reproducing, (give or take the daily replenishing of cells.) This lineage follows specific bodies throughout history, passing genes (born) and cultures (learned) attributes to ‘me.’ And yet, as a Jew, I learn that we have this thing called Neshama Yehudit (‘Jewish soul’), or Nekudah Kdusha (‘Sacred point’) — a soul. Some of us have direct contact with *gasp* its own lineage of incarnations.

Put in very simplistic terms, the soul in Judaism can be referred to two things, (1) commonly, as an ‘essence’ of a self, or (2) esoterically, the essential point-of contact with Godhead-Mystery. Buddhist teachings that question the fixed essence of anything may refer, accordingly, to either (1) a skandha, a heap-cluster of impermanent conditions, or (2) Bodhicitta — the mind-inclination to awakening to selflessness.

The esoteric meaning of a soul/neshame or a heap/skandha, to me, are inclusive of each-other. Either way — the soul/skhanda lineage is not confined to the body lineage. Putting the body lineage, and the soul lineage, together — This heap of conditions, or simply a soul, may have arrived to inhabit this heap of a body from a vastly different line of transmigrations. The weaving of the ‘two lineages’ throws into the wind all notion of historio-deterministic heritage and absolute identifiers.

And, no identifier can reach the depth of the moment when one’s edges of self — regardless, or oblivious to previously known or unknown ‘body-lineages’ — , call out “I am Jewish.” Or, for this matter, “I am Buddhist.” In the face of such mystery, such not-knowing, who owns an identifier? Who can Bestow it on another?

Perhaps conversion is not a binary as in converting substances or currency from A to B, but is a process of revelation — dropping the exclusive duality of this vs. that, and adding, revealing deeper threads of interconnection, of Mystery.

Considering epigentics on one hand, and the vast mystery that is the porous transmigration of everything into everything — the infinity/totality of interconnection of all reality, the identifiers ‘-by-choice’ or ‘-by-heritage,’ as in ‘Jew-by-choice,’ are a complete jumble. It is here that mystery peaks its woo-woo head through the crack.

A crack so thin, like a vast horizon.

What happened In Nigetsu Do temple in Nara? was I a visitor? Its hallways led me back to old, familiar ancestral terraces. Just as the Buddha taught on the phantom city (Lotus Sutra, chapter 7), a skillful illusion he created for his weary followers to rest in a sense of solidity on their pilgrimage through impermanence, the Hebrew tradition speaks of Sukkot, shabby huts my ancestors erected to dwell in the wilderness on their journey to freedom.

I value practicing allyship & cultural humility, honoring the Buddhist teachings’ origins, today’s descendants of those who stewarded them to me, the power dynamics at play, and to be in a continuous honest relationship with individuals and communities of a variety of Buddhist cultures and experiences.

As I walk the hallways between my inner Hebrew sukkah and Buddhist phantom stupa, I recognize they express realities that are personal and karmically deep, complex and meaningful to me as in others. The questions raised here are applicable to other pairs of religions. At the same time, this essay was written with Buddhism and Judaism in view. The insights above are made specifically with that pair, and each pair, i.e. Jewish-Muslim, Jewish-Christian, has its own power dynamic, and therefore requires a unique and care-ful review.

May I walk in gratitude for my ancestors who left these refuges to me in different forms; May these temples be a source of refuge to others; may I follow my lines of perspective, as you do yours, into the vanishing points, all dwelling on one single, unfathomably thin, incomprehensibly vast, horizon.

Last updated Sep 2022

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Rami Avraham Efal

Israeli visual artist, humanitarian, Jewish prayer ritualist and nondual meditation teacher.