A Place to Hang My Hat

After fifteen years of Buddhist practice, I’ve finally decided to become a Buddhist.  It’s been a slow process.

At first I was a Jew practicing meditation and learning about the Dharma.  I tried as hard as I could to retain my Jewish religious identity while absorbing what was valuable from Buddhism.  I had friends who were Jewish-Buddhist, as well as teachers who managed to straddle the divide.  There came a time for me, however, thirteen years ago, when that was no longer tenable, and I resigned from my Temple.  I wrote a letter to my rabbi:

”My reason for leaving is my own particular spiritual journey over the past several years which has resulted from my encounter with Buddhist beliefs and practices.  I’m afraid that encounter has left me feeling neither particularly ”Jewish” nor particularly ”Buddhist;” I seem to be equally ill at ease within both traditions.  For a while my lack of a spiritual home was unsettling, and I retained the hope that I could find within Judaism what I was finding outside of it.  Over time I have become more comfortable with my homelessness; this Diaspora seems like the most authentic place for me to be right now.”

In 2003 I published ”On Being A Non-Buddhist Buddhist” which expressed my continuing homelessness.  I felt at the time that ”being a Buddhist” was an oxymoron, since Buddhism meant, to me, giving up all identifications and just being present.  I wrote at the time:

“Let’s face it: Buddhism is just another religion, and religion is always an escape from uncertainty, an attempt to explain the inexplicable with the implausible.   Why leave the Jewish religion you were born into to just to join another illogical escape from life’s ambiguities that once again requires reliance on spiritual and textual authority?”  I added,  ”My native Judaism… requires…  suspensions of logic.  One is asked to believe in a supernatural Being who stands outside of the material world, and whose existence leaves no material footprint.  One is asked to believe that this Being dictated the Torah to Moses, even though all available evidence suggests that Moses never wrote the Torah…  and that it, like the Buddhist Sō«tras, is a compilation of the works of various authors who had their own unique agendas to pursue.  One is asked to assume that this Being is very much concerned with whether or not one mixes meat with dairy products, or whether one has trimmed the foreskin of one’s penis.  None of this makes very much sense, and I am unwilling to state, like the second century Christian Apologist, Tertullian, that ”credo quia absurdum est” (”I believe because it is absurd”)….  I’m not about to replace the superstitions of Judaism with the superstitions of Buddhism with its colorful heaven and hell realms and celestial beings.” [ref] Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. Albany: SUNY Press. [/ref]

That’s where things stood for the longest time.  I’ve often wondered why I couldn’t keep my Jewish religious identification as many of my Jewish-Buddhist teachers and friends did.  The answer is that my personal Jewish roots while, ethnically meaningful, lacked spiritual depth.  There wasn’t all that much to hold on to.

My grandparents and parents spoke Yiddish together when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying, but otherwise, Yiddish was a dying tongue in our home.  My grandfather went to the temple on the High Holidays, but rarely at any other time.  My father  didn’t read Hebrew, never went to Temple, and hadn’t been Bar Mitzvahed  (rumor had it his father had a falling out with the rabbi).  My mother took me to ”visit” my grandfather at Temple on the High Holidays, which meant I got to play with the fringes of his prayer shawl and hear the sound of the ram’s horn.  My parents kept a kosher home, but ate shellfish and Chinese food when dining out.  After my grandparents died, my parents gave up keeping kosher at home.

We lit candles on Shabbat, but didn’t go to temple, celebrate Havdalah, or say blessings before meals.  Our home observance of Jewish holidays were defined by what we couldn’t do: no driving, writing, cooking, watching TV, or turning on the lights (but also no praying, singing, dancing, story telling, tzedakah, or celebration.)

My mother’s religion was one of piety and respect for her parents’s traditions, but she wasn’t interested in religious matters.  While we weren’t the type of Americanized Jews who had a  ”Hanukkah bush,” my mother took me to Macy’s each December to sit on Santa’s lap.  My father was a closet agnostic with a strong ethnic identification.  He was proud of being Jewish, but didn’t believe in God.  I never found out about his agnosticism until a few years ago.

My father took an interest in Temple, but not to pray.  He organized a Bingo game to pull the temple out of financial difficulties, joined the men’s club for socializing, and eventually became its President.  When the congregation tried to dump our rabbi, my father defended him and helped him keep his position.  Our rabbi was a learned man, but cold and remote. His sermons — filled with an outdated moralism coupled with virulent anti-communism — were far from inspiring.

I went to Hebrew School three afternoons a week.  My teacher was a delightful young Orthodox woman whom I had something of a crush on.  She married a Hasidic rabbi, and I had the pleasure visiting their home to celebrate Shabbat in the Hasidic style. The joy of that Shabbat with her family and friends stays with me to this day:  I learned that religion could be more than a set of prohibitions and restrictions which occupied a small unhappy corner of one’s life, but could be a full-time commitment celebrated through story, prayer, dance, song, charity, and righteousness.  I developed an interest in becoming religious, and fantasized about becoming a rabbi.  I wore a tzitzit katan under my outer garments, prayed with tefillin, and went to temple every Shabbat.  My parents became alarmed that I was becoming too pious.  They needn’t have worried, though. This period didn’t last very long due to two other influences in my life.

The first was my interest in science.  I loved reading about physics, astronomy, and paleontology, and my parents did everything they could to encourage my interest.  My father helped me with science fair projects, took me to a rocket show at the New York Coliseum where I met Werner von Braun, and enrolled me in a summer biology program where I met Nobel Prize winner Edward Tatum.  I volunteered in the cardiac research unit at Maimonides Hospital.  I soon discovered that a literal belief in Genesis and the laws of astrophysics and biology didn’t mix.  I know many modern Orthodox Jews find a way to reconcile Orthodoxy with science, but I couldn’t.  I remember being at a Science Fair where two Orthodox boys commented on my project on DNA, saying I couldn’t believe in both Darwin and the Torah.  Perhaps foolishly, I believed them.  I decided I believed in Darwin more.

The other influence was my mother’s sister and her family.  My uncle was a photographer and avant-garde artist and their daughter hung out with folk musicians in Washington Square Park. They demonstrated as a family on behalf of nuclear disarmament, attended classical music concerts, and visited museums.  It was a whole new world to me  — modern, cosmopolitan, aesthetic, and liberal.  Its seductiveness was overwhelming.  I learned to play guitar, joined the civil rights movement, and hung out with assorted would-be poets, playwrights, actors, jazz musicians, and philosophers. By the time I left for college there was very little left  of my interest in Judaism.  I’d become like my parents: respectful of my grandparents and their ways, enjoying the familial aspects of Judaism (seders, holiday dinners), but with no real interest in the spiritual side of life.  I think that’s why my Judaism couldn’t stand a chance against my growing interest in Buddhist practice.

There are aspects of Judaism that resonate to Buddhist themes — I’m especially fond of the  Pirkei Avot, for example — and Martin Buber’s reinterpretation of Hasidic tales sounds suspiciously Zen.  But there are four basic tenets that lie at the very core of Judaism:

  1. God created the world, intervenes in it, and judges it.
  2. God made a special covenant with the Jewish People
  3. God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai
  4. The Torah (and Talmud) define what is permissible and good.

If one doesn’t believe in God, his covenant, or the Torah’s divine authorship and inerrant authority, what’s left?  There’s the generalized ethical intention of the Torah — according to the Talmud, when a gentile approached Hillel the Elder (110 B.C – 10 A.D.) asking him to teach the entire Torah while he stood listening on one foot, Hillel replied: ”That which is hateful to you, don’t do to others.  That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.”  There are the wonderful stories of the Torah and Talmud that constitute a unique cultural heritage. There are the beautiful melodies of the liturgy, the sense of communal belonging, and the joyous occasions for familial celebration.  I still love the stories and melodies, and cherish the opportunities to join together as an extended family.  I still identify as an ethnic Jew in a thousand different ways — the foods I eat, the way I speak, the way I value intellectual life and ethical conduct.  But that’s as far as it goes.

Buddhism, on the other hand, asks one to believe very little, but to find out things for oneself.  Its basic tenets — suffering is a part of life, everything is interconnected, everything changes — are  verifiable from experience.  The value of practicing mindfulness, non-clinging, equanimity, lovingkindness, and compassion are also verifiable  The harder-to-believe aspects  — rebirth, celestial beings, the surplus meaning of karma — don’t seem absolutely central to practice.  You can imagine Buddhism without literal rebirth — its harder to imagine Judaism without God.

I’m finally comfortable with identifying as a Buddhist.  After fifteen years as a non-Buddhist Buddhist, I’m taking the plunge.  I’ve decided to start the path leading to Jukai, the precept-taking ritual that means formally becoming a Buddhist in Zen.

I’m not fully sure why I’m going ahead with it.  It’s not a rational decision.  But it feels right.  It doesn’t mean I’ll stop being an iconoclast.  It doesn’t mean I’m drinking the Kool-Aid or joining the club.  It doesn’t mean I think Buddhists are better than anyone else or that everything in Buddhism is true.  It does mean I’m ready to say ”this is my path,” and I’m ready to make a deeper commitment to it, rather than always standing a little bit outside.

Toni Packer, one of my core teachers, would probably wonder about this decision.  She went the opposite route, from being a Zen Buddhist teacher, to being a Zen teacher, to teaching no-thing.  Shedding all aspects of tradition and authority was an important part of her journey and practice.    Her pathless path, like Krishnamurti’s before her, is clear and unwavering.  She would ask me to question this wish for identification, for going along. ”Why now?  What’s missing?  Can you name and identify the longing it’s supposed to fulfill and just see it?”

I can.

It’s finding a place in a new home and community.  A place that’s more consistent with who I am right now.

She would ask, ”what’s the loneliness you’re evading by belonging somewhere?  Can you just see it?”

I can.

But even though the Buddha advised us to go into homelessness — having a home isn’t all bad.  You don’t have to always stay inside, but it’s nice to have a place to hang your hat.


23 Replies to “A Place to Hang My Hat”

  1. Hi Seth
    What a rich description of your journey to this point. You are such a skillful writer. Congratulations on your identity decision.
    I can identify with your quandaries about how to identify yourself. Like most of us my spiritual orientation is also a product of several different traditions. In my case christian, humanist, artist and buddhist. I am still reluctant to identify myself as a ‘buddhist’ and tend to prefer ‘zen student’ or ‘member of zen sangha’ because it suggests to me the ongoing process of participation and exploration. Yet I talk regularly to a particular zen teacher, rarley miss my morning sitting or my weekly zazen group sitting and attend at least a half dozen variable length sesshins/retreats each year. So there is certainly committment. But I don’t make a point of identifying myself as a buddhist- even to myself.
    It is interesting to note my similar and different associations with the identity of artist. It is actually my zen practice that helped me reclaim an art practice I began a couple of decades ago. I now think of my photography as a way to extend my awareness practice outside a conventional practice setting and give it visible expression. Of course one difference bewteen the two ‘identities’ is that art practice generally has a public face and subsumes a pot pouri of individual beliefs and approaches. Whatever my underlying spiritual orientation is, it is not declared by the work I display. But I like to think that it might sometimes induce elements of a spiritual experience – an experience that is not uniquely buddhist.

  2. Thanks, Roy, for your kind words, and for sharing your own ambivalence concerning identification. I think its wonderful that you’ve rediscovered your passion for photography and that it exists as an extension of your practice.

    There’s always a downside to identifications if one takes them too seriously. They can be limiting (at least in terms of how others see you), and they can encourage dividing the world into in-groups and out-groups, and they can make you feel you have an obligation to tow the party line. They can make one feel self-congratulatory — one has finally joined an esteemed in-group. Dangers lurk everywhere! None of this, it seems to me is a substantiative reason to avoid identifying with a particular group, as long as one’s practice enables one to see the identification clearly for what it is and the multiple functions it serves. It’s similar to the question of whether one can have attachments without magically assuming the attachments resolve existential questions and without clinging to them. Emotional attachments to others are at the very center of our being — as the existentialists say, we are beings-with-others, and beings-for-others. We are also beings who belong to groups — Aristotle defined us as “zoon politikons,” social animals. It’s part of our essence. We just need to engage in belongingness wisely.

  3. @ Seth
    That was a great autobiographical post. When I saw this title, I thought you were going to tell of re-entering Judaism. But whether your home is in Zen or in Judaism, they are all good. For as you say, a home that resonates can be both enriching to yourselves and your housemates.

    As I read your story, I could not help but imagine a Japanese kid speaking about Zen Buddhism in his life growing up in Japan and how he converted to Christianity and found its “spirituality” to resonate best with him — in fact I knew one man like that when I lived in Japan.

    Finding a home is personal. And I can’t ever imagine you drinking the Kool Aid. 🙂 You will always be an inspiring irreverent iconoclast but now one with a closer family.

    In light of that, thought you’d enjoy reading a post I read today on Zen vs the US Navy to perhaps supplement your understanding of the evolution of Zen.

    Congrats on the new home!

    PS- what is your lineage — and do you know any site with a list of the main lineages in the USA?

    1. Sabio — the sangha I practice with is affiliated with the White Plum Asanga and the Zen Peacemaker’s order. The priest I’m studying for jukai with has affiliations with Katagiri Roshi, the Zen Center of Los Angeles, The Zen Peacemaker Order, The Village Zendo, and the Upaya Zen Center. Rick Field’s history of American Buddhism, “How the Swans Came to the Lake,” is a good starting point for exploring American Zen lineages. Sweeping Zen is a great on-line resource.

      1. Thanx, Seth.
        Your template does not really show links (unfortunately) so I will offer again:
        Hope you get to read Chapman’s posts about Zen & and Buddhism Evolution in America: (click here)
        I’d love to see your comments there. But then, maybe that is not your favorite type of Buddhist reading.

        1. I enjoyed reading Chapman’s posts on Buddhist history. I was more familiar with the influence of the Theosophists on Southeast Asian Buddhism and the development of Protestant Buddhism there. Chapman’s history of 19th Century Japanese Buddhism is mostly new to me (although I knew about the Asian Buddhists who attended the 1893 Parliament of Religions in Chicago and their enduring influence). Thanks for pointing this article out!

          David’s posts support what I have always believed — that there is no such thing as “pure” Buddhism, and that what has come down to us through the ages is the result of a dialogue of early Buddhism with Hinduism, Bon, Taoism, and other historical and cultural influences. Just add German Idealism, Scientific Rationalism, and Existentialism to the list. Every generation and culture sees a new Buddhism as it mutates to meet the existential needs of different eras and localities. I’ve always thought it ironic that what we regard as Buddhism today is in someways the result of the influence of a group of Western Theosophists on Asian culture …. but it’s no more ironic than the way Asian Buddhists are now reintrojecting American Buddhism back into Asia. The dance goes on. One reason Shunryu Sukzuki Roshi came to the United States was to initiate a process he hoped would eventually help reinvent Japanese Buddhism.

          I must say I find David’s use of the term “Consensus Buddhism” a little odd — he seems to find more uniformity in the different schools that are currently flourishing than I do.

          1. Every generation and culture sees a new Buddhism as it mutates to meet the existential needs of different eras and localities

            Or, “Every generation …. as it mutates to meet that generation’s neurosis thus finding many new markets.”

            I totally agree when you said:

            The dance goes on.


  4. Thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I come to Buddhism from a Christian background, and I have thought similar thoughts to the ones you discuss here. Some of the narratives from Christianity have an emotional resonance for me. Some lovely English words, like grace, redemption, and justice, seem suffused with religious meaning. Yet I don’t believe in the doctrinal minimums of the faith, and Buddhism has to come to be a better home and refuge.

  5. Too bad you are not listening to your old teacher. She/he had it right. You say you need a place to hang your hat. A home. What you are entering or “going to” is not Buddhism, but personal security. The universe doesn’t care about you personally, so it is a mistake to give in to personal desires that are so trivial as a “place to hang your hat.” I would suggest you listen closely to your old teacher, take some time and still your mind. Your compromise will bring a load of trouble to you. Comfort and personal security and special friends are all temporary. You had/have a GREAT teacher…one who understood more and more about the temporary and changing nature of life. Why throw all that away for a hat rack? 🙂

    1. It was Dogen who suggested the life of the Zen master was one continuous mistake. It’s the same for the Zen student. One can only hope, as Yogi Berra allegedly said, that one does not make the “wrong mistake.”

      Wanting to belong is desire, avoiding belonging is aversion. Which mistake is the wrong one?

      Hopefully the load of trouble I am bringing on to myself will make me wiser.

  6. ”…religion is always an escape from uncertainty, an attempt to explain the inexplicable with the implausible…”

    Well, I hope you’ve recanted on that position.

    “…my native Judaism… requires… suspensions of logic.”

    Actually, so does Buddhism.

    Just a different kind. In theistic religion there’s the “avatar” object, the exemplar, the spiritual icon, but whose work is it? The votary’s, of course.

    No different in Buddhism.

    There’s an element of surrender & faith in Buddhism that does render it a religion – a faith.

    The penultimate, and hardest work, is surrendering to the present moment. That kind of commitment requires faith, faith in oneself.

    So, you’re a Buddhist now. Why struggle with it? I turned my back on the Xian faith b/c it was killing me to try to fit in with it. I came to Buddhism b/c it had all the good aspects of humanist Xian thinking, but none of the crappy parts.

    I now have a better relationship with Jesus, Mary & God b/c I’m a Buddhist. Your background in Judaism has already prepared you for what most Western Buddhists already experience: An alliance with the best principles of Jesus (Sermons on the Mount, ala the Jefferson Bible), a sympathetic membership within Christiandom (which charitably stepped aside for the culture to explore science, humanism), and a loyal adversarial relationship with Christianity.

    And hey, at least ol’ Ratzinger isn’t as bothered by the JewBu’s as we Jack Xians. Like we needed his permission!?

    1. I’m not trying to draw an equivalency here, or say that either Judaism or Buddhism should see themselves as subordinate to Christianity, but I could imagine how for Jews particularly, context leads to discomfiture.

      I found the Xian milieu around me so pervasive, overbearing, that turning away from the utter banality of it posed little challenge. If I felt more community with it, more bonding, more loyalty, it might’ve been harder.

      I could imagine abandoning Judaism might pose a risk of a certain kind of “blood” apostasy, of betraying family, or ethnic, identity.

      But seeking refuge doesn’t demand anybody betray their identity though, so maybe, like my problems w/ the Xian juggernaut, taking the plunge might lend to your feeling *more* comfortable with the Jewish part of yourself.

      Look at how syncretic the Asians are with Buddhism … the Japanese w/ Shinto, the Taoists (and animist farrago therein), S.E. Asian animists & Confucians (Kitchen God, Jade Emporer? Really? Heh!).

      Buddhism is the most portable of religions out there — a Hinduism made to be exported — and a few minor injunctions against positing a first cause or an afterlife can be overlooked for the sake of some otherwise good dharmic work.

      So, why worry?

    2. “… I now have a better relationships with Jesus, Mary & God b/c I’m a Buddhist..”

      That is to say, I’m still an atheist, but no longer anti-theist. I muse over the thinly veiled story of Mary, Jesus’ status as a bastard child, his loyalty to her, and his filial activism for all those who, like his mother, society would ostracize. This, I respect. While impossible to digest as an article of faith (Oh, so Yahweh finally got around to knocking up girls long after Zeus had that gig down cold … gee, and the Romans were the occupying culture… any relationship? Naaaaah…) I like the underhanded metaphor for tolerance and acceptance.

      To wit: Jesus was a bastard. We all are.

      As for the dispensible nonsense from Christianity, Saul’s hijacking of Jesus in his Pauliad’s phantasmagoric fatalism, the selective application of Leviticus (Gays? Shrimp? Gotta love ’em both)… Well, go figure, every damned culture has its bulk of sanctimony that fuels atavism and repression.

      1. “…belief without constant questioning…”

        You suffer a horrible curse.

        The curse of discursive thought.

        There is a solution, changing our approach, from transitory reactions to an ever-broadening tactical approach. It can be found in the present moment.

        This is a place where none may intrude bar our own willingness to be swayed by vicissitude. It’s our own sanctuary, refuge, ours to keep and own. It’s free of belief, but requires faith. It’s free of doctrine, but requires reading and listening. It’s free of rules, but requires experience and dedication. It’s free of self, but it’s ours to keep.

        Easier said.

        1. You suffer a horrible curse. The curse of discursive thought. There is a solution…

          Only a curse if you make it one! Questioning is my true nature. I embrace it. As Seung Sahn might have said, “What is this?”

          Or as Barry Magid writes:

          Cherish your questions, but do not chase after answers. Sit still amid your doubt, restlessness, loneliness, and anxiety. They are not obstacles to your practice — they are your practice.

          1. Hey, I said it was a curse, I didn’t say it was a bad one. 🙂

            Let’s face it. Buddhists love to argue, unlike other religions.

  7. Same here. I debate regularly with a few, they’ve softened over the years about their stance, but of course, some of their more salient points about creationists and other woo-sters can stand alone w/out the anti-theism. Emotionally I see anti-theists as suffering from an understandable hangup. Having been through it, I can relate. I think there’s a hangover from being shamed, the apognosis (the massive frisson of a belief, not just lost but angrily thrown away) & utter chagrin. To not believe is a gross moral failing, in the mainstay churches its portents for sanction are more fierce than for gays.

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